Literally, the last frontier for civilian vehicles, the Zero Point, Yumthang in North Sikkim, just 15 km from the China border, is your chance to see and touch remnants of the winter snow, in the month of June. The area is barren but the treacherous journey is picturesque, the eternal romance of the mountains and clouds changing colors and tactics on alpine slopes. Sometimes you can see the blush of pink mountain flowers, many times the rugged energy of a river breaking down the mountain, rock by rock, stone by stone!
Tourists follow the serpentine rugged roads to reach the cold altitude of 15000 feet. They stand in awe at what is the edge of a certain part of the country and they cross a rickety plank bridge to touch the crumbling snow. In winter months, travelers engage in snow ball fights in rented gear!
Photo highlight – Freezing temperature and the husband carrying snow across the plank bridge, in his hands so that the children could hold it!
Two sisters, now married in different households have set up a shanty selling Maggie, momos, spring rolls, tea, coffee and of course popcorn. They start from Lachung every summer morning at 5:00 a.m. and set up shop. When the last of the tourist vehicles are returning at around 2:00 pm they request for a lift back into town. If the cab has space and the tourists agree, they are accomodated. What if there is no space? They hitch a ride on the luggage carrier at the top of the vehicle, I was told by our driver. I didn’t want to believe him.
Our vehicle was the last to pull out of Zero Point that day and we happily accomodated the sisters. They softly gossiped nonstop all through the journey and shared the last of their wares, including yak milk pedas! We dropped them right at their respective doorsteps. I asked them what they do in winters. They said we stay at home. I can imagine them stoking fire and knitting woolies waiting for summers when they can ride 4 hours and more every day to save money for when they are snowed in!
Cliff-hanger! Earlier in the day, enroute to Zero Point, we were late and tourist vehicles had started descending the narrow mountain road. An army convoy was also going uphill, like us. They requested us to park and allow the downhill vehicles right of passage. We waited, giddy with excitement and trepidation, watching the dangerously snaky road on one side and the beatific river Teesta on the other.
The men in uniform are far away from home safeguarding a barren frontier. They move to and from the base camp to provide facilities and change of guard at Zero Point. Living amidst yaks and a few locals with just the brotherhood and the borders, you wonder at their motivation. Far from civilization, in extreme weather conditions, no connectivity, living each day in disciplined rhythm, probably the soldiers also wait for the colourful, boisterous tourists to arrive at their sentinel!
Zero Point carries the mark of human presence – beer and liquor bottles, Maggie and biscuit wrappers. Litter that sparkles under the sun as a stark reminder of pettiness of our human selves. As a conscientious being, I stand there, amidst smiling selfies and photo ops, wondering why we need so much of policing in our lives! Why do we make perilous journeys to the mountains only to make the delicate balance of nature tilt precariously towards destruction?