[OcelotNews] Ocelotians in Northern India

KD7NDG at Winlink.org KD7NDG at Winlink.org
Fri Apr 15 22:13:00 PDT 2011

Dear Friends & Family,     16 April 2011, Chennai, India

Since we last wrote we've done a 3-week inland tour of northern India.  We visited another game park, toured an organic Tea Plantation, rode on a narrow-gauge railway, & explored several hill-top towns.  But the most fun was an 8-day camping trek into the Himalayas to see Mt Kanchendzonga (Kanchenjunga), third highest mountain in the world!

We left Chennai & flew to Calcutta, then on to the access point for the Himalayas in Eastern India: Bagdogra.  We met our friends on Vamp there (they'd been touring the Deli/Agra area).  Sue had arranged for a private jeep that took us east through low-land tea plantations to our hotel at the Jaldhpara Wildlife Preserve.  The next morning we did both jeep & elephant safaris in the preserve, watching barking deer, sambar deer, mongooses, one-horned rhino & many birds.

That afternoon we drove back past Bagdogra & then north into the West Bengal Hills, where we spend the night at home stays on the regions first (& only) organic tea plantation: Makaibari Tea Estates.  Very basic homes & outhouses (ours was still under construction) with only footpath access but all built tightly on the steep hills.  Got a tour of the newly operating factory (plucking season had just begun) & a guided walk through the fields.

At 3pm we caught the 100-year-old narrow-gauge "Toy Trail", a great 3-hour ride.  It winds slowly up the hills to Darjeeling, passing through small villages & giving great views.  They have both diesel & at least 3 cute little steam engines making the run.  First class has comfortable seats (which faced backwards) but 2nd class was packed in like sardines.

We stayed in Darjeeling for 2 nights at the lovely Dekeling Hotel.  You have to walk up 3 flights of stairs (past 2 restaurants) just to get to the reception area, & then another 1-3 flights to get to your room.  At 7,000' (2100m) elevation, this can get you winded.  But it has lots of polished wood, a lovely Tibetan owner & a great guest area to mingle with other travelers with heater, lounge chairs, sofas, tea on request & great views of both the mountains & the town.  We wandered the small streets of this hilltop town, ate in numerous tiny restaurants & bought warm clothes for our upcoming trek.

Since we were still 5, we again bought a private "jeep" (actually a knock-off, built by the Indian car manufacturer Tata) for the 5-hour trip to Gangtok.  On the way we stopped in at the famous Rumtek monastery, where we saw & heard the Buddhist monks praying & playing their numerous (& unharmonious) bells, horns, cymbals & drums.  Strangely, there were several military armed guards about, as they'd had some troubles there earlier.

Gangtok is in Sikkim, which was an independent kingdom until annexed by India in 1975 (Sue had met the king, or chogyal, in 1974).  There we were met by the wonderful Sailesh Pradhan, who Sue has known since 1992.  Sailish runs a nursery & tour agency, & had organized our whole trek for us.  Him & his father are instrumental in directing how tourism will develop in the Sikkim Himalayas.  They don't want it to become like Nepal, but want it preserved more as a wilderness.  The problem is that, while they want to cater to high-end tourists, those folks usually don't want to sleep in tents.  We had one day in Gangtok with Vamp to explore the cute markets & shops & restaurants before they left to return to their boat in Chennai.

The next morning we took a "share-jeep" 5-hours west to our trail-head at Yuksom.  Most road transportation in the mountains is by "share-jeep" where they pack 2+driver in the front seat, then 4 in each of the 2-3 rear seats (& sometimes some on the roof, which is always packed high with luggage).  This might be OK for Indians but doesn't leave much legroom for us, so we ended up buying both front seats & 2 spots in the next seat back, so we'd have enough room.  These "jeeps" are built in India.  They're only 2-wheel drive & the roads are brutal so they're pretty tired vehicles, usually with retread tires, suspension that clunks ominously & no seat-belts or other amenities.  The roads wind up & down precipitous cliffs as they cross over a mountain ridge only to dive down to cross a river before climbing up the next ridge.  Pretty hairy.

That night we got a big hotel room to sort out all our stuff.  The next morning we were met by our guide, Thupten (also Sue's guide from her 1992 Sikkim trek) who directed the loading of the Tibetan ponies.  It's been said that trekking in Sikkim is like Nepal 30 years ago, & that's mostly correct.  There are few support services in these mountains, so a camping-trek is necessary.  (It's also the only legal way for foreigners to trek there!)  Our entourage included Thupten as guide, a cook, 2 helpers, & a horseman to handle the ponies.  Gear included sleeping bags for us (including hot water bottles!), a brand new tent, comfortable sleeping mats, a huge cook-tent, table & chairs, a vast array of cooking implements, & even a toilet tent!  We carried kerosene for cooking as we're not allowed to use wood.

Thupten had specified ponies instead of Yaks (actually a bovine cross-breed called Dzo or Dzopkyo).  Dzo tend to hibernate a bit in the winter & he felt they weren't strong enough yet for trekking.  He was probably right, as 2 dzo died on the trail while we were up there.

We were served 3 delicious meals a day plus a snack (& warm washing water!) when we arrived at our day's destination.  Tea or hot lemon (or even hot ginger-lemon!) was served with all meals.  Breakfast was usually an omelet, toast & porridge but sometimes included French toast or pancakes with honey or Druk "mixed-fruit" jam.  Lunch & dinner always started with delicious hot soup & finished with some sort of fruit for dessert.  In between would be rice or some sort of bread with 3-4 other dishes like curried vegetables, fried chicken, Dal (lentils), potatoes, stews, green beans, & even pizza.  All of this was varied to stay interesting, & hygiene was never a problem.  Looking at what other trekkers got, ours was definitely a high-end trek.

We started up into lush forest, massive trees covered in thick moss & huge split leaf philodendron.  Our trailhead started at 6,000' (1800m), crossed the Teesta River at 7,000' (2100m) & over 7 grueling hours we climbed up through light rain to the tiny trekking village of Tshoka at 10,000' (3000m).  Here we actually had a real (but very rustic) room with hard beds & a fire we could warm up by.  We decided to take an acclimatization day at Tshoka but we still got up early to see the views of Mt Pandim & the other high mountains ahead of us.  Mornings are usually clear & the best time for these views.  After breakfast we visited the tiny monastery, spun the prayer wheels (clockwise, always) & took a short loop-trail through thick rhododendron & magnolias with Thupten telling us more about the area's flora.

>From Tsoka we went up another 3,000' (1000m) to Dzongri at 13,000' (4000m), a small yak-herding village.  The trail wound through rhododendron forests with some species blooming, but the rain started early.  At 11,500' (3500m) it turned into corn-snow, which was actually better as it tended to bounce off us.  The trail was often rock steps (falling into disrepair with all the animal traffic) or wood slats which were better but could only be used on flat terrain.  The trees gradually gave way to dwarf rhododendron (R. anthopogan) & other low shrubs as we climbed above the tree line.  Dzongri actually had a building with rooms to stay in, but all of them were full with other trekkers so we stayed in our snug new yellow tent.

Got up at 5am to hike up 1,000' (300m) to a hilltop viewpoint to see the snow-capped mountains.  Got peek-a-boo views of several, including Kanchendzonga, but the clouds came in fast so we went down to our camp & had breakfast in the cook-tent.  We could have spent another night at Dzongri to acclimatize, but instead opted to hike to Thangsing, as it's much the same elevation.  After climbing up from Dzongri, the trail did a fairly level traverse through snow & dwarf rhododendron before dropping 1,000' (300m) down through thick rhododendron forest to cross the Prek Chu river.  There was a small hut at the river which provided protection from the corn-snow for a delicious hot lunch.  From there we walked north up the river, along the Thangsing valley, slowly climbing above the tree-line again.

Thangsing has a couple of huts but they're very broken down, with walls & roofs missing.  Here we rescued a 22-year old Californian woman who'd been abandoned by her guide!  She'd been given a porter (who spoke little English) but insufficient food & no tent.  Thupten generously allowed her to sleep in the cook-tent with our entourage & she ate our food (there was always more than we could eat).  Apparently there are several fly-by-night trekking companies who will offer budget treks that don't come anywhere near expectations, as we saw a few other instances of of people being "rescued".

The next morning we were again up before the sun to climb east up a neighboring ridge.  An Indian group (5 guys in 1 tent & no guide) joined us, but they stopped at the first view of Mt Kanchendzonga.  We continued climbing up the ridge, eventually reaching 14,500' (4400m) for some stunning views of all 5 peaks of Kanchendzonga as well as the entire Kabru range to the left & Mt Pandim looming above us.

When the clouds came in we returned to our camp for breakfast & our only opportunity to wash our hair, which amused all the locals.  Our hike that day was pretty short, just continuing a few miles up the wide Thangsing valley to the foot of the glacial moraine at Lamuney (a grandiose name for a wide spot on the trail with the walls of a single broken-down hut).  On our way we spotted a herd of wild "Blue Sheep" with their huge curled-back horns!  Our tents were setup in the depression of an old stream-bed, to provide some protection from the strong winds coming up the valley.

It was only at Lamuney that we came across our first Mani-stones, piled into walls.  These are flat rocks into which prayers have been laboriously chipped (usually Ohm-Mani-Padme-Hum).  The Mani-walls are placed along trails, & hikers are expected to leave them to their right as they pass.  That way, when you return down the same trail, you will have circled the Mani-stones clockwise, which will send all the prayers off to where they need to go.  We saw Mani-walls all over Nepal, but Sikkim had fewer.

The next morning we got up very early for a quick breakfast in the cook-tent.  It was blizzarding outside with snow & a fierce wind behind us, but we decided to try to go up to the viewpoint anyway.  We climbed up over several moraines until we got to sacred Simiti Lake.  Here Thupten struggled to put up a string of prayer-flags he'd brought.  We weren't looking forward to having to face into the wind on the way back to our camp, but as soon as the prayer-flags were up, there was a flash of lightening, a crash of thunder, and ... the wind started veering!  It was coming from the side of us as we made our way back down to our camp for a snack of hot lemon & popcorn.  But after our snack we looked outside & saw ... blue sky!  The blizzard had passed & it wasn't snowing anymore & we had clear skies!  (Very effective prayer-flags!)  So we set out once again, passing Simiti Lake & continuing up past more moraines to an excellent viewpoint above the glaciers.  Here we could see the entire Kabru range, Kanchendzonga, Pandim, & several lesser peaks all looking down on us as our camera shutters clicked madly.  The sun was warm when we got out of the wind, & we were able to find enough protection for a restorative snack after our strenuous climb.

We got back to our camp, packed up, & walked back down past Thangsing to the hut at the Prek Chu River.  We slept inside the hut, but it was old & funky enough that there were certain places we couldn't step or we risked falling through the floor.  There's a short-cut from here that bypasses Dzongri but it stays low, in the forest, & the trail is reputed to be narrow & muddy.  Since the next morning dawned bright & sunny we decided not to take the shortcut but to hike back up the 1,000' (300m) to the high traverse, as we knew it would have beautiful views that we hadn't seen earlier (we'd been hiking in clouds).  There was still considerable snow on the ground up high but the views more than made up for it.  Dwarf rhododendron (R. anthopogan) emits a lovely smell when it gets warm so we had delightful smells as well.  Lunch was in a shallow depression on a ridge-top above Dzongri at 13,500' (4100m) with excellent views on both sides.

We spent the night at Tshoka & continued down to Yuksom the next day.  That night was the day before Jon's birthday so the cook prepared a sumptuous meal that included a frosted cake with the words Happy Berday Jon written in icing.

We had booked one more day of trekking, but due to the extreme cold at night (always below freezing) & Sue's newly launched head cold, we opted for leaving the mountains one day early.  We made good use of that day by taking a side trip (again by share jeep) to the hilltop town of Pelling, Sikkim, which is famous for it's mountain views and beautiful old monasteries.  We found a nice hotel near the ridge of upper-town with a rooftop veranda & restaurant.  We shared a real birthday dinner with new trekking friends, had long hot showers, then fell into soft beds.

Next morning saw us in another jeep for the 5 hour trip back to Gangtok.  We wanted to see Sailesh again, & to meet up with TD, one of the guides that had helped Sue's father get to the Dzongri viewpoint (almost 14,000' or 4200m) in 1992 when he was 83!  We had a couple of relaxing days in Gangtok, then took a jeep back to Darjeeling where we spent the weekend.  Both Sailesh & Thupten offered connections for us to visit Jamling Norgay (son of Tenzing Norgay Sherpa, who climbed with Hillary in 1953) at the family home in Darjeeling.  Sue bought one of Jamling's books (which he signed!) "Touching my Father's Soul" about his own experiences climbing Everest in 1996 with the IMAX expedition, in the wake of the tragedies on the mountain that season.  Jamling and his wife Soyang were personable & friendly & we enjoyed tea & a visit to the family museum.  Jamling also knows our dear friend Pema, from Khumjung, Nepal, as he stayed in her home several times (& wrote about her in his book).  Our last day in the mountains we spent at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute & the neighboring 60-year old zoo of Himalayan animals, to see our first Red Pandas.  It's nicely done with big enclosures akin to those in Seattle.

After more share jeeps & airplane rides & 3-wheeled auto rickshaws we're back aboard Ocelot in Chennai harbor.  The coal dust & crows made a major mess of the deck & it took more than 5 hours of 2 of us scrubbing (with running hose) to clean it up.  Then there was the inside ... & the port engine ... & the laundry.  We plan to leave on Sunday the 17th & will be taking a Chennai friend, Shantha Ravikumar, with us as crew.  She is a competitive laser sailor here with the Tamil Nadu Sailing Association & great fun.  It'll be nice to have more crew for night passages & a fun friend aboard!

Fair Views & Snowy Peaks  --  Jon & Sue    s/v Ocelot
http://HackingFamily.com    http://svOcelot.com

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