When my husband proposed we go to Yangtey for our mid-year break, I was clueless. Not being as passionate about Sikkim (particularly West Sikkim) as he is, the first I heard of the place was when he gushed about how perfect it was in the rains and how isolated. It was also supposed to offer the greatest view of the Himalayas in all of Sikkim. I wasn’t sure I wanted a holiday in the hills in the monsoon, and said so. Dear reader, I was destined to eat my words.
We get off the Darjeeling Mail at New Jalpaiguri (NJP) station at 8.30 a.m. on June 13. The mild drizzle and lowering clouds seem like a warning. Yangtey is about 140 km from NJP, which means a five-hour drive, with stoppage time and all. The area outside the station is teeming with cars for hire, and competition is fierce, but most of the gesticulating drivers around us look ominously uncertain or just plain blank when we mention Yangtey. Finally, a tall, thin, terse Bengali who drives a TATA Indica comes to our rescue and offers to take us to Yangtey for Rs 1700.
Past Siliguri, which is the town that NJP station serves, and past the Baikunthapur forest, we begin climbing in earnest, the road winding through a curtain of green on either side. As the first hills show up on the radar, the sun makes half-hearted attempts to break through the mist. Determined to remain grumpy, I reluctantly note that the scenery is already fabulous. Towering green and blue mountains on all sides, with light and shade chasing each other across their slopes, and tendrils of mist gradually dissolving in the face of a strengthening sun.
Driving through the hamlet of Rambi Bazar, we are reminded of the football World Cup’s pervasive presence as German flags flutter in the breeze among the numerous prayer pennants. We breakfast at Lohapool. Like the innumerable drive-in hamlets that Sikkim specializes in, it looks pretty from a distance and tatty up close. Nervously avoiding thoughts of hill diarrhea, we order omelets and toast.
The road now becomes steeper and more winding, and infinitely more beautiful. Whooping monkeys swing from tree to tree, an old man sits spooling a ball of yarn by the roadside, and chubby, pink-cheeked children pop up every now and then. In the midst of it all, roadside signs advise drivers to ‘drive with care, make accidents rare’, and that ‘fast doesn’t last’.
Nearing Jorethang, we are more than halfway through the journey. I break into snatches of song. Our driver looks pained and turns on the stereo. Jhalak Dikhlaaan Jaann… bellows Himesh the Menace, as I fume silently. The weather, positively warm until now, turns progressively cooler and bougainvilleas run riot. Even our hitherto restive four-year-old son is quiet as the magic takes hold.
Finally, we reach Geyzing, 2 km from Yangtey. As far as I can see, Yangtey is all about the Tashi Gang Resort, where we have booked a cottage, and three or four rickety huts. Approximately 6,000 ft above sea level and part of the Himalayan foothills, this is cloud country. One plump specimen floats past our cottage verandah.
The cottage itself has two large and neat rooms, two squeaky clean bathrooms with running hot and cold water, wall-to-wall carpeting and minimal furniture, built in closets, and a color TV with cable connectivity. A Brazil match is due that evening, I guiltily recall, unable to leave the city behind.
Lunch is no feat of culinary excellence, but utilitarian. Our constantly smiling room boy assures us that the view of the Kanchenjunga range from the verandah is magnificent, but isn’t too sure we’ll see much of it because clouds come in the way at this time of year. Frankly, I am not too fussed, because the non-snow peaks are magnificent in their own right, and we can see plenty of those. Husband and son take a nap and I spend the afternoon alternately watching the clouds and reading. Obviously, there is little by way of recreation, though the resort does have a games room perched on a hillside offering carom and table tennis. By the time Brazil-Croatia rolls around, I am no longer interested, somehow.
We walk down the winding road to Geyzing. The sky is blue and the sun beats down, soon making me regret the woolens I had packed. As we realize, the average daytime temperature for June is about 20ºC, while at night, it falls closer to 15. Words fail me as I try to mentally describe the scenery, and we feast our eyes on the river snaking through the valley bottom way down below, with multi-colored tin-roofed houses dotting the lower slopes of the mountains. The clouds cast giant shadows and the air is painfully fresh.
Geyzing’s sleepy market square – where we buy mineral water a few other essentials –displays stern notices against spitting and littering. It has a surprisingly bustling taxi stand, and we recruit Kiran Pradhan, a 20-something youth with a shy smile and film star looks, to drive us back to Yangtey in his taxi. The ride costs Rs 50 (transport is expensive in the hills as a general rule), and Kiran promises to give us a tour of the attractions around Yangtey the next day for Rs 700.
That afternoon, I am treated to yet another spectacular cloud show. Especially fascinating is the way a solid bank of clouds suddenly shifts, and a huge mountain emerges like a living thing from behind it. I realize my jaw has dropped when the windowpane mists over.
Evening. Clouds have enveloped us in a soundless cocoon, and ghostly white shapes flit by the verandah. The world outside no longer exists.
Our debonair cabbie arrives bright and early, and we set off for Pemyangtse monastery. At the cozy little breakfast place in Geyzing, we meet a tourist from the Czech Republic on his third visit to Sikkim. Dressed in half-sleeved cotton shirt and gray trousers, he carries a rolled-up umbrella and looks like a London banker.
Pemyangtse is nestled against a desolate hillside, rain-soaked and silent. We pay homage to the Buddha and head off to the Rimbi Falls and Rock Garden. The adjective charming comes repeatedly to mind, as we pass village boys at a game of football (this is Baichung Bhutia country too) and gaze dreamily at terraced fields of rice. We would have loved to take in Yuksam and Khechoperi Lake, but don’t have the time.
Lunchtime. We think Pelling – 40 km from Yangte – will do nicely. Mystifyingly, we can’t find a single place to eat, though the place is all hotels. Isn’t 12.30 pm a good enough time for lunch? Thwarted, we decide to postpone it till the time we are back at the resort, where we have shifted out of the cottage to a first-floor room, just for variety.
Evening. With clouds drifting in and out, we stand at the window watching the lights of distant hamlets come on. Soon, the valley seems dotted with giant fireflies. We are leaving at noon the next day, and I don’t want to. I think back to my reluctance to come to the hills in the rains, and wonder what I was on about. Yes, the Himalayas have remained resolutely hidden, but what we have seen has been reward enough. As we prepare to leave, the manager asks us to come back in winter. I can’t wait.
Important information at a glance
Yangtey is well-connected to and 140 km from Siliguri, the nearest railhead The only place to stay is the lovely Tashi Gang Resort (www.tashigangresort.com), which offers modern amenities including a 100-seater conference hall Places to see around Yangtey include Pemyangtse, Yuksam, Khechoperi Lake and Rimbi