West Sikkim Trek
This blog concerns a memorable trekking expedition that 7 of us university students planned out and undertook in the spring of 2012. Life is short as the ancients of old have often reminded us. We recognize that we will most likely never be able to do this together and so this blog is meant to be a repository of our experiences. Yes – text and images are a poor substitute to the power of memories in one’s mind but as those memories fade, we can always turn in here to refresh and re-live in some way, the moments and sights and sounds, the camaraderie and discussions around the fires, that we experienced in this short span of 6-7 days. It was to turn out to be a most delightful experience, one that we highly recommend you to take. It’s an opportunity to get out of the routine and experience something of the wealth of nature, to spend time exploring your self and to meditate on deeper answers to life’s greatest questions. It’s an opportunity to unwind and explore – to follow an instinct that has always been in the heart of man – to explore and seek out the unknown.
We hope that you will like what you find in here. We hope that it will inspire you to go on treks yourself. We hope that this might tempt you to experience the solitude and deep beauty of the Great Himalayas. This blog is written in a form akin to that of a diary and is in the most part written from the perspective of one of the members (Jonathan). The photos are largely the work of Saptarshi and Subhomoy.
And so … Happy reading!….
One of the most exciting parts of a vacation can be in the planning…especially if you are planning with close friends. The preparation only deepens the anticipation and your mind embraces the fact that you are gong to enjoy yourself. While there is level of detail that is necessary, we found that it is not an unusually hard task (Well, maybe that’s because Krishnendu did much of the scouting for an appropriate guide). The plan gradually came into shape with discussion and debate…Initially we didn’t have any fixed idea about the routes and places and we weren’t sure if we would all be physically fit for 5-6 days of trekking…. However we had a common desire – go to mountains and trek.
Preparing a detailed list of items to be taken along is crucial for any trek, and especially so when in a remote area. Jonathan, Krishnendu and Subhomoy checking the final list of things to be taken.
Krrish searched the net and obtained various maps of Sikkim trekking routes….but for some strange reason, they seemed to contradict each other…we eventually drew up this approximate map from the sources available.
After a few days, we figured that Google Maps should be pretty accurate and that became our new reference standard.
- Mar 31: boarding from Sealdah railway station,
- Apr 1: reached NJP and then to Hilley (by car),
- Apr 2: Hilley – Barsey – Deoningaly Dhap (Trek day 1),
- Apr 3: Deoningaly Dhap – Thulo Dhap (Trek day 2),
- Apr 4: Thulo Dhap – Kalijhar (Trek day 3),
- Apr 5: Kalijhar – Phoktey Dara – Chiwabhanjyang – Chitrey (Trek day 4),
- Apr 6: Chitrey – Uttrey (Trek day 5),
April 7: Uttarey – NJP and boarded ar train,
April 8: reached Kolkata.
Contact number: 9593783148
Yuksom, West Sikkim
A derailment a few days ago choked up the Calcutta-NJP route and the result was that the Darjeeling mail, scheduled to leave at about 10.p.m, was now going to leave nearly 2 hours behind schedule. There was nothing much to do but wait, in a circle around our backpacks in a corner of the busy Sealdah station. A steady stream of humanity swept along from platform to platform. Loudspeakers droned on and on, pronouncing departure and arrival times in three different languages.
The constant chitter-chatter is nothing new to a resident of this old city, who save for a few early morning hours, is submerged in the maddening din…And, my head throbbed with a headache, my brain screaming for a much-needed rest. The day had been a busy one, as I raced against time to finish the latest corrections of the n-th version of my Synopsis seminar report. I knew that we would be gone for a bit more than a week and I had to submit what I could to minimize delays. Days of waiting for my seminar to materialize turned to weeks and eventually, my dreams of submitting my thesis before this much-awaited trip began to look just as it was – a dream. I began to realize that thesis or no thesis, I’d better let go and grab the opportunity to drown my troubles in a week-long camping expedition with my roomies and a few of their friends.
It was to be an unforgettable experience….
As it drew closer to midnight, the station began to get noticeably quieter. The counters began to close. The hawkers shut shop. Parts of the station were converted to sleeping zones for the homeless. Little ragged children, men and women, young and old, lay in neat rows, on plastic sheets and newspapers, their heads against a bag of possessions, with a thin sheet to guard against the elements. Beggars continued to prowl around. Their apprentices in the trade are invariably little boys of five or six. Their unfortunate circumstances have taught them to be rather tough. It’s not a pleasant world they live in and they cannot afford to be polite. Some stubbornly refuse to leave unless you pay. At times, they intentionally touch you with their dirty fingers or grab a hold of your feet and in no uncertain terms, let you know they mean business. Either you pay or you learn to be better at being stubborn. A rude little beggar boy demanded Souvik’s Coca-cola, an adult beggar lurking nearby. We had to refuse. Some have gotten quite ingenious at their approach. Debmalya related to us an incident where a friend of his obliged a beggar with some of his food. The beggar promptly feigned a stomach ache and immediately a horde of beggars surrounded the kind man and demanded that he pay up for causing “injury”. While a part of me was upset, I couldn’t help but acknowledge that this was simply a way to evolve a means of survival in a rough world.
At about midnight, the Darjeeling mail chugged out of platform 19 and with it a group of seven tired but eagerly expectant trekkers…. We hoped to recover lost time in the night. There are places to go tomorrow, but for tonight – its Sweet mountain dreams!
End of prelude. The rest of the journal is written mostly in the present tense as its meant to be entries in a journal….or as the blog title indicates – a travelogue
I wake up in the morning to the disappointing news that the train was running late as ever!…Can’t do much but make myself as comfortable as I can manage and pass the time reading something, in an upper berth.
12:30 p.m: After innumerable unscheduled stops, we arrive at NJP, about 4 hours late. I strain my eyes towards the northern skies. On a clear day, one can see the Kanchenjunga range (from here on to be referred to as the Big-K) far away in the distance, a huge towering wall, at a distance of about 120 km away as the crow flies. But there was to be no such sighting today. A thick screen of clouds block reduces visibility to a few kilometers.
A dull headache persists. I clearly need more sleep, but for now, I’ll have to do with pain-killers after lunch.
Subhamoy puts his negotiation skills to use and strikes a deal. We soon find ourselves in a moderately comfortable waiting room, reserved for railway personnel! We take turns at the shower and refresh ourselves.
2:00 p.m: We move outside the station premises and meet our tour guide Dipak, a man we were going to like immensely. Like most north-east Indians, Dipak possesses a short but stocky build. His rather sharp features and purposeful looking eyes give one the assurance that all is well and that one is in good hands. He helps us pile our backpacks on a waiting Sumo and we go off to have lunch at one of the many Dabas nearby….we choose the “Gurung Hotel” or rather, one of the “Gurung” hotels…
2:30 p.m: We are off and running.Soon, we are at the Siliguri outskirts and then its a matter of time before you encounter a bridge over the Teesta (usually, a dried up river bed – I believe they have diverted the water). We pass military cantonments and soon we are climbing the mountains.
We stop at another bridge that I recognize from my Sikkim trip with my family in 2009. Back then, our family had stopped over for a momo-snack. Here, are stop is for a break and the photographers get to work immediately (let’s call them the picture-men – they are the guys with these expensive cameras around their necks and capturing the perfect frame is a big reason they are on this trek). If you do not count the dirty looking houses that are a perfect eye-sore, the scene is over-wise, quite beautiful – mountains and valleys around us and a river running beneath, the Gorkhaland graffiti and the ubiquitous Buddhist prayer flags, Yes, I suppose the scene is good enough for a picture-man!
My head continues to hurt and I try to sleep. The roads are not the most comfortable, and so I sleep in fits and starts.
4:30 p.m: We come across a mountain fire!…it’s beautiful…in a way! The lines of fire snake up a couple of fills opposite the river with the sun behind the mountain. The scene falls on the river….we have to stop…its a great opportunity for the picture-men.
I’m sure I could have appreciated better if my mind could think of anything but the dull pain in my head. I can only think of getting back into the car and getting on with it….
5:20 p.m: We reach Jorethang – an important junction for cabs traveling to Sikkim and the Darjeeling areas. We stop over for a break and some breezers.
6:30 p.m: I wake up to see the Sai mandir and lines of devotees in some sort of mystic-like procession, walking along in solemn lines in the darkness of the road.
We are forced to travel slow. In fact, the plan was that we would not travel in the dark. But the train delay has changed things a bit.
8:00 p.m: We reach Hillay, the start of our trek. It’s quite dark, and the clouds obscure much the moonlight we might have had. The tents are pitched and our excitement levels jump a notch or two. We quickly sort out who will sleep where and we wander around a bit.
9:00 p.m: Its time for dinner. I am getting progressively worse. I can barely manage to eat the meal of rice, hot dal and some vegetables. I stumble off to bed.
6-7 a.m: We slumber out of our tents and drag ourselves to the toilet up the hill. This is going to be the last proper toilet that we can use for a while. It’s out in the wild for the rest of the trek. Quite a few of us are rather disorganized and so we spend the better part of an hour searching for toilet paper, soap-paper and water jugs and rather uncomfortably, waiting in line.
I feel much better.
7-8 a..m: Dipak and his boys have organized a breakfast of noodles, eggs, bread and tea.
8:30 a.m: We start off for Barsey, a small town about 4 km from Hilley. Just over the hill where we camped, are the gates to the Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary. A group of elderly gentlemen sits around at the gate. They are quite friendly and wish us a nice trek. They are quite pleased to pose for photographs.
The Rhododendron sanctuary is a large forest that covers some 10 sq. km. It lies at an altitude range of 2200 to 4100m and supports an amazing variety of bio-diversity. Walking through the sanctuary, one can encounter various kinds of forests: Sub-Tropical Forests, Mixed Broad leaf Forests, Conifer Forests and Alpine Meadows. (http://www.sikenvis.nic.in/barsey_main.htm). Hundreds of bird species make this sanctuary their home. This is also the habitat of the red panda, which is a threatened species.
A large banner depicts a red panda rather curtly informing us that we happen to be walking on his habitat and that we had better keep it clean. It is an experience that will be treasured by any nature lover. We walk along at a steady pace accompanied by the music of the birds, the path dotted by wild flowers. Most of the birds we see seem to be rather small, about as big as a common sparrow.
Part of the trek cuts through dense forest, the large tree trunks covered with thick moss. At times, the landscape opens up to sprawling vistas of valleys beneath, surrounded by rhododendron-dotted mountains.
We come across a dried-up stream that cuts across the mountain path – not an unusual sight! What was rather unusual (at least to us) was a water barrow coupled to a Buddhist prayer wheel that was built across the stream. The purpose was clear. In the rainy months, the water in the stream would turn the wheel and presto! – a means to engineer prayers to heaven with no further human effort! – pity that the stream dries up in the summer! (I wonder if they have heard of battery powered devices yet).
9:00 a.m: We come to a cross-road. A signpost informs us that there is a view point up a hill yonder. We give this one a miss.
9:30 a.m: Just before Barsey, we come across an artificial pond, constructed recently, near an excellent viewpoint. The pond is dry but it’s not the monsoon season yet. I don’t expect to see it dry if I come along sometime next year.
10:00 a.m: We reach Barsey, a small village. The young folks are singing and dancing to radio music. It’s some local festival of some sort or they are just having fun. It’s a lovely sight! The mountain folks are beautiful. Their movements are rather uncomplicated and simple. There is a contentment and un-sophistication about them that I find wonderfully appealing. Here, they seem to live a healthy life of contentment, peace and quiet. No rush-hour traffic madness, no screaming hawkers, no polluted drains and the mad rat-race. A life free of anxiety, worry and fear (or so it seems) – a life that I believe we were all meant to live! Maybe I ‘ll get an opportunity to ask these people to teach me something about living life slow.
The picture-men among us frantically shoot away. I must admit that I am rather wary about the reactions of the people to the shutter-bugs. Would it annoy them? A couple sitting away seem rather shy at the picture taking but they oblige. After 20 minutes of enjoying the singing and dancing, its time to leave for the remainder 10 km stretch of the trek planned out for today.
More rhododendrons and more forests…. each turn is a new scene, a new picture, different from the rest. I stop every now-and-then to mentally capture the moment, and deeply breath in the fresh mountain air.
Here and there, a fallen tree blocks our path. We need to clamber over it or crawl underneath.
11:45 a.m: We stop to rest at a valley, carpeted with thick lush yellow grass that appears to be dead or half-dead. Closer observation at the ground beneath, reveal scampering lady-bugs and various other insects and wild flowers. Saptarshi attempts to document the varying trail vegetation by shooting “boot-photographs”.
12:00: We stop at another valley for a brief period of rest.
It starts to drizzle down a bit, enough for us to get out our raincoats. The sky had been looking rather grim for a while.
1:45 p.m: We reach Deoningali Dhap! Its a large valley spread below us and we sight our tents on the opposite side. I can recognize the place from the Google-maps image that Krishnendu had showed me earlier at our rooms in KGP.
As we trek across, I wonder aloud that this valley was once possibly the bottom of a lake. Could this explain the dead-like thick lush grass that looks a bit unnatural?
Lunch is ready and we dig into it. This time it’s a non-veg meal and we thoroughly appreciate it! After sauntering about for a while, it’s time to relax in our tents and just day-dream.
Night soon falls and our porters start a nice-looking fire. We huddle around as its getting cold. The picture-guys are of course vying to get that perfect shot of the valley and the tents and the fire – long exposure, wide range lens…other tips and tricks! – but Hey! they do a decent job! – Some of the pics are awesome!
A mist has now settled across the valley and that adds to the eerie lonely feel. I don’t think this valley gets too many human visitors.
A quick dinner and I am eager to rush off to bed.
From Valley to Valley
Saptarshi and I wake up early. I poke my head out of our tent and look upwards. The view is breathtakingly glorious! – a dark clear sky filled with innumerable stars. Away from the city lights, the night sky has lit up in a performance of its own! I could stare at this forever…..but the warm sleeping bag beckons and I succumb to the temptation…..
Some time later, morning is breaking over the valley and the view outside is tough to describe but I’m sure that the great photos below will do it justice! We are at a corner of the valley and a river of mist sweeps down and meanders through the hills, passing over the valley in front of us. I promptly go off for a walk. Its one of the most delightful early morning walks I have ever had (not that I have had too many – IIT standard time does not permit one to view the sunrise under ordinary circumstances). The black dog that has been following us seems excited and races across the valley. The soft wooly grasses beneath my feet are wet with the morning dew, punctuated here and there by yak dung and plastic bits left by some irresponsible mutt-heads who could learn a thing or two about cleanliness. With some effort, I push away from my mind, more sadistic ways for such an education and I go about doing my good deed for the day – 3 plastic bags full of trash that our dear Dipak will burn at our campsite.
….Sweeping below along hill and dale, sped the lady of the mist….
Sharing the valley with Godzilla…Debmalya next to a mega-footprint
Saptarshi and Debmalya are busying themselves with their photography pursuits. I am not too much of a fan of the lens – I’m here mainly for the trek and to drink in nature, although I am secretly grateful for the photographers in the group. I get to enjoy the trek with no burden of a camera around my neck and I’ll get (hopefully) the photographs as well.
Subhomoy and I climb up an incline close to our campsite. It’s not easy as we have to clamber beneath the thorny shrubbery that dots much of the landscape. I pitch ahead and wriggle beneath the bushes, sometimes on all fours, Subhomoy close behind.
Climb every mountain, search high and low. Follow every byway, every path you know…
Once we were through the shrubs, it’s a steep, and at places, slippery, hike up. But it was sure rewarding! – the view is to be seen to be believed and that’s exactly the purpose of the photo below. We holler down to Saparshi and Debmalya below who clamber up as well following our directions.
It’s time for breakfast at 7:30 and we have to go down as we have a long day ahead of us. Dipak and his cooks do a great job as always and its breakfast of bread, scrambled eggs, tea and suji.
8:10 am: We are packed and ready to go – it’s a 10km trek from Deoningali Dhap (‘Dhap’ is ‘valley’ in Nepali) to Thulo Dhap (umm, another valley). The first part of the trek is a steep-ish climb.
Kaushik is breathless but he soldiers on bravely. We encounter a couple of streams – our first along this trek and Souvik uses the opportunity to refresh himself, despite Subhomoy’s dire warnings of hill-diarrhea. The porters have lumbered off ahead. Our guides are our ever faithful Dipak and his ‘mama’ Thulo Ram.
9:00 a.m: We reach Joributey – plenty of white rhododendrons (Of course!- it’s a rhododendron reserve). There is an official campsite built here complete with the toilet that we could see on Google Earth.
Krish and I take a wrong path (“The path less traveled” is not always a good idea), but we soon retrace our steps.
9:40 a.m: We reach Sikkim’s Kala-Pokhri ( ‘Black-Lake’….so named because, ..aah…, the lake is black). We are on a small hill overlooking the small lake and the beauty of the place is excuse enough to take a 20min break and take some group shots.
It’s good we rested because it’s a steep trek from here!
11:40 a.m: We huff and puff our way up to Achaley peak. This is another picturesque 360-degree viewpoint. A hill in the middle of several other large mountains. Its view would have been far better if there were clear skies – this point offers a view of the Big K.
12:00 a.m: A short hop away is Thumki-dara, another hilltop and offering a 360-degree view of the forest sanctuary around us.
The clouds thick clouds obscure some of the views but even that is beautiful and powerful at the same time. We soon see swirling clouds moving fast towards us….right ahead.
Rain predictably starts with some hail. I’ve packed off my raincoat with the porters and they are possibly already at the campsite. Souvik is kind enough to lend me his umbrella.
After a while, I’m ahead of the pack and Thulo Ram passes a comment that I’m good at figuring out the route by myself. I am rather pleased and daringly move on, making out my way though a wet creek, others following close behind until I meet Thulo who tells me that he thinks we might have made a wrong turn (so much for my navigational skills!). We can do nothing but to ask the others up behind to turn around and we rather grudgingly make up our way up to the hill, through Fangorn forest and all…. We mill around a bit and then we realize that the guides (for the first time) are unsure. There are 3-4 paths down from the top and we are lost!
I’m not too concerned (like some of my mates are). in fact, I’m quite happy because its part of the adventure. What use is an adventure without getting lost for a while?…. ThuloRam and Dipak move off to look around and reconnoiter. We rest in the rain. I find myself a nice tree and lie against a mossy pillow.
After half an hour (about 1 pm), the guides come back and suggest we take the same path down (So my navigational skills are good after all!..). However, they are not too sure.
1:30 p.m: Hoorah!… we reach Thulo-dhap!… and find the rather satisfying sight of our tents pitched in a distant corner. We jump across streams into the large blue tent that the porters use, just in time as the rain begins to get stronger. Lunch and tea was never more refreshing!
3:00 pm: I am now curled up in my sleeping bag, with Saptarshi, in our tent writing about the days experience. A regular thunderstorm is underfoot…with lightning effects. We try not to picture a bolt flattening our little nest. We have both noticed that the landscape is dotted with some charred trees – a grim reminder of gloomy possibilities!
I pass the evening reading and then dozing off. Dipak brings us some welcome hot chai to us in our tents
The rains do not subside and we have an early dinner at about 6:30 pm. The dog that has faithfully followed us stands wet outside. I don’t think the porters are very sympathetic to its plight. I ask if it can be given something but a porter does not seem very enthusiastic. Krish assures me that it would get the left-overs. We get back soon. My back is sore but Subhomoy can’t find the analgesic cream we bought along. I will have to manage with Volini spray.
The journey to Misty Mountains
It seems to have poured relentlessly throughout the night. We wake up to a light drizzle.
5:20 a.m: Saptarshi wakes up to find a yak just outside the tent staring at him. A little yonder, the rest of a herd munch away. The yaks seem to consider us with a paternal-like disapproval…(did Krish remember to ask them for approval before setting camp?).
Saptarshi spots snow peaks across the valley…I don’t think there was snow yesterday…it probably snowed in the night…
Saptarshi, Krishnandu and Souvik wander across the valley, following the nearby stream which has been significantly revived by the rains. I decide to sleep a little more….
6:30 a.m: Our porter friends start a fire within an old dried up stump. Thulo and I gather around and we are soon joined by Souvik and Debmalya. Souvik and Debmalya wish to dry some of their wet things and so I stick my cane into the ground and pull another across to string the stuff over. However, the canes don’t have a notch and we are too lazy to create one. We’d rather hold it up ourselves. Pretty soon Souvik’s socks fall into the fire and are rendered useless.
I move off the bush, to seek some time alone with the birds.
The clouds on the northern side move a bit, revealing tall snow capped mountains, not very far away. The picture-guys move across the valley in the opposite direction to get the best angle. I am content enjoying breakfast and listening to the birds.
The hardest part of the day is the time when you have to go into the bushes to umm, lighten the load, if you know what I mean. It’s an uncomfortable 10 minutes, to do it the way of our ancestors…, but it sure feels great after that, knowing that that’s behind you for the rest of the day!
9:00 a.m: Once we are done with our little explorations around the place, and we are packed, we start our trek straight up to Kalijhar, a mountain peak. And it’s straight up!… all the way.
The vegetation continues to amaze us. The rhododendron trees are not very common in this part of the trek. We trek up for the most part, though the wet bed-rock of a stream’s path. A month from now and this path should be a stream in full flow.
10:30 a.m: We stop at a peak that offers a decent view of the tall peaks opposite us. Close up ahead, we can see the tops of mountains, dotted with snow. For brown folk like us, roasted in the Indian plains, this is a rare sight. None of us have actually touched snow yet. Thulo assures us that we will get to the snow-spangled top.
Surprisingly, we are within range of a BSNL mobile tower. We take turns using Debmalya’s phone to call home.
11:00-11:30 am: After digging in generously into our sweetbags, we set off again and reach Kalijhar after a short trek upwards. The area is clearly being developed as a potential trekker’s stop. Stone paths have been laid and stone platforms raised for the tents. However, the porters tell us that whoever did this was clearly ignorant in these matters. The stone platforms are very cold, much colder that the ground beneath and so are pretty unusable unless you have sufficient padding under your tent.
It’s been a relatively short trek today. We possibly did about 3-4 km, mostly uphill. However, as Krish points out, it is good that we get some more time to rest our tired limbs, on a day plumb in the middle of our schedule, to prevent over-exhaustion.
The views are great. For about 2 hrs, we are afforded some great views of the valley beneath and the mountains across. We can see Chitrey in the distance which is the end of our trek way beneath. We will need to traverse a long circuitous path around, along a high ridge before we descend into the valleys beneath. It’s on the ridge that we hope to get some great views of the Big-K and other large mountains on that range. We try to piece the different places and match the locations on the may we have to what we can see and perceive. Thulo and Dipak do not seem to agree with Google-map! However, there is some consensus once we turn the map by 90 degrees 🙂
About lunch time, large clouds roll over the scene and limit our visibility to a few meters. We can only hope that it will be gone tomorrow. After a quick lunch, we move off to our tents for some reading and sleep.
5:00 p.m.: I wake up and discover the others in the larger tent listening to some of Thulo’s stories. He makes his living as a guide and has plenty of stories to share. He talks of the customs and oddities of the people (sorry – no details here) from various cultural backgrounds that hire him to take them trekking in these parts and for a good 2 hrs, we are content to simply listen. Dipak joins in later and adds some stories of his own.
7:00 p.m: We go in for an early dinner. its dark outside and raining – and cold. We warn each other about the tent wires stretched across and make our way in near total darkness to the main tent. Debmalya trips over and stubs his toe real bad. Its starts to bleed and he needs help. Thanks to Krish’s meticulous planning, we have a stash of first aid and Subhomoy is able to help out with that.
The wind is chilly and pierces though any gaps in our outfits. We are only too eager to get into our sleeping bags to escape the cold. The clouds roll over the mountain and pound our tents, like the great waves of a sea.
We can only hope that this is will pass on. There is so much to see tomorrow!
A gloomy day, a journey of a thousand steps and a Hailstorm!
6:00 a.m: We are up and excited to go. We hope to see the great views of the Kanchenzhonga range from Phoktey-Dara peak and the Singalila ridge just beyond (time permitting). But the weather is very disappointing. Great clouds speedily loom over us. The landscape is dull, except for a few rare moments when a momentary break in the clouds allows for the early morning sun to bathe the mountainside in bright yellow.
We hope against the gloomy circumstances and decide to go for it. Debmalya is still nursing his wounded leg and does not come with us.
6:20 a.m: We start off. It’s bitterly cold and the mountain sides are barely visible in the deepening mist. Visibility at times reduces to a few meters. It’s treacherous and we stick close together and move in a single file, the redoubtable Thulo Bhai leading the way!
Here and there, burnt out tree trunks and stumps come into view out of the gloomy haze, like eerie markers in some strange magical kingdom. The clouds howl by. Thulo cheers us on. It may seem deserted and forbidding but this is raw unspoiled nature. It’s the kind of wild beauty that draws the heart of an adventurer. Each step is a new step to a place yet unknown to us. We may know where we are going, but at heart we sense a little bit of what the explorers of old surely felt – the thrill of adventure, of seeing things not seen before, of embracing a wild lonely wilderness and drinking in its charm.
7:00 a.m: We reach Phoktey-Dara. We are disappointed. On the ridge, the expanse in front of us is a sea of clouds. We look in the direction of the magnificent ridge that surely is before us and peer as we might, the clouds refuse to part. We sit down at a nice hollow before the actual peak that is Phoktey-Dara and decide to wait it out for a while, hoping for at least a momentary glance at the K-range.
Thulo brings out some of the local rum and some of us have a bit. It’s a nice thing to take (in limited quantities, of course…you don’t want to have people walk off the mountain top…) on a cold mountain-top with the winds blowing around you. (Thulo educates us that RUM stands for “Regularly Used Medicine”!) Biscuits are passed around and Souvik and I clamber up to the actual peak (for bragging rights). It does not change the view by much.
The path on the ridge happens to be the border between India and Nepal. So of course, we take the opportunity to go international (again – bragging rights).
7:40 a.m.: We dejectedly make the decision to wait no more and get back to the camp at Kalijhar. Obviously, trekking up for another half and hour to the Singalila ridge is not going to be of much benefit and so we turn back, rather downcast. Who know if we may ever get this opportunity again!
Believe it or not, we meet some woodcutters on the way (at this height!). Thulo gives them some of his ‘regular medicine’. It appears that woodcutters are accustomed to the same medicine regularly enough!
8:40 a.m: We are back at camp, for some breakfast and hot tea. Debmalya is up and seems to be fine.
The next part of the day’s trek is the long circuitous trek along the mountain side and up and down ridges to Chiaybhanjyang, a military outpost and a police camp on top of a mountain.
10:00 a.m: The weather has not improved very much as we start off. Herds of yak dot the valleys. Shepherds are not to be seen however – the place is too inhospitable. The shepherds let the yak graze for long periods of time and check on them once in a while.
Clouds continue to swirl along the mountain top, but as we descend we leave the clouds behind and over us and the picturesque valley opens up before our eyes.
Gradually the weather improves and the sun comes out for longer periods. Army posts stick out on flat edges of a mountain.
11:45 a.m: After a long and circuitous journey, we come to a gravel path, built originally by the British that leads to Chiaybhanjyang. Soon, we are on a ridge that happens to be a part of the India-Nepal border, with small interspersing border markers indicating the path of one of our most peaceful and porous borders.
12:15 p.m: We reach the military and police outposts at Chaiaybhanjyang. We stop here to report to the police (mandated) and to submit the permission forms that Dipak had obtained for us before the trip.
12:20 p.m: Formalities complete, we rest a bit and then its a long way down to Chitrey – the journey of a thousand steps. It is a nearly unending set of steps that are cut into the rock or laid as stone slabs that wind all the way to the bottom.
1:45 p.m: As we approach the army post at Chitrey, the drizzle builds up into a rain and we reach just in time, before a mighty hailstorm unleashes over us. The tin roofs reverberate in a noisy din. The hailstones are plentiful but not very large and so Souvik and I put on our raincoats and let it beat over us.
2:30 p.m: The hailstorm and rain subsides leaving the green grassy field specked with white. The ditches are full of floating ice. Its now pretty cold. It initially appears strange that it would be so cold. Its the lowest temperature we have experienced in the trip so far (close to 0 deg C?). Debmalya has a decent explanation: The valley must be colder that the mountain top because the cold air is heavier and settles in the valleys. Also, we have just been pelted with ice.
Dipak and his boys arrange some hot tea and our late rather lunch into the day. We dig into it hungrily.
Later in the evening, we try to warm ourselves in a fire set up in small log cabin. There are some buildings being constructed on the outpost and we prefer to set up camp inside one of the unfinished buildings rather than camp outside tonight.
7-8 p.m: We are only too eager to finish dinner and hit the sack.
6:00 a.m: Saptarshi wakes up early to get some early morning shots. The rest of us take a while to pull out of our slumber.
7:00 a.m: Breakfast is hot noodles and tea. I can’t quite describe what hot noodles and tea is to a trekker on a cold day.
It’s a beautiful clear day. The sunlight is now quite bright. We are encompassed by tall mountain sides and the valley is alive. Birds of different colors flit about the stream. Two horses graze yonder and a one-eyed terrier basks in the warm sun. At an edge of the camp are a small herd of goats and some chicken. We can see the peak of Chiabhanjyang from where we descended yesterday and it is partially covered in snow. The day is a perfect day to trek with visibility for miles. We can’t help wish that we were a day late – the view at Singalila must quite a sight to see now!
The place is relatively well maintained as it is an army post. The toilets at the end are the best so far on this trip and so we needn’t to go behind the bush 🙂 .
The army major in charge of this camp is a Bengali and that works to our advantage. We (except me of course) speak to him in Bengali, making friendly conversation, and he is most helpful.
8:00 a.m: We start off for our expedition’s final trek. And its all the way down again to Uttarey, a town some 10 km away. The path is narrow but large enough for herds of yak to pass by us every now and then. We stop with our backs to the mountain to let them pass.
As we descend, often meet local children on the reverse route, possibly on their way to school. We also cross several streams along the way.
9:30 a.m: We reach a recent landslide that has wiped off a good 20 feet or so of the path. A makeshift muddy path has been carved around and over the landslide. It’s quite a fall if you were to slip. Thulo helps each of us as we slowly and gingerly make our way, sometimes on all fours. At the other end, a group of local girls and ladies patiently wait for us to finish. Once we make it to the other end (brave and daring trekkers that we are), we do not have much time to enjoy our little accomplishment. We notice with some surprise as the local ladies waltz their way over the gap. I needn’t mention that they barely needed to stoop!
10:00 a.m: We reach the end of the Rhododendron sanctuary (yay!) and take pictures with the rather nice guards. We meet an ex-armyman here who comes here to drink and play carom. He seems to enjoy a rather peaceful retirement.
11:00 a.m: We begin now to find more signs of community habitation as we come across small villages. The picture-guys shoot away, sometimes a little too often for my liking.
We come across people now at fairly regular intervals. We leave the higher mountains behind us and move to a flatter valley area. We are still in the mountain regions of course.
I must mention this – we come across a bunch of local guys and we start a conversation. One of them declares that I look like Hrithik Roshan! – we all have a hearty laugh! – the poor guy either has bad eyes or is too drunk – or maybe he is just a nice guy who wants to say something nice (…or is he making fun of me?.. ^-_-^).
12:00 p.m: We reach Uttarey. We are led to a nice homely looking house that is incidentally the former residence of a local minister. It is now being let out as a paying guest type of accommodation. Its very nice with a lookout on the street below.
2:00-5:00 p.m: After lunch and some rest, we walk out and explore. Souvik and I take a nice long walk to the edge of Uttarey. We pass the bustling market area and move beyond.
We observe the vegetable gardens and large ponds which are used as fisheries. The homes are rather beautiful and the place is so clean, quiet and green. After a while, we climb up the winding road to the local monastery on the top of the hill. The rest of the gang are already there. A nun explains the various Buddhist pictures and drawings on the wall.
The top of the hill gives an excellent view of Uttarey below and the mountains around. There is also a government lodge on the top that is not very full at the moment. Its cloudy now and the skies look threatening – we must return.
5:00 p.m: We get back and it has begun to rain. We sit on the portico overlooking the street and soon the land-lady gets us some local salty Pickle and Chung! – the local millet beer. The vessel we drink it from has an interesting construction. It’s a brass container filled with millet. You add hot water from a kettle until it begins to show at the brim. And then you wait for 20 minutes for some fermentation. You then dip in a wooden straw to the bottom of the container and sip it in. It’s one of the tastier beers with a low alcoholic content. Of course, if you wait longer, it gets fermented more.
We spend the next two to three hours having a wonderful time with Thulo. Thulo is such a nice to guy to be with. He is tough, intelligent, strong, knows the mountains well and has some wonderful stories to tell. He talks about the Nepali movies he watches, Danny Dengzongpa and Baichung Bhutia. Thulo’s home village is on the next mountain and he points it out to us. It’s a small clump of some ten families. Every now and then, we take a sip of Chung.
8:00 p.m: Dinner and then bed.
Thulo wakes up early to leave along with a few others. Dipak leaves after lunch. We bid them both a fond goodbye. They have been such excellent guides and we highly recommend them.
9:00 a.m: After an early breakfast, we pack and leave. Dipak has arranged a car.
On the way to cross and admirable suspension bridge. We are asked to get off the car and walk across to avoid overloading. It’s a very long drop to the stream in the gorge below.
12:30 p.m: We reach Jorethang, a major town and meeting point for travelers to these parts. From Jorethang, you can travel to the main cities of Pelling, Darjeeling, Siliguri and Kalimpong. It is also on the river Rangeet where there are opportunities for river-rafting. We get off to have lunch and buy some of the local handicrafts.
About 2:00 p.m: We set off for Siliguri. The roads are narrow and cut into the mountain. Accidents are inevitable. We come across a police crane trying to pull up a car that fell off the cliff. As our car takes the next turn, I catch a glimpse of the smoldering wreck beneath (The poor fellow!).
6:00 p.m: We reach Siliguri city and head off to Hongkong market, a crowded and chaotic assortment of shops. I buy some tea and once we are all done, we hail an auto to the station.
8:00 p.m: The train chugs away. It’s been a memorable experience, something that we are unlikely to experience ever again together – which is why we wish to freeze some of these memories into this blog. Someday when we are old, we will look back at the old pictures and read this blog and remember the different things we did and said and saw and we will treasure them in our hearts….. stay hungry, stay curious….
Though we bought train tickets for 8, none of us were sure until the last moment. Fortunately, 7 of us were ready to go on 31st March. Dipak and Thulo were our guides and they hired 8 other porters and cooks. So, in total, there were 17 of us who started trek from Hiley.
From L to R (standing): Saptarshi Roy, Krishnendu Ghosh, Purna Bahadur Chetri (porter), Ran Bahadur Gurung, Kaushik Singha, Dipak (Guide), Souvik Naskar, Subhomoy Bhattacharyya, Debmalya Sinha, Jonathan Z Vasu.
The extra bit (The handwritten travelogues by the trekkers on the spot)