Goecha La Trek: Day 2 - Yuksom & Tshoka

Yuksom, from where the trek started is about 140 kilometers from Siliguri. We started on the National Highway 31A by about 11 in the morning. Most of the roads this part of the world is made and maintained by BRO (Border Roads Organisation) and they are in superior condition inspite of the heavy rains, snow and landslides. The route from Siliguri to Jorethang is quite picturesque and offers some beautiful views of river Teesta. We crossed over to Sikkim before afternoon and stopped at Jorethang for lunch. People are very musically inclined in this part of the world and the guy at the restaurant played some Dire Straits and Don Williams as we enjoyed the rice and beer. After lunch we continued our journey and reached Yuksom via Tashiding by 5 in the evening.

Yuksom was the first capital of Sikkim and is a beautiful and quiet village at an altitude of 1,750 meters. By 6 in the evening it was all misty and dark, giving us a taste of whats to come in the coming days. It was drizzling and we soon settled down into the travel lodge and regrouped after an hour or so for some hot coffee. We met Gajendra & Pradyumn, the two cooks who were to accompany us. We also got introduced to Wolfi, Zulu and Dusty, three of the six dogs who traveled with us all the way and back. There are two monastries in Yuksom - Dubdi & Mallu and we decided to take a walk to Mallu monastery in the dark. This turned out to be an adventure in itself as Zulu picked up a fight with one of the dogs at the monastery, exactly when we were taking a group photo in front of the temple. After pacifying Zulu with much difficulty, we walked back to the lodge where some hot food and Thongba was waiting for us.

Thongmba is a local wine made of millet seeds, which tastes much like Saki. The fermented seeds is served in hollow bamboo and hot water is added and stirred to make Thongmba, which you drink using bamboo straws. It gives a mild and slow kick and soon people started singing and dancing. It almost turned into a singing competition and Rinkesh, Pavan, Mahendra & Prasad all sang their hearts out. Alfonso & Marie also pitched in with some Mexican & French songs. Alfonso even decided to open a Thongmba shop once he get back to Chennai - Adayar Thongmba & Sweets! The revelry ended only when Tamal reminded us of the task ahead the next day - we had to walk almost 18 kilometers, gaining an altitude of 1,250 meters. All of us soon retired to our rooms for some much needed sleep. Kannan, Alfonso, Rinkesh & myself spent another hour or so talking about previous trekking experiences and life in general.

We woke up to some good rain in the morning and it was a depressing sight indeed. Soon we arranged for long plastic sheets to be used as ponchos, but by the time we finished breakfast the sun god was out, smiling in all his glory. Thankfully weather remained more or less pleasant during the next few days. The group had grown to about 40 by that time - 25 of us, 13 yaks, 3 horses and 3 dogs. The Yaks and horses carried the tents and food while we all carried our own backpacks and sleeping bags. The route to Tshoka is a pleasant walk through the Pine and Oak forests initially, with the stream Prek-Chu visible down in the valley. Soon we started the descend towards the stream and crossed it at multiple places via hanging bridges. After the fifth bridge, we stopped for lunch and then came the most difficult stretch - a 70 degree climb to the other side of the hill. En route is a small village called Bakhim where we met Eddie. He grows marijuana in front of his house and keeps chilled beer in his house just in case any of the trekkers need a morale boost. Mind you, the marijuana is for the Yaks, they are fed grass in case of stomach upsets! Eddie is the lone resident of Bakhim. After having a friendly chat with an already sloshed Eddie, we continued the climb along wild strawberry patches and finally reached Tshoka by 5 in the evening.

It was already getting dark and cold. The tents were pitched in no time and dinner was served quite early - rotis, rice and potato curry. We had walked more than 15 kilometers and gained about 1200 meters in altitude. To give our bodies some much needed rest we all retired to our tents quite early. There was a slight drizzle outside and with the thermals, gloves, jacket and the sleeping bag, I was feeling cold. But in no time I slipped into sleep and to some beautiful dreams!

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Day 1: To Yuksom
Day 2: Yuksom to Tshoka
Day 3: Tshoka to Dzongri
Day 4: Dzongri to Lamuney
Day 5: To Samiti & Kockchurung
Days 6 & 7: Back to Tshoka & Yuksom
Days 8 & 9: To Darjeeling

Pictures from the trek here

Goecha La Trek: Day 1 - To Yuksom

Looks can't kill. I am sure about that now. Else I would have been busy pushing daisies up by now, after being murdered a few times over by the exquisite beauty of Himalayan peaks & the women folk of North-East India. Yes, I came back alive in one piece, after a two weeks 'affair' with the mountains. It all started when one Saturday afternoon, under the influence of alcohol perhaps, I signed up for email updates from Chennai Trekking Club. Among the many mails I got was this one from Tamal, on a trek in Sikkim. Having experienced the beauty of the Himalayas once before, I was always willing to go back. So I responded to the mail, Rob also agreed to join, and in no time the plan was made for the first week of May. Rob and myself had plans to extend the trip by another week making this a 16 days adventure.

Few preparatory treks were organized for the group to gauge and enhance the physical fitness. Daily exercise was also prescribed which I tried to follow religiously.. well almost. As the April 30th date came closer, the excitement was uncontrollable. Rob came a day before and we did all the shopping the evening before.Tamal had sent out a list of 27 items to carry during the trek - from thermal wear to sun screen, and insisted that the backpack shouldn't weigh more than 5 kilos. The idea was that, with the sleeping bag and mat, everyone got no more than 7 kgs to carry. I couldn't figure out how to find 18 pieces of clothing which weigh less than 200 grams a piece on average. So I decided to take everything one less than the prescribed numbers. Though it sounded like a clever idea at first, I realized the stupidity once I had to walk through snow in my shorts. Everyone was supposed to carry one trouser and they did. Me, smart-ass, followed the formula and carried one less than the prescribed number!

The Bangalore gang met outside the airport by 8:30 that Friday morning. We were six of us - Joydeep, Muthu, Kannan, Purna, Rob and myself. After a quick breakfast of Subway rolls and masala dosa we boarded our spicejet flight to Calcutta. I have never heard from anyone of an 'interesting' flight, and this one was no different. The air hostess even asked Kannan to switch off his iPod; too loud for the pilot to hear the communication from the ATC tower it seems.. morons! After a hop over at Hyderabad we reached Calcutta by 2:30 in the afternoon. Probably due to the iPod episode, we were delayed by half an hour [:)] and the Chennai team was waiting for us in the airport. They were 16 strong - Tamal, Marie, Prathaap, Alfonso, Raj, Bindu, Mahendra, Ketan, Prasad, Sowmy, Krishna, Rinkesh, Prem, Pavan, Shiva and Gokul. Any adventure becomes a memorable event or an ordeal depending on the character of the group, and honestly I have never traveled with a better group. We all got introduced to each other quickly, picked up our respective sleeping bags/mats and got into the taxis for our Calcutta city tour.

The drive from the airport to Haldiram's gave us a glimpse of the transforming city. Calcutta always fascinated me with the coexistence of militant communism and fast track development. Its probably just my 'kin preference' kicking in.. after all Mallus and Bongs are estranged sons of the same skewed ideology. The city still holds on to the iconic tram system, cycle rickshaws and Victorian buildings, but the skyline is slowly getting used to the high rises. Haldiram's was an awesome experience.. we filled half our stomach by just ogling at the delicacies on display. It was even suggested that we should plan a 4 days trek to Haldiram's, one day to each corner of the shop! The thought that we might be starving the next few days also helped in pushing an extra Rasagula or Kachori down the throat. With tears in our eyes (not the chillies, mind you) we all said goodbye to Haldirams and reached Babughat by the banks of Hubli, for a ferry ride to Howra. The hanging bridge looked fabulous in the twilight and Marie could not help breaking into a Salsa on board the ferry.

After getting off the ferry, the primary concern was food, especially as we had to get to Sealdah railway station by 10PM to catch our overnight train to New Jalpaiguri (NJP). After hanging around 'Moulin Rouge' and 'Barb-e-Q' with dreamy eyes for a while, we finally moved into 'Bhaduni', a restaurant serving Bengali food at Park Street. We had a few variants of fish fry and curry with rice and it was awesome. We reached the station just in time to catch the Darjeeling mail. Sealdah is one of the major railway stations in Calcutta and is close to Babughat. The huge hoarding of Allahabad bank kept above the station building gave us the impression that this might be the corporate office of Allahabad bank and not a train station. We got into two compartments and soon realized that we had booked only 20 seats for the 22 of us. Tamal had a 'talk' with the ticket examiner and after flashing some money did manage to get permission for the other two to sleep somewhere in the compartment.

The train was on time and we reached NJP station early the next morning. The taxis were waiting and after a short ride we reached Siliguri, which is about 8 kilometers from NJP. We checked into Hotel Manila for breakfast. We had a five hours ride to Yuksom ahead of us, from where the actual trek starts. Prasad and myself managed to get a short tour of the city in a cycle rickshaw, while Tamal was away with Marie & Alfonso to get the necessary permits. Strange as it sounds, foreigners need an Inner Line permit to visit Sikkim. As soon as we landed in NJP, Marie & I met a priest from the temple of God Saturn, who insisted that we should tie a thread on our hands to ensure protection during the journey. Both of us did tie this red thread and according to Marie it worked miracles in getting her the Inner Line permit in a jiffy. Saturn rules!

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Day 1: To Yuksom
Day 2: Yuksom to Tshoka
Day 3: Tshoka to Dzongri
Day 4: Dzongri to Lamuney
Day 5: To Samiti & Kockchurung
Days 6 & 7: Back to Tshoka & Yuksom
Days 8 & 9: To Darjeeling

Pictures from the trek here

Conversations with Pluto - Predicting future

I lost a thousand Rupees and two fish during the world cup football; courtesy betting. The money, I lost to the boy from the neighborhood shop for betting on Brazil to lift the cup this time. I always rooted for Brazil when it comes to Football, irrespective of the odds, and this bet was more an emotional act. The fish I lost to Pluto, my neighbor's cat the day Brazil lost to Netherlands. This bet was but based on a rational analysis, considering the performance of the two teams till then. You can argue it was a stupid decision, how the hell did I expect a cat getting me two fishes in case he lost? But the fact is he didn't. Just like Serbia's win over Germany, he accurately predicted Brazil's loss in that unfortunate quarter final match.

So Paul and Mani are not the only soothsayers in town. Pluto the cat had also predicted all the results quite accurately. He refused to bet against me when I said in-form Argentina will not reach the semi-finals. I was skeptical about breaking this news till now, worried about the ridicule. Talking about a cat's uncanny ability to foresee future is one thing, while a talking cat is quite another! But when Paul became an instant internet celebrity, I thought I should tell the world about Pluto as well. So I sat down to write the story. But as if anticipating this, Pluto came into the room and jumped on to the table.

'So you want to know how I did it', he asked me.

I never expected him to share his secret with me. So with much excitement I said 'Of course!'

'I didn't do it', he said without blinking an eye.

I was angry that he spoiled my story about the great soothsayer in my own house. 'what do you mean', I asked.

'The roaches did it', he said.

'what roaches?'

'Ok, let me ask you this.. where do you keep the old newspapers?', he quizzed me as if I don't know my own backyard.

'On the platform by the sink in the kitchen', I replied.

'Under the exhaust pipe, correct?' he added.

'yes, so what?', I didn't understand the plot.

He put on that all-knowing smile and said 'you know who lives up the exhaust pipe?'

'Yes I do, the filthy cockroaches'.

'And have you seen them shit? defaecate, I mean', he winked at me.

'Come on man, whats the point? Why will I see the roaches defaecate?', I was losing patience.

'That is your problem.. you never see the things that are right in front of you and search for answers in the far far world. The roaches don't defaecate just anywhere.. there is a method in the way they do it'

I felt like punching him on the face for the lecture. 'So if you draw a straight line through the shit particles, you get an Octahedron with the diagonal and side lengths in Golden ratio? Are you suggesting something like this?'

'Looks like you read too much into Davinci Code. The issue here is much simple. The roaches been consistently shitting on the losing team's picture, name or flag on the newspaper. I simply noticed this and you didn't', Pluto said triumphantly, licking the last morsels of fish off his paws.

'You must be kidding. How can those dumb roaches predict the future? You are making this all up', I could not agree to what he said.

'Ever heard of wisdom of the crowds, you dumbo?' he asked amusingly.

'No, I have heard of madness of the crowds'

'There you go again. Wisdom of the crowds is a postulate which says that the intelligence of the crowd will always be greater than that of the most intelligent guy in the group, or at times even greater than the sum of the parts', he explained with an air of authority.

'Who says so?', I wasn't ready to accept defeat lying down.

'Heard of the Iowa Electronic Markets, IEM, which has been consistently predicting the election results more accurate than the Gallop poll, for the last 20 years?'

I had no choice but to accept my ignorance.

'Well, this is a project of the College of Business in the University of Iowa, where a few thousand people are collectively allowed to predict the outcomes of elections, indirectly based on future contracts they buy/sell in the exchange. They have been doing this better than all the national polls for so many years now'. Pluto never wastes a chance to show off.

'OK', I said, not knowing what else to say.

'So your roaches have a better probability of getting the predictions right compared to Mani or Paul, as they use collective intelligence', he concluded.

'mmmm.. take it that I buy your bull, but how do these animals know the future?', I asked.

He stared at me for a moment and said 'as they say in the movies, you are given information on a need to know basis and you don't need to know that'.

'Oh', said I, rushing to the kitchen to see who the roaches are shitting on lately. Who knows, I might make a fortune with these roaches in the future!
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