Sikkim’s vast, unspoiled mountain ranges are a trekker’s delight and its sanctuaries and national parks serve up vistas of forests of silver fir, magnolia, rhododendron and primulas, the rich wildlife and even views of the majestic Mt. Khangchendzonga and the rank and file of its attendant peaks. Trekking in Sikkim not only serves as a visual treat with spectacular views of its great mountains, it also introduces you to its mighty botanical wealth, incredible wildlife, pristine landscapes and friendly people.
The various treks on offer in Sikkim can be classified on the basis of their difficulty level, duration, grade and season. In the first of our three-part series on the treks one can do in the state, we look at the Dzongri-Goecha la or Khangchendzonga Trek, the most popular trek of Sikkim.
It is famed for its superb mountain views, a floral spectacle in summer, birds and views of pristine forest. It may get crowded on this route during October and sometimes during May as well, but trekkers who can brave early spring (April) and late autumn (mid-Nov to mid-Dec) would be suitably rewarded. The trail initially meanders through dense forests and, in summer, flowering orchids can be seen clinging to the bark of the highest trees. There is a lot of birdlife as well in this part of the route.
For the intrepid, monsoon is the most beautiful time on the Dzongri Alp. The weather is mild and the grass is green and fresh. Numerous wild flowers including potentellias, saxifrage, anemones and primulas spread out in a colorful patchwork, while sheep and yak graze contentedly on the luxuriant vegetation. The mountains are at their tantalizing best—a sharp shower and the clouds lift for a few minutes to reveal the steep south face of Pandim. Sometimes at dawn, the sky is clear and the entire chain of peaks is visible, only to be blanketed by thick rain clouds by mid-morning. Higher up, one can spot the reflection of Khangchendzonga in the still waters of the emerald-blue lakes on the glacier.
An expert level trek, this is one of the most challenging treks in Sikkim. For foreigners, permits like the Protected Area Permit (PAP) and the Restricted Area Permit (RAP) are mandatory.
DAY 1 / Yuksom-Tshoka
Time: 6-7 hours
The trail from Yuksom (1,785m) starts at the bazaar and follows the only main road northwards. It climbs gently out of the valley and hugs the right bank of the Ratong Chu River. The trail crosses four bridges about 50 minutes apart from each other. The last bridge is the longest and there is a camping spot here on the banks of the river. In the monsoon, this part of the trail is inundated with leeches and salt is required to shake them off. From the fourth bridge, the trail climbs steeply to the north-west for an hour, to the Forest Rest House at Bakhim, which was the old halting point before Trekkers’ Huts were built at Tshoka. The Bakhim Forest Rest House is still used by the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI) for accommodation en-route to their Base Camp at Chaurikhang, a day’s march from Dzongri.
There is a good view from the bungalow down the valley towards Yuksom. Continue on the trail, passing behind the Bakhim bungalow, and climb in a north-westerly direction through forests of magnolia and rhododendron for about an hour to Tshoka, 3 km away. The Trekkers’ Hut at Tshoka (3,000m) has a large camping ground behind it and groups of people usually pitch their tents here. There are a couple of private lodges in Tshoka, which also provide accommodation, which includes a new lodge, just opposite the Trekkers’ Hut.
DAY 2 / Tshoka-Dzongri
Time: 5-6 hours
The path cuts through the village of Tshoka and continues its climb steeply northwards through forests of rhododendron to the alp of Phidang (3,650m), taking around 2.5-3 hrs to complete the ascent. This is the steepest part of the trek as there is little respite in the form of descents. In wet weather, this part of the route becomes extremely muddy and slippery in parts. The clearing at Phidang is generally used as the spot for a lunch break and, in good weather, the peaks can be seen across the valley. During May and June, this part of the walk becomes exceptionally beautiful as rhododendrons, in their myriad hues, flower on either side of the trail. Most trekkers stop for lunch and head on to Dzongri.
The trail evens off a bit from Phidang before it climbs east again for Mon Lepcha, a pass which is higher than the Dzongri Trekkers’ Hut (4,030m). On a good day, Mon Lepcha commands an exceptional view of Pandim. The trail descends due north-west from Mon Lepcha before climbing north again, and the Dzongri Trekkers’ Hut soon comes into view. The distance from Phidang to Dzongri should not take you more than 3 hours, but remember that it is a stiff walk.
DAY 3 / Dzongri
It is advisable to have a rest day at Dzongri, both for acclimatisation as well as to savor the views of the mountains. Climb the hill above the bungalow referred to as Dzongri Top, and you will be rewarded with a panoramic view of Kabru (7,353m), Ratong (6,678m), Khangchendzonga (8,534m), Koktang (6,147m), Pandim (6,691m) and Narsing (5,825m). Towards the west, the Singalila Ridge, which separates Sikkim from Nepal, can be seen. In the afternoon, walk up to the Dzongri meadows and climb up to the ridge with the four chortens, at Dablakhang. The Dzongri meadow is a popular yak grazing ground.
DAY 4 / Dzongri-Thangsing
Time: 3-4 hours
Step out from the Dzongri bungalow and take the right trail, which passes the building and then climbs east up along the right bank of the river. After cresting the hill, the path drops into the valley and then crosses a bridge over the Prek Chu river. During late May and June this part of the trail is full of dwarf rhododendron blossoms. Thangsing (3,800m), an hour’s climb due north from the bridge, is located below the slopes of Mt. Pandim. This is usually an easy day and the more intrepid trekkers often travel to Samiti on the same day. This is, however, not recommended unless you are very well acclimatized and fit. There is a Trekkers’ Hut at Thangsing and groups often camp near the Prek Chu river.
DAY 5 / Thangsing-Samiti
Time: 4-5 hours
The trail from Thangsing climbs gently north, up the valley, and follows a stream and alpine meadows. About an hour above Thangsing, you will reach Onglathang, which has a superb view of the south face of Khangchendzonga. Start early from Thangsing so that you can catch the views before the clouds rush in. The trail then skirts a series of glacial moraines (an accumulation of earth and stones carried and finally deposited by a glacier) before crossing the meadows again, and finally arrives at the emerald-green lake at Samiti (4,500m). It is usually very cold at the Trekkers’ Hut in Samiti and afternoon snowfall is a regular feature here, especially in the spring months.
DAY 6 / Samiti-Goecha La Pass-Kokchurang
Time: 7-8 hours
The climb to Goecha-La begins with a gentle gradient eastward for about half an hour and then, the real climbing starts. The trail follows the glacial moraine north-east and then drops to a dry lake at Zemathang. A rough scramble over rocks and boulders with a rise of about 400m will bring the trekker to the top of the Pass. Most trekkers leave Samiti by first light so as to reach the top by 9.30am or so. The climb from Samiti to Goecha-La (5,002m) would take between 3½ and 4 hrs.
The pass is formed by a depression between Pandim and the Kabru spurs. It overlooks the Talung Valley and commands a very impressive view of the south face of Khangchendzonga. It is possible to go over the pass, into the valley, and follow the Talung Glacier for 2-3 days into North Sikkim, but this would be a mountaineering trip, requiring technical climbing skills and expedition support. Follow your tracks back to Thangsing, which will take you 2-3 hrs, and then head for one hour towards Dzongri until you reach a clearing called Kokchurang (3,800m), which has a Trekkers’ Hut. One usually reaches here by late afternoon with more than enough time to set up camp.
DAY 7 / Kokchurung-Dzongri - Tshoka
Time: 5-6 hours
It is possible to bypass Dzongri and reach Tshoka directly, though many of the guides and porters do not prefer this route as it travels through the forest and the trail is difficult to find, especially if it has snowed. From Kokchurang, head south-east on the well-marked trail for 4-5 hrs. Ask the chowkidar at Kokchurang or Thangsing about the best route back, as the trail conditions change depending on the month, snowfall, rain and landslides. However, if you have the time, you may want to return via Dzongri and add may want to add a side trip to Chaurikhang.
DAY 8 / Tshoka-Yuksom
Time: 4-5 hours
Retrace your steps to Yuksom on the final day of the trek. The going is easier as the path is mainly downhill.