Friday, June 29, 2012

Trek Day 11: The Remains of the Trek

The cast and crew...
The next morning we awoke to another beautiful, warm day in Sikkim.  No elaborate breakfast this time, just whatever is left out of the packs: we were out of instant coffee, eggs and toast.  Our porridge was light on nuts and fruits.  It was a hardship, but we endured - afterall, we'd have a soft bed and hot shower tonight!  Right?


Ahem...I get ahead of myself once again.  First we have to hike back to Yuksom.

Loading up the animals for the final day.  I think they were glad to be heading back home, to a few days rest and plentiful eating

And people wondered why I wasn't as fast... Look at all the legs I was competing with!

On the trail below Tshoka
Raj shows us the color of the cobra lily

The pack animals crossing the Prek Chu

Along the way, we encountered this young pony who seemed lost.  If ever something looked like the embodiment of the 'My Pretty Pony' dolls from the 80's - it was this one!

Back into the jungle, amid giant trees

Sarah and the white rhododendron 

Each individual bloom on this plant was massive!

Just below Bakim
Poor Raj was not having a banner day.  I think he caught my cold - or someone's anyway - and he was coughing and sneezing the whole way.  He would stop repeatedly to clear his throat or his nose, and with my nearly 13 days of coughing, I totally felt sorry for him.  At least it made him a little easier to keep up with!

To add to the problems, the brand new tent which we had been using ended up getting damaged somehow during the trip (I swear - it wasn't me!).  Several holes appeared in the bright pink rainfly, and from all of the arguing in Nepalese, I think there was some debate as to who's responsibility it was.  Either way, Raj's brand new tent was damaged, and I'm sure that's no small expense for him.

Since our stop at Kokchurong, I'd been trying to talk one of the crew into trading with me for one of their special Khukuri knives. They were constant companions for the porters, yak men and cooks, who used them for everything from gathering food from the dzo to cleaning under their fingernails. Knowing how Gary loves blades, and the fact that these 8-10" long steel monsters were something unique to the region, I figured a well used, trail worn one would be a perfect memento to give as a gift. However, the men were more than a little hesitant to part with this essential tool of the trade.  I told our guides that I was willing to trade a number of cool things, including my own lightweight pocket knife, but I was informed that a 'trade' of cash would be more attractive.  So I offered cash.

Another yakman with his Khukuri
Honestly, I offered more cash than these things would have been worth brand new (though I didn't know it at the time).  But no takers.  I think that Raj's bad temper had more to do with my failure than anything, and since I could barely say hello and goodbye to the others without a translator, I was stuck.  It seemed that the precious Khukuri blades were just not for sale.  At least not on the trail...

The steepness of the environment was incredible

The final bridge on the way back to Yuksom

It's like walking though a botanical garden

I've had these as houseplants, but never had leaves like this!  Each one is at least 5' long!

Another example of Arisaema

Raj on the trail just before Yuksom

We got into town around noon.  It was still a beautiful day - warm and sunny with some small clouds in the distance.  Raj lead us back to our same hotel, but this time the room we'd been in previously was now torn apart in the renovation process.  There was only one room with a functioning bathroom, on the ground floor.  As we waited for our bag, we retrieved our other things (including CLEAN LAUNDRY!) from the office.  

Our room this time was not nearly as nice as our last - it lacked the nice views, the small balcony and the extra roominess that we'd enjoyed.  Considering that we'd been in a tent for ten nights, though, we thought it couldn't be too bad.  Then we realized that the toilet didn't work, and that the hot water tank was - well, if not broken than at least not REALLY functional.  

No flush toilet.  No hot shower.  Beds only slightly softer than our mats.  So much for 'civilization'!

Even Raj, who was staying in the same hotel, asked if he could use our shower, as his didn't work at all.  We gave him the key as we left the room to wander Yuksom again.  I guess by the time he got there, some hot water came out.  Lucky Raj!

Sarah walks through the outskirts of Yuksom

School yard and villager
Day's hike: 12km and 1000 meters lost (about 7.4 mi, 3200feet)

After our tepid showers (at least we're clean, we set out to wander Yuksom again.  We quickly met up with our trekking mates (it's not a big town!), and we had one last adventure together.  Although we re-visited many of the sites that we'd seen days before, it was fun to wander again with good company.
A lovely home in Yuksom, complete with a sat. dish on the outhouse...

A shifty gang of Westerners walking the streets of Yuksom

These women were tending their garden - barefoot!  Wielding sharp digging tools barefoot would probably not end well for someone like me...
Detail from the chorten

Strips of bamboo lashings drying at a construction site

While peeking at the shops and street vendors, I found a place that sold locally made Khukuri knives. Although the woman who owned the store tried to talk me into the less expensive, more elaborately decorated ones made in China, I was drawn to these 11" long simple blades hammered out of an old automobile spring.  It came complete with a wooden sheath similar to those worn by our guides, and though it wasn't used, it was as genuine as I could get.  I couldn't help but balk at the 120 rupees she was asking for it.  It sounded so extravagant - but I couldn't stop thinking about it.  I walked away thinking I'd still be able to get a better deal elsewhere.  Such an American, right?

The group decided to meet for dinner, tumba and one last 'championship' round of Farkle.  Although we'd been promised at the start of our trip that dinner and hotel were included on the last day, we couldn't find Raj to get an answer out of him, so we just went ahead and met with Anne-Gael, Gael, Alok and the Germans at the Dragon Inn - the very small home-stay style hotel owned by Anne-Gael and Gael's trekking guide.

Here begins the discussion of 2 important things I learned in Yuksom:
  1. Tumba is awesome, even though it sounds terrible.
  2. If you think it's hard going without running water, try living in a town where electricity goes out more often than it remains on.
I'll get to the tumba in a minute, but it was number two that really struck me.  As we sat at the inn, we were only aware of the coming-and-going of the electricity once it became dark enough for us to need artificial lights to play our game of Farkle.  Even though we'd lived in tents for 11 days, we were so 'hardwired' (as it were) to expect electricity that we had a lot of difficulty dealing without it.  Candles blow out whenever there's a strong wind (like, whatever!) and gas lamps are blinding single-point light sources that are very difficult to read by.  

Yet, we were being hosted by this very gracious and sweet family who operated completely as if this electrical fluctuation was not inconvenient or annoying - it was expected!  They were willing to make us tumba, cook us dinner and listen to our Western dice obsession and they didn't even have power!  (Now I understand the nationwide habit of cooking on wood or propane).  

That's the beauty of Indian hospitality right there!

So, on to tumba...
We were served our tumba, and our eyes got big

Eventually we moved the party inside to the kitchen, where we could enjoy our dice game by candlelight. 


ah, the lights came back on...
Those massive bamboo cups before you in each photo are the traditional vessel for making/serving tumba. As I mentioned in my post from Gangtok it is the traditional beer of Sikkim (also called chang). Even so, it was only available in a few of the bars andrestaurants in town. Other Westerners we'd talked to described it as 'nasty' or 'bitter', s we were a little hesitant t try it - but the Travel Channel watcher in me just wouldn't be satisfied until I at least gave it a shot.

So, what is Tumba?  Well - it starts with the fermented millet that we gave the monks in our puja.  In order to reach this particular stage of fermentation, the grain is boiled and then left to sit at room temperature for about a week or two.  Then it's scooped into the large hollow bamboo mugs you see here.  Hot water is then poured over the millet.  You let the water sit for 10 minutes and mix with the fermented millet, then you sip it up through a bamboo straw. 

That's it!  When you've consumed most of the water, you just pour more on.  It's a one-time purchase that keeps giving all night long!  

It's not really what I'd call beer - but it's pretty close in terms of the strength of the alcohol.  It's warm, which in the Himalaya seems like a good thing.  It's easy to transport, as it doesn't become a liquid until you add the hot water.  It's inexpensive, particularly if you want to drink a lot of it (since you only buy the beer once).  And, it's actually pretty tasty.  I'd put it in the 'nutty and sweet' category, though there was a slightly bitter aftertaste (though nothing compared to an IPA).  Overall, I am quite glad I tried it and wondering how hard it would be to duplicate on a cold Tucson winter.  If there were such a thing.

The tea pot and teacup collection in the Dragon's kitchen

In the meanwhile, I talked about the stupid Khukuri knife until the group told me to shut up and go buy it.  Gary would love it, they all assured me, and it really was only like $25 American. A steal, really.  It's just, well, it always sounds like so much more when you hear it in rupees!

And, in case you were wondering, Anke won the final round of Farkle - which put her ahead of everyone else by like a dozen games.  The woman was a high scoring dice machine.  Remind me never to bet against her ;)

Monday, June 25, 2012

Trek Day 9b - 10: We'll Be Coming Down the Mountain When We Come!

The Prek Chu River in the mist
So now you think you've seen it's just more of the same heading back, right?  In some ways, you'd be correct - that pattern of clear blue mornings and misty afternoons, pine forests, hardwood forests and jungle is indeed repeated for the last few days of our trek.  However, I was there, and I don't feel like I got to see it all - so I hardly think I could have shown it all to you through the very limited lens of the blog.  

On the other hand, it will move much more quickly now.  Our hike certainly did!  After days of creeping ever upward, slowly acclimating to the elevation and the trek, now we were speeding back down as if we were on a mission.  

And for me, it was a mission.  After my disappointment at not reaching Goecha La, I was pretty much done with the whole thing (emotionally at least).  I just wanted a hot shower, a soft bed and a chair to enjoy my dinner on.  While I've certainly felt this way before on longer backpacking trips, I've never actually found myself counting the nights until I was done with it with quite so much relish.  I was still enjoying the experience, but I was ready to stop enjoying it and get back to enjoying something else!

We were glad to be headed down the canyon and this group of 40 or so was heading up.  They were an Eco-Tourism class from the University of Puget Sound in WA, and it was nice to talk to some Americans.  Note to self:  find courses to teach which involve taking students to places like this!

A willow tree getting ready to bloom
Enjoying the hike, for sure! - Photo by Sarah

Back at Kokchurong

At this point, the mists were still rolling in and out, giving us brief glimpses of Pandim.

Sarah journals while we wait for our tents to be 

Karma was the only pony in our group that was actually trained for riders, so Raj decided to hop on and give it a spin.  without the proper bridle and saddle, though, it didn't last long or go far! - photo by Sarah

The Prek Chu
Mists down the canyon
Pandim peeking (or is it peaking) through

By mid-afternoon, the fog was so thick you could barely see 10 feet in front of you.  We all retired to long games of Farkle and Rocks.
That evening it rained quite hard, and we were pretty tent bound.  After dinner, Raj stopped into the dining tent (for the most part, we couldn't pay the guys to join us in the tent) to talk to us a little about the end of the hike and to encourage us to keep in touch.  And he kept talking.  And he kept talking.  A couple of times, Tashi came in and asked him questions in Nepali, but he always just sort of waved it away.  Turns out Tashi and the others were wanting to kick us all out of the dining tent as it turned into their sleeping tent at night.  Eventually, we got Raj out and we all turned into our own sleeping tent.

The next morning, we didn't see Raj first thing.  He admitted to us a little down the trail that there'd been tumba (a local beer - will post more later) involved in the long conversation the night before.  We all had a good laugh at that, as none of us had been brave enough to speak the theory aloud, but all of us had suspected it.

Day's hike (for me without Goecha La): 10km and 400 meters lost (about 6.2mi, 1200feet)

As predicted, the morning was sparkling clear!

Looking down the valley where we'd be hiking in the morning.  The night before, Raj had scared us a little with his talk of 'stupid' tourists who don't listen to their guides and fall to their deaths on this portion of the hike.  As it turned out, it was nothing at all to be afraid of!
On the trail through the dense forest.  This section of trail is too narrow for the dzo and ponies, so they are lead back up the very steep hill we'd descended a few days before.  Thank goodness I'm not quite as wide as a dzo!

This 'cave' under a massive boulder is named for a guide who died here from altitude sickness.  We're still well above 10,000' here, within the zone where you can encounter life threatening problems at any moment.

Sarah demonstrates how hollow some of the trees are...

It's just after 8am, and already the mists are settling in.  Something tells me it's going to be a very long day hiking in these conditions...(you can just see Sarah up ahead of me on the trail)
If the trek from Dzongri to Tanasing was my favorite bit of hiking, than this day (from Kokchurong to Tshoka) was the hardest.  The trail itself was relatively easy - gentle up and down for several miles as it contoured in and out of the tributary drainages of the Prek Chu.  However, the mists settled in thick and cold very early, and there were many sections of this narrower, more forested track that were still covered in slick ice.  What wasn't icy was slick and muddy.  Anke, who's knee wasn't the best on downhills, really struggled with the slick descents and Sarah, too, kept an unusually slow pace in order to protect herself from knee pain.  With few views, and only occasional points of interest (usually little waterfalls) to keep us entertained it turned into a very long hike which all kind of runs together in my memory.

Sarah begins a climb up one of the icy sections.

Anke crossing some packed snow - as we lost elevation, however, it did get warmer.

A small tributary

Wild violets

One of the many ridges we crossed

Back into the land of the rhododendron.

We stopped for lunch at Phedong, but once again that spot was complete fogged in.  The rhododendron forests were creepy in the thick mist, but it added a whole new kind of beauty to the trek.  At that point, however, we were back on the pack trail, and the combination of rain and heavy traffic had made the trail a complete morass.  We took the steep descent slowly to avoid ending up face down in the muck.

Raj was really dragging all day, and I began to suspect that it was more than just the excess of tumba the previous night...

Sarah in the blooms

Petals falling on the path

Misty mountain majsety

The sacred lake at Tshoka

Ponies grazing at Tshoka

Day's hike: 17km and 1000 meters lost (about10.5 mi, 3200feet)

Our team set up camp in the same spot at Tshoka, though this time it seemed that there were more groups already in the small town.  Alok, Gael and Anne-Gael's group was staying in one of the hiker's huts and when we saw the tables and chairs in their room, we elected them to host the rest of the card and dice games.    

Placement of the rocks became of vital importance in this game... re positioning them became a game in itself.

It was our last night on trek and our cook went to great lengths to make us a fantastic dinner.  The highlight of the meal was a whole head of cauliflower (which by this point had become one of my favorite trail foods), steamed and topped with a spicy Chinese sauce and cheese.  YUM!  As we were finishing our meal, Chung-Wan came in to speak to us for a while and help us with our 'thank you's' for the crew and tipping.  Though it was made clear from the beginning that tipping was expected, we weren't ever able to get a straight answer about how much from Baichung or Raj, and no one else we spoke to seemed to be sure.  It was very nice of Chung-Wan to help us out, and after a bit he brought in the whole crew - who came bearing two small cakes the cook had baked just for us with the words 'Happy Trek' written on them in decorative icing.  It was such a wonderful treat.  

We thanked each of the helpers on the trek, for they had been enormously helpful, generous and cheery the entire trip.  Unfortunately, Raj wasn't feeling well and didn't make the final gathering.  We ate as much of the cake as we could after such a big meal and retired for our last night on the thin, hard foam pads.

Three candles and the bigger special!

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The cakes were made without flour - so they were dense but very tasty!