The Quest Begins
It was February 2006. After many a round of black coffee with Himalayan veteran Robin Banerjee, in a coffee bar in Esplanade area of Kolkata, it was finally happening. We were off to North Sikkim for yet another adventure of the unknown. An exploration trek was ahead of us to the catchments of the upper Ringi Chu valley. In to a valley that is guarded by Siniolchu on the west and Lama Ongden to its north. Only this time our goal was not reaching a summit or crossing a high mountain pass. This time our goal was elusive. This time we would follow myths, old lamas’ tales, legends, folklores and even some firsthand accounts of locals and our journey would take us to some of North Sikkim’s unseen or less known valleys, ridges, and glaciers.
Escaping the hectic, humid Kolkata (used to be called ‘Calcutta’) is always a pleasure. An overnight train and a good 5 hour drive on the NH31A brought us to Burtuk, a neighborhood in the outskirts of Gangtok. We were hosted by friends Binuka Dungmali and Karma Lepcha. Karma works for the Sikkim Police department while his wife Binuka is a school teacher in the village of Bay2 (the last village on way to Tholung Monastery) in Dzongu. After a few rounds of Tyongba (a mildly alcoholic drink made from ‘kodo’ millets best enjoyed warm), everything started to fall in to their respective places. I could see clearly now. I could think straight and I could plan the job ahead. This is what I call detox; detoxification of one’s soul from the toxins of our mundane lives (well…if we can call it a life!). It was not just the drink, you see, it’s the fresh mountain air, the thought that we will be away from the social ‘free radicals’ for the next few weeks, had their synergistic effect on me. And I was ready!
Dzongu: the Lepcha territory
The next step was a drive. A drive to Mangan, the district head quarters of North Sikkim. 3 hours on dusty, bumpy, winding roads and we were in Mangan bazaar. The area where we were venturing in to is locally known as Dzongu. And to enter we needed a special permit, yes, for Indian citizens, and even though we were nowhere near the international border! A few hours passed, and we had that invaluable piece of paper called the “Permit”! We were all relieved as without that piece of paper our adventure could very well have ended in Mangan bazaar. Sharing our joy of relief was Zamyong Lepcha. Zamyong, an old friend is the son of Bhutia Tsering Lepcha. I knew Zamyong from the 2 previous visits to this valley, in 2001 and 2003 respectively. Bhutia Tsering is the head master of the school in Lingzya, our road head for the trek up Ringi Chu Valley.
A bit of shopping in the Mangan bazaar and we were off in Zamyong’s jeep towards Lingzya village. To drive 25 km took a long 1 hour and felt somewhat like returning home. The warmth in our host’s hearts reflected in their hospitality. Next morning after a hearty breakfast, we were ready to take on 20 km uphill track up to Tholung Gompa. A long & sweaty day, that starts from less than 4000ft at the beginning of the trail and at end of the day lifts one to 8160ft. Reaching the ancient monastery of Tholung we had a very interesting afternoon spent with the Head Lama; popularly called as “Myong Thiung”. In Lepcha language “Myong Thiung” means the ‘Old Man of the Village’. Our Myong Thiung3 is actually a very high priest in the Gyelukpa sect in entire Sikkim.
Sips of ‘Chhang’ and stories dating back decades infused enough mystery and charm immediately into our drinks and to the unknown days immediately ahead. Our discussions moved around Yeti to Wildman, Migou to Bon Manchi. From the unknown Zumthul Phuk river catchments to the less frequented Kishong la. At night, before hitting the sack, I was lost in thought. I thought and wondered about the valley we were about to explore and what lay beyond. Needless to mention that I only fantasized about nice rewarding experiences to come and no misadventures at all! But at the same time I kept wondering about the chances of existence of a new species of animal and what if this ‘Bon Manchi’ in question, is one!
10,000 species of plants, 300 types of mammals, 977 types of birds,176 types of reptiles,105 types of amphibians, 269 types of freshwater fish inhabit the Eastern Himalaya4. The Himalaya has yielded a “treasure trove” of new species – 350 of them were documented in just the past 10 years. Let me mention just a few of them here.
- The Arunachal Macaque (Macaca munzala) was first described in 2005, and represented (at the time) the first new monkey species identified anywhere in the world in over a century. The newly described macaque species is stocky and has a darker face than other closely related species. It is the highest-dwelling macaque in the world, occurring between 5,200 and 11,500 feet about sea level.
- The Leaf Deer (Muntiacus putaoensis) found in 1999 in northern Burma (Myanmar) is believed to be the world’s smallest deer species, a miniature muntjac. Standing just over 2.5 feet at its tallest, it weighs just 25 pounds. Scientists initially believed the small creature found in the world’s largest mountain range was a juvenile of another species but DNA tests confirmed the light brown animal with innocent dark eyes was a distinct and new species.
- Smith’s litter frog (Leptobrachium smithi), identified in 1999, is one of five new frog discoveries in the Indian state of Assam. WWF gushes: It “must certainly rank among the most extraordinary-looking frogs in the world. Measuring only a few centimetres, this small frog has a giant pair of piercing, bulging and vivid golden eyes.”
- Assamese Cascade Frog (Amolops assamensis) found in Assam. Cascade frogs or torrent frogs as they are also known as, have adapted to life amongst the torrents, waterfalls and wet boulders that cascade out of Asia’s rainforests.
Pretty soon, my physical fatigue overpowered my imagination and I was deep asleep.
The Plan Divine: an introduction to the area
Talung – the name itself is fascinating. It brings an air of the unknown. But here we are not referring to Talung Peak or even the Talung glacier; but the mystery, thrill, magnetism and the challenge of the unknown. Perhaps that’s why we were there and the first key player around us was Zumthul Phuk Glacier. This glacier, for me and for the rest of the world, existed only on a map. Climbers did not bother to go in as in there seemed no great summit to claim. Interestingly, J. Claude White, the first British political officer to Sikkim, wanted to explore the Zumthul Phuk catchment back in 1891. John Claude White, in July 1891, followed the Ringi Chu catchment to Kishong La and thereafter to Lhonak. On his way, after Tholung Gompa, noted that Zamtu Chu (Zumthul Phuk Chu) rises on the eastern slopes of Siniolchu and pointed out the then survey of India maps wrong ( that it does not flow south). He says, “I was much tempted to follow up this stream…and the view at the head of the valley must be magnificent”. Claude White could not due to lack of time at his disposal5. But after so many years, we can and we will; or so I thought.
The next player was Kishong la, a very little visited high mountain pass! Tholung Gompa- an eighteenth century Buddhist Monastery where ancient relics of Guru Rimpoche is protected along with a mummy of a dead King! Of Lama Ongden (also spelled Lama Angden), the mountain that crowns the head of the valley overlooks the pristine Kishong Lake, in meditation forever.
Everything seemed like parts of a divine plan! Next morning, the sky was clear. We trekked thorough real dense greenery. The jungle became more and more awe inspiring. It seemed as if it kept so many secrets from us. We the passing tiny dots soon became refreshing blood suppliers to the thousands of leeches. Tell you what; these blood thirsty creatures did not fit in my imagination of the divine plan at all! No way!
After 4½ hours we reached Temrong and soon we crossed a log bridge on Zumthul Chu and found our nights shelter in a Yak Hut (locally called as ‘goth’). Soon we had a fire going and to our extreme relief, no more leeches! Thank God!
Zumthul Phuk: Of Guts and Glory
Back in Tholung Gompa, we had heard about a barrier, a big black rock wall that guards all possible entrances to the unknown Zumthul Phuk valley. The story of this “Wall” had dampened some of our spirits, but we did not give Zumthul Phuk a ‘walk over’ as yet. Because, from the maps we knew, that a big glacier exists at the head of this roaring Zumthul Chu (the word ‘chu’ means a river) and that glacier is born from the SE flanks of Siniolchu. No human being, including the Lepcha hunters of Dzongu has ever dared in to this valley! That evening Zamyong’s uncle joined us and strengthened our small team.
Next morning, we prepared ourselves with food and gear and entered the virgin forests of Zumthul Phuk. The basic idea of navigation was to stay close to the river course and go upstream. Simple it may sound; but it turned out to be an extremely dangerous and difficult affair! We crossed 19 streams as we forced our way up the true left of Zumthul Chu. We traversed numerous rock bands. Moist, damp rock bands, some of them were exposing us straight down hundreds of feet to the mighty river. And then we faced the ‘barrier’. With the very first glance at the rock wall we could chalk out a route. And we climbed that blasted rock with great zeal. The monster of the ‘barrier’ seemed to be kind to us. We peeled off thick layers of moss from the rock surface and found our foot and hand holds. It was interesting! May be that was an understatement. Doing a free climb in an uncharted territory is definitely more than just ‘interesting’! But from a rock climber’s point of view it was a scramble, not a climb (after spending a few days with Alan tees in Donegal, North Ireland!).
For eight long hours we forced our way upstream. Sometimes tackling the wet slabs, sometimes hanging shakily from the rhododendron branches and finally building a log bridge over Zumthul Chu; we managed to reach a point from where we could see the peaks of Zumthul Phuk. I took bearings and could spot ourselves on the map. Standing on top of a big boulder on the true right bank of Zumthul Chu; we could see that how close to the snout of Zumthul Phuk we were. I took some snaps in steadily deteriorating weather and visibility. One of the members had a nasty fall and a miraculous escape from getting blown away by the cascading river. Another 5 hours, and we were all back safely in the Yak hut. A long day indeed!
In this 2006 trip, what we discovered from our short adventure in Zumthul Phuk is precious! A glacier is out there, waiting for explorers and climbers to play for the very first time. The climbers or explorers whosoever they are; will of course need a load of guts to reach the glacier. And then only they can expect glory! Because all the rock faces, buttresses, gullies and at the end of it all, summits are awaiting their first ascents.
Darkness came. With it came peace. As if our aspirations also needed a bed to crash. But a big animal came very close to our shelter that night and was curious about us inside. Next morning from its droppings we could figure that it was a Himalayan Black Bear! We were glad that the bear did not decide to explore our shaky shelter! We felt like trespassers in their sanctuary. It was time to move toward our next destination- Kishong La. But we came across no Bon Manchi. No trace of him, yet!
In December 2009, I was back in Zumthul Phuk again. This time Thendup and me, in one day from the junction of Zumthul Chu and Ringi Chu (Temrong) could reach a dry stream bed on the true left of the Zumthul Chu and bivouacked. Next morning, determined to have a glimpse of the upper valley we scrambled up until we were stuck in the middle of a moss covered cliff. Our efforts did not go without a reward! We had a very rare view of the Rock Needles of Siniolchu. In fact it was first ever seen and photographed from the Zumthul Phuk valley. This is the same rock needles that were observed for the first time by German climbers Allwein and Pircher on 3rd October, 1931 from Passanram glacier. From their point of view there was a single needle and hence they called it the ‘Siniolchu Needle’6. But from our point it was a clear twin towered structure.
Kishong La: The Pass of Demons and Demigods
Rain, rain, and more rain. The time we had chosen, may be was not just right! But who the hell cares; especially when you are drenched to the bones. We pushed ahead, ignoring the continuous shower. No matter what, we will give it a go! And that was it. The trail conditions worsened. Uphill all the way for 2 hours and reached small meadow called Labyok (11000ft) – an abandoned Yak Hut. Another hour of uphill struggle and we were in Thijom. Lower portions of the Dawathang Valley and a glimpse of Ringi Lama were visible. Thijom is around 12000ft. We looked beyond and a big rock wall guarded our view. It reminded me of the Great Baranco Wall of Kilimanjaro. Our route lay ahead up that giant wall. But as we approached the wall, a narrow, serpent trail appeared. Surprisingly, it turned out to be a nice walk up the wall. A steady gain of 1500 ft and we reached the alpine meadows of Thalakpe (13600ft). A night was spent in the log hut of Thalakpe. To the locals it is also known as the Kishong Hut. It was nice to be in dry clothes and enjoy a nice warm dinner by the fire.
Our senses became wide awake next morning; as we waded knee-deep icy stream of the Kishong Chu. A great green wide alp was ahead of us. An hour later we reached the camping grounds of Dikithang. We pitched our small 2 person tents beside the Yak herdsmen’s rather big camp.
Next morning, we headed for Kishong La. The higher we climbed; the weather worsened. The word ‘visibility’ sounded like a big fat joke! No point exploring, right? Wrong! We decided to move on. It was difficult to stick to the right path; especially when there isn’t any! But we managed to stay on course and after 4 hours of confusion and determination, reached Kishong La (15600ft).The cairns on the top, a gentle slope rising towards Lama Ongden and the Northern slopes rolling down to the Zemu Chu valley (towards yakthang/zaktahng). I took some useless foggy snapshots. My friend Zamyong was more than happy to be able to reach Kishong La. From this day I declare you ‘guide’; I joked. Zamyong was a proud Lepcha! He can now boast about in Mangan bazaar for the rest of his life and may be get free booze!
It was time to retrace our steps back to Dikithang camp. My tired, wet pair of legs brought me back to my tent. Soon we were all together, circling around the shepherd’s fire; sipping strong black coffee. The valley wind had risen considerably. We could hear it howling over our rolling laughter. The Shepherd’s wife said, the mountain spirits are not happy, as you humans have ventured in to the sanctum sanctorum of their temple!
A visit to the Yeti Pass
But the next statement coming from her (the shepherd’s wife) was not that easy to ignore! “There’s another mountain pass here. It’s called Mige La, very close to this Yak shed even. Migou (also spelled ‘Migoo’ or ‘Migo’ sometimes) –s used to whistle from that pass overlooking this yak shed; that’s why we shepherds have named it Mige La (‘La’ means a mountain pass in Bhotia/ Tibetan language).” And there was not a shadow of doubt or hesitation in her words when she spoke of the Migou. All the others present in the yak shed nodded to their approval. Yeti, or Migou or the Bon Manchi exists; there was no denying the fact.
Now I just learnt a couple of new things from the nomadic Shepherd’s wife. One, there exists a mountain pass in the Himalaya named after the famed Migou or Yeti. Two, Yeti’s call is like a whistling note. It may look abominable (!); but it does not have a big foot!
So, next morning there I was climbing towards Mige La. Not that I was expecting to make a sudden discovery; the thought of venturing to an uncharted mountain pass was exciting enough for me. It took us two hours to reach Mige La. At an altitude of 4600m, it was snow clad in April. There we found very old cairns on top of the pass, built by the yak herdsmen. Old pile of small boulders and rocks. Old, but prominent. Visibility was as poor as it could be! In spite of that I took some pictures with the cairn and my companions Zamyong and Sukhraj. On the way down Sukhraj pointed towards a strange impression on the snow. It was not big. I thought it might be of a snow leopard, or even a bear. But my companions were quite familiar with leopard or bear pugmarks. They insisted it belonged to none other than the Migou! Well, I still don’t know what it was. But at that moment it felt nice to believe in their words. May be we should and we would come back one day soon with a scientific expedition to this area and find out. But on the way back to my tent, I realized that I have started to believe in the stories of the Shepherd’s wife.
In 2009, after our short yet exhilarating romance with the Siniolchu Needles in the Zumthuk Phuk valley, we visited the Kishong region once again. It was December and the valley floor was covered with fresh coat of snow. The perfect time to track animals by their footprints, I thought. After spending nearly a week, when we began to feel the pointlessness of hanging around there anymore; we saw it. It was right there across stream near the Kishong Hut7. It was a strange set of footprint indeed.
We had sent the photographs of this photo to some experts in the field with no convincing reply. It did not match any know species of that area. It is a curious mixture of equine and bovine footprints. One scientist (Dr. A.R.Sankhyan, A.S.I) even said that we had made that print ourselves. When we do not have a scientific answer, we doubt. But should we not question more, instead of ruling something out without proper scientific investigation?
Tosa: a hidden haven for the Bon Manchi?
The Tosa Valley
We went in to Tosa valley twice (first during November 2006 and then in the following Christmas) and the lakes that lie at the very end of the valley. We climbed two peaks in the 4500m range near the Tosa lakes. As both were first ascents we could not resist christening them! One was called the ‘Spirit of Tosa’ as it overlooked the entire Tosa valley and the other was called ‘Jameri’.
The most striking thing about the journey to Tosa happened the very first day of our trek from the village of Phamtam. Phamtam is about an hour’s drive from Gangtok. After spending a night in Phamtam and chatting with some of the villagers, we were fascinated by the stories of the Bon Manchi. We spoke to the village school teacher, farmers, hunters, and our porters. All of them were convinced of the existence of the Bon Manchi. According to them this creature is about 4-5 feet tall. Hairy, biped and can vanish into thin air! Its capability to go invisible has given it some sort of Godly status. The invisibility thing is probably due to camouflaging capabilities of this creature in question. But whenever they spoke of it, a certain sparkle of conviction and truth glittered in their eyes.
In the first day of our trek we had to climb from 4000ft to 9000ft in 7hours (as there were no suitable campsites in between) and one of our porters gave us some yak hair. He told us to keep that bunch of yak hair in our pockets to protect us from the Bon Manchi! We came across countless pugmarks from leopards, bears near our campsites every day, while exploring up and down the valley. While spending a night in a yak hut near Mayal Patam we also saw a red panda in the wild. That indeed was a rare privilege. My friend Kevin was able to photograph it even as it was soaking the afternoon sun. We also spent nights in the yak shelter where our friend Arjun had his memorable night and reported to have heard unknown whistling calls! Our porters, especially Tsering was not keen at all to spend another night in that Yak Shelter. We had the same batch of porters as Arjun had and they were telling us about that night. They were convinced about the existence of the Bon Manchi. They never cause any harm to the humans or cattle according to them.
We collected more accounts of Bon Manchi related stories from Tsering and his lads. And to our greatest excitement we came across a fresh track made by some unknown biped animal near Anden top. The tracks looked like footprints! More like footprints of a kid walking bare feet on snow. It was early hours in the day and we were climbing from our camp at Bushpatey towards the high point of Anden. I took some pictures of the track that seemed to have crossed our trail and went into thick bamboo clad slopes of Anden.
Later on, while browsing through hundreds of animal foot prints I came across only one animal’s footprint that can match what we saw on the Anden trail. It was a footprint of a Himalayan Sun Bear. Interestingly its claws does not make an impression on the ground and that can explain its human like foot print. But then officially Sun Bears do not exist in Sikkim. My question is can there be a limited population of this shy species be surviving in remote and apparently inaccessible parts of Sikkim? It was reportedly extinct from the Indian sub continent and came back to being extant again in some of our north-eastern provinces. It is only 120-150 cm tall, making it the smallest in the bear family. It likes to climb trees, stands on its two hind legs sometimes, and of course like all wild animals can camouflage very well. All these factors have led me to believe that Bon Manchi is nothing but a small population of Sun Bears. But then again I am no scientist. I am only asking questions.
Directions for the future
Stories of Bon Manchi are living and actual in many Lepcha villages In North Sikkim. According to their stories it seems like a hairy, biped, which is able to camouflage itself very well. Their anatomical description has some similarity with the Pakistan Wildman and the Orang Pendek. No one describes it as an ‘abominable snowman’ or a ‘big foot’. The level of conviction in these peoples mind whenever they refer to the Bon Manchi is striking. This makes me somehow connect to the stories told by the locals of a Sumatran Island regarding the Orang Pendek. Even though, the first recorded sightings of Orang Pendek in Sumatra dates back to 1295, it took a few hundred years for the scientific community to start acknowledging that there might be an undiscovered animal in the islands of Sumatra.
Time to pay some attention to Bon Manchi
The days in the Kishong, Tholung and Tosa valleys were like opening new windows to our conviction and beliefs. The vastness of unknown ground humbled our pride. It was about time and we were already questioning the pre conceived notions that we have, that we carry in our heads. Is Bon Manchi just a wild imagination? But the recent studies and findings in Indonesia and even in North Pakistan; suggest otherwise.
May be someday soon a ‘hominid’, an ape, a bear, or a species like the Orang Pendek will be discovered in some less known Himalayan valley. After centuries of climbing and exploring across the Himalaya, vast majority of its glaciers, valleys, small river catchments are still unseen, unknown. It is true that no big mammal was discovered for a long time; but with the latest findings on the Orang Pendek; and the discovery of the Homo floresiensis in Indonesia, it is time to rethink and reconsider our judgments may be. It is time to pay some serious scientific attention to the Bon Manchi; or may be not! Because we don’t want the Bon Manchi’s existence and survival threatened as a result of its discovery, like it happened with the mountain gorillas of Rwanda!
Team in Dzongu expeditions: Rabin Banerjee, Rajeev Ranjan, Subrata Bhattacharjee, Zamyong Lepcha and Sukhraj Gurung, Anindya Mukherjee
Team in Tosa expeditions: Raghav Mukherjee, Kevin Hynes, Thendup Sherpa, Phurtemba Sherpa, Tsering Lepcha, Anindya Mukherjee
Expedition area & period:
- Talung Valley, North Sikkim, India- March & April 2006, December 2009, March, November, December 2011-6 trips
- Tosa lakes area, North Sikkim, India- Nov & Dec 2006 – January, 2007-three trips
Information on the Orang Pendek can be found at the following links:
- Originally ‘Dzonbu’, is incorrectly pronounced as ‘Dzongu’.’ Dzongu’ or ‘Dzongbu’ means’ the land of plenty, abundance and prosperity’. Dzongu now defines a geographical area harboring many villages near Mangan and is a sanctuary for the indigenous Lepcha.
- Bay was completely erased from the map after the Sikkim earthquake of 2011. ‘Bay’ is also spelt ‘Be’.
- In March 2011, while starting my expedition through the Talung Chu gorge, I heard Myong Thiung was very ill and probably in his deathbed.
- Source:World Wildlife Fund
- Source: Sikhim and Bhutan- Twenty-One years on the North East Frontier 1887-1908- J. Claude White
- Himalayan Campaign, Paul Bauer, Plate 82, Pilgrims Publishing
- Last time I saw this hut was in January 2014 and it was completely broken