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.