When I almost died in beautiful Sikkim

I vaguely remember seeing the Himalayas at Kedarnath and Badrinath when I was six. Every time I saw snowfall virtually, I dreamt of touching it in real. On 2017 New Years’ night, it was super spontaneous when I decided to go to Sikkim next month along with Ashrith’s sister Akshatha. Since Ashrith already had been there in the worst time of the year December and in the best time- June, he knew both donts & dos. We texted Ashrith’s Sikkim friend Buddha immediately and asked if he could join two girls on their Sikkim adventure.

After shopping at Decathlon and Monte Carlo, we flew to Gangtok to realise my dream of seeing a lake that many travellers find holy. And the unrealistically winding roads of Zuluk.

Rumtek Buddhist Monastery in Sikkim

In Sikkim’s capital Gangtok

Buddha arranged for the permit to go to North Sikkim on the first day at Gangtok, while we wandered in the town and visited many monasteries for two days. The next day, a 6-hour Gangtok to Lachen journey began. All Indians are proud of our national football player Baichung Bhutiya who is from Sikkim. So Sikkimese makes sure to point at his house, which is visible as a tiny ant on the horizon. While I enjoyed Buddha’s music taste in Nepali & English, the enchanting view of the Turquoise colour Teesta river by winding roads made Akshatha nauseous at times. I was having slight pain in the ear, which decreased after covering my ears with cotton buds.

Indian traveller walking on the banks of Theesta river in Sikkim

Is there snowfall in Lachen?

We reached the town Lachen when it was dark after driving on the rugged road by the cliffside. The temperature was less than 5*C and it had begun to snow. We ran into the room at the guest house and asked for an electric heater. Akshatha was super worried about the next day. (Over)Confidently I convinced her not to worry, and that I would take care of her no matter what happens.

She ate the “healthiest meal of her life” consisting of Saag, vegetables cooked in pulse curry, and rice, fearing falling sick, Meanwhile, I pulled over the thickest blanket available, kept the electric heater on the highest point and dozed off without eating even after Akshatha and Buddha put a herculean effort to feed me.

On the day of Gurudongmar

The next day morning, Buddha woke us up at 3.45. I was sleepy until the coldest toilet seat kissed my bum cheeks. My scream from the bathroom not only woke up Akshatha but also the next room’s guests. In the next 10 minutes, we were in the car as one of the first groups to leave Lachen on that day.

First sun rays hitting Himalayan roads in SIkkim

I believe in god and the energy that maintains the universe. But I am not very religious. My mother always said the vibrations produced by Vishnu Sahasranaama chants and Rudrachame create a positive vibe. I played the same in our car started the journey.

The Sikkim weather is “Bipolar”

Everyone needs good luck because there shouldn’t be a snowstorm or any extreme weather so that we can reach Gurudongmar. Plus, I was worried if Akshatha was going to fall sick. With prayers and lots of hopes, the ascending journey continued. The quantity of snow on the ground kept increasing as we moved ahead. We could see it in the dark as if someone blanketed the road with a white fabric. As the ray of hope increased with a good weather forecast, a part of the sky began to appear light beige. We reached Thangu valley for breakfast at sunrise time. Due to a regional festival, everything in the village was shut down. 

Barren mountains and snow caped mountains of Sikkim's Thangu valley

Buddha was looking for a few packets of popcorn restlessly in the village where everything was shut. He even knocked at some doors to check if they opened on that cold morning. We laughed at him for being obsessed with eating popcorn in the mornings. Later he said, popcorns help people in managing high-altitude mountain sickness. We moved further; Buddha asked us to keep our cameras inside as we were in the Indian Military area and Indo-China occupied Tibet border was nearing. There were bunkers, tankers lined up and a few soldiers on them here and there.

The sunlight revealed the greatest creation of mother nature.

Snow mountains behind the brown desert.

Every ray that kissed the mountains made it glow. The incredible phenomena of sun rays behind the mountains and clear sky elevated my hopes. The shadow moved to unveil the mountains. The anxiety about reaching the destination began to disappear and I felt lighter as if someone was singing me a lullaby to put me to sleep. I began to let myself loose and not talk, just stare out and wonder how would it be to live here.

Four beige fur barking deer runnin on the field surrounded by Himalayan mountains in Sikkim

The next thing I realised is Buddha shaking my shoulders from the back seat. Apparently, the camera fell off my hands, and Akshatha asked me to be careful. She had spotted the first herd of Barking deer and was excited. I hadn’t reacted when she excitedly screamed. She says she thought I wasn’t keen on seeing wildlife and she had asked me to hand over the camera to her – I know nothing of what had happened in the past 15 minutes. I had slept while travelling on one of the most beautiful roads in the world. That is super unusual of me. I never sleep when the journey is captivating like this. I don’t even know when I slept.

So Akshatha took charge of the camera and captured a few moments from then onwards.

A small hut by the roadside river amidst snow

Buddha says he shook me up again after a few minutes and asked me not to sleep. I had pain between my eyebrows to the nostrils. It felt as if someone was stretching the nerves and muscles inside my nose. When I told this to Buddha, he asked me to drink water and not sleep. I kept my eyes open, rubbing my face often, saying I was “Chosen” to go to Gurudongmar. I thought, Buddha wanted me to enjoy the journey, so he was keeping me awake.

Hearing a voice saying -Sahana Sleep It is ok

Maybe it was an hour after we left the guest house. I felt floating as if this entire stretch of the cold desert with yaks grazing was made only for me. I had never felt this elated in an ethereal space. Buddha talked to me in a dusky tone, saying, “Sahana, sleep. I won’t let anything happen to you. I will wake you up when we reach the lake.”

Suddenly, I felt a jerk in my stomach. Buddha was louder this time, pushing my shoulders hard and almost shouting, “Sahana, wake up. I won’t let you sleep; you aren’t supposed to sleep when you have a headache at a higher altitude”. I wondered what was wrong with him! A few minutes ago, he talked to me in a voice as nice as Amitabh Bachhan’s, asking me to sleep. Now he was shouting at me because I slept.?

When I opened my mouth to utter, “Are you mad? Why are you showing me dual behaviour” a yellow liquid oozed out of my mouth. Immediately, Buddha got off the car and helped me get off.

Big herd of black fur yak  grazing in the brown cold desert of North Sikkim

Wow, what a sight it was – the snow mountains were just 100m away. If I run on that cold brown desert in the shimmering sun for 10 minutes, I could be at the bottom of the mountain I felt when that yellow liquid flowed down.

But Buddha was in no mood for running in the cold brown dessert.

Fanatically, Akshatha was wiping my neck, mouth and jacket with a waist cloth. Buddha was patting my back, asking me to drink water. He gave me a piece of ginger and asked me to chew it. The driver and Buddha spoke in their language worriedly while Akshatha stood in shock, helping me.

They were all behaving silly. I wondered why they were frightened about the saliva that came out of my mouth. Buddha made me sit in the car after I stopped rubbing my face, he says. The journey continued with Akshatha sitting in the front seat. I shifted to the back seat with Buddha holding my shoulders and kept talking to me in a high pitched tone. Then I wondered what happened to Buddha’s bass voice like White Buffalo’s that I had heard a few minutes ago.

The Yaks of Sikkim & my never-ending Thoughts

I looked at yaks again and wondered what they eat in the cold and dry desert and wondered if people eat yak meat. How would a coat made of yak fur feel like – I remember thinking this. I even asked Buddha if I could get a jacket made of Yak wool done in a non-violent way.

When I asked this, a green liquid came out of my mouth. They pulled over the car again. I realised it wasn’t saliva anymore – algae green-coloured slimy liquid poured out of my mouth involuntarily. I didn’t bother about it because all I wanted was to walk to the lake because walking on the road in the cold desert looks like a road to heaven.

Black fur yaks of SIkkim with barren brown mountains and snow

Puking continues

While they convinced me to stop talking and drink water, I saw my hand gloves stained with my puke. It was my brother’s wife’s H&M woollen gloves. She loves that, and I borrowed it because I liked it too. I wanted to clean it then and there. So I began to look for something to clean it right then in that no man’s land.

Buddha pulled me back, asking me if I wanted to go back. I was still rubbing my face restlessly and got angry when he asked so. Why would I go back, give me something to clean it, I shouted. So the driver vroomed as fast as possible to make it to the last check post where there is a cafe guarded by the Indian military.

The last check-post arrived. Ashrith had told me that we would make it to the lake if we crossed that post. I puked green as soon as I got off the car. One of the army men held my hand to take me inside a cabin with a bonfire. The fire made me feel a lot better, and he gave me a big cup of tea with biscuits. I forgot the world again and settles there, unaware of the time.

Asphalt road in the middle of Himalayan snow caped mountains in Sikkim

I vaguely remember a conversation between my people and army personnel.

But I clearly remember saying, “I am 100% ok. And I puked because I have acidity problems, and I want to go ahead.” We were instructed to come back if at all I puke again. So without wasting time, we galloped.

Someone spoke to me yet again

Buddha began to speak again in that slow bass voice, Don’t worry, Sahana. I am there to protect you. I am taking you to the lake for you to pray. This is the road to heaven. We will reach it in a few minutes, you sleepA shake on the shoulder, Buddha’s shout interrupted the voice. I asked Buddha, ” Why are you changing your voice often. Why do you ask me to sleep for a while and wake me up shakingly the next minute? I like the other voice of yours.”

By the time I finished my sentence – the thick green liquid with lumps had come out of my mouth again; I had puked in the car this time. The driver drove faster than ever over an uphill road and pulled over – There, I met heaven.

Small temple with Buddhist flags waving in the middle of the desert near lake

I saw triangular flags and a tiny building.

Further down, I saw the valley covered with rustic silver foil. Apparently, there were people, but I couldn’t see anyone except Buddha. Under the vast sky, I sat and watched the mountains covered in snow. A part of the unfrozen lake was glittering as if it was glad to have me there. I held Buddha’s friend and burst into tears. Cryingly I said, ” I never thought I would see this.” I don’t know why I cried. But it was one of the most emotional moments of my life.

Part of frozen lake unfrozen at Gurudonmar

Why Gurudongmar Lake is not frozen?

The lake is considered sacred by Buddhists, Sikhs and Hindus. It is named after Guru Rinpoche—founder of Tibetan Buddhism. A part of the lake remains unfrozen at subzero temperature. Buddhists believe that it is so because a monk took a dip at this part of the lake and blessed it as the source of drinking water for nearby villages. While Sikhs believe that Guru Nanak broke the upper layer of ice with his stick(Dang) and said, “The water of this lake will never freeze again. Whoever takes the water of this lake will gain virility and strength.”

The emotional breakdown

With all these facts/stories known to me before and Ashrith’s story of how divine he felt there, I was sure that it was at a holy place. I had loving parents and a boyfriend. I was travelling and working the way I wanted to. Except for a few problems that any human would have in his life, I was a happy person.

At that moment on the lake bank, I remembered my dog Kareena who had crossed the rainbow bridge a few months ago. I recalled how I struggled with my psycho ex-boyfriend. All those architecture teachers who insulted/tortured me for no reason came to my mind. I cried for that 5th sem housing project where I failed though I had worked hard to produce decent work.- This was the first time I had ever done something like this, I cried, outpouring all my worries. I felt light and elevated and continued sobbing while sitting on the lake bank.

Magical Gurudongmar lake surroudned by short peak Himalayan mountains

Apparently, Akshatha and Buddha walked down to the lake to fetch water in a bottle, which stays on my shelf even today. They say I sat like a stone – with no movements.

I don’t remember anything other than waking up at Thangu valley to puke again later. This time it was plain water. Buddha said it is 30 minutes since we left the lake to descend. I was shocked to know how I came here from the lake. I wanted to be at the lake for longer; I was upset that we left without me knowing. After I had a cup of ginger-garlic soup at a small place, my headache reduced, and I was awake throughout but tired.

Troubling my fellow travellers continued

Buddha and Akshatha weren’t enjoying themselves; they both were staring at me cautiously until we reached Chopta valley as if I were a scoop of ice cream melting off the cone. I woke up there completely and said, I am tired – This time without rubbing my face. I got off the car, and moved around slowly, asking Buddha if I felt weird about the last two hours.

We came back, I took a rest and started to Yumthang late in the afternoon. Then Buddha told me some shocking facts about what happened in the 3 hours and how I was about to reach the Coma stage.

What really happened?

Chopta valley surrounded by Himalayan mountains and small houses

With Mountain sickness, I lost my appetite and couldn’t eat anything the previous night.

None of us was aware of my mountain sickness condition. I had to take ascending slowly. So we made the mistake of ascending the next day immediately.

According to locals, popcorn and ginger help you fight altitude mountain sickness. Unfortunately, nothing was available on that particular day. 

The headache and sleeping were the earliest signs of HIGH ALTITUDE CEREBRAL EDEMA (HACE)

Buddha, the driver and Akshatha spoke to army men, and they were ordered to take me back to Lachen because my situation was critical. They even asked if they should arrange a treatment room in their camp.

When Indian army personnel asked me to go back, apparently I cried and begged him, saying that seeing Gurudongmar as my dream is my life’s purpose ( LOL, definitely it was one of my billion dreams, but it wasn’t the purpose of my life). He had scolded me very badly and even had told me I would die if I continued.

I was stubborn going to the lake and forced everyone to take me though everyone wanted to go back, creating a ruckus scene there!

It wasn’t Buddha who spoke in a nice bass voice asking me to sleep – I was Hallucinating

Pur guide Buddha celebrating our reaching at Gurudongmar lake

That is Buddha

Buddha told me that I wasn’t alone at the lake, there were 50 more other tourists! I was hallucinating so much that I could see only him. I sat there with eyes open, staring at the lake with half-consciousness. When Akshatha came to ask me if I was ok sitting alone, apparently I told her, ” Don’t worry about me. The person next to me will protect me. He knows how to cure my vomiting and headache. Go get lake water for him. “I don’t remember saying that at all!

The green puke is the last stage before oxygen shortage reaches the last critical stage.

I felt I could reach the mountain that was 100m away. In fact, it was almost 500m away. I told everyone there that I wanted to run. Still, someone was pulling me from behind – Because I was developing SYMPTOMS OF HACE -vomiting, unsteadiness, confusion.

My Hallucinations made me speak a lot

Apparently, I invited Buddha and the driver to my wedding on the way back, which was undecided then. I even told Akshatha that I was leaving for Milan to buy a Prada bag and a nice collar for my son(dog) Bhairava from there. – I don’t have that kind of money to buy a Prada bag, and I wonder if Prada makes dog collars. Plus, I had to go back to the office 10 days later, not Milan. I don’t even use leather.

I used half-chewed ginger to clean that H&M gloves saying, “Suchetha will feel bad, ginger removes stains” They all encouraged me to keep talking so that I didn’t fall asleep.

Moral of the story of my Gurudongmar Voyage

I was lucky to come back alive – As per data, “Death rates from altitude sickness above 7,000m are estimated at 4 per cent of all people who venture that high.”

Akshatha, in front of Gurudong mar lake

Altitude sensitivity varies from person to person. I assumed Akshatha to be weaker and fall sick. But I was the one who fell sick.

I should have gained altitude slowly, taking small halts for better acclimatisation.

If I had come back from the last checkpoint because army personnel asked, there would have been a scar on my heart for not achieving my dream. But it was a risk I took when I wasn’t in my complete consciousness.

As per the Hindu religion, we believe that Lord Shiva resides in the Himalayan mountains (Mt Kailash), and I believe in it. For me, the voice that I heard was from Lord Shiva, and he is the one who saved me. Probably I felt the holiness and felt his presence at the lake – That is why I must have cried.

I believe Sikkim’s Gurudongmar lake has a lot of positive energy. It makes you feel better with its ethereal energy.

The frozen lake of Gurudongmar surrouned by snow mountains of Sikkim

Without Buddha helping me out and Akshatha bearing with me, I wouldn’t have come back in good shape.

I am now careful and know that my limit is 14000ft altitude. In 2017 June, I went to Kedarnath(12000ft) two months after visiting Gurudongmar. I knew my weakness, so I took the acclimatisation protocol seriously- My health was perfect.

Want to say something about my “Over-Adventurism” in Sikkim? Let us in the comment section below.

Published by Sahana Kulur

Traveller | Blogger | Architecture and history

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