Thursday, October 19, 2017

Camping in Yak country

We just returned from a trek to the Goechala pass in the Khangchendzonga national park in Sikkim. In a trek that packed so much goodness - breathtaking views of the Himalayas, exotic birds, an intense football game at 16k ft above sea level, night skies to kill for, fantastic crew and companions, the best camp food I’ve eaten - it would normally be hard to pick a favourite half hour, but strangely, in this one I can.

On the 6th morning of the trek we summited the highest point on the trail and returned to our campsite, Lamuney, which is in a narrow valley sandwiched between near-vertical rock faces on the west and a patch of shrub jungle and mountains on the east. Due north, the world’s third highest peak, Khangchendzonga towers over the campsite. A stream flows from the northern direction through the camp, and a walking trail runs right next to it. Our tents were pitched on either side of the walking path. Just after lunch-time, when most of us were napping in our tents we heard some commotion outside.
The crew were excited about a flock of Himalayan Blue Sheep approaching directly towards us. The reason for these shy animals walking uncharacteristically towards humans was directly behind them. The sheep were making way for a herd of Yaks that were headed in our direction too. When the blue sheep found themselves too close to us they waded off into the shrub jungle, but not before a few moments of indecision.

They started off as details on a magnificent backdrop but soon the herd of Yaks arrived within ten metres of our tents and filled the frame with their imposing bulk. After the initial excitement of getting to photograph them from such close range passed, we realised we were locked in a tie. The yaks were unsure about how to go past us and we had no idea how, or whether, to react. So we stood there staring at each other. The Alpha male in the herd tried to resolve the awkwardness with some territorial displays, such as kicking the earth, and head-bumping some nearby mound. The females were a little more on edge, probably because they were protective of their lone calf, which, oblivious to the inter-species standoff, was running around bullying the blue sheep. A tentative mock charge by one of the females reminded us we were firmly the underdogs in this equation. Only the confidence of our sherpas allowed us to stand there for as long as we did. Eventually we got into our tents trusting that the Yaks would go past our camp. Over the next tense couple of minutes we could sense the half-ton giants saunter past us, mere inches across the thin walls of our tents.

Over dinner that evening we couldn’t stop talking about our conference with the yaks. I guess the staring match had added to the adrenaline already released from that morning’s hike. It’s strange how the unanticipated moments in a travel are the ones that stick the hardest in one’s memory. And as unanticipated moments go, a yak face-off is as absurd as it gets.