Journey of a hundred miles starts with a
small step. That small step was taken by eleven brave trekkers at Yaksum in West Sikkim on a sun baked morning in late September,
2012. The target was to reach Goecha La via Dzongri involving a climb of over
10000 feet traversing nearly 100 kms of leech infested rain forests in the
Himalayan foothills. Or rather, the journey started thousand miles away when I
stepped out of home at Delhi.
It was 3:30 am when I left home. The cab zipped
through the empty streets of Delhi.
I hate getting up at those unearthly hours to catch a flight. But here we had
very little choice as we were to report at New Jalpaiguri at 10am. The team of eleven
colleagues would be travelling from across India to reach New Jalpaiguri or
Siliguri. As the dawn broke, the flight took off to Guwahati en-route Bagdogra.
A clear sky with lovely view of the Himalayas
greeted us on the flight. Monsoon had started showing signs of withdrawal from North India, but it was still active in East. As we
landed at Guwahati airport en-route, it was raining outside. This left us a bit
worried. The apprehensions deepened as the flight took off from Guwahati,
flying over a swollen Brahmaputra which appeared
more like a sea than a river. As the flight headed north, a bluish hole appeared
through dark clouds in the distant sky. The flight went through that hole to
land on a sunny tarmac at Bagdogra. Sunshine was a good omen.
Cabs sent by our operator Kiran Gurung
picked us at the NJP station. The six hour journey to Yaksum via Jorethang involved
several breaks. By evening we had reached the town of Jorethang where Kiran bought supplies for the
trip. Jorethang is the last major town on this side. An eventful last leg of
journey in the darkness of night through landslide, slush and fog landed us at
Yaksum around 8 in the night. Located at an altitude of 5500 feet, Yaksum is
the last road head on this side of West Sikkim.
This is the village of actor Danny Dengzongpa. It is about 170km from Siliguri
via Sevok and Jorethang. Peeling, which is district HQ of West Sikkim is around
32 km from here. There are several places to stay put at Yaksum, mostly
catering to trekkers. The Yaksum –Dzongri trek continues to allure trekkers
across the world for the challenge it offers along with the promise of
unmatched natural beauty. The hotel hired by Kiran for the team was named Dragon
which is a basic trekker’s accommodation with one shared toilet. The owner
charges around 150 per bed. Kiran briefed the team about the trekking plan.
Local authorities require that all members were to provide photocopies of ID
and a medical fitness certificate. Those who did not carry medical certificate
were required to give an undertaking that he is fit and undertaking the trek on
his own risk. The Yaksum – Dzongri – Goecha la is rated as moderate to tough
graded trek. Out of the eleven in our team, only three including me had prior
experience of tough grade trekking. We had a discussion on things to do and not
to do, pre-caution required etc. Formalities done, we went early into bed to
beat the cold outside.
A bright sunny day greeted us in the
morning. After breakfast we were all set to go. Kiran had set Sachan as our target
for the day. Experienced trekkers successfully make it to either Bakhim or even
Tsoka on day 1. But Kiran advised us against this. He opined that many treks
ends at Toskha on day1 itself as the climb from Sachan to Tsokha is very steep.
Yaksum-Tsokha is too much ask on day 1 when your muscles are not loose enough.
Trying to reach Tsokha on day 1 may either leave you drained or with cramped
muscles, bringing an early end to your trek. One should have enough time in
hand to enjoy the trek, breathe in lots of fresh air and savor the beauty
nature unfolds every now and then.
The team was excited to embark on this
tough journey. So much so that when I get out of my hotel, almost everyone was
seen waiting outside with heavily loaded rucksack on their back. I was very
clear about not carrying heavy rucksack on this trek. Instead I was carrying a daypack
loaded with essentials - a jacket, water, raincoat, umbrella, dry fruit and
cameras. I carried the Canon 60D body with 17-40 F/4L and the Canon SX40 mega zoom
camera, each for different purpose. With my photo gear, the backpack was almost
4-5 kilos, decent enough for this type of trek. I was skeptical about those
proudly swaggering around with their new rucksacks. Newbie’s to trekking are
always inspired by photos of alpine style trekkers with rucksack on their back.
Here we had the luxury of porters and yaks to carry luggage. So all one wanted
was a daypack with essentials.
By the time we finished formalities at
local police station, it was around 10am. A team from Air India, Mumbai
had also started off together. They had targeted Bakhim for the day. The
distance to Sachan was about 7 km with a gentle climb of 1500 feet. It turned
out to be good warm up for the tough climb ahead. There were occasional scare
of leeches. One has to keep looking for leeches while resting or taking photos,
especially around bridges. Most of us made it in 4 hours. The porters had
arrived well before us and was preparing for lunch when I reached. While we
sipped tea at the small trekker’s hut, which was used by the porters for
cooking, others started to arrive one by one. Then the bad news came. Weather
started to change around 3pm and soon it started raining. Lack of fitness
started to show on couple of members who had fallen way behind. A porter had to
be sent looking for them. Both started with lot of enthusiasm, and of course
with rucksacks, which they discarded somewhere on the way and handed over to
porters. Now that it had started to rain they were left with nothing, not even
raincoats to fend themselves. One should not trek without a daypack with
essentials. Finally the porter brought them to the camp, almost two hours
Both the late comers were in sad state.
Both had given up and declared that they will not go further. As their
condition appeared more psychological than physical, they were counseled to
continue. Carrying someone who is not in good physical state can become a
liability and may hamper team’s progress. If they are to go back, then they
were just 4-5 hours trekking away. But if they go further, then we may have to
send back some ration, porter, etc. with them. Team had to take a call.
Decision making was postponed to next morning.
The tent site was across the road, on the
hill opposite the trekker’s hut. The wooden trekker’s hut is very small and can
accommodate 5/6 people. It was used by our porters. A visit to the tent site
was a hair rising experience. It was full of leeches of all sizes. The rain had
made the situation worse. We got salt spread around the tents, but that was of
very little use in rain. People were bitten by leeches when they went out at
night to pee. Our only weapon to fight these scary creatures was a small
torchlight and ensuring that the tent is sealed. Yet that night one leech got
inside someone’s sleeping bag, one was bitten on leg, another on lips. I survived.
As usual mornings used to be bright and
sunny. By now, Rawat, one of the late comers had recovered mentally and showed
determination to go ahead. Hailing from hills of Uttarakahnd, his physical
condition was good to let him continue. The other had to be sent back. These
are hard decisions on trek the leadership has to take. It becomes harder if the
member pleads to continue despite his physical condition.
Our target for the day was Tsokha. Starting
at 7000 feet, we climbed about 300 feet when we met a deep descent of about 500
feet to the large hanging bridge over river Prek Chu. From the other side of
the bridge it was a non stop 3500 feet climb to Tsokha, almost without any
descent. En-route we had stopped at Bakhim (altitude 8500 feet) for tea and waited
for the slow climbers to arrive. Sachan- Bakhim was achieved in about 3 hours. Another
1 1/2 hours of climb took us to Tsokha, our target for the day.
The camping site at Tsokha was the best
campsite on the entire trek. Sitting at 9500 feet and looking down the valley gave
a kind of roof of the world feel. The trekker’s hut at Tsokha is quite spacious
with 3 rooms and two kitchens. The rooms have elevated bed with a mattress.
Such facilities exist on the entire trek route. Even you do not have prior
booking; you may get accommodation in such trekker’s hut @50 per person per
night. But sometimes it may be too crowded, as we had seen on our return when
we met at least five large groups going up. Staying in tents is more fun on
treks than huts.
Tsokha was a village in the past of Tibetan
settlers, with a small monastery. The habitants of this village were relocated after
it got included in the Kanchendzonga
National Park. The
village is now deserted, except for one family. When we visited the monastery,
it was also found to be locked. The area around Tsoka is good for birding and
reclusive red panda. I was not on a wildlife trip here this time. So, someday
later I will come back in search of the red panda.
It was another tough day. Another grueling
3000 feet climb to Dzongri. As you gain heights, air becomes thinner making
your every step harder. However, this part of the trek was enjoyable for its
uniqueness. A large part of the trek has wooded pavement through Rhodenderon
forest. The project of covering the trek with logs certainly had been a tough
task. Rhodenderons were not in bloom in Sepetember. When they bloom around
April, it must be quite an experience. We had a brief stop at Phethang
(altitude 11500 feet) allowing slow movers to join. On that a day, a big group of
80 trainees of Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI) was making their way up
from Bakhim. HMI has a training camp just beyond Dzongri. Each of the trainees
was carrying a rucksack weighing not less than 15-20 kg. It was bit too much
for many of them, who were seen cursing. But the helpless fellows had no other
alternative but to get up with the instructors whistle and keep moving. We let
the boys pass by and continued trekking. There is a small trekker’s hut at
Phethang, but no potable water sources nearby. Hence organized tours do not
camp here. It is generally used to serve packed lunch or snacks. Some trekker’s
makes the mistake of staying here. While the main trek continues to Dzongi,
another side trek originates here to Kokchurung, which we used on return from Goecha La.
After another climb, we had reached the
Dorilla pass, an area with Rhodenderon forests and a small water body. Then
there was a descent. At those heights, you would hate any sight of a descent,
when you know that you will again have to gain the height lost. One serious
thing to note is that on the entire Tsokha – Dzongri stretch there is no stream
or any other source of drinking water. So make sure to carry enough water on
this stretch. We made Tsoka-Dzongri in about 5 hours. The HMI guys had arrived
well before us. It was a kind of mela that day at Dzongri. We met the Air India
team, who had started together at Yaksum. After 3 days of trekking, we as well as
the Air India team had made it to Dzongri. But we did it in a more enjoyable
way by stopping at Sachan on day 1. The Air India team had stretched it to
Bakhim on day 1 which certainly was harder.
It is all about good planning and spacing out our trek nicely so that
you can enjoy it. Kiran, our agent, did a fantastic job in our trip planning.
His entire support team was fantastic. Just imagine being served Pasta with
boiled potato when we arrived at Dzongri. Or being served soup at Tsokha and
Lamuney when we were shivering in sub-zero temperature. Or winding up the trip
on return at Tsokha with a celebration and a cake! We will not forget Badal,
Deepak and others. The guys were just fantastic. Kiran lived upto his
|The paved trek between Tsokha and Dzongri with Rhodenderon canopy|
It took upto 7 hours for some guys to reach
Dzongri that day. Two days of tough climb had taken toll on at least 4 members.
A big question mark was hanging on their progress further. We had a spare day
for rest and acclimatization at Dzongri. To my horror I found most of the guys
were using Diamox, but were not aware of care required. People seem to read on
the net about this drug and then use it without bothering to know how to use
it. I had learned about side effects of Diamox on my last trip to Ladkah. I
have successfully made to 17000 feet on that trip without Diamox. This time it
was 2000 feet lower with more oxygen because of trees. I had kept Diamox in the
kit as a pre-caution, but did not use it. If you use Diamox, then you need to
drink a lot of water and pee a lot. Further, the drug starts to take effect
after about 48 hrs only.
We were shaken out of slumber at 4:30 am by
calling of Badal, our chief guide. We were to climb up along the ridge of the
hill next to the camp in order to reach the view point before sunrise to catch
a glimpse of the sunrise on Mt.
Kangchendzonga and other
nearby peaks. Dzongri provides a magnificent view of seven Himalayan peaks from
very close range. The cold outside at that hour of night was severe. It can not
be described, can only be felt. We got packed with almost everything we had carried,
at least four layers. Even though we were well acclimatized, the 500 odd feet
climb to the view point was brutal. The climb with torch and headlight at those
hours with empty stomach was one of the toughest things I had ever done in my
life. It took us about 45 min to reach the top. Despite the tough conditions, I
carried my tripod. It is near impossible to capture mountains hand held as
light is very poor. The effort paid off well as couple of photos taken that
morning is up for display and sale at Nature’s Touch exhibition later. I love
the orange mountains. In fact I am now infatuated with them. I never miss an
opportunity to capture them. In higher altitudes, the sky generally remains
clear in the morning offering you great opportunity to capture this moments
when snow capped peaks changes colour every moment. Getting to capture the
colours in the evening is tougher as weather often detoriate in the afternoon.
On this trip, we did not get a single sun baked afternoon. In Ladakh, I found
this change phenomenon around 2pm. Here in the east, it was happening after 12
in the noon.
|The team of brave-hearts. Me on right corner. Photo courtesy: Himanshu Topno|
We came down around 8am for breakfast. Only
then we realized the climb we had undertaken in the darkness of night. Had it
been in daylight, a couple of guys would have certainly refused to climb. On
the hindsight, it turned out be a good thing, as guys who thought they had no
more juice left, also made this tough climb. They day was free for
acclimatization and rest. I spent the day doing some birding around the camp as
long as the light stayed good.
The rest at Dzongri had done magic. All the
guys were ready to move ahead. The target was Lamuney via Kokchurung and
Thanseng. After a brief climb, the trek panned out through a valley dotted by
regular up and down. It was a pleasant journey offering good view of the peaks,
especially Mt Pandim, on the base of which we were supposed to camp. Then we
came across a steep descent of about 1000 feet to Kokchurung (altitude 11500
feet). We were relieved to know that we will not have to climb up these 1000
feet on return. There is a trekker’s hut here which we had used on return. We
crossed the river at Kokchurung and reached Thanseng (altitude 12500 feet) by
noon. Our lunch was served here. There is a big trekker’s hut here. The old hut
got gutted in a fire. A new hut were being constructed which was almost ready. The
Air India team had decided to halt here for the night. However we moved ahead
after lunch to Lamuney which was another couple of hours away. We came across
several small streams on this stretch. I could not stop myself from getting my
feet wet while crossing one of them as I slipped.
We reached Lamuney (altitude 13000 feet) at
around 4pm. Burst of clouds kept sweeping the site from time to time bringing
in blistering cold wind. Turquoise colored glacial water flowed in the river by
the camp. Across the river we saw a herd of Bharal, or Blue Mountain Goat,
making their way into the caves for the night. Their acrobatics were
breathtaking. Light was too low to attempt any photography. I just enjoyed
watching them jumping from rocks to rock balancing perilously from the hill
As night came down, cold became bitter. We
were warned about the cold at Lamuney campsite as it is located in an open U
shaped valley. As the tents were cold, we spent time playing cards in the wooden
kitchen hut which was very warm. I will not forget playing Twenty -Nine at 13K
feet under a headlamp to beat cold. The smell of cooking made my appetite grew.
Post a brief dinner, we hurried back to the tents and got packed inside the
sleeping bag. For the first time in the trip I used the liner as well. It was
one the coldest night I had ever endured.
Those who were to attempt a climb upto
Goecha La view point no.1 were to start latest by 5am. The very thought of
getting out of sleeping bag was bone jarring. As my tent partner Manish was
getting ready, I asked from inside my sleeping bag as to how the weather is. His
reply was that it was foggy or cloudy with very poor visibility. That was a bad
sign. Normally when you get up at such hours at those heights, you get a
brilliant clear sky. From my experience, I understood that there will be no
light that day, and hence no classic sunrise. Thus there was no point taking
the pains of venturing out in that extreme cold. Five brave guys from the team
decided set out for Goecha la. Five of us stayed back and decided to start a
little later to the turquoise watered Samiti Lake,
halfway to Goecha La.
My decision of not venturing out at 5am
turned out to be a good one. The scene was mostly engulfed in cloud even at 6am
when I came out of my tent. Our tent was right under Mt Pandim, but it was
completely covered in dense cloud. Sad that I did not get any sunrise shot of
Mt Pandim or Tenzing Thang, despite standing right under them. However I
managed a couple of interesting shot of Mt. Kaburu which I had named as ‘In
smoke’, as the passing cloud giving a feel of smoke rising out of the orange
We set out for Samiti Lake
at 7am when the weather had improved considerably. It was about a 1 ½ hour’s effort
to the beautiful Samiti
Lake. This lake revered
by locals is not very big, but the mountains reflecting on crystal clear
turquoise water provides a magnificent view. Sun was shining bright by now. There
was a trekker’s hut here which has been demolished as the site was getting
polluted. By 9am, the first team that went to Goecha La view point 1 had also
come back to join us. A group photo together captured the successful completion
of the trek. We returned to Lamuney by 10:30am and waited for our brunch. As we
waited, the weather had suddenly turned bad again. By 11 it started drizzling
which soon turned out to be an incessant rain. The Air India team had arrived
there amidst rain. We felt pity for them. When the sun was shining, they lazed
at Thanseng. Never waste your time on trek when the weather is good. You never
know when it will turn bad. In fact the weather was to remain bad for next
We waited for almost two hours for rains to
subside. But there was no sign of relenting. The danger of numerous streams on
the route to Thanseng overflowing also started to loom. Finally we started off
braving the rain. By the time we had reached Thanseng, the rain grew strong. We
spent another hour at Thanseng. Our plan that day was to make it to Kokchurung
which was another hour away. As the rain weakened, we dashed off for
Kokchurung. Walking as fast as we can, we made it in about 45min. We had
expected the campsite to be wet. The porters also told about difficulty in
setting up the tents in the rains. Thus we had decided to stay put at the
trekker’s hut at Kokchurung for that night. Payment was made at Thanseng as the
caretaker for that hut stays there. The hut is spacious with 4 rooms. It can easily
accommodate 20 people. Constructed with two layers of wooden planks, these huts
were quite warm. We had very comfortable sleep that night.
It had rained almost all through the night.
The morning was gloomy. Passing clouds getting trapped in pine ridges above
made beautiful blank and white landscapes. Post breakfast we started for Tsokha
via Phatheng. Just outside the hut, the trek bifurcates – one goes up steeply
to Dzongri, the one we had used on our first leg, and another narrow trek
covered with bushes goes to Phethang. The horses and Yaks can not travel on
this trek and hence they will take the long detour via Dzongri. This trek,
generally following the course of Prekchu stream, is not steep, but is
considered dangerous. Besides possibility of bear encounters, there were
perilous stretches where trek is washed away. We were also surprised by leeches
on some part. Leeches at that height and cold was an example of adaptability of
this incredible pest. It took us about 4 hours effort to reach Phethang. It had
started to drizzle by the time we had made to the small trekker’s hut. The team
was served light lunch at the trekker’s hut. We met a group of Europeans making
their way upto Dzongri. Despite the ominous looking weather, we wished them good
luck. In these parts of India,
when the weather turns bad, it remains bad for next 4-5 days. We were lucky to
have brilliant weather while going up. As were heading down, rain was not a
worry. On the way down we met a group of trekkers who had made the mistake of
targeting Phethang for night stay.
Another 2 hours walking brought us to the
Tsokha campsite. Rain had stopped, though not completely. Overall the weather
remained bad. But Kiran’s team cheered us up by making a cake to celebrate
successful completion of the trek. As some of the guys were not going down to
Yaksum because a new group of Kiran’s trekkers were coming up, we had
distributed the customary tips to all after the celebration.
Though we were to travel 15km and 4000
feet, the atmosphere in the camp was relaxed. We were all basking in glory of
the successful completion of the trek thanking god profusely for the excellent
weather we had, baring last two days. As usual, we had started around 8 in the
morning. The weather hold good till Sachan, the campsite of first night. We
stopped there for a quick brunch. Bided goodbye to guide Badal and his team,
and started the last part of the trek to Yaksum. By noon, it had started to
rain again. Though not very strong, the rain was consistent. After about an
hour, the speed was severely impeded due to slush and slippery conditions. It
was compounded by leeches which could be seen in abundance on the road waiting
for every opportunity to stick to your shoe. Baring a couple of us, almost all
the others suffered leech attack that day. Despite our rain protection, we were
fairly wet because of walking in rain for almost 3 hours. My water resistant
Quechua had also started to give in after walking in rains for last 3 days.
Yaksum, we were all greeted back by a smiling Kiran at the hotel. Celebrations
continued that night at Gupta’s restaurant where we had to pre-order non-veg
dinner. A memorable trek, an unforgettable journey into wilderness has come to
an enjoyable end. Many of the moments got captured in our cameras. But some of
them got captured in our heart forever to cherish. As I took the flight back to Delhi, memories started to flow in.
Labels: Dzongri, Goecha La, Travel, Trekking
posted by Rupankar Mahanta at 4:13 PM
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