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Sikkim trekking journal #3: The winter playground

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Day 8 – Trek to Dzongri (6 December 2011)
We begin with our customary tea served at the tent door, followed shortly by bowls of warm water for washing. Today is a hair wash day for me, but as I’m flicking the soap suds away my wedding ring shoots off my finger and buries itself in the snow. We paw around fruitlessly until our hands are numb, then summon Mingma, who brings a pan of boiling water. We melt the snow and eventually the missing ring is revealed. Phew! Dzongri is only a couple of hours away, and we start under the familiar snowfall from a grey sky. We have none of the swirling clouds and bursts of sunshine that made yesterday’s walk so enjoyable. The clouds do not thin or part, and the sky is glowering and impassive, like the grim expression worn by the Queen during a Royal Variety Show. It reminds me of a winter’s day we spent trudging over the Cairngorm plateau a few years ago, and the scenery here is not dissimilar. There’s a surprising amount of activity at Dzongri; some 15 tents are pitched, and porters, ponies and yaks mill around the camp. We’ve now joined the trail to the Goecha La, a viewpoint beneath Kangchenjunga, and most trekkers heading that way have a rest day here to acclimatize.

The snow falls more heavily after lunch – this is a cold place. The afternoon is an exercise in staying warm and dry, either in a sleeping bag and huddled round a wimpish fire. We also have hot drinks aplenty, including a Cadbury’s chocolate concoction called Bourn-Vita. This promises to "multiply the power of milk", giving the drinker shakti (a Hindi word for power). "This shakti", claims Cadbury’s, "helps prepare your child to be a winner". We’ve had so many cups of the stuff, I will advise any children we come into contact with to buy lottery tickets. By dinner the snow is falling more thickly. We now have to consider our options, and talk them over with Pushpa. We’re all agreed that if this continues, we shall go down in two days’ time (tomorrow is a planned rest day here). It would mean an early end to our trek, but both of us readily admit that we’re getting fed up with the weather. Also, there’s no point trekking up to a 5,000m viewpoint if there’s no view. It’s not in our nature to retreat, but after seven days of hardship, it’s probably the best thing for our sanity. It would also be the right decision for the porters, some of whom have clearly been suffering for the last few days. At bedtime, the snow continues to patter softly on the tent, and the staff beat the frozen canvas to dislodge it. It’s like being inside a giant timpani.

Day 9 – Dzongri (7 December 2011)
Dzongri means 'meeting place of man and mountain gods', and today the mountain gods finally decide to reveal their winter playground. We are both awake at 4:30am as the sound of footsteps approach our tent, but we aren’t expecting to hear the following words: "Good morning! Today good view!" I unzip the tent to see Pushpa bearing cups of tea, his silhouette framed by a starry sky. Could it really be? We put on extra clothes in the night as it was real brass monkey weather – I had five layers over my balls, so at least they didn’t suffer the same fate as the monkey’s. Now there are icicles inside the tent. After tea we set off up the hillside behind Dzongri to the viewpoint of Taplagang, 30 minutes away. It’s a perfect dawn, and the break in the weather has drawn out all the trekking groups, some of whom have been sitting it out for several days. At the summit, the lines of prayer flags have frozen solid and a small crowd has gathered. Now, all the peaks of Sikkim are finally on show, including Kangchenjunga, the world’s third highest. We feel incredibly blessed – it’s been worth a week of suffering to see this view. To the south we can see the Darjeeling ridge, to the west our route along the Singalila ridge, and to the north and east, a line of Himalayan giants.

You have to work up a hunger
For a glimpse of shy Kangchenjunga
She chose to surprise
At a perfect sunrise
And it made me feel ten years younger

We descend for a hearty breakfast, then embark on a morning hike to a nearby col with Pushpa and two porters. (Four of the porters left this morning, so we’re now down to eight). As we climb, clouds racing up from the lowlands envelop us, but we no longer care. We now have a mental map of our surroundings and the memory of this morning’s astonishing mountain panorama. As we reach the col, the Sikkim Himalaya is up to its old tricks again. The clouds part coquettishly to reveal a rocky flank or an icy ridge, but there are no more grandstand views. This weather persists all afternoon, but we’re grateful for the lingering sunshine, which allows us to wash, dry things out and generally relax. We need this good weather to stick around tomorrow, otherwise we still have the prospect of an early descent.

Day 10 – Trek to Lamuney (8 November 2011)
After another restless, chilly night, the day dawns clear again. The decision is made for us – we will go up to our highest campsite at Lamuney (4,100m). I start the day with my usual routine, first sniffing inside my sleeping bag and then checking my underwear and socks for acceptability. I won’t admit to how many days the current set has been worn for fear to followers of our blog abandoning me in disgust. We set off at 8am, full of pancakes, eggs and porridge. After a short climb we traverse beneath yesterday’s viewpoint, then make a nosedive descent into the Oklatang Valley, heading directly for the gap between the shining beacons of Kangchenjunga and Pandim. There’s no sign of clouds building up from the south and the views in that direction are exceptional; a recession of hazy blue ridges leading the eye down to the Himalayan foothills of West Bengal. Down in the Oklatang, we turn northwards and follow a beautiful river up through the forest. Once above the treeline, the mountains to either side begin to make their presence felt, and it feels as though we are walking through a guard of honour on our approach to Kangchenjunga. We pass Thangsing, a lovely grassy campsite at 3,800m, and around six hours after leaving Dzongri, arrive at Lamuney. After lunch, we walk a further half-hour up the valley to the holy lake of Sameti Pokhari, where, appropriately, the holy mountains are perfectly reflected in its calm waters. Dinner is a simple Indian meal of rice, daal and curried cauliflower, but I’m not sure the dessert (red jelly) is a traditional dish. Tomorrow is our big day – the trek to the Goecha La – and we have a pre-dawn start to look forward to, so we head to bed straight after dinner.

Posted by Chris Parsons 05:23 Archived in India Tagged india trekking sikkim

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