May 20, 2016 Titash Chakrabarti

GoechaLa birding diaries – The Quest for Khangchendzonga

Kanchendzonga

It was 2:30 am on the morning of 6th Nov 2015 and we were walking on the Prek Chu valley surrounded by gigantic mountains of the Greater Himalayas lit up dimly by a star studded sky. Mt. Pandim (6691 m) rose high above to our right as our torch lights guided us through the darkness on the land and up the flimsy trail that could barely be separated from the rest of the valley. Up ahead, at quite a distance, a chain of headlamps of fellow trekkers snaked its way towards Goecha La.

Goecha is the peak in west Sikkim from where you can literally throw a stone and hit Mt. Khangchendzonga but it is unlikely that you would try to do that after an exhausting hike through an exhilarating landscape. At an altitude of about 16000 feet, the supplies of Oxygen are thin but the wide open-mouthed wonder it instills on the average human ensures a clear passage for the air to reach the lungs.

I discarded my Wildlife camera at the campsite at Lamuney, from where we started for the final ascent on the sixth day of our eight-day long trek. Arun, a first time trekker, owing to his slow pace had started an hour ago with our guide Subba Ji. Debjit had retired hurt with a sore ankle and me and Arijit left him in his sleeping bag inside a 3-man tent the 4 of us were sharing throughout the journey.

Temperatures were no more than -10 C. We tread over slippery rocks of partially frozen streams with water trickling down underneath and lost the trail on a couple of occasions before reaching Samiti Lake in the darkness of 3 am. Goecha La was a couple of hours away and we had to reach there before the break of dawn to witness a true miracle of Nature.

 

Day Zero:

Only 6 days before we met Arun at NJP Railway Station. Arun had registered to do the trek with RockyFeet and I was to lead a trek for the first time. We met Marc, a Spanish Sailing Instructor and Mikail, a Belgian frisbee player on the way to Yuksom from Jorethang. Yuksom, a beautiful town with an air of peace was our base camp for the trek. Me and Debjit had brought our Ukeleles along and Marc was carrying one too. We sang a few songs on the way but the condition of the road under repair prompted us to put the ukuleles away in their covers. Both Marc and Mikail had put up at the same Hotel (Hotel Demazong) in Yuksom as us, along with another Korean guitar player whose name eludes me. That night we had a great jam for a length of time setting the tone for the coming days.

 

Day One:

The start of a trek brings about a significant change in the daily routines that we are so used to. The mind forgets all the worries and fears, big and small and the soul is set free to explore. Cellphones and wallets are dead weight that has to be tucked away somewhere safe within the sack and forgotten for the time being.

We started off at about 9 am from Yuksom for our first day’s forest campsite of Sachen (2189 m). We were being led by our guide Subba Ji, a calm and humble persona.A small team of Porters and Yaks would also take the journey with us carrying our food, utensils, tents, sleeping bags and mats.

A lonely Grey Bushchat and a flock of Eurasian tree sparrows got us underway. The Kabru North and Kabru South peaks shone majestically in the bright morning sunshine. In no time we left human settlements. We were off the road and on the trail.

The first day’s walk involved crossing three mountains and camping on top of the fourth one. Mountains 1&2, 2&3 and 3&4 are connected by bridges over the Pha Khola, Tshushay Khola and Mintok Khola respectively (Khola is ‘a stream’ in Nepali). The trail runs for 9 kms upto Sachen through a green landscape thronging with bird calls but with little opportunities provided to get a glimpse of the singers in their leafy habitat.

Wram Singh Limbu, a well-known guide on the route mentioned that serious birdwatchers came to the regionjust to camp at Sachen due to the rich variety of birdlife it boasts. As soon as the nerves settled on the walk, little movements in the adjacent bushes and overhead branches came in view but I could hardly make out the species from these flashy encounters.

A Rufous Sibia gave itself away with its call. A Great Barbet was feeding on fruits on its high perch to our right and finally a male Scarlet Minivet was the first winged mountain dweller who came in clear view. I was really excited to be able to show it to Debjit but I feel that the bird took it otherwise. It flew away soon after.

A male Scarlet Minivet

A male Scarlet Minivet

 

Just before reaching Sachen, I noticed a flicker of colours in a low bush to my left and found a male Green-tailed Sunbird. A hoary-bellied squirrel came in and out view as I tried to track it, reaching our campsite in the process – Two little steps of clearing in context of the huge mountain that was to be our home for the night.

We were invited into the dining tent of our neighbours, a groupof 25 or so, led by the expert Soumya Da. An Irish guy called Noel had brought a guitar along his buddy Peter. It is hardly surprising that a group of 30 had a fair few musicians and a good hour or so was spent singing our favourite songs. We slept with the sounds of the forest floating in our minds alongwith the softringing of bells hanging from the necks of Yaks, parked near the campsite.

 

Day Two:

The day before there was a Rufous necked Laughingthrush scampering around the hut at Sachen where the waste generated at the campsite lay. On the morning of the second day it had brought its friends and brothers. There were at least 12-15 of them scampering about but staying quite out of harm’s way. A different Thrush stood transfixed in one direction, with big-eyed wonder and least bothered about the human standing really close in another direction. The Green-tailed Sunbird was back and now there were two of them, a male and a female.A few others were flying in and around the thick forest cover at Sachen adding to the morning mountain palate.

As we were about to start off for Tsoka, a female Spot-winged Grosbeak perched on a leafless branch high up and stayed for quite sometime. I could finally capture the busy Hoary-bellied Himalayan Squirrel on camera before picking up my sack to start the days walk.

The 2nd days walk involved moving on towards the 4th bridge over the Prek Chu river and with the next stream crossing not before another 2 days at Kokchurung. The same dense forests followed us in our paths as we halted at the 4th bridge. No wonder a lot of others had also decided to stand and soak in the amazing beauty ofPrek Chu rolling down the green valley negotiating the boulders that lay in its path. A female Plumbeous Water-Redstart basked in the sunshine as we headed for Tsoka via Bakhim.

A lonely Hanuman Langur was the only wildlife spotted before we halted for some tea at Bakhim. A kilometre or so up from Bakhim there was an empty patch of grasses and I decided to sit around for a while. Debjit and Arijit moved ahead while Arun was a bit behind. It turned out to be a bird playground. There were hundreds of Stripe-throated and Rufous-vented Yuhinas in a mixed flock on the trees on the edge of the clearing. White-browed Fulvettas were in the low bushes below the trees. A Blue-fronted Redstart was after a peculiar black fruit. A Dark-breasted Rosefinch was done foraging on the grass and perched on a low branch. I got up after Arun caught up and the clouds started streaming in.

Flying Yellow billed blue-magpies welcomed us toTsoka. It was quite a large settlement in comparison to our other campsites and there were a lot of flat empty grounds around with colourful tents pitched. Incidentally Tsoka used to be a village till it was decided to extend the boundaries of the Khangchendzonga National Park bringing Tsoka within it a few years back. The villagers had to be relocated in villages in and around Yuksom. The huts that remain facilitate the trekking fraternity on their way to Goecha La.

At 2985 meters we had left the dense forests of the foothills.Debjit and Arijit had already been to and back from the small lake that was a hundred meters up the trail from our camp and they suggested I go there. There were small huts to the left and green grassy open lands to the right where mules and yaks grazed. Two Buddhist chortens stood overlooking the valley below on the right.The overall feel of Tsoka with its crooked trail, little huts, grazing animals, colourful tents and peaceful people was a calming experience.The clouds and the wind spread a chill in the air as dusk came.

At Sachen,Arun had already started taking down diary notes before going to sleep in the night. He did so here, in tiny but neat alphabets. The other three were busy having random conversation usually terminating in laughter. The clouds outside were hiding a secret as we went to sleep in a brotherly huddle inside the tent.

 

Day Three:

The sea of cloud had descended during the night. Just outside our tent door they floated, scattered over the deep gorges in the direction from where we came. To the back the descending clouds had revealed a glimpse of where we were headed. Mt. Pandim, Mt. Jopuno and Mt. Tien Chen Khang (from left to right) stood tall and mighty.

Arun started a bit early with Subba Ji and the three of us followed soon after. We crossed Tsoka Lake not missing the opportunity to create lasting photographic memories of Tsoka, which was a perfect blend of art forms of Man and Nature. The day’s hike involved gradual and steep ascends for a distance of 7 kmsto Dzongri campsite (4060 m) with a small halt at Phedang(3696 m) in between and over the treeless Deorali Top.

There was a sudden change in landscapes just after we left Tsoka. Our trail left the towering Pines for a path strewn of wooden logs through a forest of almost entirely Rhododendrons with the occasional giant Pine tree. Greetings were exchanged on the way by trekkers one and all. There were rarely any birds on the trail but the story would be entirely differentduring spring when the Rhododendrons bloom in brilliant shades of pink, red, blue and white calling out to birds and insects to harvest their nectar and pollinate their flowers as a favour in return.

After ascending for a good two and a half hours we reached a clear ground with a hut – Phedang. The disposed trekker waste beside the hut attracted Rufous-vented Tits and Grey-crested Tits to a feeding frenzy.These fidgety birds arrived from their homes in the bushes to feed in turns not staying still for even a second. The clouds started floating in from every direction as we went on ahead.

The ascend to Deorali Top was a really steep one and the clouds made sure that the sun was not able to heat up our muscles enough for the job. The Rhododendrons started growing shorter as we went higher. The weather worsened and there was a whisper in the air about a rain warning.Visibility became lower and there was precipitation at last – but it was not rain, it was hail.

Ponchos had to be pulled out of the sacks and cameras had to be put away. Visibility became lower and it was time to put the heads down, watch every step and make some haste. Hailstones plummeted towards the trail and bounced all around us and soon enough everything turned white. It was a very miniature example of how the weather can suddenly change in the mountains. The burst of hail was short but the clouds lingered as we reached a muddy Dzongri campsite.

Me and Debjitventured into one of the two huts at Dzongri where the guides, porters and yak-men gathered for their evening exchanges of local news and mostly music and laughter.The night outside was getting colder.

The jolly bunch of people from our musical evening at Sachen made sure that musical evenings won’t be a one off thing. The two of us joined them again in another warming session of musicin the biting cold. The warmth of our brotherly tent huddles started to become essential for survival as temperatures soared below zero.

 

Flash Forward:

Soumya Da was standing beside Samiti Lake and marshalling the troops along. Me and Arijit were one of the last few people to reach the lake and he directed us to the right path with the still waters of the lake to our left. We had made fair ground on the others ahead and trekkers communicating for directions were in hearing range in the silence of the night.

Mt. Khangchendzonga was hidden behind the same mountain, the top of which was the pinnacle of our trek and the point of return. Slow and deep breaths were the order of the night to replenish the oxygen supplies getting used up rapidly due to the high altitude and the dark of night. Taking a break from the hike also spared the time to once again let the feeling of “in the middle of nowhere” sink in.

A satellite flew across in a downward curve to our right and out of sight behind the Mt. Pandimmassif.We laboured on wondering what other wonders lay ahead.

 

Day Four:

We relied on Subba Ji to call us every morning and he was never a second late. Since we usually took a further few minutes to come out of the embrace of our sleeping bags, he would call out “Chai LijiyeSaabji” few minutes before the actual time for tea or the actual time to get going.

On the morning of day 4, Subba Ji’s voice alarm went off at 4 am. We were not supposed to have tea, but put on our shoes and take an hours hike to Dzongri Top (4171 m) which promises a view that pulls your eyelids so apart that you start seeing ‘the bigger picture’.

Torches came out. The Dzongricampsite and its surroundings, a tiny speck in context of the entire range was buzzing with excited trekkers. The sky had cleared again during the night and our torchlights revealed that the vicinity of the trail was covered in a layer of frost. Halfway to the top the trail revealed gigantic mountains, pale and white in the dark surroundings. It took a turn to the right and more giants slid inside the jaw-dropping frame. Mt. Khangchendzonga was not far away and the neither was the sunrise.

The prominent peaks visible from right to left (standing on the top and facing the 3rd highest mountain in the world) from Dzongri top are Frey’s peak, Mt. Koktang, Mt. Rathong, the Kabru family of peaks, Mt. Khangchendzonga, Mt. Pandin, Mt. Tien chenkhang and Mt. Jopuno. The first rays of the sun fall on the largest of the most celebrated of them all, Mt. Khangchendzonga. It starts with an orange glow, slowly turning golden as the sun rises and its rays touch the surrounding peaks. The paintflows downwardand covers the entire massifs, gaining brightness as it flows.Shadows start to form as it spreads all over as our blue-green planet turns a little more on its axis.

It also casts a sense of wonder and pours immense joy and excitement in human hearts. The top was pulsating with people standing in disbelief at ‘Reality’. Soumya Da started to sing the song “Aha ki Ananda aakashe bataashe” from the famous Bengali movie “Hirak Rajar Deshe”. A lot of the gathered followed after him. Cameras were clicking away at happy faces in solos and groups and of course some of the highest mountains in the world who were teachinga thorough lesson in humility.

Wram pointed to a flock of snow pigeons who seemed like tiny specks swerving around in perfect formation only to come down to forage on the valley floor far away from us.Dzongri top revealed its treasures along with showing us the way we would be heading next, somewhere in the direction pointing in between Mt. Khangchendzonga and Mt. Pandim.

Back at the campsite, a Blue-fronted Redstart was busy in its short flickering flights in and around the bushes adjacent to the small stream that flows beside the camp. Just before we could make a move for our morning packing session, a male Blood Pheasant came out to forage in the open, by the stream and really close for its shy reputation. It came to its senses soon after and vanished behind the shrubs. We moved ahead, in the direction shown by Subba Ji, not knowing what lay ahead apart from a few names – Kokchurung, Thansing, Lamuney etc.

The initial part of the trail ran over meadows that ought to shine golden when the sun shines. However, the clouds had already started gathering as per their morning routine. The meadows had chocolate, purple and orange smeared all over them in form of shrubs. Rhododendron trees, a lot shorter and stubbier than the ones found at lower altitudes added a shade of green to the landscape. The blanket of cloud on the right had a few holes which offered teasing glimpses of Mt. Pandim, Mt. Tien Chen Khang and Mt. Jopuno.

After a third of the journey, the 4th day’s trail stops being its gentle self and takes a steep down to Kokchurung, for what seemed like hiking down for an eternity.Debjit and Arijit had moved ahead earlier in the day. I reached Kokchurung to the smiling faces of Debjit and Arijit,crossing the tree line in the opposite direction.

It is really fascinating how the big, docile yaks negotiate such steep slopes nonchalantly, albeit with flailing horns flashing right past the hapless trekker who gives them a pass to take a breather.

The trail meets Prek Chu again at Kokchurung. Prek Chu divides into many a branch on the flat valley before forming a main river further downstream. Small wooden bridges over them take people, Yaks and mules to the other side. The adjacent mountains are covered with forests of Pines and Rhododendrons with a red grass growing on the banks of the river. Rocks and boulders coated with pinkish lichen lay scattered on the river bed completing the surreal postcard.

On the other side the trail goes through a creepily beautiful forest of crooked Pines with fluorescent mosses carpeting the forest floor. It gradually ascends for a few kilometres till Thansing, leaving behind the dense vegetation for yet another shrubby landscape.

Thansing is in an open valley on the left bank of the Prek Chu with Mt. Tien Chen Khang and Mt. Jopuno overlooking the campsite. We reached Thansing in the afternoon and explored the place. The river pulled most people at the campsite towards its bank. The clouds lingered on and a male Hodgson’s Redstart was wandering out and about in its territory on the other bank.

After reaching the campsite the unmistakeable tune of “We all live in a yellow submarine” floated in the air and I followed it to its source. Lauren from Chicago and Paul from San Francisco had found our friend Marc.

That evening the skies cleared for a change. Marc had joined the four of us as we gazed up at the countless stars looking down upon us with their blinking eyes. The core of the Milky way was clearly visible and suddenly someone caught a glimpse of a shooting star. It followed with another, and then another and even more.We stood there, head in the air in the middle of nowhere, with the silhouettes of our giant neighbours hiding portions of the sky behind their shadowy curtains.

 

Day Five:

Arijit stated that he felt like a butterfly coming out of its cocoon as he came out of his sleeping bag. We had a relatively shorter walk that day and put in some much needed extra hours inside our sleeping bags. Just beyond the edge of the campsite a flock of Snow Pigeons foraged on the ground taking special interest in rich Yak dung.

There was a sense of anticipation among the people in the campsite and we found out that it was about a Marathon that was taking place. On further inquiry it was gathered that the runners had started from Goecha La when the sun rose and that the best of them would reach Yuksom (50 kms from Goecha La) in about 5 hours’ time.

After a while they started arriving one after the other, cheered on by thecrowd who had gathered to witness this inspiring feat. There were at least 25 daredevils who flashed past us in a matter of minutes.

The morning was clear with bright sunshine. The same flock of Snow Pigeons had gathered on a huge boulder on the other side of the river to take a group nap. A male Hodgson’s Redstart was displaying similar flight patterns as its Blue-fronted cousin. We started for Lamuney which lay further up the Prek Chu valley. The clouds had already started with their day jobs of painting the landscape white.

A Black-shouldered Kite hovered searching for movement of its prey on the ground. We crossed several streams over the wooden platforms laid across them supported by rocks from the stream beds on both banks. All these streams meet Prek Chu in their path and feed this elegant river. The head of Mt. Pandim went higher as we went closer with each step. The fiery banks of the Prek Chu were set further ablaze with a riot of red.

We reached Lamuney in about 2 hours and headed straight towards Samiti Lake, a half hour hike. Samiti Lake used to be the last campsite before the final ascent to Goecha La a few years back. The camp was relocated to Lamuneyas the unattended trekker waste soiled the lake and harmed its ecology. Scattered stones of a dismantled hut remain as reminders of our misdoings.

The weather started getting cloudier than any other day again raising a few doubts and dragging the mercury down in the process. The wind created ripples on the surface of the mystical blue in the completely white setting and the chill it brought reminded us of camp.

That evening we had an early dinner. A middle aged local guide tried to teach Marc and me the lyrics of a Nepali song “Resham Piri ri” while dinner was served inside the only hut at Lamuney. He could only manage to teach us the tune.

Debjit was in considerable pain due to a sprained ankle and wondered whether it was worth the risk. He was having second thoughts about the ascent to Goecha La and finally decided against it. Arijit taped up his bruised and blistered ankles in preparation for the ascent. Arun decided to start ahead of others so as to reach the summit in time for sunrise. I had been suffering from ILTB on my right knee ever since that steep descent to Kokchurung and was anxious to get some rest for the long day ahead.

A strong wind started to blow outside. We could hear Marc struggling to put up his tent just beside ours but were in no position to step out and lend a helping hand to him.The wind battered hard against the tent walls but undeterred by its flapping noise we went to sleep.

 

Day Six:

It was 2:30 am on the morning of 6th Nov 2015 and we were walking on the Prek Chu valley surrounded by gigantic mountains of the Greater Himalayas lit up dimly by a star studded sky.

The torch lights of the ones ahead were our best guides on our rocky adventure with hardly any trail visible at that hour.The sense of tension was evident and passing trekkers greeted the ones they left behind. Samiti Lake lay behind us but it was what lay ahead that captured the imagination. The path was a steep ascent over bare rocks and tough on the feet.

Dawn was approaching fast and the clouds had again decided to stay away from the tops of mountains at this time. We crossed Arun and Subba Ji on the way. The refracted rays of the sun had started to paint some of the darkness bright.

We reached the top just before sunrise. Wrapped in prayer flags there was little space for the 50 odd people on the small summit. It felt as if all of us were a connected by a deeper sense of being finding ourselves “in the middle of nowhere”. 50 odd hearts throbbed as one connected by invisible strings vibrating to the feelings evoked by the surroundings and creating silent music. People from all around the world, who were complete strangers a few days back, engaged in the warmest of embraces.

Ooh’s and aah’s broke the silence, in a good way when the sun started weaving the same magic it has been doing forever. I missed Debjit at one point and broke into a CCR song with Lauren keeping me company with her bobbing head. Both of us panted for a while as we used up precious oxygen in the process.

It was time to turn our backs to Mt. Khangchendzonga, say our silent goodbyes till the next time. A few paces down the slope Samiti Lake came into view, a clear blue puddle of water from our high vantage point. I was one of the last to leave the top along with a local guide who was accompanying an elderly gentleman and carrying his heavy camera too. It was his keen vision that spotted a herd of blue sheep grazing on mountain slopes to our left; tiny dots negotiating deadly mountain slopes for breakfast as comfortably as we have our bread at the table. We stood there to gaze at them for a while before the invisible strings connecting us to our friends pulled us down again. We were behind.

Beside Samiti Lake my anonymous guide friend and I searched for the Grandala in vain. Aishwariya, another friend from the campsite had reported seeing this beautiful purple bird the last evening at the Lake.However, we found two Alpine Accentors hopping around the shrubs to the left of the trail with the lake on the right. These birds were undeterred by human presence as we had a few staring contests with me ruing leaving my point and shoot camera at the campsite and blinking first every time. An eagle soared above the lake as we headed for Lamuney.

A flock of crows were sailing in the skies using the swift wind that was blowing, calling out sharp ‘caws’ which was not typical of their cousins from the plains. On closer inspection it was found that these were special crows with curved red bills. Red-billed choughs to be precise. Lamuney campsite was busy packing up and moving for the day with the fiery banks of the Prek Chu now to the right.

We headed towards Kokchurung, our campsite for the night turning at every opportunity to admire the places that we were leaving behind. It was a leisurely walk on the same trail but with completely new dynamics to the same landscapes owing to the change in direction. We halted at Thansing for a while before picking up our sacks again. The same creepy forest of crooked Pines and carpeted by a layer of moss led us to Kokchurung deep into the afternoon.

Our camp was set just on the edge of the river. The long day of hiking had finally come to an end and we slept like new borns only to be woken up by Subba Ji for dinner. We slept again as Prek Chu continued its never ending sleepless journey downstream.

 

Day Seven:

Debjit woke up to the smell of a burning joint which had somehow managed to negotiate its way from its source, past the double walls of our tent and through his nostrils aided by the morning breeze. He woke us up and we went outside and found Marc and Lauren. We stood facing the river and sang ‘Here comes the Sun’ as the protagonist of the song washed our faces with its first rays. Other songs followed. A female Hodgson’s Redstart seemed to be enjoying the music with the morning sunshine by the river, albeit from a safe distance.

We took a different and much easier trail back to Tsoka which bypasses the steep slopes that we had faced while coming down to Kokchurung from Dzongri. The return trail bypasses Dzongri and meets the other trail again at Phedang. From here our journey till Yuksom would be on the same path that we had trodden up a few days ago. Kokchurung and Phedang being at almost the same altitude, this trail was what is called a “terso baato” in Nepali or a plain trail without an ascend or a descend, with lots of twists and turns. The narrow trail runs for 9-10 kms upto Phedang through dense forests of Rhododendrons and every turn seems to take you back to the same place all over again. We reached Phedang at noon and rested our backs on the benches of the hut there, where Soumya Da treated everyone with neatly cut pieces of apples from the packed lunch of his team members.

The Rufous-vented Tits and Grey-crested Tits were all over the place hoping for trekkers to spare some food for them. The clouds hovered as a male Spot-winged Grosbeak came and perched for a few seconds on a bare branch beside the hut before deciding to fly away in search of privacy. A Spotted Laughingthrush, bold as they are, had no issues with people whatsoever and came and scurried beside the hut in its relentless search for food along with the much smaller Tits. A lonely White-browed Fulvetta was shyer in its presence and must have enjoyed remains from our apples after we left for Tsoka.

We already knew that a relatively steep descent had to be negotiated to reach Tsoka along with the wooden plank trail with the Rhododendron cover. Just before reaching Tsoka, a flock of even smaller Tits, the Rufous-fronted ones engaged in chaotic movements in a bare tree which made it impossible to take a proper photograph before they disappeared in their more favourite unphotographable homes in thicker foliage.A Yellow-billed Blue Magpie sat on one of the chortens overlooking the valley as we lay our tired feet on Tsoka.

Yellow-billed Blue Magpie

Yellow-billed Blue Magpie

That evening Lauren, sprightly as ever narrated her various experiences across the Himalayas. It was a “Starry Starry Night” and aptly enough the Don Mclean song by the same title floated in my mind as we sat inside a Van Gogh painting from where the sun had slid away past the horizon.

 

Day Eight:

By the time Subba Ji came to knock on the tent door, I was already woken up by a familiar call coming from outside. As we came out of our tent one by one a local friend confirmed that a Grey Treepie had come visiting our campsite, erasing the grains of doubt that had formed with regards to the bearer of the harsh voice alarm.

We had to walk 16 kms till Yuksom crossing over the same four bridges in the reverse direction viz. the bridge over Prek Chu, MintokKhola, TsushayKhola and PhaKhola in the present order of appearance. Debjit had raced ahead and I would only find him after reaching Yuksom. Me and Arijit were joined by our friends Aishwariya, who had spotted the Grandala at Samiti Lake on Day Five and Pragati, a barefoot runner and the most cheerful person on the trail.

On the way to Bakhim, we could spot Rufous Sibias and a Blue Whistling Thrush. We could also spot a flash that looked like Marc who just whizzed past us, running and jumping in shortcuts not bothering about the trail that has been created by thousands of feet before him. Soon Prek Chu came saying hello for one last time at the 4th bridge. I robbed a local guide off a Blue Magpie tail-feather he was carrying. Subba Ji warned that it was a punishable offense to be carrying wild souvenirs from the forest and I gave it to Pragati to keep in her bag as I had left mine hanging from the back of a Yak on the last day owing to my growing ILTB concerns.

A familiar call prompted me to stop as the others went ahead. After minutes of Inspection the callers golden throat gave it away. It was a Golden-throated Barbet, perched amongst leaves which could so easily be mistaken for a thousand other barbets but for the lack of golden on their throats. Just near TsushayKhola about 30 oddGreen-tailed Sunbirds, absolutely drunk beyond their sensesperformed their Nectar dance in the pink stages made specially for the Nectar Carnival on two Cherry Blossom trees in full bloom. Beyond the Tsushay Khola, a Striated Laughingthrush put on its best camouflage dress for the occasion. White-tailed Nuthatches performed stunts on hanging down from tree trunks that would put even the younger Nadia Comaneci from 1976 to shame.

I met Wram on the way as he was sweeping (as opposed to leading) and waited for the slow ones to show up.He mentioned that there were Bee hives near PhaKhola that host a fair few critically endangered Yellow-rumped Honeyguides. Ironically the honey was going to guide us to the honeyguides and not the other way round. As we reached Pha Khola we only had to wait for a few moments before short flicks of Honeyguide flight could be seen near three hives that hung under a massive rock jutting out of the mountain on the other side of Pha khola stream. A few Honeyguides hovered around the hives and seemed to be enjoying their time when we spotted the bird nemesis, a pair of Yellow-throated Martens, a mongoose sized mammal climbing up the slopes from near the stream and towards the hives. Luckily for the Honeyguides they were not after the birds but wanted a share of the honey. As they reached the hives the Honeyguides scattered and fled and the couple engaged in acrobatic honey sucking. I was left to rue my dead camera batteries but as time would ripen, I like to think of those moments as one of my best wildlife experiences in the short time I have been putting on the jungle boots.

Wram had been waiting for Aishwariya who was slow owing to a sore ankle and the three of us reached Yuksom as evening was setting in.The meditative chants floated out of Dubdi Monastery as Noel and Peter were taking a leisurely trek-end walk along the streets of Yuksom, all freshened up and with their sacks dumped off in their rooms. Lauren, Marc and a few other friends sat at Gupta Café opposite our Hotel room. We made music by the road at the Cafe before I headed towards our room and saw the faces of Debjit and Arijit at last. Arun arrived moments after. Our trek was over.

The darkness was not absolute as we sat at Gupta Café for our last evening together with Marc and Lauren for company. Lauren was at her storytelling best. The best of her stories spoke of her silent friendship with a Kashmiri girl during her stay in the troubled state of North India. We decided to take a last walk together to meet our friends, Soumya Da’s troop who had put up a kilometre away. It turned into a party in a shelter of their guide, Suman’s uncle and aunt’s household, where 30 odd people buzzed for 4 good hours with all the adrenaline that the trek had pumped into their system. Music of course formed the background of everything.

Pragati handed me the Blue-magpie tailfeather and countless hugs were shared to cap off the party. We literally skipped to our hotel at 2 o clock in the night and the feather fell off my cap. We bid our farewell to Lauren and Marc in our hotel room later as they went off in their own directions in life.

 

Day Nine:

The trek ending blues struck early next day when we boarded our vehicle to take us down to the plains. Words were not the order of the day. Our jeep jumped and skipped along on the road under repair till we reached Jorethang as morning gave way to afternoon.

We changed vehicles from Jorethang and reached Siliguri in another four hours. The pollution was unbearable to begin with and gave nasty headaches. The four of us roamed around Hong Kong market for a while, had our dinner and headed towards the station.Me, Debjit and Arijit were on the same train to Kolkata while Arun had to catch one an hour earlier for the same destination. He would head off to Hyderabad from there.

We bid Arun goodbye at NJP station.

 

Day Ten:

Dhawal, another friend from Soumya Da’s troop was on the same train as us. Arijit parted with us at Kolkata station next morning. Me, Debjit and Dhawal got up on a yellow taxi. It was Kalipuja in Bengal, Diwali in the rest of India. The streets were mostly empty with puja pandals big and small at almost every crossroad with extravagant lighting arrangements to be put on at sunset.

We dropped Dhawal off at College Street as he wanted to roam around in that old part of Kolkata and experience the air at the famous Coffee House before his flight to Bombay later in the day.

Debjit got off at Dhakuria and I headed further south towards Santoshpur. The everyday routes seemed unfamiliar, a different world altogether, as the taxi sped towards home.

The night sky promised avery different kind of firework, one that hides the stars behind a smokescreen.

 

Uruguay through lens
Markha Valley - The silk route of Ladakh
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About the Author

Titash Chakrabarti
Titash Chakrabarti Musician.Birdwatcher.Traveler.Dreamer.

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