Sunday, November 7, 2010


Can you be in Sikkim, Bhutan and West Bengal at the same time? A visit to Richi la on the trijunction will enable you to do just that. The Pangolaka range defines the 33 km long boundary between Sikkim and Bhutan and meets West Bengal at Richila. A part of this range and the Richila can clearly be seen from most parts of Gangtok It is the last mountain on Gangok’s horizon in the South Easterly Direction.
The best way to reach Richila is from Aritar, close to Rhenock. Aritar is fast developing into a favourite tourist destination with Lam pokhari as its major attraction. But visitors coming here do not have much else to do. Therefore for those for a liking for some adventure the 15 kilometres trek having a moderate climb to Richila from Aritar is worth including in the itinerary.
After an overnight halt at Aritar we reach the border at Haticherey 2 kilometres away . It is 4.30 am am when we alighted from the vehicle and commence the trek. We will be ascending from Hathichere’s 5000 ft to Richila at about 10000ft in 15 kilometres : a rather moderate climb. We have obtained permits from the Forest Department Counter at The Tourism Office at Gangtok on payment of a nominal fees. We are now in West Bengal. On the hill opposite we can see the lights of Pedong and on the left Lava. Slightly above the lights of Kalimpong gleam and in the background Darjeeling twinkles in the night sky. Soon dawn breaks and the beautiful vistas around us becomes visible. After two hours and a half we are at Mul Kharga at 7,500 ft which marks the entry into the Pangolakha wildlife Sanctuary. We have ascended about 2500 ft in altitude in 5 kilometres:a relatively stiff climb. We had been in West Bengal till now. The Forest Department of the Government of West Bengal has a Guard House here manned by couple of their Forest Guards and it is here that we halt for about an hour for breakfast that we are carrying alongwith us.
We are a group of eight: Forest Officer Usha Lachungpa, her husband Ganden Lanchungpa and forest guards. Ganden has been back from a ten days arduous expedition to explore a new trekking route between Brong and Dzongu and he is finding this trek like a walking on a highway. I have also a few months ago been on a formidable hike to Hemkund and Badrinath in Uttarkhand and therefore both of us are finding this trek rather easy. Usha however insists in minutely studying almost every plant on the way and taking notes and this does slow us down.
We will now be trudging on a track that demarcates the Pangolakha Wild Life Sanctuary in Sikkim and Neora Wild Life Sanctuary in West Bengal.The path is lined mostly with maple, magnolia and oak trees. The branches of trees all along the route entwine with each other to form a leafy canopy. Bright sunlight filters through a fretwork of rich green foliage lighting up flowers in splashes of colours. Butterflies of many hues flash like living jewels dancing from flower to flower. Above in the azure sky, big winds send clouds scampering here and there. A group of birds fly in jagged formation trumpeting. Nature itself seems to exult.
Different species of vegetation struggle with each other to obtain a foothold in this thick forest. The trunks and branches of trees are heavily festooned with clinging, beard like moss. Yearning for sunlight, vines clamber up the tree trunks. Gigantic ferns take the form of giant garden umbrellas. In the near darkness of the forest, shards of sunlight filter through the thick canopy of trees. The path is littered with acorns, leaves and twigs form the trees around. Insects trill and rasp, leaves whisper, little creatures walk through the underbrush leaving ripple of rustlings and birds whistle their territorial claims. Such forests are tempting targets for poaching and illegal tree felling and we did not come across any signs of either. The officers and staff of the Forest Department in charge of this Sanctuary seem to be doing a good job in maintaining it in such pristine condition. Sikkim is steadily being faced with an increasing population of vehicles leading to pollution. Such untouched areas require to be fully protected to offset the concomitant emissions and reduce the carbon footprint.
After an hour we reach Ramethy Dara. The view from here is breath taking. The area suddently becomes bereft of any trees and gets replaced by maling bamboos. We are now in Red Panda country. Although we do not see any Red Pandas, I have an eerie feel that our every move is being watched by them from their leafy hideouts. From Rametey Dara about the path from most path is on a stream bead that has been gouged into the land perhaps over the last few centuries.
A few kilometres ahead and the vegetation gets replaced by a thick forest of rhododendron trees. Having light red trunks, these trees soar almost 40 ft above the ground. The space between the trees is populated with the ubiquitous ferns and the maling bamboos. We are finally at Richila hut of the forest Department. It is a 20ft by 40 ft concrete structure with a tin roof and a wooded bunks inside. A kitchen made of wood adjoins it. However most of the planks of the kitchen have been stripped off and have apparently used by visitors as firewood
Sadly, the place is also littered with a lot of garbage – bottles, plastic wrappers etc. We feel that it is our moral duty to clean up this place of litter before we do anything else. We collect the garbage and burn it. The Government must have a mechanism in place to ensure that garbage in these pristine area are disposed off without harming the environment. It is understood most of the visitors coming here are from Bhutan. Perhaps putting up signages advising trekkers not to litter might help.
Just about 100 ft away from the hut is nestles a small lake Jorepokhari on the West Bengal side.
Next day early morning we go to the actual trijunction which is about 500 metres away from the hut. It is a barren spot with bushes growing all around. It is a rather nondescript spot- no landmark or plaque or pillar to indicate that we are at such a significant point. A cairn – a pile of stones with a small wooden stick is all that marks this place. Dawn brings its share of spectacular sights. The eastern sky slowly lights up and the snow-clad peaks become crimson and then glistening white. As the sun rises, the crowns of smaller mountains are brightened up one by one and then slowly the probing rays enter the deepest of the valleys and the gorges revealing verdant forests soaked in hundreds of shades of green and sparkling white rivers.
From here we get a panoramic corner view of Sikkim. Opposite us is Pakyong, scarred by the upcoming airport strip. Further up Gangtok can clearly be discerned. On the Western border is the omnipresent Kanchendzonga range. Nathula, Jelepla and 17th Mile on the Eastern border of Sikkim with the Chomolhari peak in the background are all clearly visible. And on the South are the undulating hills of Bhutan and the Dooars. And far away below are the rolling plains of West Bengal. A few kilometres in the Easterly direction is a barren hilltop Pangolakha glistening yellow in the sunlight after which the entire range has been named.
The early morning sunlight seems to also activate the wildlife especially the birds. Twittering and chirping loudly they dart from tree to tree foraging for food. An eagle rides a thermal air-current and remains almost motionless in the air for a full minute and then suddenly the equations of the forces that are allowing it to hang like that change and it dives to land on a tree top.
Downhill we retrace the same path but after crossing Mulkharka we take a small detour and visit Phursey Lake. We skirt around its banks and then take the steep footpath down to Hathichere.
We are soon back at Aritar and then it is the journey back to Gangtok. It has been an exhilarating three day getaway -visiting a different world, a different eco-system - so unlike the noisy and maddening one that we are so used to.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Trek to Hemkund and Valley of flowers

Fast track to Hemkund sahib and the Valley of flowers
For those visiting Haridwar or Rishikesh, a quick visit to Hemkund Sahib and the Valley of Flowers is a sidetrip worth considering........
A visit to the the mountains of Uttarakhand to most tourists means a a hurried pilgrimage to Char dhams of Badrinath, Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamnotri. But these highrise mountains have more to offer. There are beautiful pristine lakes and glaciers mostly above 14000 ft that are sources of various rivers including the Ganga that flow down the Indo Gangetic plains bringing it life and sustenance. Then there are lush green forests and alpine pastures and valleys carpeted with flowers of all concievable colours – a feast to the eyes.
On the way to Badrinath a few years ago, I had passed through Govind Ghat where I saw thousands of Sikh pilgrims. On enquiring I was informed that they were preparing to trek to the Gurudwara and holy lake at Hem kund. I was also told that Hemkund remained snowbound most part of the year and was opened for pilgrims only from June to October. My curiousity awakened, I did a google search and the iconic zig zag roof of the gurudwara with a lake sprawled in front of it against the backdrop of snow clad mountains appeared. It is said that Guru Gobind Singh meditated here but its association with the Sikh religion was inferred only as late as the 1930s by a Sikh surveyor. This kindled my desire to visit it sometime.
After an overnight halt at the Sivandana Ashram at Rishikesh, I caught the 3 am bus which began its slow and steady journey puffing and panting on the serpentine roads through the towns of Deopragya, Srinagar, Rudraprayag, Chamoli and then Joshimath. The temperate weather at Joshimath was a welcome respite from the hot and humid Rishikesh and when the plains are a literal oven with temperatures soaring to 45 degrees celcius. We made it for the 2 pm “Gate” at Joshimath (Details of the gate system has been explained at the end of this writeup) and were at Gobind Ghat at 3 pm. Gobind Ghat is a motley town consisting of Gurudwara, Dharmasalas and shops selling souvenirs, trinkets and various items used for worship. From Gobind Ghat, Ghangharia (also known as Gobind Dham) where one halts overnight is 13 kms away. Hemkund from Ghangharia involves another 6 km trek .
Gobind Ghat is located at the confluence of the river Alaknanda with Laxman Ganga. After walking across a rickety bridge over Alaknanda the trek begins. A bridal path with a moderate gradient takes you to Pulian 2 kms away with beautiful meadows and green pastures. After Pulian the bridle path takes you through a thick forest of rhododendrons, magnolia and oak trees.Many of the pilgrims are small todlers and some of them are also octogenerians. There are also many other pilgrims walking along with you or on mules or palaquins carried by four men. Pilgrims coming down from Hemkund accoust you and offer you gulucose powder so that you can muster energy to undertake the climb. There are many temporary stalls on the way offering mineral water, cold drinks, hot tea and snacks. 3 kms short of Ghanghariaa you cross the river Laxman Ganga. From here onwards your physical condition is put to a test. The climb is very steep and the bridal path very slippery. Your speed goes down to 2 kms per hour. Half a km before Ghangharia the path flattens out briefly skirting a helipad Ghangharia is finally reached but your feet weigh tons.Ghangharia is a lively village bursting to its seams with pilgrims. There is a Gurdwara with a Dharamsala, a Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam (GMVN) Resthouse and hotels offering basic accommodation. It must have been quite a challenge transporting the building material for constructing the houses here. There is even a BSNL mobile tower although it was defective during my visit. A light dinner and you drop down like a log of wood. Next day at 4 am you make an attempt to Hemkund. In 6 kms one will be ascending almost 4500 from Ghangharia’s 10,000 feet to Hemkund’s 14,500 feet. On leaving Ghangharia, the landscape suddenly becomes stark and devoid of all trees. However small plants and shrubs thrive. The zigzag path is indeed very steep and the effects of high altitudes make you pant. You cross a small glacier. The six kilometer murdurous climb takes almost 4 hours to traverse. Medical science dictates that before ascending to such high altitudes one should systematically acclimatise to prevent the dangerous effects of mountain sickness. But faith can belie all medical precautions:there are many old ladies walking up who I am sure have not gone through any acclimitization. It is sheer devotion and faith that drives them.
Suddenly you are at Hemkund and the iconic roof of the gurudwara presents itself before you. You head for the lake that adjoins the gurudwara. The scenery is heavenly. Although it is the month of June and it is almost 8 am, the air is chilly and thick snow tenaciously clings to the surrounding mountains. Tradition requires you to take a dip in the lake. You strip to your undergarments and without a second thought jump into the lake. The temperature is just above freezing and you give out loud gasps while taking dips. Hurriedly you get into your clothes and then go to the prayer room on the first floor of the Gurudwara. A hot cup of tea and some Kichdi at the Langar and you are ready to move downhill which takes about 2 hours. Just before Ghangharia the path bifuractes to the Valley of Flowers. One should include a visit to the valley in the itinernary. From Ghangharia it is just 3 kms away. An entry fees of Rs 150/- per person is charged at the gate near Ghangharia. All along the path you see flowers of different hues and colours- blue poppies, geraniums, petunia’s etc. After crossing the Laxman Ganga river the path adopts a slight inclination. Soon the valley is reached, it is carpeted with flowers as far as the eye can see against the backdrop of snowy mountains. After spending half an hour exploring the valley you begin your down hill trek: one hour to Ghangaria and another four hours to Gobind Ghat and then onward to Joshimath reaching there by about 6 pm.
It has been an exhilirating and soul stirring experience. One should do it during one’s lifetime even if you have no religious inclinations and are not a Sikh – the scenery and the flora are I think one of the best in the world. It is one of the “treks you should before you die.”

Important travel tip
Joshimath is 40 kilometers from Badrinath and the takeoff point for Hemkund is Gobind Ghat which is midway. Traffic, both uphill and downhill is allowed from Joshimath and Badrinath on this stretch for periods of half hour each at 6 am, 8 am, 11 am, 2 pm and 4.30 pm and made to cross at a wide section of the road near Gobind Ghat. This is called the “Gate” system of regulating the traffic. This arrangement has been made as the road between Joshimath and Badrinath is very narrow on which only one vehicle can ply at a time. Therefore leave Rishikesh/Haridwar early so that you are at Joshimath before 1.30 pm to make it for the 2 pm “gate”. You can then reach Gobind Ghat by 3 pm to begin the 4 to 5 hour trek to Ghangharia do Hemkund and the valley of flowers the next day and be back at Joshimath. However if you miss the 2 pm gate you will have to either halt at Govind Ghat or Joshimath and waste a day.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Trek to Taksang Monastery (Bhutan)

One place really worth visiting in the Paro valley is the Taktsang Monastery. Reaching the monastery involves a three hours trek from the roadside. One has to travel by car or bus from Paro town on the road to Drugyel Dzong and 8 kilometres away drop down to begin the trek to the Monastery. From here far away and high up on the cliff top, the Taktsang Monastery can be seen. For a moment you think that you cannot make it to the top but something draws you and you start walking. A few minutes walk from the roadside and you cross the pedestrian bridge across the Paro Chu. A walk of half an hour on a well defined foot-path takes you to a village with a monastery within which a huge prayer wheel rotates by the water gushing down a stream below it. The rotating wheel rythmically clangs a bell the sound of which echoes in the dense forests around. After a refreshing drink from the stream, you brace yourself for the steep climb. As you gradually climb up, the view of the Paro valley below starts getting more and more panoramic. The paddy fields start looking like the squares on the chessboard and the houses like chess pieces. Here and there on the track, you catch glimpses of the Taktsang Monastery. You keep wondering when you will reach it. Finally the cafeteria below the monastery is reached from where the view of the monastery is aweinspiring. The monastery is a gravity defying structure built on a ledge on a cliff that plummets down almost 1000 metres into the valley. After a refreshing drink of coke that costs three times of the normal price you are ready to go. After a climb of about twenty minutes, you are slightly above the level of the monastery on a outcrop. A steep downhill walk of about 5 minutes takes you to the bridge over a stream and below a waterfall that cascades down showering you with sprinkles of water. The monastery is just an arm’s length away but still seems to be unapproachable. A final burst of energy and within a few minutes you are at the staircase of the monastery.
It is said that Guru Padmasambha who propagated Buddhism in this area came here flying on a tigress and that is how the monastery derives its name Taktsang which means "Tiger’s Nest". Appropriately there is a huge statue
of Guru Padmasambha on a tiger back in one of the three temples in the monastery. Perched highup on a hill top opposite the Taktsang Monastery can be seen the Sangtogperi Monastery which is used by monks in meditation. You may visit it if you like but it involves another steep climb of about 15 minutes on a footpath that bifurcates before reaching the Taktsang Monastery.
On the way back at the cafeteria, I wonder aloud as to how man could have ever made this impossible structure. The canteen boy who overhears me, mysteriously comments,"It is God who himself built this monastery; human beings could have never possibly made it".
In 1998 a major fire broke out in the monastery and most of it was destroyed; it has now been rebuilt.

Monday, October 27, 2008


Right from my childhood I used to stare at the huge hill opposite Gangtok spanning from Rumtek Monastery to Pangthang. It seemed to rise in front like an impregnable green wall. A lot of questions used to run in my mind.How do you get there? Did it have a forest with wild animals. What was there on the other side - another mountain?
It was only when I was forty years old that I ventured there and got an answer to my questions.
This relatively easy trek can comfortably be covered within a period of one day. Tinjure lies on the highest point on the Rumtek hill opposite Gangtok. One has to reach Golitar four kilometers ahead of Tashi-View Point first by vehicle and then walk a few kilometres that takes less than an hour on the road to Pangthang and Dikchu till the Log-hut of the Forest Department. From here the bridle path begins skirting the Experimental farm of G.B. Pant Institute at a moderate gradient and takes one through the dense Fambonglho Forest Sanctuary to the top in about two hours. The last stretch of half an hour is rather steep and one has to dodge under trees that have fallen across the path. A profusion of cane plants appear and these form a leafy tunnel over the track letting in hardly any sunlight. At places where the bridle path breaks the ground is soft and bouncy because of decaying vegetation that has accumulated and compacted for ages.
During my trek , a heavy shower of rain the previous night had left the forest sparkling and a brilliant shade of green. The spring was trying to coax the buds on the trees to bloom. Every bird in the forest seemed to fill its lungs with the sweet, fresh air and sing its heart out. The insects were equally vociferous. Now and then you startle a deer, which scampers off with graceful, flying leaps over the long tufted grass. Scores of jubilant bullfrogs serenade you from every pool and pond. You smell the sweet scented fragrance a forest gives off after a storm, the perfume of flowering shrubs and the smell of damp moss on the tree trunks.
We are now at Jhandi Dhara also somethimes wrongly called Tinjure.It has a three storey wooden Observation Tower festooned with prayer flags on concrete stilts and the view from here is just breathtaking. It overlooks both Gangtok and the Tista valleys and on the northeastern horizon towers the Kanchendzonga range with specially Siniolchu in all its splendid grandeur glittering against the blue sky. Gangtok looks as though someone has strewn the hillside with matchboxes of different colours. In the south the omnipresent volcano shaped Tendong peak looms against the backdrop of the Singelila range. Peeping out from the forests of Tumlong the monastery of Phodong looks like a small ladybird. On a clear day even the plains of West Bengal can be seen.
From Jani dhara we walk on the ridge of the mountain.On the right side is the Tista valley with the river Tista snaking its say through. On the left you catch glimpses of the Gangtok town, the Lingdum Monastery and the Rey Mondu Monastery. The path is without any steep gradients but the foilage is very thick as a result of which walking speed is considerabley slow- two to three kilometers an hour. There are no springs or streams on this route and soon we run out of drinking water. But there are a lot of juicy wild strawberries growing all around and we varaciously eat them to quench our thirst. The forest guard accompanying us points to to the paw marks of bears on the trees. We come across a small lake- Dharey after two hours. After another one hour we cross by the the Tumin Watch tower. A walk of another two hours and we are at Tinjure - the highest point on the hill opposite Gangtok.A downhill trek of an hour and we skirt past the holy Sang pokhari and shortly thereafter we are at Sang Bazar where our vehcile is waiting to pick us up.
The trek covering a distance of about 20 kilometers. has been an exhilirating experience. The mountain was not just a 2 dimensional green wall but a world teeming with trees, birds butterflies and wild life


The Tolung Monastery was first built in the reign of Chogyal Chakdor Namgyal in the early part of the eighteenth century. It contains rare and valuable scriptures and artifacts of other monasteries that were brought here for safety during the invasion of Sikkim by the Nepalis during the late seventeenth century and the early nineteenth century. A brass chorten within the monastery contains the ashes of one of the incarnates of Lama Latsun Chembo, the patron saint of Sikkim. All the relics are kept sealed in thirteen boxes under the supervision of the Government of Sikkim. Once every three years in the month of April the relics are shown to the public in the monastery complex. The last display of the relics was held in May 97. The old monastery has been demolished because its structure had become weak and a new one has been built in its place.
Tolung at an altitude of 2488 m(8160 ft) ft lies in the sparsely Lepcha populated Dzongu area of North Sikkim and a permit is required from the District Collectorate at Mangan to visit it. To reach Tolung monastery, one has to travel by road upto Linzey. There is a daily bus service from Gangtok to a place slightly short of Linzey. From Linzey to Tolung is a 20 kilometres walk and takes approximately five hours along the thundering Tolung river, which is a boiling torrent at many places, through thick forests and cardamom fields. The track itself is easy but is surrounded by precipitous cliffs from which plummet down waterfalls in white plumes hundreds of feet into the narrow gorges to the valley floor. Birds tweet louder to make themselves heard over the sound of the waterfalls and the rivers. Perched precariously on these cliffs here and there are the huts of the hardy Lepchas. As one walks towards Tolung, the surrounding mountains on the top of which ice clings tenaciously even during the summer seem to close in. On reaching Tolung one can understand why the Sikkimese chose this place to keep the relics here out of the reach of the invading Nepalis. It is so secluded and perhaps because of its high altitude was easy to guard.
At Tolung there is a Pilgrims Hut. A further walk of about an hour along the Tolung river takes one to a religious spot called Devta Pani.
During my trek to Tolung Gompa, I found that I had forgotten to wear my watch and so I asked a Lepcha whom I met on the trail what the time was. He told me that he had never learnt to read a watch. I then realised that time was a meaningless concept here - there were no deadlines to be met and no tasks to be done that required hurrying. Time here itself moves at a different pace.
I passed an old cemetery and thought of the deceased who led a life that lacked in opportunities because of the circumstances that prevail in a rural environment. Because of this many were not able to bring out their dormant capabilities. Perhaps if given a different upbringing, many would have become celebrities in some field or the other.
A stanza, from Thomas Gray’s Elegy written in a Country Church­yard, which seemed so apt here, echoed in my ears
Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
The dark unfathomed caves of the ocean bear,
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.


Yoksum and Zongri are two places in West Sikkim between which there is a proper well beaten trekking track in the form of a bridle path. The best time to venture on a trek on this route is April to June and September to November. Tourism Department organises treks during autumn and spring. Till Yoksum there is a motorable road. To reach Yoksum, one must first come to Gyalshing from Gangtok or Jorethang from where regular bus services are available. From Gyalshing to Yoksum, one can either travel by bus or taxi. If traveling by own vehicle, one may opt to reach Yoksum via Tashiding taking the bifurcation road from Legship. Besides having many trekker’s huts, Yoksum also has a private hotel which provides both boarding and lodging. Guides, porters and pack yaks are readily available at Yoksum. Tents, sleeping bags and other trekking equipment are also available for rent at Yoksum.
Yoksum was the first capital of Sikkim and it was here that the first Chogyal was consecrated by the three holy Lamas. The spot where this ceremony took place in 1642 can still be seen here. Overlooking Yoksum and about half an hours walk uphill is the Dubdi monastery one of the oldest in Sikkim.
The walk to Zongri begins with the track skirting meadows and meandering past huts. After an hour of a flat track which is crossed by small foot or two wide streams whose waters seem to be in a hurry to meet the river below, the climb begins. A walk of another four hours on a path lined with sky embracing trees and carpeted with leaves falling from the surrounding vegetation takes you to Bakim which has a trekker’s hut. A further one hour climb and you are at Bakim. You may opt to halt at Chokha which also has a trekker’s hut. Chokha itself is a small village consisting of about a dozen houses and a monastery. To cater to the tourists, most of these houses offer accommodation and food at a nominal cost.
The walk between Yoksum and Chokha takes about six hours but would vary considerably with the trekker’s stamina. In a distance of about 16 kilometres one has climbed from Yoksum at 1780 m(5840 ft) to Choka at 3006 m (9860 ft)
Another steep climb of 10 kilometres which takes about 4 hours and you are at Zongri at 4030 m (13220 ft). Zongri has two trekker’s huts and hardly any other habitation. From the Zongrila pass about an hour’s walk from the trekker’s huts, the view of the mountain ranges is heavenly. In front of you is the Kabur Dome and piercing the sky is the Mount Pandim. Mount Kanchendzonga with its accompanying peaks towers over you in the North.
At Zongri the bridle path ends and bifurcates into two footpaths: one leading to the Base Camp and the other to the Goechela pass. The base camp at 4573 m (15000 ft) is 9 kilometres away and takes about three hours for the average trekker to reach.The Base camp which consists of a number of trekker’s huts is owned by the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, Darjeeling which conducts a number of mountain climbing courses every year. The Frey Peak, Koktang, Kabru and Rathong look ominously close from here and tower above the HMI camp.
On the other route the Goechela pass at about 4942 m(16210 ft) is about 14 kilometres via Thangsing, Samiti Lake and Zemethang.