India 🇮🇳: Goecha La hike – Indian snow & Mt. Kanchenjunga views

Let’s start with my grand plan – i spend my time with Laura in India sightseeing the North and Goa and then i disappear into the mountains for 2-3 weeks for hiking & camping away from all the busy cities. So much for my plan…

Sorting my hiking trip proved a little more tricky. First, to get a permit as foreigner you need to be in pairs 😐. Second, agencies want to make a business as well by sticking you in groups with guides, porters and cooks at USD60-90 per day.

The best offer to cater my self-sufficient approach was with Altitude (shop next to tourist office in Gangtok) at USD39/day for just the guide. They added my name to an exisitng group from Spain (which i never met). IMPORTANT: Hiking permits are just issued in Gangtok – one passport/visa copy and passport photo required (all available to arrange in town) – so budget a day for this (be it in person or remote with papers delivered via cab) unless you do it all in advance with an organised group.

What could i do. So next day 7am i boarded a shared cab to take us from Gangtok to Yuksom – 5 to 6 hours for 120km through the hills but including breaks.

How to go without permit

Now i know that you can easily go without permit. After the police station in Yuksom there are no more checks. You can bypass it using the below route from the village center to Kathog lake (eg don’t follow the first bit of the road when heading for the trailhead further up the village). Use viewranger app to get offline map of the trail including all camps and waypoints.

Goecha La trail: 8-10 day roundtrip

Starting from the camp ground near the trailhead (camping only used by the army aka HMI – Himalayan mountaineering institute) you are looking at a 65km roundtrip and just under 5,700m total ascent / descent. The way up and down are almosg idential bar one small section on the way down where the route varies towards Thsoka campsite.

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The official route these days is shorter as you top out at 4,700m at viewpoint one and hence before Goecha La lake. From there a snow leopard sanctuary has been established. This route is 8km shorter and saves you 250m altitude.

By the way, dont trust the distances indicated at the trail entrance. Completely wrong (and all guides rely on them 🤷‍♂️). E.g. the distance from Yuksom trailhead to Tshokha are 10km and not 16km.

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Preparations for self sufficient hike

Since my intention was not to rely on porters and cooks etc, i went shopping for supplies in Gangtok. Now the idea was an 8 day hike (even though it turned out a lot shorter) and so i needed something like 24,000 calories to allow for 3kcal per day ‘fuel’ for a hiker – ideally with a high calorie to weight ratio.

Below is what i took, a good 7kg extra load from just food. Never before in my life i went shopping reading all the kcal information. 😂Water is available throughout (be it at times in snow form).

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In hindsight less food would have done. Not only did i complete the trek much faster, but you can purchase food in almost all camps and have huts to stay in (other than final camp where you can still sleep in the kitchen hut if numbers permit).

Day 1 – Yuksom to Tshokha camp

We left 9am and a car took us past the police station (for permit check) and to the trailhead near the (army) campground. My guide was a young man from Darjeeling that has walked the trek 50 times (yet never past viewpoint one 🤷‍♂️ and hence has never actually seen Goecha La lake).

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The backpack was reasonably heavy since i was carrying all gear myself – something noone on the mountain does other than the army guys from HMI on the annual trip to kanchenjunga base camp. My guide hasn’t seen a self sufficient hiker in all his 3 years on the trail though he knows what if means having started as a porter hauling 25-30kg loads up the hill.

We covered the first 6km to Sachen campsite by lunchtime and had soup, tea and snacks. Then the real uphill began and rain kicked in.

1,200m altitude meter higher than where we started in Yuksom this morning, we reached Tshokha camp site at about 2,900m in heavy rain by 5pm. I prepared pasta with parmesan (very much to the excitement of a 22 strong Thai hiking group) and we stayed in huts at the request of my guide (cost Rp100 / night).

There is a spot with the last mobile signal on the trek in the upper part of the camp and some patchy reception when you head uphill out of the camp.

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Day 2 – Tshokha to Dzongri camp

The morning greeted us with sunshine and opened up some amazing mountain views. We left it late to depart and rather dried some of our still wet clothing in the morning sun.

Today we would hike some 6km to Dzongri camp (with another camp called Phedand half way) and climb to about 4,000m in a pretty relentless way up. The initially good weather didn’t last all day and the intermediate camp was covered white when we arrived for lunch. The remainder of the route remained pretty slippery, but led through an amazing forest.

At Dzongri, i got my own room in the hut (later on shared with my guide), talked to other trekkers (a lovely group on friends from Sikkim and 4 Australian ladies in their 50s) and sampled some tasty homemade vegetable momo’s.

Day 3 – Sunrise hike to Dzongri Top & onwards to Lamuney high camp

Today the planned agenda was very light. Get up early and hike up 200m to Dzongri top (4,171m, about 30mins without gear) for some views, sunrise, back down, rest. Views were amazing be it that conditions were fluid.

By 6am we were back in camp and after a little more rest i asked to continue. I mean, what to do here all day?

From Dzongri you stay on elevated levels around 4,000m for a while before you descent into a valley with the Kokchrung hut. Amazing landscape. Then the big climb begins as you head for Thansing camp (also 4,000m like Dzongri).

We stopped for lunch while it was snowing heavily. A group of Romanian hikers returned from viewpoint one. Doubt they saw much. Many were also disappointed that the trek didnt go further.

Technically the hike to the high camp Lamuney was only tomorrow. But why waste time. Its only a good hour to get there. We slept in the kitchen hut. Not the most comfortable to be frank.

Day 4 – Goecha La, restricted area and back to Tshokha

I got up 2.30am while the guide was still sleeping. I wanted to see Goecha La lake, but didn’t want him to risk his job. So i left alone. I reached viewpoint one before sunrise and by 7am found a spot near Goecha La lake with good views of Kanchenjunga.

Admittedly i didn’t take a straight line after viewpoint one and meandered off course here and there. But i was free and that i cherished. Views of the Kanchenjunga, the worlds 3rd largest mountain (8,586m) and just a few meters taller than Lhotse, were decent. A little bit of cloud was always obstructing the perfect view though.

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On the way down i tried to follow the riverbed, but when it took a steep step down i had to climb back up to the original route. That did feel a little risky, but went well. The rock was technically a bit lose, but still frozen at that time in the day (8am wish). So decent enough to hold on to.

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From there it was down, down, down. All the way back to Tshokha camp. A long day in the end with some 1,200m climbed, 2,000 descended. A pretty good apart from the section ahead of Phedang camp with the alternative route… Hours of walking in deep snow. Very tiring! We reached Tshokha by 6.30pm … so a good 16 hour shift.

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Day 5 – Tshokha back to Yuksom

The last day was easy. Again more than 1,000m descent, but good weather and hence by lunchtime we made it back to Yuksom. 4,5 day roundtrip. Good effort.

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Daytrip to Pelling

Instead of resting a day before joining there Romanian group I met o their way to Darjeeling (India 🇮🇳: Losing steam in Darjeeling),  I headed to the mountain town of Pelling to admire the large Buddha statue and nice valley views. Even witnessed a school demonstration against plastic. good on you Sikkim, good on you. Transport was as usual in a jeep, the return leg so packed that one passenger travelled on the outside.

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India 🇮🇳: Sikkim – a VERY different side of India

Sikkim is a tiny state in the North of India nestled between Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan. Until 1975 it was actually an independent kingdom, but then an uprising removed the monarchy a d voted in a referendum to join as India’s 22nd state (a status long contested by China). At 610,000 population (0.04% of India) it is truly a minion even though Goa is smaller by area. It stands out though with a high literacy rate and fully organic farming – the first state in India.

Sikkim doesn’t feel like India at all to be honest. Its organised, clean, green… You get my point. Culture and language remain distinctly different to North India (even more vs. South) with Nepali the main spoken language (despite Nepal’s status of arch-enemy in the past) and Buddhism the 2nd religion (27%) after Hinduism (58%).

Getting to Gangtok

Initially i wanted to go to Darjeeling first and sort a few things for my 1trekking plans in Sikkim. However, i ended up sharing a ride to Gangtok (the capital of Sikkim) with two other travellers – Lizzie and Trey from the US. Saved me a lot of hassle too.

They are both into teaching and spent the last year in South India teaching english under the umbrella of a Christian organisation. It appeared that they were really happy with their experience be it not always easy. Now they were on a busy schedule checking out India in their last month.

On the way to Gangtok, in what turned out as a pretty wild ride along Sikkim’s narrow serpentine roads, i acquired my Inner Line Permit. It is required for all foreigners wanting to enter Sikkim – you need is a passport foto and a passport/visa copy. Very quick process. However, depending on your plans further permits may be required (north Sikkim, most multi day hikes etc).

Impressed in Gangtok

Gangtok felt soooo different as soon as we arrived. No-one hassled us (literally nobody asked me for anything in two days), there was a pedestrian area, almost no honking 🚙 🔊 and an order like nowhere else in India i had been to.

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Sikkim puts a lot of value on a clean state and has heavy penalties for littering (something that seems to be the sport of choice in many other parts of india). Well done! It looks and smells really different.

A statue (two) of Mahatma Gandhi on the main street reminded me of doing a bit of reading on the big man. See the blue box for a few highlights.

Mahatma Gandhi (1869 – 1948)
Mahatma Gandhi is very present when you stroll through India – be it banknotes, posters or statues – and likewise is he a ‘household name’ in the developed world though he was less important for my German history lessons – time to catch up.

Key facts

  • Led independence movement against British colonialists
  • Known for his non violent approach
  • India call him Father of the Nation
  • Born to a merchant caste (yet family relatively poor), he studied law in London and gathered first experiences of non violent civil disobedience as expat lawyer in South Africa
  • His birthday (2nd October) is a national holiday in India as well as International non-violence day
  • He was assassinated by 3 gun shots and his killer (Hindu nationalist) hanged. The motive was mainly around Gandhi’s stance  on India’s partition with some thinking it was too favorable towards Indian muslims during the partition of India & Pakistan in 1947

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A few Ghandi quotes i like

“Be the change that you want to see in the world.”

“An eye for eye only ends up making the whole world blind.”

“Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.” 

“Poverty is the worst form of violence.”

Cruising around East Sikkim on a Royal Enfield Himalaya

Having spent my first day to secure my hiking trip (see separate post) , i had a day spare before departing for the village of Yuksom. So i rented a motorbike and took it for a spin.

I managed more than 150km that day on windy roads – at times on decent tarmac, at times completely off-road and always with a steep drop on either side of you. Scary? Sure, sometimes. Amazing? Absolutely!

The bike i got was a Royal Enfield – a very popular brand in India yet not elsewhere. I comes mainly in two popular variations – an offroad tourer called Himalaya and a classic road version. There are more models though. I got myself the 411cc Himalaya (and was glad i did… As the advertising says: “Built for all roads. Built for no roads.”).

On my tour i visited viewpoints, monasteries and many mountain villages. Amazing memories. The rental agency was a little surprised how dirty the bike was after one day ‘local sightseeing’ 😉

Royal Enfield motorbikes

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With the first Royal Anfield produced in 1901, this indian motorcycle brand is the oldest in continuous production. Originally they were commissioned for police and army. You’ll find the bikes all over india with close to 700,000 produced per year. Selling their bikes in over 50 countries globally, royal anfield surpassed Harley Davidson in unit sales in 2015.