Sikkim Trek -Upper Pelling to Yuksom- Day 11
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Despite the comfort of the bed I was awake at 5a.m., well before the call of alarm clock that I had set to catch the dawn, it was pure excitement. Last night I had deliberately left the balcony curtains open so that I could see the mountains in the moonlight. Periodically, I had woken briefly to see the cool white of Kangchenjunga glowing in the soft light. It was incredible.
The mountain spirits were with us today, instead of the cloud that had been around most days, the sky was clear. I dressed quickly, wrapping up in my fleece before sitting on the small balcony outside the room. From there I would have the wonderful opportunity of seeing the sun come up on the third highest mountain of the world. As the first rays of light began to filter down into the valley below me Cicadas burst into life, piercing the still of the dawn. Soon the sound of human life soon joined in with coughing and retching as people struggled from their slumbers.
Marilyn joined me outside bringing a welcome cup of early morning tea. We sat looking across the valley to the mountains and I saw the snows begin to change colour as the rising sun began to spread its rays. This was sheer poetry, pale yellows, and pinks reflected off the previously white canopy. As the sun became stronger, the contours of the snow and surrounding mountains became even more evident, as if some fantastic spotlight were dancing across the stage to highlight the players in this incredible theatre.
Time just drifted by and we stayed out there for over half an hour until the dawn colours dissipated. Now that the sun had risen sufficiently high enough to illuminate the shadows of the valley, I could just pick out the contour of the hills and the line of a small road which we would be taking later this morning on our way to Yuksom.
Having breakfasted we boarded the jeeps to set off through the terraced hills. To one side the mountains provided a great backdrop against the clear blue sky, whilst all around us the green of the trees reminded me that we were still some way from them. We hadn't been traveling very long, when we suddenly swept up a short side road to arrive at the base of Pemyangste Monastery, the principle monastery of Sikkim.
From where the jeep was parked, a flight of stairs rose up to a terrace, where rows of prayer flags were fluttering in the breeze. Dwarfed by the height of the poles, a couple of novice monks, the younger of the two being about five or six years old, stood gazing at us as we alighted from our vehicles. I climbed the stairs before setting off around the side of the Monastery building, I was again swept up with the beauty of the scenery. From this lofty elevation there were even better views across the valley. The line of the white mountains across the horizon were broken by rows of poles, each adorned with strings of prayer flags, their colours faded by the constant exposure to the elements. The white, yellow, green, red and blue flags, each imprinted with text, fluttered in the breeze sending prayers to to the heavens above.
Beyond the main monastery building I came across some smaller buildings, overlooking an expanse of lawn, where young novice monks were busy doing their daily chores. Some were ferrying between the main Monastery and the buildings, whilst others worked in teams to do the sweeping up. A large scruffy looking dog ambled around the grass occasionally casting a glance at the visitors. I have heard these dogs can be quite aggressive guards but perhaps because this one was near the monks it was quite placid.
Standing in the grassed area I had my first real look at the Monastery, a large building two storeys high with white and red walls. Overhanging the main entrance was a large wooden gallery, which was ornately carved. Set against the clear blue sky, the structure was imposing.
I walked up the steps to the main entrance to see the intricately painted murals surrounding the doorway, many of them depicting scenes of the life of Buddha. I managed to get some photos of this wonderful detail but from there on photography of the interior was strictly banned.
Leaving my footwear at the door, I entered the large main room and, after waiting for my eyes to adjust for the dim light, I saw that all the walls were covered in ancient murals. In one part of the room was a large throne, flanked by rows of benches. They acted as a form of corridor leading to a display of statues of Lord Buddha in his various forms.
Exiting the main room by a side entrance, we entered a corridor where a staircase led us to the next level of the monastery. My eyes were now sufficiently adjusted to the gloom to see the huge spiders clinging to the corners of the walls, some of them were so bulky they looked as though they could have been taking steroids. I climbed the stairs with some trepidation hoping that none of the spiders had laid a web to snare the unwary visitor.
Entering the room at the top of the stairs was breathtaking. A large glass case, going almost to the ceiling, contained an amazing carving of a seven-tier pagoda. The detail of the building and the figures on it were simply phenomenal. It apparently took one of the monks two years to carve the initial structure from a single piece of wood, followed by a further three years, to paint all the detail.
Soon it was time to leave the Monastery and continue the journey to Yuksom. I left with a feeling of sadness as I could easily have stayed there for many days to come. I can't describe what it was that attracted me to the place, perhaps it was the feeling of tranquility, or just the beauty. I have felt similar feelings at other Buddhist sites which have given me an interest to learn more about Buddhism.
Boarding the land cruisers again we followed the road down the valley to retrace some of the route we had taken yesterday. Our intended route would have taken us across the valley in the direction I had seen from the hotel this morning but, unfortunately for us, the road had been washed away in the monsoon last year and hadn't yet been repaired. Our route took us down winding roads that snaked through the forested hillsides. Occasionally, we would pass schoolchildren en route to school, all of them wearing school uniform of one description or another. If they saw us, many would enthusiastically wave, shouting 'hello' as we sped by down the hills.
The views on the way down were wonderful, the forested hills of the surrounding countryside seemed to span into the distance like green rolling waves. Every now and again, like specks of white surf on the crest of those waves, small villages could be seen dotted amongst the trees.
Entering a village we pulled up at the shell of a two-story building. There were no walls, or roof, to the structure just a concrete skeleton; this was open planning with a difference. I wondered if a feng- shui expert had been hard at work. In a corner of the ground floor lay a few mechanical tools, apparently this was the local motor mechanic's place. Soon the tyre from the other land rover, which had punctured yesterday, was produced and the mechanic set about swapping the tyre using a large hammer and long crowbar to get the tyre off. The inner tube already had a large patch on it - now it had two. Looking at the rather slick looking tyre, almost devoid of tread, made me wonder if all the other tyres on our vehicles were the same. There was a stunned silence in the group.
We continued to drop down into the valley, until crossing a large suspension bridge we entered the town of Legship. We stopped for a short while while the vehicle drivers had some lunch and our trek permits were checked at the police post. There wasn't really much to the place, a main road down which numerous lorries trundled, plus a couple of side streets leading to a vegetable market. Some of the group took lunch in a small cafe but I settled for the packed lunch that had been supplied by the hotel this morning. It was about as inspiring as the town I was standing in.
By now, the heat of the day was beginning to bite in the noon day sun, and after a lengthy wait for the permits, we boarded the jeeps again before setting off to take a road up another valley. As we climbed, following the course of the river, we eventually passed the construction of a rather large dam. The waters, which were backing up in the valley below, were an incredible dark green colour. We stopped for a short while to look at the scene below us. I noticed a small temple on the bank of the rising water, which looked like it wouldn't be long before it would be immersed in the green lake. Just off the road, up one of the embankments, were some wild orchids which I scrambled up to get a look at. It was the first time I had seen one close up.
The tarmac roads that we had been previously been following weren't particularly good to start with. In many places, the monsoon rains had soaked into the earth causing parts of the roads to be swept away. Here the roads were worse. It wasn't long before the road surface disappeared completely to become just compacted earth. It was as though we had crossed into a different area where the road repair funds had been swallowed up. At times, where the road had been washed away, rudimentary repairs had been done in the form of a bulldozer just forging a path from one section or dirt road to the other. As our vehicle edged its way across these narrow strips of rutted road, and I looked down the valley to the stream way below, I wondered how the patches on the inner tubes were holding out. Just as well we had the spare tyre done this morning, because at this rate, there was every chance we would get another puncture.
After bouncing along the road for a while, we stopped just beyond a bridge to rest for a while by a large waterfall. In the monsoon season it would be a raging torrent, even now there was some force behind it. Looking back across the valley, I saw silhouetted on the distant ridge of a hill, the outline of Pemyangste Monastery.
Eventually, after a long journey, we reached Yuksom. Standing on the edge of the small town overlooking the forested hills, Hotel Tashigang is a rather large pink walled building with a corrugated iron roof. Although the building looked a little tired, it still had a charm about it and the lawned gardens outside provided a suitable place to unwind with a cup of tea after the long dusty ride. However, the tranquility was shattered as a party of young western kids arrived and started to shout to each other. I hoped and prayed that they were not going to be following us along the trail tomorrow.
Looking into the hills beyond the garden of the hotel I could see the wooded slopes leading up the valley. This was our route for tomorrow when we start the second part of the trek heading up to the Goecha la. As I looked at the mass of trees ahead I hoped that the weather would continue to hold. The prospect of rain, which would bring out the leeches, was not a welcoming prospect.
Trek Diary - Sikkim
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