This is undoubtedly the most popular trek in Sikkim, 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 goes up to Dzongri, takes 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 and more 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 out in a colourful patchwork while sheep and yaks graze contentedly on the luxuriant vegetation. The mountains are at their tantalising 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. And, higher up, one can spot the reflection of Kangchendzonga in the still waters of the emerald blue lakes on the glacier. It is difficult to handle this trek alpine-style after Tsokha as food is not readily available and provisions, stoves etc have to be carried. It is necessary to arrange cooks, porters, provisions and kerosene at Yuksom, at one of the many hotels, before starting on the trek. Further, during the peak trekking season of October, the Trekkers’ Huts may become very busy and accommodation can sometimes pose a problem, and tents will be needed. There are a number of trekking companies in Gangtok and Siliguri who can make full arrangements for this trek.
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, which can be heard thundering through the gorge below. The trail crosses four bridges about 50 mins 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 Tsokha.
The Bakhim FRH 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. Trekkers can stay here by paying a small fee to the chowkidar, who can usually rustle up some smoky tea. 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 Tsokha, 3 km away. The Trekkers’ Hut at Tsokha (3,000 m) has a large camping ground behind it and groups usually pitch their tents here. There are a couple of private lodges in Tsokha, which also provide accommodation, including a new lodge just opposite the Trekkers’ Hut.
TIME 5-6 HOURS
The path cuts through the village of Tsokha and continues its climb steeply northwards through forests of rhododendron to the alp of Phidang (3,650m), taking around 21/2-3 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 is exceptionally beautiful as rhododendrons, in their myriad hues, flower on either side of the trail. Some groups may decide to camp in Phidang for the night to ensure acclimatisation but 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 hrs, but remember that it is a stiff walk.
REST DAY AT DZONGRI
It is advisable to have a rest day at Dzongri, both for acclimatisation as well as to savour 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), Kangchendzonga (8,534 m), 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 and, on most days, large numbers of yaks can be seen grazing on the lush turf.
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. Thansing (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 acclimatised and fit. There is a Trekkers’ Hut at Thansing and groups often camp near the Prek Chu river.
TIME 4-5 HOURS
The trail from Thansing climbs gently north, up the valley, and follows a stream and alpine meadows. 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 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 meadows again, and 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.
SAMITI-GOECHA LA PASS-KOKCHORUNG
TIME 7-8 HOURS
The climb to Goecha La begins with a gentle gradient eastwards 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 9.30 am or so. The climb from Samiti to Goecha La (5,002m) would take between 31/2 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 Kangchendzonga Peak. 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. Trekkers normally turn back at this point. The way down is quick. Follow your tracks back to Thansing, which will take you 2-3 hrs, and then head for one hour towards Dzongri until you reach a clearing called Kokchorung (3,800m), which has a Trekkers’ Hut. One usually reaches here by late afternoon with enough time to set up camp before night falls.
TIME 5-6 HOURS
It is possible to bypass Dzongri and reach Tsokha 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 Kokchorung, head south-east on the well-marked trail for 4-5 hrs. Ask Thansing 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 a side trip to Chaurikhang.
TIME 5-6 HOURS EACH WAY (2 DAYS)
It is a day’s walk from Dzongri (4,030m) to the HMI Base Camp at Chaurikhang (4,380m). 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 2-hr walk along the glacier leads to Dudh Pokhari, with its milky white waters surrounded by peaks. The side trip to Chaurikhang would add 2 extra days to the trek. From the Dzongri bungalow, take the trail up the hill straight in front of the bungalow proceeding north-west. Do not take the right trail, which goes to Thansing. The trail climbs the hill and drops into the Dzongri meadows. Cross the meadows, continue to head north-west and follow the trail along the right bank of the Ratong Chu River with the black rock of Kabru (just below Kabru South peak) above you, to the right, until you can see the HMI huts in front of you. Pitch tent at Chaurikhang, and return to Tsokha the next day.
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.
Written by Sujoy Das
About the Author: Sujoy Das has trekked and photographed in the Himalayas for the last 25 years. He is the co-author of Sikkim – a Traveller’s Guide, nominated in the Banff Mountain Book Festival Awards, and is represented by the international photo agency, Stock Boston, USA. His photographs have been widely published in books and magazines worldwide.