I notice a sudden cold fleck on my cheek. My fingers automatically go over it and I feel a cool wetness. I look up, expecting to see drops of rain. Instead, I watch wisps of white, falling all around us, moving diagonally with the strong gusts of wind. Instinctively, I try to feel them, with my palms up, my eyes wide with wonder. I watch some of it fall and melt in my palm. It really is snow! I hear a squeal, which has to be Chaitali. She was practically bouncing on the balls of her feet.
I look around me, mesmerized. This felt like one of those picture perfect moments they show in movies, where you stand in a snowfall, and your hair gets streaked with white flakes, and a wide grin refuses to leave your face. This was my moment. And I didn’t need a Prince Charming to come running through the snow to me and declare his undying love. Some things are perfect, just as they are. At that moment, the love of my life was my life. I felt lucky to be alive to witness such beauty and to share it with some of my dearest people.
I’m not much of a mountains person.
It’s not like I do not enjoy visiting them. I do feel mountains are achingly beautiful. It’s majestic, silent and nature has indeed bestowed most of its fierce beauty here. But to me, it has always felt quite distant – like I could admire it as much as I wanted to from afar, but could never get close to it. Here, I’m the fleeting guest, welcomed but kept at arm’s length.
So, when Chaitali & Mayukh, the friends I would be travelling with, asked me to join them for the Sikkim trip, I was lukewarm at best. This would be my second time in Sikkim. I said yes, less for the place and more for the joy of travelling with friends. I knew I’d soon experience the sense of isolation after a few days in the mountains – I always do. Mountainsides have a way of making you feel alone. Not that it’s a bad thing – maybe at times, we all need the reminder that in a way, we’re on our own in this world, regardless of the people we surround ourselves with.
We were in Lachung at the time. It was early morning and our itinerary for the day included the Zero Point and the Yumthang Valley. We had put on these plasticky gumboots because apparently there had been quite the snowfall the previous night. Our vehicle was a shared one – that is, a lot of strangers travelling together.
We bundled into our Bolero, and since my friends and I had come in late, we had to take the much detested back seats. I was seated between Chaitali on my left and a gangly boy of 14 on my right, who had his nose pressed against the glass of the window. The vehicle hurtled through the initial rocky driveway outside of our hotel, and soon we ventured onto the winding paths and sharp turns, which are characteristic in these regions.
The Bolero started its uphill journey, and I began to feel queasy. Since we were running late, we had skipped our breakfast in the morning, and, judging from my first wave of nausea, my stomach was not at all happy. I tried to distract myself with the beautiful sights outside – the distant layers of blue that were the hills, the greenery up close and the partly cloudy, partly sunny sky. Had I been sitting by the window and feeling fine, I would have completely lost myself down the nostalgia lane – which is an inevitability in these regions. Instead, I was fighting a losing battle with my nausea.
The vehicle stopped beside this thick forest area, filled with tall trees. The driver told us that there were no washrooms up at the Zero Point so if any of us needed to relieve ourselves, this would be the place. Yes, under the open skies and into the wild.
I poked at Chaitali’s arm, signalling that I needed to get down to puke. Within seconds, everyone had rushed out of my way. I jumped out and walked to an empty area in front, and doubled down, trying to both throw up and breathe. Since there was practically nothing in my stomach, nothing came up either. I just stood there, making gagging noises and spitting. One of our co-passengers gave me this anti-vomit medicine. The other passengers suggested I take the front seat. I was about to climb onto the seat when, as if on cue, Chaitali began throwing up in the woods as well. So, she too was made to sit in the front with me.
You know how sometimes a bad thing leads to something absolutely amazing? Initially, we were thankful for getting the much coveted front seats, since it helped with nausea. But gradually, as we began our ascent towards the Zero Point, both Chaitali and I realized the boon of these seats. The view we got from there was stunning!
I cannot even begin to describe the feeling of watching the roads unfold right in front of you, along with the uninterrupted view of an entire panorama of the mountains and the skies. Chaitali and I exchanged numerous happy glances and gasps, as our vehicle gradually drove up a terrain now flecked with snow on both sides.
As we got closer to the Zero Point, we saw the long line of parked vehicles ahead of us, along with the dotted mass of humans, which reminded us of this place being a touristy one after all. The moment we got down, Chaitali and I began looking for food. There were a few vendors there, selling hot Maggi, sauteed chana (chickpeas), boiled eggs, tea/coffee, popcorn and chips along with beer, brandy and even red bull! We quickly gobbled up a bowl full of Maggi each, followed by a boiled egg and finally a pack of popcorn. Finally, we were feeling better, and with renewed gusto, we ventured into the cold, white world that was stretched out in front of us.
The snow was pretty fresh and hence quite powdery. I wouldn’t say it was new to me since I had had my fair share of rolling around in snow during my visit to Himachal Pradesh a couple of years back. Hence, unlike Chaitali, who was running around like a wide-eyed 5-year old and scooping up snow with her bare hands, my pace was a lot more relaxed.
I was looking around, and taking in the majesty of the place – the huge mountains that flanked it, the pristine white carpet of snow all around, punctuated in places by brown rocky grounds, people in vibrant woolens playing with the snow and taking endless selfies, groups of men sounding pretty drunk, playing and singing along to Honey Singh & Baadshah and thereby giving away their city of origin – it was quite entertaining, all of it.
And that’s when I felt it. The first cold speck on my cheek. Followed by the gradual realization that it was a legit snowfall – and my first! I couldn’t take my eyes off the sky – watching the snowflakes fall down on white beds of snow was surreal! Everyone was taken by surprise and we all looked at each other with wide grins on our faces – hundreds of strangers sharing a moment of magic – together!
It lasted for a few minutes perhaps, and we were happy with whatever we got to experience. Soon enough, we were back in our Bolero, and on our way down to the Yumthang valley.
Straight up, I loved this place. After the white and browns of the Zero Point, it felt wonderful to feast my eyes to some greens of the valley and the blues of the river that ran through it. This place covers a huge area, and with the backdrop of mountains all around it, is as picturesque as it can get. The area near the river is filled with big pebbles and the other side of the river is bordered by a thick forest.
We start walking down the valley, taking pictures and marvelling at the beauty of the place, when lo and behold – it begins to snow – AGAIN! And this time, it was a lot heavier than the one we experienced at the Zero Point. I’m talking snowflakes billowing in the wind and our hair & jackets getting all white from the flakes clinging on to them!
I stood there, with my face pointed up at the sky, feeling those flakes on my face and even tasting them. Somehow it reminded me of all those times as a child when I used to scoop crushed ice from the deep freezer at home and put it in my mouth. I took off my gloves and felt those flakes hit and melt in the warmth of my palm. Soon enough, my fingers were aching due to the cold – but I didn’t mind. I glanced at all the people around me, who were talking and giggling excitedly. And at Chaitali, standing dramatically, her arms outstretched, Bollywood style (clearly posing and expecting either Mayukh or me to capture the ‘candid’ moment). The happiness in the air was palpable – I could almost touch it. And then I looked up at the distant snowy peaks, and the flecks of snow in my hand – and I smiled.
Not so distant anymore, are we? The question seemed to echo in the air as if travelling from those peaks to me.
“No. Not anymore,” I whispered back, smiling at the snowflake that had just landed on the tip of my nose.