Was really glad to be back in Lachen, after spending nine long and boring days in rainy Gantok. As luck would have it the weather in Lachen was much better, it being bright and sunny and with slopes having more chlorophyll induced grass and plants due to the melting snow on top. Everything seemed to be much more infused with life. The next few days things went a bit downhill as I was completely alone , without my helper – Tshering and Gokey’ (my host) sons was completely bored and pretty frustrated. Most of the village was empty as many people had gone up to Thangu to tend to their farms or collect forest products. A dull gloom set over me as the days passed by; at one point I thought that my second trip would be completely futile, unable to make any progress on the guidebook or any other front.
One thing I forgot to mention in my last post on Lachen was about the kitchen, the epicenter of their household existence. It is the heart and soul of the household, acting as their hall and dining room, a place where families socialize and guests entertained. They have a really large kitchen completely encircled with pots, pans, kettles and cutlery of all shapes and sizes which sit proudly on the shelves, showing off the social status of their owners. I doubt that even half of the vessels must have ever been used as I guess they are more ornamental than practical. The size and variety of vessels I saw in all the kitchens never seized to amaze me; they actually held some sort of fascination for me.
The turning point of the trip came with Nima’ arrival three days later, as he pushed the pipon in his gentle way to get the ball rolling. The next morning Nima arranged for me to go to the base of Lama Angden , the guardian mountain of Lachen. This plan materialized on the spur of the movement putting the Gokey family in a bit of disarray as a guide had to be arranged for and my packed lunch had to be prepared. Lama Angden (5868 m) is a very beautiful snow capped peak sitting right above Lachen, which I never had the luck of viewing during my one month sojourn. The hike to it’ base takes around 5-6 hours depending upon one’ speed and the condition of the route, making it a strenuous one day affair.
I was introduced to my guide an old Lachenpa who understood neither English nor Hindi, resulting in us communicating in the cosmic language of human expressions and signs. Our progress was a bit slow as the old man had to keep catching up with his breadth, which he did by taking numerous cigarette breaks. An hour into our hike the climb really became steep and we had to start scrambling over loose rocks and grassless slopes, making the old man to mutter a bit. As luck would have it the weather gods chose to be displeased this very day, the entire valley being blanketed in dense clouds after it being bright and sunny for the past four days. As the going became tougher the length of his muttering and frequency of his cigarette breaks proportionately increased, but I was only beginning to enjoy the rugged terrain within the confines of the clouds. Finally when we reached the first plateau after climbing for two hours his muttering became way too much for me to handle. He was explaining that there was no defined path ahead of us with a good three hour climb still remaining, and the visibility was truly becoming very bad , so I conceded to turning back. Now the roles were reversed as I got down slowly and cautiously over loose rocks, while by guide seemed to be as sure footed as a mountain goat literally running down. I was really amazed at his skill as I saw myself fumbling in a hesitant manner over my footings. Mrs. Gokey was surprised to see me back before lunch time, maybe even a bit disappointed after all the effort she had taken.
One very important thing I learnt while working in Lachen was that things never and I mean never go according to the plan while working with communities. Dates and time do not mean much to these people, who luckily, still live in a peaceful and laid back world. We had to wait out one more day to go to Thangu for our reci trip to Lashar valley locally referred to as Zachu valley. At last the morning came when we set out to leave for Thangu. Our jeep seemed to be quiet abused as it was coughing it’ way up, having occasional spasms. At two points we had to push the poor tormented soul so that it would start in hope of transporting us to Thangu. Despite our apethtic progress we reached Thangu by 10, giving us enough time to walk to Dewthang for seeing the meditation caves of the Lachen rinpoche and Alexandra David-Neel.
Alexendra David-Neel was one of the most famous French explorer cum spiritualist and the first women from the western world to have set foot into Tibet. On her second visit to Sikkim in 1914 she met gomchen Aphur Yogden at the Lachen monastery with whom she retreated to the caves above Dewthang to study and meditate for two years. The path for Dewthang commences from Kalep, taking around two hours to reach the cave. Wild flowers like marigold, primula sikkimensis, rhododendrons and blue poppy colored the route all throughout, making our walk all the more enjoyable. The blue poppy immediately became a favourite with me , proving a bit difficult to photograph due to it’ shy and illusive nature, The ones near the path were closed or withered away, and the ones which were well bloomed were in between inaccessible thickets. The path gradually climbed on top through lightening struck tree trunks and an incompletely built monastery to get us to the main cave where the first rinpochi of Lachen monastery had meditated for 13 years. The cave being quite big was compartmentalized into smaller spaces for meditating, cooking and sleeping. Still it was pretty dark and damp inside and found it hard to imagine how somebody could stay in such a place for so many years, but then such are the ways of the venerable monks. From here we got some nice views of the Kalep valley below us , as we were wondering where the second cave of Alexandra David-Neel was. Climbed up a bit more over the rhododendron slopes, permeating their sweet smell in the crisp air of this serene valley. Sat down for some time enjoying the natural beauty surrounding us , reflecting and analyzing my philosophies of life. While coming down we saw a small shallow cave which I thought would be the one used by Alexendra David-Neel as it was below the main cave of the rinpochi as described to us. After speaking to a few people and showing them our photos, it was confirmed that the shallow cave was the one where Alexendra Davis-Neel had meditated.
By the time we reached Thangu it had begun to rain quite heavily forcing us in our room. Luckily the skies opened out in some time to reveal a bright blue dome giving us an opportunity to see the old rustic monastery as also the new one being constructed. After that met up with our guide who was to take us to Zachu valley tomorrow, though he sounded a bit surprised on hearing our intention to do the trip in one day as it was a long walk according to him. Will write a more detailed post about this outing in time to come.
When we were back in Lachen I had the fortune of experiencing Saga Dawa, one of the holiest Buddhist festivals. On this auspicious day it is supposed that the Buddha was born, attached enlightenment and died. The day started with a pooja at the monastery , with some of the monks continuing the prayers all through the day. The entire village had come with some sort of floral or culinary offering for the gods. It was my first experience of the Buddhist chants and quite a powerful one. The next morning we left to go to Tarum hot springs ,a very popular jaunt with the local people. The outing turned out to be a relaxed vacation of grand proportions for the two of us , would be putting a separate post for this trip too.
This brought to an end my second and final trip to Lachen. A trip which seemed really doomed in the beginning, finally turned out to be a fabulous one with a good deal of exploration. It was quite a challenging and at time frustrating experience working with the local community over here, none the less a very fulfilling one.
You can check out more pictures of my outings over here