The Great Mountain of the Five Treasures
Hidden in the icy peaks of the Himalayas is the mystical kingdom of Shangri-La, a utopian paradise promising immortality, enlightenment and eternal happiness to all who find it. Legend has placed Shangri-La in Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan – and also in the north-east Indian province of Sikkim.
The Sikkimese people believe the sacred mountain of Kangchendzonga, on the border of Nepal and Sikkim, is, if not the doorway to Shangri-La, then the repository of a number of magnificent treasures hidden by the 8th-century Indian saint Guru Padma Sambhava. According to legend only certain incarnate persons – tertens, or treasure-finders – can find the treasures and open the gateway to Shangri-La. Two tertens have already tried and failed, the last swept away in an avalanche for failing to respect the sanctity of the mountain. The third and last terten with the power to open the gateway to Shangri-La has yet to be born.
Kangchendzonga, the Great Mountain of the Five Treasures, is as enigmatic and mysterious as the stories that surround it. I wonder if it was the legend of Shangri-La and the five treasures of gold, silver, gems, grain and holy books that lured the infamous British occultist, Aleister Crowley, to make the first summit attempt in 1905. Or perhaps it was Kangchendzonga’s long-held status as the world’s highest mountain, a title retained until the British 1849 Great Trigonometric Survey placed Mt Everest firmly on top. Despite his supposed magical abilities, Crowley failed to reach the summit. In 1955, however, a British team succeeded in climbing the world’s third highest mountain, stopping a few metres below the highest peak of 8586m out of respect for the Sikkimese belief that the summit is sacred.
Trekking in the Himalayas is a form of worship, the hardship of trekking at altitude a fitting tribute to the magnificent mountain landscape. A worthy offering to the Kangchendzonga massif and its five 8000m+ peaks is the Yuksom-Goecha La trek in West Sikkim. Also known as the Kangchendzonga Trek, it is a moderately difficult 90-120km, 7-8 day hike through mixed broad-leaf, coniferous and rhododendron forests, alpine meadows and rocky moraine.
Independent hiking on the trail is not permitted so with a guide, cook and a train of dzo (a cattle-yak crossbreed) our small group left the tiny village of Yuksom, passing cultivated crop fields to enter the dense semi-tropical forest of the Rathong valley. The trail climbed for a while then descended to cross a number of suspension bridges before a long, steep climb to the Tibetan village of Tsokha (2930m), basically just a cluster of huts. We hiked through a Grimms fairytale forest of flowering rhododendrons bursting with colour, gnarly-rooted pines and 40m high silver firs dripping with vines, lichen and epiphytes. Occasionally, through the mist, the musical tinkle of pony bells and the low doleful toll of yak bells signalled the approach of other hikers. By mid-afternoon, the mist that had crept in before lunch thickened to the consistency of pea soup. I was glad to reach the mountain hut at Tsokha despite the lack of heating, electricity or furniture.
We woke to stunning views of snow-covered Mt Pandim (6690m) but by mid-morning a thick mist wrapped around the mountains, clearing only briefly to offer tantalizing glimpses of what lay hidden. This was to set the pattern for the days to come – breathtaking sunrise vistas which were all too soon swallowed by the clouds. Another steep climb led to a natural clearing at Phedang after which the forest thinned and by the time we reached the barren alpine meadows and lonely huts of Dzongri (3930m) we were well above the tree-line. An icy wind blew off the snowy peaks and the night was bitterly cold. I bought a beanie from a Tibetan woman and sought refuge beside an open fire in a yak-herders hut. Even the scruffy village dog that had followed us from Yuksom found the conditions overly bleak, and stealthily snuggled into the warm folds between our sleeping bags.
Before the sun rose we were panting up Dzongri Peak (4320m), our reward a golden dawn of glistening snow spreading across the Kangchendzonga massif. We spent an acclimatization day in Dzongri wandering the forlorn wind-swept heath in the mist, finding a narrow trail past brown juniper bushes to four lonely stone stupas on a hill. Next day, wispy clouds trailed us down a very long steep descent through a forest of stunted rhododendrons and lichen-covered trees. We ate lunch on the banks of the glacial Prek River beside the quaint Kokchurong mountain hut. Across a wooden bridge and 2km upstream we reached the desolate stone hut at Thangsing (3850m) where we would spend the next two nights.
We crawled out of our sleeping bags at 2am and trekked under a nightsky ablaze with stars, along the shore of the sacred Samiti Lake, and began a steep uphill slog towards the Goecha La pass. As dawn broke, the mountains shot up into the sky around us. I could see a blanket of grey creeping along the valley floor behind me, threatening to beat us to the pass. I tried to hurry my steps but my oxygen-starved muscles wouldn’t cooperate. My head ached and my breathing grew ragged. By the time we reached the first Goecha La viewpoint (4600m) we were isolated in a thick grey cloud and Kangchendzonga was nowhere to be seen. Our disappointment was extreme but the weather gods took pity on us for, suddenly, the mist cleared. Surrounding the glacial bowl of Goecha La the mountains shone radiant in the brilliant blue sky, the glaciers on their flanks gleaming crystalline in the sunlight. The beauty of the moment rendered us speechless.
Knowing the weather could close in at any time, we continued across the pass. After a hard two hour slog across the moraine, sandy lake bed, and scree slopes of the Zemathang plateau we reached the second Goecha La viewpoint (4980m). I was hurting. Kangchendzonga disappeared as we rested, leaving only the glacial lake below visible in the creeping mist. The third Goecha La viewpoint (5000m) was another hours hike away where on a clear day the south-east face of Kangchendzonga seems a mere handsbreadth away. Even without the views the ethereal otherworldliness of the Himalayas was spellbinding.
We arrived back at the hut exhausted and starving. Dipend, our ingenious cook, filled our hungry bellies with spicy curries. Throughout the trek we had been amazed at his culinary prowess, plying us with an assortment of Indian and Tibetan dishes including dal bhat, momos, pakhoras, chappatis and delicious breads. In the morning he woke us with cups of hot tea and a breakfast of porridge, scrambled eggs, toast and fruit.
During the night a fierce gale roared down the valley but we were safely cocooned inside the tent we had erected inside the hut for extra warmth. Hikers spoke of sleet, flattened tents and frozen flys but I was toasty inside our double shelter. After the storm the morning dawned crisp and clear and from the hill behind Thangsing the white peaks of Kangchendzonga dominated the landscape. We followed a gradual and pleasant uphill trail for 8km through boulder-strewn alpine meadows, disturbing a clutch of monal pheasants, past an eerie mud-caked natural amphitheatre to the sacred blue lake of Lampokhari. Nestled in a bowl and surrounded by soaring peaks it was serene, beautiful and timeless. I thought of Shangri-La.
After a night in the Kokchurong hut we descended along the Prek River through a dense forest of rhododendrons to rejoin the trail at Phedang. We ate lunch beneath a warm sun, enjoying the glossy mountain panorama and the sweet tinkle of pony bells. In the fairytale forest around Tsokha, primulas and wild strawberries lined the trail. We celebrated our last night drinking the local fermented millet beer, Tomba, drunk through a straw from a bamboo container. It tasted like warm sweet white wine.
The sun shone hot and strong as we descended through thick semi-tropical forest to the end of the trail at Yuksom. The five treasures of the Great Mountain were still hidden. Shangri-La was still legend. But the trek through the spectacular Himalayan landscape to view the mighty Kangchendzonga was all the treasure I needed. And Shangri-La? For now the promise of a hot shower, a warm bed, and clean clothes would do nicely.