4 June 2014

Travelogue - Dzongri-la Trek, Sikkim

We got to Yuksam, the first capital of Sikkim, the previous day. We were briefed about the trek and I got the heebie jeebies listening to the weather conditions at Dzongri. Being my first Himalayan trek, I wasn't sure what I should be mentally prepared for. We had been given a list of things that we should bring, but thought it was more a suggestion, than a necessity - this assumption worked for N, not for me. I guess my face gave away the terror the weather at Dzongri inspired in me, so the trek organiser loaned me a down jacket. As it happened, finally even that was not enough. Umm... I am a cold weather wuss.
A dog joined us on our walk out from Yuksam town. We met him on and off through our trek, and our final sighting of him was at Dzongri-top, catching the first rays of the sun lighting up the mountains.

Day 1 Yuksam-Sachen-Bakhim-Tsoka

It was going to be the longest stretch of walking: 13kms, 1000m elevation. Yuksam is at about 2000m, and Tsoka at 3050m. We began at 8. Half an hour earlier our bag for the trek, to be carried by the pack animals, had been picked up. We just carried backpacks with water, raincoat, fleece (me), personal kit, snacks and camera. This was after all, a five star trekking trip - all you had to do was haul your ass up the mountain.

Sachen was our lunch stop. There wasn't too much climbing to get here: gorgeous views of the gushing Rathong river, wild orchids and dense green forests. You cross three bridges, the first one welcoming you to Kanchendzonga National Park. It is downhill to the bridge, savour this, for here after, the ascent begins in earnest. I discovered that while climbing, I can use my breathing to set up a rhythm. So at each inhale-exhale cycle I took a step. It didn't matter how much I climbed, I simply made sure that I took one step at each breath. I didn't stop often, kept my pace steady and didn't look up to gauge what the climb was like. I just walked, step by step. The guide patiently walked with me, N having scampered quite ahead. This worked marvelously, for when I did stop, it turned out I had covered a major distance. The other way to do this is to stop, no matter where, but at regular intervals. The old run-walk technique I used for the marathon, but it didn't quite work for me here.

After a 2 hour climb, Bakhim was a sight. A small tea stall, umbrella roofed outside seating, with a grand view of what you have accomplished as a climber. I treated myself to a large packet of Parle G here. Did you know that Parle G is one our most popular export item to China, traded across the Nathu-la pass? From Bakhim to Tshoka is another climb, but of a shorter distance. An hour later I was at Tshoka.

Our tent had been pitched, the pack animals and porters having arrived way before us. We had 4 horses, 1 horseman, 1 cook, 1 cook's helper, 1 porter, 1 guide: quite the staff collection for just the two of us! We also saw Dzo, a cross between a cow and a yak. These are hardier animals, used for treks to goche-la, which is a 9 day trek to 5000m. Unlike Dzongri though at Goche-la, you don't see a panorama, but just Kanchendzonga much closer.

Surprisingly, toilets in Tshoka are ultra clean. There are also loggers huts and rooms, but we paid for, and got camping. We popped half a tablet of diamox, to fight altitude sickness.

Dinner that night was a wonderful hot meal of tomato soup, dal, rice, vegetable and dessert. We got warm water for our bottles, and with fleece lined sleeping bags, camping at Tsoka was ultra comfortable. The next morning we woke early. The sky had cleared a bit, and a few peaks were visible, but that didn't last.

Day 2 Tsokha-Phaedong-Dzongri

9kms; 3050 to 4000m. We were warned not to take altitude sickness lightly, and so there was concern when I felt nauseous that morning. I popped pills as advised by our guide. Going up though was uncomfortable. I could walk, but felt sick in the stomach; loud belches coming at frequent intervals. We toyed with the idea of setting camp in Phaedong, something that was not routine because the water source there was 1.5km away. The pack animals that were behind us needed this information too, or they would continue to Dzongri. I plodded though, deciding to make the call at lunch.

It was a nice steady climb to Phaedong (3500m), similar to the Bankhim to Tsokha stretch. A hot lunch awaited us, much to the envy and amusement of fellow trekkers. A table was set up, with a tablecloth! We were served hot lemon tea, then soup, pasta, veggies, and fruit. Black tea rounded off this meal, and I felt completely recovered. So, we decided to proceed to Dzongri.

Now, the stretch between Phaedong and Dzongri is supposed to be the toughest, with one stretch of ascent at a 70 degree incline. Personally, the climb was a joyride as compared to the descent. The stones help you find your footing as you step up, making it feel like you are taking the stairs. On the way down though, they pound right through your boots, and into your knees. Yuck. I was blissfully unaware of the torturous descent at this point though.

After the ascent comes a walk in the rhododendron forest. Wooden planks form the route, a nice break from the stones, and the pretty flowers do much to brighten your day. It was quite misty, visibility at about 100m, and the forest is pristine. We got to Dzongri at 3, the fastest the guide has ever got there. I was mightily pleased with myself. From Phaedong onwards I wore gloves and the fleece. While climbing the body is warm, sweating profusely, but that started to wear off an hour later at Dzongri.

There's a tea stall at Dzongri that kept me alive with wai wai (Maggi in the NE) and tea. At 7 we had dinner, and then curled into our sleeping bag. My nose, toes and fingers, despite being covered, were not pleased. They were numb and hurting. I have experienced the cold before, but always safe in the knowledge that a centrally heated home, car or room was available. Not here. The constant exposure was tough.

Toilets at Dzongri were stinky and a hole between wooden floorboards. So, we had a toilet tent for us. A 2 ft deep pit, which you covered up with mud after your job. Hot piss hitting wet earth- a new odour.

Day 3 Dzongri top-Kanchendzonga-Tsokha

We were awoken at 4 and off to climb the 150m to Dzongri top. Muscles were sore, so I laboured, but caught the first rays of sunrise hitting Kanchendzonga. It is a sight you memorise to replay again and again. In that cold, the majestic peaks, the isolation - it draws out your spirituality. You can try to understand why popping off to meditate in remote Himalayan locations helps reach enlightenment. Besides dwelling on the beauty of nature, there isn't much else to do!

We decided to descend today, as I was super uncomfortable with the cold. Instead of stopping at Phaedong for lunch, we walked down right to Tsoka. Our trek team, had reached already and had co-opted one of the abandoned homes as kitchen area. As soon as we sat down to eat, it started pouring. This continued all through the night, leaving us not much else to do but listen as the water poured off the tent. We were dry and warm inside.

Day 4 Tshoka-Sachen

Walk down to Sachen
Most trek teams leaves bright and early in the morning, but with our itinerary that wasn't required. We could have covered Tshoka to Yuksam in one day, but since we had paid for 5 days of camping, we decided to stretch out the descent. Eventually this worked out, cause the descent was any day harder than the ascent. A trekking pole was sorely required and luckily present.

Sachen is not the nicest place for a camp, presumably because many people don't stop over here. Thanks to the relentless rain, there was stagnant water at camp. The horses and humans are further discomfited by flies, which buzz all around your face, occasionally with one of them going kamikaze in your eye. While the forest is pretty and probably for bird lovers, a fantastic point, we didn't enjoy this as much a Tshoka. That night though, our cook's team assembled a cake. Yes, cake, made in the pressure cooker. Complete with icing!

Day 5 Sachen-Yuksam

We did a lazy walk back, stopping for lunch at the last bridge. Our intrepid trek team had set up a fully functionally cooking set-up right by the river. It was my most memorable meal - waterfall background, trees and birds all around and two dozen flies waiting to commit suicide right into my eyes. This was the only time I needed my glasses, to keep the damn flies out.