Can you be in Sikkim, Bhutan and West Bengal at the same time? A visit to Richi la on the trijunction will enable you to do just that. The Pangolaka range defines the 33 km long boundary between Sikkim and Bhutan and meets West Bengal at Richi La. A part of this range and the Richi La can clearly be seen from most parts of Gangtok It is the last mountain on Gangtok’s horizon in the South Easterly Direction.
The best way to reach Richi La is from Aritar, close to Rhenock. Aritar is fast developing into a favourite tourist destination with Lam pokhari as its major attraction. But visitors coming here do not have much else to do. Therefore for those, with a liking for some adventure, the 15 kilometres trek having a moderate climb to Richi La from Aritar is worth including in the itinerary.
After an overnight halt at Aritar, we reach the border at Haticherey 2 kilometres away. It is 4.30 am when we alight from the vehicle and commence the trek. We will be ascending from Hathichere’s 5000 ft to Richi La at about 10000ft in 15 kilometres: a rather moderate climb. We have obtained permits from the Forest Department Counter at The Tourism Office at Gangtok on payment of nominal fees to enter the Pangolakha Wildlife Sanctuary. We are now in West Bengal.
On the hill opposite, we can see the lights of Pedong and on the left Lava. Slightly above the lights of Kalimpong gleam and in the background Darjeeling twinkles in the night sky. Soon dawn breaks and the beautiful vistas around us becomes visible. After two hours and a half, we are at MulKharga at 7,500 ft which marks the entry into the Pangolakha Wildlife Sanctuary. We have ascended about 2500 ft in altitude in 5 kilometres: a relatively stiff climb. The Forest Department of the Government of West Bengal has a Guard House here manned by a couple of their Forest Guards and it is here that we halt for about an hour for breakfast that we are carrying along with us.
We will now be trudging on a track that demarcates the Pangolakha Wild Life Sanctuary in Sikkim and Neora Wild Life Sanctuary in West Bengal. The path is lined mostly with maple, magnolia and oak trees. green foliage lighting up flowers in splashes of colours. Butterflies of many hues flash like living jewels dancing from flower to flower. Birdssernade us with an orchestra Cuckoo is the soprano and the woodpecker the drum. Such forests are tempting targets for poaching and illegal tree felling and we did not come across any signs of either.
The officers and staff of the Forest Department in charge of this Sanctuary seem to be doing a good job of maintaining it in such pristine condition. Sikkim is being plagued with an increasing population of vehicles leading to pollution. Such untouched areas, therefore, require to be fully protected to offset the concomitant emissions and reduce the carbon footprint.
After an hour we reach RamethyDara. The view from here is breathtaking. The area suddenly becomes bereft of any trees and gets replaced by “Maling” species of bamboo. We are now in Red Panda country. Although we do not see any of these creatures, I have an eerie feeling that our every move is being watched by them from their leafy hideouts. From RameteyDara the path runs for a further two kilometres on a stream bed that has been gouged into the terrain perhaps over the last few centuries.
A few kilometres ahead and the vegetation gets replaced by a thick forest of rhododendron trees. Having light red trunks, these trees soar almost 40 ft above the ground. The space between the trees is populated with ubiquitous ferns and maling bamboo. We are finally at the Richi La hut of the forest Department. It is a 20ft by 40 ft concrete structure with a tin roof and wooden bunks inside. A kitchen made of wood adjoins it. However, most of the planks of the kitchen have been stripped off and have apparently been used by visitors as firewood.
Sadly, the place is also littered with a lot of garbage – bottles, plastic wrappers etc. We feel that it is our moral duty to clean up this place of litter before we do anything else. We collect the garbage and burn it. The Government must have a mechanism in place to ensure that garbage in this pristine area is disposed of without harming the environment. It is understood most of the visitors coming here are from Bhutan. Perhaps putting up signages advising trekkers not to litter might help.
Just about 100 ft away from the hut is nestles a small lake Jorepokhari on the West Bengal side. Did Bhutanese forces cross Richi La three centuries ago to help Pedi Onmgu’s machinations to overthrow her half brotherChogyalChakdorNamgyal? There are no records to suggest the route they took but perhaps they came this way.
We are dog-tired and after an early dinner roll out our sleeping bags. But not everyone is heading to sleep – the nocturnal animals start trilling and clicking – but this is not disturbance and acts like a lullaby and puts us off to sleep.
The next day early morning we go to the actual trijunction which is about 500 metres away from the hut. It is a barren and rather nondescript spot with bushes growing all around – no landmark or plaque or pillar to indicate that we are at such a significant point. A cairn – a pile of stones with a small wooden stick is all that marks this place. Our altimeter reads 10450 ft. Dawn brings its share of spectacular sights. The eastern sky slowly lights up and the snow-clad peaks become crimson and then glistening white. As the sun rises, the crowns of smaller mountains are brightened up one by one and then slowly the probing rays enter the deepest of the valleys and the gorges revealing verdant forests soaked in hundreds of shades of green and sparkling white rivers.
From here we get a panoramic view of Sikkim. Opposite us is Pakyong, scarred by the upcoming airport strip. Further up Gangtok can clearly be discerned. On the Western border is the omnipresent Kanchendzonga range. Nathula, Jelepla and 17th Mile on the Eastern border of Sikkim with the Chomolhari peak in the background are all clearly visible. And in the South are the undulating hills of Bhutan and the Dooars. And far away below are the rolling plains of West Bengal. A few kilometres in the Easterly direction is a barren hilltop Pangolakha after which the entire range has been named glistening yellow in the sunlight.
The early morning sunlight seems to also activate the wildlife, especially the birds. Twittering and chirping loudly they dart from tree to tree foraging for food. An eagle rides a thermal air current and remains almost motionless in the air for a full minute and then suddenly the equations of the forces that are allowing it to hang like that change and it dives to land on a tree top.
Downhill we retrace the same path but after crossing Mulkharka we take a small detour and visit Phursey Lake. We skirt around its banks and then take the steep footpath down to Hathichere.
We are soon back at Aritar and then it is the journey back to Gangtok. It has been an exhilarating three-day getaway -visiting a different world, a different eco-system – so unlike the noisy and maddening one that we are used to.