Our retreat back to Siliguri and India, by the cheapest local bus available, was a breeze. The expected old jalopy was actually roomy and comfortable, and - contrary to the outward equivalent journey - we emerged at the border in the morning with all our belongings. A further bus dropped us back in Siliguri, conveniently outside the Sikkim tourist office where permits are readily available without charge (the usual photocopies and a single photograph are required; 30 days are given if you specifically ask). The shared jeep up to Pelling in Sikkim (200rps) was mercifully under occupied, the back seat having just Ali, a young local lad and myself. They both slept soundly on my shoulders oblivious to the buck-a-rooing ride. As the hair-pins wound ever upwards, dusk was hastened with the arrival of a mighty thunderstorm, the frequency of which provided a constant strobe-lit rumbling ascent. On arrival we found Pelling wet and dark with the power universally out. The two budget guesthouses named in Lonely Planet have responded to their fame in the usual manner and hiked their prices; nevertheless, both were full. That was of little consequence as there are numerous others that were cheaper and
with better rooms (Golden Ice just down from Upper Pelling is particularly nice, although they add 10%!t(MISSING)ax so weigh this into your bargaining). One point of note is that the hot water promised everywhere does exist, indeed it is scolding, but its duration is brief indeed due to very small geezers (a notable exception was Alpine whose showers and taps were dry).
Ali gazed out of the window at 5 a.m. and shook me awake; dawn was crystal clear and the mountains beautifully visible. The view from the helipad at the top of town was stunning. Our friend Matt had failed to see a single mountain during two weeks in Sikkim and we were blessed on our first morning. We planned on returning to bed post-breakfast (excellent dozas no less), but news of a Hindu festival being held atop an, apparently, not so distant hill pushed us into activity. We were soon joined by a local guy who was also heading there and walked with him on the jungle trail. Sure enough there was a steady stream of locals making their way to the site: the elders to perform puja (the offering of prayers)
and the youngsters, as we were to discover, to party and meet up with friends from surrounding villages. The walk seemed somewhat longer than we’d anticipated, but we finally emerged on the flat plateau of a ridge where several hundred revelers were sat in groups on the grass or within temporary bivouacs acting as bars; all were enjoying the sunshine and the milky white toddy. This site is still a steep 2km below the crest of another hill bearing, at its summit, the holy rock (Rani Dhunga) and suitably saturated devotees snaked unsteadily to the top. Meanwhile, many of the youngsters hung out in thick copses of trees where they could, relatively discretely, smoke their weed away from the adults. On our return Ali checked LP
and discovered that it was actually a 24km round-trip… Rather more than the little outing we’d planned.
Leaving our main packs, we started on a week-or-so hiking loop around the neighbouring towns. The 15km walk to Khecheopalri Lake culminates in a steep 20 minute climb to a flat ridge bearing a small settlement. Here there are half a dozen homesteads that dot the mist-shrouded hilltop, three of which double as homestays.
Pala's, the 85 year old patriarch’s (wed and widowed three times), had been recommended to us by Matt and we were soon sitting with three French, drinking the endless supply of tea.
The homesteads are mostly ramshackle affairs of wood, corrugated iron and bamboo with woven rattan walls. Pala’s personal dwelling of two rooms – that double as guests’ kitchen and dining room – is rustic in the extreme. The kitchen comprises an earthen hearth into which logs are continuously fed and atop of which pots always bubble. To the side of the hearth and resident scabby cat is Pala’s perch, a low platform with yak-skin throw at which he holds court: dispensing his alcohol choice of the day, passing out yak-blood sausage and regaling tales of derring-do. A Lama himself, he served as the Dali Lama’s chef for decades. Further back from the fire is a small bench/cot on which either he or his youngest daughter – a mere 10 years old – will curl up for the night, whilst overhead, spread on racks, are all manner of yak meats drying in the smoky cabin.
When not performing Lama duties he follows a strict daily regime that
he swears is responsible for his vitality: 3a.m, medicine (usually a bottle of 8% Hit beer); 4a.m, an hour’s meditation and yoga; 5a.m, a walk down the ridge into “town” and back (a not inconsiderable jaunt); additional medicine to be taken at 9a.m, 3p.m and 7p.m (supplemented as required).
Two of the French headed off that afternoon leaving only the delightful Laurent. Laurent, we were to learn (as was he), was apparently in very poor shape, although this would improve in exactly seven days; he will marry a non-French woman with dimples and have children; plus his chest would soon bear a fine rug of hair. Laurent definitely perked up as soon as the dimples were mentioned and confirmed not to be the result of overly chubby cheeks. Ali and I: well, according to Pala, we were just tickety-boo; indeed, we were very strong. Following the hairy chest prophecy I revealed mine to which Pala nodded sagely and stated, bizarrely, “I love you”.
The closest homestay to Pala’s belongs to his eldest son (of twelve), Sonham. This, given the number of people we’ve met who’ve stayed there, is the most popular and a little less basic, although still
without running water. It was here that we met an English/Israeli couple who live just two towns away from us back in Scotland. They were to subsequently introduce us to a rather good, locally made spirit. We also met their young sons, the oldest of whom, Noaham (six), soon had me marked as a pirate worthy of wielding the flaming sword and, whirly biscuits consumed, we were to regularly evade the flesh-eating cows whilst plundering the alien ocean of behemoth fish for finger-making.
Meanwhile we had been joined at Pala’s
by an apprentice Buddhist monk from Korea and an equally young, and serene, Mexican. Aside from adventures on the high seas, days were spent walking to Duphuk meditation cave (inhabited for the last month by four western… meditators) above the holy, footprint-shaped, Khecheopalri Lake; joining Pala with his medications; playing countless rounds of “Shit-head”; baby-sitting his latest granddaughter whose two joys in life are to chew plastic spoons and urinate on westerners; drinking vats of black tea and awaiting Pala’s latest culinary offering. It sounds like a two-bit experience, but (and all visitors are united in this) life above the lake has a certain lost-in-time tranquility and it really
was hard to move on.
Another hike of a dozen or so kilometres saw us safely in Yuksam. I say safely as, en-route, I narrowly missed stepping on a cobra. We obviously didn’t realize it was a cobra when I was photographing it from 5ft away, but have since been assured that it was. This good karma may well have originated from our, pre-departure, hair-clipper donation to Pala, having only just received them ourselves as a gift from the now France-bound Laurent. We had also, with a heavy heart (given my coveting), refused Pala’s magnificent old metal-scabbarded Gurkha knife as a departure gift.
Yuksam is supposedly shunned by Indian tourists due to its dearth of mountain views, although it is popular with western wallowers and those looking to embark on a trek to Khangchendzonga, the world’s third highest mountain. Here the centre of the universe (the street) is Gupta’s
. Lonely Planet
says as much and rarely have they been more accurate; next door is a replica establishment that surreally sells the same for significantly more: absolutely everyone (of the dozen-or-so visitors to town) can be found at Gupta’s
at some point during the day. We got chatting to
some trek returnees and our plans of simply walking the monastery circuit were jettisoned. Red Panda
(also Sikkim’s state animal), located (extremely conveniently for him) next to Gupta’s
is one of the three trekking operations in town and within a day we were signed up and touting for more bodies to join us on an eight day trek to Khangchendzonga. The following day we snagged Kevin, a charming French hippy goliath; the next, lovable Israeli Avi; and at the last moment a fellow Englander, Seth. By now Red Panda
was beside himself with thanks: us having assembled a whole party for him. It materialized that he also had a sixth member who would be arriving on the morning of departure, a Japanese man. Whilst waiting, Ali added further patches to our decrepit clothes and donated some shocking pink patches to Kevin to repair his trousers. Unfortunately, one of his holes was in the groin area and the new, hardly discrete, patch couldn’t fail but draw your eyes to what appeared to be a cod piece. Some weeks later he was to inform us by email that he had since been approached by several gay men who had presumed he was
of a similar inclination.
Note: unless terribly time-constrained do not organize such a trek via the internet back in your home country (this would cost $60 or more/day), neither should you do so from the capital Gangtok for similar reasons. Red Panda
(and – no doubt – the other operations in Yuksam) will initially quote $30-35/day but this is pretty negotiable: we paid $27.50/day with a huge bundle of freebies thrown in (the loan of -35C sleeping bags, hiking trousers and waterproofs; the transport of our packs up from Pelling and the extention of our Sikkim permits); some of our group negotiated even better deals.
And so with the accompaniment of an overcast morning we set off. Day one was quite hard, seventeen kilometres of up-ish and seriously up terrain rising over a 1000m that still took us less than four hours: the three young lads thrusting ahead, and the 50-ish-year-old Japanese man (Ichiro) struggling behind. Day two and Ichiro had a severe headache, he also felt nauseous. At breakfast we made him drink gallons of sweet tea and forced down some porridge (apparently a rather unpleasant first for him); then we, ever so slowly, walked the day
with him. As we progressed, with Ali encouraging him to drink far more than he was inclined to do, he began to suffer increasing symptoms of acute altitude sickness (AAC): the headache was worse; his gait became a drunken stagger; his recovery on rests was pitiful; and, as far as our shared, limited, Japanese/English abilities could discern, he was not entirely lucid. We’d risen over 1000m again and were seriously concerned about him. For the last few kilometres we were constantly poised, ready to catch him if he were to collapse, not something I relished the thought of on ledges. Really, he should have been heading down. Where was our fucking guide?
And in such cases this is a serious issue: our young “guide” was neither leading (couldn’t keep up: Kevin on the back of six weeks solid trekking in Nepal, Avi just out the army and Seth young/game enough to still push them on), nor monitoring the stragglers. He was even further behind, trailing with the zho (yak/cattle crosses), mules and porters. Mostly the trails are obvious, but an experienced guide’s (ours wasn’t: 20, four years as a porter, but first trip as a guide) priority should always
be the safety of his charges. It also turned out that he hadn’t been provided with the promised stock of Diamox (a drug that dampens the symptoms of AAS – but, one that is in no way curative). Yes, we did source some of said drug for Ichiro (thanks Sam), but it isn’t something to be played with – if you feel seriously sick then you must descend. Fortunately for us all, this was Ichiro’s final day of ascent (he only had time for a five-day round-trip) – although sadly he still didn’t feel up to reaching any viewpoints. That afternoon/evening saw a massive hail fall, that, no-doubt, would be translated into snow on the peaks. Pre-dawn the next morning we left him recovering whilst we scrambled/climbed over a blanket of ice and then snow-hiked towards Dzhongri view point and afterwards on to Dzhongri la (la = pass, i.e. a breach between mountains) at 4500m: the views were dizzying, electrifying, mind-blowing. We returned, elated, to find a semi-recovered Japanese, who – whilst Kevin, crazily, stripped and bathed in snow-melt – agreed to join Ali and I on a minor climb to at least see some peaks. Literally crawling up, we
led him to the first semi-view of the range, there may even have been a peak at Khechchengzhonga: he was well chuffed.
Later, Kevin magically produced a bottle of rum and another of cherry brandy from his obscenely large pack (the rest of us were personally carrying no more than 7kg). These we drank in honour of the onset of Ali’s final year in her forties.
The next morning, after providing us all with Japanese instant coffee that I’d defy anyone to identify as non-fresh, Ichiro headed down (led by our cook – apparently the porter would be taking over kitchen duties?) as we went onwards to Thansing – actually an overall drop of 320m across 8km. Situated within a wind-tunnel of a valley, Thansing was perishing and within minutes of arrival, at the far from draft-proof huts, the rain/sleet joined us. Unfortunately, the young lads had arrived ten minutes before us oldies and we missed the spectacle of Avi being chased by a rather territorial yak. An evening of Yaniv
Israeli backpackers’ card game) was played in a fully-thermalled huddle before a chilly, equally insulated, night of semi-slumber.
A little after dawn we ate a
hearty breakfast and then made the ridiculously short hike to our personal base camp at Lhammune, ready for the 2 a.m. push the following day to Goecha la (4995m). Lhamunne is a tent camp. These, surprisingly, were actually warmer than the huts – well, those tents that had the correct poles and didn’t leak were... Fortunately the gales/sleet ceased before we were flooded out. And then, once again, come the depth of night, all was clear and still. Ali was concerned about her stamina and opted to hike with our new friend Sam (now on a solo trek – his fellow party members having dropped out pleading exhaustion. It later materialized that he is a year and a day older than Ali, although sadly, at the time, we didn’t know to recognise his 50th), whilst I joined the youngsters. The torch/crescent moon-lit hike up to the dawn viewpoint was not overly strenuous (although it looked a bitch of a walk when viewed returning in the light). As day broke, the encompassing summits melted gold; then, as the shadows receded and the snow caps flared, searing your retinas with brilliant white, we pushed on through a virgin flat-bottomed canyon and then
up along the daunting backbone of a ridge to Goecha la and its awe-inspiring view of Khechchengzhonga. Ali stated that both Sam and she almost gave up, the rise seemingly interminable; but they eventually emerged, breathless, at the pass, beaming. Views don’t get any better, words fail and pictures simply can’t capture the scale or intimacy. Kevin and Seth defied the advice of our guide - who said it was far too dangerous, he certainly wasn’t going - and attempted to make the third viewpoint. They returned just 40 minutes later, defeated by the depth of the snow. This was a big day and after returning to camp for breakfast we trekked back down to Cockchorong, a serious ten hours of heavy duty walking.
On the eighth day, loved-up with our (and adopted) crew, we strode back into Yuksam, decamped to our respective guesthouses for the dreamed-of shower: the first (Kevin aside) in over a week. Pemathang
is a diamond (500rps for a huge, immaculate room with balcony and the finest, longest, hottest showers in town), although for a bargain The Hotel Demizong
works out at less than 100rps per head for a triple/dorm room. Refreshed, it was time
beers and quasedeiras all round as the cards emerged again (Avi was to remain Yaniv
champion, although he was sweating as I briefly joined him on five matches a piece).
On the subject of cards, things are hotting-up in the Cribbage
stakes with Ali and I incredibly locked together at 168 games each.
Prior to all going our separate ways we spent our last evening together at a local drinking haunt discovered by Sam. Here at the unmarked place we were literally in the family’s front room - a smoky, candle-lit, front room equipped with great vats of fermenting liquors: an excellent tongba (or Sikkim Pepsi as they like to call it: millet beer); the clear spirit that we’re well familiar with, raksi; and a rather quaffable yellow concoction of fermented, but un-distilled rice, Nimbin. Lifting the lid on the vat of the latter revealed a great spongy wad of swollen rice resembling dough left to prove, and the drink has to be coaxed out from beneath the mass. This was so popular that we took several litres away with us as an off-sale.
Alone once again Red Panda
approached us, insisting that we come
to his house for dinner and tongba that night as thanks for promoting his business. This we duly did and a great spread his wife provided for us. Of particular note were great hunks of tender marinaded chicken – a real treat. Interestingly, although - by his own admission - he is a master at tongba brewing, he is tee-total and has never tried it himself. Indeed, he is rather proud of never having tasted Coca Cola or Pepsi either.
I guess at this point, at some point anyway, I should explain this blog’s title: “Sikkim: the Indian/Nepali hybrid in golden wellingtons”. Sikkim really is a cross between the two nations, being an Indian State, but having more cultural and spiritual links with Nepal and Tibet than India. The peoples’ disposition also falls somewhere in-between the two nations: not being as out-going or demonstrative as the Nepalese, but greetings still more forthcoming and warmer than in busier Indian States. And the wellingtons...? Well, gold wellies are simply worn everywhere. The wellington boot is a pretty sensible footwear choice given the abundance of leeches (Sikkim is India’s second wettest State, Meghalaya being the first), but why the gold colouration remains
And, whilst we’re on the subject of mysteries, here’s one we solved. Recently we have both read Terzani’s “A fortune-teller told me”. Not only is this an excellent thought-provoking read it also answered a bizarre observance from our Myanmar blog: that right-hand-drive cars are inexplicably, dangerously, driven on the right-hand-side of the road. At the time we were clueless as to a potential reason. However, it seems that the answer lies with former dictator Ne Win’s reliance on astrologers: one having warned him to beware of a right-wing uprising which would lead to his deposition. The Burmese, like the Thai’s, believe that fate is not ineluctable, that even if misfortune is forecast it can be averted, and one means of doing this is by bringing about an event which is similar in appearance to the predicted calamity. Thus, his response was to order everyone in Burma to immediately drive on the right-hand side of the road rather than the left, as had been the case since British times. The whole country was thrown into confusion, but this ‘right-wing uprising’ must have appeased the gods of fate as the foreseen revolt was averted (not that they ever switched back
or subsequently bought left-hand drive cars). If only Mrs. Thatcher had had access to such a seer and had commanded the dutiful British public to wear all black on a certain Monday back in 1987... We’ve a lot to learn in the west.
Having not planned on visiting Sikkim, let alone spending over three weeks there and with time now pressing (we’ve decided to return back to Britain in mid-July – for some time at least: Ali’s passport is full, whilst the yearning for large pieces of red meat and hoppy real ale is gaining momentum), we had to vacate and get back on track.
Arriving in Siliguri – we’d only flitted through on our way to Nepal and later Sikkim – you realise that you really are back in India proper. The hustle and bustle all seemed rather new and exciting again. However, now it wasn’t just a case of catching a bus/shared jeep onwards, we needed a train to cover some serious distance and were soon informed that there simply weren’t any for the next five days: none going anywhere westwards, not to Delhi or Lucknow, not even to grim Gorakhpur or to Patna, a mere
skip away. We needed to check-in somewhere. And so this brings up the sour footnote: Lonely Planet
in one of its most peevishly shoddy moments deemed Siliguri unworthy of a map. Siliguri is the
transport hub of the north-east: you want to go to Nepal from the east then you need to find transport in Siliguri; to enter the north-eastern tribal states, the same; going to Darjeeling, to Sikkim, same again. Just a thumb-nail with the train stations (for there are two, eight kilometres apart: New Jalpaiguri seeing most traffic), the bus station, the tucked-away jeep stops, the train booking office and Sikkim tourist office would suffice. Oh, and the cheapest way of getting to NJP from Siliguri is by south-bound bus (15rps) or shared auto-rickshaw (20rps), just flag them down on Hill Cart Road – neither option is mentioned by LP
The next, and potentially last, blog - for a few months at least - will (probably) incorporate Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Kashmir, Ladakh and the Punjab. It should also see us having visited 21 of the 27 Indian States.
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