Trek to Sandakpu, Darjeeling : Part 1

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.

Get-Set-Go

Get-Set-Go


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.

Chitrey Gompa

Chitrey Gompa

Chitrey Gompa
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.

Meghma – Buddha Purnima Procession

Meghma – Buddha Purnima Procession

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.

Gairibas with a rough poster showing direction to Nepal

Gairibas with a rough poster showing direction to Nepal

Cuppa Tea at Magnolia Lodge, Gairibas

Cuppa Tea at Magnolia Lodge, Gairibas

Land Rover-1954 Model

Land Rover-1954 Model

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.

Sandakpu

Sandakpu

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.

18 Comments

  • Wow! This is the post I have been waiting for …….
    Thanks.

  • SilentSoul says:

    Very good travelogue with b’ful fotos. I think this story is unique (FOG) here. tks for sharing

  • Abheeruchi says:

    Hello Sir,

    Very nice description.I heard this name for the first time.Good to know about such beautiful places.

    Waiting for next part.

  • Nandan Jha says:

    Long time Mani Sir. The log is very detailed and gives the readers a good view of the entire place. I have never been to Darjeeling but have been reading about the violence and the urban-infra issues. Interestingly Landrover is doing very well in UK, under the new Indian owner Tatas.

    Your profile doesn’t have much details, please update or send the text to me and I would do that. Salute.

  • AUROJIT says:

    Hello Sir,

    Enjoyed the elaborate description of the venture. Such great details are really helpful to any prospective traveller (or trakker) apart from enabling the reader to conjure nice views around the description.

    Such nice words for Bongs – count me in for giving full marks to your writings :-)

    Looking forward to the series.

    • Col Mani K Gahatraj says:

      Hi Aurojit,

      Glad you liked the post. As for Bongs, facts are facts, they are one of the most travelling people of this planet, cheers, God Bless.

      Mani

  • Nirdesh Singh says:

    Hi Col Saheb,

    Loved the tone of the post – very brasstack!

    I could not locate Maneybhanjyang on google maps. The terrain does look arduous and inviting at the same time.

    Now I think you have qualified to undertake the next death defying trek with Praveen!

    • Col Mani K Gahatraj says:

      Hi Nirdesh,

      Thanks, am glad you liked the post. Try to locate Singalila National Park, Maneybhanjyang is almost connected to it or try through Sandakpu.

      Oh I am flattered about trek with Praveen, I would definitely love to go through the gauntlet of “Clear & Present Danger” with Praveen and all you guys : ) but honestly, Mechu Pechu is my dream trek, someday, sooner the better.

      God Bless,

      Mani

  • Amitava Chatterjee says:

    Hi Col.
    Beautiful post on a beautiful place. Some of these places are very familiar to me…and it reminds me a lot of old memories. Thank you for that. I was actually started reading few days back but thought to read the post to enjoy when I have some good time.

    A very well written travelogue and will be very useful.

    and such nice words for Bongs…feeling good…now on my way to read the Part-II

  • rhinoramanan says:

    mani in the last 43 years i have been with u, i have known many of ur specialities
    BUT THIS TOPS ALL OF THEM .
    the writing so soothing that i loved it .
    i am going to go back to bazar again and again searching for the part 2 and 3.till my net comes ,
    do u know it needs real guts and spirit to venture alone with a back pack . keep it up . but go in company next time. i wish i could join u but doctors and my family will hang me. they all think they can hold me back in this world if i do nothing and sqat at home.
    i am doing my best to the army in return to what it gave me for thre and a half decades . as i told u i am busy with social work and manage to disappear outside the home.
    KEEP IT UP
    the last trek i managed was in 2012 when i toook 50 MBA students to singhar chori in choral ghats with the teachers . some of were above 60 and mentioned this is the first trek of their life and found the 12 km stretch very tough . i am sending ur post to them .
    LOVE U MANI . U R GREAT . TAGRA RAHO

    • Col Mani K Gahatraj says:

      Many Many thanks sir, you have always been my Guru last 43 years and will continue to be one forever. If not trek we can at least play Golf : ). Have a great time in Dubai and play golf in Montgomery Course. I played there on 16th Aug 2006 at mid day when the temp was only 41 deg C. My partner was a Greek friend and we had lunch after 9 holes and carried on. but then I was younger then, only 64 : ), God Bless you too.

      Tagra Raho,

      Mani

  • Tejen Kr Bardhan says:

    Dear Mani,

    pardon my slip in not responding promptly. Had gone thru your lucid ‘write-up’ ; a beautiful, n easy read. At your age, must say a great effort to take on such a trek. I envy you. Though I was waiting for the Part!! ( hopefully more exciting if not challenging) , saw the dispatch in today’s mail. Looking forward to it.

    Wish you all the best. God bless. Bardie

    • Col Mani K Gahatraj says:

      Thank you so much Bardie Sir for your inspiring comments. I am glad you liked the post. Hope, by now you have read both the remaining parts.

      Regards n TR,

      Mani

  • Biswajit Ganguly says:

    Respected Col.Saheb,
    After long time came across a post which is very captivating, knowledge giving and having scent of holiness. Praveenji must be very happy to have somebody who can actually give him competition in adventure tourism. But we as readers are going to be the happiest lot getting benefitted through two stalwarts of adventure tourism. Certainly these routes are not common for any traveller and the way you have written and provided minutest detailing going to be frequently travelled places in future. Sir you are brilliant as far as expressing and explaining what you have come across in those holy places and deserve the highest accolades for the effort. Bandook aur Kalam ke parangat kum hi dikhtey hey. would like to add another community along with Bengalis i.e Gujrati’s because of whom the domestic tourism is thriving. Thanks for sharing the invaluable experiences and inspiring many ghumakkar to take this route very soon. Regards, Ganguly

    • Mani says:

      Thank you Biswajit for your kind words. I am glad you liked the post. Encouragements like yours pep me to do more. Thank you indeed.

  • Lexa says:

    Dear Mama-Bajay (oops…did I give u away? ;) haha),

    I read through all your travelogues and I am thoroughly impressed with your writing skills!!! Its nothing short of fantastic! Reading it gave me the feeling of me being the one travelling – like I was the one doing all those little details you so intricately wove into your accounts. I could feel the mist and the rain – makes me miss home a LOT!! Thank you so much for sharing this with me… such a pleasure reading it.

    You should think of putting this up on travelocity and other travel websites so aspiring travelers can gain insight on the beautiful journey they could potentially plan!! We as travelers always look for reviews and travelogues like this one to plan our own travels. I would definitely want to do this trip too now!! By the way – I am so proud of you for being such an adventurous person and not letting age or a few aches get in your way of your dreams. I want to be just like you when I grow up and hope that I will be still trekking around like you when I get to where you are in life!! :) You are a true inspiration!

    I hope to come see you in a few months when I get the chance to fly back home. I hope we can sit down and have a drink like we always have! Keep the stories coming – makes me feel like I am home even when I’m not. Beautiful! Thank you.

    *Hug* Take care or yourself young man! :) My love to your beautiful wife – give her a kiss from me.

    W/ lots of love,

    Your favorite :) grand daughter (haha),

    Lexa

    • Mani says:

      My Dear and most Favourite “NATINI”,

      Thank you for your very sweet and inspiring comments, I am truly delighted that in spite of being so far away Down Under and leading a busy life you found time to go through all my articles. You do, most certainly, inspire me to travel and write more. I would definitely be doing so till I finally gallop away to the “Happy Hunting Ground” : ) Presently I am busy writing on Kabul.

      I look forward to your visit and of course sharing many evenings across the “Samarkand Bar” with amber liquid dazzling in crystal glasses in our hands and exchanging travel experiences and your adventure in the new continent Down Under. Cheers !!!

      With Lots of Love and come soon.

      Mama Bajey

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