Sun Hong and his men served us bed tea sharp at 3.30 a.m. I had arranged my daypack with all the things that I may require at Goechala Pass before going off to sleep last night. We were dressed in two layers of sweaters, down jacket, waterproof gloves and woollen socks. My tentmate Sangita had prepared two bottles of glucose water for both of us. Cook Sumit Rai had provided us with packed breakfast of boiled eggs and potatoes which we were to have on way to the first view point.
At about 4 a.m. we started our walk. My friend Prashanto has sprained his ankle last day and was apprehensive about being able to trek upto Goechala Pass. However, he went for a while and then was compelled to return back from the point where uphill trek starts. After an hour of hike, we reached Samiti Lake and crossed it from the right side in the darkness and then following the trail we started the uphill hike on a pebbles-and-bare rocks laden path.
Our headlamps were used that night since moonlight wasn’t much of a help. At places the trail was slippery because of a layer of accumulated snow. To my disappointment, I was falling behind others on the last lap of our trek. However, I didn’t want to strain myself and walk fast to catch up with others because we have to cover a distance of about 12-15 Km today. Also that I didn’t want to risk going out of breathe at 4800 mts because that will put my team mates in trouble of having to bring me down.
1. Sunrise over Kanchendzonga Main Peak
Our team was divided into three groups at this point, with the fast hikers along with Sun Hong at the lead, middle-paced ones with SS at the middle and Agam Singh accompanying four of us at the end. The route to Goechala Pass is close to Mt. Pandim’s wall. Continuing to walk at my own pace, I went upto the first view point just in time (5.15 a.m.) to see the sun’s first rays touching the crest of Kanchendzonga Main Peak.
Slowly the peaks of the Kanchendzonga Massif changed colours from orange to golden to yellow. On the backside, sun’s ray’s played the colour changing game on Pandim peak too. The first group started heading towards viewpoint 2 along with Sun Hong as soon as the first rays touched the Main peak. Four of us sat down on the rocks to take rest and watch the sunrise.
There were about 20-25 Indian as well as foreign trekkers at View Point 1 that day. The second group left after a while. Soon morning light brightened up the surroundings. We ate the packed breakfast and took photographs. The place seemed to be devoid of any air movement and an abnormal stillness existed at View Point I.
I had seen many youtube videos of howling winds at Goechala Viewpoint 1 and also heavy snowfall at places in the route. But, to our disappointment, we saw none of it. Nevertheless, sunrise at Goechala Viewpoint was an out-of-the-world experience. Snow covered ranges beyond rocky mounds lay in front of us. And on the north eastern side a small passage trail led towards Goechala Lake and the other two advanced view-points.
2. Towards view point 2
After resting for half an hour, I moved ahead with Agam Singh towards view point 2. Arun and two other group mates who were with us didn’t want to go ahead because of tiredness. They retreated back towards camp with Buddha 1. After going ahead through the narrow rocky passage for about 15 more minutes, suddenly a misstep happened and I sprained my ankle while trying to negotiate a steep downhill step.
The pain made me sit down on a rock and look up wistfully at the Mountain God. I crouched with pain when I tried to stand up. So, I had to take a decision of going back. Agam Singh supported my decision. A part of my mind was telling me to go ahead till view point 2 and, atleast, see the famed Goechala lake. But my conscience told me that I should not increase my suffering and become a burden to my group.
As I was turning back with a heavy heart, SS and four others of the middle group were also coming back. They also didn’t move further ahead of the second view point. One of them was bleeding from nose which was an effect of altitude and cold. However, two of them went as far as the point from where Goechala Lake can be seen. Later, I saw the photos of the lake. So, five of us and the two guides started the return journey.
3. The Return Journey
While going down, we discovered blue sheep coming out of a cave on the other bank of Samiti Lake. The lake and its rocky surroundings with snow-capped peaks in the background under a blue sky on an early morning bore striking resemblance to Ladakh. However, I have seen Ladakh only in photographs.
But, both the places fall in the Himalayan zone and nature has a way of looking similar in beautiful places. The colour of the sky and snow covered peaks were being reflected in the lake waters. I had to rest my sprained ankle by sitting down on the banks of the Samiti Lake for a while.
After reaching Lamuney campsite, I went inside my tent to nurse my sprained ankle with volini spray and a bandage. Here as I lay down for an hour looking at Pandim, I was reminiscing the heavenly sunrise of Goechala viewpoint. Prasanto came over to my tent. I narrated to him the experience while going through the pictures in the camera and having breakfast.
The group that went till the third view point with Sun Hong returned to the camp at about 12 p.m. All of us were tired, yet thrilled beyond words. Only seven members of the group made it till second view point and four till the third view point. Sun Hong looked tired too.
He said that was the second time he went to the third view point in his 10 year career as a guide. Earlier, he had taken a Russian couple to the third view point where the Russians meditated for half an hour, while he had his breakfast in the shivering cold.
Inspite of everyone’s tiredness, we had to hurry because, as per our itinerary, we have to return to Kokchurang today itself. So, after grabbing a quick lunch, we started with wary feet towards Kokchurang via Thangsing. Technically, our trek was almost over. We just have three more nights at Kokchurang, Tsokha and Yuksom after which we will have to catch the train back home.
It gave me a mixed feeling. My tired body craved for the comfort of home and cosy bed, but then I didn’t feel like moving out of the cool climate up here and land into the pressure cooker that Kolkata is. These short sojourns make Himalayas so dear to city- dwellers like us. I wonder whether Sun Hong, Agam and his people feel so excited every single time they come to Goechala. Sun Hong makes 10 to 15 trips with trekkers every year. He also mentioned that crowded places like Kolkata, Siliguri and even Gangtok makes him feel sick. To each his own!
It was drizzling at Kokchurang when we reached there in late afternoon. Sun Hong managed two rooms for us in the crowded trekkers’ hut where we spent the evening chatting under candlelight and torchlight. The next morning we explored around in Kokchurang for a while.
This place is an ideal hill village having all the components like a view of snow-capped Pandim, wooden bridge over a mountain stream and thick forests all around. We found a huge number of foreigners camping here. We struck up conversations with a German lady of 60 and an Irish man of 70 who were about to go to Goechala
The next morning, we took the path through a thick forest on way to Tsokha via Phedong. We spotted one or two beautiful waterfalls in the route. Pandim was peering through the tall tree branches at places. The trail winding along slopes is mostly narrow in this stretch. At places it was also slippery because of previous night’s rainfall. Again we faced some steep upclimb over here.
Cook Samir Rai and his team had prepared tea before we arrived at Phedong. Infact, the boys had brought the steaming tea kettle and cups when we were about half a Km away from Phedong. I stuck up a conversation with Samir at Phedong. Samir hails from Darjeeling and he also accompanies trekking teams in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand as a cook. I must state that Sung Hong, Samir Rai and their entire team’s hospitality was of the first grade.
We absolutely had no complaints about them. After having a lunch of khichdi at Phedong, we started the 6 km downhill journey to Tsokha. This time my legs took me faster because mobile connectivity is available at Tsokha. Though I enjoyed remaining disconnected from the world for six days, now I craved to get back to my world and speak to my people. We reached Tsokha in the evening and boarded a trekkers’ hut over there.
The whole evening we lazed around. Mobile connectivity was available at some points near a maize field. Lying down in the lawn in front of trekkers’ hut, we enjoyed watching a magical sunset with the snow covered Pandim decking up in beautiful shades of orange and golden. A few families live in Tsokha. We visited the small, beautiful monastery beside a pond over there.
It was time to pack up and move out of this cosy little hill-village in the next morning at 8 a.m. Had time permitted, I would have loved to spend another day at Tsokha. While going back to Yuksom, we again passed through Bakhim and Sachen. We rested for a while in front of the bridge over Prek Chu to indulge in the picturesque surroundings. We took our packed lunch somewhere in front of the second bridge. Notably, the first and last day of the hike is marked by four bridges over mountain streams.
After reaching the Khangchendzongha Reserve Forest checkpost, a twinge of sadness engulfed my mind. Then and there, I decided that I will visit Goechala Pass soon again. As the saying goes, ‘The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.’ Next time I may look upon this wonderland from a different angle!
….Behind in series is TREK TO GOECHA LA – YUKSOM TO DZONGRI