Sunday, January 9, 2011

away to yuksom: waterfalls, roadstops, being rained on

The trek. I should explain about the trek.

Sikkimese houses on the drive to Yuksom.

We had arranged the thing quite casually. We arrived in Sikkim, and that evening, headed to the tourism office. Like most things in Sikkim, the tourist office was friendly and functional, and we received a few sheafs of travel brochures, some maps with relevant information ticked off, and the name of a couple of trekking guides that had not, to date, managed to kill anyone. Armed with this information, we made for our guide's office.

This particular trekking outfit was called Sikkim Peak tours, located on Tibet road in Gangtok. We immediately met with the friendly and extremely hip owner, a guy called Madan, who showed us photos, told us about the Goecha La trek., and let us know what we were getting into with considerable detail. He spoke immaculate and nimble English, had dated and broken up with a Lithuanian woman, and dressed sort of like a hip-hop star, as do many young Sikkimese people. He was refreshingly honest about the weather. "It's the rainy season. You might get rained on. I mean, it's supposed to be ending...."
"But it hasn't quit yet," I said, regarding photos of healthy looking middle aged people, hiking up the side of mountains. They ha d killer tans. The sun was shining.
"No," the owner said, "no guarantees."
Kiran and I were both dedicated to the idea of trekking, really dedicated, and we'd come this far, and we wanted to go, damnit, curse the rain, curse the weather, hang it all, we were going. Anyhow, the weather forecasts looked positive. Sort of positive. One had to wonder about the quality and technological advancement of weather forecasting technologies in rural Sikkim, but, regardless. We had reason to be positive. If all went as planned, we would both fufill child-hood dreams of Himalayan adventure. We would find ourselves regarding the snows and walking in the footsteps of great mountaineers, befriend a Sherpa or two, get to sound rugged and adventurous to our friends back home.

We signed up.

Terraced rice paddies a plenty.

If you read no further, let it be known that they did an excellent job at a reasonable rate. Kiran and I, when selecting trekking operators, thought for a bit and realized that we did not want to go with the lowest bidder when it came to paying someone to keep us alive in a remote wilderness. We concluded we were willing to pay at least a little more for comfort, good food, and the knowledge that we would actually come back alive. This we got. We would encounter people on the trek who had gone the budget option and had regretted it.

Kiran and I paid roughly 300 dollars each or so for a 10 day trek with a number of porters, a guide, pack ponies, a cook, tents, food, lodges where available, emergency medical supplies with specific high-altitude sickness medications, and rental sleeping bags and other hiking gear. This is middle-range for Sikkimese treks. It suited us fine.

We also sorted out the matter of trekking permits. Trekking permits, in theory, can only be issued to groups of foreigners, of at least two, and they can only be issued through a registered trekking agency. This can be fudged a bit. As Kiran is an Indian citizen, we couldn't form a group ourselves. However, our trekking company knew of a group of two Germans and one Israeli embarking- with a different, if friendly, outift -the same day we were. So, they lumped me in with the three boys on the permit and off we went.

We got picked up in a jeep. I was glad to see that we would be traveling in a jeep and not a small and ancient station wagon, as many of Sikkim's cars seem to be. Some random camping gear was placed on top, and away we went. We were heading to Yuksom, a small village in Western Sikkim, about 138 KM or so away. This may not sound like much, but considering that Sikkim's roads are small, poorly maintained, and horrifyingly steep, the journey takes about six hours, six hours of looking out the window of the car intermittently and feeling your pancreas drop into your crotch from sheer height and wishing you hadn't, six hours of feeling your tailbone in sharp relief every time you go over some sort of boulder, six hours of wondering (helplessly) if that tiny little metal bridge with the fraying wires will actually hold a full-size jeep and is not, in fact, a bridge made for really light yaks and small, swift-footed children instead. Pack your Dramamine. And maybe your Valium.

Primal terror aside, though, it's one of the most scenic road trips a person can take. We dropped into valleys and went through small villages laid out along the indisputably mighty Teesta river, little burgs full of women chopping up fish by the river-side and liquor marts full of bored people and small, polite looking Buddhist stupas, every half-a-mile-or-so.

Kiran took this one.

We stopped for lunch at a legitimate Sikkimese roadstop. Our order was taken by a nine year old kid. The kitchen and bathroom had a commanding view out over the mountains. A terrible Indian horror movie was playing on the scratchy TV inside. Kiran ordered a curiously strong Hit beer - the local stuff - and we both ordered a variety of food. Set meals with curry, daal, vegetables, and papad, and some of the ubiquitous pork gyathuk soup.

Pork fat, noodles, and broth. You can't go wrong.

The food was all right, really, especially for truckstop cuisine - I've seen some stuff at Australian roadstops that could induce suicide on gastronomic grounds - and we were pretty content with the whole experience. It helps if you really, really, really like daal.

We began climbing up again, and the landscape was so classically Asia, the sort of thing that might illustrate a dictionary entry. Rice paddies and decaying, seemingly ancient stupas, set back in the jungle, immensely tall bamboo and tiny, brightly colored houses, water-buffalo and exotic tropical flowers.

Kiran is helpfully providing size contrast.

There were waterfalls everywhere, the one benefit we reaped from the incessant rain, and they ran right over the road. Kiran is fond of waterfalls and fond of taking photos of them especially, and we stopped a lot.

I find waterfalls pleasant enough, but I have to admit this was a pretty good one, as falling water goes.

We got into Yuksom, got our hotel rooms, and figured we would have a reasonably sedate evening. Then, the power went out.

"Oh, a power outage," I thought. "Well, we get those all the time in India, it is what it is, whatever."

I went to a little cafe next to our hotel. They had lit candles and were still serving tea and snacks to a random assortment of trekkers from small European countries. "How long is the power going to be out?" I asked the owner.

"Oh, you know. Maybe six hours?" he said.

I went silent. "Six hours?"

"Oh, yes," he said, "yes, maybe more. Very small village, here, and lots of rain..."

I swore under my breath. I went to go find a place where I could purchase a headlamp. It was raining. The sun had just gone down and it was dark, incredibly dark, primordial dark, and here I wanted a headlamp. I found one at a little trekkers shop a few doors down, failed at bargaining the price down much - they did have me by the balls, I mean, out in the dark in a tiny village in the rain and no way to see anything - and then, it didn't come with batteries. So I walked down the road to a tiny little kiosk type thing, in what was probably the market, if I had been able to see anything, and someone sold me some batteries. They sold me some Bhutanese ketchup and some socks and a roll of toilet paper as well.

I'd lost Kiran in the dark at some point, but we managed to meet up again at the restaurant. The power outage had got us both a little flustered, I suppose. It's one thing to travel for six hours in a jeep up and down the sides of mountains and then find yourself damp and in the dark in a semi-primitive village in the middle of the Himalaya. I mean, it's what you want desperately when you're sitting at home on your couch and reading a travel guide, but in actual practice - well.

We had got it into our heads that we should probably find the three boys I was on the trekking permit with, at least to say hello, or something - and after all, it'd be a bit more fun to trek with more people, wouldn't it be? I dutifully decided to track them down. It couldn't be hard to do in a tiny little village with roughly 15 foreigners in it, all staying in the same four little trekker hotels.

I turned them up in the pleasingly named Yak Hotel. They had paid a little less money then us and were sharing a room down a corridor that seemed to be a curious combination of basement and alley. I knocked on the door. They were all asleep and unhappy about this and I felt bad, though in my defense, being asleep at 8:00 PM is weird. They would turn out to be nice guys and good company when not roused from deep sleep, but, later.

I found Kiran again. We had dinner prepared by our trekking cook. He set up his tent and his stuff in the courtyard of our hotel and soon enough we had dinner, a quite good dinner considering that it had been prepared in a tent in the rain in a black-out. We met our guide, Kumar, and we talked some about the trek, and what we'd do the next day, and how far we had to walk. 18 KM, apparently, all of it uphill. Like, really uphill. More uphill then we perhaps were familiar with in our daily lives. This all sounded really abstract while we were sitting down.

The power did come on that night, just as I was about to go to bed. A little shutter of electricity, and the lights were on in my room. It was a musty room and there was a stain on the floor that seemed actively malevolent - I had to cover it with a pillow because it unnerved me to look at it, as if it would turn into some kind of Stephen King like beast in the night and engulf my face - but other then that, it was serviceable enough.

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