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
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.