Wednesday, April 29, 2009

SIKKIM SOJOURN – A TRAIL TO RATHONG VALLEY


Nestled deep within the comfortable and often cold confines of Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan, and India, Sikkim remains one of the tiniest and one of the most enchanting Himalayan kingdoms that has lured adventurers, and mountaineers into its midst from time immemorial. The third highest summit in the world, Kanchendzonga (8534 m) stands proud amidst other giants along the Singa Lila range to the west, and a little further to the east the most beautiful mountain in the world, Siniolchu (6887 m) rears its breathtaking crown into the dazzling azure with unabashed aplomb. Blessed with innumerable mountain massifs, lush verdant valleys, fast churning rivers, terraced hills, and exotic flora and fauna Sikkim has literally everything in its armoury to entice the wayfarer. To feel the urge to visit this mystic land is natural and to get entrapped into its convivial ambience—once you reach there—is inevitable. Being controlled largely by the military, north Sikkim is not readily accessible beyond Yumthang and Lachen. Whereas west Sikkim has some well-defined trails for an intrepid trekker, not necessarily a mountaineer, to limber about—replete with all the magnificence Sikkim is synonymous with.

For treks in west Sikkim, Yuksam (1765 m) provides the perfect ensemble of a road head from where one bids farewell to civilization and immerses eventually into the natural splendours. The serpentine, and often undulating path to the Rathong valley leading further to the eponymous glacier snout—if one decided to press on, is abundant with breathtaking bounties of nature that silences the traveller with sheer wonderment.

Less than a day’s journey from Gangtok brings you to the dreamy village of Yuksam, which has an ancient monastery and several old architecture along with some modern habitations to provide the perfect blend of both the worlds. It would certainly trouble a true nature lover’s heart though to witness the ravage of modernisation making its way—gradually but steadily—into this beatific arena. No sooner had you alighted from your vehicle the majestic waterfall to the south west would draw your attention like a magical spell. And as you amble hesitantly towards the foamy pool you might just turn around and behold the apex of an icy peak, far and forlorn beyond the intermediate horizons to the north. And wouldn’t it gladden your spirit to learn later perhaps that that is where, at the foothills of the icy summit, your trail would eventually lead you to. After a pragmatic pause of several days at Yuksam—primarily for acclimatisation—you are ready now with your backpack, guide, porters and even yaks to venture out beyond the obvious.
For the historically inclined it would be of interest to learn that in 1890 Claude White was the first European to embark on this trail and his journey was the first official chronicle of the same, though yak herders of the area has been using it for centuries.

The first day’s trail from Yuksam to Bakhim can be hair raising for more reasons than one. Not only would you be venturing into deep and dark oak forests, slither down muddy trails, cross foaming rivulets, enter narrow gorges, you would also be battling with the infinite number of leeches that are looming from every corner, even from innocent looking flowers, to find an access into your clothing and follow it up with a succulent feast. Be very careful and wary, and do carry a bag of salt and a lighter to burn the plump parasites. The heady sights and the ethereal redolence of orchids and purple irises would of course vie for attention but your senses should be attuned to the bloodsuckers as well. There’s one more hazard that one should be aware of, and to avoid any pitfalls in this regard all one has to have is an extremely sharp audio system and sharper reflexes. When a battery of yak, or even a solitary one, comes bounding, either up or down the hill, the best and the only recourse available is to leave the entire field to the black beast. Just flatten yourself against the nearest rock or mountain face, or better still get off the track completely by scrambling up or down a slope, and remaining absolutely still till the brute has disappeared from sight. And the only advance warning you would ever get of their arrival is the faint tinkle of the bell around their neck. God forbid if one’s owner forgot to tie one around the neck or the clapper inside the bell decided to fall out at some opportune moment.

Just prior to reaching Bakhim, in a morbid jest towards the weary trekker, the trail suddenly descends steeply to a wooden bridge across the Rathong gorge. Across the bridge lies a steeper ascent of 650 m littered with sprouting undergrowths that forces one to hop, step and often jump over the thick roots. Anyone less than completely cautious would find terra firma rather close to the face very soon. At 2750 m Bakhim is a green refuge and offers a lovely campsite with a gurgling brook nearby. The dusk gathers mysteriously and descends into the pine forest like a gossamer veil clinging to the branches ever so lovingly that the night breeze caresses with infinite care and unbridled mirth. It is wiser to turn in early and await the dawn for the next day would be of much toil.

Making your way amidst the exordial riot of rhododendron and magnolia trees you reach soon the lacustrine confines of Tsoka at 3050 m. The tiny hamlet stands like a brilliant Turner canvas with the red roofed monastery gazing pensively into the limpid lake. The mild flutter of halcyon breeze, galloping down the mountainsides arrive like the emissary of the loftier planes, for soon would you be entering the high altitude arena, leaving behind the green vegetation to its own design. A short rest later you must shoulder your burden and continue further towards the night-refuge site of Pethang, which has a well-defined campsite and a small-dilapidated wooden hut. Provided the sky is clear, the golden dawn at Pethang could be of extreme beauty. Since you are already above much of the vegetation, the clear horizons all around offer unheralded vistas, punctuated intermittently by snowy summits of sheer magnificence. Primarily among them the awesome south face of Pandim (6691 m), a virgin peak considered sacred by the locals.

A comparatively short and comfortable ascent of three hours leads into the grazing meadows of Dzongri. At 4030 m, Dzongri is a vast windswept grazing ground with superb views of Kanchendzonga, Kokthang, and the Kabru massif. Right beside a freezing stream several forest rest houses offer a comfortable home away from home. Though the rancid odour of fire smoke permeating into the air could be trying for some. At Dzongri one must decide if one really wishes to press further towards Rathong glacier or return the way he had arrive, since the going would soon become tough if one elects the former.

After a day’s rest, which should include an ascent to a small hillock (Dzongri peak) only for the view of Kanchendzonga, if nothing else, let us again take to the road. What is life after all if not a never ending journey in search of the unknown. Head for the tiny notch at the horizon right at the foothills of Black Kabur peak, where Dzongri la (4550 m) would lead you into the Rathong valley. Around two hours of brisk walk should see you there and when you stand there at the verge of a tottering descent on the other side, what you witness is nothing less than superlative. The huge valley sweeps down like a gigantic bowl and rises to meet the majestic peaks of Rathong, Kabru massif, and Kokthang. Those with a keen sight might also detect the Rathong glacier snout far away. It would take another two hours perhaps to descend into the valley across another log bridge over the foaming Rathong stream. As you journey along the true right bank of the stream, you cross ice-filled and semi-frozen verglas coated waterfalls—gingerly I daresay and eventually at the end of an extremely exhausting day arrive near the snout of the Rathong glacier (4600 m).

The night is truly freezing and the place is windy beyond comfort. Being so close to the glacier—almost at a touching distance could fill you up with amazement even if you are a seasoned initiate into the Himalaya. As the mirthful moon chequers its path across the black sky, shimmering with countless stars, you must step out of your tent, at least once, and experience the nocturnal beauty. The scintillating crowd of snow peaks as they bore down upon you from all sides and the glistening sliver of Rathong stream would certainly ensconce you in its inebriated symphony.

For those more adventurous and well trained and equipped for the ordeal, a trip to the glacier could prove rather exhilarating. A competent team could attempt even a trip into Nepal across the Rathong La.
The return trip to Yuksam can be done through various diversions, each equally enchanting and rewarding. To enjoy the trip, all you need beside your basic clothing and a good pair of trekking shoes, is a penchant for the unknown and a zest for life, and certainly a more than ordinary resolve to succeed. Not to forget a camera and loads of films.

Now all it remains for you is to stir your spirit and step out of the door. Bon voyage!

6 comments:

  1. Dear Mr. Dam

    this post of urs is something which can anybody to run to rathong as soon as he/she can. we are planning for dzongri-goyachala trek and heard from someone about this rathong glacier and we got interested in this. as i came to know that this is called the lake treak, and this is all i know about it. if i am write(or may be wrong) will you pls help me in this.
    thanks & regards
    sanjoy bag
    98311 60040
    bapisanjoy@hotmail.com

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  2. WOW, u sound like a travel guide here, it feels as if i have already been here and seen it all. :-)

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  3. This is not the lake trek. Lake trek is not permitted for trekkers. But this trek is amazing for the nature lovers.

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  4. But there are 2 lakes...follow this link for the names of the lakes and their geographical position....http://wikimapia.org/5105285/Rathong-Glacier

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  5. Quite an amazing description indeed; I admired the language and the choice of words and the flow as much as the surreal visuals of the place that these words would ignite any remotely fecund imagination with!

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  6. Wow this sure is amazing! You should sell this trek to an adventure company, make some money and then be my personal guide! LOL.
    miss you yaar... come back soon.

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