I was huddled up, half-seated, in the back of the car, with my son fitfully sleeping on my lap. I wasn't sure if he finally fell asleep. The blanket of pitch darkness that engulfed us was getting sliced by the occasional lightnings that lit up the sky with streaks of electric blue light. I looked at the time in my phone. It was 2 a.m. Outside, rain was pouring down in a thick sheet, as it can only rain in the mountains, enveloping us completely. Although the window glasses were rolled up, the sharp, chilly wind outside was still giving me the goosebumps. I swaddled my son with my overcoat more tightly. The constant sound of the downpour was mixed with another sound – that of rushing water. The gushing mountain streams that danced over the rocks like lively girls were mad banshees now, threatening to destroy anyone and everyone who dared to cross their path.
I was not afraid. The whole situation was too dreamlike to be scary. I closed my eyes, surrendering myself to the surreal darkness, surrendering to Nature's undisputed supremacy over Man.
We had planned this tour for quite a while. Come summer vacation, we were to take a trip to North Sikkim, visiting Lachung and Gurudongmar Lake, and then Lachen and the Yumthang valley.
We reached Gangtok on a drizzly afternoon, where we would stay overnight, and head to Lachung the next morning. We were not worried about the light rain, as the weather forecast showed that the next day will be clear.
We woke up early, with a dazzlingly sunny morning greeting us. Our driver, a soft spoken and polite Sikkimese boy, came to pick us up around 11, apologizing for his lateness with a shy smile. There is something so simple and disarming about the mountain folks, that it's really hard to get upset on them! We started for Lachen – the first leg of our tour.
At around 1:30, we reached Mangan, a picturesque, sleepy little town surrounded by majestic mountains, which also happens to be the district headquarters of North Sikkim. By this time, a moderate rain had started. A quick lunch later, we were on the road again, heading towards Lachen. Rayan Tamang, our driver, told us that this is where the road becomes a little tricky, as the stretch between Mangan and Chungthang is narrow and gravelly with a number of waterfalls making the tracks slippery, to make matters worse. “Pah!” We thought. We have travelled all over the Himalayas, and have seen our share of treacherous roads, hairpin bends and slipping rocks. “Go tell your scary stories to mountain greenhorns”, we muttered under our breaths, with a smug smirk!
After about 15 minutes, we crossed a gurgling waterfall; the milky, frothy water jumping off the rocks in happy abundance. We ooh'ed and aah'ed! However, I did notice that the road crossing the waterfall takes a sharp hairpin bend with the little slippery rocks underneath the wheels making the maneuver somewhat treacherous. We travelled for another mile or so, and then noticed a jam in front of our car. There were about five or six cars that stopped ahead of us! Curious, we got down and walked ahead to see what the matter was. And the scene that I saw will not be gone from my memory in a hurry!
Beyond us was a little bridge over a waterfall. Fed by the recent rains, the falls had morphed into rapids, with water rushing down in a mad torrent, completely submerging the bridge! There was an abandoned truck stuck on the bridge. Possibly someone took a chance to make it over the water and then thought the better of it. The big truck was being swayed from side to side by the force of the downrush and could fall off into the precipice at any moment. There was absolutely no way to cross the bridge and continue the journey.
“What happens now?” we asked our driver, “Is there another route to Lachen?” “No,” he answered, “but the army people will probably come down in a while and do something about the situation.” Looking at the scene beyond, it did not seem like the Indian Army or anyone else short of a wizard could do anything to manage the situation, but we decided to wait anyway as that was the only option. The rain was pelting down now, and through the blurred glass of the rear window of the car, I could see a serpentine line of cars on the back of us, all stuck helplessly by the calamity.
By this time, it was already 4 p.m. and there was absolutely no sign that the situation could turn around for the better. I looked at Rayan. He understood the question on my mind and replied “Yes, we probably should go back to Gangtok. The roads are becoming more dangerous and will be more difficult to navigate after sundown”. We agreed. “Let's go back and try again tomorrow morning”.
Turning the car around proved to be another arduous affair. The road was not wide enough for a U-turn, and was, by this time, chock-full of backed-up traffic. After an hour-long painstakingly skillful maneuver, we could finally turn around and were ready to go back. However, the drive probably lasted all of about 15 minutes!
The frothy waterfall that charmed us earlier with its bubbly beauty has now transformed into another raging cascade, flooding the road completely!
We stood there, at a loss for words, trying to grapple with the reality of the situation. We, along with another 500 odd vehicles, are stuck between this mile-long stretch. It was already past 6:30 and dusk had already fallen with it's shroud of rain and stygian shadows. There was no way forward, and no way back!
Once I came to grips with the fact that we have to spend the night in the car, with one bottle of water between us and no food, a sense of surrender, and even adventure fell on me. We can do this, I thought. There are so many other people along with us, stuck in the same manner.
By this time, a team from the Army was also around, keeping a watch, and trying to repair the damage. By what means, I don't have a clue. Throughout the night, I could see their flickering torchlights, and hear their voices – the conversations a strange jumble, meaningless but comforting.
I must have dozed off in the wee hours of the morning, and when I woke up, it was around 5:30. Dawn had broken with the promise of another sunny day. The first sight that dazzled my eyes was that of a spectacular Kanchenjunga stretching through the entire horizon, lit up in brilliant pink and orange and bronze by the first rays of sunlight. Nature is, indeed, the most primordial of Gods, I thought; its wrath is omnipotent, its majesty, supreme.
Rayan greeted us with a smile. “The roads are clear for now,” he said. “We still cannot go to Lachen as landslides blocked that road last night, but we can go straight to Lachung and Yumthang.” It's okay, we thought. After all, the journey really is the destination.
As we headed towards Lachung, the Army men smiled and waved to us. After having spent a sleepless night, fighting the rain, the falling rocks, trying to clear the pathway, so that we can be safe and continue with our vacations. It's all in a day’s work for them. I wanted to raise my hand in a salute, but somehow both my palms joined in prayer. Silently, I bowed to them, acknowledging their gift of safety. I heard a small voice chirping 'Jai Hind' next to me and looked up to see my son, with a grin on his face, hand raised in a salute. 'Jai Hind', the men smiled back and waved at him. A lump formed in my throat. I hugged my son and waved back.