Trekking the Khangchendzonga Circuit Route in Sikkim’s Himalaya
Slabs of ice rose like crooked steps that led to a snow-crusted palace. Its frozen walls towered over surrounding peaks, most of which were giants themselves standing nearly seven thousand metres high. Although there was no real palace on Khangchendzonga’s summit, its shape and grandness appeared to reign over the landscape. It is a sprawling mountain often hidden under clouds or seemingly lost in a fog. At 8,586 metres, Khangchendzonga—also spelled Kanchenjunga—ranks the third highest mountain in the world.
Had it really been only five days since leaving the mountains? It felt so distant compared to the rattling train that I now rode. Yet, vivid memories remained. They teased the edges of my thoughts, yanking me from daily sights of coloured saris, lumbering cows and piercing horns that now epitomized my travels through Rajasthan and pulled me back to those days spent camping in India’s northeastern wilderness.
For the moment, I relaxed into the gentle sway of the train and stretched my legs. I had been allocated an upper level bed that ran parallel to the main walkway. A thick curtain allowed me to block the inevitable snores, phone calls set on speaker and snack vendors voicing their wares. “Chai, chai”. “Dominos pizza. Pizza”. “Biryani.” I later saw a discarded Dominos box, confirming that I had indeed heard this slightly unexpected food option.
From behind satiny leaves stitched onto the thick maroon fabric of my sleeper’s curtain, I allowed my mind to drift back to the Himalaya.
An image of my husband’s face framed by his orange toque peering out from a puffy down sleeping bag came to mind. It was early November and temperatures often dropped to minus ten degrees Celsius or lower. We were trekking for thirteen days along a circuit route in India’s Sikkim state and occasionally strayed across the border into Nepal. Border police accepted such movements for trekking groups.
Morning views varied between snow-capped peaks, pine-clad forests, sacred places marked by poles draped in prayer flags or, somedays, a white fog that obliterated everything. These misty mornings appeared like a mystical dream rimmed with frosted grass and accented by faint silhouettes of jagged peaks. When we were lucky enough to see Khangchendzonga, its image left an impression. Crevasses streaked the mountain’s glacier as if a massive yeti had clawed its way to the summit and left nail marks scratched into the glacier’s arcing trail of snow and ice.
Along this trek, we crossed high passes and points marked by tattered prayer flags. Faded flags mingled with bright new banners. As the flags blew, a soft rhythm unfolded. Their rustle sped and then slowed, orchestrated by the wind into a melody that managed to imbibe a sense of both calm and energizing strength all at once.
I admit, trekking is not all golden sunrises and pleasant days. Camping in cold weather tests my willpower. I can remember all too well the shiver of pulling myself out from a warm sleeping bag to embrace what felt like a million shards of icy air attack me from inside the tent. Perhaps it is these superficial discomforts that add to the challenge and end up leaving their mark like a badge of accomplishment tacked to my psyche.
After all, it was only the first five minutes of getting up that was the hardest. Routine set in, starting with a quick wet wipe shower. The chill disintegrated after pulling on layers of clothes that I had spread underneath my sleeping bag on the previous night to stay semi-warm. A puff of heat finished the process as I zipped my down jacket closed. Then the day truly began with a sip of hot masala chai (“spiced milk tea”), brought to our tent each morning by our attentive White Magic Adventures team.
I particularly like high-altitude treks for their unique perspective. They allow you to access remote regions where lifestyles are still entrenched with nature and distinct from much of the modern world. Besides spotting a solar panel hung from the blue tent flap of a yak herder’s shelter, other aspects remain unchanged. This particular herder was within a two-days walk of his village, where he was returning with his yaks for the winter. He owned hundreds of the animals, but we only saw a handful lying in the grass beside the river. Everything he and a fellow herder owned and had been living off for months was tucked beneath their blue tarp.
A rumble of the train brought me back to my present location. Although I silently looked forward to having an en suite and running water over the coming days, I could not help but wonder when I might be pulled back to trek again.
Make this Your Next Trek:
Where: Sikkim, India
The tour starts and finishes in the city of Bagdogra. As most international flights fly to India via Delhi, I recommend adding a buffer day on either side of your trek in Delhi. A favourite place to stay is GGs Bed and Breakfast. Their breakfasts and coffee are particularly enjoyable.
When: We trekked in October and November. Early spring, April or May, is also a good time for this region.
How: White Magic Adventures offer full-service treks operated by an excellent team of guides, sherpas, cooks, assistants and horsemen. Their upfront planning and communication support is particularly personalized and helpful.
Nancy O'Hare has lived and worked across five continents and travelled to over eighty countries. Her writing shares insights from her travels and musings about the world around us.