HAUNTED TRAILS OR BLESSED SHANGRI-LA

It was as if almost all our lives could be played on a recorder and fast-forwarded to this moment

Every onset and eventuality in the journey of life was nothing, but a step further towards it. As if the whole life is a mountain and this moment is the peak.

This moment of the first sight I experienced, the sight of Kanchendzonga. 

As if all our lives are waves of a thoughtless storm and Kanchendzonga is the shore.
Everything that has happened and un-happened, everyone I became and un–became, was one step closer towards this calling. As if all the paths I have ever walked upon were to reach the peak of this moment called Kanchendzonga.

These were my raw thoughts, overwhelmed by the first sight of this mountain. I gently closed my diary and capped my pen. Without reading any of it. It was not just a mountain for me, for those who have seen Kanchendzonga, would know it. For those who haven’t, may jolly well conclude that I am batshit crazy and that’s okay. In that moment, which loomed for hours unknown, the clear blue sky gave way to the crimson evening. The winds were in a cold hurry and so was I, It was getting dark.

We were in a group of 10, but I sneaked some time out to spend alone. My fellow trekkers led the way forward, while I decided to meditate in ‘woods and words’. Before leaving, Indranil, our trip leader, reiterated that I need to follow the single trailed–steep path, downhill.

Jolted by a sense of delay, I jumped to grab my belongings. My cold hands surrendered to the freeze quickly, while I still tried to fasten my backpack. One last look, before I hit the mysterious jungle. Mount Pandim (21,952 feet) and Kanchendzonga (28,169.29 Feet), overlooked the sun-kissed grass. Autumn colours made the wild fields look like a palette of reds and oranges, cheerily mixed with green.
I finally picked up my backpack and tripod, when Indranil’s last words rang in my head – “Be careful. No matter what, do not venture inside the jungle. Stick to your trail until you reach a river, that’s our campsite.

I entered the Rhododendron jungle. Thick moss comfortably wrapped thin branches, illuminated by the fading sun. The wind stealthily whizzed through the branches, making the jungle alive, as though breathing. The loose rocks made the downhill steep–unladed path a careful affair. I was carrying my camera on the tripod head. In non-photographic language, it simply means that I did not have the luxury to fall. Thus, began my journey into the labyrinth.

Haunted Trails:

As feet follow the trail, the mind follows another. Even before I realised it, I was in the middle of the “haunted” trails of Goechala.

Goechala is said to be so enchanting that wayfarers lose the sense of reality here. The trail earns a notorious name because many trekkers have lost their way here. In yesteryear, a guide followed a bird, blood pheasant, and lost his way in the jungle, while crossing the Phedang trail. What started as a little detour to click the picture of a bird, led him to the heart of the wilderness and he could not retrace his footsteps back to the trail. Only when a local search and rescue operation was launched, was he found in the jungle, completely hazed and clueless about his whereabouts. 

Several other people have been lured and ventured into the forest. Some found and some never to be seen again. But my fate did not swing in between these possibilities. I was certain about the trail and rejected any urge to stop. Well, until I looked back. The entangled Rhododendron branches gleamed fluorescent. The green moss spread across the barren crimson sky. Now that’s a photographer’s problem, give us a frame like that and we can’t help but drool. A couple of shots to feed the photographer and bit of artistic angles to keep the writer happy and like a fool, we’d think every shot is a National Geographic entry. 

I resumed my quest with a smile. As it started getting dark, winds became strong. As if someone is blowing them freely. This led me to believe that I am not alone. Suddenly the jungle was breathing heavier, as evening settled in. I still had a long way to reach Kockchurang.

Once upon a time, an old man walked the same path. This sleepy watchguard, who lives alone in the middle of nowhere, in a place called Thansing. Imagine a huge clearing of miles and miles of barren land. A lone man, igniting a bonfire, in a lonely cottage. Every-day. This is how Chacha has always lived. At least since the past 25 years that my people know him for. His human interaction is limited to the trek season of 4 to 5 months. Every year, when people meet him and he’d be there; just like the last year. Just like the trekker’s hut, the river and the mountains. The forest and the wild. Timeless. Simply maddening a tad more, with every passing season. So here’s Chacha’s story. The old man was helping a group of lost trekkers to cross the jungle. It was about to be dark and Chacha decided to return to his cottage in Thansing. They say,  while hiking alone, he too could hear the jungle breathing. They say, he saw something unfathomable. And he ran, ran all the way to save his life. Rumours of a Yeti not only spread soon but are alive till date.

Weaving these thoughts, I didn’t even realise that I could see a giant figure at the far distance. Waving at me. It was Indranil. And I was home!

My home somehow pictured like this. There was an old trekker’s hut. A brook quietly made its way by the side. A quaint wooden bridge arched over the brook. The brook and the bridge, in eternal companionship, holding hands against the “haunted” trekker’s hut. I crossed the bridge and hugged my fellow trekkers like they were the only family I ever had! Now, that’s the thing about travel, it bonds you beyond blood and brotherhood.

Just a few steps after crossing the bridge is a cliff, perfectly edged. A muffled roar of the Prek–Chu river far below, touched its feet! I sat there for a while, thinking about how this place truly resembles Shangri–la. 

Shangri–la:

Many refer to Goechala as the last Shangri–la. Khangchendzonga translates to five repositories of God’s treasure. It is a prevalent belief that this treasure is hidden in the mountains around Yuksom. These mountains are also said to hide the secret gateway to Shangri–la that will be revealed to the right person at the right time. I wonder if all these lost souls, find their secret gate to the other world and decide never to come back? If these people were the right people, present at the right time, to stumble upon the magical world? Here’s a small legend a little monk once narrated: 

An old monk knew the way to the magical valley of Shangri–la. He even possessed a detailed map to reach the valley. However, he was the last bearer of this information. Tempted by this idea, powerful nincompoops of that era chased the old monk. All in vain! The monk reached Shangri–la valley and jumped off the cliff. Thereafter, nobody was able to find it. I shuddered at this possibility. 

Breaking my stream of thoughts, I could hear a distant chatter. Indranil was sharing the tale of the haunted hut in Kockchurang.

Years ago, a German and a French man lived together in the hut. Eventually, the French man murdered the German and absconded. Ever since then, the hut is said to be haunted by the good Samaritan German ghost, who flashes a torch through the window past midnight, cutting through the darkness. It’s spooky how long ago, Indranil regardless spent a night there. Alone.

The Shangri–la within:

The saga is unending. These mysteries will continue for an aeon. That is what makes Goechala truly magical. I wish I could go back to myself in the moment when I first saw Kanchendzonga and tell myself that this moment was my Shangri–la! Maybe, we all carry our Shangri–la within, only to be revealed at the right time! 

Itinerary:

If it calls you, this itinerary is your way to Shangri–la:

Day 1: New Jalpaiguri railway station/Bagdogra Airport to Yuksom

Day 2: Yuksom local Acclimatization

Day 3: Yuksom (5800 feet) to Sachen (7250feet). 4 hours

Day 4: Sachen (7,200 feet) – Tshoka (9,650 feet). 3–4 hours

Day 5: Tshoka (9,650 feet)- Dzongri(12,980 feet) via Phedang(12,050 feet). 5-6 hours

Day 6: Dzongri (12980 feet) to Dzongri top (13681 feet) and back

Day 7: Dzongri(12980 feet) to Thansing(12894 feet) via Kockchurang(12096 feet).5-6 hours

Day 8: Thansing(12894 feet) to Lamuney(13,693 feet). 4.2 kms and 2 hours

Day 9: Lamuney(13,693 feet) to Goechala(16,000feet) and back to Kockchurang.10-12 hours

Day 10: Kockchurang to Tshoka via Phedang. 6-7 hours

Day 11: Tshoka to Yuksom via Bakhim and Sachen. 6 hours

Day 12: Departure

AMBIKA BHARDWAJ

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