Sunday, October 13, 2013

Goechala trek: Sept 28-Oct 7

Complete Trek details -
Organized by IndiaHikes

Can you plan a trek in mist? Will you intentionally go on a hike in rain? Rain and mist are great to encounter for a day or two but if they persist then not only it gets physically difficult but the dampness enters many a hearts. The inability to see beyond a few feet, what lies beyond those trees, when the sky is rendered grey continuously, the blindness enters into the soul. But for people like us, mist and rain offers a unique experience, a new depth in solitude, new powers of observation and a deep appreciation of beauty that surrounds us.

With every trek, we discover who we are, what we really want both during the trek and in general with out life. Goechala trek will be remembered for many reasons but foremost of them would be "Why we trek?"

Goechala trek started off quite on a low-key note. Our flight was delayed and the distance from Bagdogra to Yuksom on that road-less road took forever. But  my first disappointment came when i discovered that the base camp at Yuksom was in a lodge with proper beds instead of tents. I was hoping for a complete natural experience after reaching Yuksom, just like what we had when we were at Sonamarg. But, this feeling quickly turned into elation knowing the fact that there will be beds once we descend down after the trek.  The other awesome thing that happened was meeting Altaf at Yusom. Altaf had stayed with IndiaHikes and got promoted from a local Kashmir guide to a proper trek lead and it was a pleasant surprise to see him there.

One of the first realization that dawned on me, it did take me three days to understand it completely, is that it is a futile experiment to compare this trek to Kashmir Great Lakes trek. 9 of us from a group of 20 had debuted our trekking experience on the Kashmir Great Lakes last year. This was our second experience. It takes little time for it to settle down but later one realizes that it is unlikely that we are going to get a trail as beautiful, as diverse, as 'natural', as we had witnessed last year. Once this realization sets in, one starts to accept this trail like any other natural one and then the appreciation goes up. It is indeed shameful to say that one nature is beautiful than the other nature but comparison is definitely ingrained in us.

Day 1 was a short trek to Sachen. The hanging bridges on Prekchu river with prayer flags, natural waterfalls flowing casually next to our trails, trees surrounding us and a distant sight of all those mountains to cross, and togetherness of a new group trying to understand one another, all in all it was a perfect setup to begin the trek.

Mist surrounded us in the evening and next day, as we were about to leave for Tshoka, we saw a body being brought down, carried on 4 shoulders, a man had passed away  due to AMS(Acute Mountain syndrome) and mist had been around us since then. Mist covered most of our trail to Bhakkim but hot soups and coffee at near 10000 feet was welcome. Bhakkim to Yuksom was a short walk but it was made memorable by thin drizzle. It felt that mountains were welcoming us.

At Tshoka, a visit to local monastery reminded us of the slow pace of life in tiny villages. Monastery was growing older yet it still had the charm and serenity of an old grandmother, experience and poise of grandfather. Views of Tshoka from the monastery forced me to just sit there and appreciate time as it goes, second by second. That night, we just sat under the cloudy sky and sang songs after songs.  Big thanks to Mustafa, Yunis and Milind for making the night on what it was.

Tshoka to Dzongri was announced to be a tough day in advance. With 3400 feet in elevation gain, it was indeed physically challenging but i was ready for it. With adequate breaks, it didn't felt that bad. Phetang,  midway between Tshoka and Dzongri was our introduction to flatland in Sikkim. Our perseverance was saluted by clouds as they parted for few mins allowing hot Sun to shine on us at 12000 feet. A quick nap under this piercing Sun was enough to recharge my batteries and the extra dose of vitamin D must have some energy component as well. But the happiness was short-lived and it would be the last time i would see the Sun in next 5 days.

Dzongri at 13000 feet was cold and clouded completely in mist, even the local peak was not visible. Yashwant, my tent-mate had AMS fear and that forced us to be outside the tent and helped a lot in acclimatization. The plan to go to Dzongri (meaning the meeting place between man and mountain Gods) top at 3:30 am was cancelled because of low visibility. Mist was quite dense and it was decided to spend the day at Dzongri hoping for it to clear up. The Lamuney day only had a 2 hr walk, so we technically had an extra day at hand. The day was spent in rounds and rounds of Mafia along with a short nearby hike.

Various theories were being offered at this point for reasons behind the mist as it was unusual for this time. One such was that mist and rains are a way of mountains cleansing itself from the death that had happened couple of days ago. Prayers were being offered to Juniper, a small bush found there, for the weather to boom. Stones were stacked one on of top of another as it was believed that it brings good luck. Amidst all this, Nikesh and I were discussing on why atheists feel sorry for believers.

Day 5 started again on a down note as the hike to Dzongri top was again cancelled as the mist had not cleared up. But we decided to push on to Lamuney through rain and cold. The trail was one of the best of the trek and i was lost in it. "Ramta jogi, main ramta jogi" and Ship of Theseus' prayer "Naham Janami" stayed in my ears. I was high. Kokchurang, an in-between stop, had amazing views next to the Prekchu river. The trail from Kokchurang was stony and practically on the river bed. It was amazing. We reached Thansing and we were cold and wet but our spirits were at an all time high.

It is at Thansing that everything changed. The plan to head on to Lamuney was cancelled as per the local information that Lamuney would be very cold, double the cold compared to Thansing. Thansing also had trekker's hut while Lamuney would have meant camping inside tents. IndiaHikes tents leaked in rain, so it was another cause of concern. A mini-war broke out between people who wanted to move on while others who wanted to stay. The true question was whether we would be able to reach the Goechala pass or not if we stay here. Many knew the answer to be negative but no-one was willing to spell it out. What is the point going to such an high pass if there are no views, just to see the mist? What is the point of camping in such cold when there are trekker's hut available?
The fundamental question in all different conversations was what do one expect from this trek? In other words why do we trek? Some of us had shared their thoughts explicitly - to see Mt. Kanchenjunga from16K feet, that is why they had signed up. Some wanted to see snow covered peaks, some wanted to break away from their routine while others wanted to relax.

Why do we trek?
It is such an important question. I had some vague ideas on it but i had never really duelled myself on this question. Why was i trekking? What is the point in walking on trees, carrying a 10KG load, living in cold and wet conditions? Isn't life meant to be enjoyed ? It was there, at 13000 feet that i got my answer.
I trek to be one with nature, to be one with myself. To have time for self is something that takes effort to put in our schedules. I trek to enjoy the natural beauty, the beauty in trees, beauty of time untouched in those forests or in those peaks. I trek to feel the unpolluted earth, to drink the pure water, to breathe the fresh air, to listen to the breeze or rain drops, to gaze at stars. All this relaxes me. Walking on my own, silently, carrying that 10+ kg backpack, walking in a rhythmic fashion, my breath following a rhythmic structured pattern is a complete meditative experience. To wake up and see natural beauty as your first thing of the day gives a joy that is unmatched. Above all, i do not know what people mean by inner peace, but i am confident that whatever it is, i carry that feeling during the trek. There is always a calmness that stays within me, a feeling of contentment, satisfaction with happiness. Yes, i trek to experience all of this.

Plus, i am also aware of the side-effects, in a good way. I like the challenge as well, the ability to survive cold weather, to ascent higher and higher, to push the limits of our bodies, all these are welcome.  To participate in a technology-detox program, a largely self-imposed one is again something that is welcomed. To make new friends, new conversations, and new perspectives, all this are nice side-effects.

We stayed at Thansing that night and trekked till Samiti lake the next day. On the way we stopped at Lamuney where the caretaker there served us hot orange juice free of charge. This was the first time i had tasted hot orange juice and its taste will be remembered for quite some time. The trail again was a delight with very mild ascents. Samiti lake was serene and at 14,100 feet, it was the top most point of the trek. We came back to Kokchurang that day and stayed at the Trekker's hut there.

On Day 7, the trail from Kokchurang to Phetang was another unexpected treat. It was a bed of fallen maple leaves all throughout, it reminded me so much of the Redwood forests in California. I was overjoyed. It was a long one as well and rains again gave us company. It was slippery and couple of slips has forced me to buy a new one for my next trek. Phetang to Tshoka was a downhill but a light drizzle gave us nice company. It went down and down and i was surprised with myself that we had trekked this trail up 3 days ago. Green leaves and smell of natural earth is all what i recall now from the trail.

The local guides in both this and the previous trek were simply amazing. They would always be smiling and while cooking, they always used to sing local folk songs and that too in chorus. The food on the entire trip was excellent. This trek food included pancakes, more coffee than last one and Alu pudi -  that was a sheer treat. Day 7 night-time, being the last night, was celebrated with a cake, made in cooker, for it was Harsha's birthday. It was followed by song singing and after sometime, the locals joined with their Dohori songs. Without any meaning, any clue on what it is about, it was still a treat.

Day 8, from Tshoka to Yusom was covered in little bit hurry. People were really anxious to head back home, i guess. At the border of the Kachenjunga park, it started to rain heavily. What a fitting end to a rainy trek, i thought. So i hiked the last 30 mins in complete rain without any raincoat. Raindrops were not that cold and stony trail guaranteed good grip, aka no slippage. I was completely drenched, head to toe, water dripped from my forehead like a leaking tap. It was a lot of fun. A fitting end to an awesome trek.

A hot bath at Yuksom drove away all the tiredness. A big tumbler of Chhang, a local mild warm alcoholic beverage, was exactly what was needed. We ate fillings of chats and random food at the Gupta point in downtown Yuksom market. The next day, drive to Siliguri was done via Darjeeling where we took the ropeway. It was completely touristy and felt out of place to do it after coming from a  trek. Next 36 hrs were spent in having all kinds of different food :)

Before i stop this writeup, the trek experience documentation would be incomplete without mentioning Pranay and Yashwant. It was their first trek and neither had been north of Mumbai in their entire life before this. Their fresh perspective on many things, comic banter, and in general the hundreds of conversations that  resulted in stomach hurting laughters, even in days when everyone around was little down, was a key highlight for us. A big thank you from my side.

Trek's photos can be viewed here -

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