Blogging after ages for a reason... Read on to know why.
This year we decided to go to Sikkim for our annual vacation. We saw the Himalayas standing tall and mighty, visited the colourful monasteries, relished local food, experienced numbness and pain at -24°C, travelled 100 plus km and went 17800 feet high to see the mystical Gurudongmar lake only to be blocked by snow for the last 600 metres, was mesmerised by the monotone grey and white yet brilliant Yumthang valley, sang SRK songs and posed at Zero Point - the last Indian bunker which is 7 km from China with fellow SRK fans (oh yeah, you find them everywhere 😃), made snow man and did many many more touristy things.
But well, this post is not about all these. This is a first hand account of a survivor from the snow fall that was in the news on Saturday, the 29th of December 2018.
We went on a day trip to Tsomgo/Changu lake and Nathu La (India-China border) on Friday (28th December) and were expected to be back in Gangtok by 5 pm. For the uninitiated, permits to visit this place are given only a day in advance based on weather among other things. Usually, 10 tourists go in a sturdy vehicle on a shared basis. On Friday, the weather was pleasant and we enjoyed the scenic journey. The plan was to visit Nathu La first and then come back to Changu lake. We had just passed by Changu lake when we heard of an accident to an army vehicle near Nathu La. Hence, vehicular movement was restricted and we were stuck in between vehicles.
To provide some perspective, we were at around 12,000 feet above sea level, the roads were slippery and narrow in the snow clad mountains, and the temperature was sub-zero. We started our decent down and stopped a little short of Changu lake to have some hot delicious food when it started snowing. This was the first time I was witnessing snow fall and was thoroughly enjoying it. However, in no time the size, intensity and nature of the snow fall changed drastically. The road was soon covered by a thick sheet of snow. Vehicles were jammed one behind the other, all trying to move out. We then we got the information that an accident had occurred down-hill. The snow makes the road slippery even for vehicles and was the reason for the accident. At 4 pm, we were given instructions to leave the vehicle and start walking. We were told to walk for around 5 km after which an army vehicle would transport us back to Gangtok.
We started walking and soon realised that apart from the cold weather, our major hurdle was the shoes we had as they were not equipped for trekking in snow. People slipped randomly and kept falling. Holding hands was not the best idea, as the other person would fall too in case you slipped. After around 4 km and 6 falls later (my count alone), at 5 pm it started getting darker and colder. There was no army or their vehicle in sight. Thousands of us continued to walk as that was the only way to keep ourselves warm. We came across vehicles in the middle of road, haphazardly parked, all indicating the hurry at which the vehicles were abandoned.
|Tourists walking down in the fading light|
|Vehicles abandoned mid-way|
I had by now lost count of the number of times I had slipped and fallen (15 times at least). One wrong slip and we would have been permanent residents of the deep gorge. Although, I really wished I could just ski down to the army base camp which was still not in sight. NJ held on to me steadily preventing me from falling multiple times. I admired the parents with kids on their back. I admired the kids who walked without complaining. I admired the elderly couples who persuaded each other. I admired each one who got up despite bad falls and continued walking. Amidst all this, it was hard to ignore the beauty of the valley. The clouds had disappeared, revealing the lovely dark blue sky with the stars shining brightly. A sight that we have grown up to but no longer see in the cities back home. So clear was the sky that it left us wondering if there was really a snow storm couple of hours ago. I wanted to stop by and admire for much longer, but I literally had miles to go before I sleep.
En route the last stretch of a kilometre or so, the elderly and women with young children were taken into smaller army buildings and others were asked to proceed further. Finally, 3 hours later and 10 km from where we started walking we finally reached the army camp, named 236 Transit Camp. The women were separated from the men and so, I was on my own. This reminded me of the scenes from the movie Titanic. The 500 odd soldiers had given up their dormitories with bunk beds for the women folk, while the huge gun repair workshop was converted into a shelter for the men folk who were provided sleeping bags.
|Women and children slept in dormitories with bunk beds. |
Image sourced from NDTV
|Men's sleeping arrangement. |
Image sourced from NDTV
Meanwhile, I tried searching for NJ, but in vain. Was he fine? No idea. Should I announce his name on the microphone? No, there were others who were missing. I at least know he is in the camp. To distract myself, I helped a woman who was having breathlessness and helped another woman find her child. I came back from dinner to see the bed now occupied by 7 people. I had just enough place to sit and stretch my legs. More people poured in. They kept coming in till 11 pm, as and when they were rescued. I tried getting some sleep, but couldn't. Would I survive the night? It was freezing cold at -12°C. Would NJ be okay? Would we be able to get our flight that was scheduled tomorrow? Will my parents be worried since my phone was not reachable? Could I have a blanket? There were none available. The army had given us everything that they had and I saw that the elderly and children needed the blankets more than me. I don't know if the army men ate that night. I definitely know they did not sleep. They did not sleep for us.
It was a restless night, but I woke up to see the light of the next day. I waited by the window to see any traces of NJ. And finally I did see him 12 hours later, shivering in cold. He slept in a metal hall (the gun repair workshop) sharing a sleeping bag meant for one. Scenes around me were filled with missing ones being found and hugged. The women I helped the previous night came searching for me and offered their thanks. Everyone seemed much more optimistic. It had begun to look like a happy ending. We stood in queue for breakfast and tea. This time the army was better prepared to serve the crowd as they now had disposable plates. Still, we ran out of disposable plates too. Civilians finally resorted to having the puri with pickle in hands. Few started feeling uneasy and were promptly looked after at a make-shift medical centre at the army camp.
The sun showed up and the snow had finally started melting, but there was still no army clearance to drive on the road. We managed to get a soldier's BSNL phone (obviously the Vodafones and Airtels did not have any signal) to call home and the airlines to postpone the ticket. The army then announced that their vehicle would go first to check if the road was clear. If the road was clear for vehicles, we would be dropped off 10 km from the army camp after which other vehicles would take us to Gangtok. Priority would be given to elderly and families with children. Bachelors and couples were allowed to walk with army guidance only if they were physically fit. We decided to walk the 10 km than wait. We stood in the queue, got our names written and at 11 am, we started walking in the second batch.
Melting snow meant more slippery roads and so we walked at even slower pace. It was easier to walk uphill than downhill, as there were lesser chances of slipping. Thankfully, the sun was up, bright and shining and hence, patches of road were cleared off the ice. After walking couple of miles, a vehicle stopped to pick us up. The driver, like other drivers had spent his night near Changu lake. He said the other vehicles had frozen and hence would take time to move. He had kept his vehicle's engine on throughout the night and so could start the vehicle in the morning. He said they burnt the spare tyres they had to keep themselves warm. He dropped us off at a police check post after which he returned to the army camp to pick up more people. The police arranged for us to get into local cabs to reach Gangtok. Buses were deployed by Sikkim government to pick the rest of us from the police check post.
The entire evacuation was organised and handled so well. I cannot put in words how fantastic the army was, for they gave the words sacrifice and commitment a whole new meaning. However, it would be unfair if I did not mention the unsung heroes - the Border Road Organisation (BRO), the cab drivers, the local people who cleared the snow with spades, the Sikkim government and police. An estimated 569 vehicles were stranded in the snow and 4199 civilians were evacuated in this operation.
|The route we took on Day 1 of the ordeal. 17 minutes by vehicle but it took us 3 hours to reach by foot - thanks to snow, slippery surfaces, and darkness.|
|The least way we could express our gratitude to the Indian army was by writing 'thank you' messages.|
Over and out.