Thursday, November 20, 2014

Return to the Himalaya Part I

Khangchengdzonga 2012

When I returned from my adventure in the Indian Himalaya in 2012, I had many jealous friends.  Jealous of the trek, jealous of the fact that I had time to do the trek, and jealous that I had the confidence to just "head off" into a place so foreign.  They ooh-ed and aah-ed over the photos and were amazed at my tales of the beauty of Sikkim and the warmth of the people I met there.  They wanted to go.  

Some of them even thought I should "lead" them there.

I scoffed.  Too much work, too far away, too much money... No way I said.  Not a chance.  Only a crazy person would agree to lead a group of head strong, independent adults to such a wild and unexpected place.

And so it was that I found myself on a steep, narrow road clinging to the slopes of the Himalayan foothills, crammed into the back seat of an Indian taxi once again, jostling back and forth as the driver navigated potholes and insane motorcyclists.  This time, instead of being shoulder to shoulder with strange Indian men who smelled of curry and Paan, the car was full of 6 Arizona hikers, all of whom were looking to me to tell them what was going on and how to best negotiate their way through this very strange country. You think trekking in a foreign country over dangerous terrain is scary, try being in charge of other people doing just that.  Gulp.  Then it starts to hail at 14,000' and...

I'm getting ahead of my story just a little.   

First, we've got to get to Sikkim.  In my last posts, I never really explained where Sikkim is.  If you're anything like I was prior to planning the first trip, you might well think I'm talking about a spot just to the left of the moon.  Well...luckily I tried to explain it to the traffic engineers I was working with just after the trip.

You start with a big map map showing where to find India (I'll give that most of you got this far)...

 Drill down a ways in the vast sub-continent to find the tiny but critical state of Sikkim.

And then, looking at Sikkim, you can see how it is bordered by Nepal, Bhutan and China.  The border with the Chinese is what makes the whole state of Sikkim a secure area.  

So we're heading for Yuksom - the once capitol of a mountainous state which was it's own sovereign nation from the establishment of their royal dynasty in 1642 until they became an Indian state in 1975.  The culture is highly unique from that found in the rest of India and more closely resembles that of Nepal and Tibet - in fact, many of the same tribes are found still thriving within its borders.  

Sikkim's claim to fame for tourists are it's amazing mountains and it's vast rhododendron forests - both of which we intended to visit.

We being...
From left to right: Mitch, Ivanka, Rocky, Binay (our guide), Nancy, myself and Debbie
 ...just the most intrepid bunch of Arizona backpackers you'll ever meet!  I had 5 others sign up for the trip, and through nearly 30 hours of travel and a brief hotel stop in Delhi, we made it to the airport in Bagdogra, West Bengal, India where we were to meet up with our guide operator, Binay.

There's a whole story to why I picked Binay Limboo and his excellent outfit Lambdik EcoVentures...but I'm going to save that for another post (maybe one that's not already so crammed with boring text).

Binay met us at the airport, performed a traditional welcome ceremony which included colorful scarves and intervention with the government official for our Inner Line permits.  He pretended not to be amazed at the sheer quantity of stuff we brought (but we knew he was) as he loaded it onto the jeeps and took us to a hotel in nearby Siliguri.  

Finally free from the confines of an airline seat or the back of a taxi, we decided to hit the streets and take in some of the sights and smells of India.  For everyone else, this was their first visit to India - and for some, it was really the first time they'd ventured into such a completely foreign environment.  Siliguri is not for the faint-hearted tourist...where we were, there were no self-guided tours or gift shops.  We were seeing real life in this bustling city, and it was a real eye opener!

View from our hotel window of a light industrial area of Siliguri

Big Tatas...

I always wish I could start cooking dinner when I see the produce here

Think of it as a local convenience store without the glass windows

Cow keeping median grass down

Bicycle cargo

These gentlemen were excited for their photo op

Says it all, doesn't it. 

Follow the walking billboards.
After our tour on foot, we returned to the hotel for dinner and some instruction from Binay.  I was pretty sure my body had no clue what time it was, but I fell asleep quickly anyway - probably from sheer exhaustion.  Tomorrow, we would leave the flat lands behind and head into the mountains.  This time, instead of a random taxi, we'd be in Binay's vehicles - on our own schedule and with a little more room to enjoy the ride.  

Little did my fellow travelers know that we were about to embark on the most terrifying portion of the whole trip: the roadways of the Indian Himalaya!

--to be continued--