Jannu (also known as Kumbhakarna) from PhalutPosing for a photo atop Phalut with Jannu in the background
I step into a room with a cement washed floor. Faded and dusty, age curled posters depicting blooming rhododendrons, conifer forests, red pandas and snow clad mountains cover the grubby plastered walls. ‘Namaste, welcome to Singalila National Park’, says a man in a beige uniform, hands pressed together. He bows deeply and smiles broadly as he places a white khata (scarf) with red and black patterns round my neck to wish me a safe journey. ‘Namaste’ I reply, repeating his gesture. The park, which is closed from June 16 to September 15 each year on account of the monsoon rains and animal breeding season, has only this day reopened and we are the first official tourists of the new trekking season.
It’s around midday and we have just arrived in the village of Manebhanjan from Darjeeling, a 26 km journey by jeep along shockingly bad mountain roads. It is warm and teeming with rain and the main unpaved street full of potholes is awash with muddy water which cascades noisily off the roofs of the two and three storey concrete buildings interspersed with corrugated iron shacks. But the local people seem unperturbed by the deluge. Sari-clad women out shopping wander up and down the dreary street and most are shod in sandals and carrying umbrellas to keep the worst of the rain off, while men bent double under heavy loads aren’t even bothering to avoid getting wet. It’s mid-September and the monsoon season should by now have ended…
We are about to embark on a five-day trek of over 70 km. There is no porter service, so we have to carry all our gear including a sleeping bag in a 35 litre rucksack. Large sections of the route lie in the Singalila National Park, declared a Wildlife Sanctuary in 1986 and an Indian National Park in 1992 and is especially famous for its rhododendrons and magnolia trees that flower in spring, and the endangered Red Panda. The two highest peaks of West Bengal, Sandakphu (3,630 metres) and Phalut (3,600 metres), are located on the Singalila Ridge and we will be climbing to the summit of each. Manebhanjan is right on the border between the Indian state of West Bengal and the Kingdom of Nepal and the 5-day route we are going to take actually weaves its way in and out of the two countries, but there is no need for any visas or permits to enter Nepal during the trek. However, you cannot do the trek without a permit and an official nature guide and you must carry your passport, which in our case, contained a required Indian visa.
Our guide is a Sherpa man with a pierced ear and his initials tattooed on one hand who looks much older than his 38 years. He ushers us into a tiny restaurant. Here we enjoy a hearty meal of freshly steamed beef and cabbage momo (Nepali dumplings) served with red garlic chilli sauce and a steaming bowl of oily broth washed down with lashings of black tea. Before the off, there is just one more formality: we must register with the Indian army. Further down the road we enter a rather grimy office with pale green wooden panelling. A plainclothes man sitting behind an oversized wooden desk inspects our passports and meticulously and slowly copies all the information into a large, dog-eared ledger. He then asks us to sign our names before wishing us a successful trip.
As we step outside clad in GoreTex clothing from head to toe, the strident hiss that instantly descends on our jackets is a sobering indicator of the strength of the monsoon rain and we have around 13 km to walk with an ascent of nearly 800 metres ahead of us. Walking through the bazaar of this bustling village, we pass small shops with fruit and vegetables literally flowing out onto the pavements and have to dodge cattle and a constant flow of jeeps loudly honking their horns. As we pass beyond the outskirts of town, the paved road begins to climb steeply through conifer trees and bamboo groves. Almost instantly I begin to sweat heavily in the heat and I have to stop to remove my glasses which have misted over. We trudge on along the steepening road up numerous hairpin bends stopping occasionally for a jeep to pass by. Within 15 minutes I am literally drenched in sweat and the GoreTex jacket feels useless. I can’t say I am enjoying this experience and if the next five days are like this it will be an utterly miserable experience and hopeless for photography. I’m almost ready to throw in the towel and return to Darjeeling, and looking at Martin I can sense he is thinking exactly the same!
We have been walking for over an hour and I am relieved when our guide informs us that we will soon be stopping at a tea house in a place called Chitre just inside Nepal. The trees begin to thin out giving way gradually to a large grassy expanse with signs of cultivation. As we ascend higher, I spot the white and gold of a Buddhist stupa rising above a collection of corrugated iron and thatched-roofed wooden houses, above which limp prayer flags struggle to flutter in the downpour. We enter a dimly lit building past a kitchen lined with shelves of huge pots and pans and rows of neatly displayed china plates and tea cups where a woman is standing over a gas stove stirring a large pot of dahl. We pass into a room with bare floorboards and lilac painted walls containing several tables and chairs. A row of windows flood the room with light and give panoramic views of the mountainside and stupa just visible through the cloud. A flat screen TV loudly broadcasting the news takes pride of place. We make ourselves comfortable at one of the tables by a window, joining an old man with a white beard in a check trilby hat and golden wellies who is eating a meal of rice and dahl.
I drain the remains of my teacup, reluctant to return to the incessant rain. Putting on my sodden jacket is a thoroughly unpleasant experience and I wonder whether a plastic poncho and an umbrella like our guide is using would have been a more sensible option. It feels like I have entered a power shower as I leave the tea house. The gradient is less steep now and we leave the road every so often, taking short cuts along smaller, unpaved tracks running over the spine of a hill above steep wooded valleys. Our guide alerts us to the presence of leeches, one of which has attached itself to his trouser leg. Undoubtedly the scenery would be breathtaking if only we could see it, but the rain continues to fall steadily from a light grey sky. Around an hour later and back on the main road, I spot a black and white distance marker. These will become constant companions over the next few days. It notes that Lamey Dhura is one kilometre away and, as we are making good time, our guide asks if we would like to stop there for another cup of tea. A suggestion that is quickly accepted!
As we approach Lamey Dhura, a hamlet of just five Sherpa families, the rain begins to ease a bit and gaps in the cloud appear revealing more of the surrounding deeply wooded valleys and mountains. The wet road cobbles leading down to a cluster of desultory shacks gleam in the glassy light. Chickens scatter as we approach the rather grandly named Lamey Dhura Sherpa Tea Stall past a wattle cowshed with its forlorn-looking occupant tied up near the doorway. It is too wet to sit outside, so we are ushered into what can only be described as a hovel. On an earthen floor huddled together on low stools round a crudely fashioned clay fireplace built up against a wall are three dishevelled adults barely visible in the clouds of blue wood smoke rising up to the roof. They warmly welcome us, a grubby curtain is pulled aside and we’re shown into a room with two low couches either side of a table on which a large tray of red and green chilli peppers are being dried. A couple of grimy plastic chairs and a rickety wooden cupboard containing plastic dishes complete the furniture, while a further curtain hides the entrance to a room beyond.
Lamey Dhura Sherpa Tea ShopDrinking a welcome cup of hot black tea after trekking in the monsoon
The wattle walls are lined with plastic sheeting and newspaper. This chilly, damp shack is neither wind tight or water tight and an enamel bowl on one of the couches is steady collecting drops of rain water seeping in through a broken skylight in the roof. Cups of steaming hot black tea and a plate of biscuits soon arrive which raise my spirits. The man who brought the tea disappears into the room beyond and I catch a glimpse of a woman and a child huddled together in bed, probably to escape the damp and cold. Life in this remote community must be one of continual hardship in the face of such grinding poverty. There isn’t any comfort in this shack which is little better than that occupied by the family cow and it disturbs me to see people living in such wretched conditions in the 21st century.
The monsoon deluge has virtually stopped as we step outside to begin the 2.5 km leg to Meghma, the last village before Tumling where we will stop for the night. I begin to enjoy the walk as the cloud drifts languidly up through the densely forested valleys of chimal and magnolia trees, I notice lots of colourful flowers along the roadside and patches of pale blue sky begin to peek though the clouds. Meghma, from the Nepali word for ‘cloud’ isn’t living up to its name at all, and we can clearly see the stupa of a monastery and a cluster of buildings, many two storied, below which is an Indian army camp. As the village lies right on the border between India and Nepal, we must stop to have our passports inspected and our details recorded at the Indian border check post.
Monsoon mist in the Eastern HimalayaView over Nepal from near Lamey Dhura
After signing the register, we pause to admire the Sangchen Ugagyur Hoshal Dechen Choling Buddhist monastery before passing through the small Nepalese village. The people who live in the cluster of brightly painted houses built of stone and wood with impressive window boxes of bright orange begonias, are Sherpa. Children smile and wave at us as we walk by. The village has a friendly, welcoming feel to it. This is a farming community and we pass by numerous wattle pigsties and cowsheds, noisy hen houses, and meet people driving their cattle. A simple ‘Namaste’ draws an instant smile and reciprocal greeting from everyone we meet.
Sherpa boyOne of the friendly Sherpa boys in the village of Meghma, Nepal
We take the driveable 4X4 road to Tumling passing by a wall on the top of a hill covered in brightly coloured Buddhist motifs before coming to a number of small whitewashed buildings sited on a stream and surrounded by prayer flags. Inside one of these is a small horizontal waterwheel driving a prayer wheel in the room above. A plaque on the exterior of the building states that it is dedicated to the ‘welfare and prosperity of all sentient beings’ and expressing the hope that ‘peace and harmony would prevail on the universe forever’. I am touched by the beliefs of these gentle Sherpa people.
The road rises steeply as we approach Tumling, another Nepalese settlement at an altitude of 2,970 metres. We arrive here well before dark after a journey time of about 5 hours including stops. We are staying at the Shikar Lodge, a chalet type building of stone and wood with a corrugated red iron roof sporting window boxes brim full of bright begonias. Across a small courtyard are several rooms for trekkers, all named after local flowers, and we are very pleased with Aster, an en suite allocated to us.
Shikar Lodge, TumlingOur first night's accommodation was in the Nepali village of Tumling
Dinner is to be delayed slightly, as the cook who is a village school teacher, is preparing a local chicken for us, so we have time to savour the only bottle of beer left at the lodge! We are eventually ushered into a large room with bare wooden floorboards adorned with numerous framed photographs of the mountain views, flora and fauna, as well as certificates, flags and other mementoes from mountaineering and trekking clubs from India, Nepal and well beyond. The room is decidedly chilly, in contrast to the area where our guide is enjoying himself by the roaring cooking fire. The food is simple, delicious and plentiful, consisting of vegetable soup, local condiments, jeera aloo, plain rice, dahl, chapattis and the chicken in a spicy sauce. However, I will never understand how every cook in this part of the world manages to absolutely massacre cooking a chicken which universally seems to have little or no meat on it! I get the scrawny neck, a rubbery bit of the wing and some offal from this one! A dessert of apple and custard follows. Stomachs full, we retire to bed as our guide is planning to wake us around dawn if the mountains make an appearance.
It is well after dawn when our guide knocks on our door to tell us that the cloud has finally lifted and the mountains are now visible. We quickly dress and walk the short distance uphill through the village to a grassy viewpoint by a rusty old signpost with a barely legible ‘Welcome to Singalila National Park’ inscribed on it. I stare into the distance directly ahead of me where veils of white cloud are draped like silken scarves across the blue-green outline of what seem like hundreds of interlocking mountain ridges. I can’t initially see any snow covered peaks, but then, to my utter amazement, I realise that I’m not looking high enough! Suddenly there is Kanchenjunga soaring well above the white veils of cloud, its five snowy peaks glinting in the sunlight against a powder blue sky. At 8,586 metres, this is the third highest mountain in the world, and unsurprisingly, was once thought to be the highest; in the Tibetan language it translates as ‘the five treasures of the high snow’. We are about 60 km away, but this mountain is absolutely huge and it takes me a while to get my head around how enormous an 8,000 metre plus mountain actually is.
KanchenjungaFirst sight of Kanchenjunga from Tumling Village in Nepal
Our guide points out our final destination of the day, the summit of Sandakphu, the highest point in the Indian state of West Bengal, where a cluster of buildings above a steep zig-zag road can be clearly seen. It looks a long way off and will involve a steep descent and ascent through an intervening valley, a distance of about 21 km. Far below the summit on a ridge is another settlement named Kalipokhri where we will stop for lunch.
Having taken our fill of our first sight of the mighty Himalaya, we return to the lodge for breakfast. Porridge, more jeera aloo and a delicious local bread are placed in front of us which we consume with gusto washed down by the ubiquitous ‘black tea’. We set off at 7.30 am heading towards the village of Jhaubari about 4 km from Tumling, passing through an elaborate iron gateway and a check post into the park en route. The weather is quite benign, warm but not particularly humid. The route meanders up and down along the top of a ridge offering fine views over Nepal, the landscape dotted with numerous small farms of wattle houses, cattle sheds and pigsties surrounded by rectangles of verdant crops. I notice how deforested this side of the Singalila Ridge is compared to India where the forests are protected. In Nepal much of tree cover has vanished – felled mainly for firewood.
Nepali farmThe Nepali side of the Singalila Ridge is heavily deforested unlike the Indian side which lies inside the Singalila National Park and is protected
Within an hour we spot the village of Jhaubari spread out in a ragged line across a hill top in the distance. On the approach to the village we pass by a whitewashed Buddhist shrine and a number of abandoned and decaying buildings before entering the muddy main street lined with prayer flags and flapping laundry. Brightly painted private houses sporting satellite dishes, mere shacks and scruffy shops parade cheek by jowl, side by side: the long and the short, the wide and the narrow. Rusting tin shacks and thatched hovels of wattle and daub elbow single storied tin-roofed buildings and double-storied trekkers’ lodges with stone façades, as heterogeneous a jumble of decay and pretence as could be imagined. An elderly woman, hair scrapped back in a bun and brandishing a walking stick, is coming down the muddy cobbled road driving a flock of goats. She expertly turns them down the road towards Gairibas. We follow her.
Goats in the village of Jhaubari, NepalGoats on the junction of the road down to Gairibas
Sections of the road down to Gairibas are extremely steep and parts of its cobbled surface has been washed out by the monsoon rains. I wonder that any vehicle can get up to Jhaubari. However, the work horses of the Singalila Ridge can: the mighty Land Rover, much loved and cherished by the local Sherpa. I don’t think anywhere else in the world has such a concentration of these vehicles, many of which, green paint chipped to the metal, are older than me! I watch intrigued as a first series groans up the wretched road in front of me, belching blue fumes as it lurches this way and that, making steady upward progress. Without the Land Rover, many of these remote mountain communities would find it hard to get provisioned and would be totally reliant on mules. It is possible to take a jeep ride all the way to the summit of Sandakphu, a trip offered by many of the Darjeeling tour companies. But that would be cheating!!
Land Rover the workhorse of the HimalayaOne of a number of ancient Land Rovers we encountered on our trek
We are not the only pedestrians on this busy road. A man carrying a large wicker basket slung over his shoulder rushes by us going downhill and another in gold wellies brandishing a long whip passes us slowly making his way uphill with a grey mule, the bell round its neck clanging loudly. The panniers slung over the mule’s back contain buttermilk and the man is en route to Manebhanjan to sell it. In fact, the production of buttermilk is big business in these parts and the cattle that produce it may be seen grazing on the lush grass all over the mountains. They look very different from the cattle we have at home as they are much larger with curved horns and bushier tails and many are actually yak hybrids.
Mule transporting buttermilk in the HimalayaWe passed this man walking up the road to Jhaubari en route to the market in Manebhanjan where he will sell the buttermilk being carried by his mule
The air temperature begins to rise as we proceed to the valley bottom and by the time we enter Gairibas I am sweating profusely. We make our way past several malodorous wattle buildings housing livestock to the army check point opposite the grandly named Magnolia Lodge. We then begin the slow climb up the road leading out of the valley towards Kalipokhri, which is about 6 km away. It’s now mid-morning and the humidity is high. The constant chirping of cicadas is almost deafening as we pass through thick bamboo groves and the densely wooded lower section of the road. This is undoubtedly much steeper than yesterday’s road up from Manebhanjan and I can feel the sweat running down my cheeks and dripping off my chin. The cloud now suddenly descends swallowing the views as we pass through forests of oak and rhododendron, but brings almost instant relief as the temperature falls making climbing less onerous.
Just before the small settlement of Kaiyankata where we will stop, we encounter a team of men repairing a damaged section of road. It looks like very hard work: one man constantly fetching stone in a wicker basket; another breaking it down to a suitable size then setting these new cobbles into place, and a third shovelling and packing gravel between the cobbles to make a level surface.
Road repair man, NepalThis man grabs a short rest from the back breaking work of repairing a section of flood damaged road near Kaiyankata
The fragrant smell of wood smoke fills the air, emitted from a low wattle building with a rusty iron roof surrounded by fluttering prayer flags and well-tended gardens. The kitchen of this tea house is a lean too constructed against the main building where a long, rustic clay oven is built up against the wall. The wood burning in the central semicircular fireplace emits a welcoming red glow. On top of it two pots are gently steaming away. Nearby is another fireplace which is not in use and there are two sets of three small circular clay domes where pots removed from the fire are placed to cool down.
Sherpa kitchen, KaiyankataWood burning oven in the kitchen of a Sherpa tea shop in Kaiyankata, Nepal
As the water is being heated up for black tea, Martin and I are conducted into a small room with a wooden floor, table and two couches. A simple wooden shelf running the length of a wall houses a collection of bowls, plates and mugs, while a dusty and faded paper flower display in a vase on the table attempts to add a splash of colour. A cream coloured dog with a matted coat strolls in the door, sniffs the couch nearest it and duly urinates over the leg and fabric covering before we shoo it out loudly. My stomach churns! The hygiene in these tea shops leaves much to be desired!
After being refreshed with black tea and sweet coconut biscuits, we press on towards Kalipokhri where we will stop for lunch. The road is cut into the hillside above deeply incised valleys densely forested with oak, magnoila and rhododendron and we cross several crystal clear mountain streams tumbling down noisily from on high. The road here appears to be less well-used, more overgrown with weeds and vegetation, and we encounter many colourful flowers and raspberry canes garlanded with small, sweet juicy berries. After just over an hour we spot the stupa of a small shrine on a knoll above a lily-covered pool of brackish water across which are strung lines of coloured prayer flags. Light raindrops trace concentric circles across the mirror-flat surface of the pool, blurring the reflection of the flags above. Kalipokhri means ‘black water area’ and is named after this pool, and we soon arrive at a collection of algae-stained cement and galvanised iron buildings, a few of which appear to be trekkers’ lodges, flaunting their misery across a muddy road foetid with animal ordure. Several straggly chickens foraging in the grass at the base of the buildings and the cloud billowing across the road lends the place a melancholy dreariness.
Sherpa kitchen in Kalipokhri on the border between India and NepalWood burning oven in the kitchen of a Sherpa tea shop in Kalipokhri where we had soya bean and cabbage momo
We step from the road into a room with an earthen floor containing a large table and numerous plastic chairs, ingrained with grime, as seems to be customary in these villages. Adjoining this room is the kitchen. A clay oven is glowing brightly, and a supply of fire wood is stacked neatly on a rack above it. Dangling from the rack are a line of corn cobs which have been strung up to dry. Our guide takes up his usual spot right near the fireplace. We, however, are consigned to shiver in the damp of the other room, the battered main door to which is swinging wide open allowing the mist to blow in. The woman of the house is going to cook soya bean and cabbage momo for our lunch. Meat seems to be at a premium in these villages! Hot black tea soon makes its way to us and we are grateful for the warmth as we have now climbed to over 3,000 metres and it feels decidedly chilly up here. The momo arrive steaming hot, and a brand new bottle of green chilli sauce is presented by the man of the house to go with the spicy tomato sauce the woman has put in a dish. It’s so cold, the sauce won’t leave the bottle easily and much merriment is generated by all of us attempting to coax it out! The effort is well worth it, as the sauce is delicious, as are the momo, and the cook is delighted when we clear our plates, making seconds readily available.
We have another 6 km to go before we reach Sandakphu and the weather looks like it is going to take a turn for the worse as we set off, passing an old man from the village of Gorkey en route to Jhaubari with several brooms he has made slung across his back. We pause briefly at Bhagsa, a settlement of a few houses and a shop, where I spot our guide buying some tablets, before descending to Bikheybhanjang past numerous sacred streams bedecked with coloured prayer flags and rock outcrops inscribed with Buddhist symbols. The going now begins to get tough as we commence the final ascent to the summit of Sandakphu. A flight of steep steps lead up towards a white stupa bearing a pair of Buddha’s eyes, wisely staring out over the valley below. We pause here for a short break, as the altitude is now beginning to take its toll on all of us. I spy our guide, leaning heavily on his umbrella, slyly popping a couple of pills into his mouth.
Sherpa man and broomsThis old man is on his way from the village of Gorkhey en route to Jhaubari to sell the broom heads slung over his shoulder
The road now deteriorates into a deeply rutted track strewn with loose stone and boulders and the gradient is punishing. My lungs feel fit to burst as we make our way slowly up the zig-zag road, gasping for breath the higher we climb. To add insult to injury, the heavens open just a few kilometres from the summit and we are forced to don full rain gear which makes the climb even more uncomfortable. It is with some relief that I see a milestone emerge through the gloom indicating that Sandakphu is 0 km away, but I am crest-fallen to discover that we still have to traverse over 300 metres to reach the hut we’re staying at. Dejected, I sit down heavily on the wall of the penultimate hairpin bend as the rain literally pours down round me. Martin takes pity on me and produces some energy sweets. Having devoured these, we make the final assault on the road, arriving soaked through at the Sunrise Lodge some nine and a half hours after leaving Tumling.
We are shown down a dimly lit long, wet concrete corridor past a couple of squat toilets to a cramped three bed dorm with a table and too few hooks to hang up our wet clothing. Our room looks out over the mountains, but at the moment the window is streaming in condensation and nothing of the scenery can be seen through the rain. Dinner is served in a nearby building where our guide has already taken up residence by the kitchen fire. We are seated in an adjoining dining room at a table with a sticky plastic table cloth. It feels so cold and damp in here that even a scrawny looking cat is trying to worm its way onto my lap. Seeing that it is riddled with fleas, I push the poor thing away. Dinner is served but is hardly worth getting excited about. Our guide had warned us about the meagreness of the food on offer here and had brought along some popcorn and a packet of vegetable soup to augment the plain boiled rice, masoor dahl and a small helping of cumin flavoured potatoes which are served with rubbery chapattis. We eat in silence casting our eyes towards a nearby wall which is inexplicably decorated with cuttings from international cookery magazines. It’s absolute purgatory to partake of this very bland meal while eyeing pictures of Nigella Lawson’s culinary sensations! The only redeeming feature of this lodge is that there is plenty of beer available.
Outside, the sky has completely cleared and the Milky Way casts a glorious arch high over our heads. There is little light pollution here and, as our eyes become accustomed to the dark, we see that the sky is literally peppered with an infinite number of various sized stars. Martin sets the camera up to take some time lapse sequences before, chilled to the bone, we retire for the night.
After a fitful night’s sleep due to several dogs’ sporadic and annoying barking, we are awoken by our guide knocking on the door informing us that the mountains are clearly visible. Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I pull the curtains aside and wipe the window free of condensation. The night sky is brightening rapidly with the onset of dawn and deciding not to rush to dress like Martin, I remain in bed and watch as the rising sun turns the five snowy peaks of the Kanchenjunga range marshmallow-pink, then soft-apricot, before eventually brightening to creamy-white.
Kanchenjunga at dawn from SandakphuAt 8,586 metres, this is the third highest mountain in the world. In Tibetan it means ‘the five treasures of the high snow’
From Sandakphu, Kanchenjunga and its surrounding peaks look like the body of a giant sleeping Buddha. The mountain is considered a holy deity in the State of Sikkim and climbers are not permitted to surmount its summit. I join Martin and we stand in reverent awe for nearly half an hour watching the cloud playing about the valleys and endless interlocking grey-green ridges below this giant mountain, before strolling back to the hut for breakfast, stopping en route to admire the incredible view of the road we had climbed yesterday switch-backing its way up the spine of the ridge all the way from Bikheybhanjang.
The 'sleeping Buddha'From Sandakphu the summits of Jannu (Kumbhakarna) and Kanchenjunga resemble the form of a reclining Buddha
Road along the Singalilia Ridge to SandakphuMorning light hitting the steep zig-zag road from Bikheybhanjang we had climbed up the day before in the monsoon downpour
Sunlight is streaming in through the windows of the dining room making it a far more welcoming place to sit and eat than the night before. A pot of black tea arrives and we sip this while waiting for our breakfast. The man of the house enters the room with a flourish, brandishing a small brass plate containing charcoal and incense which he waves about in front of a small shrine, before wandering round the room allowing the fragrance to permeate the four corners. He then sits down opposite us and proceeds to add up some bills with the aid of a calculator, mumbling loudly as he enters the amounts meticulously into a well-thumbed grubby ledger. Breakfast is no better than dinner, and I am disheartened to lift the lid of a plastic container to discover a large doughy pancake wrapped in old newspaper. I turn down the watery porridge, fearful that the milk might upset my stomach, and smear something resembling raspberry jam onto the pancake. Every mouthful lodges in my throat and I punish myself further by eyeing the nearby pictures of Nigella’s cookery!
SandakphuDawn at Sandakphu
Monkshood (Aconitum ferox) growing near SandakphuColloquially known as Indian Aconite, monkshood is considered to be the deadliest plant in the world and has lent its name to Sandakphu: ‘height of the poison plants’
The route to Phalut, 21 km in total, traverses the top of the Singalila Ridge; there is no proper water supply and only one small tea shop en route. As it’s so early in the trekking season our guide is unsure whether or not this will be open. Water is the least of my concerns. The lack of food, and therefore calories, is far more worrying. Our guide had been hoping to take some boiled eggs with us to eat en route, but we are informed there are none to be had in Sandakphu. I find this hard to believe as there are chickens running about here everywhere!
This private lodge seems to be particularly badly run, with inadequate provisioning and very poor food for which there is no excuse, as vehicles arrive here daily.
The weather has improved and the sun is hot on our shoulders as we leave the cluster of buildings round the summit. The air is perfectly still and the atmosphere clear revealing a long line of mountains, the sleeping Buddha being particularly prominent. Sandakphu means ‘height of the poison plants’ and we pass a tall clump of attractive deep purple flowers which have lent their name to this place, a species of Monkshood with the botanical name of Aconitum ferox, colloquially known as Indian Aconite, considered to be the most deadly plant in the world.
An unexpected wave of emotion washes over me as Martin points out the peak of Everest sandwiched between Lhotse and Makalu. Although about 160 km away, through binoculars we can clearly see the South Col and the Hillary Step below the summit of the world’s highest mountain.
Here the view is grand indeed, unimpeded by trees or buildings, and we feast our eyes on an unforgettable 180 degree view of the Eastern Himalaya with ranges belonging to Nepal on the west, Sikkim and Bhutan in the middle and Arunachal Pradesh in the east, and are able to spot four of the five highest mountains on Earth.
Everest as seen from SandakphuAlthough about 160 km away, we could clearly see Everest sandwiched between Lhotse (left) and Makalu (right)
Our cameras snap away for several minutes before we continue along the undulating road through a delightful sylvan landscape of silver fir, oak, rhododendron and magnolia which look magnificent bathed in sunshine under an impossibly blue sky. After around 4 km the landscape begins to change; the trees thin out eventually giving way to rolling grassland dotted with the silvered and skeletal remains of numerous dead silver fir (victims of lightning strikes) and patches of flowers, including cerise-pink geraniums. We leave the track, passing by a herd of goats and a series of pools so blue they look as if they have swallowed the entire sky, their mirror still surfaces perfectly reflecting the stunted remains of the dead conifers. The scene is hauntingly beautiful, but there is no time to stop and soak up the atmosphere as Phalut is still over 13 km away.
We have to stop at another army checkpoint and I’m grateful for the opportunity to rest. The descriptions I had read of the route give the impression that Sandakphu to Phalut is a leisurely stroll along the Singalila Ridge, but this is not the case at all. We have to descend about 400 metres, only to ascend over another 350 more to reach the hut at Phalut. By the time we reach the bottom of a steep metalled road with numerous hairpin bends, the lack of calories is beginning to take its toll. As we begin the lung-busting climb up towards Phalut through forests of conifers, chestnuts, rhododendron and magnolia, the cloud fortunately descends like a silent shroud and we welcome the instant cooling effect this brings. Saffron coloured fungi dot the ground beneath some of the trees and the sight of massive silver firs, some partially stunted, standing sentinel like a silent army in the churning mist is slightly unnerving.
Hoopoe (Upupa epops)We spotted this Hoopoe in the Singalila National Park
The trees eventually begin to thin out, the terrain becomes grassier and we spot lots of flowers, including the beautiful deep blue Himalayan gentian and mauve coloured Aster. About 7 km from Phalut, we arrive at Sabarkum, a collection of rectangular and circular galvanised huts half hidden in thigh-high yellow grass, with a line of prayer flags strung across the track way leading to it. All looks deadly quiet and I begin to despair of it being open for lunch, when a head appears in one of the doorways. Luckily for us, the tea shop is ready for business and hot noodle soup, steamed potatoes and black tea are on offer! Our guide has also brought along some cheese and apples and we greedily tuck into this meagre fare, glad to replenish our weary bodies with much needed calories. After buying some bottled water, we continue on our way down a steep and rutted road, one of the arterial routes through this mountain range from Nepal to India. We exchange pleasantries with several Asian trekkers brandishing umbrellas and little else, who had come from Gorkey and were en route to a place called Molley about 2 km from Sabarkum.
The route now undulates along a ridge above densely forested valleys, the tops of the trees poking up through the mist which billows across the road in front of us. Fine drops of rain begin to fall but it does not persist for long. Blue sky replaces the gloom and sunshine floods a quite stunning landscape of verdant rolling hills grazed by yak hybrids whose clanging bells break the silence. Phalut is derived from the Lepcha word Fak-Luk, which means ‘Barren Peak’, and this landscape is a real contrast to the dense forests that are so common at the lower levels. However, I wouldn’t describe it as barren, as it looks lush and chocolate box-pretty just after the monsoon rains.
Yak herdersWe saw many yak hybrids on this trek, including these being herded near Phalut
The final 2 km of the day involves another steep climb up towards the hut we’re staying at, but this is leavened somewhat by the majestic scenery and the sight of several herders donning whips and whistling loudly as they drive their herds of yak hybrids through the lush green pasturelands. Close to the top, I pause for breath. The sight of the hills and ridge we had just traversed bathed in the warm tones of late afternoon sunshine rising above columns of luminescent cloud slowly churning in the valleys below is utterly magnificent.
Milestone en route to PhalutThese characteristic markers are a constant sight along the Singalila Ridge. This one marks the final steep climb up to the GTA Hut at Phalut
We finally reach the hut run by the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) at Phalut, a large stone building with a rusty roof of galvanised sheeting, passing a man with a grey mule who shows us to the entrance. I can scarcely believe my eyes when we enter a dusty rubbish strewn wooden corridor and are shown to our room. The place is absolutely filthy, the painted wood panelled walls ingrained with years of grime. Empty beer bottles lie abandoned outside our door and the window sills are thick with dust, blackened candle wax and covered with dark rings left by wet tea cups. In our dorm, the faded, shabby and soiled curtains hang forlornly from makeshift curtain poles above windows so dirty with mould you can barely see through them, and the blankets feel damp and smell musty. I dump my pack and sit down on one of the beds which promptly collapses, concertinaing me between slats of wood and the musty blankets! If we didn’t laugh, we’d surely cry, for this place is grim beyond belief, the worse mountain hut we have stayed at anywhere in the world. To add insult to injury, there’s no beer available here, so it’s yet another cup of bloody black tea!
As it gets dark we are handed a candle stuck in a beer bottle as there is no electricity anywhere in the building except the kitchen. It’s really cold up here and thankfully we are invited into the kitchen which is warm and lit by a bare and very dim light bulb. A young man and woman, faces illuminated by the light of the fire, are sitting on their haunches next to a clay oven preparing our evening meal. Our guide instantly takes up residence on a stool right next to the fire, while we are seated on the opposite side of the room at a small table on a couple of rickety old threadbare chairs. A dish of popcorn arrives with more black tea, followed by a bowl of tasteless vegetable soup, but hungry, I wolf it all down. The kitchen is a wretched affair with a concrete area containing a tap, plastic bowl and a drain in a corner below a window where the woman is now busy washing utensils which she dries and replaces on a long shelf running along the length of one wall. Suspended above the clay oven is a rack full of chopped firewood atop which our water proofs have been spread out to dry. This turns out to be quite a mistake, as they smelt like smoked kippers afterwards!! The rather bland vegetable curry, seemingly comprised of anything that was available - potatoes, cabbage and what appear to be cauliflower florets - arrives with a heap of plain boiled rice, a chappati and a small bowl of watery dahl which tastes of salt and little else. Despite my hunger, I struggle to muster much enthusiasm for this meal.
The man and woman are husband and wife, and have travelled up from Gorkey in the last few days to reopen this hut for the trekking season. They will remain as caretakers here for the next three months. A middle aged man who is sitting quietly smoking a cigarette in another corner of the room is their friend. The hut is provisioned only by mules, hence the lack of everything including beer up here, yet I was surprised to hear the woman chatting on a land line telephone. It seems inexplicable that despite the numerous checkpoints and constant bureaucracy, three days into this trek no one had the nous to call ahead to inform this GTA-operated hut that three people would be arriving there and to ensure there were adequate provisions. On numerous occasions over the 18 years that our guide has been coming here, he has found all of the beds taken and has had to sleep outside in the open. The capacity of each dorm could be immediately doubled if the GTA had the sense to install bunk beds, yet complaints about the facilities and state of the hut continually fall on deaf ears, which reflects very badly on the local authority. After a visit to the squat toilet, which at least does not smell too much, we retire to bed. Outside, the sky is crystal clear and full of stars, and we fall asleep hopeful of another fine dawn.
It’s almost dawn when our guide knocks on the door to wake us up. We dress and follow him uphill for around half a kilometre to the summit of Phalut (3,600m). It’s a steep climb and I’m soon struggling for breath. I decide not to rush, preferring to soak up the predawn atmosphere. The sky is brightening by degrees on the eastern horizon, and the cloud nestled above some snowy peaks in the distance turns pink and apricot. Rounding a corner, I am suddenly face to face with a solitary yak hybrid, its curved horns silhouetted against the sky. It becomes aware of my presence, turns, eyes me, snorts, then casts its gaze once more into the distance, seemingly standing in silent reverence to the majesty of the mountains which are being revealed in the predawn light. It’s such a magical, spiritual moment, a memory I shall take to the ghats.
Yak hybrid at dawn in the Indian HimalayaA magical predawn moment when I encountered this yak hybrid near the summit of Phalut
The golden orb of the sun suddenly pierces the horizon, bathing every blade of grass in lurid light. Ahead of me prayer flags are fluttering around a stone structure marking the summit. The local people believe Phalut’s peak is an omniscient god and call it ‘Omna Re Ay’. I join Martin who is standing amid stems of bright yellow ragwort and the dew covered foliage of lilies which must have looked magnificent a few weeks ago. Our shadows are long and the giant outline of Phalut is reflected on the cloud in the valley behind us like a mystic pyramid.
Phalut at sunriseMartin blinking in the rising sun on the summit of Phalut known by local people as ‘Omna Re Ay’
We stand enthralled as the snowy peaks of the Himalaya reveal themselves, giving us an uninterrupted view some 320 km in length. In the far west I spot Chamlang (7,319m) rising up through veils of cloud like a square wall of snow, then Everest, the highest mountain on Earth (8,848m), flanked on the left by Lhotse (8,516m, the fourth highest peak) and to the right by Makalu (8,481m, the fifth highest peak). Scanning further east I see the distinctive peaks of the Three Sisters, then Kumbhakarna (otherwise known as Jannu), an outlier of Kanchenjunga which formed the head of the sleeping Buddha as seen from Sandakphu. With an elevation of 7,712m it means ‘the mountain with shoulders’ and from this perspective it’s easy to see why! A long ridge runs from it to Kanchenjunga, the main peak of which is the highest mountain in India. It’s about 48 km away from Phalut as the crow flies, but looks absolutely enormous, like a white wall suspended from the sky. We can clearly see a huge glacier on its southern flank, and its amazing to think that the meltwater from this great body of ice eventually feeds into the Ganges River, the lifeblood of the Subcontinent sacred to millions of Indians.
Kanchenjunga (8,586m) from PhalutMeltwater from the glaciers on Kanchenjunga feed into the mighty Ganges River
Further east is the summit of Pandim (6,691m) and then the great Tibetan peaks of Narsing, Dongkya, Chola and Chomolhari straddling the border between Tibet and Bhutan. In front of this incredible backdrop are wave after wave of spiky mountain ridges in a hundred shades of blue-grey. This uninterrupted view from Nepal, through Sikkim, Tibet, Bhutan, to Arunachal Pradesh in the east is surely the finest view in the world of this incredible mountain range. Compensation indeed for the foul weather of the first day and, with the exception of the first night, the lack of decent food and accommodation! For over half an hour, we stand mesmerised by the raw beauty of the very roof of the world, watching the kaleidoscopic patterns created by cloud billowing about in the valleys, revealing then obscuring hundreds of razor sharp brown pinnacles and blue-green ridges, the nearest fringed with conifers. It feels like we have the whole world laid out before us. Behind us, a wild horse has appeared on the hill slope to graze, and we can see a cluster of buildings reflecting the early morning sunshine atop the summit of Sandakphu way off the distance.
The GTA Hut at PhalutThe GTA Hut and the Singalila Ridge from Phalut
We eventually make our way reluctantly downhill to the hut where cups of black tea are waiting for us. Breakfast is another dull affair, with yet more chappatis and something resembling jeera aloo along with more watery dahl. We request some hot water to have a wash, which is taken to a grim and grimy concrete cubicle with a window and a tap. It would be absolute purgatory to wash here in cold water! I am not sorry when we finally leave this dump of a hut and hit the trail which will take us downhill the 15 km to Gorkey.
The sun is hot on our backs as we traverse the treeless terrain giving excellent views into the lush wooded valleys below. After about 20 minutes we come to another army checkpoint. The plainclothes young man on the gate looks delighted to see us. We can imagine how mundane and monotonous life is up here and our arrival is probably the most exciting thing that will happen today! While our passports are being inspected, he asks would we like some black tea? Having warmed to him, we accept his offer and two plastic chairs are produced for us. He tells us that the men in this camp will serve here for a few months before being stationed elsewhere in the NE region of India.
The military presence is mainly due to potential problems with secessionist movements in Sikkim and Gorkhaland, and to prevent illegal cross border trade in the region. Sikkim, once an independent monarchy, became the 22nd Indian state in 1975; many who wish to see it regain its independence claim this took place under Indian coercion. The movement for a separate state of Gorkhaland gained serious momentum during the 1980s when violent protests were carried out by the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF). Centred in Darjeeling, the agitation ultimately led to the establishment of a semi-autonomous body in 1988 called the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) to govern certain areas of Darjeeling district. However, in 2007 a new party called the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) once again raised the demand for a separate state of Gorkhaland. In 2011 the GJM signed an agreement with the state and central governments for the formation of Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA), a semi-autonomous body that replaced the DGHC in the Darjeeling hills (and which incidentally runs the Phalut Hut…). The demands for an independent Gorkhaland haven’t gone away, but since then an uneasy peace has largely prevailed. The tea arrives after what seems an eternity but is well worth waiting for as it is flavoured with ginger and really delicious.
The heat is steadily building as we continue down the track passing in and out of groves of chestnut, hemlock, rhododendron and magnolia which offer some shade, but the humidity is relentless. Along the path we spot many flowers in bloom including Geranium, Bistort, Senecio, and several types of orchid. As we descend lower into the virgin forest, thick stands of bamboo begin to line the route. Some of the moss-dappled trees are huge, bristling with parasitic ferns and the sound of insects is almost deafening. The track is well used by mules, a team of which driven by two young men pass us en route from Phalut to Gorkey. As a result, some sections are very eroded and, due to the recent monsoon rains, also extremely muddy.
Walking through bamboo grove en route to GorkeyThe track from Phalut to Gorkey passes through bamboo groves where the humidity was immense
The final part of the route gets progressively steeper and the humidity higher, making trekking quite uncomfortable. At least there are no mosquitoes about, but Martin begins to suffer from mild heat exhaustion. Our guide goes on ahead to our accommodation to tell them to prepare our lunch and I instruct him to make sure there are cold beers waiting for us! Through the trees we eventually spot some thatched wattle houses and below them the Rammam River which forms the border with Sikkim. The village of Gorkey lies in the bottom of the valley on the West Bengal side, surrounded by lush pine forests. The path down to the village through the pines is relentlessly steep and exposed tree roots render it dangerous in places. We take our time, finally emerging through the trees into small plots full of paper-dry maize plants. The heat is tremendous as we traverse the labyrinthine sets of steps linking each farmstead to the village and I am wondering where on earth our accommodation is, not wishing to spend any more time than necessary wandering round looking for it under the fierce midday sun, when our guide belatedly appears to show us the way.
GorkeyMaize plots in the village of Gorkey
Eden Lodge at GorkeyThe Eden Lodge, quite unlike the Biblical Eden! The puri were good and the beer was cold though!
We are staying in a picturesque riparian setting close to the junction of two rivers (the Rammam and a tributary named the Gorkey Khola), at the Eden Lodge, a misnamed establishment if ever there was one! We enter a galvanised-roofed building with a kitchen on one side and a low partition dividing it from a small dining area with a wooden table almost devoid of varnish on the other. A sense of how close we are to Sikkim is indicated by the calendar on the wall advertising the Sikkim Democratic Front. A large bottle of ice cold Hit beer brewed in this state is utter bliss after trekking in this heat, while a bowl of chow mien is a very welcome and pleasant change from rice and dahl!
A loud crack of thunder suddenly rends the air and huge drops of rain begin to hammer on the galvanised roof of the dining room. In seconds the pathway outside is awash with monsoon rain and I’m relieved that we’re not walking down over the steep muddy sections of the track from Phalut in this! The rain instantly lowers the temperature making it far more comfortable, and after consuming another bottle of beer each, we are shown to our room in a nearby building. The good news is that it’s en suite and carpeted, containing two single beds and a table. The bad news is it doesn’t look as if it has been properly cleaned for months! The lurid blue paintwork is predictably ingrained with dirt and the hand basin is caked in the toothpaste and congealed soap of countless other trekkers. Worse still, the ill fitting windows have let in an enormous number of small fruit flies whose corpses litter the table, beds and floor.
Tired from the heat and humidity and woozy from the beer, we crash and burn. We are awoken some hours later by the sound of a generator; almost immediately the fumes from it enter our room nearly choking us. We find our guide and ask to be moved to another room where we’re not going to risk being gassed in our sleep! It’s pitch black when we walk up to the dining room for dinner. The rain has stopped and the air is permeated with the sweet musty smell of damp earth mingled with the fragrance of a joss stick stuck in a ceramic pot suspended from the eaves above the dining room door. Black tea in ornately decorated Chinese looking cups with little lids is served (great for keeping the omnipresent flies out!), followed by a very tasty aloo curry and rice with chapattis. Suitably full, we retire to our room just as the generator stops. A candle has been provided which, when lit, only serves to attract every bloody fly in the valley! Caught by the flame, the table is soon black with their corpses. Unable to bear the carnage any longer, we blow it out and are soon fast asleep.
A woman is busy in the kitchen rolling out small balls of dough which she pops into a pan of boiling oil. She is making an delicious unleavened deep-fried Indian bread called puri which is served with an equally delicious jeera aloo, naturally washed down with the ubiquitous black tea. We set off round 8.00 am, crossing a small bridge over the Gorkey Khola before climbing steadily up a series of steps through a stand of pine trees which brings us out into fields planted largely with maize. The sky is slightly overcast, it’s a little misty but not particularly humid, far better conditions for trekking than those of yesterday. Very soon we arrive at Samandeen village, a settlement of well-kept brightly painted wooden houses occupying a large meadow in the midst of a forest which has an alpine feel to it. Indeed, the houses at this lower altitude seem to be of a better quality than those we encountered higher up. The track skirts the village before entering dense forest interspersed with thick bamboo groves where it begins to descend steeply to a rushing mountain stream which we cross by a concrete bridge. From here we face a steady uphill climb towards Rammam. Several heavily laden teams of mules pass us en route to Gorkey and a couple of girls neatly dressed in white uniforms hurry by on their way to school. The humidity begins once more to take its toll, we attract a few unwelcome leeches and I am relieved when we eventually reach Rammam village which is sited at an altitude of 2,438m.
Mules en route to GorkeyThe Himalayan villages on the border with Sikkim are supplied mainly by mules
Entering the school playground, we pause for a few minutes to admire the view over the State of Sikkim which lies opposite. The forested mountain slopes are interspersed with tiny farmsteads reached by zig-zag roads surrounded by cascading terraces where farmers grow crops such as potatoes, millet and maize. Birdsong fills the air and thin wisps of cloud hug the tops of the mountains. On the playground wall there is a sign exhorting the children to dispose of their rubbish in the bins provided. This appears to have had little effect, for the trails have all been peppered with plastic sweet, biscuit and crisp wrappers. Trekkers are threatened with fines for dropping litter and plastic is supposedly banned, but the problem clearly lies with the local communities.
We stop at a Sherpa tea house at the other end of the village. Black tea is brought to us and we watch the villagers going about their business. A woman rushes by with a stick in her hand only to reappear minutes later loudly chastising a black dog which she is holding by the scruff of its neck. A young boy bent double under the weight of a wicker basket full of animal fodder flashes a smile at us, and a wizened old woman leading a cow slowly by a rope bows, hands clasped together, as I call out ‘Namaste’ to her. Our guide brings an enamel pot full of a dark cream coloured liquid with small flies swimming on its surface. It’s fresh unpasteurised milk which we politely turn down, not wanting a bad attack of Delhi belly. Before we leave I visit the toilet. Prime Minister Modi has recently made it clear that he wishes every household in India to have access to a toilet to consign to history the need for open defecation. With the possible exception of Lamey Dhura, all the communities that we have passed through seem to have had toilets, the majority of them simple squats, and those I have used have been fairly clean by Indian standards, especially the one here at Rammam.
Boy carrying animal fodder in Rammam villageChildren are expected to help out on their family farms in the Indian Himalaya
After about half an hour, we press on towards Sepi Goan which is over 9 km away and involves a descent of over 700m. Here we are informed that a jeep will be coming to collect us to take us back to Darjeeling. The track weaves its way past numerous Sherpa farmsteads denoted by the coloured flags displayed outside. Many small streams cascade down from the highlands, some obviously sacred as they have attracted prayer flags, and rock outcrops are decorated with colourful Buddhist inscriptions. We pass an impressive long line of white flags bearing black Tibetan script, apparently in honour of the dead, and past umpteen clusters of houses almost subsumed by the rampant tangle of jungle vegetation. The simple yet hard life of the Sherpa villagers is played out in front of us: a man using a wash board to launder his clothes at a spring; another using a whetstone to sharpen a sickle; a teenage girl milking a cow; a young man felling a tree with an axe; a group of men and women rushing by in golden wellie boots burdened by loads almost as long as they are tall.
Sherpa villager sharpening a sickleThis man is sharpening a sickle he will use in the fields on a whetstone
The track now descends very steeply towards the Srikhola River to a wooden suspension bridge built by the British in the dying days of the Raj. Mist begins to billow about the mountain tops and stealthily creep up the valley. Rain is in the air. We eventually come to the swaying bridge garlanded with coloured prayer flags enjoying the great beauty of the roaring, foaming river with chalet type buildings more reminiscent of the Alps than the Himalaya built above its banks. On the opposite side of the river is a driveable road and a couple of kilometres outside Sepi Goan our jeep is waiting. It is with a great degree of relief that I remove my pack and climb into the back seat. There is one more formality; we have to stop in the town of Rimbik at the final checkpoint to register that we have left the park. This completed, we begin the three hour drive back to Darjeeling in teeming monsoon rain.
We covered over 70 km with over 3,000 metres of ascent and descent, in trying conditions. The weather certainly took its toll, and on the first day in the monsoon downpour my spirits were so deflated I could cheerfully have turned tail and headed back to Darjeeling. The heat and the humidity, especially in the jungle, were sapping and the lack of decent food and sufficient calories left us both feeling decidedly weak at times which made climbing at altitude harder than it should have been. The accommodation in India left much to be desired, especially the wretched hut at Phalut which was substandard in every conceivable way. The only place we stayed at that was anywhere near adequate was the Shikar Lodge in Nepal on the first night. Moreover, parts of the route, such as the road to Sandakphu, was pretty monotonous and we feel that having a guide is unnecessary and we would have been able to find the route quite easily with a map ourselves. We both agree that this has not been our all time favourite trek with disappointing and dispiriting weather conditions for photography, but its deficiencies pale into insignificance when we remember the friendly and simple people we have met along the way. And of course, the utterly spellbinding views of the mighty Himalaya Mountain chain and especially of Everest, at dawn. This was a life's dream which rendered us totally speechless. I will leave the final words to Indian-American astrophysicist, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, as they encapsulate our experience perfectly:
‘… who amongst us can hope, even in imagination, to scale the Everest and reach its summit when the sky is blue and the air is still, and in the stillness of the air survey the entire Himalayan range in the dazzling white of the snow stretching to infinity? None of us can hope for a comparable vision of nature and of the universe around us. But there is nothing mean or lowly in standing in the valley below and awaiting the sun to rise over Kanchenjunga.’