Monday, January 31, 2011

Sikkim Trek: The First Day, We Walked

We got up reasonably early, I guess: around 7:00 or so, give or take. We were prepared a massive breakfast and this we eagerly ate, operating under the correct assumption that walking 18 kilometers uphill would require calories.

We stopped at the Yuksom market to pick up extra rolls of toilet paper, socks, curiously tasteless Indian chocolate bars and other accoutrements of civilization that were entirely guaranteed to be denied for the next 10 days. Kiran had, thoughtfully, stashed some bourgeois chocolate from France in his stuff.

On the trail, up the road. We passed through a great corridor of white prayerflags, the white kind mounted on poles that are typical up here, a more imposing variant on the sort of prayer flags that (by what appears to be law) adorn every US dorm-room. We stopped at the trail-head and registered at the trekking office, where they filed our papers away. This was presumably how they would take down our names if we vanished and were never seen again. We bought some potato chips from a woman manning a small wooden booth and regarded with interest our accoutrement: we had pack ponies. We had porters. We had a cook. All of our heavy bags had been taken from us and covered with a mostly water-proof tarp, and all we had to carry were our daypacks with rain gear, snacks, and water. "This is a lot better then trekking back home," I commented.

So it was. Trekking back home involves an enormous pack that requires the mind of a rocket-scientist to successfully and ergonomically pack: everything rattles and clinks when you are walking uphill, your shoulders are eternally compressed, and the forces of Good Trail Craft dictate that you can't leave anything behind in Virgin Nature when you really just want to chuck all your possessions and live in the forest so you won't have to carry your goddamn pack anymore. And here we were, footloose and regarding with (perhaps ill-advised) confidence our impending 18 mile walk. We could do it!

We began walking. The trail is a narrow cut alongside a very steep gorge, where the river runs down to Yuksom. The lower portions of the trail go through a bona-fide tropical jungle—there are creepers, malevolent and possibly deadly vegetation, the not-so-far-off cries of monkeys and unidentified forest creatures, electric orange tree mushrooms, and rushing, enormous waterfalls seemingly every other mile. The trail was an absolute mess, of course, an abomination: I have a friend who does trail maintenance in the Rockies and this trail would have driven him up the wall, with watercourses running down it and debris on the trail and tons of irrational twists and turns, and almost nothing in the way of formal marking.

Walking over this beast on a bridge was a bit intimidating. I imagine some nutjob in a kayak has already been down this then proceeded to get remarkably high post-survival. Well, if that person survived.

The rains this year had been awful, and many parts of the trail had washed out—our guide told us that some parts of the trail and even one of the bridges had been repaired only days before. You often found yourself teetering on the edge of a very small and muddy and rocky path, choosing your steps carefully because falling would have mean rolling at very high speed (while screaming) all the way down to the bottom of a gorge.

The Yak Is Not Your Friend.

The other reality of Trekking in Sikkim is that you must share the trail with all the pack animals that use it as well—commerce around here is still done, to some extent, on the back of a dhzo (a yak/cow hybrid) or a pony. Furthermore: You don't have the right of way. The dhzo does, and the dhzo has sharp horns and a nasty attitude to back him up if you start to feel sassy. The animals chew up the trail with their hooves and leave enormous piles of dung every few feet or so. They always come with a minder, who usually will warn you a second or two in advance of the dhzo's arrival by shouting something vague in Nepali.

This would be the trail. Well, in the lower bits, anyway.

Our guide and various Sherpas I passed by on the trail taught me the usual method for yak avoidance. It is thus: scramble up the steep and mossy side of the trail as quickly as you can. If at all possible—and if you're resourceful, it almost always is—cling onto the side of the trail for dear life while the dhzo go by. Do not make eye contact with the dhzo because that pisses them off, or makes them interested in you, and for all we know they can actually smell your fear. Rip off a tiny, pathetic sprig of vegetation to flick at the dhzo if it gets too close. This will not do an ounce of good if you make the animal mad, but will make you feel better. When the last animal goes by, scramble down from the trail. Check yourself for leeches. You'll need to.

Did I mention the leeches?

This part of the Himalayas is host to Asia's fascinating terrestrial leech. They come in a dizzying array of sizes and are usually yellowish or greenish or maybe black, it's all kind of a crapshoot. They want to find you and get to know you. They want to crawl out from under the leaf debris, somehow worm their way underneath your clothing, find a nice tender (preferably embarrassing) part of you and begin to suck your blood. There are some good things about leeches: Unlike mosquitos, the bites don't hurt, and leeches carry no diseases. Unfortunately, leeches release a anticoagulant chemical in their saliva when they bite you, which means that, once you've pulled the leech off, you will bleed incredibly for a good long while.

I discovered that leeches, like ticks, are almost impossible to crush or kill with your fingers. I got to the point where I would, upon intercepting a leech pre-bite, roll it between my fingers while humming to myself and walking, sort of like the world's most repellant stress-ball. I mean. The texture is the same.

This all sounds really awful when I write it out. The strange thing is that it wasn't. There was a great romance to it, especially for those prone to it, like Kiran and I—as I have previously stated, we were both exposed to far too much adventure literature as children—and we both loved walking up the trail through the jungle, the knowledge that we were making our way towards the interior of the Himalaya, going on what could be considered in most circles to be a bona-fide adventure.

Kiran decided that he would try taking one of the porter's packs, to see what it was like. The porters are all Sherpas and fufill every steroetype we have of remarkable strength and endurance in the face of carrying remarkably heavy shit for miles and miles uphill. Instead of the ergonomic and form-fitting packs Kiran and I had, these guys carry enormous boxes of god knows what (including fresh eggs) on their backs, usually with a forehead strap of some kind and the assistance of lots of twine. "Let me try it on," Kiran said. The porters regarded him with extreme suspicion, but agreed. Kiran is a strong guy and was able to hoist the thing on his back, but the balance threw him off. "I don't know how they do it," he said, after he attempted three or four times to get the forehead thing to work for him.

"Neither do I," I said. The porter politely picked up his load again and tossed it back on his back after Kiran was through. He was chewing tobacco.

Kiran in his natural habit. I have a lot of photos of Kiran Taking Photos, which gets uncomfortably meta.

We stopped for lunch at a small rest-area about three or four hours in. The porters immediately unpacked the kitchen gear from the pack-ponies and swiftly set up a small and fully-functional kitchen in a small rest-hut. A folding table and a folding chair were produced from somewhere, and they were set up on a small grassy area, and Kiran and I were bidded to sit down, whereupon we were served tea. We sat and drank tea and watched a small troop of monkeys in a tree, not far from us.
"This feels awfully colonial," I think I said.
And did it ever. In the good way.
We were served a starter of instant-noodle soup with supplementary vegetables - tasty - and an enormous quantity of grilled cheese sandwiches, which we devoured. They had actually hauled a metal grilled-cheese sandwich making press up the mountain.

Off we went, again. I discovered, to my surprise, that I was a fast walker, quite fast. I used to be a fast hiker when I was a kid in Utah, and I'm in pretty good shape, but I'd operated under the assumption that I'd lost the touch and I would probably be wheezing desperately along by mile two. This wasn't the case. It felt nice, I have to admit, to keep on passing people, including the occasional Sherpa and porter. Some people like to take their time while hiking and admire the view - Kiran likes to pause and take photographs. I guess I prefer the aspect of trekking that is athletic endeavor to some extent, I like the heart-pounding-in-your-chest and the silent, eternal competition against everyone else on the trail. I like walking alone, too, I really like it. I'll stop sometimes when I know there's no one before me or behind me for a ways and slow down for a moment or two, taking in the sensation of being quite alone in the middle of what most would consider to be absolute-nowhere.

We came upon a few small groups of people who live up in these mountains. Women with large hats gathering forest greens, stopping and looking at us with extremely mild interest as we walked by. They lived in small dwellings, with the eternal smoke of kitchen fires coming out of them.

It rained off on and on throughout the day, or at least drizzled. I had rain-gear in my backpack, which I switched out constantly: I finally gave in and resorted to an umbrella. I would occasionally walk by small and mossy stone cairns in the rain and feel like I had just wandered out of a Basho painting: I liked this. The bamboo all around, the sound of rain splashing on the leaves, and the occasional hint of a rain mist - waterfalls somewhere off in the distance.

Kumar is an endlessly patient and kind man, but I think the look on his face here says it all. ("Please walk this way before this bridge collapses," maybe).

We reached the bottom of the gorge. There was a rope bridge across it, the sort of bridge one imagines in an Indiana Jones movie, with prayer flags tied on it. Apparantly this bridge had gone out a week before or so, and had recently been repaired. The slats were old and had some holes in them, and flowers were going through the wood. The water below was white and icy-cold and moving incredibly fast, and I battled the impulse to stay on the bridge and enjoy the obvious danger of it. The endlessly-patient Kumar stood on the other edge and gave me a "For god's sake get off this thing" sort of look, as is evidenced in the photo.

The problem with climbing to the bottom of a gorge is that you've got to climb out of it again. And so we did. Up and up and up and up, past steep and indifferently cut trails. We passed the Tenzing Norgay mountaineering Institute, which is located up here and is (probably intentionally) difficult to get to - but no time to stop there, just keep on going up. It was growing darker, though it wasn't late, and it was raining. The trail was slippery with mud and the mist kept on obscuring what was up ahead : I sat down to wait for a bit - Kumar, our guide, not nervous if I got too far ahead - and spooked myself when I saw a hint of weird color coming through the trees. Just prayer flags, of course, stuck to a tree somewhere up ahead.

I began walking again, when Kumar and Kiran appeared over the ridge - the German boys were a bit behind me as well. I felt as if I were approaching the crest of the hill, or at least something approximating it, and I was right - the ground began to level off slightly, there seemed to be an end in sight.

There were sheep everywhere, all of a sudden: The trail had been entirely monopolized by white and black sheep, which smelled somewhat rank in the wet. One of the German boys was behind me, and we both waded, tentatively, through the sea of sheep, not entirely sure what they would do. The sheep politely got out of our way, to the minimum extent required for us to pass: I occasionally steadied myself on a solid and unconcerned sheep rump. Past the sheep was a little hut of some sort, with a little covered area: we stopped and waited for the others to catch up. A man wearing the ubiquitious golden rain boots came out of the hut and regarded us with mild interest for a moment : then he went back inside.

We put up at Tsokha.

Tsokha is a very small village perched on the side of a hill - the view is commanding, in the event of there being no fog. There was plenty of fog and we would have no idea how commanding that view actually was until some time later. It is just about medieval, with roughly 10 full-time residents and a bunch of dogs and cows and chickens wandering the premises at all times - the path through it is muddy and full of yak dung, and there are various pack animals tied up to various things throughout the village. The whole affair, this trekking-hard-all-day to arrive at an electricity less village reminded me with a sort of false nostalgia of the not-so distant past, when traveling meant you went overland or by sea and not at all, and lodgings were small and indifferent inns in equally small and indifferent places, and everything was conducted by way of candlelight.

We were staying in a small backpackers shelter, which was (comparatively) luxurious indeed when compared to the kind of camping I was accustomed to back home. I had a room of my own, even, with a wooden block door that sort of locked, and a bunch of candles stuck in wine bottles arranged around the window. Kiran and I were both exhausted past the point of talking, and slightly damp: we silently adjourned to our respective rooms and changed clothing.

Another man was staying in the guesthouse. He was trekking alone, and he was from Calcutta. Kiran immediately struck up with a conversation with him, as they both leaned on the railing of the shelter's porch and stared out into the black (and getting blacker) night. I listened to them talk, mostly. He was a film director and had a wry and ironic intellect, as do so many Indians of this particular era. He and Kiran talked about Bengali film stars and logic and philosophy: I was too tired for this and took covert notes on their discussion, as if I was observing them for a scientific study. There are few greater intellectual pleasures then watching two fiercely intelligent Indians have a bit of an intellectual shake-down - it's something about the cadence of it, I guess.

They talked about Calcutta some. "I admire Bengalis," Kiran said. "Bengal is the cultural center of India, it's where all the intellectuals come from, the writers, the thinkers, the musicians."
The man from Calcutta snorted. "Maybe once, but no—not anymore. That's gone."
(Everything is no longer what it once was. But in the case of Calcutta, perhaps that is the truth).

Kiran took this one. Delicious, mysterious, orangey mushrooms in question.

We had dinner by candlelight. The man from Calcutta dined with us. He shared his forest mushrooms with us, the same lurid orange one's we had seen growing on the trail, the sort of mushrooms that one generally assumes are fatal. They were delicious, and tasted better then any $13.00 a pound bundle of oyster mushrooms I had previously purchased at Whole Foods. "I need to take these back to the USA and sell them to rich people and gourmet restaurants," I declared. "I would be rich." And I would be, if only I could find an investor.

I had weird and lucid dreams that night, which I always have at elevation. I handle elevation better then most people, but it always comes through in my subconscious, which does not want me to forget where I am.


  1. Ah Faine :) You were being too generous with me on the physical strength department. I grew up a fine tummy and sucked quite a bit on hiking up the trek. I stashed up a lot of fat through the last year of my PhD.

    Bourgeois chocolate :)) that's a nice expression. That did help during the trek though.

  2. Yes, and the leeches. A large part of the trail had blood dripping over it. We had shoes but the ponies and the dhzos hadn't, and they suffered for that badly. This was probably a party season for the leeches. At one point, I was quite worried that the blood I saw on the trail was yours.

  3. The Himalayas, home of the snow, is the most impressive system of mountains on the earth, and for centuries the setting for epic feats of exploration.