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Heavens Calling

Updated: Mar 6, 2023

Some hundred or so years ago during the British rule in India, trade was a vital ingredient for business.

Due to India being surrounded by seas all through the Southern and most of the Western parts, trade and business was pretty lucrative.

The story was a little different when it came to Northern India and the mountains.

There were no oceans or easy trade routes available through the Indian Subcontinent, and so the Silk Route was developed.

The Silk Route is a vast stretch of interconnecting roads, which connect India to China,Persia,Greece,Italy and the Horn of Africa. This network of roads was so important, that the Chinese extended the Great Wall of China just to guard their trade secrets from the rest of the world.

Up the Himalayas, the China/India silk route starts from China and goes right through the cold mountain passes of Nathu-la and Jelep-la. Swerving in and out of Zuluk, it leads right up to Kurseong.

The silk route was used to transport Chinese silk, gold, silver and a variety of other stuff from China to India and vice versa. The road has closed down for trade sometime back, and the border areas are now home to the Indian and the Chinese army only.

The twisting and turning silk route, although closed for business, still brings a lot of revenue for the Sikkim government, as it is known to be one of the most picturesque places along the Himalayas. Hundreds of tourists travel to Zuluk during summer season to enjoy the incredible bloom of Rhododendron, and bask in the comfortable sunshine while they take sips of coffee and tea.

It is during the winter season, that the region becomes absolutely unforgiving.

I, on the lookout for nice landscape images as always, gathered a few of my friends and travelled overnight to NJP on a cold December evening. Our destination: Zuluk.

Rhenock, about which I talk about another time, was our initial destination. After spending the night in Rhenock and getting habituated with the height as best we could, we made our way up to Padamchen. We were advised by local residents not to stay in Zuluk, as it was inhospitably cold at this time of the year. Not willing to risk our lives, we obliged.

Padamchen, a tiny village a few kilometers below Zuluk was where we spent the night.

The following morning, we were taken on a topsy turvy ride straight up the silk route. The longer we went up, the landscape became more rugged. The grass and the trees had dried up in the cold, there were shafts of ice jotting out in place, and it was getting colder by the minute.

We crossed Zuluk and went up to a height of 14500 feet and reached the Thambi view point.

Just as I got down from the car, a blast of icy cold air hit me in the face, and I was shaken. My Quechua jacket and gloves could withstand sub-zero temperatures, but still it felt like my bones rattled a little bit. Shivering, I hopped up to the view point, and I was greeted with a grand view of the Silk route. It was truly breathtaking.

With the camera in my hand, I tried to compose a frame, but my hands were shaking too much. I knelt down, supported my elbows on my knees and finally managed to frame the image.

I admired the scene for some ten minutes, and returned to the car.

Our next spot was 17500 feet up, Gnathang Valley. This is where things got interesting.

Gnathang is a village which is surrounded by huge mountains from all sides, thus protecting it from being bombarded by the icy cold winds. When our vehicle rolled down to a stop, I couldn't really gauge the temperature outside, as our windows were drawn up.

The moment I went down, icy cold gale hit me from all sides and my insides rattled.

The spot was an elevated road, from where the village could be seen in its entirety. It was magical.

I knew there was no way I could take an image here without a tripod, so I went back to the car and got my Vanguard Alta Pro. The wind was so strong and the air was so cold, I couldn't really feel my face. Every part of my body was covered up, but to set up the tripod, I needed to open my gloves.

"Anything for an Image", I thought, and removed my gloves to mount the tripod. It took me ten minutes to set it up, isolate a tiny hut with the long lens and snap an image. The frozen river and light coming out from a gap in the clouds made for an interesting image.

As I later found out, in those ten minutes when I opened my gloves, my fingers were exposed to a temperature of -7 degree centigrade and freezing cold winds. My hands were blistered, which was an early sign of frostbite.

As Peter Mckinnon rightly said, it is not the majesty or beauty of a photograph which makes it worth remembering. It is the pain that went behind making it, the people you were there with, and the stories associated with it, which makes it a memory worth living.

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