Sunday, May 27, 2012

Trek Day 1-2 - Gangtok to Yuksom to Sachen

 From Gangtok, it is a 6 hour drive along twisting mountain roads to Yuksom.  Thankfully, our trek included a private car to drive us the whole way, with our guide riding shotgun. Though the road is not nearly as busy with traffic as the road between Siliguri and Gangtok, it is still an adventurous drive through the Himalayan foothill region.  As the crow flies, the two are separated by less than 50 miles. However, in this terrain, the road winds down deep canyons, crosses rivers and then winds back up the other side and over a low pass, only to start all over again.  With maximum possible speeds on the (often dirt) rough roads seldom reaching 30 miles and hour, the 150km ride (90 miles) seems eternal.  Of course, there was plenty to keep our eyes occupied.

High-tech fire suppression system at the local diesel station. 
Terraced Gardens were all over this area - if you don't have flat land, you create it.

Hard to imagine that people have settled such a vertical environment...(note we're close to river level)

Traffic in the ridge-top town of Ranipool - If you look closely, you can see how little meaning travel lanes really have here.

Back down to the Tista River, in Singtam where they are building a new automobile bridge.  The cars on the bridge are parked (I'm not sure who they belong to) while the construction continues on the roadway leading up to either side of the completed bridge.

Road construction technique in rural India:  Men with hand tools break up larger rocks (brought up from the river bed by women using forehead baskets) into smaller aggregate which is hand-laid into the new road bed.  We saw this happening all along the roads we traveled throughout the trip - it's the primary technique for any roadway construction or repair project. 

This is the bridge they are replacing with the larger one above.  A metal deck just wide enough for smaller cars and maybe a person or two to pass.  

The portion of the town across the river is growing quickly.  The ruined building in the front probably fell down in the September 2010 earthquake.

Up on another ridge, we stopped for lunch in Ravangla - the street lined with share jeep/taxis.

We were served lunch in a special dining room that seemed to be reserved for out-of-towners like us.  It was quite luxurious.  
Crossing the Rangeet River (a tributary of the Tista)... This bridge was about the same as the one in Singtam that was being replaced.  Maybe all of the prayer flags tied to it were in hopes of everyone making it across safely?
We let our driver and guide go across without us.  Because we wanted pictures.  Not because we were afraid the jeep would tumble to the depths ;)

Sarah has a way with kids - even when they don't speak the same language (and they're suspended on a rusty bridge a hundred feet above a raging river)

Along the drive, we passed the Bon Monastery Yung Drung Kundaak Ling.  Though my research on the Bon 'religion' is not really conclusive, from what we were told by our guide it is a form of Tibetan Buddhism that has fallen out of favor in India.  (Buddhism originated in India and was spread to Tibet during the 9th and 10th centuries where it began to form into unique sects).  We ended up needing to ask to stop at the small monastery (evidently it wasn't originally part of the plan for our guide, though Baichung did tell us we'd be stopping).  The inside (which of course I wasn't allowed to photograph) was quite beautiful, though despite my visit to the Institute of Tibetology, I still really didn't understand what I was looking at.

Touring monasteries in Sikkim, Nepal and Tibet is very popular.  There are many companies which do special monastic tours - concentrating on visiting the various different types of monasteries from both a religious and architectural point of view.  For me, this would be a bit like touring the churches of New England.  The first few would be fascinating... then it would start to all look the same to me.  I suppose if I were studying Buddhism, it might be different - but then, MANY things would be different...

Luckily, we arrived at the Bon Monastery just before a busload of tourists (we couldn't be considered tourists - we were trekkers hee hee).

No matter what their meaning, you can't deny the beauty of their symbols and architecture.
The final stop before Yuksom was at a roadside waterfall.  Again, we had to ask to stop, and we were told not to take too long.  Probably a good idea, since waterfalls can eat up a lot of time for folks like Sarah and I - but it was also a sign that our guide was in a hurry for some reason.  Hmmmmmm....

Phamrong Falls.  How could you call your self a photographer and not insist on stopping here!

Yes, it says, come and visit...explore...see more...

Worthy of more than a quicke - but, then, we had SO much more to see!
I think the trees in bloom beside the falls are rhodedenderons

Finally, we arrived in Yuksom.  This small village is considered a model of ecotourism - at least in India - and it's location at the southern boundary of Kangchenjunga National Park makes it a real magnet for trekkers, climbers and other adventurers.  The town also has a lot of historical significance, however.  It was the first capitol of Sikkim, in 1642, when Phuntsog Namgyal was crowned the first  Chogyal (temporal and religious king) of Sikkim (okay, so I stole this directly from Wikipedia).  

We were a bit surprised by our hotel, especially when our guide took us straight up the stairs and picked out a room for us by checking to see which one was not being renovated at the moment.  Amid the grinding and banging of tile work in the other rooms, we settled in (which meant unpacking and figuring out how the water turned on in the bathroom).  Though we were both desperate for a hot shower, we decided to check out the town first, then shower before we met our guide again for dinner.  He had some urgent business (evidently) - so we were on our own for a while.

View from our hotel across

Stupa in the center of Yuksom

Entry to the monastery

The monastery was closed, but the outside was quite spectacular on its own!

Road to Norbugang

A dzo (yak-cattle hybrid) and prayer flags

This young man was so happy with his bicycle...

(photo by Sarah) - notice: no tires, no pedals, no seat - no problem!
One of the important sites in Yuksom is the actual coronation throne used to create Sikkim back in 1641.  They've made a historic park out of the site - which is a mix of history, religion and nature walk.  It's a beautiful, eerie place to visit on a misty afternoon.

The trees within the park are painted and trimmed, and prayer flags are hung everywhere.

We thought this was a big prayer wheel!

But then we saw this one!  It took a firm grasp and a quick walk to spin it, but you were rewarded for your effort with a bell that indicated that the prayer was going to heaven.

The middle "seat"m (and remember, this is a floor-sitting society) was for the Great Nyingmapa Lama Lhatsun Chembo - the first king of Sikkim.  The other three platforms were for the three lamas which met to crown the new king (Yusom is said to mean 'the meeting point of the three lamas').

Another street scene

The pond - or "Katok Pokhri" is a holy lake.  We came in around a back way, unaware that there was a gate where we should have paid a few rupees to see the site.  Maybe next time...

Yuksom was certainly not a bustling metropolis, but we did manage a little fun shopping and dining while we were there...
My awesome 'Made in Nepal' Yak wool mitten/gloves.  How could I say no to these babies?!

The Yuksom shopping district (the next morning)

Sarah models her favorite find of the trip...a yellow plastic belt with a holographic dollars buckle.  Yup.  She's money.

How can you have a bad day when your tea comes in cups like this?

Tibetan breakfast: yak cheese, Tibetan bread and masala omelet with chili sauce.  I had toast.

Before we turned in for the night, we met with Raj (our guide), who gave us some packing tips and other instructions.  He also let us know that he'd so far been unable to find a cook or a porter for the trip.  Considering that meant we were going out with only the help of a guide, a yakman and 3 dzo's, I was not too worried.  Raj, however, was plenty worried - he didn't want to have to serve as the cook, guide AND porter!

By the next morning, he still had not secured the help he needed.  I was still coughing a good bit, and having trouble eating real food, so when he suggested a shorter day than the original plan of 10+ miles and 3000' elevation gain, I was totally on board.  It was a part of his plan to solve the cook/porter problem - but we wouldn't really figure that out until later...

So, with only our daypacks on our back and a dream in our hearts, we departed Yuksom for the wilds of Kanchenjunga National Park.
First thing in the morning, the parade of pack-animals (or is that yak-animals?) begins...
Our stuff, ready to get loaded onto our trusty 'steeds'

Sarah and Raj follow our train of dzos along a path in Yuksom

Village life 

Tashi, our dzo driver (yak man) and Larry, Moe and Curly.  Don't get too attached - ladies and gentlemen, this cast changes throughout the series. 
(picture by Sarah) - our guide started out with the was hard to believe they survived the whole trip like this!

Hi-ho, hi-ho, it's on a trek we go...
The official entry point to the park.

As we got past the point where vehicles could go, the roads got much more primitive (and smaller, too!)

Walkin' through the jungle

Wild orchids along the trail

The landslides were a result of the September 2011 earthquake.  We were told not to stop through this section.  Something tells me they're less than confident of their temporary trails...

Some very LARGE trees...

We crossed a number of foot bridges high above the creeks.  I was rather proud of myself for not being at all freaked out by these slightly scary suspension spans! (okay, so I had too much fun with that one ;)

The same bridge from above

The jungle made for some very interesting trail time.

A massive waterfall in the river a hundred or so feet below the trail.  Would have been fun to check out, and we were hot enough that a dip was appealing.  But the nasty trip down that hill would probably only be eclipsed by the trip back up...

The dzo crossed the bridges with no problem...these are no finicky mules!

This beautiful oasis looked like the perfect place for a swim, but our guide warned us that many people had died falling from the rocks just below the pool, so it was off limits.  Too bad!
(photo by Sarah) Crossing another bridge...

(photo by Sarah) Finally, we arrived a Sachen.  Not necessarily the sexiest of our campsites, but at least we had a place out of the impending rain!

The yak-pen they call Sachen.  Day's hike: 6km and 800meters gained (about 3.8mi, 2500 feet)