Trek Together, Stay Together: Lessons From Sikkim’s Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary

Three generations of a family take their first trek together.  
From late March to early May, rhododendrons blooming in various colours set the hillsides of Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary ablaze. Trekking routes through the sanctuary have their share of ups and downs, but one look at the colourful show melts away all fatigue. Photo: Rishad Saam Mehta
From late March to early May, rhododendrons blooming in various colours set the hillsides of Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary ablaze. Trekking routes through the sanctuary have their share of ups and downs, but one look at the colourful show melts away all fatigue. Photo: Rishad Saam Mehta

Winner of the Nat Geo Traveller travel writing contest.

“Forty is too late to start trekking,” I thought as my knees creaked with every step on the steep decline. We were on a goat track: There was not a soul in sight and we seemed lost. My husband, who hates exertion while on holiday, but had agreed to a trek for my sake, snorted impatiently behind me.

“My knee hurts,” I complained. “Knee caps in your backpack,” he suggested before edging past. I had hoped I wouldn’t need them. My father, 73, didn’t need them. But then, he was a trained mountaineer. My 70-year-old mother, who wasn’t, didn’t need knee caps either. Both were somewhere in front, along with my 13-year-old son.

Having put on the knee caps, I joined my family near a stream. My father was on the other side, cheerfully informing us that he had, at last, found the correct way to Gorkhey, a valley on the border of West Bengal and Sikkim. The rest of us looked with trepidation at the moss-covered log that lay across the stream: the only way to cross it.

We had started our trek from the village of Hilley in Sikkim, just outside Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary. The five of us made it to the hill town of Barsey in a little over two-and-a-half hours. Nestled within the rhododendron sanctuary, which has a variety of Himalayan flora and hosts the elusive red panda, Barsey offers a breathtaking view of Mt. Khangchendzonga. The path through the sanctuary had its ups and downs, but it did not try my spirit, nor my knees.

The Hilley gate to the sanctuary is symbolic, a way to say that the inhabitants within don't need to fear hunting, poaching, or wood felling. Photo: Rishad Saam Mehta

The Hilley gate to the sanctuary is symbolic, a way to say that the inhabitants within don’t need to fear hunting, poaching, or wood felling. Photo: Rishad Saam Mehta

My father was our guide on this, my first trek. He had decided that from Barsey we would go down to Gorkhey, then to the village of Rammam, and finally to Srikhola, before catching a cab to Darjeeling. But overnight rain had made the shorter route to Gorkhey unsafe. So we returned to Hilley and resumed our trek to Gorkhey from further downhill. The route followed a proper road for some time before narrowing to the goat track. It was here that we got lost and my knees rebelled.

Back on the actual route to Gorkhey, with a guide from a local village this time, we tried to make up for lost time. But the road was steep and rocky and our progress slow. A light drizzle started as the afternoon wore on. Finally, the slender stream beside us roared into a more substantial size and our guide pointed to a small hamlet in a valley ringed with a pine forest.

Even in our state of hunger and exhaustion, we couldn’t help but admire the beauty and spectacular views of Gorkhey, situated at a height of about 7,700 feet, along the Gorkhey Khola stream. It was late afternoon by the time we checked in to a trekkers’ hut in the village, wolfed down steaming hot Maggi noodles, and passed out on our beds. We did not stir until the caretaker knocked on the door to announce dinner.

The next day, we had another four hours of trekking to reach Rammam, located slightly higher at 8,400 feet. We started on the steep climb out of the Gorkhey Valley. I had to pause often to catch my breath, and used these breaks to photograph the bountiful bird life in the area: from magpies and minivets to sunbirds and redstarts.

Rosy-cheeked schoolchildren greeted us as we walked into our homestay overlooking the Rammam Valley. The rooms were tiny but the kitchen was large and warm. We spent the evening in the company of Finnish and Swiss travellers, swapping stories. Maria, from Finland, had been travelling in this region for almost six months. Her next journey? To the Arctic Circle, with her mom.

Multi-hued flowers adorn the windowsills and porches of every house along the route. Photo: Mitul Sarkar

But before this, I stopped at a bend in the meandering road. Way out in front were my son and husband; both had learned how to live out of a backpack on this trek. Behind them were my parents: my mother, focusing on the path, and my father, pausing often to look at the flowers, to help mom over a tricky patch, to admire the mountains. I looked around at the mountains receding into a blue haze, at conifers framing small hamlets, at smoke spiralling out of a chimney. It was peaceful. So, this is what trekking is about, I thought. When you no longer have to keep up with others. When you find your own pace, your own mojo. When the journey is far more important that the destination. I may be late in discovering this, but better late than never.

This piece was the Winner of the Nat Geo Traveller Travel Writing Contest 2016. It appeared in the November 2016 issue as “Trek Together, Stay Together”.

Though the trekkers’ hut at Gorkhey is a rundown affair, it is a welcome sight at the end of an arduous day of walking. Photo: Mitul Sarkar

The Guide

Orientation

Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary is in West Sikkim, while Gorkhey, Rammam, and Srikhola are in West Bengal’s Darjeeling district. The nearest major town is Darjeeling (53 km/2.5 hr north). The easy grade 35-km trek from Hilley to Srikhola via Barsey, Gorkhey, and Rammam, takes about 4 days. Barsey (10,000 ft) is the highest point.

Organizing the Trek

This is a DIY trek, but it does help to have someone (like a local/guide) show you the way on some stretches, for example from Hilley to Gorkhey. It’s easy to find a guide at a village along the way (₹500 per day). There are plenty of lodges and homestays on the route. Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) runs dormitory-style trekkers’ huts at Gorkhey and Srikhola (₹100 per person per night; ₹600 per person per day for meals). Locals manage homestays at Hilley and Rammam (doubles from ₹500; ₹600 per day per person for meals). All bookings can be made at the GTA offices in Kolkata or Darjeeling (Silver Fir building, Bhanu Sarani, Darjeeling; 94342 47927).

Need to Know

Rhododendrons bloom for a short period between March and early May. This is when Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary is at its loveliest.

  • Mitul Sarkar is a former journalist who lives in Kolkata, and now works as a learning consultant. She loves reading and travelling.

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