It had been a while since I planned to go on the trek to sandakphu. The monotonous schedule and the banality of following it always held me back from executing the plan. Then one fine evening, in the busiest month of my calendar, my friends spontaneously made a plan for the trek and extended an invitation to me, which at first of course, I rejected. On giving it a greater amount of thought the prospect was too alluring to resist, so I decided what the hell let’s go! On inquiring I was told that we were to leave at 5.30 the next morning. Well, it was six in the evening now, I had barely an hour to see what I needed and then buy those that I actually did. That I did. All well. Packed my stuff for the greater part of the night and slept in anticipation for the rest. Woke up the next morning all charged up and ready to go.so, it began.
We were a group of five people, two girls and three boys. At about 6: AM we met at the Darjeeling taxi stand, checked for the weights of the bags and the last minute requisitions before we finally boarded the taxi to Manyabhanjang, where the trek begins. Manyabhanjang is small village lying on the border of Nepal and India, separated by a drain covered by a culvert. It is a short drive of an hour and a half from Darjeeling, covering a distance of about 51 Kilometres, at an elevation of 2150 meters. We reached the start point at about 8:00 Am or thereabouts, stopping briefly for breakfast and some shopping of essentials like water and some munchies. We began the trek at about 8:30 am.
At first I was not so sure that I would be able to walk uphill carrying a heavy backpack, with a slight pain in my lower back. But, one cannot know unless one does it, so I started walking past the tourist Information centre, Uphill. We started walking through the gravel pathway, discovering occasional shortcuts, cutting through the bends of the road. Though arduous to walk these at first, they definitely cut down on time. The weather was warm, clear skies the heat from walking and the sun was getter quite uncomfortable, we were now entering the open landscape on the way to chitre, our first refreshment stop. On the way to chitre, and all through the trek we came across mantras carved upon rocks, upon inquiring we were told that; viewing the written form of a mantra has the same effect as reciting it in prayer. Through the trek I kept an eye for these “mani stones” as they are called. Maybe, I could enhance my Karmas. So after walking through the picturesque scenery from manybhanjang we reached chitre at about 10:20 Am. Along the way we also passed through the chitre monastery, where we turned the prayer wheels and moved on.
After our refreshments at chitre we were joined by a fellow companion, a dog. The faithful fellow followed us all the way to Megma, where we again stopped briefly, there we brought Churpis; yak milk candies, though they don’t have much of a taste to speak of, they sure do help bide away time as it goes. The walk was getting increasingly tiring since it was the first day, however our perseverance paid and we reached out first night halt, Tumling at an elevation of about 2700 metres. There we booked into the trekkers hut had lunch, after which we started to explore the place a little. Since we had reached the place by 3:30 PM we had a lot of time on our hands. In all we had covered a distance of 12 kilometres, no mean achievement. The rest of the day turned out to be quite uneventful, with the exception of us having tongba- A local drink, served in a wooden tumbler and bamboo straw, it is millet based alcoholic beverage. After trying to get drunk with two refills I finally gave up and settled for coffee. As we were tired and had planned to cover a substantial distance the next day we slept of early after dinner at about 9:00pm.It was a perfectly peaceful sleep I had in a long time.
We woke up early the next day fresh and revived. After the preliminaries we had a light breakfast, thanked our hosted and started the next leg of the trek from Tumling to sandakphu via Jaubari, Garibas, Kalapokari, and Bikaybhanjayang. The total trek on the route would be about 23 Kilometres. It promised to be a very long, tiring and a steep trek. Our first stop was to be Jaubari at an elevation of 2750 meters. The walk was all through a gravel path. It was a very picturesque walk with the discomfort of the gravel path being very unstable on the legs, which made the knees a little painful and tired. After walking for about 2 hours we finally reached our first destination, after resting briefly for refreshments we headed towards Garibas. We had covered 5 Kilometres so far and on inquiring found that Garibas was about another 2 kilometres. The walk from here on was within the singalila National Park. The road was not very nice here a lot steep slopes and mostly consisting of mud tracks. However the scenery all throughout was reflective, listening to music and thinking to myself I kept walking reaching garibas without really being tired at about 11:30 Am. After resting a while with tea and biscuits we started the next leg to kalapokari. So far it had been mostly downhill. Now, it was about to get a little challenging.
From here we had to cover a distance of about 7 kilometres to kalapokari, we had to hurry a little as the day was closing and the distance was still a lot left to cover. We decided to hurry a little, so that we could have a timely lunch at kalapokari. Now we were started entering the heart of the National Park, so we decided to walk a little more closely. The walk started getting steep , before it finally became a little easier, climbing through the rhododendron forest was and an absolutely calming experience. There is something about trekking both physically and mentally, personally the more tired I grew the more reflective I was becoming. Now, not that am complaining, but it was an uncalled for distraction, I wanted to enjoy the natural beauty rather then get lost in my thoughts. There we were. Whoa! We were just in time to have lunch there at about 2:30 pm. While we waited for the lunch to be cooked, we took a stroll in and around the place, visiting the kalapokari meaning the black pond. The colour of the water is black and the amazing thing is that it never freezes.
After seeing the village for a while, we had lunch, bid goodbye to our host and were starting off for the most arduous climb of the whole trail, from kalapokari to sandakphu, a distance of 8 kilometres. The roads descends for a while to Bikhaybhanyang – Valley of Poison (Aconites grow here). From here onward the road becomes narrow, steep and winding. It is a difficult climb but enjoyable in company. After huffing and puffing for about three hours we had finally reached sandakphu, at an elevation of 3580 metres, relieved.it was almost 6:00 pm now, just in time. Compared to the previous day this day was definitely tiring and all I could think of is eating and going to sleep. We checked into a trekkers hut freshened up, took a walk around the hill. It was started to get windy now so there was nothing much to do. We had dinner and slept like logs a sound peaceful sleep without the distraction from dreams.one hell of a day!
We started from sandakphu at about 8:00 AM. Had our lunch packed, as there was no stoppage in the trail between here and Phalut. A distance of about 21 kilometres with not a single village, apart from the camps of the security forces stationed there, the Sema Suraksha Bal guarding our borders with Nepal. The walk now was comparatively easy as it did not have many steep ascends, was and evenly undulating trek. The trail basically runs of the ridge of Singilala with beautiful views of valleys, rolling hills and snowy peaks throughout the walk through the sparse vegetation of silver fur and rhododendron. Phalut is a tri-junction of Sikkim, Nepal and West Bengal. The landscape is lifeless yet beautiful. After walking for three hours, through the life less landscape keeping us company we stopped in a clearing to have lunch and rest a while. Though the landscape was lifeless for the most part of the trek, it seemed to come to life with surprising intensity at intervals walking through the sparse vegetation of silver fur and rhododendron. Surprisingly we did not come across a single stream. Somehow, I kept thinking that this desolation actually made the whole trail seem more beautiful. We walked slowly; no hurry no time to save, as if we had all the time in the world. Well that day we did! For last few kilometres before reaching Phalut the climb again becomes very steep and tiring.
It had been a leisurely walk all through this day; we reached phalut with the twilight greeting us there. Towards the evening there, it had started to become windy and cold, refreshing nevertheless. We checked into the trekker’s hut, the location of which is a beauty to behold. Situated a few metres from a cliff, we had the view to a large valley below; with the setting sun as the backdrop it was simply, breath-taking. Sitting on a chair near the edge of the cliff, watching this contemplative vista all my fatigue drained away. Sometimes just absorbing nature into you can have a miraculously therapeutic effect. After freezing myself there, I moved indoors to have a warm cup of tea.
There was nothing much to do at Phalut after dark .So; we decided to have an early dinner and log off.
After a long peaceful sleep, I woke up next morning shivering; as I had left the ventilator open last night, a costly oversight, now my back was aching. After having a lovely breakfast of porridge and milk we headed downhill passed the SSB camp towards Srikhola via Gorkhey and Ramam roughly about 34 kilometres. The walk was all descending up to Gorkhey, very slippery though due to the rains the previous night and an all mud pathway. The walk was through bamboo forests, with moss laden trees, different varieties of rhododendrons, silver firs, pines, spruce, chestnuts, oaks, giant magnolias and hemlocks which kept giving me the eerie feeling that we were being stalked by a wild beast, maybe my mind playing games or an overdose of national Geographic. After about two hours we finally arrived at Gorkhey.
Gorkhey, a beautiful valley lies at the border of West Bengal and Sikkim, 18 km from Phalut. Gorkhey is a nice valley. You can find Gorkhey khola (river stream) in this nice valley. It is one of those rare beauties hidden deep in the mountains. We didn’t have much time, I regret. I would have liked to spend a day or two here. On entering the valley I immediately felt welcomed by the natural surroundings. A small brook passed beside the settlements. The sound of the water, peace and quiet what could one ask for in the mountains? Add to that the picture perfect backdrop of the mountains. It almost seemed surreal, like a painting you we gazing at and suddenly found yourself in it. After refreshments we started on the next leg to Ramam, a walk of 8 kilometres.
The trek was a little steep for a while, downhill for a while and then very sleep for the rest of the way to Ramam. Before we started our descent towards the Bridge near Gorkhey, we lost company of two of our friends who seemed to have taken a mud trail into the forest. After panicking, and waiting for a while we decided to wait in Ramam for them. Due to this turn of event we had lost a substantial amount of time there, we had to make it up for it by walking at a continuously brisk pace. So we did just that. The climb was tiring but we persevered through the forest, occasionally stopping by streams to replenish the supply of water. The water from the Himalayan streams always tastes more delicious that the regular water, absolutely clear with an aftertaste of moss. Wow! Well the lost companions had reached Ramam before we did an anticipated relief. After lunching there we started walking downhill to Srikhola.
The descent through forest also offers hundred species of birds, including the colourful Himalayan Monal, the emerald dove, the maroon Oriole and the many others. Crossing through the towering forests of moss laden trees of rhododendrons, silver firs, pines, spruce, chestnuts, oaks, giant magnolias and as well as through open country fields. It was approaching evening and we not getting anywhere near our destination. Had we lost our way? Yes we had? Damn we were lost in the jungle without any hope of directions forthcoming added to the darkness fast approaching. It is a bleak but exciting prospect.
We kept walking a little further in hope that Srikhola is around the other bend of the road, no such luck though. Instead, we came across a black leopard sitting on the road at a distance, fortunately it seemed like it was not hungry. We retraced our steps and were finally consigned to the fact that we were lost. And then, there was panic, panic! As that would not help we decided to find a nice spot and camp for the night. We found a relatively plain spot to make a bonfire and stay put through the night. Only later did we realize that it was a burial ground that we had chosen as the camping site. Maybe the dead would keep us safe. So the boys we tasked with gathering wood and the women with fuelling the fire with the wood. A neat arrangement! After the fire was lit, panic had subsided it became rather and enjoyable experience. As we were not carrying food, no one plans on getting lost in a forest; we had a few biscuits to share among ourselves. Which of course we did, one each! Anyways we sat through the better part of the night due partly to fear of wild animals, and partly to the lack of equipment. At about three O’clock in the morning I gave up on the fear and choose sleep.
The next morning, we woke up from sleep or rather a nap, doused the fire and decided to head downhill, we still had the whole day to get lost again. We had hardly walked two bends of the road; we came across the hamlet, a relief. Having discovered the hamlet after about tem minutes of walking made me feel like fool, only if we had walked a little the previous night, we would have saved ourselves a lot of discomfort. Having tea, coffee and breakfast we continued to Srikhola, this time with solid directions. After an hours trek downhill we were finally at Srikhola.
Well the trek was almost over, a feeling of sadness started to engulf me after the excitement of the previous four days. I decided to douse it with a beer; mixed with leftover sleep it tasted fantastic. Before leaving for Darjeeling, we freshened up at the rivulet; the cold mountain water did a good job to revive the slipping spirits back. After hiring a taxi at Rimbick we headed home.