A Trek to God’s Dwelling: Goechala

For days, preceding to the journey some inescapable images come up. . The fleeting vignettes give a spur to the anticipation and longing, as I think of the poles creating long crooked trails of tiny holes beside those wee little flowers.  . The wanderlust seizes me and again i will walk on those hills which lie like a mirage from the distant roads. Again the boughs of pine trees will bow down to embrace me in their bosom as i touch the old corrugated barks. Once again that mountain smell and the thickening fog will wrap me all around with deepest care.  Once more I will be with the simple little folks of the hills. Some days are indeed diamonds.

New Jalpaiguri station is perhaps the gateway to dreams for the people of that part of the country. The moment I reached Sukna, I leaned out of the window not just to feel the whiff of the breeze on the edge of my skin, but also to catch the first glimpse of the undulation across the horizon. Ohh! The first sight of hills is a way too exciting than the rendezvous with your beloved. As I crossed Sevoke and met my coy mistress Teesta, l felt ensconced once more in the loving arms of the Himalayas. Our car moved up, the Nepali driver came across the fellow driver coming from the opposite and exchanged some inarticulate pleasantries. A mountain tune started playing in the car stereo and our chariot of time revved up the speed deeper in the widest arms of the hills. Each time I see my all too familiar hills a smile from my core comes to my lips and I simply cannot control it.  Every bend the car takes  and i feel i am going to meet her and the very next second she makes me feel that she permeates the entire hills. Wherever I look, I see her. The colourful walls of the small dwellings, the flower tubs lined at the veranda and the red cheeked ladies whiling away their time in careless abandon- her presence lies everywhere. How can I curb the smile when i get back to her!  We got down from the car to sniff the fumes of hot soups of chicken momos and the leafy vegetables of chicken thukpa. The ladies of the road side shacks, ever so condescending to serve as many servings as we wanted, served me the essential dessert of a glass of Darjeeling tea.  Not a tinge of tiredness of the overnight train journey remaining, we passed Jorethang and sang our way into the western fringes of Sikkim.  Sun leaned on  the western sky and all of a sudden dived in the scattered shops waiting to drop down their shutters and the prayer flags standing tall and welcoming us with a never ending flutter of happiness to receive another bunch of mountain lovers.

What better can there be than to take the first click of your tour when the peaks of Himalayas shine up above  green mountains! Each time I am in the land of high hills my day breaks pretty early before the skyline turns red. From the terrace of our homestay I mumbled the prayer of the day looking and feeling my God silently in my heart. A slice of Kanchandzunga and Mount Pandim were visible miles away from Yuksom.  With green hills all around ,the first sight of just two small white peaks , interlaced with one another, from those high hills was a bliss. The slight nip in the air, the mild wind giving a caring touch at the sheen of your cheeks, the early birds happy twittering and the solitary road leading up to the green hill were all for what I pine for.

Twin peaks from Yuksom

Yuksom is a sleepy hamlet. At night I could see the faint outline of the distant hills and in the morning when I came out in that solitary road, I saw green hills donning the entire landscape. Few lodges and homestays and even fewer number of shops selling almost everything that you want from a mini-departmental store, were standing in both sides of the road. While the road led to a forested village in the hilly slopes, we took left into an upward alley. Up at the top of that alley strewn with dried leaves and lined with yellow and white prayer flags, there was the old monastery.

Yuksom from the monastery

The monastery has turned shabby and the yard in front of it is shorter than what we usually see. The interiors of monasteries do look a little eerie because of the sombre silence and the reddish yellow hue created by lamplight in the closed halls.  This monastery being small, there was just a single lamp lit up in front of the huge mural of Buddha. A smiling genial monk came in and sat on the seat on the floor. He did not object to my clicking when I found the bright sunlight making its way on the wooden floor through the slit of a half closed door.

We left Yuksom a couple of hours after. The road which took me to that monastery bifurcates a little ahead. One of it goes inside the picturesque village and the other goes afar into the wider road, into the foothills of other hills from where that twin peaks were beckoning us to move ahead. Another week of trekking and crossing countless numbers of hills on foot and we will go at the base of those peaks. I left Yuksom with an unquenched thirst. The laidback people sitting on the  wooden corridor of their homes, the kids walking hand in hand for nowhere, a kid monk sitting on the dusty road against the wooden wall of a closed shop and the beautiful flowers wherever you see just hold you back when you so cruelly leave the place. Yuksom is like the gracious lady who silently serves drinks to the tired travellers or to the love-parched souls but who gets no ear to listen to her own tales of woe.  The place lies neglected as we treated it as a mere transit point to move in a more luscious attraction of higher mountains.

Those snow capped peaks came back three days after. It took two long days of trekking through jungle to reach a stage of open sky rimmed by the high hills. Peaks came much later. Kachandzongha National park started a km or two after we pushed off. The first day trek was of 6 kms through the jungle of maple, birch and other trees. When I am on a trek I vie for taking the last man of the row-a sweeper who sweeps the entire footsteps that fall ahead. There I got Pronab, the cinematographer of our trek. Sometime I fell behind to catch a red foliage peeping out of the green or a tiniest flower catching the sun that had to travel  through the leafy sky and sometime Pronab lagged behind when on account of documenting the strips of streams by the way or the villagers who passed us smilingly with their horses and yaks. Prek chu started roaring from the distance. It appeared through the trees at some bends and we could sense the velocity of the river falling into the gorge.  Dipankar, our unanimous leader with the experience of another trek at this route , told us that four more days trek and Prek Chu will accomapny us just beside our feet.  I was thinking of how we used to fetch water to drink from the streams in Kashmir Himalayas. It feels pretty cinematic to empty your bottle with little sips of water and fill it up stooping at the rivulets flowing through the ferns and mosses. I got it here again. A stray stream was flowing under the second bridge that came in our way. The sound was heard from quite a distance and moving ahead for a couple of kms I saw the hanging bridge. It was lovely to look at the hanging bridges, between two hills and with rivers flowing underneath. With every passing bend you achieve a close proximity to the bridge)And inevitably you will find your mates taking a break from trekking ,sitting on any rock beside the bridge.

Walking through jungle: Yuksom to Sachen

Reaching there i found my mates sitting casually on the stones. Down below,  Niladri and Dipankar were flirting with the slippery grovels in the mountain stream. It took seconds to climb down the precarious slopes of the hill and to reach there. When you are in mountains, the thoughts of danger hardly cross your mind. And that was the first day of trek. Who can stop me to turn my clock back and jump over the stones to go near the stream! It created a pool surrounded with bigger stones and flanks  of the hills. The lure of catching the whirling motion of the floating dry leaves in that pool with slow shutter was desperate. We got some prize catches at the cost Niladri’s sunglass and a cap. He might have left those for some other adventurers for some other day. Only the most deliberate transgressors would jump in there just to take a few snaps. There was not much huffing and puffing in the first day of our trekking. It took the entire day to reach Sachen ,our first spot of camping straight in the lap of forest . Daylight didn’t reach much as it was covered all around with big hills and there was jungle with long dangling branches of trees guarding over you. The porters and the yakman reached much early to set the proceedings of getting the most coveted glass of tea and the delicious muri chanachur. Our camp was perched between two trees a few steps down from the kitchen where we assembled to chat, sing, laugh and dine together in the semi darkness of three solar lamps

Camping at Sachen

 

Our yakman was the person straight out of the celluloid of wild west movies. The looks and airs of a lone wanderer in all blacks wearing a Texan cowboy hat and a glittering knee length shoe, I always found the man to be extremely photogenic. He was never found moving with anyone else except his yaks. In all eight days I hardly found him talking except on some stray occasions when the porters would crack anything funny with him in their dialect. He would be seen mostly lost in himself; the muscles around his eyes are wrinkled to give that typical cowboy looks. A bidi would dangle in his lips and either he would be walking all alone or taming his wild yaks with a sleek cane at his hand. This man with no name, we never asked his name and called him as Mountain Monk, drew our attention with a remarkable instance of his endurance on the very day of our trek to Sachen. There was a news abuzz among the porters of our group, till then not fully acquainted to us, that our yak man has been badly injured by his own yak. On reaching there we found that it was a grievous injury.  The horn of yak got straight in his thigh piercing it so badly that it kept of bleeding hard. In normal circumstance the cut would have been stitched for sure. But these mountain men are really possessors of extraordinary strength. Pronab, our crisis man, bandaged the wound with betadine powder and cotton and I gave him a pain killer. There was no change in the facial expressions when Pronab had to press it hard with bandage. That was the first day and eight more days of steep climbing were left. But these people never give up. For the next couple of days whenever we asked him, there was just a faint nod without anymore expression to assure us that our mountain monk is there with us, no matter how much we cringe at the very looks of his wounds.

Mountain Monk: our Yak man

Crossing the fourth bridge that lay suspending over the rambunctious Prek Chu, there was no descent in the second day of our trek. We were extra cautious whenever we found yaks coming from either side of the roads. The width of the roads being bit too narrow for even more than two trekkers walking side by side, it appears to be dangerous whenever the yaks would come from the opposite direction. The sound of the bells tucked at their neck would make us aware from the distance and we would make way for the warriors to pass, by narrowing our bodies as much as we could leaning at the mountain walls. Beside them the horses and ponies looked much benign. But looking at what had happened with our mountain monk at the hands or horns of his own yak, we were really threatened at the whims of these animals. The road uphill towards Bakhim was to take us further away from Prek Chu. The nature of the trees gradually got changed. The density of big trees being smaller, sky was getting wider and the mountains were getting vaster. Bakhim is the first camping point of many groups but we made a brief stay of half an hour in this beautiful little village. A hut with a tiny shop and a partially dilapidated building of HMI for its own trekkers and members are all that the place could boast of. There was vegetation maintained by the family who lived in that little hut. A big group of trekkers were already there and when we assembled and kept down our backpacks to give rest to our tired shoulder, some of them came and talked to us. They were mostly from Mumbai. A circular shaded place in the midst of the vegetation and above the slope of a hill attracted us desperately, but it was all filled up by the people who arrived there earlier to us. So we had to leave for our return journey and finally after a week, that place became one of the most memorable places that got etched in our memories

Beautiful Bakhim

Another 3km upward climb through the trees of Rhododendrons and Camelia took us to Tsokha, our camping for the second night. It was relatively shorter and easier trek and most importantly we were a day old in uphill trekking. Still, the last km or two gives one the invariable feeling of waiting for the walk to end. From Bakhim to Tsokha, the narrow hilly paths got wider. You won’t need to bend your body in an arch to let the yaks pass by as there were a lot many lanes, by-lanes and frequent mounds to stand and look around and with the number of trees getting significantly less, one can take any short cuts to climb.

Moving from Bakhim to Tsokha

From a distance we found the end is nearby and the last turn into the table top brought a smile of infinite satisfaction. If Sachen is amid thick jungle, Tsokha is a wide open picturesque plateau. When as usually I reached as the last man of our group, evening was still some hours away. The soft the afternoon haze mixed with the descending fog made the place look like a dream. Some trekkers hut lying scattered surrounded by bamboo fencing in which a few horses were tied with ropes, trekkers  relaxing on the wavy undulations here and there,  horses and yaks grazing freely and quietly, shafts of yellow sunrays catching the lush green expanse made the uninhibited vision of Tsokha  an idyllic Elysium  to soothe your tiredness at the end of the day. The beauty of Tsokha is so irresistible that we felt roaming in that landscape was the best way to relax our body. Every waking second should be passed rolling over the green grass or sitting quietly looking at the vast sky where sun was coming through and going into the cloud or walking aimlessly and communing silently with the horses that look at you with benign glances. There is a lake at the far end of the village, a small natural lake beside which lay an old, extinct monastery. We climbed above to see the doors closed and the prayer wheels lay abandoned and rusty as none now comes there to rotate the wheels and wash his sins. When you come to God’s own abode, you are already washed off your sins. With the urban ways and means left thousands of miles away (this was the last place from where we got mobile connection) mountains invariably make your mind mild sublime. The air and the smell of the hills, the tweeting of the birds, the silent clouds that float around, unfailingly make us indrawn. When I looked at the God’s children, grazing around so peacefully and found myself to be warmly greeted in that kingdom, my head bowed down in humility. We rested beside that lake where clouds rested with us. We lay on the edge of the mound of the hill that goes down in some forests and kept looking at the fading sun rays of the blessed day. We talked in whispers so that we could hear the sound of nature. We were so overwhelmed that we unanimously felt, who cares what we are going to see in the next one week, even if our trekking ends here, we are not deprived an inch of the blessings of Nature. Tsokha is itself a place for which one can trek for miles.

Lazing in the Hills: Tsokha

Tsokha Monastery and the lake

After two days of walking uphill I was waiting for the clouds to clear. The segments of the twin peaks that I saw from Yuksom got hidden. In Tsokha, only a hazy Mt. Pandim was seen in the early morning. That again turned out to be a teaser of something majestic to dazzle in supreme glory a couple of days later. Leaving the lake at our left  we started trekking upwards. The lake gradually got smaller at every turn we took and finally it receded in the air, mountains got distant and we moved into  the thick jungles once more. This climb from Tsokha to Dzongri was going to be an ordeal, Dipankar made us mentally prepared last night as we were planning to make certain changes in our scheduled stop .The spiralled roads all along its length were spotted with a number of trekkers. Some of them were coming down with some fresh experiences to pass on to us and we were inching upwards with new excitement.  It was like the pilgrims moving up in silent steps towards God’s dwelling.

As we were gaining heights, thick fog was curling up. The branches of Rhododendrons were gradually going deeper inside the billowing fog. Little sips of water, a brief leaning against the soft wall of mountains, a smile at the passing trekker who crosses me only to be crossed sooner or later in turns and a conversation with myself, uttering silent prayers of thanks to the Almighty for giving me yet another chance to walk on the high hills, never allowed me to feel tired.  The thick moss covered stems of the trees, the clusters of red and yellow rhododendrons appeared much more appealing in their beauty. When I looked down I see the roots of the trees entangled with  each other making the road  look even more  inviting to tread gently over it. Even the tiniest flowers looked straight into  my eyes and shared their revelry at the arrival of a new visitor.

A walk through the mist of Rhododendron forests

When I looked upwards it seemed that  the thick moss on the branches looked like primitive vagrant dwellers meditating for ages. We the citizens of civilisation cannot disturb their meditation even if we intervene in that terrain of tangible silence. The branches of pink, white and purple rhododendrons and the imperceptible creeping of clouds into them was an enigma. The only sound that accompanied the cricket’s singing was the chime of the bells of horses and yaks. The tinkling of the bells got louder when they were seen from a distance. Pronab, Samik and I, three last custodians of our team stalled our progress, took deep breath and as the yaks passed us gently and the chimes melted in the fog, we moved up. It took hours to reach Deorali Top, a table top after climbing 7/8 kms.

Evening in Tsokha

When we reached Deorali Top, there was none. It was a vast plain land nestled in the jungles of tall trees. Thick dark fog made the visibility almost zero. No mountains could be discerned unlike what we heard from someone last night. Reaching Deorali Top did not give me just a feeling of elation at the end of half of the tiring upward climb. It was so meditative a place that I got absolutely silent. From a distance of even a few yards Samik and Pronab seemed to have entered inside the clouds. A steady wind was blowing and the Tibetan prayer flags were fluttering continuously. Stones were piled up in vertical columns to give shape to Buddhist temples. Hundreds of them I came across. Under  the thick canopy of fog it looked like God’s own resting place. God himself is a yakman who grazes his yaks in these mountains and when he gets tired he rests in these small temples and soothes his limbs in cold wind. We, the three lost travellers sat in absolute silence. At times cool breeze left a cold touch on my shoulder and often clouds descended elsewhere making way for a slice of sunrays to float over the canopy of fog. We found a path beckoning us for a steeper climb again through the jungle. The dictate of the heart was to move on.

The stony paths became even steeper when we got into the jungle again. The stones were bigger and in the thick clouds we seemed to be walking at the edge of the world. To the right of us was the mountain wall and to our left a few obscure branches of trees and then nothing. That stretch was even more silent. May be we became the last batches of travellers for the day as we met none. We were making the most of it and with each step we were sipping nature with us. We were wrapped all around with clouds. Clouds were fondling our bodies. They soothed us, smeared us with their love,  greeted us in their kingdom and protected us from the ostentatious weight of the wise world. The jungle gradually got thinner, the big trees gradually got reduced to bushes , shrubs and thickets and the long road in front us eventually took us in the vastness of an open sky at the base of a big hill crossing which there will be gradual descent to Dzongri.

We seemed to have left the clouds down below and the sun started shining over the distant hills. From above, the blue tents of the trekkers looked like mother’s kitchen. We reached Dzongri in the afternoon. Baichung, the ever smiling porter brought me the steaming Darjeeling tea and popcorn. Nothing could be more fulfilling than that at the end of a tiring day of trekking.

We camped at the base of a hill. The place was enclosed for camping only. It is a sprawling plain land. The hills beside the plain were desperately calling me to climb up. Sun was there at its back. The long shadow of the afternoon made our camping ground dark and the sun rays were seen above us in the hills opposite to us. My left knee developed a sprain and it was badly aching.

Camping ground at Dzongri

But the call of the enigma across the boundary of the hill was so strong that I leaned on the two trekking poles and started climbing up. My friends climbed even higher but I just slopped down as I reached at the immediate top of the hill. There I was all alone. On one side there were colourful camps set up in clusters. Some trekkers were playing football. The horses and the yaks were given their ration at the end of the toilsome day of trudging.

Dzongri: our camps at the extreme right

On the other side of the hill there was a surreal sight of floating clouds, a burning sun shooting its caramel rays and the silhouette of huge mountains. It was mind blowing. The peaks were looking black and eerie when fast moving clouds allowed them to peep through for seconds only to be covered up again. The level of the peaks was so high that they seemed to be jutting out of the sky. The dark layers of other mountains were much below to those peaks. I was thinking, God permitting, what we are to witness the next day morning when the sun will come back after going down at the other end of the globe for the day.

We got a taste of our final day trek the day after. It was a stage rehearsal of the early morning trekking when mother earth was yet to receive the first bounty of the sun. Sun always wakes up Gods and his angels sleeping at the peaks of his earth. And we the lovers of God walk all along to witness the infinite glory of the divinity. We pushed off to walk with head lamps and torches at the wee hours of the day. I kept my head bent down to look at the lighted part where my torch fell. Occasionally I stretched myself and looked up to see the trekkers ahead of me. They were like rows of ants moving in snail’s pace and the zig zag rows of white light pierced the dark hills.

Night Sky at Dzongri

As the hours passed, we were moving towards the Dzongri Top and the skyline was turning scarlet all around us. It was extremely windy and chilly. The payer flags at the Dzongri Top were fluttering in a terrible rhapsody. There was again that stone temple where one devoted servant offered prayer with puffed rice and incense sticks as light rays fell on the vast expanse. Kanchandzongha towering above and other peaks were standing like sentinels to the God of all Gods. There was 360 degrees of mountains. The entire dome was dotted at the horizon with peaks. Some were snow capped and some were dusty. We appealed to the glory of the God to shine over us. Indeed, thy majesty makes me feel blessed. We saved some moments in our camera and stored memories of life time in our eyes. Three days of trekking still remaining and we would move even closer to them. Dipankar pointed out a distant place, Thansing, where we would be heading forward. Perched at both sides with white hills Thansing, a small valley, could be seen from the distance at the base of Mount Pandim. It would be one long downhill climb and we were waiting with bated breath to enter even closer in the arms of God

Morning light at Dzongri Top

Trekkers at Dzongri Top

The initial phase of trekking from Dzongri to Thansing was leisurely. Leaving the long rows of snow capped mountains at our left we took an upward climb. After a small climb, on reaching the top I saw a vast grass-less brown landscape. The clear dusty red trail lay on the left. It nearly bifurcated the brownish fading green surface. The barren landscape was similar to one I have seen in my favourite Texan movies. Unguarded, clear land sprawling across miles of bushy terrain was in front of me. It was that typical trek in the bare mountains where slow silent steps at the back of all gives you the scopes of musing within yourself while watching your fellow trekkers walk ahead of you.

Since the roads didn’t take many bends I could see them with their figures appearing like dots till they got till they diffused in the distant clouds. In the intermittent sunrays creating scattered holes in thick layers of cloud over the mountains in the distant horizon at our right, I could feel that had there been a sunny day, Mount Pandim and his associates would have gone with us hand in hand for long till we reached a thick Rhododendron forest. Often the peak of Mt. Pandim flashed brilliantly soon to envelope itself in veil. The hide and seek continued as we trekked through and then there was a prolonged never ending walk through the Rhododendron forest. Scattered trails of snow got me the indication that snow fell a few days back. Sunrays could hardly enter in that thick forest. The trees were short in height and the branches overhead would sometimes gave me the feeling of being trapped inside. 

When the boredom of the thick fog covered Rhododendron makes you feel alone after a long tedious trek, the continuous sound of Prek Chu coming from afar made feel the sighting of a reconciliation with the river we saw a couple of days back would be a matter of time. However, the long jungle trek ended after countless twists and turns. The sky was turning black. My knee started aching badly. But, Prek chu was exhilaritaing- the most vivacious belle dancing in careless abandon. There was a hut just beside it. We met a group of returning trekkers from Goechala there. It was a brief biscuit break, Naveen our guide filled up liquor tea in my water bottle. We had to pace up our walk as the sky was getting dark. The rip roaring sound of Prek Chu was declaring its thumping presence. The ferocious foams of the river, as it hit the boulders on its way in terrific rapidity; the dark clouds gradually getting denser above it gave it an aura that was eerily beautiful. Leaving it for some other day I moved on fearing the weather to take ominous turn if we do not trek hard and fast. The trek from Kokchuran to Thamsing was again through jungle. But what a distinct character it had! Pronab and I had a trek of our lifetime at our return journey in this stretch.

The belligerence of Prek Chu: Kokchuran

The last couple of kilometres were truly a walk through mystery. Prek Chu was roaring all along. But the sky was so overwhelmingly covered with clouds that I just leaped through the boulders beside the river. To make it even more eerie, some drops of rain fell on my jackat. For a long stretch I walked alone. Pronab and Samik lagged a bit far. I was getting bit peeved at Naveen as my poncho was with him and he couldnt be seen anywhere. I was desperately looking for the shelter to get relief from the increasing pain in my left knee. When i was climbing again after a long walk I saw that I was moving through a valley and in both of my sides huge dark mountains partially covered with intensely dark clouds was was making the colossus landscape, look so fearfully majestic. It ended with the most coveted sight of a trekkers hut in front of which Niladri and some others were sipping some hot drink. Behind the hut was another vast uninhibited land. But this time I was looking for the warmth of indoors. Meeting my friends after a long solitary walk gave me that warmth.

Evening in the trekkers hut was fun, huge fun. Songs and games brought cheers to everyone. Navin, my crisis man, was profusely apologetic for leaving me in the eerie clouds and gave a balmy massage in my left knee. There was no pressure of getting up early. The next day’s trek will be a brief 2 hours meadow trek. Energy needs to be saved for the all important final day trek. That will be again an early morning trek from 3. But that night we needed  a tight sleep which we had in the spacious room of the warm trekkers’ hut.

Our Trekkers’ Hut : Thansing

Nights rolled by in the snug of sleeping bag inside the hut and the dark clouds of last afternoon might have gone afloat at the other slope of the hills. I tiptoed out with all possible wind proof gears and came out in the wideness of the valley. Half a kilometer ahead of me there laid a placid meadow beside which the nubile Prek Chu was gently flowing by. Prek Chu was in her infancy there. It whined and shrieked but never roared. It is a narrow mountain river who, like the village belle, attracts you by her simplicity. Colourful tents of some other trekkers were adding up a varied hue amid the pastel shades of green and brown valley. And then there were mountains on all sides.

Early morning sunrays : Thansing

Thansing was a fairy land right in the arms of the Himalayas. Miles away from clutches of civilisation, it is in the remote hills. I looked ahead where my eyes could reach.  The bend at the distance that took a turn beside an all white mountain range was so inviting to discover what lay ahead. Mammoth mountains were rising from the base right in front of me. Dark layers stood across the entire horizon and the meadow seemed to have touched the base of those layers. I was that minuscule man mumbling words of gratitude standing amid that mightiness. From the distance i saw a black dot emerging out of the base of misty mountain. The dot was getting bigger and in front of which some yaks were ambling towards me. It was a typical Ennio Morionesque backdrop. The mountain monk was walking in his easy steps through the middle of that vast aridity. The sound of distant drums might have got lost in the whistling winds. His yaks were not in the mood of going astray and the thin cane at his hand only stayed like a sceptre of an extinct autocracy. Rays fell on Mount Pandim. There must be a cloud storm at its peak. It looked like a Menade with her hairs let loose. Above the peak there were waves of icy clouds glittering in the sun and fluttering in the frenzied wind. Another peak was almost leaning at the back of Mt Pandim, the name of which I came to know the name later-Teen Chen Khan.

Sunrise at Mt. Pandim

The couple of hours trek from Thansing to Lamuney was the most leisurely one in our entire trekking days.  The dark clouds of last afternoon came back. But when they hang a wide canopy covering part of the hills, a strange light makes its way out permeating the ground below. There loomed a fear of a sudden burst of rain but simultaneously that strange darkish fading light cheered me up. I got a feeling once more that I had reached my refuge, a cherished shelter for which my heart always parches in thirst. Every tiny flower at my footstep conversed. Every single blade of grass consoled me. I carefully placed my trekking pole only on the soil or on stones lest the tender leaf didn’t stoop. I often paused and let the wind play over my body. The ripples of the rivulets that I crossed over the small wooden planks washed away the sins. Those streams are the moorings of a wandering soul and that gentle sound on the stones takes away all gloom of an urban traveller’s ruffled heart.

Walking towards Lamuney

A few yards before reaching Lamuney, snowfall started. The philosophic smile gave way to a wide grin. We were covered under a dome of cloud and drizzles of snow were falling on our face. It took some seconds to register whether it was a snowfall or anything else. We did not have to hold our excitement for long. It started snowing heavily and after an hour of wild excitement of dancing, giggling and running all around the valley when we got inside the tent.  We found thick layers of snow covered up everywhere our eyes fell on. The brown surrounding hills were all wrapped in white sheets and the distant peaks were lost inside the mist. The memories of Lamuney got freeze for ever.

Our campsite after snowfall : Lamuney

God was as if a sorcerer waving his magic wand as per our sweet will. He halted my age and it receded for the time being to my youth when I too jigged with my trekking friends unwavering fun while romping on ice. The sky got clear late evening and it glittered with legions of stars at midnight. When I walked out of my sleep at 3 in the midnight, I saw that he has prepared soft bed of snow for my aching knee to travel. The dark night once again found some over enthusiastic feet walking in zig zag lines, dotted with the light of head lamp and torches. The call of God is irresistible. Again we wanted to see Him opening up his eyelids when the first sun rays would fall on the peaks at Goechala.

Night Sky : Lamuney

It was the final ascent. They say when you die you go either to the Himalayas or to hell. So may be the final ascent was the reward of some accumulated virtues of our life. Some blessed feet were climbing up a terrain where not many people of this earth could come. The darkness around shut our eyes to look around and to concentrate only on the trekkers in front of us . We were like those lambs, in long rows followed the heels of the respective precursor, with their heads bowed down and hearts awaiting the divine light of the day. The shepherd was waiting for his flock of lambs somewhere in his abode. In the morning wee hours we sighted Samiti Lake, a much talked about destination in this route. It stands exactly at the middle of the total trek way from Lamuney to the first point of Goechala. The blue light of the early morning spread across the big lake poised at the foothills. We were moving along a slope above the lake keeping it left to us. It beckoned us to stop and pass some time on its edge. Last night’s snow made it look like a big white bowl from the above. The still water down below was looking black and the sky above was gradually turning from black to blue. In the final couple of hours the steep and the continuous uphill rise exacted all the strength and tested my patience. Divinity is not so easy to come by. Every step upward, I was inching closer to the stark blue sky. Just an upper ridge of hills at my left, seemingly a few yards away, was going further down as I was climbing up, along the chest of a gigantic white mountain. Above that crest, at my left, peaks appeared one by one. I felt to jump over that frontal hurdle of a low hill to go straight in front of the magnificent mountain range that was getting clearer and nearer with every passing turn.

Is that the dreamy Kanchandzungha range of mountains that I have been worshipping ever since I saw it eras back from Gangtok?! Where is Kanchandzungha? Where is God for whom I have travelled miles? The sky piercing peaks are all his angels, paladins to the paradise where Kanchandzungha rules behind a solitary patch of cloud. A huge chasm separated us from that range and the mountain on which we were trekking. Pandim and Teen Chen Khan stood to our right while the much fabled names stood at the other end. When we finally stood beside the prayer flags of Goechala viewpoint one, sun was shining with full effulgence. I was standing with my eyes glued to the majestic expanse that appeared to be so near to me. For a second it felt that the names might have lost a bit their dignity when the entire range came so close to me. When I watched them thousands of aerial miles away, they would stand like a dream, distant and unattainable. They would look gorgeous when they towered above the green and brown layers down, much below. Today I am standing right at their base. For a second i felt that the distance that my feet covered took away that wonderment of watching the spectacle from afar! The next moment I realised that He has got the whole world in His hands. I am standing underneath and he is blessing me, sending his wild gusty wind to blow across my skin. I could not point out the individual peaks, the names I heard for years and watched some day from afar. The Kanchadzungha at the farthest of the long row was partially covered with thin scattered clouds. Oh how I wished to travel a few roads more and to touch its base! Something should be left for tomorrows. If earth is a perfect round what heaven is for! I turned I turned around , gazing listlessly at the grandest peak of the world.

At Goechala Pass Viewpoint 1: Kanchandzungha behind the cloud

We stayed three more nights before coming back to where we started. Every single stay left something deep in our hearts. The caravan of nine trekkers was a wagonload of memories. When we were coming down hill we met the travellers, who started trudging those terrains we had passed just a few nights back. I was having the déjà vu as what they could have thought, looking at us. It’s all in the mind. Before the start of the trek we knew they were going to be a handful of days. Every night we were moving closer to our goal, precious time was getting eliminated from that handful. But when we crossed Lamuney, had unleashed fun in the Thansing and sang our hearts out in the cottage of Kokchuran, all of us were waiting to get back. Seeing at the trekkers stooping on their poles while climbing up in tired steps, Niladri smiled at me silently acquiescing to my feelings, oh yes, there you start and we are done with them.

Downhill: moving towards Lamuney

A few stops need a rewinding of feelings once more. First was when I was romping in the white powdery ice of Samiti lake. Just completing the trek I was boundless in exuberance. The sun was glaring hard in that high altitude and I never stopped clicking till I got a bad headache in the reflected glare. It snowed for hours, turning the landscape white wherever I saw. But the glare melted the ice so fast. As if the show is over.

Samiti Lake at the distance

There happened something pretty funny at night in Thansingh when our voice crossed the unwritten permissible limit of sound in the hills. In a nail-biting sudden-death round of dumb charade, when none of the two teams was willing to give in, a boy knocked at our room. He requested us to tone down because our shout would lead the snow to fall as something like that had happened with them in Dzongri.  Of course though we fought hard to control ourselves, we could not break out in laughter after he left our room lest the laughter might trigger an instant snow fall in clear sky.

Mt. Teen Chen Khan

Clouds could never be more meditative than what it was during my stroll with Pronab through the jungle from Thansing to Kokchuran. We took thrice the time one is supposed to take. We hardly spoke with one another. We could never allow the evocative silence to get fluttered a bit with our words. The only sound that we should hear was the roar of Prek Chu, the chimes of the passing yaks and the quintessential sound of silence itself. For one last time clouds billowed down, embraced us in deepest affection, cuddled us with a silent urge to come back there. The mossed branches and the stones of the pathway seemed to have stories galore at their closet. Only a meditative silent soul can listen to those tales and that also not with a solitary visit in their land.

Prek Chu near Kokchuran

By the river Prek Chu we laughed and sang. The evening at Kokchuran was memorable. The Nepali songs that the porter boys sang together had something eternal in the tunes. Who can forget the girl who entered to sing with these insane boys in the room? For once we didn’t want the dinner to be served at the usual hour and went on singing with renewed vigour. Who says that I was on the wrong side of youth?

And then came the final evening in the lap of Bakhim. Some of us went back to sleep with a fear of spooky spirits knocking at the tents following a round of ghost stories being told. Some of us stayed back in the darkness. The shaded place at the edge of a mound of the hill, where we could not sit while travelling up.But on that evening there was none except us in that entire vicinity. Evening seemed to wane and around 11, the gentle landlady came with a demure proposal of leaving her place because unless she closed it, horses and yaks would come at night destroying the crops that she had cultivated in front of her courtyard. We retired in our camp for one last time in the hills.

Last night at the Hills :Campsite at Bakhim

However tiring the final day trek was, after all it was a trek of return. Navin our guide carried my backpack again and when it became impossible for me to take any more steps in excruciating pain, massaged me, anointed balm and tied his muffler to make me fit for the remaining three hours. Everyone was happy after a talk with their close ones back home and when I dragged my feet to Yuksom in the afternoon, the sky was dark again. But this time the clouds were floating miles above. It started drizzling and everything around was looking so green. Yuksom, the dainty damsel looked so hauntingly beautiful after taking a bath in that shower. The celebratory dinner with chicken tandoors in our hotel kitchen was not an epilogue but a prologue to many more treks together.

A Solitaire : Yellow Rhododendron

The twin peaks again peeped up the next day morning. We saw some new batch of trekkers gearing up to set out and to keep the continuity of man’s exploration of the mountains. I looked at those distant twins beckoning other lovers and bidding me a smiling farewell. The angst of tearing the chord with mountains hit me hard. I didn’t look back at the kid standing beside the window of our caravan. She might be seeing faces from the plains every other day. Don’t know what questions she has when she sees the wheels of cars vanishing into the cloud of dust behind. But a look at her eyes makes me weak.

Yuksom, a beauty

Homecoming was never sweeter for me than going back to her. A city bred gentleman that I am, closed the door of the car with a bang.  As the car was leaving behind the stoppages I crossed so enthusiastically just a week back,  I was direly waiting for my much famed and carefully constructed stoicism to take me over. It didn’t.  I turned back once as the car left Teesta at its left and crossed Sevok in a tearing hurry. I leaned out of the window to see the board of destinations hung at the Jeeps coming from opposite and moving into the hills. I looked wistfully at the smiling passengers inside.

I left the hills leaving my heart with it once more.

All the Pictures in the post are copyrighted. Their reproduction, even in part is forbidden without the explicit approval.

Ashis Ghatak
Ashis Ghatak

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