West Guru Rinpoche Cave of Sikkim

And I thought I would die in the mountain this time…

We only had less than a week’s time in Sikkim so took off shortly after arriving at Gangtok.

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First was taking the shared jeep to Geyzing, then to Namboo which was said to be the closest village to the West Guru Rinpoche Cave. Shared jeep is the main public transportation around Sikkim, with high chassis to pass through rocky roads and seasoned local drivers for the windy mountain trails. It is also super cost effective — only 300 Rs per seat for this 5 hour journey. We paid 3 seats for two of us so that we only need to sit with one more person in the row (otherwise usually they squeezed 4 persons per row). On the other hand, there is no guarantee for the desired space. As long as people want to join the ride, sometimes even half way on the road, the drivers would always try to fit in as many people as possible. Therefore, 4-5 passengers per row is common. I even saw 6 adults squeezing in a row once (or stacked one on another, I should say).

In Geyzing bus station, we found that the road (simply dirt road, not the proper roads you would imagine in developed countries) now goes to a village named Thingle which is even closer to the West Cave.

So we managed to find a shared jeep to Thingle. (Lesson 1: no plan is the best plan in this par of the world. Lesson 2: keep asking the locals. Lesson 3: accumulate merits as much as you can and pray for things to unfold smoothly without obstacles.) That was quite fortunate as there are probably not many vehicles commuting to that small village and this one happened to be waiting for some Thingle people to return to the car after finishing their town errands.  

The driver loaded our luggage to the top (the above picture) and, after learning that we had not had our lunch yet, told us to have a quick meal nearby while he waited for the rest of the passengers. (That is another phenomena here. People are very trustworthy. We often left our luggage around–sometimes just lined up by the road, asked a grocery shop owner or fellow passengers waiting for cars to keep an eye, then went into a restaurant for meals.)

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I was told the journey to Thingle should be 2.5 hours. There were 4 passengers per row in the jeep, including the front row (and guess which one was driving the car?) We got the last two seats on the last row — definitely the bumpiest seats, but probably with slightly spacious leg room, except you have to climb in from a small side door.

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After two hours, in this small village named Darab, we were told to get out of the jeep for tea or a walk because they need to drive the jeep to another place for gas.

What I never figured out was who drove the jeep away as apparently the driver was having tea (and momos) with us in that tea place. 

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Anyway, the jeep did come back. We were back on the road, and shortly after that, a tire went flat here.

(Yes, those were four layers of eggs on the hood, tied to the two wipers. Despite they shifted from the center to the side at this point, they actually survived the trip, unlike that rear tire…)

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The driver must know his car really well. With all the passengers and goods it carried, he decided to drive a few miles further to stop by this bridge to change tire.

Unfortunately, the spare tire did not work somehow. We spent quite a long time there, with some drama from a young local couple of passengers holding their baby – both parents were so  drunk, especially the mother, who could hardly walk without tumbling down.

Finally before it was going to get dark, another jeep passed by and we managed to proceed with  a borrowed spare tire.

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So this is Thingle. This is the main road for the jeep.

Our driver found us a local to serve as pilgrimage guide. And his house is like 50 meter down from the left – literally vertically down.

It was raining and we walked down this steep slope with our luggage… a deja-vu like the trip to the North Cave, except that time we were walking uphill.

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(From the map, Thingle is very close to another pilgrimage site Yuksom, probably just over a mountain. Further northeast is Labdang the village where we stayed for two nights when visiting the North Cave. )

The house of our guide was quite small. He, his wife and daughter offered the only bedroom for us guests. On that day there was a young lama from Mindroling Monastery who just visited the West Cave and still stayed with them, so three of us stayed in this bedroom.

Lama was very lucky. That day was a mostly cloudy day. According to West-Sikkim weather forecast, the following days would be all rainy days. (Although I only saw that West Sikkim weather once. Other times iPhone only found Darjeeling weather as “nearby" with similar verdicts.)

I was too tired to think of the weather. After some simple food provided by the family (rice, fried potatoes and dal), we all went to bed. The sleeping bags we borrowed from Chorten monks were quite thin so I topped it with a thick blanket from the family. The guide said we should leave at 6am the next day.

***

Next day it was indeed raining. I thought of giving up as I clearly remember how harsh it can be by going into the mountains in the wrong season from the North Cave trip. Nevertheless, the guide thought we can make it and my friend also thought so. (Now I know the guide was using Mindroling monk as measurement although he let the monk take off at 7am that day.)

The young monk took 4.5 hours to go up to the Cave and 3 hours to come down so he did a day trip. However, he was from Nepal so he probably walked almost as fast as the locals. That means I would need double time and better stay a night up there to ensure we have enough time in the cave. But the guide also thought we can make it without a night up.

It kept drizzling. I was the one who initiated the trip so could not insist we drop it. While we were packing, I kept hoping the other two guys would change their mind, but they did not… Or maybe the guide know the weather here, he know the rain will stop shortly?

So we took off.

 

We went up that steep trail back to the main road. Then went up an even steeper trail though the crops of the next family up the hill, then through the crops of another family uphill. After 10 minutes of my “breathless" journey (for him it was probably a stroll in the garden), the guide quickly decided to send back my friend for packing our sleeping bags.

(Of course I had not been fit for some time, but for any city dweller, to go through the trails where you thought only goats would tread on, at an altitude of 1780m and keeping going higher, I am sure most people would need some time to recover the breath every now and then.)

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So the guide brought me walking further through more families’  crops to this family. (Yes, we walked from the crop at the left and there was always another family higher along the slope.) He left me at their kitchen and went back home to pickup my friend and our sleeping bags.

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The hospitable host offered me a mug of hot water — freshly boiled from the fireplace, with the unique smoke flavor of firewood.

When the guide came back, he arranged for a porter and a bamboo weaved bucket, stuffed with our sleeping bags, covered with some cut-open plastic bag atop. That was such a multipurpose useful thing to have. You take a huge garbage bag, cut it open and turned it into a water-proof sheet. We got distributed one each. Tie it around your neck, then it becomes a rain coat. Somehow this batch of bags are all green. So we were all walking in the mountain like big green flies. (You can see that bucket and green sheet at the left of the above picture.)

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So four of us (the guide, the porter, my friend and myself) kept walking up through various families’ property uphill in the rain, until we reached this family — they also run the only grocery shop in this village.

We bought a full box of instant noodles (my favorite brand YY, yeah!) and some cookies.

Why do we need a full box? I did not think we need so many (30+?) for just two days. My friend said there is a lama living alone by the cave so we should bring him some necessities since we are going up. (That is a great quality of this friend. He always thinks of helping others. My mind is usually only centered around my stomach.)

7:50am, finally packed with all necessities and formally began our journey.

 

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Within an hour, we had climbed over 600 meters of altitude. (If I were not there, they probably would have done so within half an hour.) I continued my special way of walking – breathless,  with a short stop every 5 steps, while getting worried of having altitude sickness.

Though it has never been a real problem for me, I still recall how my guide in Lhasa warned me to stay put on the first day for acclimatization–even taking a shower was forbidden. And here I am, no time for acclimatization at all, but a constant physical stretch. 

Every time when I was out of breath, the face of that Indian man in the Everest documentary would surface. He suffered an acute altitude sickness, with a swollen brain, lying by the trail. No one passing by could help him as everyone was only able to manage one’s own survival. So he just lied there, waiting for death.

 

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This was my green fly costume.

I resisted putting it on for quite some time until the rainfall became too heavy and my yoga pants was about to get very wet —yes, yoga pants. I was told that India would be very warm in this season so I did not even have a sweater. Only some light weight t-shirts for Southern Californian weathers.

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And not only did the rain not seem to be stopping any soon, but it went worse and worse.

After the altitude passing 2200m, with the declining temperature, what fell from the sky was not raindrops any more, but hails.

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At first it was amusing. But when these endless heaven-sent ice started to make your hands really hurt, not amusing anymore.

 

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10:30am, after walking for 4 hours, we arrived at a half-way stop.

This is a rest hut for local farmers who do seasonal trail maintenance works. Our guide should be one of them on a normal day, except that day he was taking care of us.

He used the public oil, salt, and vegetables(!) and started cooking the instant noodles we brought along. Added two fresh eggs we got from the tea family, it became a luxury meal in the middle of no where. He must be a pretty good cook.

 

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After lunch, we kept on walking in the hails.

Before long, the guide told us he had to rush up to the cave area with the porter. They must collect firewood before it gets too wet, otherwise we might not be able to make a fire. So my friend was left to watch over the slow walking me and make sure I do not get lost – I know how silly it sounds. But whenever these people say, “There is only one way, you just keep walking," somehow in every corner the trail would always look like leading to multiple directions than being “only one way."

 

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The higher we got, the more hails accumulated on the ground.

This was 12:50, altitude of 2900m.

And it was freezing cold.

 

When being above altitude of 3000m, it started snow heavily. No more tiny hails, but snowflakes flying with winds going at all directions.

About 1 something,  I was exhausted. The guide returned. They had collected the firewood, made a fire, and boiled some hot water. He brought us a thermo of hot water. (They are just amazingly nice and kind people!)

And he said, we had to rush because the weather was going to turn bad. (And I thought it was bad enough!)

You should always trust people living in the mountains when they talk about weathers. Within 5 minutes of his words, a strong storm started. Wild winds, heavy snow, we can barely see anything beyond a couple of meters! 

 

Here I was, cold and exhausted.

Although I had put on all the clothes I had, which consist of a Uniqlo heat-tech underwear, a thin long sleeves T-shirt, a short-sleeve T, Uniqlo ultra light down vest, my all-year-round in-flight fleece jacket and the Columbia rain jacket borrowed from my friend, they were surely not enough. (And big thanks to the dharma brother who arrived at Puruwala earlier warned me it would be cold there at night, otherwise I would not even have that down vest with me. Although it was indeed ultra light, just barely thicker than a piece of paper…) The wind and snow blew through my yoga pants (yes, they are supposedly to be breathable for hot yoga) and my socks were also half wet (having said that, I would still vote for Timberland boots. it could have been much worse.)

And all of a sudden, a very strong belief arose: only if I could sleep by the road for a short while, I would become very warm and settled then.

That was such a non-sense fantasy, but somehow I really clung to it and firmly believed it.

Probably everyone died in a mountain snowstorm had held that thought before death.

So after each step, I would tell the two guys in front, “Why don’t you go ahead? I’ll follow slowly…" (Actually what I really meant was you guys go ahead, I just want to sleep here…)

Since the weather was really bad and so was the visibility, they two were very determined in not letting me stay behind, and waited for me at my halt after each step.

Eventually I thought I had to keep moving up as I could not drag these two guys dying in the storm with me…

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And then we had to walk through very narrow paths along the cliff, like only 1/3 width of the path in the above picture. Ain’t I happy that the guide came back for us? It would be truly risky to try to make it by ourselves.

 

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2pm, finally we arrived, with all the blessings from buddhas and bodhisattvas!
Nub Dechen Phug, at an altitude of 3200m.

 

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The actual cave was further up. Our guide brought us to this shelter right below the cave. This was where we were going to spend the night.

 

When I approached close enough to actually see the “house", I was utterly speechless.

First of all, the “door" was only the door frame you saw on the right of the picture.

A door without door, how zen…

The entrance to the “door" was a few stones stacked up, right by the cliff together with the “door", where with one slip, one can go down directly for a rapid entrance to the next life.

And after entering the “door", the “house"was completely open to the valley, no wall at all.

On top of it, half of the roof collapsed already, with only a few wooden beam barely supported the structure called roof. It would be really romantic to sleep here while gazing the Milky Way in the summer sky—but not in a storm!!

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I sat by the fire to get myself a bit warmer. My hands were really red, swollen and hurting.

With all the breathless “walk", my heart beat was at a mere 61. Must have been in some hibernation mode by then.

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The lovely “door".

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The  advantage of having not wall in front was that you get a great view, and very fresh air… and every breath of mother nature.

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To the other side of the shelter, this little green hut below was the toilet.

When I realized that, in order to pee, I had to walk another 100m down, I really felt like crying…

Within these 2 hours, there was already over 5-6 inch of snow covering everything. I can hardly see where to put my feet for walking down. And someone insisted I had to go there to pee…

 

With all these heavy snow, I really had no idea how we can go down the next day.

Very diligently I did a Guru Rinpoche tsog, and praye to all the dharma protectors I can think of…

And the storm just got stronger and stronger, even lightening and thunders joined.

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Around 5:30pm, the guide said we better started cooking dinner before it gets dark. (Of course, there was no electricity there. Even all our portable power packs were frozen to death and stopped working at all. )

Our porter by the fire was really cute. He said, “Well, with all these snows, it will be as bright later. You will not be able to tell the difference between day or night…"

Having said that, he still went nicely to somewhere even further than the toilet to fetch some water for cooking the noodles.

After dinner, 6pm, bed time.  

 

Before the guide went on sleeping, he took my bamboo staff cleaning away the snow fallen on those beams without roof. There must have been over 12 inches of snow on the beams then. I sincerely prayed that the quickly accumulating snow on our side would not make the remaining roof collapse on us at night.

In the house, there were some pieces of public foam pads and thin weaving cotton rags. We put the foam pads over the ground, then our sleeping bags and covered with the cotton rag.

The sleeping bag was so thing, even with all my clothes and fleece jacket inside, I can still feel the cold air invading my lower back—no matter which side I turned, except the shavasana (corpse) pose, but then I cannot bend my legs so the legs would become cold. And once I lied on my back flat, I could not keep my arms straight because then my hands would be freezing. So most of the time I slept with my hands crossed at my chest, exactly how people were put inside a coffin.

So I was in my coffin posture, extremely cold, so cold that I would wake up every hour, watched my watch, lamented how slow the time had passed and tried to sleep again, while praying I would live through the night and the roof would not collapse on us.

My friend on the other hand, slept like a baby, judging by the sound of his snores. Somehow in his impression though, I was the snorting one and he was the one who woke up every hour. (The only few times he did not hear my snores, he would feel so worried that he had to put his fingers under my nose to ensure that I was still breathing and did not pass away in my sleep due to altitude sickness.)

 

Midnight, I got up once to answer the usual call of nature. The snow stopped. And indeed as what the porter said, it was bright; the moon and stars shown peacefully, everything was even brighter than the earlier storm time.

Went back to my freezing shivering attempt to sleep, kept consoling myself that if the guide and the porter can survive, I surely can—they don’t even have sleeping bags!

 

4am, the porter got up first. (Probably it was too cold for him too?)

After he made a fire, we all got up.

(And I finally figured out how they managed to sleep last night. They used that almighty cut-open plastic bag which served earlier as raincoat and later as a sleeping wrap. How smart!)

 

5:30am, the moon was still high in the sky. As in the night, it was bright.
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The greatest thing was: it was a sunny day!

Although I still had no idea how to get myself out of the mountain, at least there was a glimpse of hope, unlike the day before.

Words cannot describe my gratitude to Guru Rinpoche and all the dharma protectors…(in tears) 

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5:50am, the sun rose.
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On the cliff to the right of the house was the residence of the lama who lived here. Before him, there was a senior nun living here all alone. She passed away three years ago. Then this monk came. They must be amazing practitioners, to live in such remote places all alone. Yesterday we could see some blue textiles in front of his hut, but now we could barely see the place with all the snow.

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6:50am, the visibility turned better. The guide told us to go to the cave first to do our things, then come down for breakfast and packing.

First time hiking in snow, at first I was not sure where to put my feet. There was no way to tell whether you would step inside the snow or on a rolling stone and going together with the stone…but actually the powdery fresh snow made the path smoother and hence easier to walk on.

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Except that the path to the cave was quite steep, I often relied on the guide to give me a hand.

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Where we came from—looking back was always beautiful! (Both photos plagiarized from my friend’s phone)

I prayed that we could get down the mountain before the trail becomes icy. I remembered how slippery the roads could be when living in Munich. I could barely manage walking on properly paved pedestrians. I definitely do not want to try my luck on this 10000ft mountain.

 

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The entrance to the cave was these 2 logs bridging these two cliffs.

Good that it was covered by snow, otherwise I might feel even more frightened to walk on it in the mid air.

 

 

West Guru Rinpoche Cave

It is a relatively spacious cave facing the valley.

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We did our practices and asked the guide to help hanging up the prayer flags.

I did not understand why my friend was holding a metal cooking pot to the cave. It turned out to carry some burning firewood for making sang offering.

 

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The cave was very deep. Passing by the Guru Rinpoche statue, you can continue to walk inside until reaching a very narrow point, where you had to kneeled down to crawl further—with a long slate of 20 cm high right between your legs. No better way to show your surrender.

Then you would reach a slightly wider area, seeing the 2nd Guru Rinpoche statue and this one blocked the way to go further.
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But looking further, there was a 3rd Guru Rinpoche statue behind the 2nd one, so I believe the cave extended much further.

It was said that these four Guru Rinpoche Caves at the four cardinal directions of Tashiding are all connected to Tashiding.

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The guide was super patient. We spent 2.5 hours in the cave.

My friend brought along this big Guru Rinpoche Prayer book that Sogyal Rinpoche gave him in Puruwala and he must have read all the prayers inside, while I was feeling hungry and also worried about not being able to get out of the mountain in time. Praise Padmasambhava, finally he completed everything at 9:30am.

The consequence of the delay was, when we got back to the shelter, the guide advised us to skip breakfast and set out to leave asap. So we quickly packed and at the same time asked the porter to sent our offerings to the lama.

The porter came back and reported that, Lama said, the storm yesterday was the largest snow this year—meaning winter was better than this. How fortunate I was!

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That was certainly a brilliant decision by the guide. Within an hour, after passing the section where I seriously wanted to sit by the road and die, the mountain top was again covered in storm. We could have been stuck up there if we left half an hour later.

 

Sometimes the guide also needed to cut out a passage in the thick woods.

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While the storm continued howling in the mountain top, hail and rain continued to bless us along the way down.

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A cute puppy greeted us on the half way. We fed him all our crackers.

Then we were back to the half-way house. Since the weather was bad, all workers left and they sealed the entrance with a long wood board. We got in from the gaps and had our brunch. I was too hungry and tired to take any photos at this point.

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Continued walking down the mountain.

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For a second I really thought turtles in Sikkim could climb bamboos.
An weariness induced illusion.

 

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Finally back to the farm areas, again walking across the crops, but soon to be home.

(The right photo above was very close to the house of our guide already, down from the rock I laid my hand on to the rock I stood on… every resident in this area can make a good kungfu practitioner)

 

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It says 5 Km, plus about 2 Km in the crops, but a mobile App recorded a total 9 Km on the day up. From an altitude of 1780m to 3200m, we climbed up 1400m within a few hours, in the mountain range right next to the Sikkim-Nepal border.

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From the raining bamboo groves, to the hailstorm woods, to the strong snowstorm on mountain top… fortunately we got that few hours of sun to allow us walking out of the storms.

We moved to Tashiding shortly after back to Thingle. People said the whole region experienced unusually harsh weather during those two days. Darjeeling was having the largest snowstorm in the past six years and many tourists got stuck in the mountain. So we were really very lucky.

That was Mach 18, 2017 (the 21st day of the 1st month in Tibetan calendar), the 124th parinirvana anniversary of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo.

Sarva Mangalam.

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