Sacred lake of Sikkim by Liz Cleere. Just Back winner, June 2011
This morning Jamie and I heaved ourselves out of bed to catch the sunrise over India’s highest mountain. In the silence of a Himalayan dawn, we watched the tiger-toothed caps of Kanchenjunga massif emerge from the blackness, changing from pink to peach and finally to a pure, glistening white. Just over half a mile below us, the valley was tucked under eiderdown clouds, and people of the Lepcha, Bhutia and Nepali tribes began their daily work.
Now, in a symphony of blaring horns and revved engines, jeeps stream out of Pelling, packed with families of domestic tourists on their way to a gompa or waterfall. The women, dressed elaborately in saris or Western designer gear, pick their way through the mud in delicate kitten-heeled sandals, while slick urban men shout into the latest mobile technology held tight in their hands. Slightly overweight children careen around their parents, alternately indulged or ignored.
Shunning the easy option, we struggle into walking boots for our trek to sacred Kechopari Lake. Legend has it that birds keep the water pure by carrying away any floating twigs and leaves. As the jeeps crash and honk their way past us, belching out black smoke in “green Sikkim”, we head along the narrow main drag, in search of the exit that will take us downwards.
“It will take three hours,” Mr G T Butia of the Pelling Tourist Office said, as he drew a map for us yesterday. Although not to scale, it is beautiful.
We pass by giant bamboo thickets, through forests of teak and walnut, glimpsing tree ferns, rhododendron bushes and climbing orchids. As we emerge into steep, terraced farmland, Jamie’s cracking knees and my blistered feet begin to protest.
“You’re going the wrong way,” I snap.
“No, I’m not,” he snarls.
At the tumbling river I leave my boots by a woodpile for someone more needy to claim, and flip-flop my way up 100m of near-vertical undergrowth to the road. Jamie’s knees, grateful for the new upward motion, stop grinding. Cheered by the flatter terrain, we reach a fork in the road and see the marker. It points upwards: “Kechopari 10”.
Seven hours after setting off, we reach the hamlet of Kechopari just as the day-trippers, in a flurry of shouting and ringtones, depart. A young monk picks up the sweet wrappers and plastic bottles they have left behind.
In the silence, under a bamboo umbrella, we tuck into freshly made momo dumplings. Later, we knock back rakshi (Nepali moonshine, pronounced “roxy”) with the locals, before falling into clean beds, in a basic room, for eight hours of deep, dreamless sleep.
Early next morning we stroll to the sacred lake, safe in the knowledge that the jeeps haven’t left Pelling yet. A tiny monk, standing alone at the end of a jetty lined with prayer wheels, blesses the water. We look closely, but cannot see a single leaf or twig on the surface.