Back at my desk in Montana, I stare at the Rocky Mountains and try to remember the rooftop of the world. It seems like a dream to me now. All the waterfalls, roadside monkeys, misty valleys, rhododendron forests, and faces that felt familiar even though they belonged to strangers. I see them in my mind’s eye, but it’s like someone rubbed Vaseline on the lens. Sikkim seemed like a dream even while I was there.
On the last day of our epic Indian journey, we set out early for Yumthang Valley. We were banking on the fog to lift soon, and Nidup and Dustin met us at the hotel with Old Reliable and its bald tires.
“We’ll have another car following us,” said Nidup. “There’s a woman who can’t get a permit because she is alone. She will follow us for a little while, OK?”
A Restricted Area Permit (which one must obtain in addition to an Inner Line Permit) requires visitors this close to the Chinese border to travel in groups of no fewer than three. Maybe that makes it harder to slip across the border unnoticed. The reasoning wasn’t explained.
Through the shifting mist I saw a vehicle waiting for ours to take the lead. A tall woman in a black tank top and a blonde topknot sat alone in the backseat. I couldn’t imagine coming here by myself as a female. It seemed heedless, considering the news stories I’d read of women being raped in the country. Still, I admired her moxie and wondered if she might be a journalist, or maybe Elizabeth Gilbert working on a sequel to Eat, Pray, Love.
Our convoy of two drove slowly past large hutlike structures. Just beyond them bright-colored garments made a feeble attempt at drying on clotheslines while cows and chickens wandered through them. If it weren’t for all the cargo trucks and uniforms, we might have been in a typical Himalayan village. But this was an army base. Mountain warfare soldiers, trained to defend their country in areas that even pack animals can’t reach, milled about the grounds. Some looked like Che Guevara with their woolen caps tipped to one side. Others wore turbans and twisty mustaches. But most of these locally recruited “sons of the soil” looked clean-cut. Standard issue. And serious. Always very serious. “No pictures here,” Nidup warned.
Past the base, the unpaved road became no road at all as we negotiated an enormous rock slide that had crashed across the path during the deadly earthquake in Nepal seven months earlier. The incline turned steep, and our wheels struggled for purchase on the loose rocks. Above the low-lying fog, the landscape took on a lunar quality, with nothing but gray boulders, some larger than our ride, strewn in riverbed formation across a quarter mile of the old roadbed. We traced a small clearing through the rubble and stopped only for high-altitude cows (aka, yaks) blocking the way.
When we finally arrived in Yumthang Valley (elev. 11,693 feet), my illusions of being an intrepid traveler vanished when I saw a busload of tourists. “For crying out loud,” I muttered. “Is there any place left on this planet to feel like a true explorer?” I don’t know where I got this greediness about sharing far-flung destinations with other people. Maybe it’s all those glossy magazine ads and commercials that paint you into their pictures like you’re the only one tracking down the Great Outdoors.
But never mind. It’s hard to stay grumpy when you’re on the set of the Sound of Music. Before us an enormous valley of rhododendrons had opened up to a ring of mountain peaks clearing 25,000 feet. Their snowy caps gently melted into waterfalls and bourns that gathered into a tributary of the roaring Teesta River below.
Wind-shredded prayer flags snapped at my face as we bobbed on foot to the middle of a suspension bridge. Blue, green, yellow, white, or red, each flag contained careful inscriptions of Buddhist prayers, mantras, and symbols for the wind to activate, sending goodwill and compassion through the air like dandelion heads on a breezy day. I found myself singing, “good, good, good … good vibrations.”
The familiar smell of campfire drew my attention to the small stone structures dotting the valley. The scrap-metal roofs of these one-room bunkhouses looked ready to blow away with the next blizzard. But the Dopka, Sikkim’s nomadic yak herders, still use them when they bring their animals to the highland pastures in the summertime (a form of yaylag pastoralism that dates back to biblical times). For centuries this tribe has crisscrossed the Tibetan Plateau and traversed the cold deserts of the Himalayas at elevations up to 18,000 feet. But their way of life is dying.
Tight border restrictions between here and Chinese-occupied Tibet have made it nearly impossible for herders to cross freely and breed their yaks with the fresh genes of Tibet’s wild ones. The same goes for the herdsmen. Wives traditionally were found in Tibet, where the womenfolk are hardy and willing to raise a family in perpetual subzero temperatures, even waking at one a.m. to milk the dris. (Real women who don’t need the inspiration of a magazine ad to feel intrepid.)
At one time the tribe, which now comprises just twenty-four families, had this valley to themselves when they stayed here. Nowadays, adventure-seekers and the curious seep in, bus by bus, car by car. Just like here in Montana’s North Fork Valley (also experiencing the tourist creep and stoking my stinginess), the outside world is making its way in. With so many people now able to cover every square inch of the planet, where’s the nomad, real or self-imagined, to go?
Although the peaks of the Great Himalayan Range are twice as tall as the Rockies, both mountain systems offer uncommon encounters with Mother Nature. The kind you dream about while flipping through National Geographic Travel or binging on the Nature Channel. And while Old Mom is nurturing in many ways, when you see her wild and free like this, you get the feeling she’s into tough love and coddles none of her visitors, whether they’re passing through on a bus or a yak.
Nevertheless, the prayer flags flap. And I can feel it. I’m picking up good vibrations. She’s sending me excitations.