Thin air, low Oxygen & high altitude: Zero Point, Sikkim

A night before trekking to mountains or any other gruelling travel, I go to bed early. My body, soul & mind reach a consensus like it often happens between cross-functional teams before a tight deadline. There’s a certain calm that I feel with no anxiety, no worry and no bad memories. No matter the content on OTTs on those days, I fall asleep early & sleep like a baby. When I wake up the next day, I feel refreshed like freshly harvested flowers. Excitement runs in my body that shows up on my ever-smiling face, that shows up in my confident walk & it shows up in my twinkling eyes.

I woke up at 5 am & got ready in half an hour, on that day. We were to visit Yumthang Valley and Zero point. No one else was awake in that homestay of Lachung. Just us – a couple of travel enthusiasts who usually sleep till 12 in the afternoon but almost always get up by 4 or 5 am during vacations.

Our cabbie, Karma, arrived by 6:30 am and we left for the most gorgeous places in North Sikkim.

View outside our window at the homestay in Lachung

Hungry Souls and Noisy Stomachs: en route to Yumthang Valley:

Karma, our cabbie, was an interesting man. He had a smile plastered on his face all the time. This is why it was hard to get mad at him. There were times when he got late, didn’t clean his cab from the inside or drove recklessly. I would give him feedback in a stern voice. In response, he would show his ever-smiling face, say something clever or innocent and we would forget why we were mad at him in the first place.

That day, as we sped towards Yumthang, the altitude increased & the temperature dropped. We hadn’t had breakfast or morning tea. On plains, it’s fine but in the mountains, this becomes a problem. We were hungry and we kept asking him to make a stop somewhere in between for breakfast. But he won’t listen. He just kept driving. He had this favourite place in Yumthang where he wanted us to have breakfast. If that wasn’t enough, two locals hitched a ride with us & kept talking in high-pitched tones throughout the way.

Imagine this – really cold weather, a rickety SUV that made too much noise, two locals constantly talking at the back and zero caffeine in my system. I was supremely irritated. All the snow-capped mountains, scenic valley views and beautiful trees reminded me of only one thing – I can’t eat any of it. To take my mind off food, Karma played Bollywood Songs on the radio. Oh, that sounded like chaos. I asked him to stop the radio, pick up the speed a little & take me to a cafe if he wanted to retain the smile on his face.

Finally, we reached Yumthang Valley for breakfast. Good that we did else I would have eaten him alive in another half an hour. 😀

Guess where?
The must-have food in Sikkim

Warm Fires & Cosy Spaces at Yumthang:

I am not sure if it was hunger, really cold temperature, anger at Karma or absence of caffeine in my system, I wasn’t feeling too well when we got down at the cafe in Yumthang. The cafe owner was a silent man who cooked at the speed at which winds blew in that part of North Sikkim. His wife and co-owner of the cafe was a gorgeous, well-spoken and graceful woman. She was dressed in traditional Sikkim attire and had the kind of smile that makes the onlookers smile too. I got distracted and forgot about food for a minute. Oh yes, women admire other women. Some of us absolutely love our girlfriends and look out for opportunities to grow our tribe!

But then hunger pangs and a cold breeze came back again & engulfed me. I started shivering. The cafe owner offered me a seat near the wooden fire. On the top of the fire was a large kettle. Out of the Kettle spout, came smoke and the smell of freshly brewed tea. I ordered a bowl of maggi and two cups of tea. When I held the tea cup in my hands, I got Nirvana right there. The tea didn’t taste good, and I am not used to Yak milk, which has a distinctive smell. But then, unfavourable weather has a way of getting us to do, prefer and like things that we otherwise won’t. I had three cups of that Yak tea, gained some energy & warmth & stepped out of the cafe. Outside the cafe, I spotted the stylish woman who was the owner of the cafe. Like most women, she was also good at multi-tasking. She had a stall set-up outside the cafe and sold winter wear – caps, gloves, stoles, jackets, shoes, boots – everything that can protect you from bad weather, provide you comfort & keep you warm and happy.

I bought a woolen cap (that has never been my style) & leather hand-gloves (that wasn’t my style either). I was then covered from head to toe. Karma recommended that we first visit the Zero Point & spend time in Yumthang on our way back. Thus, we left for Zero Point.

All smiles, trying to be heathy, wealthy & wise!

Fast Ascent to Zero Point:

Usually, it takes an hour and a half to reach Zero Point from Yumthng. Thanks to Karma we reached the most beautiful point of North Sikkim within an hour.

As a result of this fast drive, I got altitude sickness. I was still recovering from post-covid effects & I wasn’t really in my best fitness. My heartbeat had touched 160 while I sat inside the cab. It was alarming. I started getting uneasy and found it difficult to breathe. But I am a tough cookie. I show all my emotions but I don’t give up easily. At that moment, I could either give in to panic or regain my energy. I chose the latter & tried three things:

1. mustered all my courage & started telling myself, that it would be fine.

2. I started taking deep breaths and filling myself with Oxygen.

3. I evoked my Baniya genes & reminded myself the amount of money that was spent on this Sikkim trip.

I also had two cups of tea at Zero point, and started walking slowly. I would take 10 steps and catch my breath. With a little bit of crawling, slow walking, slouching & showing an absolute disinterest in how I looked at that time, I made my way & climbed to the top. 🙂 I told you I am tough inside.

Zero Point, Sikkim
Yours truly, adapting & adjusting to altitude

I spent 45 mins. at Zero point, tried to capture the surroundings with my eyes & mind & thanked the gods for my life. Really, we forget to appreciate all the good things in our life that greatly outnumber the ‘lows’ of our life. Incidentally, the ‘lows’ take away all our energy & time. Maybe that’s why I love travelling. It reminds me of all the good things, the free pleasures, the sunny side of life. I always come back from a trip feeling blessed & thankful (except this one time when I visited Igatpuri & the driver mooched us off).

Somewhere near Zero Point

Back to Yumthang & then Gangtok

On our way back from Zero Point, I started feeling better. The snow-capped mountains, scenic valley views & tall trees started looking beautiful again. The air remained thin, and I had to keep taking deep breaths. But I was fine.

When we reached Yumthang valley, I walked up to the river, found myself a spot on the ground & sat there for a while. The winds were really strong & the temperature was around 5-6 degrees. I opened the ‘gaana.com’ app on my phone & played one of my favourite songs from the offline downloads. I must have spent another 45 mins. near the river, listening to my thoughts and songs on gaana.com. By then, I had got my mojo back.

Back at Yumthang!
Views of Yumthang Valley

I got up, walked back to the parking spot, found a cafe to have another plate of Maggi while Karma kept discouraging me. His exact words were, “Kitna Maggi khayega madam, sehat ke liye acha nahin hai (Stay away from Maggi, it’s not good for health)”. I knew he wanted to take us to another restaurant of his liking. And I was fine with it. 🙂

We left from Yumthang around the afternoon & reached Gangtok by late evening. The next day, we were to leave early & explore another untouched part of North Sikkim, Dzongu Valley. Do you know what happened in Dzongu valley?! The owners showed so much love that they kept feeding me & I ended up overeating & fell sick!

Sikkim really tested me & my strength. But I have no complaints, only memories of mountains, valleys, fresh food, and conversations with warm and stylish locals.

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