I consider Mt Kanchenjunga my bestie. This triangle of snowy white magic floating in the sky has been burnt into my retina ever since I first saw her 25 years ago from Sikkim’s capital, Gangtok. The individuals I was with on that first trip to the mountains—my parents, my little cousin brother—are all gone, but Kanchenjunga remains. In my student days, I would rush to North Bengal/Sikkim once every six months to see her again and renew our bond. On the way, I would meet my second bestie, river Teesta, which flows through Bengal and Sikkim. Once I started working, the reunions became less frequent. When I travelled to north Sikkim recently, I was meeting them after 12 years.
On the uphill climb from the ugly plains of Siliguri, the first sight of Teesta shocked me. What had happened to her in these years? From a madly rushing, frothing river, Teesta has become lake placid, with barely a ripple in her mint-green waters. We crossed bridges where we could see her moving sluggishly on one side while on the other side lay just the dry riverbed with ash-white stones. The truth struck me—Teesta has been dammed, not once but several times over.
In 2019, there were five operational dams in the Teesta basin and at least 15 more were under consideration. The approach to each dam on our way was announced by smashed roads, stone-dust-laden air, deep slush, and the ubiquitous JCB. Teesta’s power has evidently been “harnessed”, transforming her from a young, wild river to an old, slow-moving one, even when she is still close to her source. If the nature of rivers is to flow freely, Teesta might wreak havoc before long.
The first sight of Kanchenjunga from Gangtok too was a bit disconcerting. Looking through binoculars, I felt the snow cover was too patchy for the beginning of November. I muttered a prayer under my breath—Kanchenjunga, please don’t change, let global warming be a myth.
Despite growing garbage heaps, one thing about Gangtok has stayed the same—its smell, composed chiefly of the melancholy scent of black juniper (dhupi in Lepcha language), which the Buddhists burn to purify their homes. That scent followed us all the way to Lachen and Lachung—two villages in north Sikkim surrounded by the high Himalayas. In Yumthang valley (12,100 ft), our driver, Rudra daju (daju is “elder brother” in Nepali), presented us with a sprig from the agarwood tree, used in making incense. Several weeks later, the drying sprig is still giving off its scent, a reminder of heaven.
Gurudongmar Lake (17,800 ft), a gruelling three-hour ride from Lachen, is heaven, its water a shade of maddening blue and icy wind blasting through the barren landscape even as the harsh sun burns the skin. At this lake regarded as sacred by all faiths, the only sound is of the howling wind and fluttering prayer flags.
And there is Teesta again, still a baby here, gathering force from crystal-clear streams gushing out of glaciers. But she will not be left alone for long. In the Alpine heights of Dikchu town, where Dikchu river meets Teesta, there is the 96 MW Dikchu Hydroelectric Power Project, one of the biggest on the river. Incidentally, in places like Lachen and Lachung, power cuts usually continue for days. If the infrastructure does not support unhindered supply of power, where does all the generated electricity go, one wonders.
The distance between Gurudongmar and Zero Point (15,000 ft), the final civilian destination before the China border, would be 20-25 km on a straight line but the road is not motorable. One has to access Zero Point from Lachung, through Yumthang Valley, famous for its rhododendrons. At Zero Point, panting for breath after a short walk, I met Doma from Lachung, who runs a shack there. Offering me “brandy coffee”, Doma said: “I wake up at 4 am and set up the stall here by 6:30 am, when it’s still dark and cripplingly cold. I have to wrap up by 12 noon, when the place becomes inhospitable.”
Our final destination was Temi tea garden (4,000ft-6,000 ft), whose verdant lushness was in stark contrast to the wilderness we had travelled through. Run by the Sikkim government, Temi is in excellent health compared with the ailing tea estates of Darjeeling. Here, cherry blossom trees hummed with bees, the song of crickets rose and fell with the breeze, while the Teesta roared in the distance. I picked up my bins to gaze at Kanchenjunga one last time. She was there, whiter than a week before, when I had seen her from Gangtok. It had snowed. All’s right with the world, I told myself, without conviction.