Zig-zagging through hairpin bends and looping in eight hours from Siliguri up to Darjeeling, riding the "toy train". The day before I was told at the ticket counter that it was booked out for the next three months. The next morning I went back to the railway station waiting for the train's arrival. I was lucky, in deed, in one of the four coaches seven seats were empty, a ticket was 42 Rupees (~ 1.00 $). The next day in Darjeeling I went to get my 15-day entry permit for Sikkim, which I extended by another 15 days as soon as I arrived in Gangtok, Sikkim's capital. There, I also arranged for my trek to Kanchenjunga, I joyned an Israelian couple. The cost per day and person amounted to $ 35.00. When there are more participants it will naturally be possible to bargain down the rate. Of course it is possible to find lower offers - some will do it for $ 18.00 - but often there are limitations in equipment, diet, and looking after. In Yuksom I met a Hungarian who had been waiting for the start of his trek for two days, which he had arranged in Pelling. When he confronted the trekking agency's manager with this he learnt that they had difficulties to get his trekking permit because he was allone and therefore, did not count as a group. I assume the manager new that beforehand. On the way to Yuksom in Sikkim's West we stopped at Tashiding monastery. I found it really worth visiting, because of its beautiful Mani walls and prayer flags.
Our team from Pardick trekking agency was fantastic and gave us the impression of an extensive expedition : 1 guide, 1 cook, 1 Yak-herder, 5 porters and four Dzo, domesticated Yaks. Sigal und Roi (Chong) had a tent for their own, as I did, we had a common tent where we took our meals, and a toilet tent. And for the first time in my trekkers life I did not need to carry by big pack, that was done by a dzo. I only carried my day pack, filled with my camera equipment, some clothing, the trinking bottle and snacks. The trek itself was nine days with one more day getting to the starting point. The trekking route ran from Yuksom to Goecha La (La = Pass), starting from 1750 m it goes up to 4960 m.
It became harder than expected on the first day already : 18 kilometers and a climb up to 3000 m at Tshoka, the last village on the trek, most of the climb happened during the last third of the distance. The trail ran through forest, here and there we could see rhododendron trees blooming.
The second day was far away from being an easy walk as well, because we went up to 4000 m to Dzongri, with 9 km distance. The forest became thinner, sometime was replaced by bushes and grass. In Dzongri we had our acclimatisation day, ideally it should have been done in Tshoka already, but here we had more walk opportunities during our stay. And that is what we did: at 4 am crawled out of our sleeping bags, put on warm gear, a quick cup of tea with cookies, and then up to the view point, in 45 minutes arriving at 4200 m for the sunrise. "Kanch" was still far in the back but all together it was a beautiful panorama. At around 8 am we were back in the camp and enjoyed an extensive breakfast.
We were not allowed much time to recover, we wanted to arrive at Dzongri La, 4500 m, before the clouds would come in. Considering the fast climb upwards from Yuksom, it was hard work but worth the effort because once again we had an marvelous panorama in front of us: Goktang, the "small" Frey Peak (which can be climbed), Ratong with its glacier, Kabru South and North at about 7000 m , and Kabru Dome. We stayed for 2 1/2 hours, looking around, day-dreaming or reading, we only left when we finally felt hungry.
We now had time for recreation, because the trail was leading downwards. Our next camp was Thansing, 3900 m, which is reached by passing Kokchorung on 3600 m. We went down on steep serpentines, and I was thinking about the way back up with horror. Our guide Raj calmed me down, he stated that we would choose a different trail on the way back which runs along Prek Chhu river down to Tshoka. Only the dzo would have to come up this way again because of the narrowness of the river trail. Obviously reliefed I replied that I would rather prefer to swim down the river than climbing up here again. Something would remind me of this conversation later....
Early lunch break at Kokchorung, then we went slowly up to Thansing. Went on reading our books, and our team beat the time with playing football.
From Thansing to Lambi was only a short distance, the next day we arrived at 4200 m within two hours. On our way we saw Kanchenjunga for the first time in front of us, not covered in clouds yet, but it became cloudier. We started worrying a little bit about some dark clouds coming in, it seemed that the weather would change. Just before we reached the camp we saw "real" wild yaks for the first time. We realized the difference between them and the dzo immediately. When we came as close as 20 m to one of them, it started getting ready to attack us. We decided that it was a good idea to rush back quickly, and when we were at a good distance both parties cooled down again.
In the meantime the mountains were covered in clouds, it became uncomfortably cold, and we prefered to stay in our tents. After dinner we did not stay in the common tent much longer, we left it for the team at 7 pm as they had chosen to sleep there. The plan was to get up at 3.30 am with a short breakfast and then take the last advance to Goecha La. It would take around eight hours return, but we had decided to then getting further down to Thansing. Therefore it was wise to get to sleep early. We never went sleeping later than 9 pm anyway. There was nothing else to do after dark, and because of the altitude and the strenuous walking we were tired enough to sleep.
When I woke up at night for the second time (the first time was the obligatory trip to the toilet - a real nightmare to peel myself out of the sleeping bag and go outside), I though by myself that it could not just be the wind, but I was too sleepy and lazy to get out of my sleeping bag again, open the tent, and look what was going on outside. In the morning things became obvious anyhow: we were not woken up, and this could only mean that the weather was a killjoy. I opened the tent: Snow! and more than just a little. We discussed the situation. Two other trekking groups left in the morning and went back, but we decided to stay one more night. On the way back we would skip lake Lampokhari between Thansing and Kokchorung.
The day we spent again with reading books, and Sigal - experiencing snow for the first time in her life - tried in vain to build a snowman and ended up building a leguan ?. Cloud banks rolled up to us from the valley bringing more snow. Again, we went sleeping early, when I woke up in the night I was pleased to see that it had stopped snowing. But again, we were not woken up. Five minutes to six, one lightning and thunder, and the next batch of snow came down. Frustrated as we were we now decided to go back, too.
We walked to Kokchorung, the first part of it in driving snow, near Thansing it became a little bit clearer and it seemed like we could see some blue sky. We arrived after three hours and the hut was all ours. In the meantime the sky opened here and there, and we wondered how it would look like further up. Going up to Goecha La now was impossible, too much snow had fallen and the path had vanished. Raj drew our attention to the following day. He explained that it was also not possible to walk down to Tshoka along the Prek Chhu, we had to climb up the endless, steep serpentines. The way along the river was too dangerous now, and the water too cold, so swimming was no option. I had to accept that I had no choice but climbing up.
Walking through the snow nearly took my last energy. When we arrived on top Raj informed us that we did not need to walk through Dzongri because there was a shortcut, just a little bit steep. So we went on climbing, up to about 4100 m. Activating all my remaining energy I managed to go on walking, each little climb nearly taking away my breath (the main reason obviously was my messy stomach which I did not have under control anymore since the night before we started trekking. At that time I thought that was it, I can't go. The consequence was that I was lacking energy, sometimes I even did not enjoy eating anything.) Thereafter the trail winded down steeply and walking through mud we soon reached the beautiful forest again. We passed the snow line, there was still some drizzle, but at some point it stopped. Tshoka was not far now. One of the porters, who had left earlier in the morning trying to reserve a room for us in one of the mountain huts, came my way with a pot of juice. Another 30 minutes he said, then went on to supply the others.
In Tshoka we had a quick wash, then we looked down the valley where Yuksom was already visible, and where low clouds slowly vanished.
The long walk on the last day did not bother us anymore, I was looking forward to arriving at our guesthouse, to my first beer, and the first shower after nine days. We took dinner, me with low appetite, had some Thomba - a fermented millet drink - for celebrating our finished trek and my birthday, and also got some cake. We went on with music, dance and the obligatory group photos, and on the following day we separated.
I stayed one more day in Yuksom, met some more nice people who I met again in Darjeeling later on and who were enthusiastic about the trekking and the accompanying team, too. Sigal and Roi went to Kecheopalri lake, I followed them the next day. Sometimes there was again lots of rain coming down and I fled back to Darjeeling through Pelling. I spent a few more days walking a part of Sandakphu trek up to Gorkhey. I enjoyed it, because it was quiet and very relaxing. Good sketch maps of Sandakphu trek are available at "Sonam's Kitchen", a nice little snack bar and cafe in Darjeeling, near Andy Guesthouse.