Something is terribly wrong at Sikkim. The government, the trekking agencies and the local guides seem hell bent on ruining the trekking world of Sikkim.
The first one really gets my goat. Trekkers on the Goechala trail are in for a shock on the final day of the trek. Trekkers are encouraged to start at three in the night from Lamune (the last camp) to get to view point 1. When trekkers get there most guides are reluctant to go ahead. Some show trekkers view point 2 and 3 with a wave of the hand.
The usual answer is, “the view is the same and not different from here”. If pressed, trekkers are taken to view point 2. Rarely do they venture to view point 3 (and no one knows where it is). God forbid if it is cloudy. On a murky day guides quickly bundled down trekkers from wherever they are saying since there is no view so there is no point in going ahead.
What is going on here?
What happened to Goechala, the pass the whole trek is named after? Suddenly on the final day no one talks about the pass, or even makes a reference of getting there. Some of the guides are audacious enough to say that it is dangerous and tricky to go to the pass. Some say it is too far. Or trekkers are taken to a high point and told, this is Goechala.
Here are some truths about Goechala: There is nothing called view point 1, 2 or 3. Understand this clearly. The view points are a total figment of imagination of the local guides. You either get to Goechala or you don’t. Calling spots on a trekking trail as viewpoints is a gross injustice to the trek. Every good trek has vantage points from where you get grand views. But using them as substitutes of being to Goechala is unfair. Even the internet forums are now so full of these viewpoints that the joke is now becoming a reality.
You get to Goechala only when you climb past the beautiful green Goechala lake (not to be mistaken for Samiti) and get to the last ridge. That’s the start of Goechala. Anywhere past that is Goechala and it is ok to return from there but not before that. The view and the ambience are indeed spectacular at Goechala and totally different from what you see at these so called view points. Just to see the snow encompassed Goechala lake would be worth the effort to get there.
More than the views the thrill is in climbing your way past the big snow field, around the flanks of a great moraine and climbing the ridge above the lake. These are classic trekking moments. I have always been surprised why everyone camps at Kockchurang after their return from the view points. Now I realise they haven’t trekked much! If trekkers have truly reached Goechala then Thansing is the appropriate camp on return. Reaching Kockchurang would be too tiring!
Is it difficult to reach Goechala? Is it technical and risky? Is it far? None of these are true. Goechala is in fact easier than most high altitude treks. There is nothing risky. From the so called view point 1 it is another two hours to Goechala over some wonderful landscapes on moraine.
Not getting to Goechala is like missing the last half hour of a spy thriller. The fun, thrill and adventure are all in the last bit.
The second injustice about Goechala is intriguing. Camping is not allowed at Samiti lake though it is one of the most picturesque places to establish camp. In addition it makes trekking to Goechala a lot easier. The local administration says the lake is getting dirty by trekkers. That’s far from the truth. The camping site of Samiti is almost 400 meters from the shores of the lake. How does the lake get dirty from such a distance? If a ‘flourishing’ trekkers hut can be maintained at Kockchurang and Tshoka, is it difficult to maintain one at Samiti? Can’t toilets be maintained at Samiti? Why are trekkers paying such a big environment fee to the government then? These are questions the administration hates to answer.
The third injustice makes me livid! Foreigners are shamelessly fleeced in Sikkim. To do the Goechala trek a foreigner cannot trek alone or join a group. He needs to be accompanied by another foreigner (apparently for his safety). He needs an inner line permit to enter Sikkim. While this is somewhat agreeable, he needs to get another trekking permit from Gangtok. For this he needs to get there a day in advance. Trek permits that cost only a few hundred rupees are charged Rs 4,000 – Rs 6,000 from foreigners. There is no direct window from where a foreigner can buy a trekking permit. The government has made a rule that only trekking agents of Sikkim can get permits for foreigners. This produces a vicious cycle of corruption. Agents charge a hefty fee for this service. A trek that could cost a reasonable amount suddenly starts costing Rs 18,000 upwards for a foreigner. Foreigners, naturally, are getting wiser. When they see the time, travel and trek cost, they rather go to other parts of India to trek. Sikkim was always a wonderful alternative to trekking in Nepal. But trekking in Sikkim is now more of a pain. The last thing we need is Sikkim trekking ruining itself.
Editor’s note: Indiahikes is working with local agents to make it a fair proposition for trekkers. We are insisting that trekkers go up to Goechala. We are also working with the ministry and the government to make a transparent window for securing permits. We hope to succeed in this effort.