In the beginning, when there was nothing but vast emptiness on earth and in the sky, Itbu-moo, Mother creator, set out to execute a great plan. She first shaped Kongchen Kongchlo, his wives, Samo Gyazong and Paki Chyu, his brothers, Pawo Hungree and Bagok Chyu, and other mountains or Chyu bee. As complements to the mountains she created daa, the lakes and roong, the rivers.
-Children of the Snowy Peaks
From the book Legends of the Lepchas,
Folk Tales from Sikkim, Yishey Doma
Inspired by the Lepcha myths of their origin from Kangchenjunga and the spiritual significance of the mountains of upper Dzongu (also spelled ‘Dzongbu’) and by the epic journeys made by pioneers like J. Claude White and Harold Raeburn, an expedition was born.
Higher Guicha La. (Anindya Mukherjee)
In the spring of 2011 a team of two Indian mountaineers (Thendup Sherpa and Anindya Mukherjee) left Mangan in North Sikkim to explore the hitherto unknown valleys of Ronggyaong and Rukel chu. For the first time in history this team was granted permission to retrace the footsteps of J. Claude White (1853-1918) and Harold Raeburn (1865-1926) in reverse; thus making their expedition unique and first of its kind. The team was to enter the Lepcha sanctuary of Dzongu via Sanklang (by the river Teesta, below Mangan, mentioned as ‘Sanklan sampo’ by White) and follow the gorges of Ronggyaong (also described as Talung chu and Rungnu in some maps and by some authors in their books) and Rukel chu ‘upstream’ to reach Talung glacier and cross Guicha la into Prek chu valley to end their journey in Yoksum.
Since no expedition had ever ventured into that region; the team relied heavily upon the scanty descriptions provided by J. Claude White (July, 1890) in his book Sikhim and Bhutan - Twenty-one Years on the North-East Frontier 1887-1908 first published in London,1909.
The most important tool with the expedition was a compass and a contour map of Army Corps of Engineers (US Army Map Service- Kangchenjunga-NG 45-3 Series U502). Even though the contour interval in this particular map was 500 ft; it proved to be incredibly accurate when it came to taking bearings and setting our course as the expedition inched up through deep river gorges and dense, virgin forest.
Thus, our expedition stood upon two distinct columns of culture and history, helping us set some simple objectives.
The objectives of ‘Expedition Mayel Lyang 2011’
...languages are about so much more than words. Whole conceptual, social and ecological worlds open up when you lean to speak and come to understand languages vastly different from your own.
Dr. Mark Turin, Silent Witness
HJ Vol. 66, p.43
Why the name ‘Mayel Lyang’?
Our expedition went through catchments, rivers, mountains and villages that are deeply associated with Lepcha heritage and their cultural tradition. The area (Dzongu), the river (Ronggyaong) and the mountain (Kangchenjunga) suggested the land and its people were intertwined in harmony. The mountains, rivers, cliffs all have Lepcha names and all of them have a story to tell. This land, surrounded by the snows of Paki Chu, Pandim, Kanchenjunga, Simvu and Siniolchu is ‘Mayel Lyang’- the sanctum sanctorum of Lepcha heritage.
Mayel Lyang 2011 expedition route.
‘Mayel Lyang’ is a Lepcha term that literally means ‘mythical paradise’ or ‘hidden paradise’. It is also referred to as ‘Ancient Sikkim’ by the Lepcha. They believe their immortal ancestors still live, hidden in the snows of Kangchenjunga. We therefore decided to call this journey as ‘Expedition Mayel Lyang’.
John Claude White was a British amateur photographer, who served in the Indian Public Works Department from 1876 and as political officer for Sikkim, Bhutan, and Tibetan affairs from 1888. White accompanied the Younghusband Mission to Tibet in 1903–4 and during the campaign made a series of mainly landscape photographs, including a number of impressive panoramas. A selection of these was later issued in two photogravure volumes by the Kolkata photographers Johnston & Hoffmann as Tibet and Lhasa (1906).
Owing to political sensitivities regarding the accompanying text, they were subsequently withdrawn, and are now extremely rare. A memoir, Sikhim and Bhutan: Experiences of Twenty Years on the North-Eastern Frontier of India, appeared in 1909, and many of White’s photographs accompany the articles on Sikkim and Bhutan which he later wrote for the National Geographic Magazine.
Though he was born in Kolkata, White spent his teenage years studying in Bonn, Germany in the 1880s, where he was undoubtedly intrigued by the recent ‘golden age’ of mountaineering of the mid-19th century that saw the first ascents of many Alpine peaks. White was given the chance to live amongst some of the world’s most formidable mountains himself in 1888 when he was assigned to the Sikkim-Tibet Boundary Commission, tasked with mapping and surveying the regions’ borders. Unlike his counterparts who owned large homes in India and travelled occasionally to their posts in the outlying Himalayas, White settled with his family in Sikkim, where they remained for over two decades.
In 1888, after the outbreak of the Sikkim-Tibet war, John Claude White was sent as the Assistant Political Officer to Sikkim. The following year he was offered the post of Political Officer in administrative charge of State of Sikkim. In 1890, He made one of his first expeditions crossing the Guicha la. He crossed Guicha la, went down to Talung glacier (which he referred to as the ‘Kangchen’ glacier) and then followed the ‘Talung/Ronggyong’ chu (‘Rungnu’- as per White) eastwards to Sakyong and finally to Ringen (the present day location of North Sikkim Government offices above Mangan). He was accompanied by Mr. Hofmann. Douglas Freshfield writes about Hofmann, ‘...who obtained admirable views of the eastern flanks of Kangchenjunga and its glaciers, and was the first to portray the northern face of Sinilchum, the most sublime of snow peaks.’ (p 20, Round Kangchenjunga - Douglas Freshfield)
By doing this epic journey he was able to connect present day West Sikkim with the southern tip of today’s North Sikkim. Following the apparently known Yoksum - Dzongri - Guicha la trails, he took the challenge of traversing the unknown and complicated gorges and river system in Talung chu valley and reached Sakyong the uppermost village in today’s Dzongu, the Lepcha Sanctuary. It took White and party 10 days longer than they had planned for (White never mentioned the exact number of days it took his party to complete their journey).
Though scantily described from an explorer’s point of view; White’s journey fascinated and inspired me. Then I came across Lt. Col. H.W. Tobin’s article ‘Exploration and Climbing in the Sikkim Himalaya’ (HJ Vol. II). In July and August of 1920, Harold Raeburn and Lt. Col. H.W. Tobin carried out tours south of Kangchenjunga. After examining the Talung and Tongshiong glaciers they followed the gorges of the Talung, retracing Claude White’s steps to river Teesta below Singhik (Sanklan sampo). It took them eight days to complete their journey down the Ronggyaong-Rukel gorges.
‘...It is old, very old. So old that I almost feel young again, as I have not felt since I journeyed with you children. It is old and full of memory. I could have been happy here, if I had come in days of peace.’
-Legolas on Fangorn forest in The Lord of The Rings
‘...once there (Talung glacier) we would make for the Guicha La, for, that with our blindness and the weather, the Talung Chu route was unthinkable. The very few who know that trackless vale of tears will agree that this decision was wise.’
H.W. Tilman, When Men and Mountains Meet, p 321
8 March 2011:
From Mangan (modern day HQ of North District of Sikkim) the team headed west by a 4X4 vehicle to the village of 6th Mile in Lower Dzongu. We crossed the river Teesta at Sanklang and entered the Ronggyaong chu valley. Here with the help of the Tholung Ecotourism Cooperative Society (T.E.C.S) eight more members joined the expedition. Namely Mingdup Lepcha, Samdup Lepcha, Chungden Lepcha, Phurzang Lepcha, Dawa Lepcha, Bikash Chettry, Ambar Rai and Raj Kumar Gurung. The average age of these boys were 20 and I wished, at the outset, that I had an older, more mature team! But by the end of this trip I was to be highly impressed by their sense of discipline, motivation and perseverance. In the evening I sat down with the boys and announced my intentions to reach Yoksum. Not just a reconnaissance mission, this time we would complete the journey! I introduced them to the maps I had and also shared our strategy of progress and tried to convince them that we would succeed. The boys looked cheerful and excited but I doubted if they really believed me that evening! We spent our first night in the village of 6th Mile. It drizzled all night and I tried not to worry too much about Sikkim rain. But, all of us knew, a couple of hours of torrential shower could change the equation for us once inside the river gorges.
9 March 2011:
Following a religious ceremony conducted by the village priest in the morning we were ready to go. The priest (Boonthing) had blessed the team and prayed to the spirits residing in the mountains up ahead for our safety and success. Even today such rituals are an integral part of Lepcha life. It was good to see traditions surviving in Dzongu. The modern Lepcha realises the significance of not losing their unique cultural identity. Soon after leaving 6th Mile we crossed two beautiful waterfalls. They were dropping down from the north and rushed merrily down to join the Ronggyaong below. After crossing the lower part of Lingzya village we took the direct path to Sakyong, leaving the path to Tholung Gompa that goes via Lingzya, Be and Tsana up through the Ringi chu catchment. I have been up the Ringi valley a few times before (2001, 2006 and 2009) while visiting Kishong la and exploring the Zumtu chu. In one of those trips we climbed up to a pass named ‘Mige la’. Yes, a pass dedicated to the ‘Migou’ or the ‘Yeti’. In this region of Sikkim Himalaya the myth and stories of the Yeti and a smaller version of hominid like creature called ‘Bon Manchi’ has survived for centuries.
A drizzle very soon turned into a thunder shower. Thoroughly drenched and covered with leeches we reached Sakyong, the last habitation in upper Dzongu valley. I spent the afternoon and evening talking to villagers trying to collect information on the terrain ahead. What we learnt was helpful. A faint trail exists up to a certain point up the Ronggyaong and it could save our hardship for next two days. The first leg of this trail is used by villagers and ends in Singnok. Beyond Singnok is another trail made and used by poachers alone. But it is not an obvious path and our primary task would be to locate the poachers’ trail beyond Singnok.
10 March- 11 March 2011:
Weather improved giving us views of the Ringvingram chu and its narrow valley. Mountains in the range of 4000 m were capped with fresh snow. We had seen the same group of peaks from north (Kishong lake region) in 2009 and this time we photographed them from south. I was satisfied with the exploration and documentation in progress. As we came closer to Singnok, to our north opened the valley of Passanram chu. Opposite Singnok and north of Ronggyaong river was the Passanram chu meeting Ronggyaong on its left bank. The expedition was able to observe and survey the possibility to further explore the catchments of Passanram chu and its potential exit to Zemu glacier via Chibge la.
P. 5526 m north face, Zor Patam valley. (Anindya Mukherjee)
In Singnok, people of Sakyong cultivate ‘Large Cardamom’. The Forest Department has a small hut here. We occupied it gratefully. Singnok is the place where Claude White’s ordeal came to an end in July 1890. White writes, ‘...But soon after, the end of our trouble came in view with the sight of some Lepcha cultivation. The men went wild with delight, and I verily believe they had thought that they would never get back to their homes again; they threw down their loads, danced and sang, and then started off with renewed energy to find the owners of the fields in the outlying houses of the village of Sakhyong a few miles further down.’
We being at the reverse end of Claude White’s journey; our job was just about to begin!
After reaching Singnok our focus was to find out the poachers’ path. I split my team into two and we started scanning the western slopes of the forest hut looking for slightest sign of recent human activity. After three hours Mingdup Lepcha found the hidden path. It was good news for it would save another day’s route opening through this fortress like forest. By the look and feel of it, we were to force our way through an Eastern Himalayan Broadleaf forest. With every step however it reminded me of the Fangorn forest from the Tolkien’s classic.
There are four broad layers in this type of forest anatomy. The upper most layer is the canopy which is composed of tall mature trees ranging from a height of 33 to 66 m (100 to 200 feet). Below the canopy is the three-layered, shade tolerant under-story which is roughly 10 to 15 m (30 to 50 feet) shorter than the canopy. The top layer of the under-story is the sub-canopy which is composed of smaller mature trees, saplings, and suppressed juvenile canopy layer trees awaiting an opening in the canopy. Below the sub-canopy is the shrub layer, composed of low growing woody plants. Typically the lowest growing (and most diverse) layer is the ground cover or herbaceous layer. The shrub layer composed most of our problems each day and it thickened further up the valley.
Characteristic dominant broadleaf trees in this biome include oaks (Quercus spp.), beeches (Fagus spp.), maples (Acer spp.), and birches (Betula spp.). The term ‘mixed forest’ comes from the inclusion of coniferous trees as a canopy component of these forests. Typical coniferous trees include: Pines (Pinus spp.), firs (Abies spp.), and spruces (Picea spp.). In some areas of this biome the conifers may be a more important canopy species than the broadleaf species. (Source: Wikipedia)
Beyond Singnok, the faint trail we found led us to a cave on the true left of Ronggyaong river. The crossing of Ronggyaong was not a problem as we found the poachers’ log bridge! This cave is locally called ‘Singhik’ and is the poachers’ den. The expedition team found ample evidence of recent poaching of Himalayan Blue Sheep, (Pseudois nayaur) and Himalayan Tahr (Hemitragus jemlahicus) in the cave.
12 March 2011:
There were no more trails beyond the Poacher’s cave (Singhik) and the expedition continued up the valley following the true left of the Ronggyaong river. Progress became extremely slow (3-4 km per day) as forest cover got denser and undergrowth thickened. Being at the bottom of a gorge, made navigation difficult. However, the expedition relied on their contour map and a U.S. Army compass to take bearings and force their way up the gorge.
13 March 2011:
We had our first view of the snows. We saw and identified the eastern and northern flanks of Narsing-Jopuno-Tingchenkhang-Pandim range by taking bearings on the map. This brought enthusiasm in the team and we continued up with renewed vigour.
14-15 March 2011:
We reach the confluence of Rukel chu and Ronggyaong chu quickly this morning. We found the river bed kind to us for a couple of hours offering easier access than the precipitous slopes blanketed with thickest possible undergrowth. Seeing Rukel chu was a delight. Its sighting brought some sort of assurance that we were on the right course. Our map suggested we stick to the true left of Rukel as it offered space and easier gradient.
From the confluence point of Rukel and Ronggyaong we had to climb steep into the thicket again. When we found a small clearing we camped. Further recce that afternoon revealed that Rukel chu was not to give path through its bed. So we decided to climb to a higher elevation the next day. We hoped that that would give us an opportunity to get a wider view.
15 March 2001:
We struggled upwards. And very soon were rewarded with a view of Simvu and the south summit of Kangchenjunga (8491 m). On its east ridge was Peak 7730 m and at its foot was the Tongshiong glacier. This view eased all our pain for we knew we were the chosen few to witness these peaks (and photograph them) from this location. The nature of the flora was changing. Dwarf rhododendrons constituted the major obstacles now. With cirrus clouds in the evening, the mountain vista soon vanished under a veil of strato-cumulous.
16 March, 2011:
We knew we could not stop and wait for the bad weather to pass. Each day was crucial. Progress, however slow, was mandatory. So in poor visibility and drizzling snow we kept moving up the Rukel gorge. Thicket became invincible again and we had to go down to the river. Scrambling got more exposed in places and we had to fix rope twice. The weather turned cruel later that day and we could not find any flat ground to pitch a tent. Finally we spent a wet and cold night amidst the web of rhododendron forest. The snow on the ground was wet, deep and sugary.
17 March, 2011:
Over the next two days, in spite of inclement weather and poor visibility we managed to keep going. Always on the left side of Rukel as it was a natural choice. The gorge got spectacular in sections. But that forced us to climb and traverse the treacherous left bank slopes again. Around noon, on 17 March 2011, we had reached the stream coming from South Simvu glacier. It joined Rukel on its left. Bad weather restricted our view. We could not see Simvu, but positively identified a rock peak named Lhokamburichi (also spelled Lhaklamburichi) and could faintly see the terminal moraines of South Simvu glacier. Moving an hour up we saw two streams meeting. One stream emerged from a narrow valley south and the other more or less from west. This suggested the confluence of streams from Talung and Tongshiong glaciers respectively. Beyond their confluence we could also see, in spite of poor visibility, an old settled lateral moraine. We were definitely getting closer to our goal! We decided to camp near the confluence hoping the weather would improve next morning. And finally we were above tree line.
18 March, 2011:
Morning was gloomy and visibility worse. It seemed that it would soon start snowing. We packed and after crossing Tongshiong glacier stream, followed the river emerging from Talung glacier (Talung chu). We kept to its left and the going was easy. Soon we could see the snout of Talung glacier and found the moraines extremely stable. I was happily surprised with this ease of access we got and soon we were walking over its medial moraine. Claude White’s team in 1890 however had a much more difficult time here as they descended from our opposite direction. White describes, ‘...This glacier ends at an elevation of 12,100 ft in an ice cliff, from a cavern in which the Rungnu takes it rise, and here my worst difficulties began...Only one man could come at a time, along process, but it was eventually carried through without mishap.’ (p 58)
From the beginning of our expedition I was expecting to see and overcome this ice cliff. But we were to find none. It seems in past 121 years Talung glacier has receded a considerable distance and most probably the ice cliff is another victim of glacier melt down; a common phenomenon we see in all glaciers of Indian Himalaya these days.
The weather never improved throughout the day and soon we were forced to stop and pitch tents due to extremely poor visibility. The stable nature of the moraine helped us progress very well that day and I did not want to keep moving towards the head of the glacier. Heavy snow fall started in the evening and the next morning was possibly the best we ever had in this particular trip.
19 March 2011:
We found ourselves under the shadow of Pandim’s north face! From our camp on the medial moraine of Talung glacier that morning we saw Pandim (6691 m), the Guicha la (4940 m) ridge, Guicha Peak (6127 m), Kabru North (7338 m), Talung (7349 m), Talung saddle (6745 m) and Kangchenjunga South (8491 m). In fact we were proximal to the spur that divides Talung and Tongshiong glaciers, due south of a rock peak of 5684 m. I was keen to reach Yongiotak (also spelled Yongjotak) that day and we all hiked up towards the right lateral moraine of Talung glacier. Within an hour of climbing from our last night’s camp we reached Yongiotak temple. We celebrated our success. From here onwards we would have the luxury of having a trail over the Guicha la.
Yongiotak is a very sacred place for the Bhotias living in the Prek chu valley. For centuries they have toiled their way from Yoksum, over Guicha la and worshipped here at Yongiotak. On their way out many of them did not use the same Guicha la, but used another passage located higher and closer to Pandim. This circular journey would bring completion to high pilgrimage. This higher pass or the higher Guicha la is mentioned in H.W. Tilman’s book When Men and Mountains Meet. On p 322, Tilman writes about their accidental crossing of the higher Guicha la on their way down over the Zemu Gap - ‘...our misadventures were not over yet. We toiled up grass slopes for an unconscionable time until we had agreed we should have reached the pass. Casting about, we hit on a path and eventually reached the pass- but not the one we were aiming for, which must have been nearly a mile to our right. This one was the higher Guicha La at the foot of Pandim.’
Little did I know that day, that our fate was to be the same as Tilman’s expedition of 1938.
20-21 March, 2011:
The weather had turned hostile overnight. We left our camp at Yongiotak early in dense fog. As we climbed up towards the Guicha la ridge we stumbled upon a faint trail with cairns in places. We followed this trail up and after three hours of climbing when we still did not reach Guicha la the thought of the higher Guicha la came into my mind. At around 9 in the morning the sky cleared and we were now sure of our bearings. Another half hour of uphill climb and we reached the higher Guicha la. The wind was extremely strong that morning and both Thendup and I agreed that we have not experienced such strong winds at a lower altitude. I was assuming we were around 5100 m, whereas the lower Guicha la is 4940 m. We took some quick photos at the top of the pass and were delighted to see the Onglakthang valley. The descent to Zemathang took another hour and the same afternoon we reached Kokchurung. Next morning, we hiked all the way down to Yoksum.
Thus we succeeded in exploring and completing a journey across the unknown and undocumented areas of Rukel and Ronggyaong river catchments. It took us 11 days on the Talung side and just two days to cross the Guicha la divide and reach the road head of Yoksum. It is possible to make a trail in the Ronggyaoung-Rukel side. That will not only open up new adventure and mountaineering destinations but also will probably put an end to poaching.
‘I do not think this journey could be equalled throughout the world for its beauty and variety of scene, the magnificent gorges, with wonderful waterfalls tumbling down on all sides, the wild desolation of the higher snows, and the richness of colouring and dense vegetation lower down; every few miles bringing new beauties before one.’
In July, 1890, at the concluding page of his epic adventure J. Claude White wrote the above lines.
Northern flanks of Jopuno group. (Anindya Mukherjee)
Notes on names, spellings and pronunciations:
Army Corps of Engineers: US Army Map Service- Kangchenjunga-NG 45-3 Series U502
Selected Books and Articles:
This article is a tribute to John Claude White (1853-1918), the British Political Officer (1887-1908) to the State of Sikkim
An account of an expedition which explored the unknown valleys of Ronggyaong and Rukel chu.