Booking the trek and travel was the easy part. ‘Har Ki Doon’ had been on my mind for quite some time but for some uncanny reason I booked the Sandakphu Phalut trek at the last minute. I wasn’t sure till I pushed the glass door and entered the YHAI Hostel in Darjeeling that the trek was on. I was the first one to arrive for the trek and signing against my name, I was still apprehensive. I felt at ease only when more participants trickled in by the evening.
Apprehension – a relatively long word likely to be spelt incorrectly, stretching itself to grow even more frightful with questions like ‘Have you lost your mind?’, ‘Don’t you know what’s happening around?’, ‘Aren’t you putting yourself and others in jeopardy?’, ‘Is it more important than your life?’, ‘Can’t you wait for some more time?’
Wait? Yes, I can. Waited – for a whole year! No change, nothing improved, things worsened – the world only got more knowledgeable about the virus. Jokes, videos, WhatsApp, Zoom, Teams, ‘Are you okay’, ‘Yes, it’s so tragic.’, ‘Inhaling steam helps; drink hot water’ – the world inevitably went online. Advice flew in from every direction but the number of the infected and deaths just managed to rise mocking all advice.
So, yes, apprehension was necessary to beat complacency. An artillery of masks and sanitisers was essential. The reins of apprehension had to be pulled at tautly, less it turned to fear.
Day 1 – Darjeeling, getting acclimatized (01st April 2021)
Whether it is Uttarakhand or Himachal Pradesh, for most treks, getting to the site or base camp proves to be the biggest hassle. Reaching Darjeeling though thankfully wasn’t such an onerous task. After a train journey of 40 hours (yes 40, four zero forty – needed solitude and had a book to finish reading), as I walked out of the New Jalpaiguri (NJP) station, there were jeeps and touts galore to take you to Sikkim, Siliguri or Darjeeling (The driver charged 300 but the actual fare is 200-250). So I hopped onto one jeep and had to wait for an hour till all space in the jeep was squeezed out filling human bodies (thankfully living) one after another. Did you just think of Corona and norms while you had that wry smile on your face? Well, I had too; norms are good, in fact very good!
Nervous that I won’t be allowed to travel, I got a medical certificate; the doctor was only happy and unashamed to fleece a good amount of money and then I got my Covid test done too, worried that I won’t get my results in time. I, like most people, was just following the path of fear. However, neither at the station in Mumbai, nor at the NJP station was there any checking. Nothing was really different as people readily acted indifferent to the virus scare - few people wearing masks, children touching here, there and everywhere, six people travelling against one reserved ticket inconveniencing everyone, travelers spitting gutkha in the wash basin and toilets; it was all the same. We are kings of resilience, you see. Well, I too was guilty for travelling at such a time, so I better keep my mouth shut about it.
Anyway, travelling from NJP to Darjeeling was a wonderful experience except for two complaining sisters vomiting throughout the three hour journey. The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway which runs from NJP to Darjeeling and further hasn’t been operational from NJP for some time now but the narrow gauge train tracks followed us all along the road. Tea plantations, towering pine trees, and a spread of fog caught up with us too as we passed Kurseong and then Ghoom. The quaint little station at Ghoom, a place also popular for the Ghoom monastery, is the highest altitude train station in our country. As we passed Ghoom, I got my first glimpse of the vintage train engine pulling along two coaches, blaring its horns for cars and other vehicles to make way, chugging past houses, crowded lanes and bazaars, emitting and leaving behind a trail of smoke. ‘Mere sapno ki rani’ – ring a bell? By the time I reached Darjeeling and later, I had seen more of these toy trains and tourists enjoying the joyride. Darjeeling reminded me of Shimla and Mizoram. Like them or any other popular hill station, it is populated, crowded, has tourist vehicles everywhere, and is lined with hotels, restaurants and shops. One should try the momos, thupkas, chowmein at the tiny little eateries, only if you fancy them.
If you look at it from a distance, Darjeeling at an altitude of 6800 feet, seems to be an open classroom with rows of colourful houses in a staircase seating arrangement and the drifting clouds, fog, trees and flowers eager to be a part of it. Darjeeling has a strong Nepalese influence and that was evident when I visited the little shops lining the Mall road. The Mall road has a huge open space, a stage for performances, horses available for rides and it has two lanes at different corners with little shops selling souvenirs and winter clothing. There are many shops and restaurants too as you walk towards the mall road selling tea from the various tea estates in Darjeeling; the cutleries are a delight to see.
I visited the Japanese temple by myself; a nice little hike. The white stupa with a golden Buddha statue turns into a frame for tourists to pose in front of. Most tourists, I observed didn’t even visit the actual temple, a quiet small building away from the stupa. Climbing a well maintained yet creaky wooden stairs, as you enter the shrine, the calmness of the place is astounding; a perfect place for meditation. I went to a nearby monastery on the way to the Japanese temple and the place was so serene and beautiful, perfectly placed on a hilltop with scenic views of Darjeeling and the surrounding mountains.
The other places one can visit, which I didn’t have time for are the rock garden, tea plantations and the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute.
In the evening, we received a briefing about our trek from the trek coordinator and camp leader. So finally, the trek was happening.
Day 2 – Darjeeling to Tumling (2nd April 2021)
Dhotre to Tumling – 8-9 kms
Eleven of us plus a camp leader. We travelled in two jeeps to Dhotre (at an altitude of 8100 feet) via Manney Bhanjan (another touristy place with beautiful views of the mountains). Initially a good road, the drive started getting bumpy but no complains whatever. Traversing the sinuous roads, as we gained altitude and drove along the border of Nepal and India, the sight of the mountains, valleys, and the red rhodendrons were mesmerizing. Each house on the way had a beautiful collection of potted plants with beautiful coloured flowers; most houses with kids eagerly looking at the passing vehicles.
We had to wait for about an hour for the other jeep to arrive. We were waiting for them and they, for us! We met our trek leader Balaram and finally at 9 a.m. we started our trek. Our destination for today was Tumling via Tolung. The trek is through the Singhalila Wildlife Sanctuary and the different boards showcasing the available flora and fauna made us hopeful; especially spotting the red panda. It was windy when we started. The pine foliage shaped like green clouds, contrasted against the actual blue ones. The trek was completely uphill, a bit strenuous and through dense forest. The variety of colours provided by the rhododendron flowers, daphne’s and a yellow flowered tree were a welcome respite as we ascended. Every now and then, the eyes would feast on a tree extending its branches full of white flowers, layered just like a lotus and with hardly any leaves on it. I’ve promised myself to research on the flora and fauna before venturing on the next trek.
We reached Tonglu by around 3 p.m. and were welcomed by a carpet of fog suspended and swaying in mid-air. Between the playful and disappearing act of the fog, we could see in the distance a stark contrast of bright sunlight on the mountains in the distance. The walk from Tonglu to Tumling (2 kms.) is a cemented motorable road. The meandering pathway almost feels like ‘The Great Wall of India’. Our accommodation was in Nepal and most of next day’s trek was also through it.
Everyone was talking about the ‘Sleeping Buddha’ – the central peak of Kanchenjunga and others (one that forms the nose is named Kumbhakarna!) collectively appear like a sleeping Buddha. We waited through the evening for the sky to clear but the Buddha, it seems, didn’t want to be disturbed, so all we could catch glimpses of was his face. Sunrise, we convinced ourselves would reveal more. The place was crowded with families and groups, mostly from Kolkata. Photographers, equipped with lenses almost four feet long thronged to capture the natural spectacle.
As the evening turned chilly, I met Pritam from Darjeeling and his friends and what unfolded was a nicely spent musical evening with all his friends and him being maestros at playing the guitar and singing lovely Nepali songs and Hindi and English too. What fun!
We had gained an altitude of about 1500 feet; quite a feat and were now at 9670 feet.
Day 3 – Tumling to Kalipokhri (03rd Apr 2021) – 14 kms.
With the sunrise, bloomed the hope of getting a clear view of the snow clad ‘Sleeping Buddha’ but alas, the veil of clouds around it refused to lift.
Two of our trek mates seemed to have exhausted themselves out the previous day and dropped out of the trek. After a sumptuous breakfast of Tibetian puri and aloo chana, we started our trek through Nepal at 8:30 a.m. The weather was pleasant. The first half of the trek was a descent on a cobbled pathway after taking a right from a small village called Jaubari. We reached our proclaimed lunch point at Gairibas, which is a BSF checkpost much before time. We weren’t really hungry, so decided to lunch a little ahead.
After Gairibas, we were put to test with an extremely steep (about 50 degrees) and strenuous climb through the forest; it surely blew the wind out of everyone. We took short-cuts and avoided the motorable road as much as we could. After a while, even though uphill, it wasn’t that steep anymore and the scenery opened up to the layered mountains. And we walked and walked; every blinding turn promising of the destination behind it but all that appeared when you reached it was just another turn. The fog engulfed us at places and the walking seemed endless and aimless. At times immersed in the tentacles of the fog, it felt like one might come across a completely different, hidden world on the other side, a city like Narnia. Imagine a talking lion revealing itself as the blanket of fog disappeared!
Right when patience was wearing out, appeared the desired turn and in a few minutes we were facing the black pond of Kalipokhri; the village derives its name from this pond, whose water is claimed to never freeze.
The pond never froze but we almost did as the night turned extremely chilly. We were at an altitude of around 10,500 feet. Touching water to wash your hands seemed like a punishment from hell. Though tired, falling asleep was anyway a task and with snoring lords around and someone attempting a magical potion at 4 every morning; the stirring of the spoon and clanking of the glass definitely didn’t really help.
Day 3 – Kalipokhri to Sandakphu (04th Apr 2021) – 7-8 kms.
Sandukphu is a trek of 7 kms. from Kalipokhri but one gains an altitude of around 1800 feet in that stretch of 7 kms. You are already on top of a hill at Kalipokhri and as you leave it behind walking on the edges of hills, the twisting pathways appear like thin veins on a giant and the towering pines resemble his unkempt locks. Overlapping hills, the valleys and gorges, the greenery of the vegetation against a backdrop of the blue sky are a delight to the trekker. The layered mountains with clouds floating adrift provide a natural shade card and you are at a loss choosing which shade is better.
As you keep walking and gaining altitude, you see Sandakphu perched there at the top of the mountain with criss-cross roads leading to it. By around noon, we reached Sandakphu and the Namo Buddha hotel where we were to spend our night. Sandakphu is the highest point in West Bengal at an altitude of around 12000 feet. Adjacent to the hotel, on a rock was a viewing point and I sat there in the shivering cold (though it was afternoon) for quite some time enjoying the grand vista that lay before me. The ‘aa aa’ of the ravens hardly seemed like a welcome. Surprisingly, we didn’t see many birds except for a few magpies, a white collared bird, ravens and one or two other species. The scenery was changing every few minutes as dark clouds hovered lazily changing the shades of the trees as well; it looked like it would rain. Bliss, that’s exactly what I felt there.
It didn’t rain but snowed after a while, not snow snow, just a little, but we were delighted with that as well. In the evening, we went to the sunset point which was again a nice trek. We grabbed the best seat on the top of a rock to see the spectacle of the sun setting over the mountains dipping them in psychedelic colours.
The temperature dropped to around one degree in the night.
Day 4 – Sandakphu to Molley (05th Apr 2021) – 14 kms.
‘There's a time and place for everything, for everyone
We can push with all our might, but nothin's gonna come
Oh no, nothin's gonna change
And if I asked you not to try
Oh, could you let be?’ – ‘Can’t stop loving you’ by Van Halen
We tried at Tumling, and all the way till Sandakphu but the ‘Sleeping Buddha’ remained elusive. Not anymore. Our patience was rewarded early in the morning as we started trekking to reach Molley; a trek of about 14 kms. The skies cleared, the magician tapped His wand and there in the distance appeared the peak of Kanchenjunga and the resting Buddha nice and clear. What an indelible mark it carves in your memory. The peaks of ‘The Three Sisters’ and ‘Mt. Everest’ were also faintly visible. Click, click, click we went. Our camp leader couldn’t stop posing. The sleeping Buddha stayed with us for a large part of the initial hike; the peaks looked like glaciers floating in an ocean.
This was the best and most scenic day of the entire trek. The landscape changed to widely spread meadows with cattle, densely furred goats and yaks grazing – picture perfect. As we climbed a small hill and waited for a few of our trek mates to catch up, most of us agreed that it was the perfect place to pitch a tent under the clear blue sky. It was strange but on most days of the trek, dogs appeared out of nowhere and accompanied us in our journey.
The interspersed red rhododendrons and the pink daphnes welcomed us all throughout our journey. Our guide mentioned that some of the red rhododendron flowers, especially the darker ones are poisonous and shouldn’t be smelt or eaten. Our camp leader told us about two trekkers who had vanished after smelling or consuming one of these rhododendrons, and were never found again.
At Sabargram, a right turn leads to Molley which is a small hamlet with a BSF base camp. The board at the turn says 1 km to Molley but that’s SUCH a deception. The scenery changes again as you enter the forest and keep walking but the promised kilometer stretches and stretches.
Finally, the Molley Trekker’s Hut appeared. We had lost considerable altitude today. However, it was still cold in the night. We did spot a couple of birds. A few of us went for a walk in the forest and tried out something the camp leader on one of my previous treks had guided us to – sit comfortably, close your eyes, breathe easy and try to listen to the different sounds of the forest. Try it – it does calm your mind.
No electricity. Pitch dark but a starry night.
|The Sleeping Buddha|
Day 5 – Molley to Gorkhe via Phalut (around 18 kms.)
Two more from the group decided to not continue with the trek due to health reasons. So we were now the ‘lucky seven’. From Molley to Phalut, it’s around 4kms walking along the top of hills and you can see the meandering pathway appearing and disappearing ahead like a snake. We had a sumptuous meal at Phalut of soyabean and omelettes. It’s the perfect place to laze around lying on the grass with the sky above and the wind singing to you.
And then the rhodendrons take a pause to pass the baton to tall bamboo trees. It felt amazing walking in the middle of a dense bamboo forest. The towering bamboo stalks leaning towards each other, swaying in the wind appear to be secretly gossiping about the intruders passing by. This was our last and probably the best chance to spot a red panda but unfortunately we spotted none. It started drizzling for a while but then the rain disappeared and the weather was pleasant. I usually sweat a lot but I noticed that on this trek I was hardly sweating.
Today was the longest stretch of the trek. A couple of steep shortcuts in the forest and suddenly the pines take a different look (different shades of green) and the scenery opens to the quaint farming village of Gorkhe with a gurgling river. It seems to be the land of daisies and other pretty flowers of all possible colours and shapes. Potato and pea plantations were spread amidst brightly coloured houses and a stroll past the river takes you to Sikkim. Immersing our feet in the cold water felt so relaxing and drove most of our fatigue away.
The hospitality at the ‘Om Shanti’ guest house was really commendable. Everyone got busy with their mobiles as they suddenly found network! This was probably the only night that we had to remove layers of clothing rather than putting them on. Slept well!
Day 6 – Gorkhe to Srikhola via Rammam (12 kms.) and then to Rimbik
Most of us would have readily spent a few more days in Gorkhe if allowed. The morning walk into the village felt so refreshing. It was the last day of the trek and as we ventured out, we realized that one member was left behind and had no clue that we had started. And then the missing smarty left his earphones behind and had to rush again for it. J
A long stretch today as well, ascending and descending, walking through the forest. At times, in the middle of the jungle, sitting by myself, waiting for the others, listening to the creaking of the pine and the rustling of leaves, it felt so calm and peaceful; all I needed was a book. For a moment, you realize and experience what Rumi said – ‘The moment is all there is.’
The very last part of the trek wasn’t very enjoyable as it was through dusty roads – new roads were being constructed. At the lunch point in Ramam, we met a few very enthusiastic and cute kids.
The Srikhola brige marked the end of our trek and from there we took a jeep to Rimbik where we halted for the night and then back to Darjeeling the next day. At Rimbik it started raining heavily.
This trek wouldn’t have been what it was without the help and support of our friendly guide Balaram ji. He went out of his way to take care of us and even treated us with freshly cooked breakfast at his home on the last day. Thank you Balaram ji. And thank you trek mates – Amit, Hemant, Jeevith, Kalyan, Kavya, Malay da, Pavitra da, Parwez and Rohini.
I named this an international trek and it was. However, as you walk through the hills and forests enjoying and amazed by the scenery, it makes no difference or doesn’t even dawn on you if you are in some other country or yours. It’s only when you see people, faces, boards and banners proclaiming possession, you realize where you are. Nature has no borders, boundaries or fences.
Adieu, until the next one. Hopefully, sooner than later. J
|The village of Gorkhe|
|Japanese Temple - Darjeeling|
|Mall Road - Darjeeling|
|Bazaar on Mall Road - Darjeeling|