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Sikkim trekking journal #4: The snow leopard's realm


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

Day 11 – The Goecha La and the trek to Kokrochung (9 November 2011)
At 4am porridge and tea is served at the tent door, fuel for our big walk. But there’s an immediate problem; Jen has come down with a bout of D&V in the night. She’s not well enough to walk, so it’s just me, Pushpa and Abi, our senior porter, who set of at 4:30am. The moon is so bright that we switch our headtorches of after about half an hour. Our first goal is a viewpoint at the top of the valley behind Sameti Pokhari. We reach it just after sunrise. A smattering of trekkers are already here, firing off shots of the golden mountains, but nothing like the numbers at Dzongri. The viewpoint is actually the top of a moraine ridge. There’s a second viewpoint an hour and a half further up the path, then the Goecha La itself beyond that. To get to them, we must descend a steep, ice-covered path into the ablation valley of the Oklatang Glacier. Three guys standing at the top of the steep section have serious expressions. “Problem!” one of them says to me, pointing at the ice, but Abi is already halfway down in his wellies. I set off, carefully following his every move, while the dithering trekkers eventually decide to turn back. We reach the second viewpoint just as the sun hits us, warming our frozen toes and faces. Now, we are standing on top of another moraine ridge, directly opposite Goecha Peak and its eponymous glacier. Below us lies a large, frozen glacial lake – it’s awe-inspiring scenery and seems as though we’re in touching distance of the Goecha La. All we have to do is cross a snowy bowl, but it takes a further hour to get there. No-one else has come this far today, and the snow is fresh and deep. There’s a lot of clambering and comedy falling over as legs disappear into deep pockets of snow between the hidden rocks. Pushpa, a few paces ahead of me, points his trekking pole at some tracks in the snow and announces "Snow leopard." This is an elusive prize indeed! The tracks must have been laid since the last snowfall, which means they are less than three days old. An actual sighting of a snow leopard is ridiculously unlikely (Pushpa has done this trek more than 50 times and has only had one fleeting glimpse of a leopard) but to find fresh tracks is still a rare privilege. We struggle on to the pass itself, the sun now beating down on us and reflecting an unbelievable amount of heat from the snow, causing us to perspire heavily. At the pass we celebrate with hugs and high-fives (it’s also Abi’s first time here), and take in our surroundings. Kangchenjunga’s east face is massive and lofty. The mountain is sacred (and it’s forbidden to climb it from the Indian side) and Pushpa and Abi say prayers and burn incense. We look back on our route, a wild, unspoilt valley leading all the way out of the Himalayas. I also look back to our arrival in Dzongri three days ago, depressed after a week of terrible weather and on the point of giving up and going down. How things have changed! It’s rotten luck that Jen is not here to see this, but she gave me instructions to take lots of photos – easy for me to obey! At the pass we pick up the snow leopard tracks again, and follow them on a different route back to the second viewpoint, because as Pushpa says "the leopard always knows the way." Here, we strip off excess layers of clothing and eat our lunch. We retrace our steps to camp, arriving at 12:30pm. After a second lunch, Pushpa is keen that we descend more. Jen still feels rotten, but is just about well enough to walk on at a slow pace. She knows that 4,100m is not a good place to be ill! We walk yesterday’s route in reverse to Kokrochung, a campsite surrounded by rivers. We both rest in the tent until dinner. Mingma has rustled up another pizza but Jen can only manage a small bowl of cornflakes. By seven o’clock we’re both in bed.

Day 12 – The trek to Sachen (10 November 2011)
It’s time to go down. Once the main goal of a trek has been achieved, it’s always something of an anti-climax on the walk out, and that’s how I feel as we set off this morning. Jen has made a rapid recovery and almost matches me in terms of porridge, eggs, chapati and pizza (reheated) consumption at breakfast. We’re now below the treeline and are walking in forests all day. But what beautiful forests – towering pines decked in mosses and ferns, rhododendron trees with leaf clusters the size of small umbrellas, golden birches and magnolias. No villages, no fields, just a wild forest. It’s a different experience to the treks we have done in Nepal. As you descend from the heights, you can almost feel the warmth returning to your blood. There’s a gradual re-connection with civilization: mobile phones spring into life, a distant road is spotted, and then the first settlement. In our case, it’s the small hamlet of Tshokha where we stop for lunch. We then continue to descend, passing another hamlet called Bakhim. Pushpa introduces us to his Aunty Gita, who has a small shop-cum-restaurant stall here. She also has some unusual produce in her vegetable garden:

Gita, Gita
Vegetable eater
How does your garden grow?
With cauliflowers, beans,
An assortment of greens
And marijuana plants in a row

Jen’s remarkable recovery is complete, and she’s now striding along with chef Mingma. I’ve always known that the way to Jen’s heart is via her stomach (which is why I made sure there was a large slab of chocolate cake in front of her when I first asked her out). Mingma is a demon in the kitchen, so perhaps I should keep a closer eye on him… At Sachen, the porters have pitched our tent on a small plateau above the trail surrounded by wild forest. It’s a beautiful location for our final night. We get a special dinner, featuring a salad that looks like a piece of modern art and a cake decorated with the words "Happy Trake" (sic). We both eat too much and there slope off to bed feeling the usual weariness. Some of our porters are sleeping under a hollowed-out tree nearby.

Day 13 – The trek to Yuksam (11 November 2011)
It’s a two-hour walk through the shady forest to our final destination, Pushpa’s home village of Yuksam. Before we leave we say some words of thanks and tip the staff. The walk is uneventful and our minds are already thinking about the coming days and weeks. We pass a group heading up who warn of monkeys throwing rocks down a landslide, but when we get there they have gone. I don’t know if I’m disappointed or relieved. We reach Yuksam, by far the prettiest village I have ever seen at a trailhead (most are complete dumps). Our transport is waiting – the usual pimped-up Mahindra jeep. With the trekking over, it’s time to reflect on what has been a tough but ultimately rewarding couple of weeks.

Sikkim has given us a taste of the wild Himalayan winter. The blizzards and fog persisted for seven days, making the trek physically punishing, mentally tiring and a challenge for Pushpa faced with keeping 16 people safe and in good spirits. Then the sun came out and transformed our experience entirely. Just as we had reached the point of despair, we had five days of the most incredible scenery. This trek has been like a metaphor for India: exasperation and exaltation in equal measure.

Posted by Chris Parsons 05:41 Archived in India Tagged india trekking sikkim

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