Day 7 : There are no differences under the shadow of a tree
The night reverted to its normal ways again, waking me frequently during the dark stretch. I had never been inside a tent for a night before, and it feels good to see that the tent protected us for the full night and did not leave us under the sky by flying awry in the windy weather. We have plans to go to Chaurikhang(4380m) and from there to Lam Pokhri before returning back to Bikbari(3800m) and eventually to Dzongri today. That means the day is going to be a long one. Biren and Birjubhaiya do not think that we can do all that in a day. We still want to try so we start early at 6 AM. The clouds are hovering around above our heads. The trail is gradually climbing up. We have to cross many rivulets on the way. The clear streams are passing thru the maze of rocks to finally become one with Ratong Chu.
Occasionally I hear a bird tweeting from behind the bushes or on top of the brown ridge of the mountain on our left. All efforts to sight them go in vein for light is dim because of the clouds and, according to Jaggi, most of these birds are camouflaged with the surroundings. The serious ascent starts from the moment we leave behind the flat grassland. The sun is seen between the clouds but it’s devoid of its prowess and is reduced to a mere white circle. The mountains on the opposite side of the river look like a sleeping tiger as the vertical stripes of snow lay on the slopes. A flock of birds take its flight in an army-like formation just before our eyes. The boulder strewn trail is precipitous now. We take short little breaks every now and then. After persistent effort for two and half hours, we reach to Chaurikhang, the site of Himalayan Mountaineering Institute(HMI) base camp. The Garmin shows 4500m altitude.
Our hopes of going further to Lam Pokhri are dashed when the in-charge of the camp, Mahadev Singh, stops us at the camp. He says that it’s not permissible to go any further. We have come savoring the dreams of seeing Ratong Glacier on the ways, and the milky white reflection of it in Lam Pokhri water. The trainees at the camp have gathered in one place to start the day’s activities. My hands are freezing inside my gloves. We want reward for our effort, and the remedy to rid of the dejection of not being able to go further. And what better way to get compensation than a hot steaming cup of tea in this cold? Jaggi uses his Big B charm and the age of wisdom to get Mahadev Singh into talking and receiving an offer for tea. He dutifully obliges.
We watch the trainees practicing rock-climbing from distance. The camp sees many adventure enthusiasts coming from every part of the country and world to do some serious training. There are some 150 trainees in the camp right now. I would like to do this basic level course some day. Suman has tried to register for the camp in the past, but his application was rejected because he is under-weight. Now that'’s trouble! I fear same fate for my application if I try it ever. The shocking fact was that Suman has less weight than me! i don’t get to see such people often.
In the background, Mt Ratong and Kabru peaks can be seen when clouds show some mercy. They are not much merciful though. My eyes keep going in the direction of Ratong and Lam Pokhri. Some other day, says the part of me which complies to all the rules. Disguise them, break the rules and set out on your way, says the rebellious twin. Rules are designed to keep the society in order is the winning argument. Some birds are gliding effortlessly in the sky. They have no rules to comply, I assume. And still they are together, no infighting, no disorder, no grudge. What makes us humans so complex? Why can’t we just be ourselves and let others be themselves?
After the tea which took some doing on Jaggi’s part to get, we are again on our way back to Bikbari. Kaali, our loyal dog, decides that she has had enough of us. She does not want to come back with us. We leave her at the camp. The return journey does not take much time as the steep fall helps us. We reach to Bikbari camp at 10:15. I am already tired and give myself up to the inviting arms of the grassland. The journey to Dzongri is long one so we decide to take brunch here. Birjubhaiya prepares noodles soup, halwa and omelet for our ever-hungry stomachs. With some(!) food inside our bellies, we are ready to start the next part of our trekking for the day.
While coming to Bikbari from Dzongri, we came via Dzongrila pass. Biren says that we will take different route while going back, which is supposedly easier. We cross the river to the other side into the forest. It’s almost noon and the day is hot. I remove the extra layers of warm clothing. The forest is full of rhododendron trees. Most of them are dry. While crossing one dry stream, Suman twists his right ankle. We stop and wait as he applies lotion. I hope it doesn’t hamper his walking. He is ready to go now. I walk behind everyone else for some time. Suman’s movement does not suggest any trouble. Thank God! Ratong Chu is with us, the roar constantly making its present felt. On the opposite side, we can see some waterfalls breaching the mountain walls. They are beautiful. The snow-capped mountains of Singalila range in Nepal grow taller as we approach the riverside of Mt Doring.
There are no thorns in the trees, but the dry rhododendrons cut my skin nonetheless. The trail is narrow and there is no chance I can escape my brush with these trees. There are bruises along the half exposed arms. The day feels hotter among the trees. The sun is hitting us from the west. There is a fine stretch of around 200 meters, flat and scenic, before we start climbing Doring. The trail is made of sand or delicate soil. That does not help our cause. The legs feel heavy. Many a times I catch a branch of a tree to support myself. There seems no end of the climb. When Biren said this will be an easy trail, I thought we will be whizzing past our way to Dzongri. This turns out to be quite different than my initial thought. Finally, passing thru some thick green cover of rhododendrons, we reach to a point which is the peak of Doring. We sit for a while there before descending into Dablakhang meadows.
From the Doring Hill, we climb down to Dzongri Pokhri. There is no water in the lake now. It must have been beautiful when it had water. The damp and dry soil crisscross the lake which is bordered by rocks. The Dablakhang meadows look beautiful in the backdrop of Singalila range and Mt Pandim. Jaggi and I lose our way in the meadows. It takes us some time to figure out the right direction towards Dzongri Hut. Upon reaching Dzongri Hut, I expect to go to room and crash down in my sleeping bag, as the day has been very long and tiring. I see our blue and yellow tent set far from the hut. The Hut can’t be so crowded that we have no room left for us! Sleeping in the tent in the night will be difficult as the snowfall is regular in this part of the world in nights. The lady who looks after the Hut says that all the rooms are occupied. We check the room which we stayed in two days back. We see only one sleeping bag there. The lady says that there is a foreigner in that room. So what? We can share the room, like we did last time. The rule is that when there are not enough rooms, trekkers share the space to make lives of their fellow travelers little easier. A local person who looks like a guide comes to us and remarks that foreigners need to be given first preference over the Indians! The foreigner guest will not share room with anyone else. Will a tree prefer a foreigner under its shadow, or for that matter an Indian? Does it even know or care about these shallow differences? Why don’t we learn much from the nature? That fret us, especially Jaggi. He gives him angry look and asks him to keep out of the matter while he talks to the in-charge. The altercation assumes heated proposition as the supposedly-a-guide does not budge and threatens us that he can spoil our trekking expedition. He pretends to be an Environment Conservation Committee member and chides us not to challenge his powers. Jaggi, not flustered by such fake claims and wanting to fight for his rights, asks him to do his real duty as ECC member and not step onto someone else’s shoes. In our hearts, we all know that he is just a guide or a travel agent. The poor lady does not speak much. She must have not been thru such situation. Finally the pretender gives up, sensing our resistance. He takes out the sleeping bag from the room and sets up the tent outside instead of allowing the foreigner sharing room with us. Biren tells us that he is just a guide-cum-travel agent from Gangtok.
After having tea and snacks, Jaggi and I go for walk as Suman decides to take some rest. A foreigner couple is sunbathing outside the Hut. We exchange greetings and start chatting. They have been to many parts of the country including Karnataka and Gujarat. They have picked some words from Kannada and Gujarati. Both of them are fond of South Indian food as well as Gujju food, especially vegetarian food. In their opinion, Gujarat offers the best vegetarian food in the country, and by the extension of that fact, in the world. I will not refute that by any means.
We have our own plate of vegetarian food of French fries, fried rice and boiled vegetables in dinner on a dining table inside the forest department house where our kitchen is set up. A game of cards followed. We trekked for almost 16 km today. All of us are tired. We go to sleep early. It was a long day but it brings us closer to Goechela, closer to Kangchenjunga, the mountain which has us in obsession. Morning, morning, come to us fast…
Day 8 : The Canvas Painted White
The morning is pleasant. There is no better time than this to make amends for your previous day’s digressions, however legitimate they might be. Jaggi tries to reconcile with the guide-cum-agent we involved in altercation with, but he is in no mood. With a squirm, he rebuffs our noble intentions and bitterly says that though we succeeded the previous day, that would not guarantee that we would succeed every time. He still holds the grudge against us. I tell him that success sides with truth. Jaggi offers that life is too big to be bitter about such small incidences. Nothing pacifies him. Young blood and bruised ego lead to a flood of anger. We leave him at that. He will see the truth some day. One can’t keep on postponing life’s valuable lessons forever.
We have an easy day today. We are going to Thangsing, which is at almost same altitude as Dzongri. Biren says that the trail is flat or downwards for the most part. We climb the hill on the North-East of Dzongri Hut before descending into plains on the other side. In far distance, we can see the river Prek Chu running its course in the gorge created by Mt Pandim and Mt Kabru. On our left Kabru peaks are rising over a long and gentle slope. On the far side of the river, Mt Pandim and Mt Narsing rise almost vertically to form a wall. The comfort of plains do not last long. We hit a trail of rocks. The melted snow has made the stones slippery. In places where the stones have not invaded the earth, the mud clutches the shoes. The black ornament that is the Kabru Dome has started disappearing with its taller twins. This is first time in last 4 days that the Kabru family is out of our sight. The trail is full of thick snow now. The rhododendron trees are standing in knee-dip snow. At many points we slip on icy trail. At Dasaraali Point, the Pandim stamps its authority. The majestic mountain has no competition now. The prince has become the king.
From Dasaraali Point, the trail to Kakchurong is downhill. The steep descent takes you down 300m in flash. It’s very hard on the knees as it’s difficult to control your speed in winding downward trail. Kakchurong is on the bank of Prek Chu river. The river is roaring menacingly. The clouds have gathered in one big heap of precipitous substance. We eat some dry fruits before starting on our way to Thangsing. Crossing couple of small bridges on the river which has split into multiple streams before joining again in single force a little further, we start our climb. Slowly the snow starts falling. As we climb higher, the boulders are getting bigger in size. The snow is falling heavily now. I am enjoying walking in snow, with my vision broken by the falling lines of white balls. We find icicles formed around tree roots hanging in the air on the slopes or on the boulders. The force of the snowfall slows us down considerably. In a few moments, everything turns white – the mountains, the boulders, the trees, the trail and the sky.
The climb keeps getting difficult. How on earth people say this is easier trail? There are no easy treks in the mountains. And if there are, snow will not make them appear so. At every turn of a corner, I hope to see Thangsing Trekkers’ Hut or a prayer flag signaling for it. Not yet. I try to catch hold of Biren but he is out of reach. There is handful of snow on my backpack. White, milky white, like the raw plastic balls I saw years back. Or like the thermocol balls. If it continues like this, there will be a new mountain of snow in front of us by the evening. I notice the rhododendrons. It strikes me instantly then why the leaves and the branches of these trees or the pine trees are either downwards or upwards: that helps them ward off ice. Nature nurtures everyone and everything, and how well! Just then, climbing an almost vertical slope, I see a hut. That’s Thangsing! Aah, the relief! Biren and Birjubhaiya are already there. It’s 12:30 in the afternoon and they greet us with hot orange juice.
There is only one room here in Thangsing in the Trekkers’ Hut. 3 of us need to share it with 10 others, all of them foreigners. The room is made of stones, with a wooden ceiling. The inside walls are not plastered, and are uneven. Once we spread our sleeping bags in one corner, there is no space left anywhere. Probably this will help against cold in the night. Luckily some space is created when a family of 3 foreigners move to another hut operated by the forest department. 3 of us run a race in the snow in which Suman wins. I almost get tripped in the end but fortunately hold myself from falling down. We stamp our footprint on the snow, and the next wave of the never-ending fall destroys it like it never existed. The snow is ceaseless and it is depressing now. The temperature is well below zero. The noodle soup and steamed momos lift my spirit but only for a while. Everyone in the hut is reading. We buck the trend and play cards. That tempts our foreigner neighbor and he also joins us in the game of Rummy. he is new to the game and takes some time to get adjusted to.
A silver lining appears in the sky after 4. Everyone is out now to get whatever they can of the sun. Jaggi, Suman and I start walking upstream, in the direction of Goechela. We intend to go for some distance following the reverse trail of the river Prek Chu. We keep walking and come across a bridge supported by two wooden logs. A similar bridge follows after a few meters. We see a yakman tending his yaks while the sun is shining. That does not last long though. The clouds think that the sun has had enough attention and should go back home now. We also return back lest the snow covers us from toe to head.
Our foreigner friends insist that we should all play snow-golf. I don’t know what is that but it turns out to be an enjoyable game. And you can play it without any accessories. Some of us take small wooden logs as our preferred leverage. A few put a mid-size stone inside their dirty socks and plan to use it in the game. One person has a Frisbee. We need to throw our leverage towards some designated point, like a tree, or a stone, which is akin to a hole in golf. Every hole has par score, like in golf. If we hit the birdie in less than par number of shots, we get above par score. It’s fun game as during the long and slow game, we get to talk to each other over the walk towards the holes. We cover the full ground in front of Thangsing Hut playing the game. The game is over before the snowfall starts again.
After a quiet dinner, we go to sleep early as the snow is still relentless. After Kakchurong, the snow has been our constant companion today. Anything and everything was white. It feels the painter was running out of any color so he painted the canvas with brushes of white, layers upon layers. I hope the day stays clear when we go to Goechela. Kangchenjunga is notorious when it comes to allowing the view of its golden peaks to the visitors. As I close my eyes, first time in my life, I don’t see black. I see only white…