I wrote this experience on travelling to Sikkim a couple of years ago before this blog existed. This was posted elsewhere in this website and this is an effort to organize all the travel experiences under this blog.
It had been a while that a friend of mine and I were thinking about taking a small weeklong vacation, and get on with an adventurous journey. But then, getting a vacation is not something easy and simple when you are working in the very demanding technology industry. After struggling it out for more than a month, we managed to find some time off – little more than a weeklong.
Now we had the most primary requirement met – finding time for a vacation. But we had not really thought of where to go and what to do. All that we were certain about is one thing – we wanted to go someplace that can give us plenty of pleasure as well as challenges. With little effort, we made a decision to approach the mighty Himalayas; they were the best we could ask for. And it was also a childhood dream for me to visit these ice-tipped mountains and enjoy their serenity. With a little more work we zeroed in Sikkim as our final destination out of our choices – Nepal, Himachal Pradesh, Uttaranchal, and Sikkim. It took even more time to figure out where to go within Sikkim.
SOURCES OF INFORMATION
Besides asking friends for help, we gathered lot of information from websites. As is always, Google was glad to provide us with necessary information. Here are some websites we found useful.
- Google! We searched extensively for trekking options in Sikkim and found lot of entries from travel websites
- India Travelogue
- Sikkim Info
- Government of Sikkim Website.
- Maps and India
Attempting to find information and maps of Sikkim in Lonely Planet did not go in our favour. Lonely Planet India had just about 5 pages of Sikkim and a very bland map with little information. So we could not rely on the otherwise best possible source for travellers. One possible reason for this would be that non-Indians require special permits for entering parts of Sikkim. That would have discouraged the writers. And an attempt to search for other books on Sikkim also failed. I found only one possible book with extensive information on Sikkim and that was sold by Amazon alone. The book was reasonably priced but I could not afford the shipping costs, so had to settle for whatever we could gather from the internet.
THE FINAL DESTINATION
After much discussions and planning, and considering the number of days that were available to us, we decided to do Yuksom – Dzongri – GocheLa trek(It is spelt in multiple ways, like many other places in Sikkim. Gochela, Goche La, Goecha la, Goechala). The trek would last for 6 days – 4 days to GocheLa and 2 days to return – and would take us to 16,400 feet from less than 4000ft in a little more than 40kms of walking distance. And we would be welcomed by great views of Mt.Kanhendzonga and a range of peaks around it at the end of our trek. This is probably the most famous trekking route in Sikkim and is of moderate difficulty level. The attractions of the trek included – along with the difficulties of climbing – a great preview of vareity of Sikkim’s biodiversity including beautiful rhododendron flowers, bird population and some amazing views landscapes and ofcourse the majestic Himalayan peaks.
Yuksom village is the last motorable point before we embark on the trek to Dzongri. To reach there, we had to travel to Kolkata from Bangalore, and then to Siliguri by bus, and take local transport. We made our flight bookings to Kolkata and decided to work on our further transportations after reaching there. With some inquiries with people who had done this stretch of trek, we came to know that all necessary preparations, including hiring porters, buying food et al can be done after we reach Yuksom. So we decided not to book for trekking arrangements with a travel operator. Later, we figured out that this saved us a considerable amount of money.
We did not have to carry much stuff but for a first aid kit and our personal belongings. But only these things added up to around 15kilograms per person, since the duration of trek was quite long and we had to be well equipped. One of the biggest burden for me was my photography equipments, which included a bulky and heavy tripod, a film camera and a digicam. But I was quite sure I wanted to carry tham all, otherwise for which I felt the trip would not be very enjoyable.
Once we had out flight tickets ready and belongings packed, there was little more to do but for getting on with the journey.
We were to travel from Bangalore to Kolkata by flight, take a bus from Kol to Siliguri and then take some incidental transportation to Yuksom. We had to hire porters at this place and start the trek that is to last for 6 to 8 days, and then return to Bangalore in the same manner.
The trek would start from Yuksom. The destination was a place called Gochela where we were told to expect a great view of Kanchenjunga. We were to stay at what is called ‘Trekker’s Hut’ each night in places named – Tsoka(pronounced Choka), Dzongri and Samiti before we reach Gochela on the 4th day and return to Yuksom, stopping at nights in Kokchurong and Tsoka.
We left Bangalore on a Saturday morning in the month of May. Unfortunately, our tickets were such that we had to take 2 different flights. My flight was scheduled to start from the city at 0840 hours. Cursing the carrier for not having a flight at a later time, I reached the airport around 0730. When I boarded the flight, I was quite glad to see that they had given me an emergency-exit window. I love emergency exit rows in the plane. It has some advantages – to start with, you get double the leg-room than any other row, and unless the plane is full, they leave the middle seat empty. That relieves you from the dreadful claustrophobia of flying. But on the downside, they don’t let you keep your handbaggage under the seat. That’s really a small price for a big gain. And so, after a journey that lasted around 4 hours, I reached Kolkata some time in the noon.
THE CITY OF JOY
That’s what they call this city but I don’t know how the name came. The moment I headed out of the airport, what struck me unprepared was the weather. I knew it was going to be pretty hot out there but was not ready for the kind of heat it was. On entering Kol, what immediately comes into a travellers mind is that the city is still living a few years behind rest of the country. You get to see most of the things old fashioned – old buildings, old vehicles, old taxis and every thing you can think about. Most important of them all – the tram service that seems to put this city apart from rest of the nation. On looking out further, even the cost of living confirms to the same line of thought. I would never imagine buying a cup of tea for Rs.2 in Bangalore. But be assured of getting it here! Sadly, it looks like the standard of living of people also hasn’t improved much over the years. Nevertheless, Kolkotans appear to be a very easygoing lot and look like they have little worries compared to else-where. We also travelled in underground metro just to have a look at it. It sure is a fabulous way of travelling within the city. They are best by all means – fast, reliable, frequent and economic. It also looks very efficiently run. A station will be manned by just about 2-3 people including the person at the ticket counter and security. It looks like the train will have just one staff inside – the driver. I did not happen to not
ice any other staff inside the train. I guess no local transport system in the country can match this by any means.
Not able to stay out for long in the heat, we quickly booked the tickets to our next destination – Siliguri, and rushed into the nearest air-conditioned restaurant. We had nearly 4 hours to kill for the bus journey to begin. Dreaded about the heat, we spent most of that time in the restaurant and on the right time, came out and boarded the waiting bus. Fortunately, once we were inside the bus, it started raining the and gave us some good relief from the heat. We had a long journey to go – around 14 hours to reach Siliguri around 7AM in the next morning.
Siliguri is just a few kilometers away from Sikkim border. On inquiring for further transportation at Siliguri, we found that we had to take public transport jeeps to reach Yuksom, stopping at a small town called Jorethong. If we start at 7-30 in the morning, we would be reaching there around 2pm.
Within 10 minutes after we leave Siliguri, our road starts moving along with river Teesta. Teesta is the biggest river in Sikkim, and is actually pretty small in comparison with the rivers of north India. It is a typical Himalayan rivers which has enough water all through the year, sourced from the rains for half the year, and from melting ice for rest of the time. It offers great views, flowing in zig zag fashion in its valley, where our road slowly starts climbing uphill. All the way till Jorethong, the jeep ride is very enjoyable with good views alongside the hilly roads, with some hanging bridges and Teesta flowing near the road.
Once in Jorethong, we have to change transportation again and take a jeep to Yuksom. The journey lasts for around 3 hours and this time we move uphill much quickly. We see the hills getting taller and taller as we move further, and in this part of the journey we travel alongside river Rangit – the next big river in the state.
|A bridge across Teesta River|
Later part of this journey offers some great views of the river from a height, including a reservoir built for power generation . There are plenty of landslide points all the way, which I guess often get blocked during the rainy season.
Our jeep driver asked us if we had ever driven in terrains like this. I did not have the heart to say I had driven at worse places, instead said it should be awesome driving here. Finally, after 8 hours of travelling, we reached Yuksom. We had lot of preparing to do for the next day’s trek.
First thing to do was to register with at the local police station about our itinerary for the trek. Unlike what we thought, this turned out to be a quick and hassle free job. It seems it is the responsibility of the police here to go for help if anyone goes missing in the hills, and hence registration is necessary. Apparently non-Indians need some extra permits and documentation which was naturally not our headache. The jeep guy who took us to Yuksom said he can drop us at a place to stay where we could get assistance for everything we need with the trek. Lucky for us we settled there, we did not have to move around much for everything. In a few hours we had everything we needed arranged for us – porters(who turned out to be very friendly and helpful), groceries, utensils for hire, etc. And so we finished the day and retired as early as 9pm(It was quite cold) after the dinner.
Route: Yuksom to Tsoka, 14kms
The trek route we were taking is inside Kanchenjunga National Park. So we had to get some clearances and permissions. We completed this first thing in the morning after paying the necessary fees. We started on our journey around 7-30 in the morning. We were accompanied by two porters who carried utensils, food materials and other common things we needed while we carried our personal stuff in our backpacks. I guess my bag must have weighed close to 15 kilos and it was probably the first time I was carrying so much stuff for such a long distance. Estimated time for the journey was around 7 to 8 hours. The way to Tsoka starts as a small path in the jungle starting right behind the place where we had stayed. The first few hours was a fairly easy trek through the tropical forests amidst beautiful views of the forest, hills and a river flowing far below in the valley. This portion of the trek looks very similar to western ghats in Southern India – a region I am very familiar with.
We encounter plenty of streams and water bodies on the way even in summer and hence we need to carry very little water. There were some occasional leeches on the way but not in numbers big enough to cause any worry. While we went ahead by ourselves, porters started easily and made it a point to stay behind us. We kept walking slowly, resting as little as possible. When they start walking, porters would catch up with us very quickly and again rest somewhere for us to go ahead.
We walked about 12kms in around 4 – 5 hours, crossing many ridges, hills, beautiful valleys and a couple of hanging bridges, to reach a long bridge and rested for lunch near the bridge. We started off again in 30 minutes. The next part of the trek was the toughest one – we had to walk thru steep slopes with a gradient of more than may be 45 degrees all the way till Tsoka for next 5 – 6 kilometers. It was quite tiring and time consuming trek. Again, we walked slowly and avoided the temptation to sit and rest for a while every other moment. It looked like the porters had it very easy and had no problem moving on. They are probably well adopted to walking in hills. I wish I had the energy in them! We find a small settlement on the way named ‘Bakhim’ around 2kms before Tsoka. We rested there for a while and moved on to reach our destination by around 3-30pm.
At the end of the day we were too tired to do anything, but the excitement was quite high and kept us alive. There were 5 parties of trekkers who had started the trek today and so there were around 20 people staying in the place for the night. Our accommodation was a trekker’s hut at the village – a wooden building which would protect us from cold and winds. After resting for a while and regaining the strength, we started chatting with people around and the time went past. It was mostly foggy and cloudy in the evening and hence, we could not see much around Tsoka and were mostly confined to our trekker’s hut. Later, we would learn that it is usually a bit clear in the morning and tends to get cloudy in the evening. We figured out that most of the people here were to come with us only half way further till Dzongri. From then, it would be just us and one Bengali guy from Kolkata continuing to Gochela. At around 8pm, we started off with dinner. After the long tiring day, we could not have been hungrier. Our porters had prepared excellent food – some Dal, rice and an Aloo dish that we hogged eagerly. It was pretty cold in the evening, and we retired into our cozy sleeping bags around 9pm. In the night, there was good rainfall and the thought of walking out tomorrow in the cold and rain gave us creeps. Nevertheless, after a long and tiring day, we managed to sleep soundly.
Route: Tsoka to Dzongri, 9kms
arly in the morning, around 7am, we heard loud noises and wake up call from the Bengali guy. As I opened my eyes, he rushed into the room and shouted at us to wake up and take a look at the amazing views of Pandim and hurried back with his Minolta. I slowly crept out of my sleeping bag cursing the guy for waking me up from a good sleep. After taking my own time, I slowly walked out and saw some people gathered, looking at the west. And so I look around – and what a great view had I woke up to! Standing there, tall and snow-clad was majestic Mt.Pandim and surrounding peeks shining in the sun. That was the first time ever that I was getting to see a himalayan mountain and I suddenly felt that travelling a few thousand kilometers was worth the effort. Clouds and sunshine were fighting each other to kiss the mountain top in the early morning. It lasted only for around 15 minutes when the clouds decided we had enough of the great view. We then continued our preparation for the tough day ahead.
The day’s plan was to walk upto Dzongri, at around 14,000feet above sea level. It was only a little more than 9kms of journey, compared to 14kms we walked the previous day. But it was bound to be much more tougher. The gradient was pretty high all the way and would be more than 60 degrees for long stretches. It was going to be a very tiring hike ahead. We started around 8am after some tea and breakfast. I was walking a little slow and happened to stay behind the rest, but as usual, it was the porters who started after everyone. I was walking alone and after a few minutes the road forked out. I was not sure which one to take – one was going up and the other was almost flat. The flat path seemed to be a more used one compared to the one going up, so I decided to take that. Even before I had walked a bit, I found some beautiful flowers on the way and decided to take some time to shoot them. So I had not gone much ahead when one of our porters walked by. He patiently waited till I finished taking pictures, and then smiled and said – “you are taking the wrong route”! Goodness! But I was glad I had not gone very far. I inquired him how did he manage to figure out I had taken the wrong way. It seems they asked someone coming from Dzongri to Tsoka how many people had gone upwards. When they figured out one person was missing, he had come here looking for me. And he escorted me to the right path and we continued walking.
One immediate change we see after we move on from Tsoka is the change in vegetation. It quickly turns from tropical to coniferous. You start seeing pine like trees and slowly, the green tropical trees with wide leaves start fading. I also happened to notice an increase in bird population. I specifically noticed a long tailed, gray colored beautiful bird that was making a lot of noise and caught my attention. It turned out that they were magpies. I badly wanted to take a picture of that one but it was too far for me. Even the ones I saw later on the way used to stay high on the trees and were not reachable for the camera. Only one occasion, one of them came a little close to me, but before I was able to aim for it, it flew away. Probably because it is a steep path – the vegetation changed very quickly. After walking for around half way, conifers started reducing in number and I started seeing smaller, flowering rhododendron trees. May was the season for flowering and all the trees were in full bloom. Sometime we would see many bunches of these trees standing together loaded with deeply pink flowers to welcomes us – very beautiful and pleasing to see.
Walking slowly, I reached Bakhim – a small plateau with a trekker’s hut and no habitation by noon. Our porters had gone ahead and prepared some lunch. I was glad to have some much needed replenishments and also some rest for the leg muscles after the tiring walk. Having finished lunch and resting for a while, I had nearly two more hours of walking to reach Dzongri. Almost everyone else who was heading for Dzongri had already left and had gone far ahead of me. Being a slow walker, I was the only one left behind and stopping often for taking pictures did not really help. After Bakhim, there was no coniferous vegetation and the density of rhododendrons had increased even further. It was only flowering trees all around and could not help taking my own time to walk through their splendor. Finally, I reached Dzongri at around 2-30 and figured out that I was nearly 2 hours late than others. Nevertheless, though tiring, it was a great day of trek.
Like Tsoka, Dzongri also was cloudy when I reached there. So rest of the day was spent chatting with people and trying to think how great the next day is likely to be. The day’s arrival list to Dzongri was quite big – our team, the Bengali who was supposed to continue with us till Gochela, a team of 4 each from Gangtok and Kolkata, and a Dutch couple. Next day’s itinerary was to first walk up to Dzongri top(also called Doblugong) early in the morning for sunrise. From there, we would be able to see many of the peaks around Kanchenjunga and Pandim at sunrise time. After coming back from there, we would continue walking to our next point, Samiti Lake.
Route: Dzongri to Samiti Lake, ~10kms
Today we had to wake up as early as 5 in the morning. We wanted to be there at Dzongri top before the sunrise to see first rays of Sun falling on the mountains. After consuming some hot tea made by the porters, we started off around 5-30 and reached the top a little before 6. Unfortunately it was a cloudy morning and was covered with fog in all the directions. We could see nothing. We all waited anyway hoping to see the weather getting clearer.
|View From Dzongri|
Luckily, after 15 minutes or so, the clouds started clearing up and we were able to get partial views of some of the hills below us. The skies cleared up soon and we were open to the view of Sun shining brightly on the mountains and the snowy peaks reflecting in glory! The contrasting sights of black Kabru peak and tall Kanchenjunga and views of Rahtong glacier were a real treat. We spent nearly 30 minutes full of excitement watching the mountains – Kanchenjunga ranges on one side and Mt. Pandim and Tenzing on the other side.
The weather gods decided to draw the curtains around 7am and we slowly pulled back to out trekker’s hut.
Not long after, we finished the breakfast and kept moving towards our next destination – Samiti Lake. We were told that this day’s trek is bound to be the easiest, passing mostly thru planes or descents with great views of Pandim all the way. From the previous night’s crowd, only 3 of us – I, my teammate and the Bengali – were to take this part of the journey and everyone else was returning back.
The first hour of the journey constituted rhododendron trees, grasslands and small marshes. It was a beautiful day despite the clouds hanging by us most of the times. But we could not see much of Pandim because of clouds. After the grasslands followed a very steep, hour long descent to the valley of PraigChu river. I can’t remember having descen
ded through such steep valley anytime before. The flowing river, pine forests, small clouds gathered in the valley and occasional views of Mount Pandim on the opposite side helped forget the treacherous descent. Finally at around 10-30, after walking for around 6kms, we reached Kokchurong at the bottom of the valley, and rested for a while. An hour long ascent from here took us to Thongsing, where we stopped for lunch. It was once again flat grass lands for next 4kms till Samiti Lake. Here, we got to see plenty of Yaks grazing and walking around from close vicinity. Finally we reached Samiti at around 3pm after a climbing a steep hike near the lake.
It is after reaching the trekker’s hut at the lake that we realized implications of the journey. We were all tired, not able to move one bit and still trying to hang on. Even a small movement of the body would cause lot of pain and we wanted nothing and nothing at all but for a nice long and undisturbed sleep. The weather also had got worse and we had to live with rains most of the evening. And we had climbed quite higher over the day. It had got unbearably cold. Fortunately, it did not rain on the way which would have made things worse. We were wearing out fast and I had started talking about not going any further and returning to comforts of lower altitude the next day instead of continuing towards Gochela.
After resting for an hour or so, we decided to go and have a look at the Samiti Lake. I had never seen a high altitude lake before and had high imaginations about them from plenty of pictures I had seen before. The lake lived up to the expectations. It was a huge lake with crystal clear, turquoise waters. The calm and tranquil waters with mountains covering all around it was worth all the pain we had taken to reach there.
Enjoying the surroundings for some time, we came back to the trekkers hut and dinner was waiting for us(What would we have done without our friendly and helpful porters?). It must be the altitude or the weather – despite being tired and having little energy, it was getting difficult to consume food every day. It was impossible to eat anything – I used to feel like puking after eating little food. Nevertheless, slowly we managed to force in some food along with some tea and retired for the day around 7pm. It was impossible to sleep in that chilling weather but we had to try. Inside my sleeping bag, I was making up excuses to myself and imagining some non-existent altitude sickness so that we can return back tomorrow morning. Somewhere in the middle of the night, I had even convinced myself that my body temperature was increasing and we may have a really bad situation tomorrow. I think I still managed 2-3 hours of sleep and some hours of nightmares!
Route: Samiti, Gochela, Kokchurong. 16kms
The next morning, I woke up around 3-30am to a chilling cold weather, with an aching body and little enthusiasm. I could not sleep or stay in my sleeping bag any longer so I had to getup. The plan for the day was to start before 3-30am to climb up 2500 feet to Gochela before sunrise to get a close view of the morning’s golden yellow light kissing the mighty Kanchenjunga. And my plan was to stay in Samiti while others could go and come back. The porters were also getting up and planning to prepare some tea. I opened the door to see that it was not going to be a great day. It was raining outside and the skies seemed to be cloudy and persistent. But by the time we had our tea and breakfast, rains had subsided completely. By around 4am, I was charged up a bit and was ready to go up with others. But this time, my teammates were complaining of inability to move out in the cold and climb up. The Bengali was suffering from headache since yesterday and he was also not sure about being able to go up. Finally we decided to go up to the first viewpoint above Samiti Lake that was hardly 30 minutes walk, and then decide weather to come back or move on. We started walking in the darkness around 4-30 and reached the first viewpoint around 5-15.
|Mountains up close|
From the view point, we could see some of the big snow clad mountains for the first time in our journey in very close vicinity. Some of them looked so close as if we could just walk across and reach the top in 5 minutes. The walls of Pandim were right behind us – it was tough to imagine we had come so close to the distant mountains we were seeing all along our journey. It was like a dream come true. We also got to see some small glaciers originating from the peaks, but the season being summer, there was not a lot of snow on them.
While rest of the guys decided to return to Samiti lake from here, I somehow found the will in me to go on. I left behind others and took a porter with me to continue to Gochela. Looking back, I am really glad about that tough decision I made. The way ahead would give me the most magnificent views I have ever seen in my lifetime. I was told initially that it is going to be one to one and a half hour walk. But the tired me walked so slow that it took nearly three hours to reach there. We walked past the Zemathang lake bed – a place that was once a lake and broke out in the 80s and had flooded the lower regions, killing many people and animals. We passed by many small hills after that. The last few minutes of walk was the most exciting part of the journey. Here is what I wrote about it in my weblog:
“We had been walking for nearly 2 hours. I was walking up the slope very slowly as I was quite tired and our porter had gone ahead to our destination. I could see we were just a few hundred meters away from the final point and I was walking parallel to a ridge. To my right was a valley a few 100 feet deep. The slope I was walking on was pretty dry but the valley was filled with ice, and so were the hills across the valley. Looking up to my left, I could see there was a ridge very close to me and there must be a small valley on the other side of the ridge too. So, instead of taking the path taken by the porter, I decided to climb up and walk along the ridge so I can enjoy view of both sides. As I closed in towards the ridge, I could see some ice deposits on the top. I climbed further up to the top and look down – and wow! It was the most beautiful thing I had seen ever! Deep down on the other side was a lake – in semi-crystallized form. It’s deep turquoise colors and the reflection from ice crystals on the top was just too good to be imagined. And I was there – on the top of a ridge wide enough for just one person to walk – with a valley to the right and the lake on the other side, and in front of me were majestic ice-clad Himalayan mountains, including the mighty Kanchenjunga! And right next to me on the other side of the lake was Goche summit just about a 100meters climb. And descending from Goche was a beautiful glacier that would dump ice into the lake. Excuse me for struggling for words; it was so beautiful it looked as if I am in a completely different world. The short walk on the ridge is one of the finest moments of the Sikkim trip. It was like one of the scene straight out of hollywood movies where you see just one person walking all alone on a huge mountain ridge with breathtaking visuals! And how I longed to be in such places!”
|At Goche La|
And so ended the journey to Goche La!
Close view of Kanchenjunga was a really memorable one. And we were extremely lucky to have warm and sunny weather since morning. We did not stay long in Gochela as we wanted to get back when the weather is still good. After returning to Samiti for a good lunch, we moved on from there to reach Kokchurong where we stayed for the night.
returning to Yuksom.
The next morning we started from Kokchurong and reached Tsoka. This time we took a shorter route and did not have to go to Dzongri. We stayed in Tsoka for the night and reached Yuksom the next afternoon. We were greatly relieved to get back to the civilized world. A week of hard terrain, walking and cold had made us very tired. As soon as we reached Yuksom, we checked into the best hotel in town for a good rest and sleep. The hotel guys were probably surprised at seeing the amount of food that we hogged for dinner that day. If I remember correctly, we got into the restaurant at around 6pm and kept ordering something or the other for next 3 hours. It was a lucky day for us at the hotel. They had some special batch of visitors and so had arranged some cultural programs. We also got a chance to see children perform on stage and listen to some local music. The next morning, we moved out of Yuksom and were back in the city of Bangalore a day later.