Thursday, April 21, 2011

I Got Back to Yuksom! Also, Stupas!

We woke up early because we both wanted to go down, me and the porter. I got up first, I guess, and then we located each other in the not muchness of Tsokha, and got our kit together. We exchanged eye contact with each other - it was going to be an 11 mile day, after all, albeit downhill, but the scary kind of downhill. And then we set off.

And down it was, about as soon as we started off from Tsokha. The sun was out and it was a lovely day, and the landscape looked very different then it had on the way up - clear and dry, and almost dusty in places, and the mud slowly hardening. It was harder going down then up, at least on the mind, and we both were on constnat alert for ankle twists. A twisted ankle could make life exceptionally difficult up here. We descended through the high altitude rhoddendron and then we crossed into the cloud jungle, and then down more, almost back into the tropical jungle proper.

The Tenzing Norgay Mountaineering Institute, named after the world-famous Sherpa mountaineer, happens to have a house up here, and we went by it. We stopped for a second to look - I looked down the hill and saw about forty ruggedly handsome young mountaineering students, of all manner of races and nationalities, looking up at me in an extremely friendly way. A couple of them waved.

I had a temporary debate about going down.

Well. Showers.

We kept moving.

The rest of the 11 mile trek down was a bit of a blur, mainly because we were going very fast indeed and we were very focused, or at least I was, and I assume he was as well. We kept on passing by sweaty and dedicated looking Mountaineering Institute students, laboring uphill and carrying very big packs. We would exchange pleasantries. I was glad there were a healthy number of women among them. They are doing a good job of getting young Indians and Nepalis - especially Sherpas - training to be guides up here. They maintain a base camp at Kanchenzonga as well. I'd visit the headquarters in Darjeeling the next week.

Still, I was going so fast and was so focused on the trail that I failed to notice something fairly important - in that my big toenail was Not Happy, really really unhappy. Irt was being squashed one way or another and every single rock I jumped onto, it sort of hurt, but in a low level way I found easy to ignore. This would come back to haunt me.

The raininess of the past few days had brought a bunch of small waterfalls and streams to life along the trail, and they were refreshing as hell to run through. Of course, we had re-entered the Realm of the Leech, but at least they never bothered me much. (Only got a couple this go-round!)

We were getting closer - I could just spot the not-much buildings of Yuksom. We paused in the small structure where we had had lunch that first day. The porter and I wolfishly shared a fancy Lindt chocolate bar - Tiramisu flavored - Kiran had gifted me, glugged down some water, caught our breaths. Then we were off again.

The miles went fast,a dn we encountered very few animal trains (which sped us up) and a coiuple of middle aged tourists (to exchange pleasantries with), and I admired the terrifying Indiana Jones suspension bridges again. And then there was a little picnic house, for people from town to use when they wanted to take a little walk intot he woods, then some terraced cornfields, with women holding machetes working in them, and laughing with each other, and then a girl steering but not riding a bike, and looking at us with mild interest. We were back.

We walked through town slowly - the end in sight - and the porter stopped to talk to friends, and I walked with rather weightless legs. It was odd to go slow. We'd made 11 miles in about five hours. It wasn't half-bad, even if was downhill. I went to the hotel and banged on the door a bit until the owner came out. He looked at me curiously. "You are back early," he said.
"We started this morning from Tsokha,"I said, as I laid down my bag. I was starving. Food before shower, I concluded. Damn the torpedoes.
"Very very early," he said, vaguely admiringly.

Yuksom's primary export is stupas.

I adjourned to the Gupta Restaurant next door. The 14 year old girl who was manning the counter smiled at me when I walked in. They were used to people coming starving and smelling awful. I ordered vegetable curry and scrambled eggs and chapati. I devoured it as if I had been starved.

I headed back to the hotel for a shower. It was time to confront The Toenail.

I took off my boot. My toenail was not fully lodged in the bed but was instead wiggling around whenever I poked it. I found it kind of fascinating on a scientific level. There wasn't much pain, but the visible horror of the thing -my pink-painted toenail, slightly chipped - was unnerving. I wrapped it up in a bandage and tried not to think about it. What a girl would look like in a pair of strappy heels witthout a big toenail. "Oh, but I lost it trekking in Sikkim," I'd say, tipping my tumbler of Makers to whoever addressed me on the matter. And they'd still think it was disgusting.

After my shower, I felt bound and determined to walk around Yuksom and do some Travel Reporting. Except I couldn't wear my boots again until my toenail decided if it was or was not going to drop off. I put on some sandals, and although my legs had decided they were totally over the whole "bending" thing,

A little history on Yuksom seems apropo, and so here it is. Yuksom was Sikkim's first capital, before Gangtok, due to its closer proximity to Tibet, formerly the region's chief power, and was established all the way back in 1642 by three Tibetan lamas on an evangelizing mission. They located and crowned the nations' first Chogyal or "religious King," Phuntsog Namgyal, who they apparantly happened upon while he was churning milk in his residence in Gangtok. They took him here (strategically located as it is), crowned him,and began Sikkim's formal tradition of leadership - the nation prior to this time being a rather loosely arranged and hard-to-get to assortment of villages, towns, and small holdings.

. The Chogyal dynasty would continue to rule Sikkim up until the time of its (voluntary) joining-up with India. Yuksom happens to contain the coronnation site of Sikkim's old kings, called "The Throne of Norbugang," which sounds quite exotic indeed (except I couldn't find it). There's also Sikkim's supposedly oldest monastery (established in 1701).

Yuksom, being the base-city for attempts on Khangchendzonga (why does everyone spell this differently) and a stop on Sikkim's buddhist pilgrimage circuit, is also a bit of a tourist town, albeit in Sikkim's shockingly muted way. (There's a shop to buy trekking gear! And hotels at different price points!). Still, the fact that it requires a 6 hour and jolty jeep-ride to get here over indifferent roads from the already remote capital of Gangtok has kept it what it is - about two steps up from medieval and really quite incredibly charming. An ancedote I like to trot out about Sikkim is that it is the only place I have ever been where I was unable to purchase a souvenir t-shirt. (I am amused by the fact that Wikipedia informs that Yuksom is "well connected by road" with Gangtok. Define "well connected", guys.)

I walked through town some and looked at things, a bit painfully, but walking (maybe stretching out the muscles). There were dhzo and kids tending them, people going to work or going back from work, and people looking at me looking at them. I found a monastery. Yuksom has a lot of them and they all seem to be empty most of the time. I couldn't even figure out the proper name of this one. I wish someone would tell me. Hint.

Bunch of kids and women were sweeping this one up. It was a charming little scene.

I manfully then hiked to Yuksom's main attraction, which is the place where the King of Sikkim was traditionally crowned. Or I tried. There was nothing in the way of signage. I was looking at a hillock with some gravel around it and trying to figure out where to go for a bit, and then I walked up a hill, and then my goddamn shoe broke. Snap.

I'm standing there with a wonky toenail and I have no shoe and my legs won't bend. I feel so fucking sorry for myself.

The very nice Yuksom residency.

Some little girls walk by and laugh at me, but politely. "What happen, miss?" one said.
I held up the shoe. "Shoe broke," I said.
"Oh," she said. The conversation ended. I sighed. I walked with one shoe down the gravely road. It hurt. It was India, of course, and that meant that I was going to find a shoe for sale somewhere or another, maybe even by the side of the road if I got lucky - but I was totally demoralized. I bought another pair of flip-flops. I have bought more Auxilary Flip Flop Pairs then I can count while traveling.

I sat in the hotel for a while and slept a little and then I somehow got up the energy to go out again - it was getting darkish - and I decide to go up to the monastery located rather conveniently right outside of my guesthouse, caled the Ngadhak Changchub Choling Monastery.

Yuksom is an old town and one that is positively besotted with stupas and monasteries, which is interesting since there are by no means that many people - the population is a shade over 1,000. The monastery was located up a rather foggy hill through the forest, and I walked up it, and appreciated the stands of thick high altitude trees (so different from India's lowlands, so different from the Cambodia where I was headed). The monastery appeared deserted, or at least shut for the evening, and I didn't go up and rap on the door - I stood there and looked at it rather blankly for a moment. And it began to rain (but I had my umbrella, as one must in Sikkim) and I walked carefully down the hill on my wonky and unbending legs, nodding politely to a group of young boys who passed by, all of them huddled under a single black umbrella. It was almost dinner time anyhow.

I got picked up by one of Kumar's friends, who was supposed to be overseeing me. "I take you to this restaurant, and I pay for your food," he explained, as this was technically part of what I'd paid for. His English was good, and we chatted as we walked there. When we got there, a friend of his was also at the restaurant, taking his evening tea as all Sikkimese and indeed all Indians are duty-bound to do. It turned out he managed the fanciest hotel in Yuksom (which really was very pretty inside). We all began talking about Sikkim, the tourism trade, life here.

For some reason, I asked him about rescue procedures here. Kiran and I had previously had this nice idea that trekking in Sikkim was kind of like trekking in Nepal, in that there were helicopters and hospitals and emergency systems in place if something really grotty happened.
"So what about rescue up here?" I asked, as my chicken curry arrived.
He looked at me curiously. "Rescue? There is no rescue up here. The only rescue we have here is going back down. Last season - very rough. Tourists getting sick, not having the right equipment, getting AMS. Safety is important. A good guide is most important. Someone who can make decisions, at the right time, fast. I've seen people die up there on the mountains, get sick. A good guide is the most important thing."
I stared at him for a moment. "No one told us that before we went up."
He nodded and smiled. "Well, yeah."
I felt both terrified and infinitely more hardcore then i previously had felt.

We chatted a bit more and I adjourned to the hotel because I was dog-tired and I wanted to rejigger the nest of bandages on my toenail. I hoped Kiran had made it up all right and had seen the damned mountains. I was trying not to be incredulous about the prospect of my epic, planned share jeep-journey to Darjeeling the next day. I slept okay.

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