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Photos: My trek to Sikkim

Last updated on: June 1, 2011 19:28 IST

Photos: My trek to Sikkim

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Vijay Nair

Consultant, critic, fiction writer, columnist and theatre director and novelist Vijay Nair recounts his seven-day trekking experience to Sikkim.

Recently, Vijay penned a book The Boss Is Not Your Friend (A handbook for Indian managers to survive all things organisational).

When we -- a motley group of 38 adolescents and 10 adults from Bangalore reached New Jalpaiguri railway station in West Bengal there were seven SUVs waiting outside the station. They were ready to leave for Yuksom in Sikkim, our base camp. It took us around seven hours to reach our destination with short stops for breakfast and lunch. We reached Hotel Red Palace Residency where we were meant to spend the night around 6 pm.

The hotel was comfortable and considering what awaited us in the next six days, a haven of luxury. The next morning after breakfast, we were ready for the trek.

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Photographs: Courtesy: Manasi Anand, Meenakshi Menon and Shruthi Mohan
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Photos: My trek to Sikkim

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Day 1

Yuksom is situated at an altitude of 1780m and we were meant to trek to Tshoka that is situated at an altitude of 3005 m. It was bright and sunny when we set out. Despite adequate warnings from the team of experienced trekkers accompanying us as service providers, many of us including yours truly had overstuffed our rucksacks and after the first hour of trekking, we were all perspiring due to the relentless sun. There is nothing like dressing right while trekking in the mountains. The weather keeps constantly fluctuating. One moment it is unbearably hot and in the next the clouds gather leading to a sudden downpour, chilling you to the bones. Rather than stuff yourself with a lot of warm clothes it is best to dress in layers so that you can take out the outer layers as it becomes warmer and put them on again when it gets colder. The day's trek was meant to cover 18 km, all uphill.

After coming back from the trek, I read in the Internet that the Yuksom-Dzongri stretch is something even experienced trekkers find difficult to negotiate but this was something I was unaware of when I started out. Since I was accompanying a bunch of school kids, I imagined it would be an easy trek. How wrong I was.


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Photos: My trek to Sikkim

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Three hours into the trek I was huffing and puffing and cursing myself for having been foolhardy enough to have jumped into this without preparing myself adequately. Although the initial bits were easy to negotiate with a lot of flat stretches with wooden planks giving the semblance of a well-paved road, it became progressively worse as we had to climb uphill.

Before long, I had sprained my right knee and was wincing with pain with every step I took. I am at the very least 10 kg overweight and cursed myself for not having made any attempts to lose weight before I embarked on the trek.

The team of experts meant to guide us noticed my discomfiture and relieved me of my rucksack. There were a bunch of mules and yaks accompanying us with kitchen supplies and my rucksack made its way to one of them.

I was also allowed a long rest by a riverside. Fortified with lunch and a refreshing drink of cold water, I was ready for the trek again only to learn to my dismay that the others had a lead of at least two hours thanks to all the time I had lost.



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Photos: My trek to Sikkim

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After an hour or so, I was no longer with the feeling of rejuvenation I had after the rest. Mountain treks always have an experienced trekker leading from the front and an anchorperson who stays with the laggards. I realised sadly that I will be stuck with only the anchorperson for the rest of the trek. But after trekking for a while, we came across a couple of students who were having the same difficulties as I was. We trekked together for a long time egging each other on, until we came to a bridge that has the torrential river Prekchu roaring beneath it.

We stopped for refreshments. By now my sprained knee was killing me and I realised the pain reliever spray I had carried was packed inside my rucksack and I had to persist without any medical aid. The students moved on and I was left alone with the anchorperson again.

I am an emotional person and it's easy for me to cry after watching a sad movie, but after a long time physical discomfiture had brought me close to tears. To add to my misery, the dusk gave way to darkness and we were at least two kilometres away from our destination.

It started to drizzle and suddenly it was as cold as it was hot during the day. I drew upon the remnants of my strength and finally made it to the destination around 8 pm, a good two hours after others had reached. As I stumbled into the guesthouse, the children let out a collective cheer. That helped me bounce back. After a glass of hot water followed by hot soup, I was fortified enough to crack jokes and be a part of the group again.

We retired to our tents for the night and I shared one with three other burly adults. After an uncomfortable day, it was an uncomfortable night, with barely any space to manoeuvre but all of us were so tired that we fell asleep immediately.


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Photos: My trek to Sikkim

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Day 2

We had to trek to Dzongri that's at an altitude of 4030 m. We had to cover roughly half the distance of what we covered the previous day but the climb was much steeper. Also we were trekking beyond 10,000 ft and that means oxygen gets rarer at this high altitude. After the night's rest, I was feeling much better and was given a stick to make the walking easier. My knee was not aching thanks to all the pain reliever I had sprayed on it. I had also taken a pain killer after breakfast.

But couple of hours of trekking and the throbbing pain was back and my pace slowed down considerably. Once again I was slower than the rest but caught up with a lot more students and adults on the way. Some of them were struggling with aches and pains and others were finding it difficult to breathe.

The nature around was stunningly beautiful, surrounded as we are by the rhododendron forest bursting with colours. Soon the weather started to change. By the time we reached the lunch spot, it started to rain heavily. We got into our rain gear and managed to find shelter. I was almost grateful to the rains for giving me another opportunity to rest. The sun came out as soon as we polished off the stone cold puri aloo the kitchen staff had laid out for us.


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Photos: My trek to Sikkim

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Post lunch, as I resumed the trek, the pain continued to shoot through my knee and spread to other parts of the body. I was feeling slightly feverish but continued doggedly. Help came in the form of mules and yaks. Negotiating our way through narrow terrains uphill, we were meant to stop and move to a side as soon as we heard the bells of these animals carrying the kitchen supplies and other essentials for different groups of trekkers. Since we were interrupted time and again by them either climbing uphill or going downhill, they provided us with an opportunity to rest and recoup energy. Once again midway through the trek, I was full of self-pity, wondering why I agreed to go for this trek in the first place.

What helped was the anchorperson for the day was different. He was a local Sikkim youth called Amang who worked in the kitchen. Amang decided to share his life story with me. He eloped with his girlfriend when he was seventeen and at 27 is the father of two children who go to a missionary school. Amang wanted to know whether I watch Hindi films. I told him I am a big film buff. "Who's your favourite actor?" he queried. I shared with him I have many favourites ranging from Amitabh Bachchan to Shahrukh Khan to Irrfan Khan. "They are all very boring," he cut me off scornfully. I asked him who is his favourite? "Sunil Shetty. No one can dance or fight like him," he declared confidently. We didn't discuss movies after that.

Soon we were caught in a hailstorm while negotiating a long rocky stretch. It was nearing six by the time I reached the Dzongri guesthouse. It was hot water and warm soup again before an early dinner. It had started to snow and some of the students as well as adults were finding it unable to cope. Fortunately for me, I have lived in places like Kent, Canterbury and Pittsburgh during the peak of winter so the cold does not faze me. One member in the team had forgotten to get his thermals. I handed him my set, feeling happy that I was able to repay some measure of goodness the others had been showering on me in the first two days. I tucked myself in my sleeping bag with layers, warm enough to go off to sleep instantly.


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Photos: My trek to Sikkim

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Day 3

I woke up to a snow-covered exterior outside and the sight of pristine white majestic peaks. We were at the base of the Kangchenjunga and if it wasn't for the chattering teeth, it would have been easy to give in to the illusion that this was heaven on earth. We were meant to rest for a day after a short trek. But there was a crisis at hand. One of the students was asthmatic and was under considerable agony at the high altitude. Some of the other students were also finding it difficult to cope with the cold and breathing. The decision was four-five adults would accompany eighteen students and go back to the camp at Tshoka and spend the next day there rather than at Dzongri. The day promised to be sunny and the experts felt I should accompany the group going to Tshoka rather than stay at Dzongri and risk trekking the next day when it may be raining or snowing.

So there was no rest day for me. I was back to cursing, grimacing and wincing in turns. Going down the mountain strains the knees much more than climbing up and despite the spray and the painkillers, the pain was back. Soon, the persistent ache turned to a kind of numbness. When I came across a group of students, one of them remarked my face has turned blue and I looked like Lord Shiva. The irony was not lost on me. Shiva lords over a snow-capped Kailash and all I wanted to do were to run away from the mountains.


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Photos: My trek to Sikkim

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But the numbing of the pain made me relate to nature better. I started connecting much more to the world outside. I was amazed at the diversity the mountains offer. Long green stretches gave way to rocks with streams jutting out. The insects crawling on the ground have myriad colours running through them. Suddenly rare birds made an appearance revelling in their uniqueness.

Despite all the physical troubles I had gone through I felt happy I came for the trek. I had learnt I could push myself to an extent I didn't think I was capable of. The anchorperson for the day told me I have discovered my rhythm. An inexplicable happiness took hold of me.

I reached the base camp late in the evening and was comforted by the thought that since the group had dwindled to half its size we could all stay in the guesthouse instead of some of us camping in tents.

The night was easy and restful.


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Day 4

Once again there had been a change in plan. The original decision was to take rest in Tshoka for a day and in the evening the group that had stayed back at Dzongri would join us. Instead our group decided to get back to Yuksom, splitting the trek into two days. We were to trek to a place called Sachen and camp there for the night.

I was comforted by the fact that the trek was nearing its end and in a couple of days I will be back in a hotel room in Yuksom. The journey on the fourth day ranked the best and by late afternoon I had reached the camp.

After an early dinner, I retired to the tent that I shared with two students. We talked until late at night, exchanging notes on our favourite eating joints in Bangalore. The school is strictly vegetarian and no one is allowed anywhere near non-vegetarian food even on a trip. After a week of abstinence, the carnivores including me craved for meat. Talking about mutton and chicken dishes helped us fight the pangs.


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Photos: My trek to Sikkim

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Day 5

We woke up early and started trekking to Yuksom. The plan was to stay the night at a camping site where the other group would join us. It was warm again and I reached the camp by lunchtime. A couple of hours later the other group joined us. There was a lot of backslapping and bonhomie between the two groups that day. We met like long lost friends. There is a house near the camping site and some of us were accommodated there. There is also a shop selling momos next to the site and most of the youngsters made a dash there to have their fill.

It was back to civilisation and card games. There was an aerodrome nearby where the local boys turned motorcycle tricks on that stretch. One of the kitchen staff in the team joined them to pull unbelievable stunts and the kids had a new hero.

In the night, the kitchen staff decided to sing and dance for the benefit of the guests. Later I was told, they were all high on a local wine called Elsie. But they were all well behaved despite being sloshed. Sikkim really has good people.


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Day 6

Before we checked into the hotel, there was another trek planned after breakfast. This time to the Dubdi monastery, the oldest monastery in Sikkim. Once again it was a steep climb but the monastery is beautiful. A sense of peace prevailed after the internal turbulence of the past five days.

I got back to the hotel by noon and one of the students came running to tell me Osama Bin Laden had been shot dead. I realised with a shock that I have been cut off from the world for a week without missing any of it.    

Post lunch, I spent time grooming myself to look presentable to the world again.

Evening we took the kids out for shopping and a 'momo' treat.

Back in the hotel, we had dinner and once again the kitchen staff decided to sing and dance for us.


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Day 7

We woke up early in the morning to board the SUVs that will take us back to New Jalpaiguri Station. We stopped on the way for breakfast and lunch and were at the station two hours before the train departed, once again encountering the squalor of an Indian railway station. While the group was taking a direct train to Bangalore, I was taking one that left later for Howrah. I stayed in Calcutta for a couple of days before flying back to Bangalore. The students while saying their goodbyes accused me of ditching them and my eyes turned misty.

I may not have always been happy on the trek but will always cherish the experience. It made me grow and there is no growth without pain. That's the paradox of life.

PS: I lost five kg during the trek. Maybe if I went for one more, I will be fully fit.


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