Saturday, 9 February 2019

Sacred Caves of Sikkim. Part 3

After a rough night camped out on a tarpaulin which we had laid out over the bare and none too clean floorboards of the cabin, the first sounds of life outside indicating the approaching dawn summoned us to rise early and make our ablutions under the cold water tap nearby.

We set about preparing a simple breakfast after which we got ready for our ascent and the final climb up to the cave. The previous day, a local person, possibly a native to northern Sikkim had arrived a little after us and set up a  camp nearby, he rolled out his bedding not far from ours inside the shelter. As we could not communicate except with the small store of Nepali words I knew we had not been able to get to know his purpose there.

 However, that morning we shared our small cooking fire and a few biscuits with him. It seemed that he was visiting the cave as well, but he set off some time before we got going that morning.

As soon as we climbed out of our camp we were confronted with steps rising almost vertically up the side of the mountain. The steps were narrow, steep and slippery. One careless foot placement and it could all be over within a flash.

We continued our steep ascent up mossy stone stairways that seemed to become ever more narrow and steep the higher we climbed. It was a somewhat cloudy morning unlike the blue skies of the previous day which had graced our journey in. Therefore we were a little anxious about the weather turning on us. This gave us some added pressure to our sense of limited time. We intended to make it back down to the lodge that same day and our descent on the slippery pathways was not looking any easier than the ascent had been.

Onwards and upwards we continued for some forty or more minutes, by which time the sun had risen and was beginning to peak through the early morning clouds.

Then, after a particularly exposed and sheer section of bare stone steps, we suddenly noticed a whole bevvy of prayer flags hanging over a narrow entryway and we knew our destination was now very near.

There was some clambering over difficult large boulders and then we were there, right in front of a steep cliff face and looking into several dark passageways. Interestingly, there was no clearly defined cave entrance to be seen, rather a series of gloomy caverns under the sheer cliff wall.

Small shrines were set up here and there with statues and offerings of butter lamps and flowers and bowls of water. Many had passed this way before and the pilgrims had left their offerings on the stone alters. There were all sorts of things from human hair to old malas and various other knick-knacks.

We immediately sensed a very powerful blessing in the place and although it was indefinable, it could not be ignored. Not long after we arrived the Sikkimese man with whom we had shared our breakfast at the camp shelter way below suddenly re-appeared. He beckoned us to follow him and as it turned out, this was a very fortuitous occurrence because we could never have found the caves which he was soon to lead us into had we been alone there. They were quite hidden from public view and not at all obvious.

Armed with nothing more than a small candle and a box of matches he entered one shallow cave near the main cliff-face and then disappeared over the lip of a very large rock.  We followed closely behind him, Frank ahead of me on the heels of our guide and me panting up the rear. Both of us had gas lighters and torches with us but even so the inky blackness within the mountain was utterly impenetrable and our lights seemed very meagre indeed.

However, we had little time to consider our options or contemplate the risks of following our companion and it was just as well. Very soon we found ourselves on our bellies in the dust inside the mountain and inching our way forward along very narrow passages. I still don't know how I had the nerve to follow. With Frank ahead of me there was the hopeful expectation that I would be able to fit through the various openings if he had as he was taller and larger than me, but even so, we were really entering into an unknown world with an uncertain outcome awaiting us.

Despite various kinds of adventures throughout my life, squeezing myself along muddy narrow passages into the insides of a mountain was a very new kind of experience, particularly as we were being led by a fellow with unclad feet and only a wax candle wedged between his two front teeth.

On and on we went behind the man, our curiosity increasing with every passing moment. It was somewhat comforting to know that he had been here before. Only someone very familiar with these caves could ever find their way around them. We had to slide our bodies between massive boulders which appeared to separate one cavern from another. It was not long before we were covered in grime from head to foot and very soon it became damp and muddy as well, but there was nothing for it but to continue on .

Deep inside the mountain, we eventually climbed into a small cavern and saw a shrine with many offerings from previous visitors.  We were grateful to have our headlamps so that we could at least see a little around us and into the surroundings inner caverns. After some more climbing and sliding around over large rocks and boulders we entered another cavern which had a very particular atmosphere.

It was here that our guide took out a rumpled Kadak, a ceremonial scarf of greeting covered in Buddhist auspicious symbols and some other small offerings. We followed suit. After chanting a few prayers and enjoying some precious moments of silence within the heart cavern we felt that some indefinable blessing had embraced us. It was a very exquisite feeling, deeply moving and quite unforgettable.

The journey out was as perilous as the one in but thanks to our guide we were able to make it out again into the light of day, very much relieved but also thoroughly exhilarated by our unexpected adventure.

He showed us a few more of the caves, but nothing as challenging as that first one and then he went on his way. We were never to meet again. However, the gratitude that we both felt at his having come along at such a crucial time in our pilgrimage was never to leave us.

We stayed on a while longer, exploring the various levels and nooks and crannies of which there were many.

By the time we began our journey back down to our camp our hearts were completely filled and we felt that the effort that it had taken for us to reach this remote place was completely and fully justified and worthwhile.

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Sacred Caves of Sikkim, Part 2.

A faded sign marks the beginning of our journey on foot. Here starts the trail to the northern cave of Chang Lhari Nyinpo. This roughly translates as the old cave of God's hill. The trail passes through dense forests of ancient trees, bubbling mountain streams forded by rickety bamboo and wooden bridges of dubious strength and construction.

We begin with a descent along a pathway paved with roughly hewn stones. They are damp but fortunately not slippery. However, one must be constantly vigilant as the stones are not level. They jut out from the soil in an uneven profusion and often add to the difficulty of the path rather than making it easier to traverse.

Frank leads the way into the dense forest that greets us at the beginning of our trek. Bamboo groves soon give way to massive trees dripping with orchids and ferns of all exotic kinds.

It is not long before he decides to find us suitable walking sticks. These simple branches will become essential as we progress on our journey. A stick is very necessary in so many ways and quickly becomes an indispensable trekking tool.

I don't have the greatest kneecaps and a walking stick helps me to balance and take some of the weight while climbing and descending.

There were plenty of bamboos available near the beginning of our walk so we chose a couple of sturdy staffs to help us on our way.

As we were both carrying our own loads in backpacks it was essential to be able to balance the load well, especially on the tenuous cliff stairways and hanging bridges that we were very soon to encounter.
I will have to admit that I did roll my eyes when we climbed up to the first dubious section of the pathway not long after setting out. In this particular spot, a bit of bamboo had been roped to the side of the cliff wall and it looked none too sturdy. Without luggage one can skirt these sections fairly painlessly but when carrying a load it becomes quite a different matter.

The surrounding trees were tall and magnificent. This first part of our trail passed through some very old-growth forests that had never been touched with a loggers chainsaw.

We walked steadily onwards and upwards. In fact, after the first thirty minutes of relatively flat walking, it was all ascent, ascent and more ascent!

I always find that the first thirty or forty minutes of the day is the most difficult part of walking. After that one finds ones walking pace and the going becomes much easier. After warming up the body finds its own walking rhythm and once you tap into that there is a momentum which seems to carry you along, not effortlessly of course, but slowly and steadily.

Frank and I seemed to manage our pace at about the same rate but I was aware that he was being very thoughtful and not putting too much distance between us. There were many places where large rocks or slippery wooden walkways made it a little challenging for me, especially with my load and he was always nearby to extend a helping hand. I should also mention that he had quietly taken the lions share of things which had to be carried.

Even though it was relatively cool, as often happens with trekking, we soon became very hot and sweaty.

A seven or eight-hour trek is not much to tackle, but when the trail rises sharply most of the way it can begin to get quite gruelling.

I am something of a seasoned trekker and yet, I do remember feeling particularly weary on this ascent by the middle of the day.

Our intention was to make it to a small and extremely basic hut which lies about an hour from the cave of Chang Lhari Nying Phuk.

Early afternoon, when we stumbled across a bubbling stream with large and inviting boulders along its banks we decided to take proper rest, have our lunch and a good break.

Only the occasional local villager had passed us during the morning and sometimes they had a few goats or yaks with them, but we did not encounter any other pilgrims along the path.

At a certain elevation, I began to notice leeches beginning to freeload on my boots and socks. I had chosen to wear a long cotton dress. Some would say it is not the most practical choice, and whenever we encountered large boulders I would have to agree.   There were some advantages, however. It could be hoisted up in the front when climbing and lifted above the waterline if wading across a creek and I found it was generally much more comfortable and cool to wear provided the trail was straightforward of course.

Unfortunately, as I was soon to discover soon enough, a dress was not necessarily the wisest of choices in the high alpine Sikkimese forests, where slippery pathways and leech infested grasses could make a dress a challenge. There were also a few other unexpected situations which were to arise later and make me question the wisdom of my choice on this occasion.

The higher we climbed, the cooler and mistier it became. We also noticed that the soil and vegetation around us was very damp. Just a few days before it had been raining heavily in these parts and the residue of those rains was evident on all sides. This turned the trail in something rather treacherous and the higher we climbed the more slippery it became. Slipping on these mossy stones was simply not an option, given the height at which we were climbing. One misstep could easily have spelt disaster. A broken limb in these parts would be extremely problematic to both the victim and his/her companion.

Therefore we made our way with great care and took no unnecessary risks. As nimble as goats we both somehow managed to avoid falling, but it was a wonder really.

About an hour before dusk we climbed into a small, high rocky location surrounded by massive trees and noticed to one side the trekkers or pilgrims lodge that we had heard about.

This would be as far as we could reach this day. On the morrow, we would climb up into the cliffs and find the cave.