“Our moon was almost full… the nearer snows were but faint and indistinct, while between their pale shadowy masses the whole peak of Kangchenjunga was fully illuminated as by a heavenly searchlight. The rock and ice were transfigured into a silver shrine, a visionary emblem of purity and aspiration. The worship of Kangchenjunga at that moment seemed very reasonable service.”
–“Round Kangchenjunga,” Douglas Freshfield, 1899
Sikkim offers some of the finest trekking country in the Himalaya. The concept of “tea house trekking,” with lodges for travellers en route, which is very popular in Nepal, has not yet developed in Sikkim. Even so, it is possible to arrange porters, tents and food with the support of local trekking companies/guides for this trek.
The peak trekking seasons are April-May and October-November. It is possible to trek outside these seasons, but the winter months of December and January can be very cold above 3000 meters and trails are often snow bound. The monsoon months, June to September, are wet and leech-infested but this is a good time to see the flowers in bloom especially on the high altitude meadows.
This is undoubtedly the most popular trek in Sikkim and famed for its superb mountain views, a floral spectacle in summer, birds and views of pristine forest. It can get quite crowded on this route during October and sometimes during May as well but trekkers who can brave early spring (April) and late autumn (mid-November to mid-December) would be suitably rewarded. The shorter version of the trek, which would go up to Dzongri, would take about five days but the longer trek up to Goecha La pass and back is described here.
The trail initially meanders through dense forest and, in summer, flowering orchids can be seen clinging to the bark of the highest trees. There is a lot of bird life as well in this part of the route – wagtails, redstarts, minivets, whistling thrushes, blue magpies, tree pies, etc., can be spotted along the way. For the intrepid, the monsoon must be the most beautiful time on the Dzongri alp. The weather is mild and the grass green and fresh. Numerous wild flowers including potentellias, saxifrage, anemones and primulas spread in a colorful patchwork, and sheep and yaks 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 out by thick rain clouds by mid-morning. The view of Kangchendzonga from the plain of Onglakthang before Samiti Lake is stupendous, especially if seen on a moonlit night!
Gangtok to Yuksam: 6-7 hours
This part of the journey is done by road usually in a jeep or land rover. It is also possible to go directly from Siliguri or Bagdogra airport in the plains to Yuksam, the route being Teesta Bazaar-Melli-Jorethang-Legship-Tashiding-Yuksam; the journey time would be about the same in both instances. Visitors to the Pemayangtse monastery and Pelling can go direct to Yuksam across the valley via Rimbi, a journey that takes about two hours or so by jeep. There are a number of hotels in Yuksam and accommodation is no longer a problem.
Yuksam (1785 m) to Tsokha (3000 m): 6-7 hours
The trail from Yoksam climbs gently out of the valley and follows the Rathong Chu River, which can be heard thundering through the gorge below. The trail meanders through dense forest and crosses four bridges around 50-minute walks 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 for an hour to the forest rest house at Bakhim, which was the old halting point before trekkers huts were built at Tsokha. The Bakhim Rest House is still used by the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute for accommodation en route to their Base camp at Chauringkhang, a day’s march from Dzongri. Trekkers can stay here by paying a small fee to the chowkidar (caretaker). The chowkidar at Bakhim can usually rustle up some smoky tea and there is a good view from the bungalow down the valley towards Yoksam. From Bakhim, the trail continues to climb steeply through forests of magnolia and rhododendron to Tsokha, which takes an hour to reach. The Trekkers Hut at Tsokha has a large camping ground behind it and groups usually pitch their tents here. There are some private lodges in Tsokha which also provide accommodation.
Tsokha (3000 m) to Dzongri (4030 m): 5-6 hours
The trail climbs steeply through forests of rhododendron to the alp of Phidang (3650 m) and it takes around 2.5-3 hours. This is the steepest part of the trek as there is little respite in the form of descents. The clearing at Phidang is the generally used as a lunch spot and in good weather the peaks can be seen across the valley. During May and June this part of the walk is exceptionally beautiful as rhododendrons in their myriad hues flower of either side of the trail. The trail evens off a bit from Phidang before it climbs again for Mon Lepcha, a pass which is a little higher than the Dzongri Trekkers Hut. On a good day Mon Lepcha commands an exceptional view of Pandim. The trail descends from Mon Lepcha before climbing again and the Dzongri Trekkers Hut soon comes into view. The distance from Phidang to Dzongi should not take more than 2 hours.
Rest Day at Dzongri
It is advisable to have a rest day at Dzongri both for acclimatization as well as to savor the views of the mountains. Climb the hill above the bungalow referred to as Dzongri Top for a panoramic view of Kabru, Ratong, Kangchendzonga, Koktang, Pandim, Narsing and Jobonu. In the afternoon walk up to the Dzongri meadows and climb up to the ridge at Dablakhang with the four chortens.
Dzongri (4030 m) to Thansing (3800 m): 3-3.5 hours
The trail from Dzongri passes the bungalow and climbs up along the banks of the river. After cresting the hill the trail 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 exceptionally beautiful due to the rhododendron blossoms. Thansing is an hour’s climb from the bridge and is located below the slopes of 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 Thansing.
Thansing ( 3800 m) to Samiti (4500 m): 4-5 hours
The trail from Thansing climbs gently up the valley and about an hour above Thansing you reach Onglathang, which has a superb view of the south face of Kangchendzonga. Start early from Thansing so that you can see the view before the clouds rush in. The trail skirts a series of moraines and then climbs steeply to the lake. It is usually very cold at the trekkers hut in Samiti and afternoon snowfall is a regular feature here especially in the spring.
Samiti (4500 m) to Goecha La (5002 m) pass and back to Kokchorung (3800 m): 6-7 hours
The climb to Goecha La begins with gentle gradient for about half an hour and then the real climbing starts. A rough scramble over rocks and boulders with a rise of about 400 meters will bring the trekker to the top of the pass. Most trekkers leave Samiti by first light so as to reach the top by 8.30 a.m. or so. 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 Kangchendzonga. The way down is quick and the night halt is at Kokchurung, which is usually reached in the late afternoon.
Kokchurung (3800 m) to Tsokha (3000 m): 5-6 hours
It is possible to bypass Dzongri and reach Tsokha direct 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. Ask the chowkidar at Dzongri or Thansing about the best route back as the trail conditions change depending on the time of the year, snowfall, rain, landslides, etc.
Tsokha (3000 m) to Yuksam (2100 m): 4-5 hours
Retrace your steps to Yuksam on the final day on the trek. The going is easier as the path is mainly downhill.
Dzongri (4030 m) to Chauringkhang (4380 m) and back, a side-trip
It is a day’s walk from Dzongri to the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI) Base Camp at Chauringkhang. The camp is located on the edge of the Ratong glacier with spectacular views of Kabru, Kabru Dome, Koktang, Ratong and Frey’s Peak, A two-hour walk along the glacier leads to Dudh Pokhari with its milky white waters surrounded by peaks. The side trip to Chauringkhang would add two extra days to the trek.