October is supposedly the best time for Goechala trek. But the rains hadn’t ceased till early October that year and I was wondering whether I should have waited for a few more days? Walking in the incessant rains and slippery slopes of slush into the wilderness of the Kanchenjunga National Park, I was both thrilled and irritated at the same time.
Goechala trek was the last leg of my 1.5 month-long of solo backpacking in Sikkim. I had carefully chosen the early October dates, but who am I to plan anything anyway? What happened over the next few days was exhausting, challenging, thrilling, and insane, yes, but most of all it was a wonderful, overwhelming, fulfilling and soul-soothing experience that warms my heart even today when I look back and think of it.
My best friend & a fellow-volunteer I met while volunteering in the Sikkim Himalayan Academy decided to join me for the trek. The trek had begun at Yuksom – a quaint little town that was the first capital of Sikkim. Huddled close to the mountains, the charming town gave an insight into what was coming. The stunning views of the Kanchenjunga as seen from the window, the biting cold mountain wind and the undisturbed tranquillity was like a teaser of the grandeur that we were to experience over the next few days.
We met a team of 2, 20-something local boys who were to be our guide and porter, respectively. I profoundly thank these kind-hearted, genuine and absolutely lovely mountain people because of whom, I have been able to walk in the mighty mountains so far. And of course, the mountains themselves for being kind to me, always.
The younger one, the guide, whom I ended up naming Chyanu Bhai (meaning younger brother in local parlance, I may have got the spelling wrong though) by the end of the trek, looked so young that I was considering requesting for an experienced guide. Turned out that he actually had an experience of independently guiding groups to Goechala for the last 5-6 years. He had been assisting his elder brother (who is a seasoned trekker & trek leader for some of the reputed travel & outdoor companies) for years before independently taking up the guide’s role.
Entering The Kanchenjunga National Park
After getting the permits checked, we walked through the gate of the Kanchenjunga National Park feeling exhilarated. The walk was comfortable with a gradual climb, soothing forest views and the sun shining all the way up to the point where we halted for lunch. We met a few other trekkers, made way for many ‘Dzo’s – the big yak-like creatures that are used to carry the stuff uphill. Chyanu told me those aren’t really yaks, but a crossbreed of yaks and buffalos/bulls.
The trail this day involved crossing a few bridges that were laced with the colourful prayer flags, and milky white water gushing underneath with a roar. “It is from places such as these that the wind carries the prayers and the soothing sounds of waterfalls far and wide into the valleys and plains, spreading the blessings of the mountains”, Chyanu said, with a sense of pride when he saw me looking fondly at the waterfall cascading beneath and touching the prayer flags. I smiled and told him I completely agree with him – how could I not? It was true, after all.
It felt cooler as we advanced higher and deeper into the thickets of the Khangchendzonga National Park in the later hours. And in no time, it started drizzling. Chyanu urged us to walk faster, but the slopes were getting slippery with mud & droppings of the dzos (I had accidentally dunked my feet in it once and felt awful the whole time!).
In spite of speeding up the pace, we were not able to reach the camp as the rains got pretty heavy. We saw some makeshift huts about an hour before our actual campsite. We were super tired and it was getting dark too. Our resourceful porter spoke to the locals and managed to arrange for us to spend the night there. We were starting to feel the cold of the mountains now. It was here that I tasted the first local drink of Sikkim – ‘thongba’ or ‘bamboo’ – as it is more popularly known as, with our hosts while waiting for dinner. The thongba is made of millets and is served in a container made of bamboo. I don’t remember well how it tasted but I sure do remember the hearty laughter as we sipped and passed around the thongba, aroma of the lentils being cooked, subtle warmth of the firewood and the sound of rain falling outside.
There was rain throughout the day 2 and honestly, I couldn’t look around much while walking as I had to be careful of my footings. It was getting difficult to keep up a good pace but we did manage somehow. On day 3 we woke up to a clear sky and the walk this day was such a relief – not only because it didn’t rain but because the walk was lovely. We hiked through dreamy meadows where the free, wild horses grazed at a distance, made our way through hazy forests, walked along and crossed many icy streams – the walk was just too beautiful! The peaks surrounding us were still enveloped in the clouds, giving the whole scene a very dream-like and unearthly look and feel.
By the time we reached our campsite at Dzongri, it had started raining heavily again. I was to learn an important lesson here – never to underestimate the mountain weather – not that I ever did but on the Goechala trek (in the month of October, when it doesn’t normally rain so much) it came as a strong reminder of how unpredictable and so damn powerful it is. Most of our bags along with its contents, shoes & socks got drenched. That night we spent a good deal of time in the kitchen tent drying our shoes and socks (mainly) and discussing whether to move ahead or wait for the weather to clear. Next morning we packed up and started walking towards the next destination – Thansing.
Trek to Thansing was again a pleasant one, though it drizzled intermittently. We were inching closer to the last campsite, the views were more unobstructed and overwhelming, colourful patches of wild flora dotted the stretches, mounds of boulders, and grassy slopes kept the sight of trekker’s huts at Thansing hidden away from us.
We were about 1ish km away from the campsite, exhausted but happy with the walk and the enchanted by the beauty. Though the campsite was still not in sight, we spotted our porter walking towards us three mugs and a kettle of hot black tea. He had reached the camp with the luggage, prepared tea for us and walked back all the way to serve us tea in the middle of nowhere – saving us the walk till the camp to have it – such are these kind-hearted mountain people 🙂
The Thansing campsite is my most favourite one ever, though I was able to see the surrounding beauty only after returning from the final climb to Goechala viewpoint and before starting the return journey. Apparently, there are 3 spots or viewpoints (named so for convenience I believe) – viewpoint 3 being closest to the Goecha pass. But as per the rule put up by the Sikkim government, no one is allowed beyond viewpoint 1 – not sure if it’s still the case. So be sure to confirm this and if you can go further and beyond then I guess nothing like it. I learned only later that you don’t really trek up all the way to the actual Goecha Pass due to restrictions by the government. Now I’m not too sure of the reasons, but only wish it will be allowed some time in the future.
It still rained continuously when we reached Thansing. The thick mist obstructed the beautiful views of the surrounding valley & peaks that you can so clearly see otherwise. Though I was thoroughly enjoying the trek and every experience added to it, I was a little disheartened as continued rain could mean we’d have to turn back without visiting the Goechala viewpoint. We had a buffer day but I dearly wished the rains took a break. That night, oblivious to the snowy peaks that towered the clearing where we camped, I prayed for a clear day before falling asleep to the sound of mountain rains.
Trekking To Lam Pokhri
Next morning as planned, we set out for the Lam Pokhri lake that is almost to the east of Thansing. It was intermittently drizzling and misty. The mist lifted every now and then to reveal a few smaller, unnamed lakes – absolutely clear and pristine. Halfway through, we met a few European trekkers who had also set out for Lam Pokhri but had to return without visiting the lake, as the weather ahead had turned bad; we too considered turning back to Thansing. The mist cover was getting thicker and though we traced our steps back the same way we came, I couldn’t see some of those smaller lakes that we saw earlier.
The Final Climb Towards The Goecha Pass
It was the last day, last chance, I prayed fervently. I think every trekker that day at the Thansing campsite was praying for a clear day. Chyanu told us he will keep a check on the weather and wake us up at 12.30 am. We ate and slept early that evening with a mix of excitement and nervousness.
At 12.30 am, we woke up – happy at the sight of clear skies. With head torches strapped to our forehead and geared with a day pack, we finally started trekking at 1.15 am. I looked up and gaped at the millions of stars shining in the dark sky and the many snowy peaks along with Kanchenjunga shimmering in the soft silvery moonlight – no matter how much I try I just cannot put the feeling the whole scene instilled in me, in words here.
Without really knowing how or what the trek path looked like and putting all our faith in the mountains, the guide and his experience, we trekked for 4 hours straight reaching just before sunrise at the viewpoint 1 to witness something extraordinarily beautiful, something grand…
I stood awestruck at the grand sight that was unfolding before me. The mighty Mount Kanchenjunga stood majestically as if being crowned by the golden ray of sun, turning the world’s third highest mountain into a golden spectacle. Soon the other snowy peaks too bathed in gold. We can go on without not seeing such sights ever in our life and it wouldn’t change much but seeing something this powerful will guaranteed change something inside you – not being preachy and you’ll agree with me too if you have even once seen a sunrise from the mountain top.
On our way back after witnessing the riches of nature, we saw the actual trail that we took in the dark of the night – and it was a very beautiful one. We halted for breakfast by the Samiti Lake and its lovely reflections. Another campsite – Lamuney is around here and though it is closer to Goechala, Thansing is the most preferred site for many favourable reasons.
Tshoka – a tiny Tibetan settlement was our last camp. You’d see a few houses, trekker’s huts, a monastery, a lake and lots of pretty views. Being back broke the trance and solace of the mountains I walked in the past few days but I was at peace. That day I walked around, stayed up late and woke up early to soak in the essence of the mountains as much as possible, one last time, before we started the final descend, physically leaving the mountains behind but feeling it in every pore of my skin.