Sikkim: A Mountain Kingdom
After exploring Kolkata, we decided to go for a total contrast by heading up to the peaceful mountains of Sikkim. Nestled in the Himalayas between Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet, Sikkim was a semi-independent mountain kingdom under the rule of the Buddhist Chogyal until 1975, when it finally joined India. Today, India’s smallest state is something of a success, boasting high literacy rates and low poverty as well as spectacular natural beauty.
Sikkim also contains India’s highest mountain – and the world’s third highest peak at over 8,500m – the majestic Kanchenjunga. It’s in the environs of the mountain that one of India’s best-known short treks is found: the journey up to Goecha La Pass from Yuksam. As we didn’t quite have time to get all the way to Goecha La before Jon’s flight home, we opted for the slightly shorter five-day trek to Dzongri La Pass, which takes the same route.
We chose to go with Red Panda Trekking, a local outfit based in Yuksam which has excellent reviews. They offered an all-inclusive trek for two at $60 per person per day, which included pick-up from NJP railway station (a seven hour drive away – getting anywhere in Sikkim is not an easy process); a guide, cook and yaks; and accommodation in Yuksam at the start and end of the trek. On the trek, we were provided with sleeping bags, mattresses, thick coats and, best of all, an unbelievable range of delicious food. Pizza, pancakes and momos on two kerosene stoves at 4,000m? Absolutely!
Day 1: Yuksam (1790m) – Tshoka (2950m): 17km
Day 1 is a lovely 17km country ramble through the forested foothills of the mountains. The first few hours undulate up and down as you follow the river valley and cross a few Indian Jones-style bridges over waterfalls.
Towards the end of the day, the path ascends steeply up towards the first camp at Tshoka, which lies at 2,970m. Tshoka was originally a village founded by Tibetan refugees, and, while the creation of Kanchenjunga National Park spelled the end for the village, Tshoka still has a small monastery as well as very picturesque views.
We were joined on our trek by a special guest: a small brown dog from Yuksam who followed us up the hills. He didn’t look to be much of a trekker, but appearances were deceptive: this dog proved to be a true little mountaineer. We thought he’d gone back home when he disappeared after drinking some water from a stream, but when the second group appeared at Tshoka an hour or so after we’d arrived, he bounded up the hill alongside them and flopped down to sleep at the foot of Jon’s sleeping bag. Dommy – our guides assured us this was a good Sikkimese dog name – was coming up.
Day 2: Tshoka (2950m) – Dzongri (3970m) – 9km
Day 2 was a shorter but more challenging 9km from Tshoka, at 2950m, to Dzongri at almost 4000m. Ascending 1000m over 9km meant that most of the walk was fairly steep uphill along a stony track. There are no exposed sections though, and when you emerge from the forest to these views, it’s worth it.
Camp was at Dzongri Mountain Hut, another mountain hut provided by the government of Sikkim. There were lovely views from Dzongri itself, and the sunshine made it warm enough to sit outside and read – and pet Dommy – who’d followed us up again – whilst looking out over the Himalayas.
Day 3: Sunrise over Kanchenjunga
On the morning of the third day we woke at 5, had sweet tea, and then made our way up the short, steep path to Dzongri Top (4,200m) to see the sun rise against Mount Kanchenjunga. This was actually the hardest bit of walking in the whole trek – a combination of the freezing air (about -15 Celsius, we think), the early morning start and steep path had us gasping for breath. We made it up, though – and what a reward. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves:
Trekking to Dzongri La Pass
After the sun had risen, we made our way back to Dzongri Camp for breakfast (somehow they managed to create fluffy pancakes!). Most of the members of the other trekking group were heading back down after seeing the sunrise, but Jon and I had decided to opt for the five-day trek, which involved a day trip to Dzongri La Pass, at 4500m.
Sadly the mist was closing in by this point, so we didn’t get a view from Dzongri La, but it was a fascinating walk through a completely different landscape. The forest had been replaced by moorland, almost like something from the Peak District or Scottish Highlands, and we were walking through a landscape of mist, snow and heather.
Back at Dzongri, the mist had closed in, and instead of the panorama of the morning we were treated to a near whiteout, the mountains vanished behind a thick carpet of cloud. That meant it was cold. -15 degrees celsius cold. Aside from dinner, we spent the evening huddled in our sleeping bags – it was a struggle even to read, as taking your hands out of the bag left them red and numb. Our water bottles froze, the windows iced up, and we ended up with frozen hair. All part of the adventure, but if you’re not keen on the cold, I would avoid this trek in February.
The last two days consist of making your way back down the hill, from
Dzongri to Tshoka and then from Tshoka to Yuksam. This could be done in a day (if your knees are up to the downhill), but we stuck to Red Panda’s five-day schedule, and ambled down to Tshoka on Day Four. The mist had cleared completely and we had a last chance to look out oer the mountains from Dzongri before ambling down to Tshoka. We walked down with the yaks, who were amazingly adept at negotiating the ice and snow left by the previous day’s freeze. We spent the evening of the fourth day listening to the gentle chime of yak bells as we gazed up into a clear sky full of thousands of stars.
Day 5 was a long and pleasant meander back through the forest to the comparative warmth of Yuksam, where a hot shower (well, for the first 30 seconds) and a cold beer awaited! We finished the trek experience with a delicious dinner at Red Panda’s house, finished off with some traditional Sikkimese millet beer.
I can’t recommend Red Panda highly enough – the food was incredible, or guide was lovely, and absolutely everything was provided for you. And Sikkim itself was simply stunning; from the forested slopes of the foothills to the sight of majestic Kanchenjunga, we loved the peace and solitude of this beautiful mountain land.
Yuksam – Dzongri La with Red Panda Trekking – the details:
Accommodation: in mountain huts. As we climbed in February, the Red Panda groups were the only trekkers there. Apparently they do get very busy in high season.
Difficulty: moderate. Lots of steep uphills on Day 2 but no exposed sections, and the distances are very manageable (we arrived before 1.30pm on all days). Would be fine for older children/ teens who are used to and enjoy hiking.
Maximum altitude: Dzongri is 4000m, Dzongri La Pass is 4500m. If you opt to do the longer trek to Goecha La Pass you will reach 4950m.
Weather: if you go in February, cold! The advised seasons for optimum weather are March-May and Sept-Nov. The upside of Winter was that it was very quiet and peaceful. Bring warm clothes though!
Price: $60 per person per day for a group of two, all inclusive. The price is cheaper per person if you are a larger group.
Food: Incredible! Over the five days we had momos, pancakes, rice, chips, amazing curries, noodles, puri. And on the final evening we were presented with a cake!