Day 1 : A Tentative Start
When I wake up this morning of 16th April, 2011 I find taps running out of water. What a start! I have a flight to catch in and the first signs are not encouraging. I rush to the ground floor and switch on the motor to fill the tank on the terrace. Krishnan, one of my co-trekkers, has the same flight to Kolkata and he calls me to inform that he will meet me in the bus to the Bangalore airport. I finish bathing in hurry. Bhavik meanwhile wakes up on his own before 7AM, which is quite surprising by his set standards, and offers to drive me to the bus stand. Very thoughtful of him. The start of the day is not that bad after all. We reach to the bus stand on time. I board the bus.
I call for Krishnan and a burly figure answers. His round face sits pretty on his spout body. I am meeting him first time. He is a colleague of Jagdish, fondly Jaggi, a runner buddy, who has taken all the efforts to organize this trek for us. Krishnan’s winter-jacket is dangling on the side of the seat. His orange color sleeping bag instantly catches one’s attention. An SLR camera is occupying the seat next to his. He hasn’t packed fully. He looks at my bags and asks how I managed to stuff everything in two small bags. I myself don’t know. What I know for sure is that those two little drums on my shoulders are heavy and I would like to offload them at any slightest chance. Krishnan talks about his previous trekking experiences, about his office and family. I think I will get along well with him.
We go straight to the Cafe Coffee Day for breakfast once we reach to the airport. One thing noticeable without fail is number of house-sparrows here. They are flying wild in different directions scouting for food and water. Quite paradoxical to see the house-sparrows in a place far from hme! I remember my childhood days when these small fliers frequented our home and neighborhood, picking morsels of grains from the courtyards and drinking water from the flower pots. A child, obviously startled by their presence, happily follows a nearby birdie to catch it and take it home. Her mother gets hold of him before he can succeed. I watch the sparrows running their riot for sometime before going for security check.
I pick up the travel magazine in the flight and end up on an article on Darjeeling. That makes me happy since just a week back I decided to take an extra week off to visit Darjeeling and Kolkata along with my two weeks plan of trekking in Sikkim and running in Pedong. I did not know then what places will excite me in Darjeeling but the article listed some places which surely made my list. Just a day before, my friends Rashmi and Gopal recommended some places to visit in Kolkata. The cherry on the cake was an offer from Rashmi to stay at her relative’s place in Kolkata for free! Till that moment I had no idea where will I stay in Kolkata or what will I do there. The old cliché is that when you really want something from heart, the whole universe conspires to bring it to you. The universe certainly took its own sweet time, but finally it’s filling my goodie bag and I have no qualms lifting this bag no matter how heavy it gets.
Our flight reaches 20 minutes before the scheduled time. They always do that when you are in no real hurry. Jaggi and Vinay also land at around the same time. We meet near the conveyor belts. Vinay also works with Jaggi. There is prominent hint of smile on his face. He is constantly talking on mobile phone. They are carrying a few packets of groceries which we are going to use during our 10 days trek. I frown at this added luggage but it’s a necessary evil for survival in the high mountains. We take a taxi to the Highlands Park. We realize in the taxi that we were cheated at the airport. The prepaid taxi counter was inside the airport and someone led us outside where a person was sitting on the pavement with a small table pretending that counter is shifted there because of the on-going renovation work of the airport. It was quite clear there was nexus between the taxi drivers and police to let that prepaid taxi counter function under the sky.
We meet Saptarshi Roy at a mall in Highlands Park. Sapta, as he is fondly known, has his own venture, Himalaya Trekkers, which organizes treks. We take lunch in the mall, followed by the famous Calcutta paan. We hire a cycle-rickshaw from outside to go to a place from where we will get sleeping begs and tents on rent with the help of Sapta. He argues with the rickshawwala to reduce the charges from 70 rupees to 65 rupees! Now we are definitely in Kolkata. This is the city where 50 paisa coins are still in use, even if they are piece of heritage in other parts of the country. It also shows there are many people below poverty line here and every penny matters. Jaggi and I sit in the rickshaw while Sapta rides his bicycle guiding us. Jaggi is uncomfortable that someone is pulling two healthy people for a small amount. I am also bothered by that thought, but be a Roman when in Rome and ride in rickshaw when in Kolkata.
We reach to David’s house. He runs his enterprise from his humble house where many people work to manufacture tents, sleeping bags, rucksacks and other things used in trekking. There are a few tailors sewing the tents or rucksacks in one room. The finished products are occupying the shelves in the main room from where David seems to operate the proceedings. He also rents them to trekkers for a nominal charge.We check the tents, learn how to open it, set it and dismantle it. We pay David his rent and deposit and leave for Highlands Park where Krishnan and Vinay are waiting with all the luggage. The rickshawwala is furious since he had to wait for 15 minutes outside David’s house. When we get down at our destination, he asks for extra 5 rupees for waiting. Sapta walks off, but Jaggi reaches to his pocket and hands him a 10 rupees note. He is happy. In Bangalore, autowalas charge minimum 10 rupees extra for any distance, any time of the day, even without waiting. Suddenly I am full of rage against those extortionists.
We say thanks and good bye to Sapta. He spent a couple of hours to help us find the right things for our trek. Encounter with another good Samaritan today. May you happily help many others! We load everything in a taxi and leave for Howrah station from where we are to catch the train to New Jalpaiguri. We meet Suman at the railway station. He comes from a town in West Bengal bordering Orissa. He came to know about our trekking trip from www.indiamike.com and called Jaggi to join us. Suman is thin! Almost as much as I am. You cannot miss the typical Bengali-Oriya accent in his English. It reminds me of some of my other friends from the same region. His rucksack, protected by waterproof thin fluorescent green cover, catches my attention. That’s the only luggage he is carrying. It can fit in everything, including Suman, i am sure. How lucky!
Good that our train is to come at platform number 8 which is near to the main entrance. There are 26 platforms on this busiest station of the country where some of the most important trains end their journeys. As we wait for the last member of our troop, Sashi, I explore the platform. There is a nicely paved cab road between the platform 8 and platform 9. You can actually drive your car in here to drop your loved ones to the station and then go back from the flyover a little further. Sashi comes just then, right in time. I have met this tall and hefty person before while shopping for trekking gear in Bangalore’s Decathlon sports store. He works for Unicef. Once the introductions with others are done and pleasantries are exchanged, it’s time to board the train. The whole compartment is occupied by 6 of us. It’s been long since I have travelled with so many people together and I want to make the most of it. We play cards, drink tea, eat jaalmuri – the yummy Bengali version of bhel,chat loudly, make fun of each other, never forgetting the mountains which brought us all together this day.
For a long time I have been wanting to go to Himalayas, anywhere from Kashmir in the North to the Arunachal Pradesh in the North-East. Different plans came –of Ladakh, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, and went. Nothing fructified. So when Jaggi told me that he was planning to do Goechela trek in Sikkim, I gave my tentative node. One thing or the other stopped me confirming my participation. But when a mountain calls, you cannot ignore that call for a long time. Now that I was going, I wanted to make most of it so I have extended my vacation. This moment, as I go to sleep, in that state when you don’t know if you are asleep or awake, I see myself looking at the white pyramid that is Kangchenjunga. My mountain is calling, and I am already on my way…
Day 2 : To Sikkim’s First Capital
The machine tea at the New Jalpaiguri(NJP) station does nothing to wake me up from my slumber. We are on the far side of the platform. The taxi driver who is going to take us to Yuksom in Sikkim is waiting outside in the parking area, but it will be long before we start our journey. Our friends from Mumbai who are going to share the taxi with us are reaching not before 9:30. We have much time to spend. We take turns to get afresh. Jaggi tries to find a hand-pulled trolley to carry our luggage but to no avail. We will need to carry it to the parking lot. Everyone picks up 3 to 4 bags and start walking. To my complete surprise I see elevators leading to the exit. This station has elevators! The platforms are clean and the station is well-organized. The parking lot is big, much bigger than what you find in some of the big cities. And why not? This is the place which leads to Sikkim and the Seven Sisters in the East, to Nepal in the North and to the Queen of Hills, Darjeeling. We are in the gateway of the North-East. The taxies are being loaded with luggage of trekkers and tourists. Jaggi goes to find our taxi while Krishnan, Suman and Vinay go to find a good breakfast joint.
We load the luggage on the roof of the sturdy Mahindra MaXX. Just outside the station, on the right, our search for food ends at Joy Baba Loknath dhaba. The parathas are taking shape in front of us. We order for omelets and parathas. When everyone’s stomach is filled with more than what they can effectively consume, we pour tea on it. Our Mumbai friends have still not reached and they do not know how much time it will take. Roshan, our taxi driver, is inching to leave. We also want to start for Yuksom fast since we need to buy remaining groceries from there for our trek. Finally train arrives at around 10 AM. I get omelets and parathas packed from Joy Baba Loknath for the bambaiya babus so that they do not need to spend more time in NJP. Finally we are out on the road to Yuksom.
Our taxi pass thru the Siliguri town on the National Highway 31. Sandip, Ashish and Ashutosh, the bambaiya babus, finish their breakfast in jiffy. After crossing the army area outside Siliguri, we are into Mahananda Wild Life Sanctuary now. The verdant forest is inviting. The green straight trees are standing tall. The sanctuary ends near Sevoke where river Teesta greets us with all its might. I see a lady carrying a large wicker basket -used by tea plantation workers -on her back supporting it by a strap across her forehead. Many ladies are looking after the shops in this town. I see more women working then the men. The roaring Teesta is one of them. We are going on NH 31A which leads to Gangtok, leaving behind NH 31 which goes to Guwahati. The road is winding upwards resulting into elevation gain. Teesta’s banks are getting closer to each other. The emerald green water is so enticing that I have urge to get out of the car and jump into Teesta, free falling in the gravity of the river. That being not possible without getting myself killed, I happily remain seated between Suman and Sandip in the back seat of the car. That does not stop me from watching the river running it course though. In some places the sand extraction from the river for construction work has resulted into big white patches. The contrast between emerald green and dull white is stark. But wait, does water have any color? I remember learning in science class that water is tasteless, odorless and almost colorless. What gives this water emerald green color then? Those green trees lining on the slopes leading to the river banks? A man’s life is given colors by his friends. Similarly the trees and the mountains are the river’s friends. What gives it taste and odor? The earth. On the same lines, if a man’s grounded to the earth and if he follows righteous path like a river, his life smells good and tastes better.
We enter into Sikkim by crossing the bridge on Teesta to reach Melli. The guard at the border post stops us for checking. He looks at all of us and then asks Jaggi, Is this your family? Jaggi nods in affirmation. Quite a strange family! There are no females in this family of 9 people. The guard does not check anything else. He lets us go. We stop for lunch in Jorethang. Roshan and Cheema, his assistant, tie a rope around our luggage before joining us for lunch. The lemon water is quite strong and salted, so we keep adding water in it to dilute it. One glass of it ends up resulting into three servings. A glass becomes a pitcher. Vinay wants to finish the trek in less than 10 days, possibly in 6 days as he wants to be back to home in a week. He is busy coming up with different plans. Jaggi has been to this trek the previous year, and he knows that stretching ourselves to do the trek in 6 days is not possible. Vinay is quite persistent though, and so is Jaggi. It will be interesting to see how and how fast the trek goes.
Roshan pays 10 rupees for parking. I offer him a 10 rupees note, but he is reluctant to take it. Cheema shoulders him not to refuse it. That may end up as his pocket money. Finally, after some forcing from Cheema, Roshan takes the money. As we move past Legship and Geyzing, Jaggi, sitting in front seat, is talking to Cheema about their religious practices, rituals etc. Cheema, in between, frequently speaks names of different car or motorcycle models and breaks into laughter. It takes us some time to realize that he does that only when he sees a girl on the side of the road. He has devised his own system of comparing a girl with an automotive based on her looks. We all join him in his laughter after that. I invariably remember that song from Gadar, main nikla gaddi leke.
Just a few kilometers before Yuksom, Roshan stops the car. There is a waterfall in distance overlooking the bridge and the valley beneath. Roshan wants us to enjoy the scenery before we enter Yuksom. I fetch my camera and start clicking pictures. As I move in the direction of Cheema and Roshan to click their pictures, Cheema beams exuberantly, smiles free hai, jitni chahiye le lo. Hum to taiyar hi rehte hai hanse ne ke liye. Those happy and smiling countenances make their way into my memory. I always wonder what makes these mountain people so cheerful. It’s difficult to spot a face which is not smiling. Do they have some defect which stretch their facial muscles in permanent smiles? I guess not. These are genuinely happy people. No wonder the world’s happiest country is Bhutan, a kingdom surrounded by Himalayan mountains.
The darkness is about to set its shop when we enter in Yuksom, Sikkim’s first capital established in 1642 by Phuntsog Namgyal. This is where the motorable road ends in North-West Sikkim. Nothing in this village suggests that it was kingdom’s capital once. The main bazaar street is around 200 meters long and on both the sides of it there are a few hotels, shops and restaurants. Prayer flags run thru the better part of the street above one’s head. There is a monastery on the top of the hill whose base is the end of the street. We get down at Hotel Demazong. Our guide for the trek, Biren, and cook accompanying us there, Birju, welcome us. We check into the hotel after paying for the taxi and waving Roshan and Cheema goodbye. Our friends from Mumbai check into another hotel. They will be with us intermittently during the trek as we have slightly different plans for the trek. A tea serves well to rid of the exhaustion. There is not much time left and we have some important shopping to do.
We first register ourselves at the police station. The police officer courteously thanks us. We then proceed towards the provision store at the other end of the street. We buy rice, daal, noodles, oil, spices, paneer, kerosene etc. From the adjacent vegetable shop we buy enough vegetables to last for next 10 days. Birjubhaiya helps us renting some kitchen utensils and kitchen tent. He also gets two sticks on rent for Vinay and Krishnan as supports during trek. There is light drizzle of rain. It’s dinner time. The Gupta’s Restaurant feeds us with rice, pizzas, sandwiches and chicken dishes. A full pot of ginger honey tea beckons after the dinner. We return to our dorm room in the hotel, pack our most important stuff in daypack, the needful in the rucksack and the needless in separate bags to be left at the hotel to be collected later when we return. Cuddled in the comfort of the thick woolen blanket, I think about the high mountains, about the trek. One day closer. The excitement is gathering inside like the clouds in the sky outside…