Like Darjeeling, Sikkim is a town for strong legs, with steps joining the streets, and the town arranged in layers up and down the hills. There was an orchid show on, and a beautifully kept park, all up the top of the ridge, enticing us up to explore the heights. Our trekking enquiries bore fruit, with phone calls from two of the agencies. We quickly dismissed Tashila, since they seemed to be trying to officially link us to a group of Japenese visitors, but actually take us by ourselves; trekking is very tightly controlled here, and breaking the rules seemed to be asking for trouble. However, Dorjee at Mountain Tours seemed to be able to fit us in with a Japanese couple, so we agreed to meet him and discuss the possibilities. With some misgivings, we paid a hefty deposit, and committed ourselves to his organization.
Some of the major attractions in Sikkim are the monastaries. We were forced to wait in Gantok for our trek to sort itself out, but there are three monastaries you can visit from there. We hired a car to go to Rumtek, just across the valley and a one-and-a half hour winding drive away. The buildings are a concrete copy of original wooden and stone buildings in Tibet, and are beautifully done. There is both a religious and a teaching organization here, with a huge prayer hall where visitors are welcome to sit and join the puja. Around the back of the buildings is a rather bare and desolate hillside, hung with countless greying prayer flags, rather mystical and fairy-landish.
On the following day we caught a bus out to Phodong, to visit the monastery. Its a bit of hike up the hill, and even further up to the old buildings, but the walk is pleasant, with cardamom growing on the slopes and cuckoos calling from the trees. The forest above the old monastery is worth a bit of exploring too.
By this time we were getting anxious about our trek. With a 15-day limit to visas, and a projected 9 or 10-day trek, we were running out of time. Our mate Dorjee (by this time reduced to being called Dodgy) had not produced the Japanese, as promised, but was calling us daily, to re-assure us that he was doing what he could to arrange a trek. On the next evening all fell into place. Dorjee had been meeting all buses, asking any arriving tourists if they wanted to trek; a Dutch couple, Anke and Harm, thought they might like to come with us, so they turned up at our hotel and had dinner with us, giving us all a chance to see if we were suited. Luckily, we hit it off immediately. We were all worried the "other couple" would be gung-ho. As it was, Geoff and I were older, more decrepit, but experienced trekkers; Anke and Harm were younger but totally inexperienced in Himalayan treks. We decided on the route, and arranged to go together.
As expected, Geoff and I were now pushed for time in Sikkim - we would have to cut the trek short to get back in time. Dorjee pulled out all stops, and sent us off the the right people in the ministry to get a very rare visa extension. We had to do a lot of patient waiting around before we got to the right person, then stretched the truth a bit, pleading illness as a reason for putting off our trek until now. The official in charge didn't really believe us, but we were all very civilised, and we left with our precious 3-day extension.
We had another two days waiting to leave, since Harm and Anke needed to arrange their trekking permits. Geoff and I spent the time walking out to Enchhey monastery, then right to the other end of town, to the Research Institute of Tibetology. We also visited the markets, always a source of interest and enjoyment.
At last - the day to pack up the landrover and set off to the west. We didn't meet until lunch time, then had lots of time arranging and re-arranging things on and in the vehicle, before we finally crushed ourselves inside and drove out of Gantok. Our route took us back almost to the border, through Rangpo, then west along the river, before heading up north again. We had planned to spend the night at Pemayangtse (another monastery), but night and rain found us somewhat short of our destination, so we ate in a small town and found a hotel there to spend the night. Early in the morning we loaded up again and drove up to the monastery. There are a number of lovely buildings, and the main prayer hall has an astounding model of the Buddhist spiritual world, the life's work for a monk who lived there.
We then drove out to Khechopalri lake - the sacred lake where no leaves are seen to float on the surface; legend has it that as soon as a leaf decends to the water, a white bird will fly up and remove it. It is true that the surface is totally free of leaves, but there are a lot of man-make devotive offerings floating near the edge, since this remote high lake is a pilgrimage place, and very holy. Dorjee and his staff made offerings, then we headed off on the increasingly rough and winding mountain roads to Yuksam, and the first trekking hut.
In light rain, we unpacked the landrover and waved the driver goodbye - we were to be picked up 6 days later. The hut was impressive; a two-storied building, stone on the bottom and wood on the top, with one large room below and three bedrooms upstairs. The kitchen was out the back. We settled in and started to explore the town, while Dorjee re-assured himself that all was in hand - the yaks were coming, the porters and kitchenhands were there, and all was well.
The next day we began our trek, the four of us accompanied by our guide (Dorjee), his off-sider, a policeman (obligatory in this sesitive part of the world), a cook, four kitchen hands, four porters, a yak man and four dzos (cross between yak and cattle). The first day was relatively easy, 16 km from Yuksam (1780M) to Bakkhim (3005M) through lovely countryside, initially up a valley, then across the stream and up the hill to a forestry startion, where we slept on bare-board beds, cold and comfortless, after a magnificent meal cooked by "the boys" in a miserly little lean-to in the nearby paddock. Bakkhim to Tsokha the next day was very short and VERY steep. About 2 or 3 km, but it took us about 3 hours to do it! To add to the joy, I started to show sign of altitude sickness; three steps up, stop and vomit, then plod on again.
Tsokha was a joy to reach. There is a tiny community of Tibetan refugees, granted the land by the Indian government, and a trekker's hut as you come up over the rise. Sitting on the verandah, I could recover, looking back down the valley in the direction of Yuksam. Our first glimpse of the snow-clad mountains revealed itself from the back of the buildings. Around the hamlet were rhododendrons and magnolia trees, and the hillside was so enchanting that within a couple of hours of arriving, exhausted, sick, and beyond help, I was off and up the hill again, just walking in the forest for the sheer enjoyment of it. I love the quiet and solitude such trees give - this is a forest out of Tolkein, with gnarled, twisted ancient trees and the path forming a tunnel below. That night we managed to get some chang (millet beer) from the local people, served in bamboo pots, and slurped up through slim bamboo straws. You refresh the beer by pouring hot water into the millet - it filters down through the grain, getting a yeasty flavour on the way, but little, if any, alcoholic content.
Our destination was Dzongri (4030 metres), only 10 kilometres away, but another steep climb. This would have to be some of the most beautiful forest in the world - massed flowering rhododendrons and magnolias, amid fir and spruce trees, with orchids in the trees, deep mosses and lichens, and thick, thick ferns on the forest floor. The crew went first, and stopped at Phithang (about the only flat spot along the way) to cook and serve lunch. They did a fantastic job, cooking on open fires, producing a full 7-course meal. As we climbed higher the cold set in, and it was snowing by the time we arrived at the hut in Dzongri. There is no village this high up the mountains - it is a yak high pasture, with one hut for the yak herder, and the trekker's hut nestles by a stream in a valley. The best view of Kanchenjunga is from a hill to the north-east, another 1000 foot climb. We had a bit of a walk around the valley after arriving, but the cold and dark sent us indoors. If anything, it was colder inside! We ate our usual great meal early, and all four of us retired to our sleeping bags to shiver the night away.
Early next morning we were up to climb the hill, hoping to see the mountains at sunrise. The climb took a surprising long time, lungs gasping in the thin air, but it was well worth it; Kanchenjunga seemed to be only a valley away, looming over us with its five peaks turning pink and gold in the early morning light. This is what these trip are all about - a sense of awe that is almost religious when you stand near the top of the world and look out on it spread in front of you.
We were spending another night in Dzongri, and decided to walk out to a high, sacred lake, off the route to the base camp. Harm was feeling a bit down and exhausted that day, and simply couldn't believe it when our route led immediately up the nearest steep hill! The lake was still and beautiful, with patches of unmelted snow still on the ground, but we were unprepared for the chill wind that sprang up. Dorjee was putting up prayer flags and lit a small devotive fire, but we irreligious, freezing westerners voted with our feet and headed back to the hut, taking the policeman as guide and companion, leaving our great leader to his prayers alone. We weren't insensitive or disinterested - we were just so cold we couldn't do anything else!
That afternoon the snow set in solidly, and we were unbelievably cold. We huddled in our sleeping bags shivering, and philosophically reduced the necessary world to four things - warmth, food, shelter, and somewhere to go to the loo. You do get very basic under these types of conditions. Even the evening meal didn't warm us up, and we all spent a frozen night, looking forward to the morning.
The snow was still falling when we got up, and lay heavy on the ground - enough to build snowmen when it eased off. To Geoff and I from West Aust, where it never really snows, the sight was overwhelming, and we made many forays out and up onto the ridge, enjoying the novelty. The sky lightened, but Dorjee was reluctant to set off down the mountain. We were not looking forward to another frozen night, and after much debate again voted with our feet and said that we would descend to Tsokha. In the event we were right. Although we left in light snow, it eased off rapidly, and before we were half way to Tsokha I was once again walking in a t-shirt, rather than in the multi-layered clothes I wore at Dzongri. The walk down was wonderful, with snow laying on the stunted rhododendrons that grow at these altitudes, softening the forest still further.
From Tsokha we were to walk to Yuksam, not stopping at Bakhim. Geoff and I were out in front as we headed down the hill, but we could hear Anke and Harm not far behind us. This wasn't unusual - we tended to walk in changing pairs or groups, different people taking the lead as suited them, and normally without sight of the trekking company people at all; the policeman usually walked somewhere near us, but not always. After a short time, we sat and waited for Anke and Harm to catch us up, but no-one appeared. After ten minutes we began to worry, then Geoff climbed back up the hill to investigate. Eventually I joined him, and we walked back to Tsokha, now deserted by all the crew. About this stage we concluded that we had taken the wrong route in the first place, and headed down again, this time seeing a side track just as the main track took a bend. When we had first walked down here we had been passed by people on horse-back at this corner, pushing us into the cliff side of the bend, and hadn't even seen the track going off. We headed down this new route, looking for signs that we were on the correct path. Harm's boots had a distinctive sole pattern, but we couldn't see it in the mud. We sped down the trail, but never saw a soul. The climb that had taken 3 hours on the way up was reduced to about 20 minutes to get down, and we arrive at Bakhim, expecting to see the group. No, there was no-one and no evidence that they had passed though. There was no alternative but to press on, down the steep drop to the river, where we left a pile of rocks with a note, in case we were wrong, and the rest of the party were behind us.
Just after the bridge we finally saw the boot print we were looking for, and knew that all we had to do was walk into Yuksam. After another 30 minutes we caught up to the policeman and Dorjee's assistant sitting, waiting for us - they had finally worked out that we must be behing them, although we had set out first. Apparently Anke and Harm had set off at full speed thinking that we were ahead, and everyone had hurtled down the hill to keep up! We weren't sure why, since the four of us had always walked "together" up until then, and we would never have raced off and away from them. We all slowed down and had a leisurely walk into the town, finding Anke and Harm long since settled back at the trekker's hut, amazed to see us arriving so late.
We spent the night at Yuksam, throwing a party for the "boys", who really did a great job. We went off to bed exhausted at 10pm, but the party carried on half-way through the night in the room below us. The last day was spent getting back to Gantok, but we called into Tashiding monastery, one of the most sacred in Sikkim, and the most impressive for us. We were able to visit the classrooms, where small boys chanted from Tibetan texts, and the workrooms where restoration work was being carried out on statues and temple fittings. We stopped for lunch at Namchi, a small village, where a request for the loo had me led by the hand down the slimy pitch-black depths of the building to piss in a gutter while the lady chatted away companionably, still holding my hand. A final stopoff gave us time to wander around Saramsa gardens, then it was back to Gantok for a final meal together.
Geoff and I stayed one extra day, calling in to say goodbye to Dorjee, then caught the early morning bus back to Darjeeling.