Let me start the story of our Goecha la trek with what inspired us- three one-trek old novice trekkers, to take on this so-called difficult trekking route so early in our career as trekkers. As I narrated in my travelogue on Yuksom, heavenly view of Mt. Kanchendzonga at Sandakphu had completely captured our hearts, minds and spirits. It is this indescribable attraction towards this blissful peak that pulled us like a magnet, as it has done to all previous generations of trekkers, towards the Goechala Pass route. Goechala is a high mountain pass at an elevation of about 4950 mts in West Sikkim, located roughly between Pandim and Khangchendzonga ranges.
After some research and checking out on references, my friend Prashanto contacted Sun Hong Chong, our trek guide who assured us of taking care of all the required permits, providing food, tents, sleeping bags and other necessities for a 8 –day hike in high altitude. Sun Hong also mentioned that his team will consist of porters, apart from a cook, kitchen staff and yak-men, who will take care of our rucksacks.
Kolkata to NJP
This was a huge relief for us since we were apprehensive about not being able to walk at a steady pace in the uneven mountainous terrain with 10-15 kg load on our back. With all things set and tickets booked, we finally boarded the train at Sealdah station in Kolkata on 16th Oct, 2016, which happened to fall on a day after Kojagari Laxmi Puja. Much to our disappointment, three of our friends and fellow companions from the Sandakphu trip had to drop out of this tour because of various compelling reasons.
However, a new friend Arun joined us for this trek. So this time we were three members in the team. The next morning Padatik Express reached New Jalpaiguri Station almost two hours after the scheduled time. The late-running of the train irritated us since we have to travel almost 150 Km by road, that is, it takes almost 6 -7 hours from NJP to reach Yuksom. We wanted to take sufficient rest and have a sound sleep before our trek commences on the next day. However, the clear sky at NJP lifted our spirits as the magnificient Kanchendzonga peak was visible from the station.
This magical peak always manages to cast its spell on me! As we stepped out, Sun Hong came to greet us. Two more groups from Kolkata consisting of nine members and four members each had also arrived on the same day. Sun Hong will be their guide as well. A facebook group with all the team members was formed two weeks ago to discuss nitty-gritties of the trek and also to break the ice between strangers who will trek together. After a brief face-to-face interaction with all members, we boarded the two SUVs arranged by Sun Hong and set out for our destination Yuksom. At the end of a long, though beautiful road journey, we reached Yuksom at about 9 p.m.
Yuksom to Bakhim
Our trek started on 18th October morning. Sun Hong put a traditional Sikkimese scarf around each team member’s neck and marked the onset of our trek. This gesture signifies wishing good luck. He and his assistants had already packed our rucksacks, ration, cylinders, tents, sleeping bags et al on the back of six yaks which started moving ahead of us. We were travelling light, only with our daypacks and walking sticks.
We carried bare essentials like water bottles, some snacks and chocolates and our cameras only. Passing by a few houses, shops, school-going kids who wished us luck (they are used to seeing alien trekkers and mountaineers all the while at Yuksom), a 20 minute brisk uphill walk, partly through gravelled paths and partly on bare rocks covered with grass, took us to the entry point of Khangchendzonga Biosphere Reserve.
Since Sun Hong had already obtained our permits (which includes environment fees, camping charges etc), the guard let us through after counting the number of heads. The entrance to the enchanting land of Mountain God, dense forests, wildlife, rhododendrons (though we didn’t find any in the month of October as the flowering season is April-May) and migratory birds is marked by a hanging bridge over a jhora (waterfall). We stepped into the magical land and took to the path. Here the trail is mostly narrow, such that only a person can pass at once. Also, hikers have to make passage for the yaks and horses which ferry rations and goods of the campers. We started the first day’s walk in a leisurely manner, moving in a single file, through the uneven road. It drizzled for a while and made us put on our hand-made ponchos.
In the morning, Sun Hong skilfully made ponchos out of plastic sheets for us. By afternoon we reached Sachen where we ate our lunch of soupy noodles, veg sandwich, rice, mixed vegetables curry and dal. Tea was also served by San Hong’s cooking team. Many trekkers take a night halt at Sachen. Trekkers’ huts are available in the area.
Soon after lunch break, we made a move for today’s destination Bakhim. After walking uphill for about 10-15 minutes and then a downhill journey with sharp inclination for almost the same duration of time, we came in front of a hanging bridge over the Prek Chu river.
This site is an absolute delight. Standing at the middle of the bridge, I looked down at the rumbling, swift-flowing Prek Chu which forms a deep gorge nearby. The forests on the banks looked deep and dark. Someone from our group found a barking deer on the river bank. On the other side of the bridge, we rested for a while and took group photos against the enthralling background. But we had to start moving again to reach Bakhim before it gets dark. Finally we reached Bakhim at around 6 p.m. and settled in the ground floor of the Forest Rest House since it was not occupied by anyone then. The two storied building has developed some cracks on the walls which were formed after the 2011 earthquake.
Though our original plan was to spend the night in tents, it started drizzling which lowered the temperature by a few degrees and that made us crave for warm and cosy indoors. Sun Hong’s kitchen staffs served us dinner inside the building. We spent the night merrily, chatting and having dinner by torchlight. Outside, a dense fog had reduced visibility considerably. Sleep came easily that night maybe because of considerable physical strain from the 14 km hike.
Bakhim to Tsokha to Phedong
The next morning, I woke up just after sunrise to find a clear sky. No snow covered peaks are visible from Bakhim. After breakfast, we set out for our next destination Phedong via Tsokha village. We bought some mineral water bottles from the forest guard who stocks up mineral water, cold drinks, noodles, coffee pouches etc for trekkers. Tsokha was a mere 4 km walk from Bakhim.
It is a beautiful village having wonderful green meadows ensconced within tall blue mountains on all sides. Trekkers like to spend a day at Tsokha before or after strenuous hikes in higher altitudes. A few foreign trekkers were enjoying the sun’s warmth in a relaxed mood. As per our itinerary, we are to spend a night over here while returning back. Absorbing this hill-village’s serene beauty with our eyes and mind as much as we could, we proceeded towards the path to Phedong which is approximately a 6 km hike. From here, slope inclination increases and the trail is mostly through rocky steps with some wooden steps thrown in between. Nevertheless, the hike was a joyful one. We often stopped to ponder over how much have we climbed and see the village huts in Tsokha getting tinier.
Soon we reached Phedong which is a flat grass covered ground amidst slopes, covered by dense forests all around and having three paths leading to Tsokha, Dzongri and Kokchurang respectively. We could hear the sound of a spring somewhere nearby, though Sun Hong was earlier insisting that there is no source of water close to Phedong and hence he wanted us to halt at Tsokha for lunch.
However, Sun Hong’s men did fetch water from a spring 5-6 km ahead. His staffs consisted of two jolly young boys, both named Buddha. Hence, for the sake of convenience, the elder boy was called Buddha 1 and the younger one Buddha 2. The cook Sumit Rai and his kitchen staff served us a sumptuous vegan lunch consisting of soupy noodles, green salads, ginger and garlic pickle, rice, roti, a mixed vegetable curry, dal and some dessert.
The food was minimally spicy so that no one suffers from indigestion at high altitude. At about 4 p.m., the clouds in front of the peaks cleared up and Shiniolchu, Shimvo and Pandim became visible one after another. We watched them with fascination as they changed colour from white to golden to orange against the setting sun while sipping ginger tea. Night fell soon after.
We gathered in small groups in the tents to chat and while away the time. Dinner was served at around 8 p.m. at the one- room camp house which was occupied by cook Sumit Rai and his men. When I had ventured out of my tent around mid-night to go to the toilet-tent, I was awestruck on seeing small silvery snowflakes dropping from a clear sky. The moon shone in its silvery best.
Phedong to Dzongri
Next morning, we found snow accumulated on outer tent covers, grass blades, leaves, camp-roof and so on. We also viewed the peaks getting illuminated at sunrise. Then after breakfast, dressing up, packing up our bags and the tents, we started moving towards Dzongri. Sadly, my friend Prashanto was suffering from a severe headache since morning. It happens in case of mountain sickness.
He took pills for headache and indigestion. Pandim peeped from between tall trees and vegetation in the right side while we proceeded upwards in the direction of Dzongri. We first came to Deorali Top, the highest point at the vicinity. Heavy winds were blowing, though the place remained covered with fog on all sides. From there we went downhill for a while before ascending again.
This stretch is filled with rhododendron trees though sadly it was October and so we didn’t get to see the beautiful red flowers. After a hike for 3-4 hours, we finally reached Dzongri.
Many end their trek at Dzongri because from here all the famous peaks of eastern Himalayas are visible. Dzongri, situated at an altitude of 4030 mts, falls at the crossroad of many famous trek routes in the eastern Himalayas like the Singalila –Uttarey, HMI’s Rathong Glacier route and, ofcourse, the famous Goechala Pass route. Here we came across many groups of trekkers, some of whom would be spending a full day over there to acclimatize themselves. Dzongri is located at an altitude on 4060 mts.
At Dzongri, my friend Prashanto started feeling sick and nauseous. Sun Hong feared that it might be a bout of mountain sickness and advised him to take Diamox. Also, he was shifted from his tent to a wooden quarter and given two sleeping bags. Sun Hong clearly stated that if Prashanto didn’t feel better, he will be taken back to Yuksom in the morning. At night the cold increased following a foggy white out. The cold ambience of the place coupled with my close friend’s sickness turned Dzongri into a gloomy place for us.
Adding to it, at around 7 p.m. a middle-aged person suffering from AIMS and HAPE was brought to the camp guard’s quarter. We learnt that he is a local guide who was returning from Uttarey. The other guides tried some traditional and spiritual healing methods on him. Since his condition was not improving, they decided to take down to Yuksom for treatment that night itself. At around 8.30 p.m. Sun Hong and two other guides put him on a horse’s back and started the journey towards Yuksom.
Sunrise at Dzongri
Sun Hong’s men woke us up and served tea in tent at 4 a.m. the next morning. We were to go to Dzongri Top for viewing sunrise. After getting ready and coming out of tent, I learnt that Sun Hong had returned late at night after accompanying the sick man till Deorali Top from where other people took him towards Yuksom.
However, I could not figure out as to how did they contact people at Tsokha or Yuksom or any other place from a place having no mobile or internet connectivity! Prashanto was feeling better though he wanted to take more rest and miss out on the sunrise so that he can carry out the rest of the trek. It made us feel happy and relieved. Guided by moon-light, we set out for climbing to Dzongri Top which gains an elevation of 200 mts from Dzongri. Headlamps were not required since the bright moon light was enough to illuminate the path.
Sunrise at Dzongri Top is simply magical! We experienced a breath-taking view of the famous peaks like Kanchendzonga massif, Kabru North, Kabru South and Kabru Dome, Kumbhakarna, Pandim getting illuminated and changing colours. All these world-famous peaks appeared big and close. The imagery of sunrise at Dzongri top will remain engraved in my mind till my last breath! Around me all shutterbug were continuously clicking away. People were busy capturing the heavenly view in their minds and machines. It half-fulfilled my Goechala dream and I felt blessed to have come to such a beautiful place on earth.