Himalayan adventure

Trip Start Feb 08, 2010
Trip End Jul 21, 2010

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Where I stayed
Tibet House

Flag of India  , Bengal,
Monday, May 24, 2010

A night taxi ride south, followed by a 6 hour ‘layover’ in Delhi and then a 22 hour night train ride across northern India went by like a blur.  The fun thing for me however, was being able to just sit at the train window once we were on it, and do nothing but watch India go by.  As my sister said, it’s like we got to watch our own India Imax movie!  At one point on our journey, the men in the cubicle next to us started playing their Indian music very loudly and this, accompanied by the scenery, really topped it off as we watched India through our window.  Rural farmland, rice paddies, banana trees and flat barren fields rolled by dotted with occasional villages, goat farms, cows, people and many impromptu cricket games!
Before noon the following day we were getting off of the train in a place called New Jalaiguri in West Bengal.  Luckily we had a taxi arranged to pick us up and take us the final 3-4 hours straight up in the mountains AGAIN, this time to Darjeeling, a quaint, once British, hill station (and, as we found out later, deep in the heart of “Gorkhaland“ - more on that later).  The hills on the way up were covered with tea from the tea plantations - very green and beautiful. 
The city of Darjeeling is situated all along the tops of the ridges of the green hills. We were dropped off at the top and the whole city goes down from there via a series of narrow roads, cluttered with cars honking up and down them.  Views of the Himalayas are possible on clear mornings and evenings but we were only treated to a couple of glimpses of them during our time there.
We spent our time making trekking arrangements for Sikkim, one of India’s northernmost states and on the east side of the Himalayas.  We secured our travel permits to Sikkim and it was the woman there who pointed us in the direction of the Trekking office.  Within a few hours, we were booked on an 8-day yak-assisted trek that would go into the Sikkim Himalayas…..leaving the next day! Talk about a whirlwind as we quickly repacked, bought more warm weather gear and found trekking boots for Nick and Bud.  
We were off in a shared taxi (meaning stuffed to the gills-13 people plus two more on the roof….) and had another long ride from Darjeeling down to a big river and the border of Sikkim then up a huge mountain side to Yuksom, 4 hours away,  and the village where our trek started. The scenery along the way reminded us so much of the mountains and rivers of Canada.

Yuksom is a tiny village in a lush green valley of rural farmland where tea, cardamom and ginger are grown.  The town is home to 3 monasteries (one being the oldest in Sikkim) and was the first capital of Sikkim.  The chanting from the monks up the road in Yuksom permeated the town when we first arrived, and most of the time after too.  In fact, we found out later that evening at dinner when the owners of the restaurant we were at started putting up boards on the door while we and others were still in it, that the town had an 8:30 curfew. So it was early to bed..... 
The next morning, we found out just ‘why’ there was the curfew when we were awoken bright and early at 4:30 a.m. to the monks up the road chanting, clanging their symbols and blowing their conch shells.  Needless to say we had no trouble getting up and ready for breakfast at our restaurant (I use that term loosely as it was more of a rustic shack with 4 tables, benches and an outdoor gazebo).  We left our packs with our yaks and “yak men” and we were off up the hill to the National park office with our group and nothing more than a daypack- a very liberating experience for us!
Our support group consisted of 2 guides, Budha and Norbu, 2 cooks, 3 kitchen helpers, 3 yak men and our 13 trusty yaks.  Each of the cooking people all carried huge baskets on their backs with the food, pots and pans, huge single burner stoves and dishes.  These, the porters strapped over their foreheads and lugged up with nothing more on their feet than rubber boots or flip flops.  
The 12 clients in the group were of varying ages with Emma being the youngest (and youngest ever to have done this hike, with our guides anyway), and Bud being the oldest.  The 8 others in our group were from the US, Great Britain, and Switzerland and were all in their 20’s and 30’s. We all got along so well right off the bat and it turned out to be such a hardy and fun loving group to travel with.  The guides even commented on what a great group it was for them. 
Our trek would lead us into the Sikkim Himalayas with the destination being a viewpoint at 15,900 feet where we would get a view of Kanchenjunga, the 3rd highest mountain in the world with Nepal being just on the other side.  We stayed in rustic trekkers’ huts or tents each night. As it was the start of the wet season we got some rain later in the day most days but luckily nothing more than an hour or two in a day.
The highlight of the trip for us was being able to do a long trek without the burden of carrying our gear.  We quickly got spoiled as every morning our kitchen boys would come to our tents or huts with hot tea served on a silver tray with their gentle, “hell-o,  hell-o  hell-o’s”.  We had hot meals served to us 3 times a day which included hand made Indian or Tibetan breads, soup, 2-3 dishes and dessert.  We all thought we could get used to this treatment and were certainly spoiled for any other backpacks in the future!
The trek led us through a lush wet forest to start with, and landscape that looked so similar to Canada - deep valleys, waterfalls cascading down, rivers carving out the valley bottoms and suspension bridges crossing over them.  The only exception was that the hillsides, aside from being covered with pine, fir, spruce and chestnut trees, were also covered with rhododendron forests with flowers of yellow, white and pink.  As we gained elevation we were suddenly into a cooler and wetter climate which was quite a relief but we were not acclimatized to the cool weather after our time in Thailand.  By the end of the second day, we had hiked 26 km and had gone to 13,000 feet. 
The next morning we were woken at 4:30 a.m. to make the hike up the Dzongri ridge to watch the sunrise on the Kanchenjunga ridge.  We were treated to a clear, blue sky morning with alpenglow and amazing views!  As it was warm and our group was alone at the top we spent a long time just savouring the awe-inspiring vistas.
After a day to acclimatize at Dzongri camp and a daytrip to a sacred lake, we hiked another 7 km to what was to be our last camp in a beautiful alpine meadow at the base of some mountain peaks and along a river.  We would be spending another day here daytripping (and reading, writing, socializing and playing cards) before heading up the valley another 9-10 km to the highest and northernmost point of our trek.  This, we would be doing at 2:30 a.m., again with the idea of getting to the viewpoint to catch the rising sun….and the clearest part of the day.
As with anything we’ve done, the time spent with the various people we’ve met has been the highlight.  This time it was the Sikkimese people and their joy of life, living in the moment and willingness to sing, dance and share their culture with us that we’ll remember most.  Each evening they shared their “thongba” or chang (their local drink made of fermented millet) with us and sang traditional songs and danced the evening away in our little dining tent or tiny room in a hut.  One evening we even celebrated a 25th birthday with popcorn, macaroni and cheese, thongba and birthday cake…..iced and decorated!  It also happened to be one of the best cakes I’ve ever tasted, and not just because of where we were.  

On another occasion, we got to watch our 18 year old kitchen boy perform a healing ceremony on one of our fellow trekkers who was sick with intestinal issues right from the first day.  Apparently, he is a shaman who comes from a family of shaman with "god given healing powers".  He lit juniper to make an incense and then, this very shy, guarded man, began to chant prayers quietly while he moved the incense over the sick trekker.  When he was done he asked her to eat some rice that he had on the same plate.  Whether it was this, or the "American medicine" she was taking that worked in the end remains to be seen but it was an amazing thing to witness up there on the mountain.

Our last morning at altitude we were awoken at 1:30 a.m. for a small breakfast and began the last 8 km up to the lookout for Goecha La - 15,900 feet.  About fours later we were on the ridge looking at 14 snowcapped peaks and glaciers - some of the highest in the world.  It was cold and our time up there was limited but we did manage another picture taking session and even another breakfast.  

The rest of the day was a lazy day of sleeping and enjoying the sunshine that happened to come out over the meadow.  The guides involved themselves with a game of cricket under the glorious peaks and we just took it all in.   Then it was time for the quick trip down - this time done in two days and finishing back at Yuksom.  

Little did we know the biggest part of our adventure was just beginning (okay, I exaggerate).  While we were away, there was a political murder in Darjeeling.  While we were on the mountain, a Gorkhaland politician was hacked by a machete just outside of a restaurant we had eaten at before we left and was just down the street from the hotel we stayed in.  The military was called in, a curfew imposed and the town was, apparently, very unsettled (we seem to be attracting this kind of 'turbulence').  There was not a taxi driver around who wanted to take us back over to Darjeeling that next day,  which suited us just fine as our trekking group spent the entire day 'hanging out' at Gupta's tiny restaurant and eating -trying almost everything on their menu - due to our surging metabolisms.  

The next day a few of us hired a taxi to take us back to Darjeeling first thing in the morning.  We were standing at the Sikkim border waiting to get our permits checked, when suddenly our taxi driver turned his car around and said he was heading back.  Things were still unsettled and he was afraid.  We found out later, that the funeral for the assassinated politician was happening that day and the situation was tenuous with everyone on edge.  And so, we had to make a slight detour, along with our guide Budha (who I'm sure had had his fill of us by now!) and a few of our party.  We had to travel yet another 3 -4 hours to an Indian city near the train station where we'd first arrived,  to spend the night before finally making our way back to Darjeeling and our left luggage.  

Even then, things were scary as the curfew was still on.  People were not allowed to gather in groups of more than four, many tourists had just left Darjeeling and our hotel was empty.  We had a strange night, all alone in our hotel, restaurants and shops all closed down and then, there was one of their 'nightly' power failures to boot!  It was indeed eerie and a great lesson in what a wonderful, peace-loving country we come from.

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Auntie Lorri on

Awesome photos! Sounds like it was a hike of a lifetime!

Nathalie Kupfer on

really enjoying our armchair adventure your blog is very entertaining and makes us envious. Will u all ever settle down again, not sure where will find sherpa for our local adventures.Grad all over Nath valedictorian. See u all soon.

Mary Paston on

Oh wow oh wow oh wow....you are having the best time in the whole wide world....what a lifeltime of memories you are creating for all of you! How great to be a part of it....Peru was wonderful. The trek was beautiful, demanding,, frikkin hard, beautiful, long and did I mention hard????? But we did it..and we are glad we did and we are glad to be home too!!

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