Rinchenpong, the Place where Heaven Descends!
Driven by the incessant spur of WIS [wanderlust infestation syndrome] we head on to west Sikkim, the area from where the mighty snow clad Mt. Kangchendzonga peer at you from every corner of the hill coves. The scenic beauty of the place came to dawn upon us as our vehicle took a sharp turn on the road-bend along the silent valley on the approach to the cool settlement of Rinchenpong [1700 meters above sea level]. The world's third highest peak [28,028 feet] captured the horizon with its mid-day glory of snow-white against the blue sky. It was a surreal effect of the colossal, blending into the beguiling surrounding in the foreground, etching an intense statement on the idyllic.
As we enter the precincts of Rinchenpong something appeared amiss about the place. Unlike my earlier visit, no body greeted us in their typical exuberance. Not a soul was around in the large opening in the centre of this tiny hamlet...not even a curious face looking out of the nearby homes. We wondered what was wrong. Was it some local tension that kept people shut behind the doors or was it a day of mass hibernation that we did not know about?
Well, it was none of these as we found out from the driver of a passing vehicle, a little later. It was a rare occasion for the residents of the hamlet to partake in a friendly volleyball match with a neighbouring village at the grounds next to the local monastery. Almost the entire populace of Rinchenpong [only a few hundred] had moved there to cheer their folks. Indeed the name of the place stood justified by such community revelry.
Rinchenpong in Lepcha dialect means the 'place to assemble'. Pong means place and Rinchen stands for assembly.
Luckily the manager of the hotel where we were to stay held his fort. We were provided a couple of rooms with small balcony that opened up to the picturesque sight of rolling green hills culminating into the spread of the huge white majestic massif over the horizon. The beauty of this place was in the little settlement holding to its natural, unaltered look without much invasion of urbanised ambience that plagued many otherwise beautiful places in Sikkim we visited earlier. A couple of hotels and a few homes surrounded a large open area in the centre that also served as car parking space for the locals and visitors to the place. And the road from Jorethang passed through this hub towards the neighbouring settlement of Kaluk and beyond.
Short walks around Rinchenpong would take you to the 18th century Buddhist monastery that housed the 'Ati Buddha' idol showing Buddha in meditation with a woman in embrace. This is symbolic of the primordial form of the Buddha the creator. The ambience of the monastery as with most such place of worship in Sikkim is serene and one could come across groups of young boys taking spiritual lessons.
It is a custom among the Tibetan Buddhists in Sikkim to send their sons to the monastery for a year or longer, breaking off from their formal school education to help them understand and adapt the tenets of the religion in their living. During this time they adapt to a life of austerity and live like a monk in yellow and maroon colour robes in tonsured heads. I personally feel it is a very honest facet of Buddhism to allow understanding of the faith early in life, so that a person takes to it by choice in adult life. And to me, the peace loving Buddhist always appeared to be happy with their way of life and culture.
And Rinchenpong the hidden Eden had more to reveal in its neighbourhood. The five-month long winter was melting into spring and the landscape was coming alive with wildflower blossoms all over. Predominant among them were rhododendron and orchids. Heavens, nothing could beat the colours and exotic flourish of these blooms all around the hills. Some call Sikkim the rhododendron country and some say it's the orchid paradise. Well, I think it's the fusion of both making it a Himalayan wildflower domain. It's a delight to be here around this time of the year.
When I passed through this village once earlier I was, bowled over by the serenity of the place. A local had then told me 'befriend this place for a while, seek deeper and then sense the way it reveals itself'. He had seeded the urge to come back again and here I was with my friends in the cradle of Rinchenpong.
We decide to just relax for a couple of days in this hidden Eden, invigorate ourselves in its freshness and get going with some trekking around the Singalila Range to discover the mysteries of Shangri-La a little up close. The Singalila Range forms the boundary between Sikkim and Nepal that originates from Mt. Khangchendzonga and extends southwards towards Darjeeling hills.
Day three. Six in the morning we get started in our trekking gear on way to Menlapso. A knowledgeable local arranged by the hotel manager would be our guide through a forested track along the glen to the southwest of Rinchenpong. As we strode along we soon realised that we were literally on the road less travelled by. This part of Sikkim was indeed spared the spoils of urban invasion. This was pure natural world of wholesomeness in pure organic state.
This day trip was to be the acclimatisation tour preceding a longer trek we planned to take along Hilley - Barsey - Uttarey circuit on the Singalila.
Rinchenpong has a history with the British colonialism. In the early decades of 19th century the rulers of Sikkim backed the British in their war with Nepal, and subsequently benefited by recovering some of its lost territories.
However in the mid 1800's when the British tried to annexe Sikkim on its expansionist agenda, the people violently resisted the occupation and British rule. And on November 1st 1860 when the British sent their troops under the command of Dr. Campbell, the Superintendent of Darjeeling, to occupy the village of Rinchenpong, they camped around a pond for the night just outside the village, the villagers fought the imminent invasion in the wiliest style of the Sikkimese and Tibetan ambushmen.
While the troops slept after hard days of trekking, the villagers stealthily mixed in the water of the pond a deadly plant poison. Next morning least suspecting what awaited them, the soldiers consumed the water and perished even without being able to put up a fight. That's history of course but 'Bikh Pokhri' - the poison pond, is still there just like any other pool of murky water, sans the poison.
Day four. We drive down to Hilley. This would be our first stop on the trekking circuit. It would be a short trek on a 4 km hill track to Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary 10,500 ft. up in the Himalayas. And Barsey in a way represented the oft-used sobriquet on Sikkim as 'rhododendron country'. This being springtime the pleasant trek had to be in company of colourful blooms all the way.
Trekking in the hills always has its pleasant surprises. In Sikkim Himalayas too there was a fair share of it like, suddenly a rustle among the foliage on the slopes below would reveal the Himalayan black bear hurriedly moving away to distance itself from human intruders in its territory. Or up among the blooming trees you could spot the magnificent colours and mating displays of the Scarlet Minivet, Fire-Tailed Sun Bird or even the Giant Indian Hornbill. We reach the sanctuary and the trekker's hut at the top, where we would put up till next morning.
In the evening we gather round a campfire with some locals in company. In a casual chat we try to find out about their way of life and ask them about how they live it out in this remote location. Sikkimese people are generally a reserved lot, but when they open up, they come out in stupendous flow. Predictably, we got a run down of things they usually do for a living and soon enough we found out that they are migrant workers engaged in odd jobs here who would spend the monsoon and winter at their villages below and come up here during spring and summer when there are lot of tourist visitors. This extra earning provided these poor people some support with their family finances. As we sipped on the beverages circled around the fireside, folklores that do their rounds in this part of the country put an excellent touch to the evening at this high place, presented by the locals.
Day five morning after the mist thins out, we proceed along the ridge to descend from the northern slopes on our way to Uttarey. In this wonderful trekking expedition yet another most amazing surprise awaited us about a furlong and half away. Our guide suddenly stopped and with the index finger of his left hand placed over his lips suggesting silence, he pointed towards the cluster of bamboo shrubs to the right. And there was an Indian Red Panda visible partly through the shrub. The magnificence of this furry cat was indeed striking. The Red Pandas, the state animal of Sikkim, are a rare sight as they are very shy, reclusive animals and live away from human habitats. But here was a perfect specimen oblivious to our presence, busy with its breakfast. The Red Himalayan Panda although considered a small bear much like its Chinese cousin, actually belongs to the racoon family. The similarity is palpable in its face, whiskers, pointed ears and the furry striped tails. The distinct difference is its brighter looks and a much charming appearance.
As we strode the hills, I realised give and take this exploration of west Sikkim was indeed the fascinating Shangri-La experience that could be lived many times over without remorse.
By : Gautam Chatterjea