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.



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