Day 3 : The World Is TurningIt was not a perfect sleep in the night. It was disturbed too many times, so I wake up early. It rained for the better part of the night. The water drops, hitting the roof and the compound of the hotel, made constant sound. There was another sound of snoring in the room. Then there were yaks outside the hotel joining the chorus. At times I was not sure if the sound came from yaks or someone snoring in the room. The day is bright. We get ready and take our luggage outside. While others go to Gupta’s for breakfast, Jaggi and I work with Biren to hire yaks and porters. We settle for 4 yaks and 3 porters. Just then a dog comes and pees on some of our luggage in that famous doggy style of lifting the back leg. It’s a strange early morning!
We finish our breakfast at Gupta’s and get our lunch packed. The chirping of the birds gets louder as we move towards the Forest Department Office from where we have to take permission for the trek. There are neatly placed and aptly colored green dustbins near the office for different kinds of waste – glass, cloth, plastic etc.The lady at the office notes our names, the supporting crew’s details and grants us permission after we pay for trek charges and the camera permission fees. Going further we have to pay for the accommodation in the Trekkers’ Hut in different places for next 10 days. Leaving the tar road behind, we climb onto the slope on the right passing by many houses and hit the trail paved with dirt and stones. Finally all of us are truly on our way to Goechela to view the majestic Mount Kangchenjunga.
The yaks, laden by our rucksacks and the kitchen utensils, passed by us. The yakmen put a bell around the neck of any one yak in their lot. When such a group of yaks is nearby, you will hear the bell ringing and that will be a warning to clear the path for the yaks. I like the harmonic sound it produces. It reminds me of some song which I don’t remember clearly. The trail is either climbing up or climbing down, never flat. After about 45 minutes, we see the first bridge of the four we are supposed to cross today. A photographer is trying to focus his lens very far from where we are standing. On inquiring further, he points to a spot in the wall of the mountain on the other side of the valley. A beehive is barely visible there. He says that he is here to capture a photo of Honeybird which is found in these forests. A honeybird eats honeybees, so the name. The bridge on the Pao Khola is nothing sort of spectacular. The iron plates and the railings are supported by steel suspensors. The water is emerald green and dancing on the boulders. Green is the theme of this place. Everything is green.
The second bridge on the river Tsushsay Khola also takes almost the same time to reach. The structure of this bridge is also similar to the previous one. We sit there for some time and have light snacks. Once on the trail, I notice the wide variety of ferns adorning the side. They are beautiful. I try to catch every variety and in the process ends up trailing behind others. But who cares when you have such esteemed beauty vying for your attention.
The first real sign of any flowers is provided by the presence of red magnolias before the bridge at Minto Gang. We are hungry now and finish our lunch of Chowmin and puri-sabjee. We fill our water bottles from the river. A bridge in these mountain means double challenge. First you have to descend down to the level of river, then you have to ascend much more than that on your way up. We have planned to reach Tsoka, a small village at an altitude of nearly 3000 meters. Yuksom is at 1780 meters. It’s a tough challenge and some of us are already tired. Many trekkers stay at Sachen on their first day but we do not want to do that. We are about to reach Sachen now. It’s drizzling now. Our bambaiya friends are stitching raincoat for them from plastic cover using flame from a lighter. Some of the other trekkers are having lunch there. Suman and I march on. By the time we reach to the last bridge, on river Prek Chu, the incessant rain clearly warrants a raincoat. I pull out my jacket from the backpack and put it on. All the bridges are full of colorful prayer flags with religious sermons written in Tibetan language all over them.
Biren and Ajay, one of our porters, are already there. We wait for sometime but the water from heavens do not help us much. We continue walking again. Biren says that primary source of income in the region is tourism. The season lasts only for couple of months in summer and around the same duration in winter. Rest of the time they grow corn and millet in the small patches of lands on the slopes. Some yaks pass by us. The yakman is behind the animals. It strikes me that the tenders of the animals control them and drive them from behind. Unlike vehicles which are driven from the front. They just need to nudge them when they are going off-track, otherwise they are wise enough to follow the right path. That is one of the benefits of livestock – they have brain of their own.
The climb is too steep now. The Prek Chu is roaring in the distance. The gentle and steep slopes of the mountains are washing their feet in the river. The beautiful vistas open themselves to full view at every turn. Between the green leaves of the trees, there are newborn small red leaves. Ever so gentle, ever so fresh. The smell of the soil bathed in the rain permeates the air. Biren wants to wait for others. He asks us to continue for Bakhim, the next big stop before Tsoka. He warns us strictly not to take shortcut to Tsoka. I, along with Suman, negotiate the steep curves, stopping here and there to catch our breath, soaking in the fascinating scenery.
We order for tea at the shop in Bakhim. A lady runs the shop. A giant mountain blocks the view of one side. On the other side, across the valley, other range of mountains rise in their full glory. The sun is going down behind these mountains. The garden near the shop is blooming with yellow flowers. There is a tree, barren of leaves, next to it. It is laden with white color flowers. The air is getting colder. It’s better for me to put on my winter jacket but I want to start trekking to Tsoka and don’t want to take it out now. This is probably last place to get mobile signals. I call some friends. The signal is not strong. After a long time Krishnan and Vinay come and join us. They order masala maggi along with tea. Vinay says that Sashi is having some problem. Jaggi and Biren are with him somewhere between Bakhim and 4th bridge. we wait for them anxiously. After a wait which seemed to border on infinity, we see frames of Biren, Jaggi and Sashi. I don’t know what is wrong with him but he looks jaded. They enter the courtyard of the shop. Jaggi stops there, thinking that I will get hold of Sashi. He keeps on walking towards the cliff and I keep looking at him without stopping him, not realizing that he might not be fully alert. Jaggi runs after him and catches him before he ends up falling in the valley. Jaggi gives me angry look. At least I should have been alert. Jaggi gives us the account of the incident. Somewhere after the fourth bridge, Sashi started complaining of breathlessness and exhaustion. He was feeling dizzy. The world was turning around him. They sat quietly there for some time, taking rest and hoping to let it pass. Since they were behind everyone else, Jaggi goaded him to continue slowly so that they can at least reach Bakhim and get help if needed.
Sashi’s condition means that we are not going to Tsoka today. That is bad news, but at least he is safe. The worse news is that he may not continue the trekking here onwards. It’s just the first day and the signs are not encouraging. We get couple of small rooms in Trekkers’ Hut in Bakhim for the night. Krishnan and I are going to sleep in the dorm room. Our cook, Birjubhaiya, has already reached Tsoka by now. We have to call him back. The mobile coverage is partial and intermittent in Tsoka, meaning someone has to go to Tsoka to get him back. Biren takes off for Tsoka and gets him back in couple of hours. Birjubhaiya comes and prepares tea for all of us. There is no sign of strain or complain on his face. He then starts preparing dinner. It’s already dark. We sit in the same kitchen area, eating samosas with tea and singing songs. Sashi is feeling better now and he also shares some jokes. The dinner is served fast –may be the result of our hoarse singing which prompted Birjubhaiya to get rid of us fast- and we munch on everything which comes our way, such was the hunger at the end of the long and tiresome day.
It’s a full moon night. The mountains are moonlit. The stars twinkle in the clear sky. I call home to say that I will not be able to call for another 8 days. I know there will be times when I will want to talk to my loved ones, when I will want to see them, when I will want to go back. I understand why Vinay does not want to spend more than 6 days. For now the moon has soothing effect on the mind. And the promise of a view of the mountain brushes aside everything in the passing wind…
Day 4 : The Cold Welcome
The last night also did not yield much by the way of sleep. It was first time I was sleeping in a sleeping bag. It’s too constrained inside a sleeping bag. Even the coffins are more comfortable! To add more miseries, the presence of many people in the dorm room meant there was constant movement in the room. Krishnan’s snoring made the matters worse. But even his look does not suggest that he had proper rest. The day is bright. It’s time to catch some light.
Sashi has decided not to continue with us and is going back to Yuksom. We will miss him. We get a porter from a group which is returning back to Yuksom after finishing their trek. Sashi will tag along with them. Sashi is our in-charge of keeping track of the trail with the help of Garmin GPS device. In his absence Jaggi thrusts the responsibility on my shoulders. That means changing the batteries of the device every day, turning it on before the start, marking the various points on the way, saving the record at the end of the day and turning it off. I will like it though – keeping the progress card with me, monitoring the altitude and the distance.
After the breakfast, Sashi is ready to leave. We bid him happy journey. As he fades into the thick of the tree cover, we start our ascent towards Tsoka and Dzongri. The climb is steep, but fresh legs after a night’s rest is helping us going at a good pace. Everything is shining in the bright sunny day. Red magnolias compete for attention with the green of the forest and the clear blue of the sky. A bird is making a sound like someone is blowing a bamboo pipe. The sound resonates in the air. I try to look for the bird but in the dense forest my eyes do not find what my ears easily can.
The leafless tree with white flowers which fascinated me yesterday is in abundance now. Biren says that the flower is called Chap. They make pickle from the chap leaves. There are no leaves on those trees and I will have to let go the temptation of tasting the pickle. It’s fall season and the trail is full of dried leaves and the big yellowish white chap petals. The famed rhododendrons are still elusive. We need to go a little higher.
We are about to reach Tsoka Trekkers’ Hut. We climb up on a serpentine trail and we stop short, amused by the beautiful landscape in front of us. The snow-capped Mount Pandim is in full glory, with Tenzingkhang and other mountains on its side. Pandim gives an impression as if it’s carved out of snowy white marble and put there as an afterthought. It’s 6691m high, not much comparing with other mountains in the range but it’s majestic. It could have been a beloved prince in its human incarnation.
From behind Tsoka’s Trekkers’ Hut, Pandim surfaces in another great view. We are not stopping here since we are already lagging behind in our schedule. Vinay fortunately finds the mobile signals he was looking for desperately in one spot. Tsoka, situated at around 3000m, is the last village on the way to Goechela. We pass by the small lake on the other side of which a monastery is rising above a small hill. A small wooden footbridge takes one to the monastery but we save it for the return journey. A dog starts following us and then leading us.
The climb to Phedang is steeper than what we have encountered till now. There are big steps made with boulders. Birjubhaiya is walking along with us. When I ask him to go fast and reach to Phedang before anyone else, he jokingly says that he is not going to do that lest we may stop before Phedang and send someone to call him back. The little dark pink flowers are occupying every inch of space available on the tree roots. I find mushroom in a place. Birjubhaiya was plucking this tasty fungi yesterday to prepare a dish for us. He was effortlessly climbing the slopes and finding it behind or below a bunch of tree leaves. I show him the one I have found. He stops me from touching it. He says that some mushrooms are poisonous, and this is one of them!
The black dog is still with us. We name it Kaalu. Krishnan has fed him some biscuits. The trail is turned into a path of well-placed wooden planks now. Suman calls it National Highway in these mountains. Then we see them – the rhododendrons. The leaves are bunched together pointing downwards. The bell shaped pink color flowers are also bunched together like a bouquet. The rhododendrons are lined up on both the sides. Magnolias are reduced to occasional presence between rhododendrons. I want to see a flower closely but Birjubhaiya does not let me do that. What? Even these flowers can be poisonous! Oh my God, why on earth some of these splendid starlets are toxic? To save themselves, I guess, from reaching to the digestive systems of animals and living rooms of humans. We take a break at Gomchen before continuing further along the pink-lined trail. Poisonous? Why? Couldn’t the creative nature find some other ingenious solution?
Phedang has a small hut which can be used as a kitchen. The small ground next to it is an ideal picnic spot. We spread the mattresses there and are relaxing now. We are surrounded by gathering clouds. They do not miss to pinch our nose whenever they pass by. Birjubhaiya serves us soup, sabjee and puri for lunch. It’s delicious! This mountain air makes everything doubly delicious. The rain can come at anytime now so we wind up everything, put on our wind-cheaters and hurriedly start for Dzongri, our last destination for the day. The tree cover is giving way for shrubs and bushes now. The sun is involuntarily playing hide-and-seek in the clouds. The steep climb to Mon Lepcha is strenuous. At around 3860m altitude, tiny hail stones hail us. There is a thin layer of snow above the ground. Mon Lepcha is at 4000m. By the time we reach there, the wind is blowing heavily and down comes snow. I have never seen a snowfall before. The delicate white snowflakes tickle my bones. I cover whole of my body with woolen clothes and move in the direction of Dzongri.
There is a 100m of downhill trail into a plain before the uphill trail to Dzongri. The trees in the plain are all deep into snow. After crossing the plain and climbing the hill, we reach to a point which Jaggi affectionately names as Pink Bandana Point, because he got his pink bandana from a friend at this point during his last trek. The Dzongri Hut can be seen from this point. The temperature is dipping fast. The snowfall is turning its tirade. We need to hurry. My hands are freezing in the gloves. They are almost numb. I keep looking at the trail and walking at a brisk pace. With some forced effort, we reach the Hut in short time. The snowfall is relentless now. We get in the Hut and are led to our room. Guess what? There are not enough rooms so five of us need to share the room with three more people. Those three are no one else but our very own bambaiya bandhus!
The temperature is below zero degree Celsius. We get our rucksacks and get each and every extra woolen cloth we have. Thermals, woolen socks, monkey caps, and gloves find their utility on our bodies. Everyone is clad in minimum three layers of clothing. There is no electricity. We go out to see the snow. It is delightful to watch snow foam landing on the earth. Yaks are out there in open using their skin shield as the protection against cold. Birjubhaiya gives us black tea to warm ourselves. The light is dim. There is nothing to do except playing cards and chatting. By 7:30 we finish our dinner and go to sleep after another round of game of cards. The room is made of wooden planks and there is wooden flooring. With so many people inside it, it should keep us warm in the night. Dzongri has given us white and cold welcome…