My earliest memories of a glorified sunrise are that of a five-year-old wrapped in woolens and carried to Tiger Hill View Point in Darjeeling, to view the first golden rays on the Kanchenjunga, which fleetingly appeared and disappeared even faster. I barely understood what was going on; sunrise did not mean much then except for leading to a new day and trooping to school herded into a rather rickety bus on not so smooth Kolkata roads. Decades later when realization dawned, somewhere in the corner of my heart; I yearned for that view secretly imagining it would take me one step closer to nirvana. What better than the Goecha La Trek where you could come close to the Sleeping Buddha (Kanchenjunga). The bonus of this romantic trail with blooming rhododendrons all over seemed like a perfect run up to the date with Kanchenjunga.
Day 1: Siliguri to Yuksom by jeep in about 6 hours.
After an overnight train journey from Kolkata to Siliguri, we took a jeep to Yuksom. The jeep ride was smooth on a rather bumpy road which was being repaired. We drove along the Teesta River past the Coronation Bridge savoring the whiff of the cool mountain bridge. We passed through small hamlets and after a quick lunch break at Jorthang, we reached Yuksom by evening. Yuksom was the first capital of Sikkim about 400 years ago and now remains a close-knit town which is the base for all trekking activity in West Sikkim
Day 2: Yuksom to Sachen in about 4 hours
We walked through Kanchendzonga National Park, crossing hanging bridges, drinking from the mountain stream, occasionally battling flies, being wary about leeches and, of course, trying to spot the singing birds. It is a forest trail with gentle ascents and equally gentle descents, but what makes it difficult is the boulders, rocks, slush, and yak excreta. If you have not been on a strict exercise regimen, you may feel breathless at times. The Trekkers Hut is not in the best of conditions, but the kitchen was functional enough for our team to dole out lip smacking stuff while we tiptoed around avoiding generous amounts of yak excreta !! We camped on the other side on top of a narrow ridge and lulled ourselves to sleep to the smell of wet mud, forest greens, the gurgling river and our heart beat. Leeches can be a menace in this area as also the prickly plants that leave you burning.
Day 3: Sachen to Tsokha via Bakhim in about 5 hours
It was a glorious morning with the sun peeping through the trees. Initially, the trail is similar to Day 1 but soon led to a very sharp descent through a path that appeared like a staircase made of boulders !! I was unprepared with my weak knees and had to take it easy, but the lure of the gurgling Prek Chu led me along. The hanging bridge on the Prek Chu is a sight to remember. At the end of the bridge, a short path through the shrubs led us to the flowing river. It had a calming effect rather preparing us for the steep climb ahead to Tsokha. We climbed for an hour, negotiating through rocks and slush and with swaying yaks with country bells around their neck. I met little Agastya on the way; all of 8 but his profound statements left me choking and wondering whether I should start my life all over again. I frequently stopped, inhaling the mountain air till we reached Bakhim. A bowl full of Wai Wai noodles charged us up, and we made the final dash to Tsokha, sometimes taking steep shortcuts upwards with renewed energy.
It was a tough day, we climbed and climbed through steep ascents. The first half of the journey to Phedang is dotted with a few Rhododendron trees making us wonder if this was it – the promised romance. It is largely a wide track through forests and more often than not on wooden logs beaten into planks decorated generously with piles of you know what. The later half is a very steep climb, often leaving you gasping for breath but the beautiful views of the snow-capped peaks ease the pain.
Day 5: Dzongri Top View; Dzongri to Thansing via Khokchurang in about 6 -7 hours
We woke up at 4 am that morning, climbing to Dzongri Top for that 360-degree view of the entire range. The moon was slipping away, and the sun was yet to appear. The first golden rays appeared on Kabru around 4.30am and bit by bit; the entire range was bathed golden. Kanchenjunga appeared so near yet far !! This was just the entree, and the best was yet to come. Standing there enveloped by mountains, it was an overwhelming moment. At breakfast, it was all about the morning views.
After the initial climb, along the gurgling Khokchurang, it was a steep descent on a muddy trail with patches of snow on either side; my knee caps came to my rescue like never before. We strolled, smelling rhododendrons, lazing on boulders and playing with snow by the way. From Khokchurang to Thansing it is an undulating rocky path, though most claim it to be flat. It was cold and windy that night, temperatures plunging to sub zero by sun down.
Day 6: Thansing to Lamune in 2 hours
This is a walk through the meadows with snow capped peaks for company on either side. The clouds played hide and seek with Mt Pandim, urging us to walk fast before it snowed. I was uneasy that morning; exhausted and wanting to sleep on the meadows much to Vikrant’s chagrin but finally after my repeated rants he had to give in. I rather bullied him into agreement taking advantage of being a decade older. It was the most peaceful 15 minutes power nap, I ever had; with the mountain breeze swooshing on my face and caressing me to sleep. I felt a bit empty when I woke up; attempting to chatter but feeling hollow inside, nursing a slight headache and yearning for that glimpse of Kanchenjunga that brought me thousands of miles away from home. It snowed continuously well into the night, leaving us in doubt about the next day. At midnight, a trek mate fell ill and had to be moved to a lower altitude.
Day 7: Lamune to Samiti Lake to Goechala View Point 1 to Khokchurang in 10 -11 hours
This was the longest day in the Trek, the day begining as early as 2 am. It takes about 3 hours on the average from Lamuney to Goechala View Point 1 via Samiti Lake and View Point 2 is another 3 hours away. The path is snow covered, slippery, and gingerly steps are highly recommended. This is the journey that everyone waits eagerly for, most people giving up at View Point 1 and the very fit and daring go ahead to View Point 2. Samiti Lake is a virgin beauty, revered by locals and to protect its pristine beauty, trekkers have been now kept off limits. At dawn, the mountains reflected in it's still waters while Kanchenjunga as Sleeping Buddha unveiled itself through the darkness. I gasped!! My father would have found completion to his Bengali existence at this sight. Did you think realizing the Buddha is an easy journey? The Himalayan Blue Bird fluttered around the lake and the prayer flags swayed with the breeze knowingly.
It was a long day ahead as we got back from the morning mission hoping to rest before the journey ahead. We jay walked for a while, sleeping in the meadows, popping sugar candies, generally lazing around and sighting Blue Sheep. That night we slept in the Trekkers Hut in Khokchurang.
Day 8: Khokchurang to Tsokha via Phedang in 6-8 hours
My feet hardly moved between Khokchurang and Tsokha; this is the ultimate romantic trail, devoid of tinkling yaks and yawning horses. I heard all the romantic numbers in my head, crooned a few, silently remembered some others. I wanted to stop at every tree, every bend, every mountain view and take a picture of every rhododendron. The sun and mist peeped through the trees lending an after glow to the red ones. I broke into an impromptu jig under the magnolia tree, abruptly interrupted by trooping trekkers who gave a wry smile !! I had my fill from the Himalayan Springs, rested on the rocks soaking in sunshine with some desperate attempts at loo breaks on the winding trail which were cut short by hurried footsteps of yet another group of trekkers on the move. Why are people in a hurry, in such divine surroundings I wonder?
There are some stretches of narrow gravelly paths along mountain sides, where feet tend to falter. These are moments of conquering fear I tell myself. I was heady from this innocuous mix of nature, that I had abundantly inhaled and while I gathered myself, Dhondu our guide; my Little Buddha appeared out of nowhere offering to help. Actually, he would just appear in some corner, patiently waiting for me while I slowly trudged. The last half hour is a trail with wooden planks and uber green trees leading to Phedang. I was welcomed by dancing magpies, who hopped around gaily in Phedang Meadow. Can there be a better welcome. I felt like love in that moment!!
Day 9: Tsokha to Yuksom in 8.5 hours
The first stretch between Tsokha to Sachen appeared easy; we glided down in 3 hours flat; by now I had mastered boulder descents and the art of finding the path of least resistance to the knee had become second nature. At Sachen; we devoured on our packed lunch of soft roti rolls filled with delicious potato curry and for the next few hours on the way to Yuksom; all we did was taste the pulpy mountain berries and fruits for desert!! I had my fill to keep me looking younger for the next few months. The path seemed endless, covered by fallen leaves and we stopped often for a tete-a-tete; not too happy to leave the mountains, the memories that we created together, of staring into space under the starry skies, the times spent in inane banter, the laughs on apparently silly things that kept us going on tough days. There was a sudden splash of rain while we walked, like a blessing of love from the mountains celebrating friendships sealed under the rhododendron trees with horseflies for a company.
Back at Yuksom, the hot shower washed off the grime and soothed the tired muscles. That evening we sat huddled under a gazebo in our Hotel Kanchendzonga, sipping warm Thumba (local drink from fermented millet) from tiny bamboo barrels accompanied with spicy chilly chicken, piping hot chicken momos dished out by Ganesh of Limboo Restaurant while Vikrant narrated about the rescue mission with the sick trek mate. That night, I finally slept like a baby enveloped in the warm blanket, with tears welling up in gratitude having lived my septuagenarian father’s dream of watching sunrise on Kanchenjunga.
This is a not so easy trek and there were moments when I wanted to give up wondering why am I here, why am I going through this journey, Why? Why? I asked myself!! I compared with other trails and yawned and moaned. I think I was foolish to compare, to spend precious time in rants which should have been ideally spent living in the moment. Mountains beckon their favorite children to explore their hidden treasures, to bestow a legacy that they hold close to their chest. At every low moment, I counted my blessings for this treasure, this moment and all the people with me on this journey who offered me a slice of their life to make it special !!
At hindsight, this was ordained, I had to follow my destiny; meet a city bred young man who lives his passion in the mountains; meeting a couple taking a second chance at life. A young woman who was stepping out on her first trek, and yet another young woman who was shattering inner barriers and finally some time conversing in silence with a friend with whom I shared the tent on most treks.
This trip was originally published on Life is a Vacation.