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.