Monday, October 27, 2008


Base Camp -Boktak- Laxmipokhari-Garakhet Trek
If your feet are still itching to go ahead after reaching the Base Camp, you can take the route to the South on the Western border of Sikkim to an area that has a profusion of perhaps the most beautiful lakes in Sikkim and therefore it would not be inappropriate to call it "The Lake Trek". It is a domain of sky lacquered lakes, glacial valleys and chiselled peaks. The journey to and fro will take about four to five days. Long stretches of this route are trailess and therefore an expert guide who knows the area well will be required. Our guide who would also double as a porter was a skinny chap hardly weighing 40 kg but was capable of carrying goods weighing one and a half times more. The few shepherd sheds on the way are inhabited only during the grazing season from July to September and if you are trekking some other time make sure that all necessary provi­sions are carried. Although you can stay in the shepherd huts, it is a good idea also to carry tentage to meet any contingencies.
From the Base Camp, a steep climb takes one to a pass at about 4878 m (16000 ft) from where a almost vertical, knee wobbling drop reaches one deep down in a flat valley surrounded by huge granite cliffs. You ford across the river Runji chu whose water seems to gurgle and murmur as though annoyed at the feeble attempts by the boulders in it to stop its flow. Another vertical climb up and you are at Khangerden with its lone hut. This murderous trek of just about 6 kilometres takes about three hours. From Khangerden to Boktak through Tiyabla is relatively easy going and takes about six hours. If you start early in the morning from Base Camp, you can comfortably reach Boktak in the late afternoon. A night halt at the yakshed at Boktak and the next day you are ready to see the most beautiful lakes on earth in this untrampled remoteness. A halt in a yakshed can be an out-of-the- world experience. The yakherders seem to be completely oblivious of events taking place in the country or the world. Their life centres around yaks: they talk and think only about them. What matters to them most is yaks and nothing else. The other topic the yak herders discuss with obvious relish is the Yeti or "The Abominable snowman". Many of them swear that they have had encounters with the Yeti. Yetis, I was told, are bigger than the size of a man, with feet pointing backwards, long hair and are very dangerous.
During my visit, the preparation of our dinner at Boktak was presided by a yakherder a withered old man, whose wrinkled face and claw like hands illuminated by the glow of the fire gave him a witch-like appearance. The atmosphere was heavy and close, and a strong reek of smoke from burning rhododendron branches fought a losing battle against stronger reek of unwashed bodies. While having dinner we were regaled with stories concerning nothing else but Yaks and Yetis. I infact started believing that Yetis do exist and later that night, as a call of nature took me out into the freezing darkness, I did feel that a Yeti would come and pounce on me.
The yakshed is a crude structure whose walls are made of stone and the roof of planks that are weighted down by small rocks to prevent them from getting blown away during a storm. It is divided into two sections one for the lactating and gestating yaks and the other for the yakherders. The floor is covered with a thick layer of hay that serves as a mattress. As I lay resting looking at the stars through the chinks in the roof, I went off to sleep, inspite of the ding-dong of the bells from the ruminating yaks. This sound in fact acted as a lullaby. Somewhere in the night, I was rudely wakened by what seemed as a slap on my face. It was in fact a yak which had poked its head over the partition and was liking my face - perhaps the salt of my perspiration was too much for it to resist. I changed my position and lulled back into a restful sleep.
A moderate climb of about two and half hours Boktak through Chirpuk reaches you to the bank of lake Majur Pokhari. This lake at its centre has a green iridescent sheen feature shaped like the wings of a bird (Majur meanings wings of a bird) that glistens bright­ly. No one has been able to explain this illusion, but it is said that it is caused due to the reflection of light. Above the Majur Pokhari are two twin lakes called the Ram-Laxman lakes. It is worth mentioning here that during the trek one will come across a number of such twin lakes all called by the same name of Ram- Laxman. You return back to Boktak and halt at Gomathang one kilometre below on a riverside, which also has a yak shed. At night darkness closes like a lid on the mountains, shutting out the world, and the stars blaze to life in a sky suddenly too small to hold them.
The third day sees you taking the steep climb up from Gomathang to the lake Laxmipokhari. Laxmipokhari is a big lake cupped in a deep crater. The rim of the crater is so high above the lake level that it is easy to photograph the complete lake without using a wide angle lens. A steep switchback trail from the rim takes you to the lake-side where a small wooden temple has been constructed. As you invoke the blessings of the gods on the banks of this pristine lake, you cannot help thinking that it is here that god really resides and not amidst the din of crowded temples in the cities and towns. As though some gigantic chemical reaction was taking place, the lake spews out clouds of moisture in the form of mist and soon blocks out our view. A tint of sunlight suffuse in the mist gives everything an unearthly cast. From Laxmipokhari towards Garakhet is a relatively flat walk except before you cross the Dafley Pass which experiences howling winds almost throughout the year. Your path meanders past another Ram-Laxman lake and Bhut Pokhari before you reach the pass. While resting on this pass, I saw an eagle just above me in the sky which remained suspended in the air without moving or flapping its wings for a full five minutes. While I was wondering what were the laws of physics that enabled the bird to perform this gravity defying feat my porter reminded me that it was getting late and we were set to move on.
A moderate drop from the pass takes you to Lampokhari a lake whose length is considerably more than its width. Before you reach Garakhet you pass by a small lake called the Haspokhari which is in the shape of a swan.
You halt at Garakhet and on the fourth day walk up to Timbong pokhari just on the border of Nepal and Sikkim but not before you visit another set of Ram-Laxman and Bhutpokharis on the way. Timbong pokhari is about an hours walk from Garakhet and this lake is considered to be very holy and is oval in shape. Pilgrims from both Nepal and Sikkim visit it regularly. Devotees have strung small bells on the lakeside as it is believed it brings good luck. From Timbong Pokhari you retrace your path backwards till Dafley pass from where a short cut takes you straight down to Gomathang bypassing the Laxmipokhari area.
The distant drone of an aeroplane far away over the rolling hills of Nepal is the only sign that reminds you that you are in the twentieth century. After a night halt at Boktak, you reach Base Camp by late noon on the fifth day. On the way back I came across a herd of yaks that was being moved to the lower altitudes towards Uttrey in Sikkim as it was now autumn and snow had begun falling in the higher reaches. But while moving downhill the yaks have to traverse through a part of Nepal and making a couple of overnight halts in the other country. Although there is a sort of an unwritten agreement between yakherders to use each others grazing fields when the flock are in transit, overstaying sometimes has caused misunderstandings. Salt, which is an important ingredient in the diet of the yaks, seems to be a very scarce commodity on the Nepal side and there is a tendency by the yakherders from the other side of the border to procure it from the bordering towns of Sikkim and this sometimes causes a scarcity. I remember having bartered half a kilogram of salt that I was carrying in my provisions for a kilogram of yak butter: a good bargain indeed!
Instead of returning back from Garakhet to the Base Camp, one can trek further onwards along the Nepal border to Dhond, Labi, Bajredunga and to Chiwabhanjang.
Phalut-Singelila-Chiwabhanjang Trek
For this trek, it is more convenient to enter from Phalut that lies near the trijuction of Nepal, West Bengal and Sikkim. This route lies on the ridge of the razor-edged Singelila range that defines the boundary between Sikkim and Nepal. Phalut is approachable from Darjeeling by road. Just near Phalut is Toriphule which remains covered with beautiful yellow flowers most parts of the year and is in fact the real trijunction. The highest point on this route is a point called Singelila at an altitude of 3686 m (12089 ft) and after which the whole western range of Sikkim is named. The mighty Khanchendzonga range forms a part of the Singelila range and is named after this barrnen spot. I fail to comprehend how the mighty range has been named after this desolate spot. High intensity winds batter Singelila continously to such an extent that gravel tend to become flying missiles. One notices with surprise how the few flags on this hilltop manage to sur­vive. From Singelila one can see Mt Kanchendzonga towering above and in the distant east the Chola range. On the west are the rolling hills of Nepal and far down below the Nepal village of Cheng Thapu can distinctly be seen. And far far away you can even see Mt Everest. In fact from many points of the Singilela range you are treated to sights of both Kanchendzonga and Everest. A fall on one side may land you a few hundred metres into Sikkim and a fall on the other side deep into Nepal. On the Singelila range the air is in a continu­ous state of turmoil. The clouds sometimes get shepherded from the Nepal side to Sikkim and sometimes it is the other way round.
One accosts yaks on almost every turn peeping curiously as you pass by. Yaks form the mainstay of the livelihood of the few people who stay here. In fact the people are here because the yaks are here. Yaks are used for their milk, meat, skin and hair. These are mostly sold at Darjeeling and its surrounding areas. Yak milk is very thick and the yield is barely a litre an animal per day.
Yak milk is converted to cheese and butter.
During the winters when this area becomes snowbound and bereft of any vegetation, the yaks are moved to lower altitudes. During late spring, when the heat and the flies become intolerable the yaks begin their journey back to the upper heights.
During my visit, at the yakshed near Singelila a wizen faced old man wearing high Tibetan boots and a dirty black robe girdled at the waist came forth to greet us. Yaks were obviously his great enthusiasm in life. He smelt of them too. In one corner sat his wife vigorously shaking a goatskin bag. Milk is filled first in the goatskin bags and after it has curdled after a few days, the concoction is shaken to get the butter. From a transistor radio - which seemed so out of place here and almost an anachronism - the disembodied Hindi number "Choli ke pechey kya hai ......." was being played: our Bombay film industry was even trying to break the stillness of this wilderness.
Chiwabhanjang which forms a pass to Nepal is about a three hours walk from Phalut. At Chiwabhanjang are two small lakes known as Bhut-Pokaris. An inspection bunglow stands in ruins at Chiwabhanjang as a mute testimony of the British presence here in the old days to keep off the Nepalis from attacking Sikkim. It is also possible to reach Chiwabhanjang from Uttrey in Sikkim in about three hours but the trek from Uttrey to Chiwabhanjang is very steep.
Hilley-Varsey- Chiwabhanjang Trek
This route lies in the south-western corner of Sikkim. One has to first reach Hilley by road via Sombaria. From Hilley, one has to trek for four kilometres that takes approximately one hour to reach Varsey which is at an altitude of 3049 m (10000 ft). At Hilley, which is at an altitude of 2744 m(9000 ft), silver firs, hemlocks, magnolia and rhododendrons are found in equal abundance but as one approaches Varsey, the rhododendrons reign supreme and during the month of March they are a riot of red colour. 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.
At Varsey there is Shambhala Rhododendron Resort with comfortable rooms and attached bathrooms for the tourists. One has to walk a few hundred yards ahead to catch a view of Chiwabhanjang on the Singelila range. Far below the village of Burikhop can distinctly be seen.
From Varsey, Chiwabhanjang can be reached in a trek of about three to four hours.

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