The village of Yoksom is 30 kilometers north of Pelling at the end of a road that gives up when the approach to Kangchendzonga from the south becomes too arduous. A walkable trail continues north from here along the banks of the Prek Chu (Prek River) to the famous "alpine meadow" of Dzongri at nearly 4,000 meters, with it's views of the Kangchendzonga massif and subsequent passage (to those of sufficient physical, financial and some say spiritual fitness) over the Goecha La pass at 4940 meters to a bowl in the massif where you are surrounded by giant peaks and dwarfed by the south-east face of Kanchendzonga herself.
I made it as far as Tsokha, two-thirds of the way to Dzongri, before turning back, being thus fortunate enough to miss some very bad weather. The path along the Prek Chu passes through leech-infested forest where red panda, black bear, hundreds of species of birds and butterflies -and almost no humans- hang out. It's very beautiful. The river is a raging torrent, always swollen with glacial meltwater, and several times you cross sidestreams crashing down off the hillside on rickety (but safe) suspension bridges, where a riot of prayer flags draped there by local Buddhists flutter in the breeze.
The final few kilometers are tough going (for the likes of me)! Yoksom is at 1780 meters, while Tsokha, at 3,000 meters, is 16 horizontal kilometers away, up a path that winds and twists, several times dropping many hundreds of meters down into the gorge of a tributary river before zigzagging tortuously back up again to reach the same altitude that you were at an hour previously.
Finally, at Tsokha, you find yourself in a tiny village on a slight lessening of the gradient, where horses roam about looking for pasture, among vegetation that is a strange mix of towering fir tree and ubiquitous rhododendron (which, for a few weeks in spring, is a flowery riot of red, pink, white, yellow and lavender). There is a view of Pandim (6691 mtrs) from near Tsokha that's pretty cool. 6691 mtrs (21946 feet) is BIG.
I never made it to the Geocha La myself but I heard locals say that if you're one of the lucky few to have crossed over that pass into the sanctuary beyond, the experience is life-changing. It seems there's a connection with the Lepcha paradise here, the paradise known as Mayal Ling. More on that later.
Coming back to "civilisation" Tashiding is well worth a visit. You can take the road along the north side of the Rangit Chu from Yoksom to get there, or, from Pelling, you can go via Gayzing and Legship. It's a small village perched on a ridge with steep gorges down to rivers a long way down to both the east and the west. (The Rathong Chu and the Relli Chu). Accomodation is very basic. The monastery on top of the nearby hill is sweet. Scattered among the stupas next to the monastery are hundreds of Tibetan Buddhist text fragments carved into pieces of rock, the product of decades of devotion by a single individual, the man who, most of the time to this day, can be found chipping away with a hammer and chisel in a tiny lean-to structure not far behind the main monastery building. Many religions encourage devotion: in Buddhism this is ideally devotion to the Dhamma (teaching) that leads to enlightenment. Sometimes, however, devotion turns out to be ill-advised.
Here's an amazing story I heard in Tashiding that relates. Once upon a time, just a few decades ago, a Tibetan man appeared in Sikkim claiming special knowledge of the Lepcha paradise. He claimed to know the location of the long-forgotten gate or door on the flank of Kangchendzonga that would provide those of sufficient faith with access to the true paradise that lay beyond the earth. If people would only commit themselves to follow him (and perhaps donate something?) then he would lead them to the door. Before long he had a band of more than 20 followers, some of whom had sold their farms to tie up their worldly affairs and raise money for the venture. All had said goodbye to loved ones expecting never to return.
The party made its way to Yoksom and set off up the Dzongri trail. Somewhere near the otherworldly, but quite real, landscape of the Goecha La, a stone apparently fell from a rockface above onto the head of the unfortunate prophet who was leading the group to salvation, who then died of his injuries. Only he knew the location of the magical gate, of course, so his secret died with him.
The directionless group were then doomed to return to normal life in the valleys below: several days later the bedraggled remnants limped back into Yoksom, some with frostbite. Others had left the group on the way down, taking a side trail to cross over into Nepal via the Singalila Ridge. And so it goes. I could tell you where one of the survivors of that group hangs out to this day. But I won't. I'm not sure that person would welcome the attention.
Rabongla sits high on a ridge between Pelling and Gangtok. The town itself isn't exactly pretty but I enjoyed my time there, one because of the Rabongla Festival (April 2006, possibly happening again in later years) and two because of a side- trip I took up the Relli Chu, that I enjoyed immensely. The festival (as the photographs here show) was mainly a chance to showcase some of the traditional dances and ethnic costumes of some of the many ethnic groups to whom Sikkim is home. These cultures include the Bhutia people, the Limbu, Rai, Damai, Lepcha, Tamang and others. The dances and music were sometimes quite strange to the Western ear, but they were fascinating nonetheless.
Various dignitaries came to watch the proceedings, including an eight-year-old tulku (reincarnation of a Buddhist master) to whom one whole day's events were dedicated. (From what I could see the tulku appeared to be enjoying rides on the boating lake and the ice-cream as much as the festival). There was good food of many different kinds, a tree house in a tall tree, and in the evening local bands played to a heaving "mosh pit" of 1000 young people (and me), while Sikkimese dance music throbbed away in a "secret" disco in the woods nearby. If you hear rumours of future festivals at Rabongla, do go if you have the chance, as this worthy festival needs your support.
The Lepcha people were the original inhabitants of Sikkim. Now most Lepchas are Buddhist, but the influence of the earlier Lepcha animist beliefs is still felt today. For instance Kangchendzonga herself was formally made part of Sikkimese Buddhist belief, a theological adjustment that is celebrated each year in the Pang Lhabsol festival. And since time immemorial heaven for the Lepcha people is a place called Mayel, or Mayel Ling (or Mayel Lyang, etc -literally, "land of the fairies").
Mayel Ling is also the name for the land of Sikkim itself, and thirdly, in Lepcha stories Mayel Ling is the name of the place from which all Lepchas can trace their history: a physical, secret, place somewhere on the slopes of Khangchendzonga, a place that also has a spiritual nature that transcends the physical. Much of the history of Sikkim has been veiled by the myths and legends of antiquity. Myths are powerful. For instance, there is a story pertaining to the gradual influx of Tibetans into Sikkim after the 14th century when king Khey Bumsa of Tibet recieved help from the Lepcha king Thekong Thek, from which flowed, they say, an everlasting friendship between the two peoples.
One wonders however if this story was not put out by the rulers (the Bhutia in particular) as a way of engendering peaceful compliance... dig a little deeper however and you learn that there are historical Lepcha documents attesting to the fact that they did at times feel subjugated by the rule of their Buddhist masters, and they didn't always submit without complaint to this rule. Similarly although it's common to read about the "peace-loving" nature of the Lepcha people, again there are historical documents attesting to the fact there have been several periods in Lepcha history when groups of warriors were trained and ready to defend Lepcha lands and culture from invasion.
In truth the history of the whole region has illustrated an ever-changing competition for power and influence among many groups, particularly the Tibetan Bhutia people, the Lepchas, the Bhutanese, Nepalis of various "tribes", the English and latterly Indians from the world's second most populous country, of which Sikkim is now a part. Britain historically had a lot of influence in Sikkim, especially in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, when many roads and schools were built that survive to this day. The politics of Britain's Great Game were rarely straightforward however. For instance many Nepali people were encouraged to settle in Sikkim by the British as a strategic way of offsetting the power of Sikkim's traditional (post-17th-century) rulers. Arguably from a Bhutia point of view the Nepali bloc then became too strong (but that's another story). Then, according to the history books, Rabtense was occupied by Bhutanese soldiers for a time... anyhow
The Sikkim government officially recognises eleven languages in common usage within Sikkim's borders. The language spoken by the Bhutias in Sikkim is known either as Bhutia or Sikkimese. It has some similarity with Tibetan and the Dzongkha language of Bhutan, with some degree of intelligibility possible between people speaking any of the three tongues. The Namgyal dynasty who ruled Sikkim from AD 1642 till 1975 were Buddhist Bhutias.
Economically and socially the Bhutias have done relatively well within Sikkim. Traditionally the vast majority of monks in Sikkimese monasteries were Bhutia: the expectation being that the second son of every Bhutia family would be a monk- in recent years this has changed however with monasteries accepting novice monks from a broader cross-section of the community. Clan discrimination is still fairly widespread nonetheless and marriage outside the Bhutia community is often looked down upon. Bhutia women tend to enjoy higher status than their counterparts in other communities. (Just as women in Tibet have traditionally been relatively powerful).
In Northern Sikkim Bhutia are still the majority inhabitants (sometimes known as Lachenpas or Lachungpas, meaning inhabitants of Lachen or Lachung, the towns midway up the two main valleys leading to the northernmost passes to Tibet). Interestingly polyandry (one woman marrying more than one man) was not uncommon among Lepcha people in the past. (And polyandry is still occasionally practised among mountain people in Nepal).
There's an interesting trip north out of Rabongla into the no-exit valley of the Relli Chu. Take the road that skirts the hillside under the west side of Maenam Wildlife Sanctuary, passing the two groups of prayer flags (where taxis have gone over the edge killing many people) until you traverse the spur at the north-west boundary of the park. You are now in the valley of the Relli River, which drains the south-east corner of the Kangchendzonga massif, which is itself fed by tributaries such as the Rongdung Chu tumbling down from Narsing (5,800 meters).
The Relli Chu valley is bordered to the north by a high ridge that forms the south-west border of Dzongu, the traditional home of the Lepcha people (about which more later). I loved this valley. It wasn't hard to round up a team of Westerners to split the cost of a jeep to take us to the Bermally Bridge, some 20 kilometers or more up the Relli Valley. I would have liked to have gone further, which is apparently possible despite the signs saying no motorised traffic on the bridge, since the road clearly continues for some distance on the other side. Sadly for me however our driver (and some of the team) were reluctant to go on, so we turned round to visit the wonderful Ralong monastery, overlooking Tashiding on the opposite side of the deep river gorge (and somewhat lower in altitude).
Next time I may just continue (with official sanction and due preparation, of course) to Dhupidanda village, taking in a close look at Narsing via the Rongdung Chu, then find my way to Laringvigphu, one of Sikkim's four sacred caves (and the most innaccessible of them all) hidden away under one of the ridges stretching down in the south-east of the Kangchendzonga massif. Next time...
I used to be a climber, so I must admit I find it a little bit odd that just because Narsing (for instance) is somewhat lower than Kangchendzonga (Kangchendzonga being 8585 mtrs high, with the summit of Narsing at 5,800) almost no non-locals are interested in the approach to Narsing. To put things in perspective Mont Blanc, the highest point in Western Europe, is 4,810 meters or 15,780 feet high. This makes Narsing, at 19,000 feet, bigger than any mountain in western Europe (in other words, huge).
Assuming the path up the Rongdung Chu (which is marked on an Indian government survey map) is reasonably walkable, that should make this giant, of all Kangchendzonga's satellites, one of the easiest to approach. There's no mention of this at all in any of the guidebooks, however. Tourism in Sikkim is still quite undeveloped.
I found Ralong monastery, in the Relli Chu valley, to be a very peaceful and attractive place. When I was there many young monks were practising some kind of Tibetan ritual dance in the monastery's square courtyard, which involved stepping out very high with the foot before stomping the whole body down dramatically, proceeding in this manner with outstretched arms like some kind of cross between Bruce Lee and John Cleese. I felt very privileged to be able to watch and take photographs here. Just as I felt very grateful for the "open door" policy that pertains in many of the other monasteries of Sikkim.
While enjoying the remarkable atmosphere of the Relli Chu valley and Ralong monastery, I found myself musing about the travelling it was necessary for me to do to get to this wonderful place. A day's flying from Canada to Delhi, then a three-hour flight the next day from Delhi to Bagdogra. A three-hour taxi ride up the hill to Darjeeling. After staying in Darjeeling, two hours by share-taxi to Jorethang. Two hours to Gayzing. Two hours from Gayzing to Rabongla via Legship. Another stay, then another hour and another taxi from Rabongla to Ralong. With just about as much time spent in airports and taxi ranks as actually travelling. Which all in all adds up to something of a test of stamina lasting several days at a minimum.
Perhaps this is something that sorts the sheep out from the goats a little bit in the sense that if it wasn't quite such hard work to get to Sikkim from Canada or Western Europe the place would be awash with many more Western travellers. Most days I saw a handful of Westerners, that's all. Some of that travelling requires real down-and-dirty Indian bazaar experience (eg in Siliguri, where two taxi drivers fought viciously over who should take me and another guy: we had to break up the fight and make it clear we wanted to go with the driver who was there first). Perhaps the squalor of those Indian chowks is something of a necessary rite of passage, without which the beauty of places like Ralong and the Relli Chu would seem far less precious?
If "several days" travel seems arduous, think of Joseph Dalton Hooker who in the mid 19th century, on a three-year trip out of England, spent many months exploring the mountain forests of this area: on his first trip he went to Dzongri, then hiked west over the spurs of Kangchenjunga and north west over Nepal's passes into Tibet. On his second trip he made his way up to Lachen and then on to the Kongra Lama and Lachoong Passes. This when there were no four-wheel drives (no roads) just paths through dense forest among peoples who did not even share the use of Nepali as a lingua franca.
Talking of jeeps if ever I was to find myself in this neck of the woods again I think I would, if possible, rent or buy a four-wheel drive vehicle in Siliguri so that I could go where I want, when I want, without the (albeit cheap) hassle and crampedness of sharing taxis. As a photographer, it would be great to be able to stop 101 times by the side of the road, or in a tiny hamlet, just to take pictures. Generally taking photographs from inside a share-taxi is an impossibility. You tend to be crammed in like a sardine in a can, while the vehicle rattles and bumps along so violently that taking pictures is out of the question. The most people I counted in a jeep was 19.
The walk from Rabongla to the top of Maenam Hill, through Maenam Wildlife Sanctuary, is well worth doing. It's a stiff walk though, subjectively seeming to be about 8 kilometers each way with 1,000 meters of ascent. Inside this 36 square kilometer park there live red panda, leopard, black eagle, civet cat, goral, serow, barking deer, marbled cat, sunbird and much more. If you were at the top of the hill in the very early morning (sleeping in the building on the top of the hill would most likely be quite uncomfortable) then chances are you would see one of the finest views in Sikkim. Sadly the weather was cloudy when I was there...