Green Lake Trek (part 1)

Getting there

At 8 am, six of us boarded the small town taxis to head out from central Gangtok to its northern outskirts, where we transferred to the North Sikkim licenced 4WDs; Sikkimese bureaucracy was at work again. This is not a walk that you can just roll up and do. Green Lake is in a sensitive area close to the Indian-Chinese border and it can take up to 3 months to organise permits from the Sikkimese Government and Indian Home Department in New Delhi, with the necessary Defence Department clearances. Thankfully, this was done smoothly behind the scenes by the trekking company.

Or sherpa team was already waiting and soon a convoy of three heavily-loaded 4WDs headed north out of Gangtok, following a narrow, winding road through the valleys, over the ridges and along the steep forested slopes of North Sikkim, on a slow 7-hour 135 km trip. Reaching the Teesta River, we followed its steep valley northward through the towns of Mangan and Chungthang, stopping to get permits validated at various places. By the time we reached Chungthang, the sun had been replaced by low cloud and drizzle. We turned to follow the Lachen Chu, whose valley became narrower and steeper the further north we drove, while the military presence became increasingly obvious - no photos on the numerous narrow steel girder bridges that criss-crossed the rapidly flowing Lachen Chu!

Typical Sikkimese house

Seven Sisters Falls

The rugged ridges and deep valleys of North Sikkim

Terraced hills and houses near Mangan

Finally, one last army checkpoint and we climbed up to the village of Lachen, our base for the trek. Lachen is one of only two villages in Sikkim that maintains a traditional collective-style political system known as Dzumsa, which regulates the social and economic life of the people. Trekkers also abide by the rules of the Dzumsa. For us this meant that we stayed at the accommodation allocated to us, the recently built concrete tourist centre, which was comfortable in a spartan, hard-mattressed Sikkimese way. It also meant that we had no say in the organisation of the porters for the trek. Tomorrow would prove interesting in that regard.

Main street of Lachen

Our designated accommodation

In the meanwhile we went to bed content, knowing that the Green Lake adventure was about to start in earnest and that, having sampled a filling dinner, our new cooks were going to maintain the excellent trekking cuisine that we had gotten used to.

Bhutia children

The village of Lachen

Lachen to Tallem

This has started out to be a very curious trek, somewhat akin to a 19th century expedition. We were told that we had 26 porters (this is not a typo!), but we also had our two guides and friends from Darjeeling, Wangchuk and Sunder, as well as North Sikkimese guides, Sonam and Allu, and their team of 8 sherpas and cooks from Gangtok. On top of this, two Indian military personnel from the Lachen army base had been assigned to accompany us (for our safety?).

The porters were all from Lachen, and if you want to do the Green Lake Walk, you follow the rules of the Dzumsa. The pipen (headman) of Lachen likes to keep employment here high - hence 26 porters for 6 of us. It was like setting out on a great exploration party and took just as long. We sat around for 90 minutes while the porters divvied up the load and ran a lottery to see who carried what., with great joy for those who won the lighter, softer bundles.

In dribs and drabs, trucks came and went with cooks, porters and gear. Finally, trekkers and guides climbed into an old 4WD and headed 5km up the pass to the starting point at Zema; the Great Green Lake Expedition of 2006 had begun!

Some of the 26 porters raffling the load

Rhododendrons by the river

The grey-green waters of Zema Chu thundered down their boulder-strewn bed, fed by unseen glaciers high up the valley and long thin waterfalls from the steep sides around us. We walked slowly up a well-formed stone path, the buds of the deciduous bushes exploding in pale green leaves, with the odd flash of rhododendron red and mauve, primula pink and wild rose white.

The fast flowing waters of the Zema Chu

Waterfall tumbling into the Zema Chu


Soon we reached a bend, where an icefall had crashed down an avalanche shute and buried the river; the Zema Chu, unperturbed, had forced a passage right beneath it, churning its way out of the exit tunnel in a foam of grey and green. A landslide had wiped out part of the path here, forcing us out on to the grey-speckled ice to get around it. Climbing steadily, we crossed several more areas of landslip, where massive boulders had been plucked out of the mountain sides.

Looking back along our stony path

Icefall across the Zema Chu

Nello on the ice

Passing the icefall and heading upstream

Path across a landslip above the Zema Chu

Two of the cooks met us with a cup of hot lemon, signalling our arrival at the lunch spot; very welcome too, as the sun had retreated and, with the clouds rolling in, the temperature fell sharply. We ate out lunch to the patter of a gentle Himalayan hail. Pushing on quickly up and through a jumble of mossy boulders, we finally left the roar of the Zemu Chu behind and climbed up through the conifers to reach a flattish, semi-open area at the junction of two steep valleys surrounded by dark brooding mountains.

A fine assortment of raingear

Start of the climb up to Tallem

We had reached Tallem (3310m) our campsite for the night. A couple of tents were already up and we huddled in the dining tent in a steady cold rain, waiting for the army of porters to bring up the rest of the accommodation tents and sleeping gear - they seemed to be spread out over the entire track. If only the crew from the first two treks were here!

Campsite in the willow flat at Tallem

Chit-chat in the forest

Chicken for dinner

Eventually, tents were set up, sleeping mattresses in varying degrees of dampness were installed and we climbed into our homes for the next 8 nights, part of a small army of 40 odd people. Warm fires popped up as the porters and guides set themselves up for the night across the flat. Hopefully, organisational problems would be sorted out quickly, as it literally put a damper on the start of this trek. Still, the cooks put together another great meal and we were in the midst of the Sikkimese wilderness; nothing could detract from its wild beauty.

Tallem to Jakthang - in the mud

The morning sun greets us at Tallem

The rain had stopped overnight and the morning mists were dissipating as we got ourselves organised for the second day of our trek. Instead of boots we donned our yak-herder's yellow gumboots; today was promised to be a day of mud as we were heading to Jakthang or "place of slush" in local language.

By the time that we set out, the sun was shining again and the 5000m peaks lining the valley were appearing through the cloud.

For the mud the choice was yak-herders'

yellow gumboots or plastic wrapping

Wooden bridge over the Lhonak Chu

Crossing a grassy flat .....

... before entering fir and rhododendron forest

We quickly passed through the grove of budding willows at Tallem, before crossing a field of boulders and a small wooden bridge that crossed a rushing side stream. Soon we were entering a flatter, boggy area, and very quickly after that walked into a forest of fir and rhododendron, the muddy track winding and undulating through the dense substorey of the forest, crossing the odd small stream and wetland, before eventually climbing around 200m up the side of the valley.

Deep in the boggy forest

Here it took us alternately through muddy forest of tall, moss- and lichen-covered firs and boggy grassland clearings, from where there were superb views across the valley to the snow-capped jagged mountains high above us on the other side.

Sikkimese forest flora

Another boggy section

A steep descent of the gully of a side-stream brought us back to the level of the Zemu Chu. From here we followed the valley floor across more forest and boggy grassland until eventually we reached Jakthang, a clearing alongside the churning waters of the Zemu Chu.

The views across the river

As we waited for porters and tents to catch up, we lay in a warm midday sun taking in the impressive mountain views - the rains of yesterday seemed far away. Wrong! By 3pm, the clouds had returned and a soft rain began to fall again.

Jakthang = boggy grasslands, forest
and mountains

Jakthang campsite

The Zema Chu at Jakthang

We retreated to our tents and emerged a couple of hours later for tea - it was a subdued gathering as David had decided to pull out of the trek - he had found the physical effort very taxing and the worst was yet to come - still when you are in your seventies and have an titanium hip implant, there is no reason to feel ashamed. Bill was from the old school of mountaineering; when your rope partner couldn't go on you didn't abandon him and head on alone. He decided to join David and stop at Jakthang, claiming a moral victory in reaching 3500m; rightly so when you are over 80 and, when you have climbed the peaks of the Annapurnas, who can dispute your credentials. Nello and I were also suffering, having caught the Gangtok flu on the way up - a stuffed up head and constant running nose is not the most pleasant thing to have at high altitude! There seemed to be a curse hanging over this expedition.

Another in the "Hard Day at the Office" series

Bill with his most valuable trekking possession

Trekkers and guides at Jakthang campsite

The rain cleared around 5 pm and we all quietly hoped that the next day's weather would be better still. Overall, it had been a very enjoyable walk through pristine forest, though, as the smoke from fires in the porters' camps up the valley drifted lazily upward, I was still not too certain that the way to experience wilderness is with an army of people.

Jakthang to Yabuk - the company divides

Further bad news awaited us in the morning - Margaret was having visual problems and, fearing the possibility of a detached retina, she too called it a day. Our original brave company was now reduced to less than half, Ian, Nello and myself, and only Ian was 100% fit!

Farewelling our companions in the sure hands of Sunder, Sonam and half the porters and cooks, we set forth under once again sunny skies, pushing slowly up the valley of the Zema Chu, heading up and over a forested ridge and crossing a rapidly-flowing side stream on a wooden bridge. Soon we were undulating and meandering through a magnificent forest of ancient rhododendrons; their gnarly roots gripping the mossy boulders, their paper-barked trunks and branches twisting their way up, capped with bright green leathery leaves and pink, mauve and cream flowers. Pushing on, we traversed the narrow path across the first of several treacherous traverses across steep unstable sections of the valley slopes, before passing a spectacular snow chute that had spread across the river, which tunnelled beneath to emerge from its icy prison in a boiling fury.

Crossing a rocky side-stream

Gnarly mossy covered rhododendron trunk

View back up the valley

Ice and snow chute across the river

Passing the ice shute

The superb V-shaped valley of the Zema Chu

The river is squeezed by two giant boulders
More narrow traverses, a powerful waterfall where glacial boulders had almost blocked the river and a gradual climb up through the rhododendrons brought us to a magnificent viewpoint looking both down the valley along our recent path and up the valley to where we were heading. All along the jagged dark rocks and snow-capped tops of the 5000m mountains lined this valley - we were really feeling part of the Himalayas.

Looking up the valley to where we are heading

Looking back along our steep-sided route

Another view of this magnificent valley

Time for lunch in the sun

Heading on, we alternated across clearings of flattened dry vegetation - former snow drifts - and areas of low deciduous forest, where leaf buds were bursting out as spring brought renewal to the mountain valleys. Crossing a small patch of boggy fir forest, we reached our designated rest spot in time for an early lunch in the warm sunshine, looking up at the superb Himalayan peaks.

The walk after lunch went quicky, old snow drifts, low deciduous forest, rhododendrons and the odd boggy stretches, until we finally started a steep climb upwards. At close to 4000m this was a slow and tiring process, which brought us out on to a saddle, set in a peaty field amongst patches of dwarf rhododendrons. We had reached the tree-line and the sight of a curious double storey wooden hut announced our arrival at Yabuk (4013m) - our camp for the night. The distant roar of an avalanche reminded us that we were deep in the heart of the mountains.

Lichens draped from the the tree branches

The porters seemed to have organized themselves at last. Our gear reached camp before us, and they had set up in the hut - smoke was drifting out of all the cracks from their fire inside. The sherpas had also set up our tents in a clearing a little way away - my lungs were very pleased to be spending the night in a tent rather than a smoke-filled shelter. We had barely gotten into the tents than it began to snow - only half an hour after we had been worrying about the hot work of the climb up. I have given up trying to understand Himalayan weather!

As we lay snuggled up in our tents, a horrible realisation occurred to us. Not only had the toilet seat stayed with our companions at Jakthang, so had the toilet tent! Quel horreur - left to the basics out in the bush at 4000m and in the rain and cold. Those who worry about which home theatre system to get or whether to replace the volvo with a beemer should realise that sometimes the important issues of life are reduced to the most elemental.

We soon realised that we had also lost the dining tent in the parting of the ways, and found ourselves eating in a corner of the cook tent. This, however, proved a bonus as the tent was warmer due to the cooking stoves and we were also able to see how Pemba and his team concocted such delicious fare under adverse circumstances. When the spoils were divided, we did well to keep Pemba.

Yabuk forestry hut

Rest Day at Yabuk

Breakfast in the sun at Yabuk Alfresco

Morning sun melting the overnight snow at Yabuk

The overnight sprinkling of snow was starting to melt under the morning sun when we emerged from the tents at 6am. It was a rest day to acclimatise to the 4000m plus altitude, but after spending the last 10 hours stuck in our tent we had no desire to sleep in.

The Himalayas are turning us into manic-depressives; during the long hours in a sleeping bag, dry-mouthed from the cold rare air and tired from sleeping in snatches, your thoughts turn to the comforts of home and you wish you weren't here, but then to emerge to the sun-drenched early morning vistas of snow-clad peaks surrounding you, the spirit soars and Himalaya-mania sets in again.

Panorama overlooking Yabuk campsite

The 5000+m peaks on the southern side of Yabuk

Looking up the valley toward the point of Siniolchu (6887m)

It was a magnificent morning and the three of us wandered up the high valley to find a point from where we could sit and reflect on Siniolchu and distant Tent Peak glistening in the sun. On the way back we discovered a beautiful little wetland in the last patch of fir trees before the treeline; the gently rippling reflections of trees and nearby peaks brilliant on the surface of the scattered pools.


Tent Peak (7365m) peaking through

Alpine wetland at Yabuk

Reflections in the wetland pond

... and some more reflections

Dwarf rhododendrons ....

... with leaves like clusters of green moths

Descending again in time for lunch in the bright warm mountain sunshine, we whiled away the remainder of the rest day quietly, hopefully accumulating more haemoglobin cells for the next push up and anticipating the alpine scenery that awaited us.

We were playing cards quietly in the afternoon sun when a band of cloud rose suddenly up from the valley below - within five minutes it had changed from basking sunshine to full fleece and thermals. Twenty minutes later, play was stopped due to snow.