Trip Start Feb 08, 2010
22Trip End Jul 21, 2010
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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 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
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 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
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
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.