If you’d like to do some trekking in a beautiful, interesting and less visited part of the Himalayas, I highly recommend a visit to the former kingdom of Sikkim, in the far north-east of India. Sikkim was a relatively independent country until 1975 and you need a permit to visit; but permits are free and easily available from many places including the Office of the District Magistrate in Darjeeling (within 5 minutes); Sikkim House in Kolkata (allow 24 hours); or on Rangpo border post as you pass through (take 3 passport photos; your transport will wait for you).
If you don’t have a lot of time you could miss out the capital, Gangtok, altogether, and head straight to the magnificent mountains in the west. Here you’ll be treated to breathtaking views of Khangchendzonga, the third highest mountain in the world (8598m). India is so proud of this snowy peak its picture now adorns the R100 note. You will need an additional permit to walk to high altitudes but it’s not true, as many people and guide books will tell you, that you need to organise these far in advance, in Gangtok or Darjeeling. It’s much cheaper and more convenient to head straight to the tiny, charming village of Yuksom, the main trail-head, and arrange everything with one of the trekking agencies there.
It is possible to walk south along the Singalila Ridge towards Darjeeling, but this requires more planning and most visitors come here to trek to Goecha La, a 4940m pass just below Khangchendzonga. The trekking season is from mid September to mid November, when the skies are crisp and clear but it can be very crowded, and from March to May. From late April the rhododendrons are in bloom and the hillsides are a beautiful tapestry of pink and white blooms, but it rains often and clouds can obscure the views.
When I visited in the third week of March, 2011, Goecha La was still blocked with snow and only open to Indian mountaineers, so I could only go as far as Dzongri La, a 4550m pass. The full trek takes at least 8 days but this shortened version only takes 5, which makes it a good option for people who have less time or energy, or have children with them. It could also be extended a day by adding a walk to a high altitude lake.
My trip was organised by Red Panda Tours and Treks, a small agency run by Mr Dhan Raj (he prefers to be known as ‘Red Panda’!), who worked as a guide for many years but has recently started his own company. Red Panda is incredibly enthusiastic about his work and went out of his way to ensure his trekkers were happy, to the extent of inviting my group of five to dinner in his house before and after the trek. For R1500 (currently about £21.50) a day each (more for a group of less than four) he provides porters, a cook, all food – large, excellent breakfast and dinner, less satisfying packed lunches – dzos1 to carry backpacks, a guide, and extra equipment such as sleeping bags, gloves or coats. The other agencies in the village provide a similar service and the only complaints I heard were from people who had organised their trek in Darjeeling.
On the first day Red Panda waved us off at about 8am and it suddenly hit home to me that from now on we’d be walking, and were due to cover 17km before sunset. Having done very little walking in the past few months, this was a bit of a shock to the system, but I almost immediately began to enjoy myself. The path wound up through a wooded valley, with a river clamouring along below us and unseen birds singing in the trees. The air was deliciously fresh, and snowy peaks loomed ahead of us under a brilliant blue sky. Red rhodendron were in bloom and every so often we were passed by a procession of dzoo (a cross between a yak and a cow) or ponies picking their way down the narrow path, laden with baggage. Our guide was a friendly local man called Ashok and he walked along swinging our light lunch in a shopping bag. In fact, there is no need for a guide as the path is obvious, and he was really there to act as our translator and fixer (and to placate nervous walkers). Nevertheless, this was helpful and he was a good person to have around as he seemed constantly in a happy mood.
The porters get paid very little and the cooks, who have the hardest job, receive least of all, so everyone wants to improve their English and work as a guide. Even then, however, it’s a seasonal job and many guides aspire to own their own business and spend less time walking up and down the mountains. Ashok lived in a nearby village and said it could be hard during the winter when there was little money coming in. He had two daughters to put through school, plus he supported his parents and his wife’s parents. His wife was a dance teacher and that helped to supplement their income but he wanted his children to go to university. He told me he had been to Dzongri La ‘at least 300 times.’
It was an easy walk for the first few hours, but after lunch the path led down to the river, which had been steadily climbing towards us. We crossed the water on a narrow, bouncy suspension bridge, and then tramped steeply uphill until the end of the day. We spent the night in Bakhim, a small cluster of buildings at 2740m, and feasted by candlelight on rice, dahl, okra, green beans and cauliflower, followed by tea and biscuits.
Next morning we were up before dark for an early start, as there was still a long way to go and a lot of height to gain. I was walking with two men and two women, all Israelis, and the girls were a little worried about altitude sickness and wanted to take it slowly. The vegetation gradually became more surreal and alpine as we climbed, and the patches of white rhododendron on the opposite hillsides looked like snow against the green backdrop of the forest. We filled up our water bottles at a spring in Tsokha, a small settlement inhabited only during the trekking seasons, where dzo herders were packing up their beasts. It was a stunningly beautiful walk and not too tiring, since the steeper sections were interspersed with flat, shady saunters along a path made from wide wooden sleepers. The steepest climb was near the end, puffing up an exposed spur to a cairn covered with Tibetan prayer flags, but it was worth it for the incredible views all around. At this height there were no more trees and the rhododendrons were still brown and dead looking from the frost. They wouldn’t begin to flower here for at least another month. Dzongri, where we would stay the night, was only a twenty minute walk from the cairn. There wasn’t much to the place – only three simple wooden huts – but it was a very welcome sight at 4025m, particularly since the porters were ahead of us and had already made tea.
We had arrived just at the time of a full moon and I slept badly that night, with strange hallucinatory dreams, but this was no doubt also due to the altitude. Everyone got up at 4am to watch the sunrise from a small hill above Dzongri, and we emerged from the hut into a spectacular moonlit landscape, so bright there was no need for torches. The water in a small stream that ran past the huts had frozen solid and the sky glittered with stars. Ashok had warned us that it might be cloudy, and not to be disappointed if so, but I had gone to sleep with the strange conviction that we would be lucky. Even so, I looked around me in wonder. Every jagged peak on the Singalila ridge was sharply silhouetted against the deep blue moonlit sky, as if etched in metal.
It took half an hour to toil up the nearby hill (and felt longer) but we were rewarded with a spectacular 360 degree prospect of the mountains. As the sky gradually lightened through the eerie pre-dawn stage, the top of Kanchengdzunga turned pink, then an ethereal yellow, then dazzling white as the sun emerged over a distant ridge. It was a moment to meditate, or sing a joyful song, but by this time a large group of Swiss had also hauled themselves up the small peak and everyone was taking photographs of everyone else.
Later that morning, after breakfast, we set off on a pleasant two hour walk over rocky alpine meadows to Dzongri La, a 4550m pass, where there were more fabulous views, this time of Mt Pandim and other mountains along the Singalila ridge. After nearly an hour enjoying the scene, cloud began rapidly to close in, obscuring everything around us within minutes and making the walk back a little more challenging. Thankfully, it remained sunny back at the Dzongri huts until late in the afternoon.
The final two days were simply spent retracing our steps down the mountain, but this gave us time to rest and enjoy the beautiful surroundings. It would be possible to do this trek, including the Dzongri pass, in only four days, if you were physically hardy, but it’s worth taking the time to enjoy it and acclimatise more. You will need a pair of half decent walking boots and some warm clothes, as it gets bitterly cold at night. I met an Israeli couple coming down who had been all the way up to Dzongri with five children, the youngest of whom was four-years-old, so it is certainly possible for inexperienced walkers to manage this trek! Then again, I had met this same family before they set off and the parents seemed to have aged several years over the course of a few days, and were clearly shattered. The kids looked happy enough!
1 A dzo is a sterile male hybrid between a yak and a domestic cow. They and the female equivalent, the dzomo, are much used as working animals in Nepal and Tibet because they are larger and stronger than either yaks or cattle. They also provide milk, butter, wool for clothing, and dung for fuel. When they die, nothing is wasted. The meat is eaten, and the bones, hair and horns are all useful raw materials.
Red Panda Tours and Travels Tel: 9733196470/03595241224.
Mountain Tours and Treks Tel: 03595241248. Web: http://www.sherpatreks.in