Sunday, December 27, 1998
Once you have left Gangtok, you start climbing from the relatively low height of 6,000 feet to almost 14,000 feet. The air you breathe changes, the vegetation changes and you start feeling like the Pandavs climbing up to heaven, says Nimrat Duggal Khandpur
HIGH up in the mountains of eastern Sikkim are two lakes, separated as the crow flies by less than a kilometre, with a quaint legend attached to them the Mei Mei Chho and the Bidang Chho. The names mean the "lake of the demoness" and the "lake of the cow-yaks", respectively. Both these lakes are the sources of two major rivers, the Rangpo Chu from the Mei Mei Chho and the Di Chu from the Bidang Chho, which is also known as the Jal Dhaka river.
The Bidang Chho, one of the largest lakes in Sikkim is situated at the edge of the Kupup valley through which the old trade route between Lhasa and Kalimpong passed. With the steep Di Chu valley on one side, it is hemmed in by mountains on two other sides, with Kupup village on the fourth. The Di Chu river goes on to supply electricity to most of Bhutan. Though surrounded by bare mountains, the Bidang Chho is very beautiful in the monsoons when the area surrounding it blooms into flowers. Around mid-May, slopes falling into the lake are covered with red, pink and white rhododendrons.
So if you like mountains and lakes and, more specifically, mountain lakes, you should skip the Nainital, Naukuchiatal, Bhimtal etc circuit for the high altitude lakes. Although you have to make a definite effort to reach them, especially since some of them are in restricted areas, it is worth it, because their very inaccessibility contributes to their beauty. Armed with permission from the office of the Director-General of Police or the Home Department, the Government of Sikkim in Gangtok, hire a vehicle, definitely one with a four-wheel drive, and start moving into east Sikkim on the famous Jawaharlal Nehru Marg (JNM). Make sure you start very early since you have to definitely be back in Gangtok before nightfall. If you get stuck, and have to stay overnight, at an altitude greater than 9000 feet without proper acclimatisation, it could cause distress at the least and death in the worst case.
Once you have left Gangtok, you start climbing from the relatively low height of 6,000 feet to almost 14,000 feet. The air you breathe changes, the vegetation changes and you start feeling like the Pandavs climbing upto heaven. If you are an early bird and lucky, you will catch a glimpse of the majestic Kanchenjunga range at Kyangnosala, nursing a hot cup of coffee from the stall run by the Army for travellers, trying to decide between hot samosas or vada-dosa. This is a good time to put on heavier, warmer clothing because its going to get really cold from now on.
From Kyangnosala, the drive is more exciting, with the road winding through forest. If you look out for it, you will see a quaint temple with lovely rhododendron bushes growing around it right next to a tiny bridge over a mountain stream rushing over rocks. This bridge has a very interesting name. It is called the anda or the "egg" bridge by Army men because high altitude starts after this bridge is crossed, which means additional allowance of eggs to keep up the strength of our soldiers!
For the very adventurous, a trip in winter provides a different kind of thrill, provided the roads are clear and you can make it to Tssango walking on ice. The lake freezes solid enough to walk on. But one unfortunate young man decided to drive on the frozen lake. The story goes that the son of the Chogyal, the erstwhile ruler of Sikkim, drove onto the lake in a jeep, accompanied by his fiancee, in deep winter. The lake was frozen solid but the ice was thin in places. Just as the jeep drove over a thin area, the ice sheet opened long enough for the jeep to be swallowed by the lake and then closed again. The bodies of the young couple were never found; presumably, they had been eaten up by the numerous trout that are found in the lake.
For the less adventurous, there is a path leading half-way around the lake. And if you want to claim to have trekked at a high altitude, there is a path leading up to a low peak behind the stalls. Just go slow and keep breathing deeply oxygen is at a premium at this height.
Exisiting Natu La, you will pass flat meadows patterned with narrow streams making their way across them towards the head of the deep valleys where they converge into a long, thin, endless waterfall. In the distance you will see mountain peaks crowned with forests. The air will become more chilly and pure, almost like opening a super-cool fridge on a hot summer day. As the road winds along from one valley to another, you will suddenly find yourself driving in a semi-circle around an almost round lake. If you are lucky and the flowers are blooming, the lake will be surrounded by bright yellow flowers growing practically into the lake. This lake has, in my opinion, a most mundane name it is called the Manju lake.
As you drive on, the area around you becomes more pristine, with solid rocks replacing trees but broken by meadows and slopes covered with rhododendrons. The only signs of civilisation you come across the the Army establishments strewn over Sikkim and the villages created by the civilians who work in them. You will also find occasional tents set up by the yak herders in meadows.
Finally, almost four hours out of Gangtok, you will take a bend and find yourself looking at an awesome waterfall, the Nam Nang Chu, which flows into the Mei Mei Chho. Even if you have not made the trip after the monsoons, the sight of even the reduced quantity of water flowing almost vertically through giant rocks and rhododendron bushes and beautiful clumps of pink and yellow flowers is breathtaking. Just as you are getting used to the sight of the Nam Nang Chu, you take another bend and see the shrine of Harbhajan Baba, a soldier who died in this area and is supposed to have guided many a soldier in times of stress, both by appearing as an apparition and in dreams. The shrine itself is just a rough structure of tin and wood but it is surrounded by flags, carrying Om, Ek Om Kar and an occasional cross, waving vigorously in the strong wind. The path to the shrine is bordered by rows of bells of all shapes and sizes hung by greateful devotees. The shrine itself is simple with a photograph of Baba and his personal effects but is crowded with gifts left by devotees and bottles placed by people wishing to carry home water blessed by Baba.
To the left of the shrine is a rough track going down to Mei Mei Chho. The drive is beautiful but very bumpy and can be negotiated only by a vehicle with a four-wheel drive. You will drive through dense woods, over tiny bridges across streams flowing fast down the sides of the steep valley. When you reach the end of the motorable road, you have to walk for about 20 minutes, past the offices of the Forest Department and a trout farm run by the Sikkim government. The woods get denser and you find yourself walking along a clear stream, sparkling over amber, green and red pebbles. A charming wooden bridge invites you take a detour to lean over and watch the water dance its way to join the lake. This is the Jelep Chu, a stream which originates from the Jelep La, the "easy, level pass" into Tibet. The stream starts widening as you approach the lake, forming a miniature delta. And this is when you catch the first glimpse of the Mei Mei Chho, hemmed in by woods on all sides, looking like the archetypal bewitched lake. As you move towards the lake, you come across a tiny Nepalese Devi mandir with prayer flags strung across it.
Once you have gone around the lake, you can picnic in a lovely gazebo built next to the mandir. But please take care not to litter the place. Even if you think you have carefully camouflaged your paper plates and packets of chips, they might just show up when the water level changes.
Like the Bidang Chho, the Mei Mei Chho freezes in winter and is completely inaccessible by road. The only way you can see it in winter is to tramp down through the snow on the road. But remember, you have to come up, too! Finding it difficult to associate a wishing lake with a demoness, I started asking around to try and learn the actual story. Finally, I located two old men who told me the tale of Bidang Chho and Mei Mei Chho the former headman and the pujari of the Buddhist temple of Gnathang, probably one of the oldest settlements in east Sikkim.
According to the legend,
Bidang Chho was male and Mei Mei Chho was female when
they were formed. They were created next to each other in
Kupup valley and were deeply in love with each other.
Until, one day, Mei Mei Chho looked up and saw this
magnificent mountain peak just behind the mountains
enclosing them. She fell desperately in love with the
mountain, which houses the historic Jelep La pass through
which the Young Husband expedition made its way into
Tibet in 1905. When Bidang Chho discovered Mei Mei
Chhos infidelity, he went into a terrible rage and
thrust her aside violently. The force of his rejection
was so great that Mei Mei Chho sank into a deep valley.
My informants told me the rocks of the place where the
earth gave way to Bidang Chhos fury are red, as a
result of being stained with her blood. Unfortunately, by
the time I heard this story, it had snowed heavily and I
never could see the red rocks for myself. My
dissatisfaction at the name assigned to the Mei Mei Chho
did not detract from the magical beauty of the lakes, one
lying in a large, open valley, basking in the sun, and
the other enclosed by heavily forested slopes, with
sunlight touching it late in the day and only for a short
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