No, the Sandakphu Trek is not the only trek in the world with views of 4 of the 5 tallest mountains in the world. There’s an easier trek and one that promises an insane number of rhododendrons on display. Just look at this tree draped in red. And yes, the red bunches bloom in vast numbers on trees, plants and shrubs alike. After all we are talking about the Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary here.
We had just completed the Sandakphu trek and had to head back to Yuksom in Sikkim. The plan was to trek onward to Gorkhey and head off towards Hilley, from where one enters the Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary. Leave Sirikhola we did, but Taashi and friends had some other plans in mind. The next stop was Samandin – a lovely village on an upland just half an hour before Gorkhey. And such was the hospitality that a planned stay for a night extended to three days of fun and adventure. Fishing in the Rammam Khola and scavenging for frogs under the riverside boulders made up the adventure quotient. A game of football with another team of trekkers, carrom with the local kids and the old folks with rounds of ‘chaang’ (rice beer) ensured enough merriment throughout our stay.
Samandin is also known as the lost valley of Sikkim is an undeniably beautiful place with extremely friendly and hospitable locals. The farms and houses are spread out neatly across a scenic plateau with narrow little pathways that allow you to for delightful stroll around the village. There are a few camping spots for those who love to amble and lie around lazily on smooth grassy patches. An adventurous hike through the woods nearby provides access to the Rammam Khola hidden away in the forest – no marked trails though, so you need to hustle your way through. Fishing seems to be the favourite pass-time of the locals here, and we too indulged in this activity and were rewarded with some prized catches.
We finally moved on toward Hilley, at noon on 21st March, aiming to stop at Barsey for the night. Passing through Gorkhey, we moved towards Bhareng, an hour’s trek away from Gorkhey. Trekkers returning from the Sandakphu-Phalut trail can head to Bhareng, instead of going down to Sirikhola and end their trek here as well. A new road coming up connects Bareng to Jorethang and transport can be arranged from here to NJP / Siliguri.
From Bhareng we joined the under construction road that climbed up to Ribdi. It was a broad mud path, an uncompleted road winding up to a few huts located higher above. Ribdi is a well equipped, relatively large town about an hour’s trek away from Bhareng. We stopped here for a short while to ready our supplies for the trek ahead and sip on a few cups of tea in the meantime. And good we did take this short break, for the trek ahead was a long steep climb for 2 straight hours all the way to Hilley. Yes, we could have trekked along the road for most part, but that would have been a bit boring. It would have taken us more than 3 hours too. So we took a shortcut that climbed up steeply from the Ribdhi school and high above the houses of Ribdhi. The trail through forests and farm plot with views of the surroundings, as always provided some relief from the demanding trek.
Two tiring hours of trekking since our short halt at Ribdhi, we made our way towards the huts of Hilley, at the far end of the town where the road coming in from Jorethang ends. As we walked into Hilley, the weather changed completely. The dry, hot weather had now given way to cold, misty conditions at the 2900m altitude. The windy conditions and our clothes soaking with sweat meant our jackets came out much earlier than anticipated. A snack was long due as well and soupy Wai-Wai noodles provided much needed nourishment near the tourist huts.
Hilley is a popular tourist destination in West Sikkim with many visiting it just for the good weather and the greenery around. It is one of the entry points for the Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary as well. And inside the Park is where we were headed. With the dues paid and paperwork completed at the entry gate, we entered the thick bamboo and rhododendron forests within the Sanctuary.
The Barsey Sanctuary or ‘Varsey’ as it also known, occupies a vast densely forested area of 100 sq. kms. and is home several varieties of rhododendrons, magnolia, primula, bamboo, orchids oaks and pines. The trekking trails within the park are mostly easy but there are chances of losing one’s way and getting lost within the dense jungles. With green hills all around, hidden waterfalls, diverse flora and fauna the Barsey Sanctuary is worth a visit for bird-watchers, trekkers or simply nature lovers.
Barsey was about an hour’s trek or 4kms away from the entry gate and we moved at a leisurely pace, enjoying hiking on the green trail. Natural light barely made its presence felt through the thick growth of bamboo and rhododendron trees. It was 6 pm by the time we reached the lovely trekkers hut inside the park. Set in the midst of the forest, the trekkers hut has a private room on the ground floor and more dormitory style beds. A kitchen maintained by the locals serves up food for travellers passing through. There is plenty of open space around the trekkers hut to pitch your tent too, if required. There was no electricity however, which brought out the small chess board that Dhandu carries all the time. I hadn’t played a lot of chess before this trek, but Dhandu and Taashi got me hooked on to the board very fast. Working up the grey matter for some reason seemed to be a good way to wind up the day after a tiring trek J
The day always starts early in the mountains and today was no different. We were packed up and ready for breakfast before 6 am. Some commotion ensued just outside the trekkers hut and we walked over to investigate. The Kanchenjunga Range has just made itself visible in the early morning light and all trekkers were enamoured with what was on display. Having just completed the Sandakphu Trek in glorious weather and brilliant panoramas of the Sleeping Buddha, the view probably didn’t delight us as much. But who can resist the pretty sight of mountain tops basking in yellow-golden sunlight. Out came the cameras and we gazed at the beautiful nature on display yet again.
Breakfast consumed, we wasted no time in hiking up to Deoningalidhap – a campsite about an hour away from the Barsey trekkers hut. Another group was already camping here and we moved on quietly, careful not to disturb some of the trekkers sleeping inside the tents. Well rested from the previous night, we moved fast through the now narrow trail in between thick bamboo forest. We were headed to Achaley. One need to be careful on this part of the trail as it does disappear at times and can trick one into taking an unwarranted detour.
Mostly consisting of gradual ups and downs, the trail is not challenging for the experienced trekkers. But every now and then the trail opens up and offers a glimpse of the hills all around with green forests and rhododendrons in abundance. We were a bit late for
From Achaley or Achalley Dara, one trekking route heads towards the Singalila Ridge. Trekker can connect to Phalut and Gorkhey from here or trek towards Thulo Dhaap, Kalijhar and Chewabhanjyang on a longer route to Uttarey. Another alternate, is to descend to Uttarey, the shortest route to get to there through the newly constructed Tenzing Hillary Park. Phokteydara a short hike up from Kalizar promises 360 degree views of the Himalayan peaks and 4 of the 5 tallest mountains in the world, just like Sandakphu and Phalut. Although we did not hike up to Phokteydara, being close to the Singalila Pass and closer to the Kanchenjunga range than Sandakphu and Phalut, it surely must pack some stunning views for the trekkers.
We took the direct, short route to Uttarey and started our descent. The trail was steep at times but there was plenty of cool forest cover along the way. It took about two hours to get down all the way to Uttarey. An hour into the descent we reached a few huts and a diversion along a kachcha road that lead to this memorial in honor of Tenzing and Hillary.
From here on, Uttarey was clearly visible far down and across on the other side of the valley. We trekked through Sherpa Gaon and Gumpadara villages on our way down before reaching the road-head at Uttarey.
Uttarey is another tourist destination in West Sikkim is frequented by many travellers and trekkers seeking the Singalila Ridge. The Singalila Pass and the sites of Phoktey Dara and Kalijhar near the base of the Kanchenjunga Range are good spots to trek to.
We had been trekking at a fast pace since 6:30 in the morning and it was by 12:30 pm by the time we completed the trek. Lunch was important before we headed any further. Rice and noodles and momos disappeared in no time once set on the table.
We were to drive to Pelling and then to Yuksom was what I had anticipated. But Taashi and friends were in no mood to go back so soon. We started on a short trek again, out of Uttarey but in the opposite direction. We trekked to the end of the road ahead of Uttarey, past the trout breeding centre by the riverside and up to another lovely village, Semphok – only after a refreshing dip in the river though.
Semphok was half an hour’s trek up from the road. There is a motorable road that leads up to the village too. But few vehicle ply here from Uttarey and trekking it up seemed a better idea than waiting for a ride. Some fun and games were on for the evening then – a game of volleyball in an improvised volleyball court followed by copious amounts of Chaang.
Our ride picked us up from Semphok early next morning for a drop to Uttarey. We hopped on to a jeep heading to Geyzing and the drive continued. Close to Uttarey, we drove over the Singshore bridge: Asia’s 2nd highest suspension cable bridge! The height was dizzying and there were some very anxious moments while crossing the bridge. Why no bungee jumping was a thought that came to mind, only once we were safely across on the other side though ;)
We crossed Pelling soon after and reached Geyzing for another surprise. It was the festival of Holi that day and the entire town had shut shop – only to celebrate the festival on the streets. Music, dancing and splashing water and colors on one and all – it was a great way to end our little adventure. We joined in the celebrations for a while and then headed on to get back to Yuksam late in the afternoon. Places and friends to be visited again another time for sure!