QUEST HIMALAYA JOURNAL
From Caravan Trails to A Highway -
By Aswini Tamang
“It’s been nearly half a century ever since my father and grandfather led their caravan trains upon this highway,” says Tega. But it wasn’t a highway then, just a rough mule track. Today Tega skillfully maneuvers his jeep upon the zigzag trails of the North Sikkim Highway. Huge army trucks, shiny jeeps loaded with tourists to swanky cars honk at our tails and zip past us. The highway seems busy today but it wasn’t so prior to 1997. Its bustling nature only came around when these ruggedly beautiful North Sikkim highlands were opened to tourism and there was a new window of opportunity for many along the roadside shanties to supplement their meager income by setting up food stalls.
Until then, and at the other end of the highway close by the Tibetan Plateau, the Lachenpas and the Lachungpas had lived in near seclusion for generations. These burly, robust tribespeople of ancient Tibetan origin have inhabited their rugged snow clad mountain homes of Lachen and Lachung even way before the great caravan-trade flourished between Tibet and India prior to 1959 (when the Chinese occupied Tibet). They have moved with their enormous herds of yaks to the highest altitudes in search of grass, cultivated the snow-chilled earth in spring and prodded endless Mongolian pony trains to Tibet and back sustaining a rich trade.
In recent years the North Sikkim Highway, built and maintained by the Indian army for security reasons, has brought along opportunities of a different kind, the hospitality trade of course. Thus, the two tribal lairs of Lachen and Lachung have since then metamorphosed from remote outposts into much sought after travel destinations in Sikkm’s enchanting North District.
It seems a challenge to have a highway in this area. The road passage to Lachung in the heart of North Sikkim is a 118 km long roller-coaster adventure. From unpredictable boulder-crashing zones to treacherous remains of roads still suspended between landslides, slushy patches flooded by torrential streams to sections that one must negotiate under bonnet deep water, and even a spooky tale of a dead spinster’s vampire spirit luring drivers, the highway turns out to be more an adventure fantasy than a holiday joy ride.