Okhrey and Varsey – The Gems of West Sikkim
Travelling is a sweet bug which if gets inside someone’s head makes the person a nomad for life. And me being one of its victims keep escaping to some far-flung place in between breaking the shackles of a lethargic city life. So this time the places were Barsey (often called as Varsey) in West Sikkim and Ravangla and Namchi in South Sikkim. Like every other time, my travel partner was my husband and we decided to visit these places in the mid of April to escape the muggy Kolkata Summer for a few days and also to see the Rhododendrons at Barsey. I had read somewhere that travel and luxury do not go hand in hand and I found it very true especially when we travel more than once in a year and we do not have a group to share the cost with. So we planned it as a backpacking trip carrying the minimal things and travelling by shared vehicles wherever possible to keep the expenses within our budget. This was the 1st time we were going for some trekking and I was really exhilarated thinking about it.
Finally on the evening of 14th April, our journey started from Sealdah station by Darjeeling Mail. Our 1st destination was Okhrey and from there we had to move to Barsey. Ahhh Barsey!!!! Somehow the name of the place always puts me in a state of trance where the only things I can think of are the Rhododendrons and Kanchenjunga. The night passed with dreams of Barsey and the train came to a halt at 7:45 am at New Jal Paiguri station. We left by an auto to Payel Cinema in Siliguri and got a shared vehicle to Jorethang from there. The road to Jorethang was in horrible shape for a long stretch and in some places we were not even able to see what was in front of us due to dust. The ride was rough and it took us around 3 hours to reach Jorethang stand which was around 85 kilometers. We inquired about shared vehicles to Okhrey from the ticket counter and the man at the counter said that there were no shared vehicles at that time and we had to reserve one. But thanks to my instinct that told me to have a look around before going for a reserved vehicle. I found a service vehicle set to leave for Okhrey and when I inquired the driver agreed to take us in. The journey from Jorethang to Okhrey took around 3 hours with a stop of 45 minutes at Sombarey. As we approached Okhrey through the narrow meandering road, more and more red rhododendrons came in to sight.
It was around 3:30 pm when the driver stopped the vehicle in front of a two storey building and introduced it as the Sherpa Lodge. We were too tired due to the 6 hours journey and our grumbling stomachs constantly threatened us to stop the body movement in case we do not take some food immediately. So we checked in to the lodge, ordered the lunch and freshened up. Smoking hot lunch was ready and served in the balcony with an amazing view of the lofty mountains. But the hunger made us concentrate more on the food than the view and the hot food tasted ultra delicious in the cold weather especially when it was something we were having after keeping our stomachs empty for a long time. It was only after lunch that our eyes could notice the real beauty of the surrounding and we observed that Okhrey indeed was a place far more beautiful than we expected it to be. The afternoon looked dreamy with the blue sky with patches of white clouds in between and the distant blue hills seemed to be guarding some kingdom that I see in those Disney movies. In some time the sun started going down and we came out of the lodge to have a stroll around. The setting sun painted the clear blue sky with shades of grey and orange and we stood a while pleasing our eyes with the sunset vista and taking pictures. It was one of the most amazing sunsets I ever witnessed in my life and at that very moment my heart decided to come back to this place again whenever I get time. The evening was cold and we had to come back to our room for two hot cups of tea. With nightfall, the lights in the distant hills, the cool breeze and the starry sky created an enchanting effect and we sat in the balcony for hours enjoying the serenity.
People who travel to Barsey mostly use Okhrey for a night stay to break the long arduous journey and we did the same too. But we never heard anyone boasting of Okhrey as a travel destination and even many people do not know about it as they travel to Barsey directly without making a stop in between. But we felt lucky to have chosen it as a stop over as it is one of those less touristy places in Sikkim that provides majestic views and a tranquil atmosphere to loosen yourself. It is a place where you can watch many exotic birds and we spotted some too such as the Green-backed Tit which was seen abundantly. But unfortunately every time I tried to capture it in my camera, it flew away teasing me.
We had a little chat with Mr M.N Sherpa who is the owner of Sherpa lodge and he suggested us to visit the nearby monastery in the morning before visiting Barsey. I got up at 5am and came outside to see the sunrise, but the view was not very clear. Still Okhrey looked alluring in the early morning light and I just looked at it with awe for sometime. The birds as well as people of the place had already started their daily life and we too decided to visit the monastery after having two cups of hot tea. There is a steep set of steps that one needs to climb to reach the monastery. It was so tiring that we could not imagine of reaching the top after going halfway. But the views kept luring us and after a tough climb of almost half an hour we reached the monastery. The monastery was a small one, but it’s location was excellent as it provided 360 degree view of the surrounding hills. As per Mr Sherpa in case of clear weather one could even see the Kanchenjunga range from here. But that day the weather was cloudy and Kanchenjunga was no where to be seen. There were little monks busy with their work in the morning and one of the cute little monks was kind enough to open the monastery as we reached. We stayed in that place for a while and came back after clicking a few pics.
After having breakfast, we started for Hilley from where the trekking starts for Barsey base camp. Mr Sherpa was very kind to arrange a car for us and he let us keep some of our luggage at his lodge too. The journey to Hilley took around half an hour through the scenic serpentine road. The road passed through many Rhododendron trees laden with flowers, mostly red and white and in some places it provided a glimpse of the distant Barsey hills. It was a beautiful journey to remember and I wished it never ended. As we reached Hilley, we could see the weather getting clear gradually and the peaks of Kanchenjunga range were visible though not very clearly. We did not find anyone in the counter to obtain entry permit and no one was available in the nearby area to inquire too. It was a weekday and so there were no other tourists as well to accompany us inside the forest. As I read a board near the counter pictorially depicting the forest trail that contained a bear too, I was very scared to get in to the forest without a guide. But then we spotted a local guy near by who encouraged us to start moving and assured us that it was completely safe for the two of us to start the trek. When I passed the sanctuary gate to lay my foot in the forest, a strong silence greeted us that was both eerie and soothing. The only noise breaking the silence was the sound of our footsteps and the murmuring sound of some bees. The forest was dense and mostly consisted of bamboo, pine and huge Rhododendron trees. At some places the trees created such a dense cover that even sunlight could not penetrate it to reach the ground. The path was well laid with thick cover of trees at both sides and many of the trees were covered with moss that made the forest look like some place from those bollywood horror movies 😉 But only the two of us walking inside the beautiful forest listening to the the chirping of birds and enjoying its unparalleled beauty was an adventure in itself that we would remember all through our lives. The last one kilometer of the trek was a little steep in between, but apart from that it was kind of a leisurely walk on a fairly even ground. We spotted lots of Rhododendrons in the forest mostly dark pink, light pink and white, but the white ones were mostly in budding state. After 2 and half hours we reached the base camp of Barsey and by that time weather had become clear giving a clear view of the whole Kanchenjunga range. We had a glimpse of Kanchenjunga when we had visited Gangtok and Chhota Mangwa, but never could we see it with all its glory as the view was obscured by clouds every time. So we were awestruck when we spotted the ice topped peaks from such a close proximity standing like a tall white wall and for sometime our eyes simply denied to move away from this perdurable beauty.
There are two stay options at Barsey, one is the Trekker’s Hut known as Guras Kunj and other one is Forest Barrack set opposite each other and we had booking in Forest Barrack for the double bedded room. We dumped our bags and went to explore the area by the time lunch was ready. We walked towards the watch tower on the stony path and before we could reach the top it started raining and lightening. The place provided an amazing view of the whole forest with patches of rhododendrons in between and I wanted to sit there for long enjoying the surreal beauty. After lunch we strolled around the area clicking pics and admiring the resplendent surrounding.
As sun went down, Barsey turned in to a black lady with absolutely nothing being visible in the darkness as there is no power supply in that area. We had to spend the night in the light of candles and wished that the rain gods would be a little merciful to us so that we could see the sunrise the next morning. The temperature went down at night due to rain and I was literally shivering even after being dressed in winter wears adequately. The silence of the night was pierced by the sound of raindrops and the snoring of a man in the adjacent dormitory. At around 1 am we woke up to the loud sound of someone knocking on the outer door of the barrack. My heart was pounding heavily with fear and all those ghost stories I ever heard came to my mind in that very instant 😛 Thanks to God, it stopped after a while, but my scared mind did not let me sleep peacefully that night. It was 5 in the morning when I looked out of the window and was ecstatic to find the clear blue sky without clouds. We came out of the barrack when others were sound asleep and on opening the main door we found this cute dog who scared the hell out of me the previous night!!! Yes this guy slept so close to the door that his slight shake off would easily make the frail door sound. I cursed him inside my mind for ruining my sleep and went out to see Kanchenjunga at Sunrise. But alas!!!, the whole Kanchenjunga range was under the veil of the clouds where the rest of the sky was azure. We waited for the clouds to clear to have a glimpse of Kanchenjunga, but by the time it got clear, the sun had risen far above. However, the sight of the snow clad peaks basking in the morning sun was a sight to behold. We stood there for sometime with our eyes glued to the rare spectacle and thanked God for giving us the chance to see it.
The racing time reminded us it was time to leave and we left the place with content hearts and stomach full of Puri Sabji 🙂 The return journey took around one and half hours and this time the forest looked much familiar and friendly than the first time. As we walked through the forest we realized it is not only the rhododendrons that make this forest a special attraction, but this is the place where lost people like us come to find themselves, this is where a tired soul finds peace and this is where a stressed mind feels relieved. As we came down to Hilley, we found a person sitting in the permit counter. So we got the permits, had a last look at the forest and left for Okhrey. It was hard to leave such a magnificent place like this, but every journey ends so that a new one could begin. We were greeted by Mr Sherpa at Okhrey and with his help we got the last service vehicle from Okhrey to Jorethang. One part of the trip ended as we bid adieu to Okhrey, but then the other part had just begun and we were quite sure that mother nature would not disappoint us at our next destination.
If you are planning to visit Barsey these are a few points that could help you:
1. It is quite tiresome to trek to Barsey after an arduous journey of around 6 hours that too in the rough road conditions. So it is better to break the journey and stay overnight at Okhrey/Hilley and start the trek the next day. One of the accommodation options in Okhrey is the Sherpa Lodge run by Mr. M.N. Sherpa and family which provides decent accommodation at a good price. It provides panoramic view of the surrounding hills and at night you can see the twinkling lights of Darjeeling. The rooms are spacious, clean and bathroom has 24 hours hot water facility. The double rooms at Sherpa Lodge start at Rs 600 and triple rooms start at Rs 750. They also have dormitory which can be booked at a price of Rs 1200. This price does not include food. Mr. Sherpa is a very friendly and helpful person and you can contact him for arranging vehicle for Hilley, arranging guide/porter for Barsey trek or booking accomodation at Barsey.
2. A reserved vehicle from Siliuri to Okhrey/Hilley would cost you a fortune especially when you are not travelling in a big group. So it is better to break the journey in 2 parts as Siliguri to Jorethang and Jorethang to Okhrey/Hilley. If you reach Siliguri early, then there is a bus to Jorethang at 7:45 am that you can catch from the Tenzing Norgay bus terminus at Siliguri. Otherwise, there are shared jeeps available from Jorethang Stand in Siliguri near Payel Cinema and they charge Rs 170 per head. Siliguri to Jorethang by shared vehicle takes around 3 hours. Remember to carry masks as the road is too dusty and carry some kind of covers for your luggage bags as by the time you reach Jorethang, there would be a thick layer of dust on your bags. Also carry vomiting medicines as the rough ride could give you a bad time.
3. Carry original id proof such as Voter Id/Driving License/Passport that contains your address which will be required at the check post on the way to Jorethang. Note that PAN Card will not be considered as it does not have your address.
4. If you reach Jorethang by 12:30 pm, then you can get a shared vehicle to Okhrey which costs Rs 100 per head. Otherwise you have to reserve a vehicle that could cost Rs 1200-1500. Also, while coming back, if you start early from Okhrey early, then you can get a service vehicle to Jorethang on shared basis. The last service vehicle leaves at 9am. Otherwise, you can reserve a small car till Sombarey which costs around Rs 500 and then catch a shared vehicle from Sombarey to Jorethang that should not cost more than Rs 100. Jorethang to Okhrey takes around 2 and half hours for the 60 odd kilometers.
5. Hilley is one of the entry points to the Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary from where you can start the trek. Okhrey to Hilley is around 11 kms that takes half an hour by car and a small car costs around Rs 500 to 600. You have to reserve a vehicle for this as there are no shared vehicles in this route. Also, while coming back from Barsey, you need to pre-book the vehicle to pick you from Hilley as there will be nothing available there. Mr. Sherpa arranged the vehicle us as we informed him before leaving Barsey.
6. Entry permit to the sanctuary costs Rs 50 per head for adults on a per day basis. Still camera charge is Rs 20.
7. Trek through the sanctuary covers 4.5 kilometers and takes on an average of 3 hours. It is a soft trek mostly through the plain path except the last 1 and half kilometers which is a little steep. So any beginner interested in trekking can try this out. The forest is safe and the well laid path does not require any guide. But if you want to know more about the various flora and fauna, then you can take a local guide with you. If you are lucky, you might spot Red Panda inside the sanctuary. Carry lots of water for the trek as you are definitely going to need it.
8. Barsey has only 2 accommodation options, Guras Kunj and Forest Barrack both having very basic facilities. If you go for look and feel, yes I would say Guras Kunj is better. But as many of the people do not know about forest barrack, Guras Kunj gets booked very early and the booking itself is a big challenge. We stayed in Forest Barrack and found it pretty okay for one or two nights stay. But if you want to book the double room with attached toilet in Guras Kunj, make your bookings at least 3 months earlier in the peak season. Also, if you want tranquility and isolation, try to avoid the holidays and weekends. Then you can easily get the accomodation even without prior booking.
Guras Kunj is a two storey wooden hut which has one dormitory in the 1st floor that can accommodate 16-20 people. There is no bed available in the dormitory and people are provided bed rolls to sleep on the bare wooden floor. It also has 2 rooms in the ground floor with beds that can accommodate 2 people each and they share the same toilet with the dormitory. There is one double bed room with attached toilet that costs Rs 2200 for two people inclusive of food and it is quite spacious and good. The other two rooms as well as dormitory are charged Rs 800 per head including food. Apart from this, they also set up tents in the lawn when there are more tourists in peak season and a tent for 2 people costs Rs 1800 including food.
Forest Barrack has 3 rooms (can accommodate 2 people each) and one dormitory (can accommodate 8 people). One of the rooms has an attached toilet and for others there are 2 shared toilets outside. The double bedded room with attached toilet costs Rs 1600 for 2 people including food. Even though I am not sure about the cost per person for other rooms, I heard some people staying in the dormitory discussing to have given Rs 800 per person including food.
We had booked Forest Barrack through Mr M.N. Sherpa of Okhrey Sherpa Lodge as there were some confusions regarding Guras Kunj booking. So you can either contact him for booking or contact Endeavour Tours in Kolkata for booking. But for Endeavour Tours, you need to go to their office for booking as they are not very responsive on phone or email. Also, for Guras Kunj you can make the booking from Sikkim Tourist Information Centre in Kolkata. Contact details below.
a) Mr. M.N. Sherpa : 09735975880
b) Endeavour Tours
Contact Person : S.K. Bhaumik (Proprietor) (Rtd.) O.S.D. Sikkim Tourism, Kolkata
Address : 1, Indra Roy Road, Bhowanipur, Kolkata-700025.W.B., and India
Phone : (033) 2486 0583
Mob. No. : (0) 98364 64632 / (0) 98311 07246
Email ID : firstname.lastname@example.org / email@example.com
Alternate Email : firstname.lastname@example.org
Mobile Phone : (+91) 98141-87540
c) Sikkim Tourist Information Centre,
4/1, Middleton Street,
9. Barsey has very limited signal strength for mobiles, but there are some points where signal comes to make a call. You can ask the caretaker and he would be able to help you in that.
10. There is no power supply in Barsey and Guras Kunj has a generator that the caretaker used to start in the evening which supplied power to both Guras Kunj and Forest Barrack. But it seems now-a-days they have stopped using the generator as it is getting difficult for them to carry the fuel from Hilley every time. So you have to spend the night at Barsey in the light of candles. That is why Torch with extra batteries would be something that should be at the top of your checklist when you visit Barsey. Also, fully charge your cameras before going to Barsey along with extra batteries and portable chargers in case you have one. Because the place is so beautiful that you would never be able to refrain yourself from clicking hundreds of pictures.
11. Carry enough winter wears including jackets/sweaters, gloves, scarves, socks and a pair of thermals. Because in April the place was quite cold and in case it rains the temperature even drops making the place chilling cold.
12. At Barsey, there are mainly two places you can visit, one is the watch tower which is actually a hilltop that provides great views of the forest and the other one is Guras Tal. Watch tower is half an hour walk through the stony path and a steep set of steps towards the right side of Guras Kunj whereas Guras Tal is around 4.5 kilometers. We did not go to Guras Tal as we did not want to get more tired. But some of my friends who visited before had gone there and that place is just another adventurous path through the raw forest where you could spot lots of Rhododendrons. But it is less travelled and I would suggest going there only when you are in a group.
13. Barsey is beautiful and can be visited any time of the year except the rains and the snowfall time. But if you are keen on seeing the Rhododendrons, then the official flowering time is April and May. However, the most suitable time as per the locals is from March last week to 1st week of April. Even though flowers bloom every year, but there is a mega bloom in every three years where the whole forest turns in to a riot of colors. There was a mega bloom in 2010 and the last one was in 2013, so the next one is expected to be in 2016.
14. It takes around 1 and half hours to 2 hours to trek back to the sanctuary gate in Hilley. So it is possible to go to Barsey and come back on the same day. But if you want to feel the serenity of the place and witness the enthralling sunrise over the mighty Himalayas, then I would suggest an overnight stay.