I started at 7 am with guide Bijay in toe carrying my humble and light army rucksack. He showed me Phalut, a distant hill covered by clouds. We followed the rough stony, muddy and partly graveled road that seemed to run along the ridge line. Initial progress was slow with cold and stiff body of 69 years old. But as we progressed slowly, after about 3 kms the body warmed and limbs got limbered up, I was almost swinging using my umbrella as the walking stick that was helpful. We trudged on slowly and surely admiring the beauty of nature and the wilderness. Since Sandakpu is 11926 feet and Phalut is 11800 feet, the general altitude along the track would be around 11500 feet. At this altitude pine and deodar trees have disappeared giving way to only Rhododendron trees and high altitude ferns. In spite of the season for flowering being over by end April, even at this time of the year some varities of Rhododendrons were in bloom and it was indeed magnificent site. The track running between Sandakpu and Phalut, which from a distance almost resembles a saddle with Sandakpu as the pommel and Phalut as the tail. However, the track is not all straight as looks on the map. It goes up and down following the mountainous path of valleys and crests.
Northern most part of the Darjeeling hills in Singalila National Park borders with Ilam district of Nepal. However, even in Nepal side the place is fortunately remote as such not disturbed by the human habitation and subsequent development. I have been told that after declaring the area a National Park, Govt has removed few settlers within the forest area who used to keep cows and yaks. This is indeed a very wise move, for, if allowed to remain, the human population would have naturally multiplied, encroached into the forest and finally destroyed it. As a result, the forest has become very thick and almost impenetrable that provides safe haven to the wild animals and birds. No wonder it is the Trekker’s Paradise, a genuine fame that has travelled across the world. Even at this late stage of the season when the monsoon is knocking at these hills I came across and befriended young trekkers from France, Slovakia, USA & UK besides the most usual trekkers from Bengal. It is so good to see that middle aged and young people of Bengal have taken to the hills, as I it transpired during my discussion with young minds of Bengal they just love the mountains specially the Himalayas. No wonder most of the domestic tourists are from Bengal. I wish more people, young and old would take to trekking and try to understand nature that gives us the basic subsistence of life.
We came across few yaks grazing lazily on the green meadow, probably from Nepal side. I clicked a big bull Yak, it was enormous and looked at me without much interest and continued grazing. Another place I clicked a flock of goats grazing on short bushy plants along the track. They looked healthy with spring in their legs. After about 10 kms we took a break, sat on a fallen tree trunk and rested. I was carrying some ORS sachets and thought it a good idea to pour the contents into the water bottle. We kept drinking few sips after every few kms and derived instant energy while quenching thirst. Now the climbs were getting steeper and tougher and the length of plain track was a welcome relief, not so the decent as it was not very kind to my old knees.
By 11.30 am we reached a small hutment of Forest Post called Sabargram that also served as a resting place for the trekkers. The Forest Guard doubled up as a tea shop owner. As I walked to the old village style kitchen I found the Guard brewing tea for us on the wooden fire of ancient type of mud fire place. With tea we had the “Champa” that I was carrying and that injected a fresh lease of life to my tired body. Tea with yak milk cost @ 20 INR and I bought a mineral water bottle for INR 40.00, very expensive indeed. As we resumed our journey for another 7 kms it started drizzling lightly and threatened to down pour anytime. I must confess that I had not bothered to carry water proof because I find it cumbersome and rather suffocating. All I had against the torrential rain that would be a usual feature in these parts at this time of the year were an umbrella and my Army Stetson hat. I prayed that it should not rain I repeatedly chanted the Guru Rinpoche (Padmashamva) mantra, “Om Ha Hung, Vajra Guru Padma Siddhi Hum”. Lo and behold no rains, prayers heard and rain did not come.
The last 3 kms to Phalut was steep climb and although along a well paved stone track it was quite a back breaking task. However, as it happens with the well designed human body, that, somehow the extra hidden energy manifest itself that gives us the necessary drive to do the last lap of any race. As taught by the Army, during tiring and difficult marches all that was required to be done was to keep putting one leg forward at a time and not look too far ahead as that would only be tiresome. Instead it is better to look back and appreciate the distance and the climb one has covered that gives boost and encouragement to move forward. Using all the tricks learnt earlier in life I reached Phalut at 2.10 pm. It took us exactly 7 hrs. 10 mins to trek 21 with about 1 hours break in between. However, more than the timings and reaching the destination, I immensely enjoyed the journey, the nature walk, the wilderness, the yaks and above all the blooming rhododendrons. I thank Guru Rinpoche for keeping the rain away from me. This is something of a “believe it or not”. Every time it started drizzling and the Mother Nature threatened to rain I prayed to the Guru Rinpoche, “OM AH HUNG VAJRA GURU PADMA SIDDHI HUM” continuously. So much so that it almost danced in my lips in rhythm with my stepping. Lo and behold, there was no rain. It is also interesting to note that trekkers who were following were drenched to the bone as it started heavy rains almost immediately after I reached Phalut. Thank you, “Guru Rinpoche”.
Phalut has only one Government owned Trekker’s Hut that looks an imposing colonial type hill cottage from outside but a haunted house from inside. The rooms were shabby suffering from years of neglect. Kitchen had the ancient wooden fire place for cooking and most part was black with wood fire soot collected over the years. I walked into the kitchen and found couple of people, not tourists, sitting by the fire and chatting, obviously this was the only available place in the huge colonial house that was warm to sit by. I walked in and announced in Gorkhali to the people present,” I am 70 year old retired colonel, just arrived after 21 kms trek, how are you guys going to make me comfortable”. Immediately there was commotion and everyone got up. The forest Guard got up and offered me the coveted chair. I asked as to who was who and found out that the one by the fire place was the care taker as he proudly told me, “ I am from the Tourism Department”. Rest was guides who had arrived earlier. I asked for a cup of tea and the care taker got busy brewing it in a black kettle, hardened by years of sitting on wooden fire. I learnt that the Tourism guy was the one and only representative of the Government. He was cook, care taker, cleaner, maintenance man, procurement officer, house keeper and overall in-charge. However, the Forest Guard being more elderly as also senior man of the Government, with beat post located adjacent to the lodge, was the de-facto boss of the town, specially for the weary guides and porters.
When I pulled my rank and age he chickened out of the comfortable chair against the fire to my advantage and I promptly occupied it. How small things matter at the right time and place. Like when we march in the Army, during breaks the best shaded tree obviously goes to the senior most without questions asked. When I was climbing a snow covered mountain in Arunachal Pradesh in the winter of 1989, we had to camp for the night. It was snowing and the ground was too wet our tents, our local guide found a cave and made himself comfortable with a wood fire to boot. I walked into the cave with authority and sat by the fire occupying the only comfortable rock to sit on. Slowly my company commander followed and sat next to me and then another. Finally we found ourselves, a party of 10 reconnaissance team sitting by the fire. Later we ate and slept there, needless to say, me occupying the most comfortable slot next to the fire. It happens all the time. During one dinner night of a battalion, the roast chicken was being served, obviously the waiter starts serving the senior most officer on the table that happened to be the Commanding Officer, by the time waiter reached end of the table where the junior most Lieutenant was sitting, the roast chicken had dwindled to a mere piece of neck. The lieutenant took the neck and looked at his Commanding Officer, upon which he commented, “Don’t look at” me young man, I have waited for this leg piece for the past 20 years, you will get your turn in times to come”. That is organizational hierarchy practiced all over the world, if you please. I enjoyed the tea in a steel mug against the warm hearth that was music to my aching limbs. Small mercies in time of need count a lot.
Two Indian style toilets and two bath rooms strategically located opposite kitchen were pathetic to say the least. Broken window panes, no wash basin, no water in the tap and no flush system. To wash the cold posteriors and flush down the human excreta, very little water was kept in a dirty half cut plastic jar with a dirty broken mug. The western tourists, who are not used to washing their crappy posteriors with water, had thrown the used toilet paper pieces in one corner making a stinking heap. In any case Indian style toilets are pretty hard for most of westernized crappers specially for senior citizens whose vintage knees have just creaked 21 kms. If I had a choice I would have preferred to do it outside in the jungle but unfortunately there was no big enough bush for the purpose in the near vicinity. Besides, I did not want a blood thirsty leech finding its way into my intestines from the wrong side. It started pouring hard and other trekkers trooped in, mostly drenched. Perhaps as a result of pulling rank and age, I was given a huge room with two cots @ INR 125.00. When I tried to move a cot further away from mine I found it was nailed to the wooden floor and boasted of a 5th leg for support, perhaps against over adventurous bed breaking couples of yore. Two dirty curtains of questionable color and design were hung on a bamboo stick and when I tried to draw it so as to make the cold room warm, it fell down from the pelmet. Windows were rattling against the wind and rain and the bed linen, blanket and quilt were dirty and had definitely been used by many other trekkers. I am amazed that Singalila National Park, Sandakpu and Phalut are world famous trek areas attracting tourists from all over the world and yet the condition of the one and only Government’s Tourist Department Lodge is kept in such a pathetic state. I have no hesitation to say that such a sorry state showcasing government institution in one of the internationally famous and frequently used trekking route is a “National Shame”.
I have seen in other places in Darjeeling Hills where fashionable monolithic tourist lodges, way side inns and restaurants have been constructed over the last 25 years, however, its upkeep and maintenance is zero and some of the places are either burnt or abandoned. It seems the only purpose of these wasted infrastructures was to benefit the obliging contractor and the connected political masters. Points in question are Pin Tail Village near Panhca Nadi, Siliguri, group of similar type French Villas in Mirik, a way side restaurant in Dudhey and another burnt and abandoned structure near Rohini. Ambitious projects that started with a political bang but ended in a whimper. No one in the power corridors of the hills and plains seem to notice such apathy. Hope, they see sense in having an attractive, comfortable and an International standard infrastructure in place and once such an institution comes up, we hope and pray that it is not overused or misused by the so called self-declared VIPs of the Government. A strict set of Standard Operating and accounting procedures would be the need of the day to be implemented by stricter implementation policy. It is possible. I understand Uttaranchal Government Tourism is guided by such efficiency as they have employed retired service officers in charge of such institutions. Political will is the need of the day. Hopefully such a project will see the light of the day and to quote the 3 witches in Macbeth; perhaps, “When the hurly burly is done and the (political) battle is lost and won”, amen.
Dinner was rice, daal and potato vegetable that was undercooked. I saw that the cooking was being done by the guide cum porters. The only table and couple of chairs near the fire place were already occupied by the western trekkers so my guide hastily got me a chair by the kitchen fire place. I ate in silence with illumination by kitchen log fire and a small flickering candle. Bon Appetite.
It rained the whole night and I had a sound sleep under the dirty blanket and quilt, after old bones needed good rest and got it.