Sunday, January 18, 2015

Heading Off into the Jungle: Bazara-Goeche La Trek Day 1-3

Just a note of background before I jump back into the diary:  When I was in the planning stages of this trip, I'd contacted Lamdik Ecoventures about doing just the same Goeche La trek I'd done on my prior visit.  When he heard that we were a fit group and keenly interested in seeing rhododendrons, he recommended a longer, tougher trip - one that spent more time in the forests away from the heavily impacted hills around Dzongri.  It didn't take much convincing for me or for my group: an area less traveled, more pristine and more challenging?  Sign us up!  It meant fewer days available for sight-seeing in the cities, but we all knew what we'd really come to see and that was mountains and forests.  
This trek would start out in an area much less frequently visited by tourists and would end on the popular Goeche La route, so we could get the best of both worlds.  The trade off was that we really had almost no idea what we were in for: the length of the walking was described in hours rather than distance, and the difficulty was given from the point of view of a native who regularly walks steep trails for long distances at elevation.  It would be tough to gauge what we were in for from day-to-day...truly the definition of adventure! 

Trek Day 1:  In my little bed at the Family Guest House, I slept like a dead thing.  I woke, still feeling a little dizzy from the ride and groggy from the drugs.  Our guide had some last-minute preparations to do, so we had some time in the morning for a delicious breakfast and a leisurely walk to the holy Lake Khecheopalri.  This was a good thing...a little recovery window which (in retrospect) should have been a whole day.

Lake Khecheopalri is a lovely spot, sacred to both Buddhists and Hindu.  It is a "wishes fulfilling lake", and there are many small stupas, shrines and statues on the path to the lake, as well as seemingly hundreds of small stacks of wishing stones (which look to me like cairns).  Signs everywhere warn people to be respectful of the sacred nature of the lake and to not pollute it or the silence that surrounds it.  We certainly enjoyed the peace and quiet after the noise of Siliguri and the dust of the road.

The path through the garden at the Family Guest House

Village at Lake Khecheopalri 

Jetty which takes you to the lake edge.  There were many groups praying during our visit. really was me 

Prayer wheels on the jetty

Panorama of the lake.  It sits in a glacial valley or névé

You can hear the quiet, right?

A small temple on the path to the lake

Prayer wheel in the temple

A small nunnery near the lake.
When we were through at the lake, we returned to the guest house and loaded up in the cars again for the short ride to our "trailhead".  Though we would be leaving the vehicles behind, the beginning of our hike was actually on the "road" to the next village - but it's a road for feet.  6 hikers, 9 guides and 16 draft animals started the steep climb into the mountains.  It was to be a pretty long day, with a lunch stop at a ridgetop above the small village of Lamathang

And it was spectacular from the word go.

Heading up the first hill.  There was no flat warm up for this hike!

A grass hut a small way off the road.  

Binay and Chung Wan lead Nancy through the jungle

Such an amazing landscape
Resting a moment at a street-side shelter

As we approached Lamatang, we walked through fields of cardamom plants...evidently a profitable crop for the area.  Cardamom is the world's third most expensive spice after vanilla and saffron.

A cistern that is a part of the town's gravity-fed water supply

We learned later that this family was related to one of our guides

Lamathang does not get as many tourist visitors as towns I visited on my first trek.  The novelty of Americans walking through the village is still exciting to the kids

Young and old came out to watch the show as we passed

 The lovely school at Lamathang.  It was hard to imagine that our trek to that point was just the walk to school for many kids in the area.

They loved getting their photos taken - and even better when you showed them the digital image after!
Binay and I cooled our heads in the overflowing cistern
Lamathang was magical.  Whereas other town's I've visited felt as though they were in the tourism business, this village felt distinctly un-touristy - a authentic place with a real sense of the life of the region.  I wished I could spend a month here, just getting to know the people and rituals instead of just walking quickly by.  It was a treat, though, to see the hand-woven houses and delicate bamboo fences, bountiful gardens and lush fields.  Everyone had flowers planted near their door and well kept homes.  Though I knew this idyllic appearance probably hid problems that exist in any agriculturally based community, it was refreshing to see a place where people live simply and still smile as strangers pass through.

I was suddenly thankful I'd like Binay talk us into this longer, more remote trek.  Getting away from the more heavily traveled tourist trail was already paying off.

Beyond Lamathang, the trail continued to be incredibly well developed for a couple of miles.  The local residents were evidently trying to encourage trekking in the area by creating a very engineered trail-bed, including paving the way (literally) with small stones.  I didn't appreciate yet what a task this must've been, but being a trail builder myself, I could certainly see that there'd be a tremendous effort taken to make the very steep way more comfortable.  (I hope, though, that in their quest for tourists, they really try to keep this place quiet and genuine.)

Then we came to the end of the developed trail and the way started to get steep for real.  I mean real, real steep.  We climbed behind the dzo up a forested slope, using roots and branches as steps.  I started to slow down...the elevation (already over 8000') was starting to slow my breath considerably, and the residual Dramamine in my system was making me slightly ill.  I was tremendously glad when we reached the ridge that Binay called Bhangyang and we stopped for lunch.  

"The Boys" (as we started to affectionately call the cook, porters and yak men) fired up their kerosene-powered rocket engines and cooked us a hearty lunch to be spread out on a blue tarp over the tall ferns and grasses on the hillside.  While there was evidence of use on this ridge, it wasn't beaten down and muddy like camps on the Goeche-la Trek.  While we ate lunch, Binay spoke with us about the option of staying in this spot overnight, rather than continuing on to Bazara - another 2000' of climbing and several hours to go.  We were slower than he'd anticipated (or at least I was), and I think he was worried that we'd be too tired to make the second camp in decent time.  

I knew I could, but I was actually glad we he decided that we shouldn't.  Camping here on the scenic ridge and having an afternoon to rest and regroup meant losing one of our rest days later in the trek, but none of us minded at that point.  We just wanted to stop moving long enough to let our biological clocks catch up with us.

The kitchen at lunch was al fresco...

Lunch at Bhangyang (compare to Sachen)
The hillsides were covered in ripe, sweet wild strawberries...which surprisingly the dzo did not seem to want to eat!
Hanging out at the tents, talking philosophy or yoga or something

A civilized up of tea

Now, being Americans (even Americans from the arid badlands) we're used to bathing pretty regularly, and we still had the dust from Siliguri in our ears.  So when the ladies discovered there was a stream near by that we could wash up in, we scampered down the hill quicker than kittens after a laser dot.  We stripped down and got as clean as we could (with the help of an ingenious spout installed by our porters).  Little did we know the little biting gnats (to be called bity bastards for the rest of the trip) would have picked off our flesh if we'd stayed out long enough.  We all ended up with little red welts for our efforts, and none of us took off that much clothing outside of the confines of our tents again (well, at least not until we were far above bity bastard range).  

Of course, being stupidly allergic to any sort of insect interaction, my little red welts stuck around for the rest of the trip to pester me endlessly.  I'm just glad the other ladies recovered fairly quickly from being feasted on...

Home-made kitchen spout

 The next morning, we were enjoying a leisurely breakfast when The Boys started to talk excitedly among themselves.  Without much explanation, we were told to grab our things and we were whisked out of camp and straight up a hill so much steeper than the one from the day before that I thought maybe we'd taken a wrong turn.

As we climbed, we learned that a swarm of bees had somehow attacked the camp.  Our guides told us they were "angry" bees, and indeed it seems that they stung a couple of the yak men (one badly on the face).  Keeping the soft white people safe, the had taken us on the herder's shortcut up the hill - sometimes hacking through jungle to make passage.  We were pulling ourselves up sometimes hand-over-foot, which was quite the way to wake us up.  When we intersected the trail once again, the going got easier but stayed very steep.  Although we hadn't seen the pack animals, they had evidently gotten ahead of us while we climbed (they took the trail).  

Starting up the hill 

Leaf litter made the trail slippery in places
Up into the clouds

Ringing Mountain Bells...

Wild roses

And leeches.  Fun (not).
We were out of the world of villages now, moving through dense jungle and the steep foothills of the Himalaya.  I decided to bring along my GPS unit to record our travels, since the guide didn't have an accurate map to share before we started (mapping in that area isn't the same as it is in the US for sure).  It was fun to track our progress, though depressing to see how slow we were going.  However, when I looked at the near-vertical elevation profile for the hike, it made sense.  We weren't so much heading across country as we were going into the clouds themselves!

Our next camp at Bazara
Our camp at Bazara was on another ridge - though the views when we arrived were significantly shortened by heavy mist and fog.  Just like my first visit to Sikkim, the mornings were relatively clear and by mid afternoon the mists came up from the valleys to sit among the trees.  At 3368 meters (10,700'), Bazara was above the jungle and into the hardwood forests - thick with rhododendron and magnolia as well as massive firs.  The whole area had been burned badly 30 years prior, though, and what remained was largely a ghost forest of bizarrely twisted trunks and crooked branches.  Eerie doesn't even begin to describe it.  Our tents were arranged along the sharp ridge in a rough line, but in the mists it was as if each was isolated from the other.  Stepping out, it felt as though we were on a strange new world, surrounded only by skeletons and the soft sound of ringing yak bells.

Pink rhododendron and a burned fir trunk

The dining tent in the ghost forest

Some sort of lily that was common on the ridge
Late in the afternoon, the fog lifted somewhat and we had a brief view of the mountains - a teaser of what would appear in the morning.  We all jumped out of the warm protection of our tents and took in the beauty - it was enough to drive away the weariness and fill us with excitement for the trek to come.

A peek of a peak

Mountain paparazzi 
 That night was Rocky's 55th birthday.  I'd let our guide know, and he said they were planning a surprise for the evening.  I figured there might be a special desert or perhaps a happy birthday song.  What we got was a whole evening of amazing food, song, dance and fun presented by the whole crew.  They even made gifts for the birthday boy: a garland of red rhododendrons, a matching bouquet and a flute carved by one of the yak men from a strand of bamboo.  We were all touched and delighted by their songs and dancing, and by how much genuine fun they seemed to have celebrating the birthday of someone who was almost a stranger.

Well - not so much a stranger any more I suppose.  And we would all get even closer in no time, through events it was hard to imagine on such a crystal clear morning...

Rocky with his garland and bouquet the morning after his surprise birthday party.

Mt. Kabru from Bazara in the morning...WHAT a view!'s worth throwing a Wendy for sure
 We were all in great spirits that morning as we hit the trail once again.  Gone was the weary grogginess of the day before.  We could see the Himalaya and we wanted to get closer... The mountains were calling, and we answered eagerly with our feet.

Hitting the trail out of Bazara


Anonymous said...

So far it looks like a pretty awesome trek. Quite different and less touristy than what we did in 2012, you should have informed me, I perhaps would have joined.

Rob of the WV said...

Wendy - lovely report. I love your great photos - nice addition to a good missive. How does one sign-up to throw a Wendy in the next Asiatic series? Thanks for sharing.