A walk among the riot of blossoms at Sikkim’s Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary.

Sarikah Atreya

Picture this. You wake up in the morning to be greeted by the lively chirping of birds and sunlight piercing through the mist. You step outside the tent, take in a lungful of fresh mountain air and survey the surroundings. You are engulfed in cool mist and, even as you try adjusting your eyes to the enveloping fog, the clouds part suddenly and a burst of bright crimson catches your eye. As the mist clears, you are treated to a riot of colours. The rhododendrons are in full bloom and each tree is decked in beautiful red, pink or yellow blossoms. It is enough to fill one with exhilaration.

This is the promise of the Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary. The sanctuary is a popular yet offbeat trekking destination in Sikkim and offers an experience of a lifetime. And the best time to visit is when the rhododendrons bloom, around March-April.

Situated in western Sikkim in the Singalila Range, the 104 sq km sanctuary is also every botanist’s dream come true. The place is dedicated to the protection of nearly 40 species of rhododendrons. Situated at an elevation ranging from 6,300 ft to 12,000 ft, the region’s wet and cold climate favours the growth of rhododendrons. There are also many species of primulas, magnolias, oaks and pines. The place is also home to the Red Panda, Barking Deer and Black Bear.

Given the high altitude, it is not an easy trek. For the less adventurous, there is an alternative trekking route which can be done in a day. The most popular entry for visitors on a day’s trip is from Hilley, a small settlement on the southwest. A motorable road from Soreng (38 km) or Sombaria (28 km) in West District leads right up to Hilley, from where the sanctuary is an easy 4-km trek passing through beautiful alpine forests decked with rhododendron trees. Visitors can also stay at small lodges at Hilley. From Barsey one can take a more adventurous trek route to Sandhukphu and Phalut in Darjeeling via Gorkhey.

The 12-km trekking route from Soreng (5,500 ft) is arduous but provides you with awe-inspiring landscapes, a magnificent view of the Khangchendzonga range and changing vegetation as you gain height.

The trek starts from the Soreng Bazar, a small town situated on the foot of the Singalila Range. It is a steep climb and best attempted early morning, after a night’s halt at Soreng. A footpath leads right up to your destination, so the chances of getting lost are rare. But do remember to carry along enough drinking water.

The trail snakes through dense primitive forest, and a few settlements with paddy fields and vegetable gardens. About 3 km into the trek, you come across an old monastery located on a small hillock. From here, you pass through vast areas of paddy fields. An hour or so into the trek, you start the steady climb uphill, with the landscape changing at every bend and nook. As you gain height, you are greeted by a beautiful view of the surrounding hills of Darjeeling and the Khangchendzonga range. The only sounds are those of the birds chirping merrily in the thick foliage and your own heavy breathing. Resting sheds have been built at a number of places.

Halfway through the trail, you notice specks of crimson dotting the lush green hills. Soon you are walking under a thick canopy of undergrowth and rhododendron blossoms. The vast, unexplored forest is serene and enchanting. It can take about three to six hours to reach the trekker’s hut at Barsey — your halt for the night.

The ‘Gurash Kunj’ or trekker’s hut is perched on the hilltop, commanding a magnificent view of the lush-green Singalila Range against a backdrop of Mount Khangchendzonga. The double-storied hut, run by a private concern, provides food, rooms and dormitory facility for trekkers. If you bring your tents along, you can camp within the premises.

If weather permits, you can enjoy a glorious sunrise from Barsey Top, a small hilltop about half-an-hour away. During the peak season March-April, the entire hill is covered with rhododendron blossoms, turning whole hillsides red and pink.

Fact file

Getting there: Gangtok-Jorethang-Soreng (by road)

Trek from Soreng to Barsey (12 km)

Gangtok-Jorethang-Soreng-Sombaria-Hilley (by road)

Trek from Hilley to Barsey (4 km)

Travel gear: Heavy woollens, snow shoes, gloves, caps and sleeping bags during winter months; light woollens during the rhododendron blossom months — remember to carry raincoats and umbrellas.

Accommodation: For bookings at Trekker’s Hut, contact a local travel agent or A. Paul (98320-05703, 97330-65937).

Best time: The upper ridges in the sanctuary receive regular snowfall during winter between December and February. The best time to visit is between March and April.

During October and November the skies remain clear, providing best mountain views.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated January 11, 2008)
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