“I am going to die here,” I thought, as I clung to a green sapling for dear life. We were trekking across the 4,150-metre-high Darwa Pass in the Garhwal Himalaya, when a sudden thunderstorm completely washed away our guide’s sense of direction. We were lost and struggling up a grassy incline. The slippery soles on my canvas shoes didn’t help. As I clutched the sapling, precariously close to the edge of the cliff, I found myself wishing that I’d eaten the super-stacked hamburger instead of the spindly chicken roll at Wimpy’s in Delhi, four days earlier.
That was in September 1997, on my first trek ever. The guide managed to throw down a rope and haul me up to safety, so I’ve had plenty of hamburgers since then. The trek changed my life. The article I wrote about it landed me a job with an automobile magazine, transforming me from a bored electronic engineer into a budding travel writer. The job brought lots of driving holidays but no treks.
But recently, as I stood on the scales, I wondered whether the the guide would have been able to haul me up if I was this heavy—both of us would most likely be sitting on a cloud somewhere playing harps. I bought a pair of fancy trekking boots off Amazon, deciding that this would be a year of walking trips rather than driving jaunts.
That very day, I bumped into my old friend Piran Elavia, looking sunburnt and slim. When I’d seen him last, he was rotund and edging sideways through open doors. It turned out that he’d been leading treks in the Northeast. I signed up for the next one, in Sikkim, a month later.
The next time I saw Piran, he was in the middle of a mob of heckling taxi drivers outside Bagdogra airport. There were three people on this trek through Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary in West Sikkim and it took seven hours to drive the 165 km to the family-run Sherpa Lodge in the little village of Okhrey. Ploughing through a mountain of rice during dinner, Piran briefed us on what to expect in the next few days—the distances, terrain, and campsites.
Roughly shaped like a butterfly, the 104-sq-km area was declared a sanctuary in 1996. We would enter through the Hilley Gate, on the bottom of the right wing, and spend five days trekking all the way across to exit at the Uttarey Gate, on the top of the left wing. It was the middle of April, the best time to see the rhododendrons bloom, but often a time of relentless rain. Thunder rolled ominously.
However, the next morning brought blue skies and butterflies. Since the 4-km trek from Sombaria to Barsey, the first campsite, was quite popular, the paved trail had a constant flow of walkers. Though there is a huge concentration of rhododendron trees in the sanctuary, all don’t bloom every year. But every once in a while, there is a mass flowering and the forest explodes in a riot of red, pink, and white. This was one of those extraordinary years and a number of people had come to enjoy the wonder.
At Barsey, camp was set up on a ridge looking out at Kanchenjunga but clouds had gathered, obscuring views of the snow-capped range. When I stepped out of my tent at dawn, my back in knots from sleeping on the ground and inside a sleeping bag for the first time in 15 years, I saw the magnificent peak stripped of cloud cover. After a quick breakfast of fried eggs, porridge, and toast, we set off. The camp staff would cook and pack lunch, break camp, and leave 40 minutes later and yet beat us to the lunch rendezvous.
Over the next three days, we walked in solitude. Most visitors usually trek only up to Barsey. To continue beyond, you need a knowledgeable guide as well as tents and provisions. On the second day, the trail was no longer a paved path. There were plenty of ascents and descents over terrain that varied from grassy trails to gnarled roots and scree, ensuring that muscles that had long been dormant were put to work.
Just as we approached Devlingali Dhap, a huge meadow, I heard a series of shouts. It was our staff—they hurtled past us and by the time we crossed the meadow, they had lunch set up. The crew was headed by Nar Bahadur Bhandari (who we called NB), a cattle-herder turned Him Rakshak (mountain protector). He had been trained under a programme initiated by the World Wildlife Fund, The Mountain Institute India, and the Sikkim Forest Department that taught former herders and poachers to monitor wildlife and keep an eye out for traps and other poaching activities. Since they know the lay of the land and routes so well, they supplemented their income by working as trek captains.
The cook and three porters were cardamom farmers from villages along the Hee River. Sikkim was one of the largest cardamom producers in the world until an unidentified disease depleted most plantations in the last decade.
As we finished lunch, it started to drizzle. We pulled on waterproof shells and started the three-hour climb to Joreybotey, our next camp. Dense clouds rolled in, reducing visibility. NB warned us that the weather was about to sour, and we barely managed to pitch the tents at our second campsite when it began to pour. At sunset, the rain turned to hail that drummed a staccato beat on the tent. Frost started to form on the walls of the tent. Though I was warm in my sleeping bag, I prayed that the tent’s guy lines would hold. Bagdogra seemed like a memory from another lifetime.
Morning brought blue skies once again and I woke up to a porter’s loud singing. Even though they couldn’t carry a tune, the staff loved to sing and their songbook ranged from vintage Kishore Kumar to new-age jingles like “You’re my pumpkin, pumpkin…” As we started the third day’s climb, I realised that I wasn’t as breathless as I had been the previous day. My muscles hurt, but it was the sweet pain one feels after a good workout. My shoes were proving their worth, and since my heart was no longer pounding in my ears, I could hear birdsong all around. I stopped often to identify birds and take in the stunning views. This was a new experience for me: on my driving trips the scenery was usually just a flashing blur.
Thulo Dhap, the third night’s stop, was the quintessential Himalayan campsite with a stream running past and a wide-angle view of the mountains. Snacking on freshly-steamed momos, Piran told me how he became fat boy slim. In 2007, he went to Lachen in North Sikkim to volunteer and fell in love with the Northeast. He quit his job and started a travel company specialising in treks, wildlife, and homestays, working with local communities to give visitors a local experience.
The fourth day brought us to the trek’s highest point. It was a ridge 10,500 feet high, with Nepal on the left and India on the right. A stone marker indicated the border. At the Chiwabhanjyang border post, we met people for the first time in three days. The roaring kitchen fire and the masala chai made by the Gujarati sentry provided respite from the rain. I returned the favour by talking to him in Gujarati, which he hadn’t spoken in eight months.
From Chiwabhanjyang, we descended 2,000 feet over 600 uneven stone steps that led to the fourth and final campsite, Chittarey. It was located just outside another border police camp and they allowed us the use of one of their luxuries—a clean and covered toilet. By now, though, I was quite at ease squatting in a grassy field, and comfortable changing my clothes kneeling down in the small tent, and sleeping on the hard ground in my sleeping bag.
On the last day of the trek, a pleasant three-hour walk to the Uttarey Gate, we met a steady stream of locals and soldiers, and a train of yaks carrying supplies to Chittarey. From the gate, we drove to the village of Darap, 43 km away. We checked into the idyllic Daragaon Homestay, run by Shiva and Radha Gurung, for three nights. It was set at the base of a hill and done up in traditional village style. This was a time to shower, launder, laze, and loosen up before plugging back into the grid.
On an early morning stroll through one of the villages perched on the hillside behind the homestay, a granny with a creased countenance enjoying her morning smoke beckoned me for a cup of tea. During the course of conversation, I told her that I cooked as a hobby. She handed me a fistful of big cardamom from her recent harvest and told me that it would add divine flavour to my cooking.
Sitting there, basking in the sun reflecting off the Kanchenjunga, I felt more alive than I had in years.
Appeared in the December 2013 issue as “Scaling New Heights”.
Duration 8 days, 7 nights
Cost ₹27,000 per person Bagdogra to Bagdogra (99300 02412; www.kipepeo.in)
Orientation Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary is in west Sikkim and part of it forms the border with Nepal. The closest airport is Bagdogra (160 km/6 hours to Hilley) and the closest railway station is New Jalpaiguri (150 km/6 hours to Hilley). Okhrey is 9 km from Hilley.
Seasons To see the rhododendrons in bloom, the best time to visit is from March through May. June to September is usually very wet. The second trekking season runs from October to December. At this time of year, the days are clear and there is little or no haze, so the Kanchenjunga and other snow-capped peaks and ranges are clearly visible. Though devoid of rhododendrons at this time, the sanctuary is quite pretty.
Rishad Saam Mehta
is a travel writer and photographer. He is the author of two books, the latest being "Fast Cars and Fidgety Feet" (Tranquebar, 2016).
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