I let out a gasp! Where am I? Am I on a tropical island paradise? I would surely have believed so had it not been so eerily quiet! I pinched myself; I was still not quite sure — was I dreaming or was I really in the Himalayas. The hills were bathed in the soft radiance of a full moon and I was floating above a sea of clouds! And more clouds rolled up surrounding hills like holy smoke from incense sticks under an awning of stars. It was chilly but the panorama was hypnotically breathtaking. It seldom gets more rustic than this yet more awe inspiring scenes were to be discovered. It had only been the prologue, which I was to realize later.
A land of ancient monasteries, devout monks, tranquil lakes, cascading rivers and vertigo inducing peaks — Sikkim had always enthralled me. A tiny sliver of land sandwiched between Nepal, Bhutan and China, it is a paradise for travellers and photographers. But I was never quite prepared for the scenery that welcomed me when I got down at Hilley after a grueling eight hour drive.
The following morning brought a cerulean sky, a perfect day for trek, I smiled to myself. At 8500 feet, Hilley was the gateway to the Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary, a 104 sq km Himalayan subtropical paradise. To reach Barsey, I needed to trek 4-km through lush forest that would take me to 10000 feet where I was supposed to spend the night.
After a quick breakfast, our entourage of trekkers, porters and guide set off on the undulating jungle trail to Barsey. Entering through the gate, one is instantly transported to a world of transcendental beauty. The sights and sounds of the forest quickly engulf the senses. The symphony of birds and crickets feel like a mellifluous concert. The trail to Barsey is covered with decaying foliage, flanked by thickets of bamboos and an overhanging canopy of vegetation. Shafts of sunlight graced the track at places. Each snaking bend on the trail was a revelation in itself; sometimes it boxed me to the point of claustrophobia, at others it opened up to reveal sprawling meadows.
The forest flora is exuberant with over 600 species of Rhododendrons and others like Primula, Magnolia, Bamboo, Oak and Pines. And an abundance of rainfall meant that forest had a dense undergrowth of ferns, lichens and moss. Even the trunks and branches are covered with moss. And the dew on them glistened like diamonds in the filtered rays of the sun.
Every year during spring this emerald paradise transforms into an artist’s palette. The forest bursts into an explosion of every color imaginable. It’s the blooming seasons for the rhododendrons — a dazzling explosion of red, pink and white among the perennial green. The ground gets carpeted with falling flowers and with arrival of the butterflies, the forest mutates into an Alpine oasis.
After hiking for an about an hour ominous clouds started to gather. At places where the vegetation was sparse, I saw mountains cloaked in a shroud of mist and clouds — as if zealously guarding a heavenly treasure. Will it rain? Even though I am quite a pluvilophile, I did not want to get soaked in the chilly Himalayan atmosphere.
The sanctuary is home to the Red Panda, over 1200 of them, but they are elusive and sightings along the trail are almost unheard off. Another resident of Barsey is the ferocious Himalayan Black bear, and again (thankfully) like their smaller cousins, they too hardly venture out near the hiking trails. But the real concern during the trek was the leeches. It the dank atmosphere of rain forests like these is where they thrive. “Avoid the gnarled roots with moss”, my guide warned. “The leeches also climb on to the moss ridden branches and often dropped onto people passing below”, he carried on. My heart skipped a beat! “But that is during monsoon and it was still spring” he assured. May be the petrified look on my face made him say so, I still don’t know. But I was unconvinced with his assurance. I kept on checking every now and then to be sure none of them had hooked on to me and was feasting on my blood.
With the fear of leeches and bears and the anxiety of getting drenched, I kept on ascending through this Utopian landscape for another couple of hours. A deeply penetrating silence prevailed throughout punctuated by the birds, the ruffle of the leaves in the wind or occasional gushing of a stream. Soon, the trail opened up in a meadow where the trail forked. The surrounding hills were all overgrown with the famed Rhododendrons. But unfortunately this year the blooms have been sparse and most of them had withered away with the unseasonal rain and hail that has lashed the mountains. And more clouds gathered above! A rusty signpost pointed out that I was still half a kilometer away from Guras Kunj Trekkers Hut — the only accommodation in Barsey.
Buddhist chortens and shrines like these can be found along the trail; a place to seek blessings for a safe passage.
After another half an hour of rambling through the woods, the path finally led to the top of a hill. The cozy silhouette of the trekkers hut beaconed like a tempting invitation to a weary traveller. Built on a clearing in the forest, the overgrown state of the lawns betrayed the fact that the owners were having the difficult time keeping the forest from reclaiming the property. With no electricity, mobile phone connectivity and no motorable roads the isolation felt profound.
My guide had earlier talked of a grand view of the frozen summits of the Kanchenjunga range from Barsey, but it remained hidden behind swirling clouds. And by dusk, the heavens opened up. What started as a drizzle quickly turned into a torrential downpour. Thunder rumbled in the distant mountains and with the growing darkness of the night, flashes of lightening lit up the sky; with it any hopes of viewing the frosty peaks in all their glory seemed more and more ill founded. It was still pouring when I went to bed and even the slightest optimism of watching a sunrise all but doused. Barsey which meant “rain” was certainly living up to its name.
My slumber was disrupted by the crow of roosters and the cacophony of my alarm clock which I had set at four with fading optimism. It was bitterly cold and my body rebelled to get out of the blanket. The rains had stopped, so with renewed hope I stepped out of the hut. A stunning vista which greeted me – the eastern sky was slowing brightening up with the frosty peak of Mt Kanchenjunga bathed in a palette of colors – blue, indigo, magenta, red, tangerine and amber! As the sun rose higher, burning off the last tatters of the overnight clouds, the mountain in its cape of snow stood there, with all its majesty – peaceful, proud and revered.
Basking in the sunshine glinting off the peaks, I reflect back the mind boggling scenery that I have seen for the last couple of days. Seldom do we in our morbid city lives come across wildernesses like these, which makes you feel alive, liberates the mind… a place to find solace and a trek where nature truly engulfs your soul. Barsey truly is an earthly Eden.