“You are too early to see Gurash in full bloom”, claimed Sonam, the Royal Barsey Homestay owner. We were her only guests for dinner that night and she tried to dissuade me from visiting the Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary the next morning. “Go to other places nearby. Visit the monastery or the waterfalls. There is not much Gurash blooming any way (gurash being rhododendron in the local language). Why do you want to drag a baby there?” I looked outside the window and saw rhododendron blooming riotously all over the village of Okhrey. Her persuasion thus came across as very odd to me and I secretly believed that she just wanted to spend time with baby Akash. Sonam and Akash clicked as two peas in a pod from the very first moment of our arrival and she would do her chores carrying him around in her hip. She cooed sweet nothings in his baby ears, sang him lullabies, and often gave delicious titbits from her kitchen. Akash being a foodie like his mum, it was perhaps the last part that sealed the deal.
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Leaving Okhrey for Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary
I, however, kept insisting until she relented and we planned to leave for Hilley the next morning at eight. Unable to change my mind, Sonam decided to do the guiding herself and I was surprised to know that she was a trained guide with a degree in Botany. The next morning, the Okhrey sky dawned grey and gloomy. It was also very cold, but then Sikkim is known to be a wet, moist state with unpredictable weather. Despite having second thoughts, I went ahead with the plan, packed Akash in warm clothes, and went to meet our hostess/guide. An early riser, Sonam by then had already finished her morning tasks left the rest of the chores of the homestay on her teenage boys and had her husband ready to drive us to Hilley, which was one of the entry points of the Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary. The drive to Hilley went through a few hamlets, past strings of local school children and lots of flowering rhododendron trees. You can imagine how my expectations soared when throughout the short drive, all I saw were masses of dark pink, light pink, red, and white gurash blooming abundantly at every turn.
Where are all the flowers gone?
Reality came as a rude shock at Hilley, which is, by the way, the last motorable point before the Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary officially began. Being at a higher altitude, it was much colder there and most of the gurash trees were covered with pointy tightly closed buds. Hardly any tree bore flowers and some buds even had ice daubed on them. Suddenly, Sonam’s protests made a lot of sense and I understood that we were too early to see rhododendrons blooming at Barsey in full glory. The weather needed to get warmer for the famous lush flowering to occur there. Okhrey being at a lower altitude had trees full of flowers and I left that to climb higher to witness the same thing.
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Hailstorms at Hilley, the starting point for Barsey
I was mussing over the irony of the situation when big fat hail pelted from the sky. We rushed back to the car, which was by now filled with Sonam’s acquaintances and waited for the sky to clear. The local ladies gushed over Akash, coddled him, and while his mum sat scowling, he lapped up the attention happily. The hail stopped with the clearing of the sky and in the horizon, we could see the snow-white Mount Kanchendzonga. That was one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen and made the drive to Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary worthwhile.
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The “Sleeping Buddha” awoke after the hailstorm
After the sky cleared, I decided to enter the sanctuary for a walk. It is locally believed that “To be in the Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary in Sikkim is to be in the shadow of Mount Kanchendzonga. From amid the gorgeous flowers, and the birds and the bees, you live for a short while under the benevolent gaze of the “Sleeping Buddha”. The Kanchendzonga is called the Sleeping Buddha by the locals and that morning it indeed looked down upon us in a most radiant way. An eerie silence enveloped me, the moment I entered the forest. It was a soft, hushed silence which was broken only by sounds of dripping water and occasional bird calls. The hail storm kept most people away from the sanctuary and I passed no one during my walk.
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This is what Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary looks like
Now that was a kind of silence which gave me goosebumps and my mind kept running to my baby who was happily being minded by Sonam at the gate. We decided that it was perhaps best for him to not leave the prospect of shelter, in case there was another rain or hailstorm. So, he stayed back near the car with Sonam and her friends, while his mum walked through the Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary alone. To say that the forest inside the sanctuary was dense would be an understatement because at places the trees grew so close that the light almost became too dim. Consisting mainly of bamboo, pine, and rhododendron trees, fern sprang in clumps and moss hung from the branches like wispy green curtains.
Missing the rhododendrons at Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary
The trail went up and down, with occasional clear views showing endless rhododendron trees covered in buds. During flowering, the sight would have taken breaths away, but at that time, it was a bit disappointing. After all, we came from Okhrey where a large rhododendron bush full of red flowers grew right outside our homestay. I gave up the 4 kilometers hike halfway, took a last look at a few flowering rhododendron trees and eagerly went back towards the gate. At the gate, a beatific smile and two fat baby arms welcomed me and I did not regret missing out the rhododendrons at the Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary in Sikkim.
Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary Travel Facts
- Location – Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary is in West Sikkim and continues on the border with Nepal. The closest airport is Bagdogra (160 km/10 hours to Hilley) and the closest railway station is New Jalpaiguri/NJP (150 km/10 hours to Hilley). Okhrey is 9 km from Hilley. You can either book a car from NJP directly for Hilley or choose the cheaper alternative option of the shared jeep from Siliguri to Jorethang. Jorethang is a major public transportation hub of West Sikkim and you need to board another shared jeep from here for Okhrey, where you can base yourself.
- Where to Stay – Most people base themselves at Okhrey. It is a small picturesque hamlet and offers more (and better) accommodation options than Hilley. You can book a small car for pickup/drop for Hilley at Okhrey. Hilley is the last motorable point and the starting point of the Barsey trek. Though it takes only 20-30 minutes to reach Hilley from Okhrey, the drop/pickup costs about 700 INR.
- Entrance Fee – There is an entry fee of Rs. 55/- per person and Rs. 25/- for a DSLR camera.
- Best Time to Visit – April -May is when the trees are in full bloom. Even though the rhododendron flowers bloom every year, a mega bloom happens once in every three years. During this time the whole forest turns in to a riot of colors. The last mega bloom was documented in 2016, so 2019 is expected to witness another massive flowering. Oct-Nov is also good though expect no rhododendron flowering. The clear skies at that time offer amazing views of the Kanchendzonga range.
- Flora and Fauna – There are 13 main varieties of rhododendrons at Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary. The area is a biodiversity hotspot and white, pink and red rhododendron flowers are most commonly seen. Gurash attracts lots of birds like larks, finches, sunbirds, and tragopans. The sanctuary is home to leopards, Himalayan palm civets, Himalayan yellow-throated martens, Kalij pheasants, the rare red Himalayan panda, and Himalayan langur.
- Rhododendron Flower Facts – All but one variety of rhododendrons are poisonous to humans. Only the arboreum variety is safe and is used to make drinks, chutneys, jams, and other edible treats. Keep your hands off the flowers and take a guide along.
- Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary Trek Tips – The 4 kilometers Hilley to Barsey is the easiest and most popular trek. You can leave your vehicle at Hilley. Basic accommodations are available inside the sanctuary. This trekker’s hut is called Guras Kunj and gets sold out fast, so book ahead. Accommodations are also available at the Forest Barrack. The Internet is spotty there, wifi is non-existent and you may experience electricity cuts. Make sure to charge your phones and carry battery packs, as well as extra batteries for your camera. For those interested in a more strenuous activity, trek 11 kilometers down to Dentam and then continue Pelling.
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