Warning: Cigarette smoking is injurious to health, especially if you want to climb many a mountain in your life.
Cigarettes while hiking are a strict ‘no no’; but tell that to the average Bengali smoker and see him hike away from you to the next mountain paying minimum heed.
We had halted at Jorethang market on our way to Yuksom for the popular Goecha La trek when fellow ‘Bengali’ trekker Shilajit remarked, “Its a shame that we cant smoke a cigarette here amidst such beauty”. Public smoking in Sikkim is banned but you can still sneak a few puffs in, carefully tapping it and showing your painful regard for the rules. We had decided not to bend the rules.
12 days later it was already 3 days that my fellow trek mates had left me at Yuksom waiting for another batch of trekkers who wanted to do the same trail.
I am staying in Mangtabung, a small village about an hour away from Yuksom in birdwatching pace. Steep downhill from this place in another direction one meets the Tashiding road about 3 kms away from Yuksom. Lush Himalayan forests throng with bird calls and it has been a pleasant stay so far with the nice and humble Chhetri family who have taken this complete stranger into their home.
So, when Bhagirath told me that I had to hike down only 5 mins to get cigarettes as I had run out of stock, I took his word for it. I was about to put on my shoes as they were really itching to hit some trail when he told me that it’s not required. The distance, supposedly, was really short. I started in my oversized slippers.
It was a vertical plunge for about 15 mins. The first sight of tar road finally reassured that my lungs would, in a short while renew the process of tarring that has been going on for the last 11 years. Such is the irony in the smokers way of life that I could finally breathe.
Hitting the road I could see no shops in the vicinity. I started looking in every direction and spotted a good old farmer at quite a distance. I screamed in broken Hindi “Dukaan Dukaan” while hand signalling the sign of smoking and he told me to go to my right on the road.
Grey Treepies and Black Bulbuls were calling out their dusk tunes in their harsh and broken voices like a child taking forced music lessons in the evening against it’s will. The road twisted and turned and the good self in me thought about the harsh mountain life in the village where one had to walk such a distance to get a glimpse of a shop. My eyes were constantly in search of Red, blue, yellow and green packets hanging on the sides of a shop, packaged potato chips, more or less a symbol of a grocery shop in India.
None whatsoever. A car came from behind. I wanted to stop it to enquire about this shop which had seemed to vanish. It seemed like a VIP vehicle as it had that blue light thing on the top of it and was followed by a police vehicle. Curious pairs of eyes flashed past me without stopping to take questions.
I remembered that I did not have a torch as the sun started playing magic tricks on the scattered clouds overhead. A milestone said Yuksom was 2 kms ahead. Reassuring myself with that one known entity (Yuksom) in this lonely world, I walked on. The light of hope started fading slowly in sync with the daylight.
Now I was sure that the next shop was not before Yuksom. I was also sure that someone of Bhagirath or the good old farmer was the culprit. In my haste to catch up with the sinking sun I caught up with one local walker, a very rare event in the short years I have been walking on the mountains. He confirmed my fears that the next cigarette shop was in Yuksom.
I was stuck between a mountain and a dark place with both of them closing in on me with the sinking sun. Going back would mean walking for about 2 kms and then hiking up that vertical plunge without the oxygen supplies from the shop, the sole purpose of my journey. Going ahead would mean reaching Yuksom by sunset and walking to Mangtabung, though I could not afford the birdwatchers pace now.
2 days back a snake had lingered into Norling restaurant at Yuksom and that thought lingered into my mind as smoothly.
A Sikkim government board welcomed me to Yuksom, the first capital of the state established in 1641 AD by 3 monks who had set out on a journey together. The first shop was tactically placed just beside the welcome board. The local Nepali cigarette brand “Sahara” was of no ‘support’ whatsoever.
The trail to Mangtabung started from near the Yuksom market which was still a km away. I took the “chor bato”, the shortcut as directed by the shopkeeper and huffed and puffed my way up to the Yuksom Secondary School as the sun died out completely. A few students were still out on the football field with a British gentleman watching on from a distance. I made haste.
I bought a pack of Wills Flake from the market and hit the Mangtabung trail. It was getting dark. I thought that my recent experience of coming down from Thansing to Kokchurung in pitch darkness and through thick forests would come in handy. Instead, I found a partner. An elderly gentleman was also headed towards Mangtabung.
I felt safe. I tried talking to him but he started getting ahead, a lot ahead. He seemed to walk and I seemed to run but funnily he was getting ahead, such is the mountains partial nature towards its own inhabitants. To add further salt to my wound, I met Sanjay who was on his way towards Yuksom. He was going to be the local guide for the next batch of trekkers and I lost precious seconds in the process. I ran again and took a few turns to find this man again. He had also stopped for a chat with someone he had met on the way.
The two times I had walked the route during the day, I had always located the village by sight and found my way to it. Sight however was very restricted now with the brightest of the stars coming up in the sky at days end. The houses with roofs were all lightbulbs now, glowing like fireflies stuck in dark mountains just like the popular myth of a Baya weavers nest. These intelligent birds seemingly stick live fireflies in cow-dung in their tailored apartments, for lighting arrangements.
Subhas Rai was my newest trek mate. He corrected me in all the wrong turns I took and finally at a diversion we parted. I knew this diversion. He went to upper Mangtabung while I took the lower trail. We shared goodbyes and his was a smiling face though I would never know how he looks, thanks to the darkness.
It was still a 10 mins walk still but my nerves had calmed a bit. The moon was the second thinnest ever, it was atl its thinnest just the day before.
The faint tickling of grasses on my feet brought back the lingering thought of the slithering beasts of death but I avoided it one step at a time. Twenty steps away from my room I halted and looked around the beautiful view. The city of Pelling was shining bright and the fireflies had grown in number; so had the stars. A dark patch of cloud slid over the moon slice and I started to move. Two steps later i put the right foot forward, or should I say the “wrong foot forward”. As if the Himalayas with the thousands of noses it points skywards had to prove again that it gets better of a petty human like me, it had to bruise my right toe less than two days before the start of another 6 day trek up to it’s greater reaches.
The smell of Dettol in the room stands proof of its might as of now, till morning comes when the sunlight would lift the curtain and reveal these giants again in all their beauty and ruthless glory. In all of this I missed the chance to have a peaceful smoke. I am going to have it now.