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Goecha la – Unlocking The Gates

Avinish Shankdhar

Last updated: 16-01-2017

Have you ever felt desperation for something you don’t know? Do you do things wanting nothing out of it? Do you believe in playing your part and leaving the rest to destiny? Do you believe in the state of equilibrium where positives and negatives cease to matter? Do inactivity of mind and calmness mean the same to you?

Traveling is mostly trekking for me and yet I’m not getting what I wanted from it. I have tried doing longer and more difficult ones (non-technical of course), but the experience rarely matches the expectations. Although I have traveled a lot in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh region but I can count on my fingers the memorable ones, and one of them is not a trekking thing at all. I have looked for different challenges – be it in the form of extreme weather (-30 degree celsius) or extremely physical expedition (561 km's cycling from Manali to Leh) in the past one year, but both didn’t fructify for the reasons beyond my control. So, one can understand the type of uneasiness and desperation I was in to break this mode and do something worthwhile.

As most people, I too have a very big bucket list to satiate my wanderlust. I have always wanted to explore North-East India but haven’t really set out a time period when I will do so. I knew that there is a big and popular trek there called Goecha la and I will one day do it and it couldn’t have come at a better time for me when I have decided to do it….or may I say that I have been made to choose it. A travel company were giving huge discounts on all its treks and I have to choose one which is not so far in distant future but still being big enough that I will save some money on it. Goecha la fits the bill as it not only falls in Sikkim but going there is both time consuming and exhausting. I ended up fixing my date with Goechala trek a good 3 months in advance. However, I would rather say that the destiny has set this date for me on my behalf.

3 months later, I am still without an airplane ticket (don’t ask me why) and why I wasted more than 1 days leave traveling far east. As I boarded the train and checked my ambiance for the next 24+ hrs., I have started regretting my decision of going so far. The train experience has made me question my decision over and over again and I have nothing else to do. How much can a person sleep? I was carrying a book but do not have the will to touch it. I do not know who my colleagues would be and it is 2 days traveling before we reach a place called Yuksom. I’m pretty sure that I would be wasted by the time I will be there and would be counting days for return from thereon. Things can’t have started on a worse note I suppose.

Anyways, my train was late for hours (which is normal) and I reached Siliguri early in the morning. I thought that if I could be a bit smarter and find a cab quickly then I will be at Yuksom earlier and will get some time to rest but as the luck would have it, it started raining and I have to take another cab after the first one refused to go for the lack of passengers. This cab is not going to Yuksom but to Jorethang from where I have to take another one. Although, I didn’t mention it earlier I like the early morning rain in Siliguri and I have liked the place for whatever little I have seen of it. It come across as very quiet and laidback place to me with amazing weather throughout the year (so I have heard).

Goecha la – Unlocking The Gates

Mountains and more mountains – I have reached Jorethang. Do not remember much of the journey till that place, maybe there was nothing to remember. Normally, a cab to Yuksom would be available every 30 minutes from there but on that particular day, I spent close to 4 hrs waiting for the one. Anyways, I met this young person from a nearby village who is going to see his sister over a weekend and is also waiting for his cab. We both decided to explore this small hill town and its market. We had some interesting conversation and we also managed to take keys from army personnel for a Buddhist temple that is situated at the top of a small hill. It is surprising that no one was there and the temple was locked. Anyways, we had a good view of the whole town, clicked some pictures and off we go. I boarded my cab and reached Yuksom in the evening, enjoying and admiring nature and local culture en route.

The first thing I did after reaching Yuksom is to get into my hotel room and had a nice-n-long shower. Then I called the contact person from that travel company. As it turns out, that company has outsourced this trip to a local agency called Red Panda and I have to co-ordinate with them for everything. I went to meet this guy in his office and immediately been welcomed with a bucketload of positive vibes. From there on it was only up, up and up. The guy who runs this agency is very friendly and accommodating. He has such a wonderful and healthy environment around him that anyone can feel at home and relax within seconds. Cool cafes, 1 budding marathon runner, lots of traveling souvenirs (I got one myself) and an exodus of foreign tourists. He asked me about my journey and briefed me about what lies ahead. Later on, I met my would-be colleagues on this trek. Incidentally, in the group of 6 people – I’m the only Indian.

Next day, early in the morning we started on our 8-day trek. Lavish food, interesting conversation's and lots of games characterize these 8 days. One good thing about foreigners is that they do not stop every half an hour when trekking. It suits me perfectly. It also means that we reach our day end destination before time every day and has plenty of time to play, explore, interact or for some personal time as well.

Goecha la – Unlocking The Gates

Luckily, we are in the second batch of the season, so there aren’t too many groups following our route day-to-day. However, there was this 1 group who was having the same itinerary and halting spot as ours every day so we get to interact with those people as well on and off. Mostly, during the trek, everyone held on to their own pace and catch everyone else on and off during the day. Although except one couple from Netherland, everyone else is from a different country (Italy, Canada, England and India of course), we gelled together pretty early and very well. All of us has interesting insights and amazing stories to share. I cannot undermine the importance of support group – trek leader, her assistant, the cook and others. They were helpful every single time and we get luxurious food (considering the conditions).

Goecha la trek – what can I possibly write to explain it. Every day was different and we walked for hours on different kind of textures from a muddy steep trail to grassy meadows to snow-kissed rocks. One has to be there to experience it. However, I would like to write about this one day which was the highlight of these 8 days – the 6th day – the day when we have to go to the farthest point and nearest to the Kanchenjunga mountain.

We started at 1:30 AM so that we can reach viewpoint # 1 at sunrise time. My torch wasn’t working and I noticed it just when we are about to start. So, for the next 150 mins, despite continuous snowfall I have followed a girl in my group from step to step, my eyes were glued to her feet and I was as attentive in that darkness as anyone could be to save their life. Finally, we reached viewpoint # 1 before sunrise at 4 AM. The viewpoint was 10 meters above the spot where one of my co-traveler was sitting. I asked him what is he doing here when he could do the same at the top. He replied that it was very cold up there. I didn’t understand him as to how cold it could be 10 meters up and I went further. There were lots of sacred stones amid some really big Tibetan flags. Since I was alone up there so I removed my gloves and took the liberty to take some selfies. I was there for about 10-15 minutes when others joined me up there and looked around to catch a glimpse of something different. Soon, everyone realized that it is dark, foggy and bloody cold out there so we all went down to join that colleague of ours. Too late – the damage has already been done by that time – I could not feel my hands for next 2-3 hrs after that stupidity. Anyways, at around 4:30 AM sunlight started and around 4:45 AM it was sunrise but we could not see much due to the fog. Interestingly, no other group has reached viewpoint # 1 at the time of sunrise.

Goecha la – Unlocking The Gates

So, we decided to move towards the viewpoint # 2, which was further 3-4 hrs away. I know that the girl in the couple is feeling the altitude and will not walk quick and her partner will give her company. I tried to pace myself between the fastest (Italian) and the second fastest (Brit) trekker of our group so that I don’t loose the opportunity to be there on time. It was a long trek and at one point, I have to question the Italian if we are on the right track as there was no trail and we were walking on icy mountains, climbing one after the another. The Italian is from the Alps and has traveled a lot so he knows the ways with the mountains and taught me how to find the trail on such conditions. At one point, even the Italian could feel the altitude but when I looked at myself, the only thing that I felt was tiredness for walking so long on empty stomachs. This made me feel great as I’m better than him in at least one area. By the way, I haven’t described this Italian guy properly before – he is by far the fastest guy I have seen in my life. He introduced me to mountain running on this trek and after this trek he went to Nepal for ABC and EBC where he trekked at an average of 50 km's per day due to lack of time. He himself has astonished himself by walking so much and so fast there and admitted that it was not healthy and a big risk to his life as well. Even the local Sherpas were amazed by his physical display of brisk walking. Coming back, we 3 (me, Italian and Brit) has reached viewpoint # 2 around 9 AM.

I didn't mention it earlier that our trek leader for some reason had this assumption that we will walk back from viewpoint # 1 but when we insisted on going further, she tried to reason with us by stating that most groups do not go further and only the fittest among the fitter people can go further both time and weather permitting. But thankfully to my foreign colleagues (who are well researched & fit people), these things does not matter in front of their high resolute. It is this time that I once again felt lucky to be among such group of people. So, the trek leader stayed behind with the slow couple and another lady. We three went further with the guidance (company is the right word) of our cook. Finally, we all have reached viewpoint # 2 safe and sound. After resting for about 10-15 minutes, we asked that cook to guide us towards viewpoint # 3, but to our shock, he was non-committal and very firm in his decision. So much so that he even refused to point the right direction in which viewpoint # 3 lies. So, that was the moment of truth for the 3 of us then, we have reached a dead end. Happy to be there and disappointed to not go further when we know that we still have fuel left in us.

Gods must be on our side as a miracle was waiting just at the turn for us. 10 minutes later we saw a tall Russian walking towards us at viewpoint # 2. As it turns out, he is a high society, very expensive and elite professional adventure guide who was helping his client in the trek. He did not stop at the viewpoint and after a short exchange of greetings, he straightaway went to do the recce for viewpoint # 3. By the time he came back after 20 odd minutes, his client was also here. They halt for 5 minutes before started proceeding further. At this time, we requested him if we could accompany him towards viewpoint # 3. At first, he said no and when we explained our helplessness and desperation, he took a moment to scan all 3 of us with his eyes as if he could make out of our potential just by a glance. This Russian was everything anyone could associate with adventure, fitness, and leader. He told us that the Italian could accompany him but not me and the Brit. Yes, the Italian looks fitter among we 3 but this is a huge insult. The Brit was cool with this but not me. I begged the Russian until he relents. Brit also tags along. Russian agreed only on one condition that all 5 of us (including his client) will follow each other step-by-step and that he will have ultimate authority in decision making till we get back to viewpoint # 2. He made it clear that since he has allowed we 3 to go with him, we 3 also becomes his responsibility and he wants each one of us to be at their best physical form and alertness during the next 90 minutes or so. I feel more relaxed in the company of our new leader - he has that aura and charisma of authenticity and genuineness in him - a natural leader. Somehow, I knew that if there would any problem, we will be safe with him around.

Goecha la – Unlocking The Gates

So, here is why the route to viewpoint # 3 is laced with danger. We have to pass through a ridge on slippery snow kissed rocks. On top of us is a mountain which is very volatile, making noises constantly and landslides happening every few minutes due to disturbances caused by some geographic factors. We were very agile and alert and almost have disabled the option of being tired and any other physical limitations of our body. There is one last very steep climb before the viewpoint # 3 and we did it like we have just started, in no time. We cannot afford to do it any other way either. Now this is the moment we all were waiting for, this is what we expected and this is truly worthy of it, everything we have all gone through together. We were so lucky and for precious few seconds we even got a glimpse of Mt Kanchenjunga peak. We could have gone further up towards that angry mountain sideways. But we are satisfied and content with what we have now. This feels like an end. We have congratulated each other, laughed, clicked pictures, done silly things, soaked in the moment – for we 5 unknowns share very important and yet personal moment with each other.

There is so much more however, I had one of the best time on this trip courtesy a lot of things – long trek, disappointment turned pleasant experiences, playful games, many personal talks where I bared my all to complete aliens and most importantly the people with whom I shared this journey of time and place. This trek was very special for all 6 of us in the group. We meet new people almost every day but not often do we feel the need to need to know more about them. I met a lot of such people on this trip and I am still in touch with some of them. I have been on so many treks but rarely does an experience just fills you wanting for more and you wish the time either stops now or if it moves then you can take positivity, the newness, the creativity and the energy into your life back home.

I felt on top of the world, that everything is progressive, life is good and am getting closer to my utopia. I certainly get much more than what I set out for. I feel blessed and I am forever indebted to Himalayas for unlocking the gates – for I discovered love….

Goecha la – Unlocking The Gates

P.S. Goecha la is the passage took by 5 monks from Tibet to India many centuries back, thereby unlocking the gates between India and Tibet.

Avinish Shankdhar

I have always been fascinated by nature. In fact my favorite subject in school was geography and I d Read more

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