An A to Z of a trek in South-West Sikkim

I arrived back in Darjeeling yesterday. It was a superb experience. I covered 120 miles in 8 days of walking, with a rest for 3 days at a Buddhist monastery after the fifth day. Online maps are hard to find, but my route was vaguely circular, with the furthest point from Darjeeling being the Buddhist monastery at 7000 feet. Some of the highlights and dominant impressions are captured below.

Ascent. Since South-west Sikkim is the foothills of the Himalayas, the hillsides get impressively steep in places. Jeep tracks zig-zag back and forth with monotonous regularity over climbs of thousands of feet. Tracking down the old mule roads from the 1920s was an adventure in itself. Sometimes these were covered by new “motorable” roads. In other places, the mule tracks took a more “direct” route, and detective work by Shrada (my guide) and I with older villagers was required to establish where they were. We did this the night before the next day’s walk. By a rough calculation, there was 26,000 feet of ascent in total in 8 days walking. Because the route starts at 7000 feet and goes down to river valleys, the old adage is reversed – “What goes down, must come up”. The final day (when I covered the last two days of my grandfather’s trip) was a 6000 foot climb back up to Darjeeling.

Bhutia Busti. “From Darjeeling we descended from the Bhootia Busti to Lebong…” So starts my grandfather’s account of the 10-day route. The Bhutia and the Lepcha are two of the main tribal groups in Sikkim (both predominantly Buddhist). Busti means village. These days, the ramshackle roofs of the houses in the Butia Busti are covered with drying clothing; you are as likely to hear Hindi music as Buddhist chants. There was still, for me, a whiff of romance about setting out through the same area 87 years on.

Chakung. There is something uncompromising about the sound of the word Chakung. It didn’t take long to work out why. This was the destination Day Two, and the 1922 notes warned that “this was practically our most tiring day, partly because of the fact that our muscles were not yet used to the climbing…” It was indeed a significant challenge, over four hours of solid, unrelenting climbing. On arrival in Chakung, the guide Shrada had found a retired teacher for us to stay with, there being no hotels or hostels. It was my first introduction to the warmth of Sikkimese hospitality.

Dak Bungalows were constructed as rest houses for travelling imperialists all over the hills of Old British India. My grandfather and his companions stayed in Dak Bungalows every night they spent in Sikkim. They are simple, sturdy constructions, normally 2 mini-dorm bedrooms, a sitting room, and a kitchen. Amazingly these all still exist, although not open for public accommodation. They are predominantly now in the hands of the Indian government, and still serve as rest houses/retreats for weary government servants. It was possible, however, to replicate some of his photos of these beautifully situated buildings, which was fun.

Elections are taking place across India. In Sikkim, the main effect is a number of jeeps resplendent with one or other of the party flags and packed to the gunnels with supporters careering around the hills. While snooping around the Dak Bungalow in Namchi Bazaar, two VVIPs emerged. They were official election observers, here to oversee the election process on behalf of the central government in New Delhi. No trouble is expected in Sikkim, although there is still a residue of tension from a population indigenous pre-annexation/merger with India in 1975 (Sikkim was an independent Kingdom), and a flood of Bengali immigration thereafter.

The Five Poisons. The furthest point on the route was the (Buddhist) Pemayangtse Monastery. A fascinating Buddhist monk Yapo Yongda has set up a small school close to the monastery for tribal children. Alongside teaching the traditional government curriculum, Yapo believes that it is essential to create good human beings too. This is largely based on avoiding the Five Poisons – Desire with attachment, Anger, Ego and Pride, Ignorance, and Jealousy. The children displayed a distinct lack of venom.

Guru Rinpoche is the “almost universal spiritual ancestor of Himalayan Buddhists“ (Barbara Crossthwaite, “So Close to Heaven“). He was born 1000 years after original Buddha (Shakyamuni). His life is a whirlwind of mythological tales, show-stopping miracles, and incredible feats as he brought tantric Buddhism across the mountains and plateaus of the Himalayas, travelling through the air on a Lotus flower. He is also known as the Lotus-borne Buddha, or Padmasambhava.

Hydro Projects are myriad in Sikkim. In a brief meeting with a Sikkimese man now living in San Francisco (but returned on holiday), the sense of how contentious these are was palpable. Not only are there environmental protests against them, but they are considered by some as a way for the Indian government to create dependency among the people in the North. I asked how many expats there were in San Francisco. Not that many was the response. I pushed for an exact figure. Two.

Impermanence is a concept at the heart of Buddhist philosophy. Since human beings are blessed with the ability to analyse and discover (and since we are only passing through this world), it is the duty of all humans to care for others.

Jorethang is a dusty town at the confluence of three rivers – the Little Rangeet, the Rangeet, and the Ramman. We passed it on the secind day. It does not appear in the photographs from 1922, much to the amazement of locals. The population is now approximately 5000.

The “King’s Road” or “Reza Go Bhatto” was a phrase that got me through the second half of the trek. My guide’s father was taken very ill, so she left me at Pemayangtse. The second half was therefore on my own. Identifying the old roads (often constructed by the former King or “Chogyal”) was difficult. When I asked for directions I was often told it was impossible. It never was, but often the roads were infrequently if over used, superseded by routes of longer distance but more suitability for motor transport. his made for some exciting journeys through old cobbled tracks in overgrown forests.

Lebong sits on the hillside just below Darjeeling. The final climb up to Lebong from the Rangeet river was tough enough for my grandfather and his friends to take ponies for the last 30 minutes from Lebong to Darjeeling. By then I was so tired that I just kept walking. Today, in conversation with Major Rana (the secretary at the Planters’ Club where I am staying), I found out that the army used the climb from the Rangeet to Lebong as a punishment.

Maps have always been an obsession for me. One of the wonderful things about this trek was the complete lack of them. Travelling through foreign countryside with only hand written instructions and hand drawn maps (and where available relying on local villagers vague hand gestures) is to be highly recommended.

Nuclear War. Yapo Yongda told me that there is a place on Kanchenjunga (3rd highest mountain in the world and a sacred place) which is reserved for Buddhists when nuclear war strikes. One of the sacred texts mentions this “Hidden Home” (Muyal Liang) as a refuge when the “heat of seven suns” comes to the Earth.

Oatmeal, 2 tins was one of the items on the “STORES” list in the 1922 notes. Other more obscure items included “23 tins IDEAL milk, 9 lbs sugar in tins, 1 pkt Bromo, 1 tin kippers, 1 tin Quaker Oats, [and] 4 bottles lime juice (more required)”. Everything was supplied from the Army & Navy Stores, Calcutta.

Pamionchi. In my grandfather’s pictures, there were photos of monks at a monastery called Pamionchi. Before leaving the UK, my research into this place drew a blank. It was on the train from Varanasi to Agra when it suddenly dawned on me. Pamionchi monastery was the same as the famous Pemayangtse monastery, the transliteration having changed over 90 years. That realisation gave me great hope of tracking down much of the route my grandfather took, hope that proved well-founded. The paintings on the ground floor of the monastery were called “extremely crude and pagan” by my grandfather. Of the monastery, he wrote: “The old monks take pleasure in showing it off, and for Rs10 the treasures are displayed in the room upstairs. Remembering that we were Scotch, and had a reputation to keep up, we contentd ourselves with seeing downstairs only.” Yapo Yongda was very amused to hear this – in 1997, it was he that reintroduced this “tourist charge”, now 20 rupees. The charge was waived for me. My “Scotchness” remained untested.

The last Queen of Sikkim was an American lady called Hope Cooke. She married the last Chogyal (King) in 1963. Given the heightened tensions in the region at that time (and given the “lively imaginations of Indian policymakers”) she was suspected of being a CIA plant. She left the Chogyal and Sikkim in 1973, two years before the Annexation/Merger with India.

Rinchenpong was where I spent the third night of the trek. The views in the morning across to the Kanchenjunga range were stunning. That morning, a series of strange coincidences led me to the house of the sitting Raja Sabha (India’s Upper Chamber), O.T. Lepcha. It was a bizarre hour, first with him and then with his sister and nephew. He imports flowers from Holland which he grows in greenhouses.

The SDF (Sikkim Democratic Front) is the ruling party in Sikkim. They are likely to be returned again in the current elections. Most people I spoke to were pretty apathetic about politics, but felt that at least the top man, Pawan Chamling, was trying to do the right things.

The sight of Unicycles on the seventh day came as something of a surprise. There were about 10 Australians riding in a group. For a while I thought I had been dreaming, but rumours of their existence were confirmed by a cyclist that I met the following day. Sadly I never found out what they were doing.

Varsey is a Rhododendron sanctuary above Dentam, where I spent my fourth night. The following morning I set out guideless to climb the 4000 feet to see it. April is blooming month at Varsey. After 3 hours I was on a ridge and must have boon close. However, I was thoroughly lost in a maze of paths. I decided, reluctantly to turn back. I heard later that a hailstorm a few days earlier had probably ruined the bloom anyway.

William Boyd is the author of one of the 5 books I carried with me. Mr Boyd’s Book “Bamboo” is therefore at least partly responsible for the Bleeding Blisters on my Boot-clad toes (maybe this should have been the “B” entry). The A to Z is a favourite literary device of his too, so blame him if you are bored.

I carried Xerox copies of photographs from 1922 with me, and reproduced a number of them. They were a wonderful way to engage people and draw out stories. Another route that my grandfather and grandmother did together in 1938 took them into East Sikkim and over the Tibet border. Given political sensitivities on the border with Tibet/China, there is no way that I can cross the border. However, tantalisingly I have discovered that much of the trek may be possible with some planning and a special permit. Another time.

Yapo Yongda is a Monk at Pemayangtse, and the director of a school for deprived tribal children. I was stayed in his house, on the grounds of the monastery. He is a remarkable man. He was Aide-de-Camp to the Chogyal (King) in 1975 at the time of annexation/merger with India; was imprisoned by the Indian Government, had his cause championed by Amnesty International, and now runs a school committed to integrating Buddhist philosophy, Sikkimese history and the Indian national curriculum. It was a privilege to have met him.

The Zandog Phalri is an intricate 15-foot high wooden structure in the top floor of the monastery. It is a representation of the abode of Guru Rinpoche, and was built over 5 years by Dugzin Rinpoche in the 1960s. As Pemayangtse was the furthest point from my start point in Darjeeling, and the Zandog Phalri was the highest point in the monastery, it is a suitable way to end this A to Z.

There are also some photographs (that I find amusing) here.

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Filed under 'mind the gap' journey 08-09, All posts, India '08-'09, North India

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