Give me a home where the snow leopards roam
The lush vegetation of the Tamur Kosi valley in Nepal's Kanchenjunga region. (Richard I'Anson/LPI)
From a vantage point below Kanchenjunga, the world’s third highest mountain, it was difficult to focus. The view -- a visual feast of azure sky reflecting in the Tamur River’s glacial waters, framed by the rock-hewn tsunami of the Kanchenjunga massif – competed with the heady aroma of cardamom-filled sacks, as trains of Limbu traders sung their way down to the lowland markets of the Terai.
Hidden deep in a remote corner of eastern Nepal, Kanchenjunga rises to 8,586m and encompasses a conservation area and ecological hotspot the size of Mauritius. If you are lucky, you will spot musk deer, a red panda, signs of the snow leopard and fiery rhododendron blooms among the bearded lichen.
Diversity is also echoed in the clans, costumes and castes of the locals, with Gurungs, Chhetris, Limbus, Rais and Sherpas all living in a vast complex of plunging valleys and soaring peaks, most of which is untouched wilderness straddling the Sino-Tibetan and Sikkim-Indian borders -- no wonder it is a favourite spot for many seasoned Himalayan trekking leaders.
The most rewarding goal is a three- to four-week trek from the one-yak town of Taplejung to the north and south base camps of Kanchenjunga. Translated, the peak’s name means “five treasures of the snows” – referring to its crenulated summits. The journey is a gift of isolation; there are no roads and therefore, the locals are not jaded by the hordes of tourists that mill around Annapurna and Everest, roughly 160 kilometres away.
A “namaste” salutation greets trekkers around every corner; each village is a fresh encounter of friendliness and endless, yet fruitful explanations of where you are from and what you are doing there. A local guide acts as an indispensible translator and a social catalyst for laughter between the infrequent visitor and the hardy mountain folk.
These meetings are the tonic needed after two bumpy flights or two days on a gut wrenching bus from Kathmandu. All visitors must be on a group tour to enter the Kanchenjunga Conservation Area, which means that only a few visitors make it as far as the town of Taplejung, the last point of civilization (which itself is gradually recovering from a deadly and destructive earthquake that hit in September 2011). Earthquake-induced cracks appeared in the runway at the nearby airport, so it is now being expanded and may be ready for larger planes and better access this year.
The long, arduous journey from Kathmandu is worth it, if only to observe Kanchenjunga sights like Limbu shamans offering pujas (Buddhist prayers) to expunge their straw and mud huts of evil spirits or to indulge in the drink known as tongba – a warm, alcoholic millet brew doled out in wooden mugs, sipped through bamboo straws and served up with local song.
It is not only your post-tongba head that can get hazy here – so do the mountain top–vistas, which are generally obscured by mist and fog from late February to the start of the monsoon season in June. But these are the best months for seeing spring flowers – especially rhododendrons. Kanchenjunga has a bewildering number of flowering plants – approximately 2,000 species.
At the end of October, on the other hand, the skies can be crystal clear (minus the perishing cold), and the blood-sucking leeches that infest the moist post-monsoon forest have disappeared. The maple trees, berberis bushes and larch have fiery autumn leaves, and the cardamom harvest is in full bustle.
Compared to other regions, this eastern corner is as off the beaten track as Nepal gets. Each year, fewer than 500 trekkers make it to Kanchenjunga, compared with an annual influx of more than 31,000 to Everest and the more than 74,000 that walk around Annapurna, according to 2010 figures from Nepal’s National Park department.
And once past Kanchenjunga’s foothills, settlements are sparse. The only company I found here were yak herders, bearded vulture and a host of 8,000m peaks. No wonder it is one of the few areas left in Nepal where snow leopards still roam undisturbed. Spotting their tracks, where they have fed, their spore (fecal pellets) or maybe a very rare glimpse of them on the skyline, is enough to excite even the most half-hearted naturalist.
Be warned, the trekking on Kanchenjunga is tough. There is little basic infrastructure, and Mirgin La – the major pass at 4,800m – is a rock scramble scarred by last year’s earthquake, located at laboured breathing altitude. Yet it is a rare chance to see some of the longest glaciers in the Himalayas and stand at the base of a formidable mountain that you can brag is more difficult to climb – largely due to a lack of infrastructure – than Everest.
But who needs a flush toilet when you have wild open yak pastures and alpine meadows? The only onlooker might be a yeti – and yes they have been spotted up there.