The Beginning: 24 May 2013
The cell phone alarm went off, it seems, at of 4 am sharp but I kept sleeping, obviously, the effect of couple of pegs of Haig’s the previous night, on the eve of my long awaited trek to the illusive Sandakpu the next day onwards. I wanted to do this trek for the last 35 years but could not, for reasons of will power and listening to too many opinions from too many quarters. I forced myself out of the bed and did my morning dos starting with a cup of tea with the wife and later a sumptuous breakfast of 4 paranthas, scrambled eggs and vegetable curry, washing it down with a mug of strong coffee. With 2 changes including few high altitude clothing and basic human needs like torch light, medicine and few apples in a rucksack, bought in an army store, I was ready to leave by 8 am. Armed with my army hat and umbrella against the rain, I left in an auto rickshaw for Darjeeling motor stand. I bought both the front seats to be comfortable. The tariff was INR 160.00 per seat, a good deal indeed. I wanted to do this trek as a back packer.
On the Road Again:
The road from Siliguri to Sukna, 20 kms, is good and traffic in the morning is tolerable and not crowded. From Sukna Military Camp to Simulbari, 5 kms, is also well maintained with quite few speed breaker humps, kind curtsey the army, but the freshly carpeted road to Kurseong via Rohini is a beauty by Indian standard, at least for the time being, hopefully it will withstand the onslaught of the monsoon. Hitting Kurseong just in an hour and half we drove on towards Darjeeling. Weather also playing up with cool overcast sky without rains, the drive along the NH 34 meandering between pine forests was a breeze. It was good feeling, once again, to get the whiff of aromatic pine trees and see the monsoon streams cascading down the hills looking milky froth. The drive was enjoyable till Ghoom; the highest Railway station in the world till Lhasa took the cake away few years back. After Ghoom the usual traffic snarl started. The traffic resembled a long train with endless bogeys trying to crawl forward with endless stops. I am amazed at the thousands of Sumos, Boleros, Scorpios, maruti vans, busses fully loaded with tourists, mostly from Kolkata and rest of W. Bengal heading for Darjeeling in a mad rush. It is difficult to understand that Darjeeling being so crowded with buildings and multitude of people, not so organized waste disposal, scarcity of water, expensive hotels and not so certain political environment that causes instant strikes and shutdowns of traffic, continues to attract tourists nonstop even at this time of the year when early monsoon rains have already started. I contribute this to two possible factors; first, the brand name Darjeeling that is as old as Darjeeling itself and second Bengalis just love holidays and the hills. I found it only during this trek, befriending a group of 5 middle aged Bengali entrepreneurs from Kolkata, they told me very candidly that Bengalis just love the hills specially the Himalayas and would like to visit the hills again and again. I have also understood that Bengalis are the most travel loving people of this nation and I am certain that they form the major bulk of tourists of the country. Also, most of them travel with family members from grandparents to grandchildren. Touring is a passion for them and that is good news that all fellow countrymen should emulate and learn to explore the world around.
Darjeeling will always be Darjeeling the international brand, well known all over the world, thanks to the British rulers who saw the beauty of the place in respect of its location atop the hill, altitude of 7000 ft. and cool climate, as also the fact it was then a great vantage point to enjoy the views of the magnificent Himalayan ranges that included the Kanchenjunga and the Everest. Today much of the beauty of Darjeeling is lost due to rapid escalation of the concrete jungle, population explosion and the inversely proportionate infrastructure of civic amenities. This process is further accentuated by the disturbance caused by political turmoil laced with avoidable violence during long periods of 80s and 90s. Although the sense of violence commenced as response to the deployment of Paramilitary Forces and its insensitivity towards the local population, unfortunately, it snowballed into a long and violent battle of supremacy between the new power brokers and those who opposed it. Resultantly the fight was among the locals, brothers versus brothers, loosing site of the mission. Sad but true, one of the most beautiful spots on planet earth was in a cauldron of turmoil and confusion lead by insipid, uneducated goons who believed in the might of violence. Darjeeling Hills had become an “Island of dictatorship” in an “ocean of democracy called India”. The famous “Khukuri”, the fearsome signature weapons of the Gorkha that became synonymous with valor during World War I & II, was being used against each other. The lethal weapon of the Gorkha, famous all over the world, had become synonym of fear within the same community. What a shame.
We only hope that old beauty and glory of Darjeeling will one day return and hopefully we live to see the old days of peace and tranquility. Else it will only become folklore of the distant future and the beauty of Darjeeling vanished in the concrete jungle decorated by mountains of unmanageable waste and unhygienic environment. Pathetically, even today, after 20 plus years of so called administration, people have to buy water from tankers that has become a lucrative business. It is time to wake up and take action towards restoring Darjeeling to its old glory and beauty, whether Gorkhaland or Switzerland. Sadly, at the moment nothing tangible seems to be happening towards such a goal.
Back to track, a quick cuppa tea at one of the motor stand restaurants and I was rumbling on a Sumo towards Maneybhanjyang, again full front seat. To get the real feel of a back packer, I had decided to travel like one instead of using my new Bolero. I found it comfortable to buy the whole front seat at reasonable rates. Drive back towards Ghoom via Jalapahar was smooth through almost empty road partially covered by mist. The driver took a wise decision to take the upper Jalapahar Road to avoid serpentine traffic snarl. From Ghoom, as the road takes a turn towards North West for Maneybhanjyang via Teensukhia, once again the road meanders along the curves between the pine forests and occasional road side hamlets. Taking off from Darjeeling at about 12.30 pm, we reached Maneybhanjyang via Sukheypokhari by 2 pm.
As advised by the friendly driver of the Sumo, I got down at the office of “Society of Highlander Guides & Porters Welfare Association” located at the entrance of the town. The office had a huge wall poster of the Singalila National Park with details of trek routes, distances and important vantage points or resting places along the road. The office guy briefed me in details about trekking, transportation and en-route accommodations. I learnt that it was necessary to take a guide cum porter. I had options to travel by the local Land Rover or trek or combine both to cover selective routes. On my request he fixed up a guide cum porter. It turned out that Bijoy Chhetri would be my companion, friend and guide for the next 4 days.
It was a blessing that Bejoy is a very nice, kind, affable fellow with deep knowledge of the land and its flora & Fauna. It was a pleasure to be in his company. He talked when he had to and answered my numerous queries about the land, treks, flora and fauna patiently; he also knew when I was too tired to talk and kept the rhythm of the walk with me. As we were marching along the high altitude from Sandakpu to Phalut, he guided me along the shortcuts leaving the jeepable track not so far away. He showed me the boundary pillars between Nepal and India and places where the track had been passing through Nepal. When asked as to how there was no habitation in such a vast area he told me that Government had taken steps to clear the entire Singalila National park of habitation. He said that there were, till recent past some human habitation in these jungles, people who kept cows and yaks and supplied milk to the villages towards the foothills, made cottage cheese and chewable hard cheese locally called “Churpee” to be sold out in the nearby market places called “Haat”.
I checked into Everest Lodge that had a room on the first floor with common toilets. I Spent the evening walking around the small bazar of Maneybhanjyang. It seems that the Nepal-India border passes through this small hamlet. I walked across towards Nepal side in search of STD booth and came across a nice Nepali restaurant, very homely that one could sit inside the house and eat like a house guest. I asked for a cup of tea checking that I did not want powder milk; I was pleasantly surprised by a very nice cup of strong tea made of handmade tea leaves and fresh cow milk. I made my calls, had tea as also bought half a kg of handmade tea @ 180 and left. It started drizzling so I went into my hotel “Kanchenjunga” and rested. Dinner was vegetarian noodle soup called “Thukpa” that was served in room. It was a blessing in disguise that next day, 25th May being “Buddha Purnima” meat was not being used. I have always believed in following vegetarian diet and remaining teetotaler during travels of any kind. Precautions are better than cure!!
Next morning got up early, got ready, prayed and went to another restaurant close by that served chapatti and vegetable curry. After breakfast I walked over to the Land Rover Association office. Upon discussion with these people it made sense to go up to Sandakpu by Land Rover and then commence trekking from there onwards. So a Land Rover was fixed @ INR 3800 for drop at Sandakpu. If I wish to halt enroute I would have to pay extra INR 500. Bijay, the guide arrived on time. We rumbled off from Maneybhanjyang at about 8.30 am in a black 1954 vintage Land Rover that had seen better days but it was geared up and well maintained to take on the tough and steep gradient graveled/stone road of the high altitude. At the exit point I had to buy an entry ticket @ INR 100 from the Forest Check point and they checked that every person who entered the Singalila National Park had a guide along. That is one of the systems engrained to ensure that no untoward incident took place along the not so hospitable terrain ahead. The system of guide and Land Rover also provided the much needed local employment. There are about 80 plus guides cum porters and 60 plus Land Rovers. I think this is the only area where the old mountain horse Land Rover still plies with ease. I am happy that the roads to Sandakpu and Phalut are left rough, stony with very sharp turns and steep gradient. For, if it is turned into a smooth black top road we will find all the vehicles of the world converging in these parts with the resultant pollution, traffic snarls and accidents along the way as the collateral damage.
As we drove up, the gradient of the road became steep with frequent sharp turns. Only the local drivers could take on such roads behind the wheel of the Land Rovers. After couple of kilometers we came across an abandoned Travera Wagon, obviously its driver would have given up driving on this not so friendly road. We reached Chitrey and found a massive prayers ceremony underway in the monastery in honor of Birth of Lord Buddha.
Gompa I bought ghee, biscuits and incense stick packets, went inside the Gompa and offered these at the feet of Lord Buddha’s statue and sat down amongst the congregation to say my Prayers, “OM AH HUM VAJRA GURU PADME SIDDHI HUM”. After a very serene quarter of an hour inside the Gompa I resumed journey. We rumbled along in the Old Faithful Land Rover and reached Meghma, a serene and beautiful place partly covered by mist. Another prayer was in progress but the community here seemed more organized. There was a beautiful stone masonery cottage that served as the community center and a lavish spread of lunch was on the table. Outside the Gompa hot tea was being served to all the people around. This place being almost along International Boundary with Nepal, people from across the border were also participating in equal number. With the main Puja over, the tradition of carrying the “Poshtak” the holy quatrains, each of several hundred pages held on each side by wooden cover and wrapped with cloth meant for the purpose. A procession of villagers from both sides of the border were carrying these holy quatrains on their heads and slowly moving towards a holy “stupa” about 5 kms away. The procession would go around the stupa that has a huge prayer wheel driven by the force of a mountain stream. Thereafter, they would return back to the Gompa and place the quatrains back in its place inside the precincts. Like rest of the people present I also stood on line and received blessing by bowing and touching the Holy Quatrains with my forehead. This is the place of local politician, late Madan Tamang who was killed in open daylight by a Khukuri wielding youth in Darjeeling few years back. His family seems to be the main force behind the Puja Programme, tea and lunch. RIP Madan Tamang, God Bless your soul.
As we started after this well fed lunch we passed through more people coming from Nepal side. Strangely these people from Nepal, young ladies were dressed up in long maroon top with long green “mangal sutra” like garland cross slung from right shoulder to left waist. The road became rougher and steeper, crossed Tumling without a halt and reached the mist covered Gairaibaas, located bang on the International Border, by midday. Had a hot cup of tea at “Magnolia Lodge” and rumbled on.
Sandakpu, the Destination, 3636 M (11926 feet)
We drove steadily along the rough stony track, crossing Kalaikata and Kalpokhari, small hamlets with few shops and lodges and finally reached Sandakpu by 2.30 pm. Although partially covered with mist and welcomed by continuous drizzle, Sandakpu is a place of beauty located on the ridge line with Nepal side just across. The ridge line itself looks like the IB.
This magnificent place, the highest in Darjeeling Hills in Singalila National Park, has been a major destination for the nature lovers all over the world since British found its importance. Its beauty lies in its remoteness and the magnificent out of the world view of the Himalayan Ranges. It also is witness to one of the most beautiful sunrises in the world. The mist blocked the magnificent view of the famous Himalayan ranges but the sheer beauty, greenery and the cool weather of the place mystically covered by the drifting mist, gave enchanting beauty to Sandakpu. The Singalila range, which was declared a national park in 1992, is the highest national park in the world, covering an area of 78.9 sq.km and located at an altitude of 12,000 feet. It blooms like a lotus in the middle of a cauldron of biodiversity. It is indeed paradise for nature lovers.
There was no accommodation booking in advance. I headed for the PWD guest house where I tried using my army card but it was full. There were two expensive lodges, I decided against Sherpa Chalet, Sunrise Lodge and Namo Buddha Lodges being more expensive than needed and decided to go for the dorm bed in the humble Government Tourism Lodge A. There are 3 of such Govt lodges, A, B & C. Unfortunately C has been raged by fire last winter. These lodges are humble and cheap run by a Sherpa family of four, an elderly couple and their grownup son and daughter. There was a dorm with 20 beds @ 120 INR per bed and 2 rooms of 5 beds each @ 500 INR. 2 Indian type toilets and 2 bath rooms that had seen better days. The dorm and rooms were clean with wooden cots placed very close with hardly any leg space in between let alone a bedside table. I took one bed in the corner and grabbed the only table to place my rucksack. Hot tea was served immediately on asking but the quality needed improvement. After tea I went out for a walk to enjoy the view and beauty of the place. My guide, Bijay took me to a Shiva Temple just across the border in the Nepal side. It was a strange place that seems very old cave at the foot of a very huge deodar tree with many stone formations that resembled “Shiva Ling”. Clear spring water was flowing from inner side of the rock formations. Not so strange in these parts of the world that the place was worshipped by both Hindus and Buddhists. Many “Diyas” were lighted inside the sanctum sanatorium to mark the Holy Day of Buddha Purnima and an elderly Tibetan lady who was lighting more Diyas told me that her wishes had been granted. God is indeed everywhere in all forms, we only have to have faith. At 7 pm it was a community kind of dinner for all the trekkers, a simple menu of rice, daal (lentil) and potato curry. Tired and hungry as all of us were, we wolfed it down in candle light as there was no electricity. Blissfully even the cellphone communication were off, happily I felt a sense of wilderness and went to sleep. The night temp had come down but a blanket and a quilt were enough.
The Trek Begins
25 May 2013: I got up early morning by 5 am and walked to the kitchen for a mug of tea, the house lady had just got up and I was the first one to get tea. Although not to my taste of strong and not so milky tea it was hot and enjoyable for the morning cold. There was a little ray of hope as clouds began to clear up and we could see wee bit of shiny Kanchunga on the Nothern horizon. There was a mad scramble by the young trekkers to the view point but the excitement was short lived as the clouds rose to hide the majestic mountains. This was also the day I would commence my 21 kms trek to Phalut. So after bath with half a bucket of hot water @ INR 25 and breakfast of hot Chapattis and scrambled eggs with coffee. Total bill for lodging and boarding was INR 475.00. Not bad for a backpacker. It was a good idea to stay at the Trekker’s Hut as I was able to mingle and chit chat with other young trekkers.