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Sikkim Expedition in the year 1990

Fifteen members of the Malayan Nature Society expedition left Changi airport one fine morning for Sikkim via Calcutta, a motley group looking more like day-picnickers than trekkers. Of the fifteen, two (the smart ones) were to explore Sikkim in a chauffeur driven car whilst the thirteen were to find themselves displaying, out of force of circumstances, characteristics of resolute fearlessness, fortitude and endurance on the trek, worthy of intrepid explorers. 

After flying over miles and miles of low-lying estuarine flats where millions of Bangladeshis are periodically washed away, we made a transit stop at Dhaka where a patient of The Doctor who had decided to have his fifth heart attack during the flight in the middle of a smoke and drink, was off-loaded into an ambulance. 

Calcutta was a first for me. It was an exciting eye-opener, I didn't dare blink for fear of missing out on something. India’s largest city 0f- some 11 m111ion, 1t is home to India' s richest as well as her poorest. The teeming masses, the chaotic traffic and drivers who think that they alone have exclusive rights to the roads, the dust and the noise, the lepers and the beggars, the people living out their lives on the broken pavements, in the dark and pitiful hovels, on the railway tracks, women doing their laundry on the filthy broken pavement and the 1inen drying on the muddy banks of the black stagnant pools all conspired to overwhelm my senses, exhausting me. As dusk settled so did the thick gray smog of pollution, so palpable that you could reach out to touch it. Certainly you couldn't breathe in it. 

One thing we learnt a little too late and that was never to take anyone seriously when directions are given. Mother Teresa's Mission, "only 5 minutes from the hotel" was, as we walked, weaved and ran our way through the multitudes and traffic in the deepening dark, apparently also 5 minutes from every known and unknown landmark in India. Taxis were impossible to get until a kind old lady in a taxi offered a ride to Agatha ("Mother") and "Time and Motion Engineer" Jerome who had brought. Bags of clothes for the Mission. 

Our adventure began on arrival at the Calcutta airport. We discovered the hard lay that while it would have been better to go through immigration as individual travelers, it was more advantageous to be seen as traveling as a group when going through customs. A demand by an enterprising immigration officer for a "group list" was countered by indignant and angry denials of such a requirement. Faced by a petite and fierce Chinese girl (One Eye) growing angrier by the second he backed down and instantly dropped his enterprising bid to make an extra rupee or two. One member of the group having made through customs alone was subject to a complete and thorough examination of the jewelry that she was wearing. 

Calcutta airport was festooned with banners and picketed by striking union members demanding that Indian Airline employ their colleagues who had been retrenched by Biman the Bangladeshi airline. This prompted a joke about Indians and unions. One Indian makes a worker, two a union, and three a strike. Ask Mr. Raja. 

Our drive' to Park hotel taking in a city tour along the way was given much excitement by our coach driver who took advantage of the size of the coach to bully everyone off the road. 'It is customary whilst driving in India (and Sri Lanka) to lean one hand against the horn throughout the journey. No one takes any notice of you of course. In fact I think you would be noticed only if you were silent. The whole game on the road is to see who has stronger nerves. Our driver was so good at the game that he sideswiped some guy who came charging out of a side road. Neither of them was in the least concerned, neither bothered to check the damage. We however were in a slight state of shock.

The billboards in Calcutta made extremely interesting and amusing reading. The most amusing was a huge red billboard at the airport itself, an advertisement for the soft drink Maha Cola Thums Up. In small letters at the bottom of the advertisement were the words loud and clear: "Artificially flavoured. Contains no fruit juice or pulp." What a hoot1 Billboards reveal the standard and expectations of life, like the one exhorting middle-class 
husbands to treat their wives to a modern gas/electric stove. A break from cow pats. 

The flight next morning from Calcutta to Bagdogra in North Bengal was uneventful. We were served sweets, anise and cotton buds. Supposedly all three were intended to alleviate sudden changes in cabin pressure? 

The arrival at Bagdogra (Bag=tiger, Dogra=place of; Place of Tigers), was for One-Eye a little too exciting for her. As she failed to be within earshot of our guide, Palden, who had evidently given a quick word of caution just before disembarking from the plane that no photos were allowed to be taken of the airport, she was pounced on by half the Indian army no sooner had she clicked the camera. She was apprehended and taken away from the group. Visions of the firing squared flashed before her mind's eye. Shaking like a leaf in a storm she mentally prepared herself for the third degree under a hot light. 

Fortunately for her the constellation was fortuitously placed and she was instantly -released the moment she surrendered the offending film. She fled from their clutches before you could say “Namaste!”

The coach drive from Bagdogra to Darjeeling, Land of the Thunderbolt (the locals pronounce it as "Dar-zeeling") took some hours but it was a most enjoyable and eventful ride. Our minders were Palden Dhondup Bhutia our freelance Bhutia guide, Thapa a manager of Sikkim World Expeditions travel agency and Saran his assistant manager. 

Darjeeling, Palden said, was once part of Sikkim. The Chogyal was made to make a "gift" of it to the British in 1835. It became part of the state of West Bengal. Subsequently communal agitation won Darjeeling autonomy and it is now known as Darjeeling Autonomous Region. Its higher altitudes are populated by the various Himalayan peoples, the Bhutias, the Nepalese, the Lepchas and the Sherpas who are of the Mongoloid stock. The hot and dusty plains in the south are occupied mostly by the Davidians. 

Sikkim was until 1975 a sovereign nation, a monarchy with the Chogyal who probably had absolute power. It is now one of the 22 states of India. It is a story of 3 women (women are inevitably credited with men's screw-ups): the Chogyal's second wife the American socialite Hope Cooke, the Dutch wife of his chief minister and Mrs. Indira Gandhi. The Chogyal apparently was not too hot in the governing of his country, being more into drinks and the like. His wife however, sought to be the p'ier behind the throne. The Dutch lady had her own plans for her husband. So while these two women played their games of intrigue Mrs. Gandhi laid claim to the country which was not a very difficult thing to do given that there was a ready Indian military presence in the country, and one can imagine, no effective local military opposition. The country's present Chief Minister's residence looks so much larger, important and imposing than the palace of the son of the late Chogyal's first wife. The prince holds absolutely no power. 

The drive from Bagdogra (414 ft.) to Darjeeling (2,l34m/7,OOO ft.) was along a narrow and winding hill road. We had 3 or 4 close shaves with oncoming vehicles, sometimes almost colliding head on. We even saw a motor- scooterist skidding round a bend and falling off his- scooter, his cigarette still firmly in his mouth albeit slightly bent! We passed through farms and villages, were held back for half an hour on one of several roads which are sinking due to heavy trucks which would not have been allowed on these roads during the British days. The Himalayan villagers were friendly and warm, still unspoilt by tourism. All the heavy vehicles had the words "Please Horn" painted in primary colours on their backs and all along the way there were notices painted into 
the sides of the hill reminding drivers to sound their horns. We stopped for- tea at Kurseong ("Ur-seong")(4,864ft), Land of the White Orchid.

Leaving Siliguri, we climbed into Darjeeling late in the afternoon, checked into Elgin Hotel, which belongs to a member of the Oberoi family. It is a charming little guesthouse built into a slope with a great cook who made very good North Indian meals. Electricity, the hot water heater and the supply of water were not reliable. So hot baths, heating of the cold rooms and the ability to make one's way around in the dark without having to use candles became luxuries. Luckily for Agatha and One-Eye they had a roaring fire in their room every night to supplement their ancient and inefficient heater. The 18-year-old boy who lit our fire is married to a 16-year-old girl and they live in a room for a rent that takes quite a bit of his S$40-00 or so monthly pay. She does not work and they do not appear to have any families to give support. He holds 2 jobs, in the day as a construction site labourer and in the night as a watchman for the hote1. His income as a labourer is, thankfully a 1itt1e more than S$40-00 per month. There is an old man, a Lepcha, with the sweetest smile and a very Mongolian face who served us in the dining room. He has been working for the hotel for eons and his salary is not all that much more than the night watch boy. 

We spent the next day and night in Darjee1ing, a lovely and picturesque town built into the mountains. Agatha and One- Eye stumbled onto the local tourist lodge from which garden a breathtaking view of Mt. Kanchengjunga (8,582m/28,156ft) the world's third highest mountain revered by the Sikkimese as their 
protective deity, could be seen at about 6.00a.m. before the clouds obscured the peaks. We spent the morning doing a tour by jeep of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute where there is a museum of the equipment used by Sir. Hillary and Tensing Norgay and subsequent teams, Tenzing's 'tomb, the zoo and the Tibetan Refugee Centre where the refugees make a living by weaving carpets and carving wood. The refugees fled Tibet 40 years ago when it was occupied by the Chinese. Generations of Tibetans who have lived their entire lives outside their country continue to nurse dreams of returning to their homeland. 

The afternoon was spent at the local market place, large, crowded, lively and very colourful. There were lots of little shops selling cakes and confectionery, tea, household things, saris, c1othes, cassette tapes, fruit stalls selling apples and oranges from Kashmir. The atmosphere was wonderful drawing me irresistibly like a magnet. We would have stayed on for hours taking it all in and taking full advantage of the marvelous photo opportunities but we were forced to return to the guesthouse by the fast failing light and fast dropping temperatures. It was easy to forget that one was in the high altitudes in winter. 

The altitude in Darjeeling was enough to give most of the intrepid explorers massive headaches. They were real beautes, trobbing and persistent. 

Leaving Darjeeling behind the next day we began a 8 hour coach ride to Sikkim. The route was along an ascending winding narrow hill road, which followed a river course. The first river was the River Teesta, a Lepcha name, which has its source in a glacier in North Sikkim and which joins the Brahmaputra in Bangladesh. We drove into Teesta village where we stopped and bought delicious mandarins (1 rupee/10 cents each) before crossing one of several bridges that we were to cross. The omnipresent Indian military was there with a post at the bridge, photos of which were forbidden. There are several such bridges, which are subject to military security, which at times seem a little odd considering that some of these bridges were "weak" and could only be used by one vehicle at a time and sometimes the passengers had to get off and walk as we did at one such bridge. This particular bridge, Rathang Bridge (82m), a suspension job, was in fact to have been dismantled 3 days later for repairs but was not and we used it again on the way back, believe it or not! 

There are several "protected areas" in the Darjeeling Autonomous Region. Sikkim is a restricted area, being a buffer state between Tibet and India, the Chinese Tibet border being only 120kms from the village of Teesta. We had to register ourselves at police foreigner’s registration outposts all along the drive from Darjeeling to Yuksum, and at each camp along the trek. Foreigners require permits to enter Sikkim and not only that; all trekkers were required to trek as a group. Loners must register themselves for the purpose of forming a group of 4 with other loners. The purpose of all this is so that a Sikkimese policeman could babysit them. We had one such babysitter, a youthful chap who looked barely out of his teens, with us throughout the trek just to make sure that we behaved ourselves, keep to the trek and not wander off into places where we had no business being and not take pictures that we had no business taking.

The drive to Sikkim was extremely picturesque, passing tea plantations, cardamom (of the brown variety) and mandarin orchards, daisies and huge poinsettas, little villages with musical names like Rangli-Rangliot.. We were in sight of a river almost all the time. The charming legend of the confluence of Rangeet River and Teesta River was that Mr.Rangeet met Miss. Teesta in the Himalayas (the locals pronounce it as"him-mah-Iee-years") and the two fell in love but were prohibited from meeting. So they meet as rivers at the confluence. Sikkim is on the opposite bank. We crossed a bridge into Melli, South Sikkim. It should have been Sme11i for the stench of urine near the bridge where all the locals seem to need to relieve themselves as soon as they have 
crossed the bridge. It was like the proverbial dog and the lamppost. The omnipresent police post was there of course where as usual Pa1den registered his foreign charges. Permission was given for the taking of pictures of the police post and away clicked the cameras. 

We sailed into Jorethang a biggish market town where our Sikkim travel agent Sikkim World Expeditions has an office. The town was bustling with people and it was here that I saw for the first time women with heavy nose ornaments hanging from their nostrils and almost covering their mouths. Here we stopped by yet another bridge (Akra Bridge) for our packed lunch of shredded cheese sandwiches, egg, fruit and packet drink after which we stopped at the office to load on the top of our coach some provisions such as a coop of live chickens, free of hormones, steroids and antibiotics. No, they were not tough, though their meat was a little darker than that to which we are accustomed. The next time they were seen at the bottom of a basin sans feathers. Our caravan of cook, his assistants and porters who had all come from allover, were at the office loading the provisions and kitchen into the jeeps in which they were to travel to the first camp at Yuksum (“yook-som”).

We continued our journey driving along the course of Rimbi River. We passed a hot spring called Phur Cha Chu (Phur is the name, Cha=hot and Chu=water) right in the river below. The presence of the Chief Minister was announced by the flying of the flag. We all tra1ned our telescop1c lenses 011 him sitting in the hot spring pool in the river and wondered what he would have thought if he knew that he was being scrutinized and the source of much mirth. Ask Mr. Raja.

The weather was hot and sunny all along the way until rather suddenly the temperature- cooled and the sun disappeared as we went higher and higher up the mountain. The time was probably around 4 or 5 p.m. out came the woollies and by the time we stopped for a quick tea at a lodging place for back- packers, it was positively chilly.

When we finally arrived at Yuksum it was pitch black. We wondered where the guesthouse was and why there were no lights. Torchlights were used to the guide the way. The "guesthouse" turned out to be the first of trekkers' huts that we were going the spend the next few days in. There is no electricity, heating of any form; no loose. We were lucky to get these huts as apparently they were all fully booked by trekkers. The alternative would have been tents and that we were to find out later would have been disastrous. These "huts" are bigger and more solid than huts, being made of brick and wood, with rooms, quite civilized apart from the lack of mod cons. 

We stumbled our way into one of the rooms of the house and were greeted by the foreboding sight of 3 persons huddled in the dark and cold sharing a bottle trying to keep warm. One of the 3 was a Singaporean young man whose name slips my mind. Imagine his astonishment, and ours, and his dismay when he heard the Singaporean accent and saw no less than 13 Singaporeans trooping in, in a place so isolated and distant that he thought as I had, he was safe from other Singaporeans. The situation prompted mimicry of a credit card advertisement set in recently liberated Eastern Europe. “Singapore? You're from Singapore? We' re from the East" Ask Mr. Raja.

That night the cook whipped up a fabulous Northern Indian dinner, which we ate greedily in the dark in a tent. It was quite funny to see the intrepid explorers all quiet and huddled in the cold looking quite miserable and waiting for a hot meal. By this time all had the thermals, down jackets and woollies on. This scene was' to be repeated many times in the next few days.

After dinner most hit their sleeping bags after doing their toilet wherever they could find a yet undiscovered bush. The darkness of the night gave modesty some cover, it was in the morning that it was a little dicier. But one got used to it and long before the trek was over it just didn't matter much. We were given basins of hot water on request everyday. We had our last baths at Darjeeling, the next to be had 7 days later at Gangtok. One became an expert at making the most of that little basin of water using it to wash oneself from head to toe, one merely had to decide which part to wash first and so on and so forth.

The trek started the next day from Yuksum (1,780m/5,840ft) to Bakhim (3,OO5m/9,859ft), 12kms (7.5 miles) away. We started in high spirits and in very warm sunshine as if we were off to a Sunday picnic. You see, most of us have never trekked before and no one, not our Singapore travel agent nor the 3 or 4 members who have trekked in Nepal knew what this trek was going to be like. We had been told that it would be a moderate trek (moderate for whom?), that it would not be too steep and that the minimum temperature in the night would be 0O C. Before long the intrepid explorers began to slowly realise that this aren’t your regular Sunday stroll.

The path started through sub-tropical forests running parallel to the Rathong River. The view from the narrow path of the mountains rolling into the horizon as far as the eye could see (the Singalila range), the river flowing right beneath us, the gorges, the waterfalls cascading into the river course and forming pools was simply quite beautiful. The path was strewn all along the way with hazel nuts of about 6 varieties. The flora was of the tropical and sub-tropical types. The brochures say that there are magnolias, junipers, blue poppies, orchids and 4,000 other plant species. They also say that there are woodpeckers, kingfishers, cuckoos, thrushes, electric blue butterfly. As I can't tell one from the other I'll have to take their word for it. The presence of fauna was less evident though the occasional bird could be seen through the trees. We were not to see any vi11~ges the next few days on our trek as there was none. We were in very remote and uninhabited West Sikkim, accessible only by foot. 

We crossed 3 or 4 bridges, stopping at one called Mintok Cola (cola means stream) near a waterfall for tea-followed by a not lunch of several courses. It was quite chilly here and as daylight started to fade very early and got dark at about 5p.m. at this time of the year, we started off immediately. Evidently the wolves come out to feed in the dark and being slow trekkers we had to hurry to the next camp before darkness fell. There are also musk deer’s and black bears at that altitude.

The group had very early in the trek broken up into various small groups and even loners. The 4 fast trekkers would arrive at camp anything from 2 to 4 hours earlier than the others. Palder and Anup would always be with the last group making sure that they were all right. The porters who had set up camp at the next trekkers' hut would always come out on the trek again to assist by, if need be, carrying them bodily. Palden was always anxious about the last trekker’s becoming dinner for the residents of the forest. 

When the last trekkers finally made it to Bakhim it must have been 8 hours since they started out. It was 5 or 6 p.m. but it was already dark and cold and most were already exhausted by the first day's trekking, including the guys (there were 9 girls and 4 guys on the trek). It was very evident that we had not been prepared for the severity of the trek or the cold. It was going to get far worse. Sentiments were running a little high, being focused on the lack of and even wrong information having been given about the trek. A meeting was held over hot tea and biscuits during which votes were taken as to whether the trek was to be abandoned. It was all to go or not at all because the staff could not be split. Orders were sent for horses for 2 trekkers. Finally the adventurous spirit of the group decided that the trek be continued, and that we should start at first light after a simple breakfast (cook was to be instructed not to give the usual feast) and that as no time was to be wasted on hot lunches, packed lunches was to be given. 

The sad funny before dinner scene was repeated, this time most had woolen hats and gloves on, waiting in a tight huddle in the dark and freezing dinner room. It was so funny that a picture was taken for posterity. The food that evening had a distinctly strange taste, that of kerosene. There was concern as to whether kerosene was used in the dark by mistake. Nevertheless the food was polished off. Dessert was unvaryingly canned fruit, with cream to The Doctor's dismay. It was otherwise always appreciated. Here we were introduced to the focal alcoholic beverage made from fermented millet and know as “tongba” or “chaang”. 

The millet was served in a 1arge bamboo about 10 inches high to which hot water was added and left to brew for some minutes before the beverage was drank through bamboo straws. The millet was good for about 3 brews. It packed quite a punch. It was a cheap beverage for warding off the cold and hunger.

It was very draughty and cold that night in Bakhim and most slept badly on that score. There were no blankets or mattresses to help ward off the cold and draught, only wooden beds with slats. One-Eye slept in most of her clothes, sweaters and coats in her inadequate down sleeping bag and what she could not sleep in she slept on in an unsucessfu1 attempt to keep warm. After an interminable night we were roused at dawn, packed, breakfasted and off we went. 

We had only a short while to take in the breathtaking views of the rows upon rows of mountains in the distance, one behind the other forming what is known as the Darjeeling Gap and watching the mist evaporating in the early morning sun.

The trek to Dzon-gri (4,O30m/13,222ft) was a steep climb. It was an 11 k m (7 mi1es) trek, 4,000ft up. I am to1d that such an ascent in one day is a little too fast. 

The steep upper reaches for those suffering from pain in the chest and, breathlessness due to the thin air was brutal. The cold and the sheer physical exhaustion took their toll. I had to take deep breaths and rest a little after every few steps. 

The flora on leaving Bakhim was still sub-tropical gradually taking on an alpine aspect with the increasing altitude. The trees on the lower slopes were covered with thick moss and hanging lichens giving the place a soft yellowish green light and an appearance of an enchanted forest of fairies and goblins.

On the middle slopes we walked through rhododendron forests bare of leaves (we were promised rhododendrons in full bloom), the rhododendron trunks a very rust red standing out against the whiteness of the snow-covered ground. On the upper and increasingly steep slopes the trees were replaced by shrubs, the grounds covered by small hardy alpine vegetation, some still bearing tiny flowers with frost forming delicate patterns on them. The stillness, the total silence, the pristine beauty of the snow covered trees and grounds, the delicate frost-covered plants, and the isolation defy description. It would have been wonderful if one could only stop for a long while to give the fullest appreciation to all of that. To stop walking would cause the heat in the extremities to return to the core of the body thus leaving the extremities cold and stiff making the resumption of the trek quite difficult. We could see the Dzongri range, which is at the foot of the Sikkim Himalayas. The range starts from 800ft culminating at the height of 28,000 ft in Mt. Kanchenjunga. 

After what seemed an interminable trek the welcome sight of the hut was in view, set amidst frozen ground. It was about 6p.m. when One-Eye reached haven, more dead than alive, completely exhausted, suffering from all the symptoms of high altitude sickness and near hypothermia. Anup walked with her towards the latter part of the trek, giving her garlic cloves to breathe on and eat to help alleviate the hypoxia, giving her encouragement to go on, attempting to distract her from the nausea, the chest pains and the breathlessness by pointing out the scenery, the sight of slopes of ice-covered shrubs devoid of all trees, making her pose for pictures which he insisted on taking, talking about anything, singing and even popping up from behind shrubs with a cheery "Hi!” and stopping with her every few steps and instructing her to take deep long breaths. He refused to answer to her demands to be told how much further or how much longer to the camp. He would merely tell her not to look up at the slopes they had to climb for to do so was to be further disheartened. 

But when he saw that she needed something to go on he would say that the camp was just "round the bend" or "just 20 minutes away", but after numerous bends and hours later, he would swear that it was only "20 minutes" away. Priceless, he was. Taking her hand he tested the frozen streams and guided her through, she was by this time oblivious to all except the discomfort. 

On reaching the hut, Anup by this time supporting her, she collapsed in a heap wl1ere she was left standing unable to move a step more, falling on poor Oon's feet. Oon was then resting in his sleeping bag. Anup and Saran pulled off her gloves and rubbed her hands to try to warm them. They removed her shoes and someone threw a blanket over her. Incapable of anything else she burst into sobs, the tears hot against the frozen cheeks. Oon attempted to cheer her up, made some comforting sounds and finally gave up his warm bag, tucking and zipping her up in it, telling her all the time that it was all in the mind, that she was alright, not to worry, etc, etc, etc. The man's a gem. All in the mind. Meanwhile people were running around getting her dry clothes for her to change into, Anup gave a makeshift hot water bottle that spilt in the bag, necessitating a change of clothes in full view of everyone, Palden trusting a handful of roasted corn into her hands and in no uncertain terms ordering her to eat them, The Doctor instructing that she be given pure sugar, someone 
trusting hot tea and chocolates at her. They were all quite wonderful, helping as best as they could. One-Eye apologized for creating the bother- and fuss and being such a general nuisance. Palden ordered garlic soup for everyone. He later said that he was preparing to get the porters to bring us down to lower altitudes if things got worse. Some of the others were exhausted and started to develop high altitude sickness. The Doctor was kept quite busy dispensing advice and medicines. He himself later on was subject to those wonderfully excruciating headaches. Fortunately the situation stabi1ised and we settled down for the night. As just about everyone felt that they could gone on no further on the trek to Thangsing which we were to have done the next day, that was aborted. Instead Palden decided that we were to remain at Dzongri for the next day to rest and recuperate before heading down back to Bakhim and Yuksam.

Thangshing (3,930m/12,900ft) was a descent of 7kms (4.5 miles) from Dzongri. It would have descending and rescinding again. It was –22o C there. The purpose of going there was to get a closer view of Kancnenjunga that is if the weather was clear. The Singaporean whom we had met earlier had gone on there and instead of re-ascending to Dzongri his group did l6km trek back down. 

Water in drinking receptacles in the rooms in the hut froze, it was believe it or not, -15oC in the night according to a trekker's thermometer. How we survived it in our sleeping bags without heating I don’t know. It would have been utterly impossible if we did not have the heavy blankets given to us. Going out in the middle of the night to ease oneself was such a feat. You had to first ease yourself out of your sleeping bag, which is not such an easy thing to do when you are wearing bulky sweaters and coats and you have a ton of blankets on the top of you. You had to gingerly step over your sleeping buddies who are all lying in tight rows like packed sardines. You had to brave the arctic blast, walk out on the ice, pick a spot, feel around all those clothes for the zipper or buttons and undo and re-do them with your gloved and frozen, or ungloved and numb hands, without dropping your glove or torch. And you had to work your way back all that after you had finished. All this in the dark aided only by your torchlight. And mine worked intermittently.

Some of the fitter trekkers in the group ventured early the first morning on a 3 or 4 km trek further on. They came across a frozen lake and had a fabulous view of the Kanchenjunga. Others including myself climbed less far for a view of Mt. Pandim. The peaks were very soon obscured by the fast descending clouds. I ventured further up to about 14,OOOft with Oon Swee Huat, Jerome Teow and Anup at 6.00a.m. on the second morning, on the day of our departure from Dzongri. Although the climb was less than 1,000ft we took our time (30 minutes) doing it because the oxygen content of the air was 50% of that at sea level, making breathing laboured. The sight of the Sikkim Himalayas (Mt. Pandim, Narsing, Kabru, The Dome), changing colours in the early morning sunlight, silent and forbidding, rising in all their majesty into the heavens was awe-inspiring underscoring the smallness and impotence of Man. Truly, the Himalayas are the abode of the gods (him=snow, alayas=abode of the gods). We could see the glaciers and in places the ice was miles deep on the ridge. 

We kept silent. For my part I felt our presence there was almost sacrilegious, intrusive and even offensive. Facing the Himalayas were the "foothills" stretching far into the horizon. Looking into the valley over which we had walked and where the trekker’s hut lay, the slopes were covered with small brown shrubs, quite devoid of trees. Certain parts of the slopes were sandy not unlike beaches, other parts were frozen marshes being criss-crossed by streams. It looked wild and desolate. It was exhilarating running down over the sandy stretches so soft that one sank into them and then tip-toeing over the wet marshes where it was not frozen and taking greater care where it was. 

After a whole day's rest at Dzongri doing nothing except trying to keep warm in a wooden shed where 2 smoky fires were kept going all day, writing postcards and drying out my still wet things next to the fire, and being kept Entertained by Palden, Anup and some of the other porters and dzoe-boys who sang Hindi and Nepali songs, we trekked back the second morning to Bakhim.

The trek back down was considerably easier for all of us given the rest that we had, the decreasing altitude, the warmer weather and not to mention we were walking DOWN. Spirits were much recovered. I almost skipped all the way down feeling better and fit than I had in days. We stopped at Prithang where we had stopped on the trek up. It is a small flat field where all including the dzoes stopped for a short rest and refreshments. Saroj our cook had piping hot soup and tea ready for us. That man is a treasure. We arrived at Bakhim in the early afternoon when the sun was still out which made a refreshing change. And we were not tired. Anup took me to the house just below the trekker's hut where the Tibetan keeper of the trekker's hut lived with his wife. It was a very small and dark hut with a small vegetable plot. We went into the living area of the house where the hearth was. It was so dark inside despite the cheery fire in the hearth. Anup ordered tongba. I scrutinized the place, taking in the kitchen area next to the hearth, the hard cheese cubes hanging over it, the pots and pans, the cat lying next to the fire. The wife, and the husband who later returned from Tsoka where he was building a house, refused pictures to be taken of them, the husband saying that the government would take hold of their photos and publish them in the newspapers and air them over the television. The Big-Brother-Is-Watching syndrome. I watched the 1ady cut beans and some meat in the dark on the floor, her black and calloused hands hardened by a life time of hard manual labour lifting the boiling pot of rice from the hearth without any cloth to hold on to, apparently quite oblivious to the heat. Palden and some other of his boys had joined us and were all drinking tongba. 

That night at Bakhim Palden and company sang and danced in the dining room, all happy from the effects of the tongba. We joined in the joviality, a celebration of the trek.

We trekked back to Yuksum the next day, stopping again at Mintok Cola for a hot lunch. It was sunny and warm. As we neared Yuksum we chanced upon the local version of a memorial service in a village. It had looked like and we thought that it was a wedding celebration, the villagers obviously in their best clothes and everyone was drinking tongba. It turned out that it was the anniversary of the death of a man who had died the year before. 

We stayed at the ministers' rest house at the top of a hill. It had a pretty garden filled with yellow flowers and a good view of the foothills. There were toilets, although primitive, still no hot water and 2 bedrooms. We bedded down in our trusty sleeping bags for what we thought would be the last time and had what we thought would be the last dinner cooked by Saroj. There was a "party", this time with every one of us joining in the singing and dancing, in a true celebration of the end of the trek. All those people jumping around in the house warmed it and most of us slept well that night.

The next day we were all very sore and stiff in the quadriceps. It was not so much the previous night's dancing as the trek down from loftier heights. Muscles I never knew existed protested and generally registered their existence. It was a scream watching others, myself included, tackle stairs like a crab i.e. side-ways, one step at a time. It sure was painful. The staff must have been enormously entertained.

In the morning we strolled to the local historical monument. It was the throne of the first Choygal where he was crowned by a monk who left his footprint there in the ground. “yuksum” means 3 monks, the 3 who had gone there. There is a huge choten in front of the throne and seeing that Anup was going round it chanting "om-mani-pad-me-om" I joined him. One has to do it clockwise and the number of turns must be odd numbers.
Yuksum is a picturesque rural village set in the valley from which the snow-capped Himalayas can be seen. 

The villagers live off the land growing rice and vegetables. Sikkim being so mountainous, the rice is grown everywhere on tiny narrow terraces cut into the slopes. It is amazing how small some of these 
terraces are, barely larger than a handkerchief. 

We were to have left Yuksum that same day after lunch by coach for Pemayangtze (Sublime Lotus) where we were to stay the night but the coach failed to turn up. Instead we spent the whole afternoon in the "High Street" of Yuksum whiling away time doing all sorts of things, like, sunning oneself, holding a hoop race for the village kids, giving sweets and chocolates as prizes, eating instant noodles at the only hotel there, checking out the room rates in case we could not use the rest house again, and generally entertaining the villagers with lour antics. The only person visibly upset by the no-show was palden who was furious. The ones who should have been upset continued to be in good spirits and humour, probably because we were just so glad to have the trek 
behind us that we didn’t care much about anything else. It would have required much more to unfaze us. The beneficial results of the trek were immediate, turning otherwise uptight and stressed out Singaporeans into calm and serene beings! Incryable! 

The upshot of it that we had to spend another night at the government rest house. Poor sweet Saroj had to cook for us again. Out came the sleeping bags again. That night was cold. We were to wake up at 4.30a.m. and set off by 5.30a.m. Yet another early morning. That night we all heard good 01 palden stating his views very loudly and clearly to presumably someone responsible for the non-appearance of the coach. Well, it turned up before dawn and we finally left at dawn break. I hate to think what Palden would have done had it not appeared then. That man is a handsome and charming fellow with a most disarming smile, but I sure would hate to get on the wrong side of him. Off to Pemayangtse we went, passing Pelling and Rangpo and stopping at Singtam a market town for lunch. For the first part of the ride we could still see Kancnenjunga for quite a while. It was a long, long drive. We visited one of Sikkim's, major monasteries, and the Pemayangtze monastery. It is of the Nyingmapa sect, one of several in the Tibetan and Sikkim forms of Buddhism. I was to learn that the followers also worship several other personalities both of earthly and legendary origins. 
At the bottom of the monastery is the Mt. Pandim Hotel in which we were to have stayed had we not been detained in Yuksum. The hotel has a spectacular view of Kanchenjunga Pity. 

We drove on to Gangtok (1,600m/5,250ft) the capital of Sikkim. It is a bustling town, quite charming. We stopped off at the 200 year-old Enchey Monastery which overlooks the residence of the prince. The site of the monastery was blessed by a Lama reputed for his ability to fly. It was here that I saw the human skull in its half form, rather like a receptacle. We were told that it is used in rituals. It was quite an astounding revelation. Later I saw a little drum being sold in the lobby of Norkhill Hotel where we were staying the night, made of 2 little babys skulls. 

We stopped at the town centre and market place. Shops lined the roads and the stepped alleyways on both sides, mostly small, some merely holes in the wall literally. Cassettes are very popular, being sold everywhere. I love the atmosphere of these alleys, alive, bustling and colorful. My fellow trekkers bought cardamom cookies, sweaters, kitchen utensils, while Anup and I went looking for prayer flags, which we found after several enquiries in a small room on the first f1oor of a shop house. There 2 Women were printing the prayer flags on what appears to be a metal engraving. The flags are always sold in a set of 5 (Buddhist odd numbers) in different bright colours. I bought a set for a few rupees.

Walking into Norkhil1 Hotel where we were to stay the night was like walking into a palace. I lost no time in checking into the room, tearing off my indiscernibly filthy clothes, and luxuriating under the hot shower for 15 minutes. Cleanliness is next to Godliness. I felt human again. We were in luck, all the lights in the room worked, the heater was adequate and there was adequate hot water. I was in heaven. 

We were feasted at the blue Sheep (they are found only at very high altitudes) restaurant to Sikkimese cuisine, spicy and rather Chinese. We were ceremoniously presented with Ii Sikkim tea and the traditional white scarves in welcome. It was a lovely end to our sojourn in Sikkim. 

Early next morning we began an exceedingly long (7 or 8 hours) bus ride back to Bagdogra for the flight to Calcutta. We descended from Sikkim to the p1ains of Darjeeling Autonomous Region, the change in environment quite marked. We had left the beautiful mountains and the cold crisp and fresh air of Sikkim for the hot dusty crowded plains. We were already feeling nostalgic.

We bade Anup farewell at bagdogra airport. He was hitching a free ride on his friend's bus back to Darjeeling where he lives and works. I can't help having misgivings about this a1rport. The wretched man who watches the X-rayed insides of luggage insisted that I use my cameras just to prove to him that they were not incendiaries disguised as cameras. I took the excuse to take a picture of him. In India batteries must be surrendered before boarding the aircraft, something to do with battery-operated weapons. Battery-operated weapons?? Shades of Ninja turtles. Who was going to enlighten them about today's automatic camera? Not I said the bishop to the actress. 

Checked into Calcutta's Park Hotel again. Boy, did the room stink. Thank God for Mad Maori's antiseptic spray. I sprayed everything insight and smell. The same grey sheets. I was completely and utterly exhausted, the adventure of the previous 12 days suddenly catching up with me. I went straight to bed without dinner and there I laid comatose for 12 hours till the next morning, rising only to catch the last leg home. My indefatigable intrepid trekkers went shopping. 

We were glad to be home, to rest and recuperate. Some of us were a little worse for wear. Oon looked a poor shadow of himself wasted from severe food poisoning, I lost my voice totally for the next 3 days and it is certain there were others who incapacitated temporarily. 

The people who made up our safari will long remain in my memory: Palden and his lieutenants Saran and_Anup, Saroj the cook, the porters and the dzoe-boys. They are a very hardy warm simple people living physically demanding but uncomplicated lives. The porters and the dzoe-boys without exception wore terrib1y torn clothing, shod in slippers or shoes held together by faith, some were barefoot and in this manner they ran along the trek ahead of us with 40kgs of weight on their backs. It is unimaginable that one of them crossed the frozen streams in his rubber slippers, but he did, once shipping and falling flat on his back with his full load. I wonder if they noticed the sub-zero temperatures. Palden had a unique way of tel1ing the temperature. His toes. If one fell off it was –10 c, and another would mean –20 c.

It is remarkable that Saroj and his assistants could produce the hot tasty meals that they did. Dead wood would be collected from the forests, fires lit, water fetched from the nearest source of water (a frozen stream, waterfall, river), food prepared and cooked. 

Our porters and the kitchen staff are amazing, always packing after us, and running ahead of just so to get our teas/lunches/dinners ready and waiting for us. 

The service rendered by all of them throughout the trek was nothing less than sterling. Palden, Saran and Anup mollycoddled the citified Singaporeans, running around attending to our requirements, administering to our high attitude sickness, colds and whatever else, wiping our noses if necessary, guiding our steps along the trek, assisting those who had difficulty on the trek, pushing, encouraging, fibbing about the distance, carrying our cameras and rucksacks, even taking pictures for someone who was not able to do so. And not a hint of complaint from them. Nor from the trekkers. We suspect however, that they were in turn highly entertained by our antics. 

It was the most adventurous, exciting, physically demanding and unforgettable trip I have ever made. The daily wake up calls at dawn, the rolling up of the sleeping bags, the hurried packing and a rushed breakfast, the trek, unpacking the sleeping bags as soon as camp is reached, a quick dinner and into the bags, and the whole routine is repeated the next day and the day after that and the day after that… All that has been indelibly etched into memory. In Sikkim where my fellow trekkers and. I were spiritually bound to each other by common adversities, we had said that whilst it had been a difficult trek we were glad to have done it and indeed we were proud to have completed it, and the sense of achievement that we felt, but no, we would never do it again. 

At least not the same trek. In truth some of us may not have gone at all had we know the true nature of the trek.

For myself the achievement of the trek. The isolation and sheer wonder of the rooftop of the world, the awesomeness of Nature and the peoples of Sikkim help put a little perspective into the highly urbanized and stressful life that we live. During the trek nothing else mattered except the immediate, the present, the goal of completing the trek. An experience like this one should be renewed periodically when things lose their proper perspective and do not make sense any more. With the passage of time and the fading of the memory of the hardship, I grow more certain that I will attempt another trek. In Tibet perhaps. Or Outer Mongolia. 


Mention must also be made of our drivers who very skillfully manoeuvred the coach along the extremely narrow and precipitous mountain roads, which twisted this way and that into a never-ending series of hairpin and hair-raising bends with nary a hair' s breadth between us and certain oblivion.


Above Report  is made available by Mr. Paldan Bhutia (Sikkim Tour Guide and Escort)



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