Saturday 30 April 2011

Sikkim: Khecheopalri and Pelling



Yuksom is spelled differently across the signboards- Yaksum, Yuksam, Yoksum are just a few of them - all of them mean the same - 'meeting place of the three lamas', the first chogyal of Sikkim was crowned here by the three lamas in 1641 at Yuksom. Though the Kanchenjunga trekking's main trailhead starts here, this village is still sleepy and not overcrowded by development and tourists. There are very limited options for accommodation or food. Hotel Pradhan( 99330-19979; 97330-92407; d Rs 500) provides home-cooked food if you book in advance and Mr. B.P Pradhan is very friendly though loud. Other options are Hotel Demazong (d Rs 500) where most of the rooms do not have private bathrooms. Hotel Tashi Gang (03595-241202; dRs 1100) resembles a monastery, the best in this tiny village. There are two basic restaurants with friendly staff who serves most of the Indian and continental cuisine (mains Rs 50-100). Ask for HIT beer distilled at Yuksom Breweries, owned by the famous Bollywood actor Danny Denzongpa hailing from Yuksom known for villain roles in Hindi movies.

After finishing our 5 day trek to Dzongri, we were welcomed by the news of a 2-day 'bandh' (general strike) in the state of Sikkim. Not planning to stay further, none of us was carrying enough cash to survive next two days at Yuksom. That night, we arranged a vehicle to go to the nearest town -Pelling- where the nearest ATM is located. Luckily our four hour round trip was not eventful and we were successful in withdrawing enough cash. After extended sleeping hours and laundry work, we decided to visit the photogenic monasteries and trek through the village's sub-hamlets. While riding with Mr Praveen Sharma looking for a poultry farm, local politician stopped our car and threatened us mildly so that we don't drive the next two 'bandh' days. Gupta restaurant guys were giving us food and let us enter through the backdoors.

Dubdi Gompa is the most photogenic monastery at Yuksom, the oldest monastery of Sikkim established in 1701. The steep 1 hour climb is very steep and carry enough water and glucose with you before you start at the trail near the village clinic past the police station. Another photographer's attraction is relatively new Kathok Wodsallin Gompa near Hotel Tashi Gang and this is easy to reach. Inside, you will find a big statue and many paintings of eight manifestations of Padmasambhava (lotus -born) aka Guru Rinpoche or 'second Buddha'. Splendid Nagdhak Changchub Choling, entered through an ornated gate opposite Hotel Yangri Gang is equally photogenic, but beware of the furious guard dogs.


Tranquil Kathok Lake on the trail to Dzongri, near the village school will take your breath away, if visited in the early morning. From here the anointing water was taken for the coronation of the first chogyal of Sikkim in 1641 by the three lamas. The coronation throne is protected at the ASI site Norbugang Park, housing a prayer house, a few scenic cryptomeria pine trees, a huge prayer wheel and a footprint left by one of the three lamas. You will find many foreign Buddhists visiting these places for religious reasons than tourism. On the second day, we visited the local post office and sent post cards. Romit and Divya reserved a jeep to drop them to Jorethang to board their flight frm NJP at 3pm.


Later in the evening, we bumped at Victoria and two other trekking enthusiasts - Anna and Nicholas. Megha and I got excited about their plan to trek from Yuksom to Khecheopalri (pronounced 'catch-a-perry'), a highly revered holy lake, 10km by trekking trail and 30min by road. We signed up for this 6hour trek with the help of two local potter guys. Praveen offered help by transporting our backpacks to Khecheopalri lake as Praveen's wife and son also joined us in this rigorous trek and Sharath and Asha occuppied their seats in the Tata Safari.

We kicked off at 8am in the morning bidding adieu to Yuksom, led by Victoria the group ascended lofty mountains and descended to deep valleys trudging along the villages, scenic streams and hanging bridges. A friendly dog wagging his tail , followed us who shared biscuits and chocolates at our frequent pit stops. This was a heavily blood pumping trek and required good cardiovascular fitness, but worth every step of the trek through the forests. By 2pm, we reached Khecheopalri lake and visited the tranquil premises of the lake, the prayer wheels lining up the jetty, the prayer flags fluttering in the wind. After having lunch at the small shop near the parking lot, we booked a jeep, Rs 2000 to Pelling. As the shared jeeps leave at 6am in the morning, the only other option was staying overnight at the basic lodge near the parking lot.

Saying good bye to Victoria and friends who headed to a home stay, we reached Pelling after two hours and checked in at Hotel Simvo (03595-258347, d Rs 500-1200). Bargain for a room on the upper floors to catch an early morning view of Kanchenjunga, though the lower rooms are cheaper. There are many other hotels along the two kilometer stretch of Pelling as many Indian tourists throng here for a dawn view of Kanchenjunga and this small touristy town is well connected by bus and taxi. Be prepared to pay upto 50% more than the M.R.P ( Max. Retail Price) for packaged foods and supplies. Book your bus tickets at SNT Counter at Hotel Pelling (Rs 100, 5 hours) and you will be picked near the roundabout in front of Hotel Garuda. Replenish your cash valet at the SBI ATM if you are heading to Yuksom or any smaller villages. Visit any restaurants along the road to Lower Pelling but beer is scarcely available in the restaurants. You can head to Darpa village taking a day trek and stay in one of the homestays if you are averse to the tourist crowds.

After watching panoramic views from the helipad, walking 25min from Upper Pelling's roundabout, we reached Sikkim's second oldest Nyingmapa gompa- Sangachoeling Gompa. Set on top of a ridge overlooking the valleys, this gompa houses a monastic school and magnificent murals. We joined the junior monks in their games during their lunch break and reflected about living on the edge, sitting on the edge of the ridges. After lunch, we headed to Pemayangtse Gompa- the oldest gompa in Sikkim-30 min walk from Upper Pelling. Overlooking Rabdentse ruins- royal capital of Sikkim from 1670 to 1814, this gompa boasts of a huge prayer wheel, colorful interiors, many murals and statues.

Next day, the SNT bus left at 7:30am and we reached Siliguri by 1pm. We headed to Nepal border and had lunch at Kakkarbhitta crossing the no-formalities border gate. On the way back to India(!), I met with a friend Liju, who is working as a constable in the all-women para-military border force SSB (Sashatra Seema Bal). We boarded the train to Kolkata at 9pm and spent the next two days tolerating the scorching summers of Kolkata. Victoria Memorial which depicts British(?) India's history and culture in a different perspective, iconic Howra bridge- a few among the local attractions we could run through. We used the metro, tram, taxi and bus in this erstwhile capital of India with architectural tributes of the past colonial glory. Unwinding the last night of our trip at a disc at The Park hotel, enjoyed the late night life of the city of Rasagolas. Reaching Bangalore on Sunday night did not make us think Bangalore is any cooler, blame the Global Warming. Not exceeding our budget, the total cost of the 16 days trip to Sikkim was Rs 1000 per hed per day including the train and return flight tickets. A priceless trip with memories of many first time experiences!!!

No one realizes how beautiful it is to travel until he comes home and rests his head on his old, familiar pillow.  ~Lin Yutang

Tuesday 26 April 2011

Sikkim: Yuksom-Dzongri Kanchenjunga trek


Two is a company and three is a crowd - that is what I was thinking when I discussed with Sharath about travelling to Sikkim in a group. Many aspirants dropped out after reading a detailed account about frugal backpacking trip which required good fitness, preparation and a mindset to live with basic creature-comforts. It was six of us - Romit & Divya , Sharath & Asha, Megha & I - who were on a Friday night train from Bangalore to New Jalpaigudi. We celebrated Sharath & Asha duo's first wedding anniversary with a cake and candle. Obattu prepared by Megha's mom deserves special mention in our culinary delights, apart from the dinner bought by Srini and roti/rasagolas at Malda. After 2D/2N in the train with food-sleep-talk-leg pulling -games cycles, we stayed overnight at NJP at Hotel Sahara( NJP Station Road, d Rs 550).There are many hotels on this road which is 10min walk from the station, while cycle rikshaws will surround you to get a commission by taking you to a hotel of their choice.

On Monday morning, we were welcomed by a travel agent with his Jeep for an unbelievable Rs 1200 for a group of six. Later, the cross-selling agent was offering us package tours in Sikkim. Leaving him behind, we headed to Siliguri (shared auto Rs 15) and boarded a comfortable bus (Rs 100, 6 hours, Tenzing Norgay bus station) to Gangtok. Enjoying the scenic drive across Teesta river and a few hydro-electric projects , we reached Gangtok by 2pm after a lunch break. Watching daily life in Gangtok, we had to walk for an hour to find a nice and cheap accommodation at Hotel Highland(31ANHWay, d Rs 600). Closed to vehicle traffic, MG Marg at Gangtok reminded me of the Champs Elysee in Paris as it looked like a florist's shop rather than a busy road in India. Strolling along MG Marg, we checked out different options for a 5-day for Kanchenjunga trek at Yuksom-Dzongri trail. Altitude Tours & Travels (Tourism Bldg, MG Road, 9832370501; is a good pick- Rs 1400/person/day for a 5 day trek. This fare includes your porters, yaks/mules, food, accommodation at trekkers-hut (sleeping bags/mats) and two nights stay at Yuksom. There are many tour agents along MG Road, use your bargaining skills before you sign-up. Chilling out at Tangerine(Gound fl, Chumbi Residency, Tibet Rd; beer Rs 80) at the Japanese-style floor-cushioned bar was the best way to unwind sipping Dansberg Blue beer.

Tuesday, after handing over the documents- ID proof, two passport size photographs, we were ready to take a shared jeep (Rs 150, 6hours) to Yuksom around noon. The best possible capacity of these long-chassis Mahindra jeep is 11 (3-4-4) and if they squeeze in one more person, it is tad tiring for this six-hour trip. Charming route will not get you bored - iron bridges, construction sites, frothy white rivers, lovely people and village life. We checked in at Hotel Demazong (d Rs 500) where backpackers pile up and if you are lucky, you will get one of the three bedrooms with private bathroom. Dined at Gupta restaurant, serves almost any cuisine in the world. We met our guide Deepak at the hotel and other potter buddies were ready at 8am. Enjoying the fresh air of Yuksom, we compacted our luggage to 50% - to make the mules' life easier- leaving three backpacks at the hotel reception and carrying the essentials in our daypacks. You can leave anything that needs electricity as there is no power at the trekker's hut. You can arrange your permits from Yuksom but may have to wait for a day to sort out the paper work.

Yuksom at an elevation of 1780m(5840feet) is the starting point of Sikkim's most rigorous trek to Goecha La at 4940m(16200ft) and this whole trek will require 7 to 10 days depending on various factors- weather, acclimatization etc. Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) will hit once you go above 3000m(9800ft) and the fastest will be the first one to get by AMS. Headache, lethargy, dizziness are mild symptoms, which may develop more severe and can be fatal. You can treat mild symptoms by staying at the height you reached for a day or two and popping up a paracetamol will help to alleviate headache. If condition aggravates, descending to a altitude of 500m less is required and if that doesn't help, hospitalization is essential. Hydrate yourself drinking plenty of fluids and water. Do NOT drink alcohol. Carry thermals, fleece jacket, Down feather jacket, thick trekking shoes, woolen socks, Down gloves, skullcap with you to be warm in the high altitude.

Our trek was planned into 5 days.
Day 1 - Yuksom1780m(5840ft) to Tsokha 3050m(10000ft) - 9 hours - hiking 5000ft.
Day 2- Tsokha to Dzongri 4025m(13200ft) - 5 hours- ascending 3200ft
Day3- Round trek to Dzongri La 4550m(14930ft) -6 hours- climbing to 1730ft.
Day4 - Trek back to Tsokha and give rest to trembling knees.
Day5- Back to Yuksom and unwind sipping a beer (HIT).

On day one, hiking through Rathong Valley past a village school, check post and a few traditional village homes, the ascent is gradual and enthralling through the unspoilt forests and a few hanging bridges. A few stretches in this phase were blood pumping and we were not able to catch up with the yaks and mules who were moving at a constant pace. A few fellow trekkers, European travelers passed us after a few hours. We stopped at a trekkers'-hut for lunch and it was more than a basic lunch at the mountain ridges. Crossing a few hair-rising hanging iron bridges, damp and wet rocky trails, thunderous water falls (many heard but not seen) this hike demanded more cardio-vascular fitness. Sunlight was scanty through this green forest and thick fog was hiding the trail. At Bakhim, while stopping for a tea-break, we met with Praveen Sharma and his family with a wonderful mountain dog -Scooby. After catching up with Sharath and Romit couples, we strolled up the next 300meters, watching mist-soaked magnolia flowers. Taking a few short-cuts reduced the distance but increased the heart rate to three digits. After using most of the body muscles and those below torso in particular, Nike Run Club stretching sessions helped us to rejuvenate the sore muscles.

Reaching the rustic hamlet of Tsokha after nine hours was a big sense of achievement. Sipping hot tea and munching biscuits, we were chatting about our enthralling experience hiding our tired and cold feet in the sleeping bags- all six of us in a single room at the basic trekkers' hut with no electricity. There were another two dozen hikers and potters thronging various huts and staying in the tents pitched outside. After a sumptuous dinner, we did not miss the chance to try tongba- in a girded wooden tub of fermented millet seeds onto which we poured boiling water and sip the resultant liquid using a bamboo straw.

Ideally we should have spent two nights at Tsokha for acclimatization before ascending to Dzongri 4025m(13200ft). We started the next day morning at 8am to Dzongri and the trail was quite difficult as this was at the altitude of more than 10000ft and breathing becomes more tiring. After a few hours, we were excited to see the snow patches on the way and two hours later, there was just snow everywhere. Trekking through 18inch thick snow was enthralling amidst the snow fall, keeping an umbrella helped not to get wet. Keeping a good pair of footwear -running shoes or sneakers don’t help in this trail; invest in a proper trekking shoe- will help you from falling on the snow. Skating through the downhill stretch was real fun. As we were late to reach Dzongri for lunch, at around 2pm our potter friend carried a kettle with piping hot tea and that was a big relief for all of us. We reached the meadows of Dzongri and collapsed and cuddled up on the floor of the trekkers' hut main hall as the hut got booked-out and we could not get a room. A slight headache was affecting all of us and staying at Dzongri one more day was ruled out as two of us were pretty sick of the high altitude and bitter cold.

Though the night time mercury reading was -3 degree Celsius, getting up at 5am next day morning, 3 of us climbed up a nearby hill to catch a glimpse of magnificent Kanchenjunga ranges. Going to Samiti Lake 4200m or Goecha La 4940m was not possible in 5 days and as this was our first high altitude trek, we did not want to go higher. Washing face in the water formed by melting ice at 13200ft - I can't express that in words! After breakfast, we decided to descend to Tsokha- the return is the same route, though the weather was not permitting a speedy descent- rains, muddy rocks and slush. We reached Tsokha by evening and rested there for a day chatting with Victoria- an English traveler from Germany. Romit and Sharath tried their hands on laundry and the radio was playing English songs and a faint live commentary of Cricket World Cup. Next day, trekking down to Yuksom was more than pleasant.

On the way back, saying the slogan 'If you are not trekking on the edge, you are using too much space on the trail', I was stepping on the stones at the edge of the trail. One of them just fell off and two seconds later, I was hanging onto a bush like in the movie Cliff Hanger. Megha looked back and did not see me on the trail and she found me hanging in the air. I saved my water bottle first and then calmed down Megha and myself. Slowly I could climb up, thanks to the strong roots of the bush. Hereafter I was using the extreme left side of the trail instead of the edges. We reached Yuksom by evening and checked into the hotel after our successful 5 day trek to Dzongri in the Kanchenjunga ranges- many first time experiences in this eventful trek.

Your attitude decides the altitude you reach!