At least it’s not raining – I said to Jaya.
There was a distant sound. A wet cold gush of wind. And it started to drizzle.
The sky was getting darker by the second and visibility was alarmingly low.
And neither Jaya nor I knew what to do. We were stuck in the middle of a scarcely travelled path, with no sign of habitation.
Returning was impossible as the way back was incredibly steep and we had already lost our way once. The forest wasn’t dense, but it afforded no comfort. And my ankle was hopelessly twisted.
The day had started beautifully. Pancakes, toast, omelettes, juice and brilliant coffee – my definition of a morning well spent. We were staying at the lovely Gurash Kunj. This was Versey in West Sikkim. The year was 2011 and the time high summer.
The manager of the Lodge, Bandhu Sherpa, had assured us that it was an easy path and it would take no more than three hours. We had hiked an easy three kilometres on a remarkably easy path the day before.
But on this day we committed the greatest crime imaginable for any hiker/trekker – we started around 9 o’clock in the morning. Far too late to start! There was no guide or porter available. Bandhu was kind. He accompanied us to a point and described the rest of the path. He left us with his best wishes. We walked a little. Then we stopped to admire the view and immediately realised that we were lost.
No mobile network, no human being in sight, we were in a forest which is famed for its rhododendron, the elusive red panda and the Great Himalayan Bear. The last one was a tiny bit worrying.
After a couple of false forays we managed to find one of those lovely forest paths. It was a great relief. At least a path leads somewhere. It was no big deal that we had to slide down a steep muddy slope, no other rational possibility was there. Well I slid, Jaya did not. Jaya can scale the narrowest and steepest paths with ease, much to the consternation of my vertigo-infected mind! In fact, mountain goats look at her with deep envy!
We were nothing less than elated. Celebrating it with a couple of bars of chocolate we started again. It was already midday. And soon enough, the faces of two locals boosted our morale. They confirmed the path and guaranteed a close proximity to the village that was supposed to find us towards the end of the journey. Never trust hill people as far as distances are concerned. After an hour we seemed nowhere near the promised land.
And around this time my Woodlands shoes with a formidable looking artificial sole decided to slip.
To be perfectly fair, the path had foot-high rocky steps. They were narrow and the shoes were big. They were actually larger than the width of the steps. It was a bad choice. Having no information regarding the trail I had opted for them as they seemed good for a forest path. No one had warned me that this would be such a vertical trail!
And then the sky-gods decided to join the fun.
In that drizzle, limping like Long John Silver, I carried on. There was no heroism involved. There was simply no other option. Jaya must have been suffering much more. I kept myself busy with the immediate physical pain, but she had to be the navigator, the nurse, the worrier and the porter.
But in another half hour of this excruciating journey, the village appeared. Not quite the mythical Brigadoon, but equally magical for us. This was, in fact still is, a particularly poor village called Upper Sangkhu.
(This photograph of Sangkhu was taken later in the year when we revisited the village.)
Located far away from the road that is the lifeline, the villagers suffer from incredible hardships. Schools are at least an hour’s hard walk away, hospitals a distant dream. Law is limited to local level. But their hearts exactly where they should be.
The first lady we met had no language but Nepalese. The second occupied shack contained a lady and two kids. We had taken shelter from a rain that was growing at an exponential rate. She offered us her modest but lovely hospitality. Arranged a car (she had a mobile phone that was very cheap but could work miracles) and apologised profusely that she could help no more as there were no men in the village. It was the day of the weekly market. She had also applied henna on her hair. She would have no chance the rest of the week as this was the only day of rest.
We were grateful. But the next bit of the path was no less difficult. By this time I was no longer walking. The wet rocky path and my synthetic sole were disagreeing continually. So I was on my behind, feeling duly embarrassed (a pun might be discovered here).
(This photo is from the third trip to the village.)
Within ten minutes something wonderful happened. The lady came down. She said she saw my condition and simply could not do nothing. She took our rucksacks and in a few minutes two men came up from the lower recesses of the village, they were her husband and her brother. The market had dispersed due to the rain. The young boy, at least a foot shorter than me, effortlessly put me on his back, and tying me with a bed-sheet borrowed from a nearby house started carrying me. I have never been picked up in such a way. We had to stop for some time in another house because the skies were falling. By the time we restarted we were joined by Phurba Sherpa, the driver of the rescue vehicle (the loveliest Maruti Omni I have ever seen). This was another short boy who also carried me on my back. This seemed to amuse them both!
(Phurba standing on the edge of the ‘bypass’ road overlooking Singshore Bridge. The Bridge was being repaired then. This photo was taken on the day of our return from Uttarey.)
The above Map shows the points of origin and the end. The one below shows the usual road that normal people take.
When we reached the car it was almost dark. It was half past five. The boy, after much discussion, refused to take more than three hundred rupees. And we did not know how to thank the lady. Very grudgingly she took some money, and a pair of slippers from Jaya as hers was torn in the mud. She might come from one of the poorest villages in the world but she is the most beautiful and the most dignified lady we have ever seen.
We visited Upper Sangkhu twice afterwards. We were looking for her. We did not find her.