India has tourist destinations that are picturesque and off tourist itineraries. Sikkim is one such. Apart from the regular Gangtok-Rumtek-Nathula circuit, one of the most challenging treks in India lies in West Sikkim. Called the Yuksom-Dzongri-Goechala Trek, this 100 km, 7 day trek through rhododendron forests in the Kanchanjunga National Park (KNP) offers stunning views of the Kanchanjunga range.
The base for the trek is the village of Yuksom, which is the entrance to KNP. The park covers the area from Yuksom (1780 m) to Mt Kanchanjunga (8586 m), the third tallest peak in the world. The KNP covers an area of 2192 sq km and was notified by the Sikkim government in 1977.
Arriving in Yuksom is like taking a train ride back in time. Yuksom means ‘meeting place of three monks’ in the local Lepcha language and it is here that the history of modern Sikkim began. In 1642 AD the first king of Sikkim, Chogyal Phuntsok Namgyal, was consecrated by three Tibetan monks. The stone throne where the consecration took place still exists in Norbugang, near Yuksom. Soon after, the first Buddhist monastary in Sikkim was built in Dubdi to establish the Nyingmapa sect prevelant in Sikkim. Yuksom is also the hometown of Bollywood baddie, Danny Denzongpa.
It is with this sense of history that I began the trek on a warm May morning last year after having shopped for groceries for the trek. A word of caution here: it is risky to attempt the trek without guides or porters because there are no villages on the way to buy food. In my case, the guide doubled as cook.
The first day consists of a 16 km trek through dense temperate forests from Yuksom to the small village of Bakhim (2750 m). There is a spacious trekkers hut for the night’s stay. Day two is easy, just 2 km to a small Buddhist settlement called Tsokha (3050 m). The families here are refugees from Tibet and when offered a choice of places to settle down, they opted for a high altitude village. The trail goes through rhododendron forests. These plants reach 10-15 feet in height and bloom in April-May. The landscape is a riotous display of red, yellow, pink and purple rhododendrons. There are stunning views of Mt. Pandhim, Tenzingkhang, Lama Lamini, Narsing and Jophnu. I spent the rest of the day at Tsokha acclimatizing.
In the eighth century AD, guru Padmasambhava, the patron saint of Sikkim, flew over Sikkim on his way to Tibet. He was invited by the first king of Tibet, Trisong Detsen, to rid his kingdom of the many evil spirits who terrorized his people. On the way he hid many treasures in the Kanchanjunga region. According to legend the treasures are still here, safe from prying eyes. As a result, the entire area around Kanchanjunga is considered sacred. In fact, Kanchanjunga means the five sacred treasures of snow in Lepcha, the local language. The mountain has five peaks which contain the Guru’s treasures: sacred books, gold, silver, gems and grain. As I begin trekking on the third day I cannot help feeling that one of the Guru’s treasures must have been the beautiful landscape. The early morning mist parts to reveal snow-capped peaks reflecting the golden sunlight.
I wonder what this terrain must have been like when Padmasambhava traversed this path: lonely, beautiful, exhilarating and awe-inspiring. The nature around me forms a continuous set of beautiful images in my mind, like an impressionistic painting. I try to imagine myself walking in the Guru’s footsteps, but it is difficult to get a sense of serenity in the crowd of other trekkers.
Dzongri, day three’s destination, is 10 km from Tsokha. The trail affords breathtaking 360-degree views of the entire Singalila range (of which Kanchanjunga is part) at a place called Devrala. Dzongri at an altitude of 3950 m is the place where ‘man meets the mountain gods’. It has a small trekkers hut and a meadow where tents can be pitched. Many people will get some form of altitude sickness at Dzongri. I got a headache because of dehydration caused by drinking the local brew Chang every night for the preceding 7 days at the invitation of the locals. Chang is made from fermented millets and served in a long cylindrical wooden bowl with a bamboo straw. It is smoother than wine and one of the best tipples I’ve tasted. It is a good idea to stay a day or two acclimatizing. Short day trips can be made to the Dzongri viewpoint for views of Cabru, Jophnu, and Kanchanjunga. A 4-5 hour side trek leads to Dzongrila pass. According to local belief this is the entrance to the original Shangri-La, or hidden paradise. Fine views of Rathong glacier, Mt Kokthang, and the Frey peak are afforded from here.
Day four or five (depending on how well you acclimatize) consists of a 10 km trek to Thangshing (3930 m). The really hard trek begins the day after. Wake up at 2 am and trek 6 km to high-altitude Samiti lake, and then 6-7 hours to Goechala for clear views of Mt Kanchanjunga. This is as far as trekkers are allowed. This is Yak, Snow Leopard and Blue Sheep terrain.
In 1982 the government opened up this area to outside visitors. The early 90’s witnessed mass tourism in the KNP, which led to a host of problems. There was large scale littering in the forest trails coupled with deforestation because trekkers were cutting trees for firewood. In 1996 some concerned locals formed the Kanchanjunga Conservation Committee (KCC) to mitigate the impact of tourism. Since then KCC has formulated conservation strategies for KNP that have helped clean up the place and regulate tourism. For instance, a clean up campaign brought back 350 kg of garbage from inside the national park while workshops for guides and porters impresses upon them the need to keep the park free for the benefit of tourism. Eco-tourism is prominent among KCC’s objectives for a clean KNP. They have formulated a code of conduct called ‘The Eco-Trekker’ that gives pointers on how to be a toxic-free trekker.
Harmony with nature is ingrained in the Buddhism practiced here. The locals believe that every mountain, lake, stream, tree and cave has its own set of presiding deities. One cannot just jump into a lake or cut a tree or climb a peak without offending the deity. Mt. Kanchanjunga is considered to be the guardian deity of Sikkim and if the peak is violated then disaster will befall the state. Which is why climbing expeditions stop a few feet short of the actual peak in deference to local wishes. The bedrock of local belief treats humans as part of nature.
But a lot of tourists, Western and Indian, are either unaware or unwilling to respect local belief. Like the ugly American, the ugly Indian merrily stomps all over local traditions with his/her family in tow. The rich biodiversity has also attracted bio-pirates. Ten years ago KCC apprehended two Russians who were trying to smuggle 30 species of butterflies and numerous other insect and plant species. Numerous other cases of bio-piracy have come to light.
But, this region is also heavily dependent on tourism. Since only limited agriculture is possible and cardamom, the main crop, started declining, tourism is the main income earner. West Sikkim has seen a boom in guides, porters, cooks, hotels, travel agents and other infrastructure that caters to the tourism industry. Pema, General Secretary of KCC says, “ We can’t expect to stop tourism because it is a revenue earner, but we want tourists who respect the local culture and environment.” Chewang, another member of KCC adds, “ We want guides and porters to accompany tourists for their own safety and also so that they can earn money.”
KNP has strict entry guidelines. Foreign tourists have to obtain a Restricted Area Permit from the Sikkim Tourism Department to trek in KNP, which is not required for Indians. However, all tourists have to register with the police outpost in Yuksom and pay an entry fee.
After spending seven beautiful days in KNP it was time for me to return. A couplet by sufi mystic Firdaus, although used in a different but not entirely dissimilar context, comes to mind:
Agar firdaus bar-e-rooh zaminast,
Haminast, O haminast, O haminast
If there is a paradise on Earth,
It is here, it is here, it is here.
How to get there: Nearest railhead: New Jalpaiguri (150 km), nearest airport: Bagdogra (155 km)
Travel Agencies: Mountain Rangers (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Denzong Adventures (contact Norbu Bhutia, 09733098737)