4/17/2008 to 5/5/2008 | India , Sikkim

Sikkim: Goecha La to Kathmandu

Sikkim is in northeast India and it sticks up like a little peninsula into the Himalayas.  Bordered on the west by Nepal, the east by Bhutan, and the north by Tibet its culture and landscape is closer to these regions than most of  the rest of India..  I was heading to Sikkim to do some trekking in the Indian Himalaya.  Unfortunately unlike some places in Nepal where it is possible to just take off on your own bureaucratic permits and mandatory guides mean foreigners are forced to join guided all inclusive treks.  From Siligeri in West Bengal where my train from Calcutta deposited me, I caught a jeep to the Sikkimese capital of Gangtok with a Sikkimese guy who worked as a guide, a couple (Japanese girl and Nepali guy), and a half Japanese/ half Swedish Canadian girl.  Upon reaching Gangtok and securing lodging I met up with the others to celebrate Nepali New Years over some Sikkimese rum.  But the real reason I came to Gangtok was not the rum but rather to find a group to join on the trek to the Goecha La, a 4950m (16,335 ft) pass with views of the third highest mountain in the Kanchenjanga (also spelled Kanchendzonga) at 8586 m (28,330 ft) which straddles the Nepal/Sikkim boarder.  I found a Australian, Jesse, and a German, Marko, who where headed off to do the trek the next day so I joined them.

The accent on this trail is faster than most and we were doing the trek in 8 days rather than the usual nine which meant in the first two days we climbed a 1000 m a day starting just shy of 2000 m in the town of Yaksom and ending the second day at Dzongri which sits at about 4000 m (13,200 ft).  Unfortunately the ascent was too rapid for the Australian and after the first day he had to turn back, and along with our guide returned to Yaksom.  That left Marko and I, led by our jovial 18 year-old cook now guide, Bhim, to lead us onward.  For the two of us, we had two porters, a yak driver with two half yak/ half cows (the name of which sounds like word “Joe,” but I’m not sure how its actually spelled), and our guide/cook Bhim.  It seemed like overkill, but everyone was always busy and we certainly dined well, considering our location.  It was a beautiful trek winding through rhododendron forests on the first two days and through alpine valleys with breathtaking mountain vistas the next 4 days.  The weather was only good in the mornings so trekking often consisted of waking up before dawn and catching the sunrise at a nearby view point than walking for half a day and then sitting around the simple lodge or tent trying to keep warm in the afternoon, when the clouds rolled in along with occasional rain at lower altitude and hail up higher.  The day to reach the pass we set off at 3:45 am to reach the first view point by sunrise ~5:30am, 400 m higher and 4 km away from our camp.  From there it was yet another 4 km and 400 m more to reach the nearly 5000 m pass of the Goecha La.  Of the 8 people who set out for the pass on the morning I went half stopped at the first view point, a testament to the difficulty of the climb.  Fortunately I seem to deal with altitude pretty well and was able to get all the way to the pass, although I did get a small altitude related headache on the way back down to the camp.

From Goecha La it was 8 km hike back to our camp below Samiti Lake and a further 8 km back to Kokchuran where we stayed that night, making for a rather grueling day, but the views were certainly worth the effort.  A further two days of hiking brought us back to Yuksom the finishing point of our trek.  From Yuksom, I caught a jeep to the hill top resort town of Pelling famed for its Himalayan views.  Weather permitting Himalayan views, the entire time I was there the only wall of white I saw were not the snow covered peaks of the Himalayas but a curtain of clouds that seemed to perpetually drape the mountains.  Fortunately I had just seen the mountains close up and was more interested in checking out the local monasteries which are among the oldest in Sikkim.  Although by Indian standards, they are not that old, only dating from the early 18th century.  Given the relatively poor weather and my concerns about an early monsoon I decided to skip a planned visit to the famous hill station and tea growing region of Darjeeling and head directly to the Nepali border and the long journey across eastern Nepal to Kathmandu.

I had heard hoar stories about crossing the Terai (the lowland plains on the southern boarder of Nepal) from the far eastern boarder of Nepal, yet I still undertook the journey, yielding to some sort of unconscious sadomasochistic tendency of mine that seems to draw me to long periods of discomfort aboard local buses.  To make matters worse I was undertaking the journey at the beginning of May among the hottest seasons of the year, the period of scorching weather prior to the onset of the somewhat cooling monsoonal rains.  I did decide to break up the marathon journey with an overnight stop in the Hindu pilgrimage town of Janakpur.  I’m still not certain if this was a wise decision or if it merely prolonged the agony. In truth, I must say that the journey to Janakpur was a relatively pleasant 8 hours, at least as pleasant as possible on a Nepali bus.  I had managed to procure the aisle seat behind the driver which has the “tri-fecta” when it comes to bus seat comfort.  First, and most importantly, there is plenty of leg room since I could extend my legs completely to the side to the driver’s seat.  Secondly, it’s in the front of the bus damping the beating taken by one’s posterior by the inevitably pothole laden Nepali roads.  Finally, between the gear shift box and the aisle there is adequate space to place my bag with out it encroaching in on my space.  It’s basically the golden seat of third world bus travel.  Unfortunately, the comfortable part of this journey ended when I stepped off the bus in Janakpur.  Being a major Hindu pilgrim destination, I had expected Janakpur to be a bit more developed than it was.  Then again it does border the Indian region of Bihar, one of the poorest areas in India, so I guess my expectations were a bit high.  A few burned out buses lining the road into town was a foretaste of what was to come.  The town, especially around the edge where the bus station was, looked like a inhabited half built (or perhaps more accurately half demolished) city.  Buildings with half completed upper stories were occupied on the lower levels, looking like they had existed in that state for decades. Big pools of sewage ridden water lie interspersed amidst the tattered brick buildings, providing perfect breading grounds for the ravaging hordes of mosquitoes that I would later discover swept through the town after dark.  But the place was not all bad, and being off the standard Nepali tourist trail I met a number of very friendly people and the area around the main temple was vibrant with activity.  However, the night in my simple guesthouse would be a long one.  Plagued by frequent power outages which would shut off the fan, and mosquitoes that would find there way past the defensives of my mosquito net, I spent a seemingly large portion of the night either lying awake in a pool of my own sweat or hunting down mosquitoes inside my net by flashlight.

After the less than restful night, I was almost excited to get back on the bus, excitement which faded when I learned I would have to take a bus to the main road and catch an almost certainly already full bus on to Kathmandu from there.  True to my expectations, the bus was full, and I budged my way past people sitting in the aisle to the last seat where the conductor made a room for me by making a boy sit on the lap of his older brother next to me.  Everyone on the bus seemed to wear that glazed look brought on by a mix of fatigue and misery that results from a night spent on a bus.  I sure I fit right in.  My only conciliation was that at least I had the middle last seat which has some leg room.  The little boy I had displaced was ill as well and when he wasn’t using my leg as a pillow he was throwing up in a plastic bag next to me.  Midway though the journey, I realized it was in my best interest to find a new bag for the kid, as I noticed that the contents of the bag were leaking on to my leg.  Needless to say, it was a very long 12 hour bus ride, made even longer by the two flat tires we incurred along the way.  I was fairly relieved to reach Kathmandu that is until I realized that the bus driver had dropped me off a very long way from Thamel (the Kathmandu tourist area where I was headed), after telling me I should get off since it was close.  Unwilling to spring for a cab even after this journey, I managed to find a minivan that was going to Ratna Park, a place I knew, and about a 20 minute walk from Thamel.  It was good to be back in the “Du,” at last.

4 comments to Sikkim: Goecha La to Kathmandu

  • wolfgang

    Hi Micah,

    very useful information! and great fotografie – congratulation!
    With my girlfriend I am planning trekking in Arunachal Pradesh maybe – do you know if, beyond the $100 permit for a month, we have to get any other permit? I want to avoid taking a guide, as I am an experienced mountaineer myself, also no porters – compared to sikkim where you HAVE to take a guide – here you don’t, isn’t it?
    can you recommend where to get good maps? military…etc
    can you recommend places/ areas or particular treks (I am not the type who sticks to described “treks” – rather have an appropriate map and navigate with it where I want to go..


  • Hi wolfgang,

    I’ve thought Arunachal has a lot of untapped potential for trekking. And if I get back there I’d like to do some trekking. As far as I know you do not need any additional permits but you will need the places you intend to trek listed on your permit, list as much as possible since it cost nothing extra and once the permit is issued its very difficult to add places (short of photoshop anyway). When I was in Menchuka a local told me about trekking a trekking route over the the mountains to the next valley which did not have a road to it yet sounded like a very untouched place. Sounded very interesting. Unfortunately maps will likely be a problem, as they are in all of the Indian Himalaya. India hasn’t realized that since the advent of satellites guarding decent maps like they are national treasures is pretty pointless. If you want to go a specific place you might have to resort to trying to enlist the help of a local as a guide but not necessary going through an agency. The Tawang area is also crossed with trails so that might be an easier place to trek and there are some established routes there though I can’t remember them off hand.

    good luck,

  • Fabrizio

    Hi Micah,

    with my eyes and my brain still gazed and confused after the sheer beauty of your pics, I’m asking if you can give me the contacts of your guide you’ve trekked with or any other contact of a professional and reliable yet cheap trek agency/guide for my soon-to-come Goechala Trek.

    All my best and keep travelling as you have done thorughout all this years.


  • Hi Fabrizio,

    Unfortunately I no longer have the contact info of the guide I used. I think the best thing to do if you have the time is go to Gangtok and start shopping around and negotiate there. You will always pay a premium if you book ahead, especially if you are only one person.

    thanks for the complements on the pictures and sorry I couldn’t be of more help

    enjoy the trek,

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