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Monday, August 3, 2009

The Trek (long post)

Himalaya Foot Hills Trek


James, 26, United Kingdom -
Med Student, going for his masters, Jim has traveled to many places in the world and used to live in Nepal as a child. Is currently traveling around India for school and from the trek is heading to a small town near Silliguri to teach young kids English. He is traveling around until September 12th when his sister is getting married.

Dominic, 26, Switzerland -
An avid movie fan, has worked in a movie theater since he was 16 and attends the Berlin music festival every year. Has a wide range of musical interests, mostly Indie, but has a large amount of international artists as well. He has been traveling around since April, beginning in Japan, going to Thailand and now in India. Is thinking about going back home to Switzerland before moving onto somewhere else.

Mortasa, 26, U.S.A -
An avid traveler, this Californian skater comes from a multitude of backgrounds. He some how has an Irish passport, perhaps because of being born there. Has been traveling around India for a while, and back home owns an online clothing store. Is on his way to Kashmir after this, and looks very Indian so he blends in well. When he tells story he ends each sentence with an inflection that sounds like a question.

Biren, 22, India -
Biren was our guide for the trek. Well spoken in English, Hindi, Nepali, and Tibetan, he says he wants to be a mechanic. An avid guitar player he enjoys Green Day, Nirvana and many other American rock bands. Him, a head chef and 5 porters ranging in ages from 20 to 60 helped us on our trek.

Day 0 – The Drive
Before leaving for the trek, we needed to get a shared jeep from Gangtok to Yuksom, a 5 hour drive that ended up being closer to 6. We traveled 4 across a 3 person seat, crushed and squished as we traveled over hills that would be considered mountains in certain parts of the world (especially back in Jersey). Up and down, over rocky, unpaved roads, past single vegetable stands and single cliff-side dwellings. Waterfalls on one side, straight cliffs on the other.

On some of the thinner sections, you could see that for some reason, no vegetation grew. Why? Look on the cliff side, and see water coming down the mountain, obviously shifted rocks, and some gravel and rocks in the road. On the other side, looking down the mountain, it was not a clean cliff as we usually saw. It was more of a slide of rocks and debris that has obviously been recently shifted. And here we were, in a jeep, with many people, driving over these unstable sections of road. Essentially, all that was holding us up was the perfect, and specific placement of rocks and gravel underneath our tires. If the right vibrations were to go through the ground, there was nothing stopping the earth from giving way. I imagine each jeep that drives these roads (which is 50+ a day) was gambling. Luckily, we had no accidents.

So we drove, and we drove, and we shifted our bodies into more or less uncomfortable positions, and we drove some more. As we gazed out onto the hills, at some times it was clear and sometimes mists wouldn't let us see the next hill over. When it was clear, clouds hung low in valleys, creating blankets of mist that appeared as soft as pillows. When clouds hung high over peaks, they appeared like halos on holy green angels.

In the end, we weren't driving through landscapes and hills. When we stared into the distance, we were looking at ancient Chinese paintings. Watercolor paintings of steep hills, misty clouds, and green cliffs.

We arrived in the pouring rain to the hotel, dropped our bags, and sat down for a traditional, Tibetan wine. It goes by many names, sometimes Tomba, sometimes Bamboo Chang or even Dungro. On lush red couches, in a room decked out in Tibetan and Indian decor, the drinks were served to us in large bamboo cups, filled to the brim with red millet seeds. The drink is made like this: the millet seeds are boiled in water, like rice, for some time. After that, they are laid out on plastic wrap in the sun for 5 or 6 days. After being properly fermented, they are placed in a closed plastic container or bag and left to sit until ready for use.

Into the cup we poured hot water that is left to sit for 15 to 20 minutes. After that, the water absorbs the alcohol and flavor from the millet and they are ready to be drunk. It tastes like a cross between mild saki and non-carbonated beer. Not as horrible as it seems. And water can be poured in a couple times before the millet loses all flavor and potency. Quite delicious when you are sitting in the mountains with pouring rain outside.

After some time we slept, awaiting for what lay ahead tomorrow.

Day 1 – Leeches

An early start, we were awoken to hot cups of tea. Weary eyed, yet excited, we all staggered out of our rooms and headed out to the patio for breakfast. We were all acquaintances with each other, unaware of each others interests, lives, relationships, problems, joys and the like. So we sat and ate delicious hot porridge made by our porters, accompanied with toast and more tea. There was always more tea. As we showered and saddled up to go – a problem arose. Apparently my permit to stay in Sikkim ended expired on July 31st and considering it was to be a four day trek, we had planned on coming back on the first of August. After some delegating at the Police station, it was all figured out, and New Modern Lodge back in Gangtok had said they would extend my permit for me.

So, we walked through town, talked of Buddhism and Hinduism, of prayer flags and ceremonies, and headed towards KNP (Kachendzonga National Park). Side note: Kachendzonga is sometimes spelt Kachenjunga, but I am going to use the spelling they used up in Sikkim. Up some stairs, past some houses, and we were there, into the forest we went.

I say forest, and originally I was going to say woods. But neither do a justice. We had ahead of us 16 km of Northern Indian rainforest. Monsoon season rainforest. “So how long does this part of the trek usually take, Biren?” We would ask. “Six or Seven hours.” And so we mentally prepared our selves for the long haul.

After about 6 km we stopped for lunch at a small trekkers hut in the middle of the jungle. Sweating, tired, and hungrier than we had imagined we would be at this point, we sat down, shoes and socks wet. And this is when we really realized the full extent of what we were dealing with in this forest. Leeches. Big leeches, small leeches. Long and short leeches. We pulled up our socks to protect ourselves, but they are clever little beings. They crawl over shoes and bite through socks. White socks became red in some places.

At first we frantically pulled them off our bodies and poured salt where they bit. The bites were painless, so half the time we didn't notice they were apart of us until we looked down. As we discussed and complained about leeches, we slowly came to the realization that our fear of leeches was largely cultural. Leeches are easy to notice, ticks are not. Leeches thin blood and contain some anti-stethicproperties in their saliva. They also contain very few diseases, and in the past were used as a blood purifier.

In the end, the conclusion we (at least I) came to was that I would much rather be bitten by a leech than a tick. The only bad part of leeches was that when you pull them off, their bite
s don't stop bleeding. They bleed for quite some time, soaking band-aids and socks.

After lunch we climbed some more. We started at Yuksom, an altitude of about 2200 meters, and our destination for the night was Tshoka (pronounced Cho-ka), an altitude of 2800 meters. Not too much height, but still some distance away. So we walked, and hiked, and slipped over rocks and clambered over bridges.

Bridges like the movies. Bridges held up by steel cables that swing and sway as you cross them. We crossed three of these shaky bridges on our way to Tshoka, and they ranged from 22-28 meters above raging, loud rivers below. On one side cascading water falls blessed our hot faces with cool mist, and on the other side the river cut into mountains, creating valleys. We stared in awe before realizing we still had some ways to go. So we turned, and climbed.

We climbed through more rainforest, more jungle. First we passed into mists. Lightly cooling our shoulders and foreheads, it quickly turned into light rain. As we climbed, light rain turned into heavy rain. Not so much as each drop was individually heavy, but heavy in amount so that our hair and hands were quickly dripping with water.

So we climbed some more, into deeper mists, past the line of leeches (they don't live past a certain altitude), and eventually past the tree line. Past the tree line, I walked alone, and this place wasn't a place of earth. An ancient place of five foot tall ferns, thick mists where you could see the next tree, but not the one beyond that. Into a kingdom of mists and ferns.

A note on the jungle:
Unlike Peru, this rainforest was different. It was old. Very old. The trees told stories of their histories on the bark, of ancient times before man started to climb, hack and litter. Epiphytes grew on some of the trees so that you could no longer see the bark of the tree. They wore masks. Everything had moss and ferns growing on them. Rocks slippery with moss let water flow freely over them. It was as amazing and awe inspiring as it was humbling. Almost a little uninviting at some point. It was incredible.

Anyway, into the mists, and into the clouds, past the trees, we arrived at Tshoka. Still only at a little less than 3000 meters, you could already feel the affects of less oxygen in the air. Tired and dripping wet, as we dried off, the temperature dropped. It was getting cold, and soaking with water, we were feeling quite chilly.

Luckily, Tshoka is a very small village. During the monsoon season, around six people live in the town. During the dry season, that number jumps to a whopping 12. In the village lived a woman who had a pot bellied stove for heat and used fire to cook and boil water. She also sold socks, hats, and wool shawls. So Jim and I purchased a shawl, got socks and a hat for Dom and Mortasa, and the two of us huddled around a fire trying to get our feet warm and our pants dry.

The lady that was so hospitable went by the name of Ila. Tibetan for the word sister, it was the kind, formal, way to show respect to someone. She was extremely kind, spoke almost perfect English and served us water and tea, and stoked the fire. She made sure we were healthy and warm. Strange how cultural representations of people can change even after their actions. On our way down back to the hill back to the trekker's hut, Jim and I asked Biren if the man in the hut with us was her husband, or perhaps brother. Earlier, he had shushed us when we were going to ask Ila in person.

Now he told us why he shushed us. To our surprise, Ila is a prostitute. Completely dismantled all preconceived notions I had of prostitutes. Her actions were none the less extremely kind and hospitable. Kind of makes me laugh though when she chuckled when I said I was living in Bangalore to do non-profit work.

Anyway, warm, full of tea, we returned back to the hut to sleep.

As the five of us laid on our beds to sleep, we spoke of ghosts and unnatural things. Biren told us about Bakhim, an old guest lodge about half an hour down the mountain. Apparently many years ago, some tourists had stayed at the house, a couple of girls. The owners had forced themselves on the two girls, and so depressed with what had happened, hung themselves in their room. Horrible.

He then told us about a Thai girl, Napa, who had died in Tshoka about 6 months ago. She wasn't apart of his tour, but he was taking a trek of his own with his own tourists. Napa had been complaining all day of a bad headache, and didn't eat all day. Most thought it was altitude sickness and did their best to take care of her. She then fell asleep that night and never woke up.

“What bed did she sleep in?” I asked Biren.

“This one.” He said.

Figures that he was pointing to my bed.

Day 2 – Through the rain to Dzongri

After a somewhat quiet (some snore quite loudly) and dream-filled night, we woke up to a warm cup of tea. We all commented on how we could get used to this. A little chilly, corn flakes with warm milk and warm pancakes were a great wake up call. It was amazing that our head chef porter, Lakhpa, could create such good pancakes on such a small portable kerosene stove. (They could never be as good as pancakes cooked on an open fire, however – cough Dad cough)

So we ate, prepared our bags, and got ready for the next part of our trek. This part was quite easy, and only 8 kilometers away. However, in eight kilometers we were to climb just under 1000 meters. So that means what we experienced was a good kilometer or so which was pretty much straight up. As we left, a dog from Tshoka followed us. He goes by the name of Rambo, and it's not strange for him to follow trekking parties around to their destinations.

So we left. The first part of the trek was a wooden walkway to keep our feet dry from the very wet, very sandy soil. Then we began to climb. First over wet, rocky soils, under overhanging mosses that looked like old men's beards. Under fallen trees covered in mosses and ferns,dripping condensation onto our already sweaty heads.

Then, it seriously went up. Slaloming through rocks, rocks began to be piled in certain locations as Buddhist shrines (literally for metaphorically). For most of this part I walked alone, listening to my breath, hearing my feet moving rocks, listening to sweat hitting the ground. And of course Rambo was always close by. At certain points, when the mist was heavy, I stopped to rest and turned to see where I came from. Looking down, I couldn't see very far from where I came from. Looking further out into the distance, the world disappeared. There was only white mist. Time didn't exist, the world was invisible. There was no concept of distances or height or altitude. Only mist and the rocks around me. So I turned, and climbed. Huffed, puffed, the air was growing thin. With each breath, I made sure I was taking a lung-full of air, yet my heart beat faster and my extremities grew colder, more quickly. The air was disappearing as the mist thickened.

Eventually, as it began to even out, Biren and a porter caught up with me. The rain got heavier. But Dzongri was close by, and we finally reached the hut an hour and a half after setting out. The hut lay at an altitude of 3,950 meters (Around 13 thousand feet and change). Another 50 meters more and we would be at Dzongri-la, or the Dzongri viewing point. All we had to do is pray for clear skies. And oh did we pray.

That day we had a lot of free time. A porter had known about a father and son who had been camping in these mountains during the rainy season, and had many sheep. We sought them out with the intention to buy a sheep and have a nice mutton dinner. Still cold from the rain, we found their small tent over the next ridge. Their two dogs fiercely protected them, and snarled, barked, snapped and kept a close eye on Rambo.

We huddled around the fire in this make shift tent made of sticks, tarps, bamboo, and rocks. As we sat and drank tea (with sheep's milk) from this father and son, another man approached. One who was without a doubt from the mountains. He wore a big hat, a thick wooly shall, and had a grizzly face. After some discussion, we got up, and prepared to climb to the next ridge. The sky was clearing and we were hoping for a view of the mountains.

Strange though, Biren seemed very upset and not his usual self. After some probing, he explained to us how since the herders had seen us tourists, they were trying to severely rip us off. That mountain man was also upset that the dogs were fighting, and struck Rambo with a blow that made him yelp. This also made Biren upset. Either way, we climbed a steep hill, dogs barking at our backs, and made our way to the Dzongri top.

The top was covered in Buddhist prayer flags and small shrines. I was going to use the word littered, because this is how it appeared, but in reality the amount of them, the placement of them, and the colors that shone off them was more beauty than of littering. Unfortunately, no mountains. We saw some blue skies ahead of us, and waited for some time, sometimes talking, sometimes quietly, yet still, no mountains. It was beginning to get dark, so we called it a day.

Back at the hut we sat and talked, played some cards, and got to bed early. We were planning to get up at 4:30 to see the clear skies and a cloudy sunrise. We surmised it would be cloudy, because it had been every other day.

Day 3 & 4 – Hiding Giants

After the morning of the third day, things were not as exciting. The trail back home is exactly the same trail as going up, so to say it was boring would be a farce, but to say it was new and exciting would be the same farce. I'll say it was interesting to see the same things from a different perspective.

So we awoke, my alarm buzzing loudly as a clouded sky began to brighten from a pale gray/blue into a brighter white. Opening the doors to the hut, Biren turned to us, somewhat disappointed and said, it looks pretty cloudy. We were quite tired, and wouldn't have minded gone back to sleep.

“Lets see after a bit, I'll get some tea.” So we sat on our beds quietly, with tired eyes, huddled under shawls and sleeping bags, sipping tea, constantly watching the sky. We spoke briefly of our dreams that night, eyes always transfixed on the windows though. As we finished our tea, our hopes were slowly being drowned... perhaps we would never see the mountains after all.

Biren got up to open the door and get a better look. Turning to us, smiling, he enthusiastically said, let's go. From the door we couldn't see mountains, but we could see a hill far off into the distance that wasn't visible before. It looked like it was getting clear. Before anyone could say anything else, I already had my sandals on and was out the door. I've been waiting so long to see a mountain.

So I climbed the hill. Standing on my toes trying to see over the path (I had not yet reached the top), I prayed for mountains. As I huffed and puffed through the thin morning air, my legs and muscles still tight from sleeping, a glimmer of white appeared to my left hand side. As if the top of a mountain were just looking through to check out who I was, I could see the snow covered tip. Just from seeing that, I was ecstatic and had more energy. I climbed faster. I also had a feeling that who was peering down at me was the famous Mount Kachendzonga (8400m), the third highest mountain in the world.

So I saw the flags at the top and I rushed. When I got there... nothing. Mount Kachendzonga had disappeared a bit, and not as much white was available. I looked towards the east where the sun was coming up, and still a thick cover of clouds was there. I sat down, and waited. I would have waited until pouring rain froze my already dew-covered toes.

Then, like magic, the giants revealed themselves to us. Clouds lifted, and jagged peaks that we never before could have believed were there, appeared. Mount Kachendzonga, Mount Pandin, Mount Japonu, they were all there. There were clouds above them, and clouds below them, but right where the mountains were, the let us view them. We could see glistening snow covered peaks, jagged cliffs where the snow could not hold on, and even a glacier, sliding it's way down the mountain.

We sat in awe. We never believed this was possible. Even now as I write I am not sure of how else I can explain what we saw. For a good half hour, I stared, speechless. And then, the sun began to rise behind the mountains. A clear, no cloud, sun. Pandin and Japonu were silhouetted in front of it, but Kachendzonga (which was more to the north), gleamed, beamed, and shone in all it's glory. It was a site unlike any other. My wishes for coming north had been fulfilled.

What was even better was what Biren had told us about tourists. We were in the rainy season, and thus the only people standing at the view point. The solitude added to the moment. However, during the dry season, Biren said that daily there were usually 60+ people standing, crowding, and pushing on that view point to get the best picture they can. That would have, without a doubt, taken away from the beauty of the moment.

So we sat and watched, and watched and sat. We looked to our far left and saw some mists rolling in. We looked to our far right and saw the same. Within 20 minutes it was like the earth was saying “shows over.” The clouds came in from each side, like giant, misty curtains, and obscured our view. We spoke about distances and deception, and how before we saw the mountains we had no idea where they were, what they looked like, what distance they appeared, at what angle they would be from us etc. And just like that, as the curtain closed on the grand finale of the sun peering over Mount Japonu, we were again lost in the clouds. Dumb to distances and views. Deceived, yet gratified we had seen the mountains.

We turned and walked. About half way down back to our hut, I turned to look one last time, and appearing, yet have obscured by mist, was Mount Kachendzonga. The mountain that greeted us, and the mountain that was saying good bye. Thank you.

The rest of the day was nothing special. We ate breakfast and hiked down (which took no time at all) and were back in Tshoka before 12. We sat and played cards for many hours. Went back to Ila's house and had some real traditional (from the mountains) tomba, and told each other riddles. After more card playing, and listening to music (thank you Dom for the portable speakers and iPod, as well as wonderful music taste for being in the mountains!) we went to sleep.

The next morning we were awoken, once again, to some delicious tea, and soon after ate breakfast. And then we packed up and were ready to head down, back to Yuksom, back to civilization. A couple porters left ahead of us, as we finished packing. The trek up to Tshoka was about 5-7 hours (since it took us 6), when we asked Biren how long it would take to get down, he said between 4 and 5. Jim and I left first, and our distances between each other grew as we walked at different paces. Back into the forest, back into the trees, the rivers, and bridges, and the leeches. Surprisingly, I only found one leech on me the whole way down.

After crossing the first rickety (and biggest) bridge, I began to climb and had passed a porter that had left almost a half hour before us. Interested in the speed that I was going, I decided to challenge myself. Lets say the average was 4 hours to get back... lets see how much faster (without killing myself) I could make it back. I was already going at a pretty brisk pace. So I ran. I ran the flat parts. Hiked hard on the uphill parts, and jumped down the downward slopes. And I ran, and ran, and ran, pausing briefly at the other bridges to stretch my legs again.

8 kilometers in and an hour and a half had passed. Not bad, at this rate, I would make it back within 3 hours. So I ran harder, slipping on rocks and leaping over quick sand mud, panting and puffing. Then I heard more panting and puffing and saw a dog behind me. Rambo Junior (a smaller black dog that played with Rambo in Tshoka, but never followed us to Dzongri) was coming up behind me. We changed places, him running ahead sometimes, and sometimes falling behind me. He became my companion for the journey. When we were tired, we stopped at water falls and gushing water from the mountain and took a drink. It was as delicious as it was refreshing. After many gulps, and splashing water on my face, we were hydrated, and ready to continue our race. And what a race it was!

I walked out of the park in two and a half hours. I was back at the hotel by the three hour mark. All I could think was, 'great success!'. As I walked back into town, another panting dog came blazing behind me. Rambo had come all the way down the mountain (at apparently great speed as well). He sat down to rest, and his paws and forearms were all bloody from leeches. I helped pull off the remaining couple.

And so, I got back to the hotel. Had a warm shower, and the trek was over. I sat and read and wrote all day, enjoying the comforts of a hotel room and comfortable bed. The next morning we left promptly at 7am for Geyzing (a small town that is basically a transport hub). I had originally planned to see some monasteries (which were some kilometers away), but having to catch a train in two days, and stressed from jumping into crammed jeeps, and traveling hours away, I decided to head out of Sikkim to NJP, so that I could properly rest in a hotel room for a full day without worrying where I am going, when I am going etc. So here I am in NJP (and metaphorically back into real India), getting ready to go to Bangalore.

Not the most climatic ending, but the trek was a grand success. Whoever comes to India, I highly recommend the north and going on treks. Rainy season or not. The views, the sights, the sounds... it was like being in a movie that talks of exotic places. The rainforest, the rhododendron forests, the rolling hills with single huts, the mountains, the cold, fresh air, and the seemingly constant running of water every 15 meters.... incredible. Oh and did I mention the amount of water falls? Some places in America people travel for miles to see these kids of water falls. And here they were, as common as leaves on a tree. Even looking out onto other hills, could you gaze from a distance the beauty of large waterfalls that seem to cut through the hills. Close and far, they were every where to enjoy.


  1. Hi Norm,
    We read your Blog and it convinced us that if we go to India it's going to be First Class. Being bitten doesn't do a thing for us. Nor wet, cold etc.
    We love your writing and really appreciate your allowing us to share your adventure.
    Grandma& Grandpa

  2. double wow, that's what I call an adventure. I will have to agree with Grandpa, can we just go first class.....ok even second class just no leeches please.
    The whole trip sounds very exciting. I hope you took some pictures!!!!! At least one of Rambo.
    Love Mom

  3. Leeches yuch!!!!

    It sounds like fun. I would have loved to take the trek with you. You always make us feel like we were there with you, except my socks are not bloody.

    I'm sure the pancakes were better than mine. Altitude makes everything taste better.
    Love Dad