The herders sauntered down the trail toward us, a single black yak lumbering in front of them. They wore faded jackets and grimy rubber boots. Daggers in leather sheaths dangled from their belts.
Dhan Bahadur ran up to greet them. Only 19 years old, wiry and quick, known to everyone as Raju, he took his duties as our guide seriously. Words were exchanged between him and the three men.
We had come face to face with them on a trail atop the Singalila ridge. This completely exposed path ran north-south on a rugged spur dividing Nepal to the west from the Indian state of Sikkim to the east. We could see across the expanse of both lands, undulating hills stretching to the horizon on either side.
The herders had come from the north, the direction we were heading. There rose all 28,169 feet of Kanchenjunga. In the Tibetan language, its name means the Great Five-Peaked Fortress of Snow. A hulk of gray rock and ice, this third-highest mountain in the world dominates the Himalayan skyline from Darjeeling to eastern Nepal. So sacred was it to the local people that the Indian government banned mountaineering expeditions on its flanks. Those climbers who had struggled up it before the ban stopped short of the summit out of respect for the local customs.
”Why are they coming down this way?” I asked Raju, nodding toward the herders.
”It’s too cold up there,” he said. ”The grazing season in the high places is finished. Now they go down.”
”The snow will come soon. The grass is already dying. Yaks cannot survive the winter here.”
My friend Gilles shot me one of those did-you-hear-what-he-just-said looks. This was only the second day of our trek last November, and down here at 12,000 feet it was warm enough for us to wear T-shirts during the day. But we were planning to go much higher, with two weeks of walking still ahead, and it was a bit disconcerting to see herders who lived here retreating to lower altitudes.
Our porters and yak caravan had stopped behind us to rest on the hillside, as if they too saw something incongruous in the fact that we were going up while these far hardier men were heading down. Several of our six porters had never made this journey before.
”We will run into more herders in the huts up there, won’t we?” I asked Raju.
”I don’t think so,” he said. ”These might be the last local people we see on the entire trail.”
Well, I couldn’t really complain. I had been living in New York for three years and had had enough of the crush of bodies on sidewalks and subway cars, enough of constant phone calls and friends asking me to go out. I had also just broken up with my girlfriend of almost two years, and heading to the Himalayas seemed as good a way of getting over the relationship as any.
This was my fourth trip in four years to the Himalayas. My goal on this visit was to reach a state of mental and physical isolation by trekking in Sikkim, a former Buddhist kingdom in eastern India, sandwiched between Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan. I knew of only a handful of travelers who had ever been there, unlike the crowded tourist regions of Nepal. Gilles, a well-traveled photojournalist, agreed to come with me.
To ensure that I would encounter as few people as possible, I picked out a yak herding trail along the Singalila ridge, atop the range of mountains dividing Nepal and Sikkim. The Indian government had opened this isolated path to foreign trekkers only in 2000. I could not find it in any guidebook.
We would walk north along the ridge for about a week, then traverse a couple of valleys to join up with a more established trekking trail that leads to a 16,200-foot pass called Goecha La, right next to the imposing ramparts of Kanchenjunga.
An Indian Airlines flight took us from Delhi to an airport near Darjeeling. We flew low over lush tea plantations, staring down at pickers with baskets as they bent over rows of green plants. The muscular Kanchenjunga massif towered in the distance. We then crowded into a jeep with a half-dozen Bengali tourists for the five-hour ride to Gangtok, the hilltop capital of Sikkim.
Though the city was popular with vacationers from Calcutta, there were almost no Western tourists. This was surprising considering Sikkim’s rich diversity of hill scenery and the mixture of Hindu and Buddhist cultures.
About three-quarters of people living in Sikkim are Nepalese, from families who immigrated here to cultivate cardamom and rice when the British ruled the subcontinent. In 1975, India annexed Sikkim after a referendum was held in which 97 percent of voters supported the union, an event that still stirs feelings of resentment among some of the native Bhutia and Lepcha people.
The Singalila ridge lay in a sensitive border area, and the government required that all trekkers hire the services of an agency. Gilles and I quickly found an agent in Gangtok who was listed in my Lonely Planet guidebook. He said he could arrange a guide, porters and yaks for the two-week journey to Goecha La. He also told us of two other travelers interested in making the same trek — Elisabeth, a doctor from Austria, and Robert, her computer programmer boyfriend from southern Germany. Despite my the-fewer-people-the-better-philosophy, I knew that joining up with them would bring down the cost of the trip.
Arrangements made, Gilles and I took a short trip that afternoon to Rumtek monastery, across the valley from Gangtok. It is the stronghold and center of worship for the Kagyu order of Tibetan Buddhism. Right away I noticed the Indian soldiers carrying rifles standing on the outer walls and rooftops. There were about 20 of them, posted to keep the peace between two factions of warring monks who disagreed violently on who had the right to inherit the throne of the Karmapa Lama, the leader of the order.
I couldn’t leave for our trek a minute too soon. The next morning, we took a jeep with Elisabeth and Robert to Uttarey, the village in subtropical western Sikkim where we would start our walk. We met Raju and our cook, Prem, who whipped up a meal of lentils and rice that night in our guesthouse. Prem came from Katmandu and was experienced at working long treks, including ones to Everest base camp.
When I stepped out onto the guesthouse balcony the next morning, I saw a dozen or so purple tents set up in a field at the edge of the village. Did we need so many tents, I asked Raju. No, he said, those belonged to a group of trekkers from a German outdoor club that had come to Sikkim this year instead of Nepal because of the Maoist insurgency there. In fact, the group was so large that its leaders had decided to split the 21 members into two groups — one set would start on the trail today, the other the next day, at the same time that we would.
What had I done to deserve such bad karma?
After starting the steep first day’s walk up to the Singalila ridge, through thick cardamom fields and a lush forest, I realized I had underestimated something else — the size of our own party. At our first lunch stop, as Prem cooked up a pot of potatoes in a glade beneath the ridge, I tallied our group. Besides Raju and Prem, we had with us six porters, two yak herders and six yaks.
I could only imagine the size of the support staff for the two German trekking groups.
We ran into the Germans often on the trail, as we wound back and forth between Sikkim and Nepal, camping out in high meadows littered with yak bones and steadily plodding toward the snow peaks of the Kanchenjunga range to the north. After running into the three yak herders on the second day, we didn’t encounter local residents again until near the end of the trek, when we descended far, far down to a Tibetan refugee village called Tsoka.
On our third night, Raju and Prem shot sparklers into the night sky to celebrate the start of the Hindu festival of lights known as Diwali. Raju’s cries of ”Happy Diwali!” echoed across valleys blanketed with rhododendron trees. Another evening, Gilles and I huffed our way up a hill above our campsite to catch the sunset. We ran into three porters from the second German group there. This was their first time on this trail, and they were as astounded as we were by the high mountain scenery. They took photos of us, we of them, and we watched together as a sea of pink clouds moved in below us to cover the valley.
Then there were the two snowstorms, and the holy lakes covered with sheets of ice, and the nights in which we lay shivering inside the flimsy cloth walls of our tents. The cold was often painful, but still tolerable.
Finally, on the morning of our climb to Goecha La, we set off in predawn darkness to stay ahead of the German groups. All 21 trekkers and their guides and porters had camped beside us on the barren shores of Samiti Lake that night, and they also planned to ascend to the high pass in the morning. Raju walked quickly along the path while we wheezed our way upward, gasping partly from the altitude and partly from the below-freezing temperatures. Behind us came Sonam Bhutia, our tough lead yak herder, and Lapka, at 17, the youngest porter.
Though I liked Lapka, I didn’t understand at first why he was coming with us that morning. Sonam I could understand — he had walked more times in this area than virtually any member of our group, and Raju could fall back on him if the situation got dicey. (As with climbing any high pass in the Himalayas, weather and the effects of altitude were unpredictable.) Lapka had never been here before.
As we took the final few steps in the snow up to Goecha La, Kanchenjunga emerged in all its icebound glory right in front of us, beyond the fluttering prayer flags, beyond the wide Talung Valley. Beneath his blue baseball cap, Lapka broke out in a big grin. He had wanted — no, needed — to see the sacred peak with his own eyes.
Back down in the valley, beside the campfire that night, I asked him what he thought of that first glimpse. ”It was like walking into heaven,” he said.
Our entire group sat in a circle and warmed our hands over the fire. Lapka’s enthusiasm was infectious. Maybe I had been looking for the wrong thing all this time. Maybe it was not so bad having other people around after all. We stared across the fire at one another’s wild grins as orange sparks shot up and danced out into the night.