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Sikkim trekking journal #1: A walk in the clouds

View Kathmandu to Kuala Lumpur 2011 on Chris Parsons's travel map.

Day 1 – The drive to Uttarey (30 October 2011)
We leave Darjeeling with our guide Pushpa and our driver in a flashy Mahindra 4x4 just after 8am. The dashboard LCD screen is showing the temperature outside is 12 °C. Three hours and countless hairpins later we’ve descended 1700m through tea plantations to the Rangeet River, the border between West Bengal and Sikkim (temperature reading 30 °C). A tourism pamphlet we pick up at the border checkpoint proclaims that Sikkim receives nearly four metres of rainfall annually. Judging by the riot of greenery lining the road, this may well be true. In Chasing the Monsoon, the book I've just finished reading, Alexander Frater describes the verdant hills of northeast India as "an abandoned overgrown garden" with "hills so unimaginably green they seemed radioactive. It wasn’t hard to imagine a seed planted at dawn blooming before dusk". The roads are often poor, slowing our progress to a crawl, but I’m kept entertained by the roadside signs. Indian bureaucrats love their signs and there are some especially fine examples here, announcing government initiatives such as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) and the West Sikkim Rural Connectivity Programme (WSRCP). I wonder if they have been approved by the District Authority for Fonts and Typefaces (DAFT). We arrive at Uttarey in the twilight, and check into the Green Valley Hotel as the only paying guests tonight. Not long after, the director of our trekking company, Satish, arrives. I'm very impressed he's driven seven hours to come and greet us personally. He's also brought with him our cook, Mingma, our kitchen helpers, Mingma (again) and Gyalchen, and a gift of a weighty hardback book (which a poor porter will have to carry for the next two weeks). We're all tired after the long road journeys, and agree to reconvene in the morning to discuss the arrangements for the trek.

Day 2 – The trek to Chewabhanjyang (31 October 2011)
Breakfast is another feast. Outside, preparations are taking place: porters arrive, sacks of food are assembled and jerry cans of kerosene are decanted. Satish shows me photos of his parents' hotel in Gangtok which was damaged in the recent earthquake. It struck the Himalayas on 18 September as we were flying to Kathmandu and was the second biggest ever registered in the region. The Yak and Yeti Hotel, a seven-storey concrete structure, did not fare well. Several beams and columns on the lowest storey were seriously damaged. The building was evacuated and fortunately no-one was hurt, but two government engineers have pronounced it unsafe, and I tell Satish (who saw from my trekking permit forms that I am a structural engineer) that I'm inclined to agree with them. He runs the trekking company from the same building, but now it will have to be demolished, and I feel desperately sorry for him and his parents. There's no buildings insurance here and the government will not meet the cost of rebuilding. Satish and his son Ravi are pragmatic. In North Sikkim, the epicentre of the quake, many buildings collapsed and more than 100 lives were lost. After breakfast, we begin trekking under an ominously cloudy sky. We enter a birch and rhododendron forest where wild orchids flower on the tree trunks and cardamom plants form the understorey. Our information pamphlet tells us that the Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary, which we enter an hour or so into the walk, is populated by leopards, bears, monkeys and red pandas, but they remain unseen by us. We climb for several hours to a campsite on a ridge at 3,000m. This is Chewabhanjyang on the Indo-Nepal border, and we will follow the frontier northwards for the next few days along the Singalila Ridge. There's a police checkpoint here, and we're kept entertained by the officers as we wait for our porters to arrive. One gives us a lesson in Nepalese, another shows us how to prepare a good curry, and a third, a statuesque assistant commander of 31 years' service, scolds us for not producing any children. "You are married three years and you should have one child already!" he barks. He has a fine bushy moustache, and turns green with envy when a Nepali arrives with an even finer handlebar moustache. He turns to me and says "In India we say man with no moustache, he is woman!" I'm suddenly conscious of my own pathetic stubbly growth, but fortunately the saying only applies to Indian men. Then we become aware of issues with the porters – it seems as though we are a few short, and Pushpa is running up and down the path all afternoon barking orders. Eventually our tent arrives and is pitched in the dark. Clouds swirl around the ridge, unleashing sharp hail showers which bounce off the tin roofs. There are no views to speak of.

Day 3 – Chewabhanjyang (1 November 2011)
Pushpa comes to our tent at 7am to announce that today it's "impossible to walk". It's snowing outside, but this isn't the reason. After several excuses are offered, we finally get to the truth – we're still one porter and several loads short. The weather plays foul all day, forcing us to cocoon ourselves in our down sleeping bags reading books, in between dashes to the kitchen tent for meals. We have a late-morning excursion south along the ridge. I bale out after an hour, feeling weak and lacking energy – I'm on antibiotics for a dodgy stomach (again) and I suspect this is the reason for my fragility. Jen continues a bit further to a yak herder's hut where she is offered local delicacies such as stringy yak cheese, Tibetan tea (made with salt and butter) and rice beer. Food is the high point of the day, especially the delicious local squash (which is like a savoury galia melon), fresh beef and a banana pie. If Mingma keeps this up there will be no complaints from us! We fall asleep in a cloud to the sound of pattering raindrops on canvas. Today is the first day of our trip that we haven’t taken a single photograph.

Day 4 – The trek to Dhor (2 November 2011)
Today's weather report: woke in a cloud, walked in a cloud, went to sleep in a cloud. At least we're able to walk now that all our porters have finally arrived. I count 11 of them after breakfast, resplendent in their gold wellington boots. We walk for 5½ hours today, through rain, sleet and snow, and to make matters worse Jen has come down with a heavy cold. Conditions underfoot vary from slushy mush to mushy slush, making us slither and skid our way along the ridge on drunken legs. Visibility is never more than a hundred feet. In the Scottish Highlands, this would be called dreich, a thick pall of cloud clinging to the ridge with nary a whisper of wind to shift it. The forest is silent, save for the occasional flutter of wing beats, the soft plop of leaves shedding their snow and the swishing of our nylon clothing. As we eat our peanut butter and jam sandwiches at lunch, the weather gods decide to tease us, revealing a pale, milky sun which glows with all the intensity of an energy-saving lightbulb. Then it's gone, and I spend the afternoon walk to Dhor composing the following rhyme in my head:

The chance of fine weather is slim
When trekking in western Sikkim
So take a good book
And a man who can cook
'Cos without them your life will be grim

When we arrive we huddle round a fire in a damp hut, trying to dry out our wet laundry. Jen succeeds in burning her handkerchief. The kitchen staff collects snow to melt for water as I count the porters in. Wait a minute – now there are 12! How did that happen? Mingma, our 'man who can cook', rescues the day once again with a magnificent dinner. We start with pumpkin soup, ladled directly from the pumpkin. Then comes beef curry with daal and okra, another new vegetable for me. We could only dream of fresh food like this in Nepal!

Posted by Chris Parsons 05:06 Archived in India Tagged india trekking sikkim

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