The Silk Route was an arterial trade route between India and China and the rest of the world from as far behind as even the 2nd Century BC. It in fact spread across Asia and the mediterranean stretching from China all the way through India, Middle east and as far as Greece and Turkey measuring close to 6,500 km. It earned the name primarily because of the heavy movement of Silk from China all across to Europe and beyond. A part of this route passes through the Nathula Pass in Sikkim and I had spent a few days along the route photographing some of the Himalayan Birds.
Nestled at an altitude of about 10,000 feet above MSL, there is a small village called Zuluk in India’s North eastern state, Sikkim. The village is situated on the Silk route enroute to the Nathula Pass from Bagdogra. The scenic beauty of the valley around the village is amazing. I was there in April and so the weather wasn’t too cold. Just about 6 degrees C. After a 7 hour drive from Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary including a stop at the police station for obtaining our interline permit and lunch, we arrived in Zuluk at around 4 pm and the sun was just about setting. When there was day light itself, we reached the homestay and were shown our rooms. Basic as basic can be, the roof of the tinned building was no more than 5 and a half feet and I being 6′ 1″, couldn’t stand straight. I had to bend all the time I was inside the room. It was getting colder as each hour passed. It went from just a sweater to adding on a wind cheater and then another jacket over. It was okay and room’s insulation was not the best. i unfortunately lost the photos of the room which I took on my mobile phone.
Well, in such a remote corner of the Himalayas, getting a roof over our head with running water in the toilet itself was a big comfort I would say. It was dinner time when my Guide and good friend Chewang Bonpo had arranged for some Momos. I am a big fan of Momos and these hot momos in the cold weather with the spicy chilli chutney was just what I needed. No trip for me to the hills would be complete without Momos, bread omelettes and Maggi for sure! And then dinner was served, rice, dhal, some local cheese and weed like spinach, pretty much the same food you’d get in these regions. Boiled Eggs of course to accompany our meal. The excitement was building as Chewang spoke about his previous trip and the amazing birds they had seen. This was my first trip to the Eastern Himalayas and it was my first trip as well after I had bought the 600mm lens. As I came out of the dining area, it was cold, insanely cold and the sleeping bag was just what I needed. Got to the room and retired.
Alarms ringing at 5 am, the challenge was getting out of the sleeping bag now and getting ready in the cold. The temperature surely was way below freezing and the entire valley below was dark when we left the homestay. Our primary target for the morning was to get the Himalayan Monal. 7 years ago in 2013, the Himalayan Monal wasn’t a common sight like what it is today.
Chewang and our driver had a plan for the morning to head higher in altitude and reach a certain place before sunrise and wait there. We reached and our guide heard the call of the Monal. He is a master at finding birds with just hearing their call. Started scanning the slopes on one side of the road and the valley on the opposite side. The forest floor was blanketed in snow and I stood in disbelief with my camera on a tripod wondering whether I would see the Monal, or not. The forests around the Pangkolaka Wildlife Sanctuary were dry and all the trees had shed their leaves as it was just the end of winter. Visibility of course was a bit more and Chewang caught sight of the Monal. I saw it too and that excitement overwhelmed me.
In a moment, the bird was gone and I saw it fly down the valley and out of sight. But didn’t stop looking. “The individual we saw was a female calling. So for sure, there would be its mate” whispered Chewang. A couple of more minutes passed and I see Chewang at curve on the road, frantically waiving at me. I ran with my camera on the tripod; the entire setup weighs close 12 kg and doing that at 12000 feet above MSL isn’t easy due to the low oxygen levels. As I got closer, I saw I’m looking up on the slope and the Monal was walking towards us. I had a few seconds before it came into the open to put my tripod down, quickly check my camera settings and then find it in the lens. Still panting, I just locked the Gimbal head and fired 7 frames, before he too flew down the valley following his mate.
It was a moment of adrenaline rush and took a while to recover from all the excitement. We decided to slowly head back to the homestay for breakfast, still looking for birds along the way. When we thought that our morning session was nearing an end, my guide again jumped out of the car with excitement and ran towards a bush behind. All he told me was, get your camera, FAST! And in the bushes, I see a small fidgety bird hoping around on the branches. It was a Fire-tailed Myzornis, another first time bird for me. It was a lifer indeed. They look big on photos, but they’re really small. Measuring about 9-12 cm from beak tip to tail tip and weighing between 12-15g, its really small. This Himalayan beauty isn’t an easy find and if not for my guide’s keen eyes, there was no way I could have photographed it.
Left: Our driver, Rickzing Bhutia – Centre: Yours truly – Right Chewang Bonpo
My guide, driver and myself standing on the silk route enroute to Gangtok after all the action in the hills. Photo was taken by my dad Ramnarayanan who also travelled along that year. Even during mid day, it was cold up there and a couple of layers over our clothes were essential to keep warm. Both these gentlemen you see in the photo were phenomenal in their services and they made sure our stay and travel was as comfortable as possible and also we returned with good memories and images of birds.
As we continued higher towards the Nathula Pass along the Indo-china Border, there was more and more snow cover that we came across. Many areas had restrictions of photography due to military safety concerns. This lake was pretty close to the China border and due its highly sensitive and strategic location, there are several reasons to why photography is restricted in most parts. The evening of our Monal sighting rained out and it was a storm, a hailstorm and the temperatures plummeted further. The next morning we started leisurely after breakfast and continued to Gangtok, the 100 km journey took us 8 hours. Traffic jams, military checkpoints and me making multiple pitstops to photograph the stunning landscape and birds probably delayed us by 2-3 hours. Reaching a hotel in Gangtok and being able to relax on the couch was indeed much needed. Sikkim, you’ll be missed until I return soon after the current situation improves.
Author: Gaurav Ramnarayanan