The International Writers Magazine: Walking the Himalayas
An Amateur’s trek to Sandakphu
Dr. Saubhik Ghosh
"The first question which you will ask and which I must try to answer is this: What is the use of climbing Mount Everest? My answer must at once be, It is no use. There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever. We may learn a little about the behavior of the human body at high altitudes, and possibly medical men may turn our observation to some account. But otherwise nothing will come of it. We shall not bring back a single bit of gold or silver... We shall not find a single foot of earth that can be planted with crops to raise food. It's no use. So, if you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won't see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to enjoy life. That is what life means and what life is for." (George Leigh Mallory, 1922)
I start this account of my trek with an excerpt from the interview of my mountaineering hero, George Mallory (1886-1924) before his 2nd attempt to climb everest in 1922…not because I also attempted or want to climb everest one day …but many people have asked me before the trek that why am I so eager and stubborn to do this irrespective of anyone accompanying me or not…I hope they have got their answer . After all my attempts to convince a few of my friends to accompany me to this trek to Sandakphu were in vain, I had a wry smile on my face and I remembered that famous ad that Sir Ernest Shackleton (the famous Antarctic explorer ) once posted in a daily which read : “MEN WANTED…For Hazardous Journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success."
My journey was obviously not that tough or risky or dangerous or fatal, but the fact that I finally decided to go all alone (that too an inexperienced young chubby chap like me) made my parents and relatives think that I’m almost going to do a job as tough as to scale Everest! But I remained adamant and after all the drama…one fine morning, i.e.16th march 2012, I boarded the Kanchenjungha express, destination New Jalpaiguri. I saw many carrying rucksacks… after all there are people who are even much much more passionate about the Himalayas than I am. I thought. Finally reached New Jalpaiguri commonly known as the njp around 7pm. Night halt at my dad’s friend’s place in Siliguri. Main journey starts tomorrow morning…destination Maneybhanjan.
17th March,Lameydhura 6.15 pm –Wao..wao..wao… I took a shared taxi from Siliguri to Ghoom at 8am in the morning. The Nepali aunty sitting beside me couldn’t help her head from falling on my shoulders repeatedly while sleeping, and then when she woke up she seemed very embarrassed. I was really amused. The taxi dropped me to Ghoom railway station, the highest railway station in India ( 7047 feet ). I hired another taxi from Ghoom to Maneybhanjan which took almost an hour. It was 12 noon. I hired a porter/guide there for rs.350 per day and had a hasty lunch in a small Tibetan restaurant…beef noodles ( nothing else was instantly available ). The trek starts from here.
31kms to reach Sandakphu,situated at an altitude of almost 12000 feet. The path looked steep. I started slowly but there were plenty of hairpin bends… walking slowly also didn't help. Soon I was panting, my back started to hurt, my calf muscles tightened and my ankles started to pain. I was devoid of any climbing stick, I told my porter Rudra Chhetri to arrange for some substitute. He is an expert mountaineer and a trekker with vast experience. hHe instantly went inside the bamboo jungle and broke a bamboo stick and made me a climbing stick with his bare hands…I kept on looking with the swiss knife in my hand…amazed. Anyways with the stick in my hand, trekking was a bit easier,and my muscles grew accustomed to the steep road soon.
We reached Chitrey, the first stop 3 kms from Maneybhanjan by 2pm. Theres nothing but a small ‘chorten’ ( a budhhist tower for worship ) and a tea shop here. I was sweating amidst the cold. So I took off my cardigan and just donned the full sleeve woollen shirt. After a brief break we started to walk again. We aimed to reach Meghma by 4.30-5pm which is around 5kms from Chitrey and were supposed to do the night halt there. But mother nature had other plans. The sky looked gloomy and foggy…Rudra asked me if I had a raincoat…just then it occurred to me that I’ve made the biggest blunder…I forgot to carry a raincoat in the Himalayas…anyways hoping luck to be on my side…we proceeded towards Meghma…but in vain…soon it started to rain…we halted midway…I pulled off a plastic cover from my rucksack n covered myself somehow…but it didn't help much…Then oh my god…it converted into a snowstor. I got panicky….I was wet and shivering, hardly anything was visible, the road was hazy too. How shall we walk!
Soon Rudra found a cave which helped us avoid the snow and the rain for a while…I opened my bottle of brandy and started sipping…I was wet, the brandy helped …I thought I have to go down to Maneybhanjan somehow…this trek was not going to be possible in this weather…but after waiting in the cave for around half an hour the snowstorm stopped, but it was still rainin. Rudra said there's no point going back. As Maney was around 4 kms from here, while Lameydhura (a cluster of 2-3 huts) was 2kms from here which was on the way to Meghma…and he said if I’m lucky I might find a shelter at Lameydhura too. So we decided to proceed further. Rudra was kind enough to lend me his own raincoat…though it was extremely tight for me…still I fit myself in somehow…something is better than nothing I thought…Rudra put a huge plastic cover on himself and we started to walk…slowly. I was indifferent to the rain now, just wanted to reach Lameydhura somehow. After walking for around 45 mins we reached Lameydhura at around 3.30 pm. The Nepali aunty there welcomed us heartily. The first thing I asked for was a big cup of hot tea. I changed to dry clothes as fast as I can…the tea followed by some more brandy warmed me up. As I became stable I was planning to walk towards Meghma once the rain slowed down a bit another 2.5 kms from here. Rudra advised me not to and finally we decided to call it a day and halt at the Nepali aunty’s hut.
|Aunty whose name is Mingma was extremely happy to let us stay at her hut…these people are very fond of guests and they take utmost care of them. I was introduced to the full family, her daughter Mingmai and son Nima befriended me like their own brother and we had a wonderful evening chatting in front of the fire. The fire served dual purpose…it helped us stay warm…it helped in cooking and there was a third utility, Mingmai dried my wet clothes in that fire. Meanwhile I tried tumba,a Nepali alcoholic drink which is made from the juice of some hilly fruit… it tasted like warm beer. There is no electricity here and till now I was writing with the help of candlelight. The dinner is being prepared…dal rice omlette and some alu sabji. These people eat and sleep early…I am told that dinner will be served at 7pm…I am hungry and am eagerly waiting for it.
8 pm – Finished my dinner sometime back…I can't say it was very tasty but at least I am not starving…I thought.Mingmai and Nima came to my room for sometime after dinner and they told me stories from their school.Mingmai wants to be a doctor one day and Nima wants to join the army…I wished them good luck with their future and offered them some chocolates. I went outside a few minutes back to urinate and its pitch dark and extremely cold.This place is so lonely one can't even imagine…hats off to Mingma and her family that they stay here the whole year around.Oh two more things worth mentioning, first even at this point of the world, old monk is available…I think Vodafone should consider replacing that pug with old monk and second this hut is in Nepal but the road outside is in India…feeble mobile network is available…I called my home for 5 min while I was inside the hut and it costed me dearly because of international roaming whereas when I made a call after coming out, I was charged at Indian rates. The candle light is about to get blown out…it's better I go off to bed now…we have to start walking at 6am tomorrow.
||18March,Kalapokhri 7.50 pm Today was a very tiring day we covered almost 19kms today my feet are really hurting nevertheless it went as planned we didn't face any obstacles on our route. I can't say that I had a very sound sleep last night it was really cold I had to cover myself with 3 blankets and then I felt the urge to urinate in the middle of the night but I didn't feel like going outside the hut in that cold but then it didn't let me sleep either.
Finally I saw a bottle of water half empty just by my side. Instantly an idea crossed my mind... and I couldn’t help myself in that situation.finally I saw a bottle of water half empty just by my side. Instantly an idea crossed my mind... and I couldn’t help myself in that situation.Anyways when my eyes opened due to the ‘kukrookoo’ of the rooster outside, I saw it is 5.15 on my watch and I left the bed.I was delighted when I came out of the hut…the weather was so clear…no one can tell that it rained so much yesterday…and I had the first glimpse of the Kanchenjungha. Rudra woke up too and he showed me the place to do the morning business. I was shocked. It was a small place covered with hay and bamboo and was situated just beside the gorge…It was scary…somehow I held a bamboo stick and finished my work as soon as I could. Anyways I was ready for the day’s trek and we started at 6am sharp.
The route to Meghma was not that tough and Rudra knew many shortcuts ,though they were steep they helped us reach Meghma by 7am. I noticed one thing on my way that the mud water on the road has frozen. One can't make it out with bare eyes but once you put your stick on them, the ice breaks.We had breakfast ( wai wai ) there at Meghma and left for Tumling at 7.30. The route to Tumling was mostly level and we reached there by 8.30…we had a good view of Kanchenjungha from there… on our way to Joubari came the Tumling Fatak from where you are officially entering the Singalila National Park and you have to pay Rs.200 entry per head and another Rs.100 for the camera. We decided not to take any break in Joubari and proceeded towards Gairibas…the road to Gairibas was pretty much downhill and I started to feel a mild pain in my ankles. We reached Gairibas by 10.45. I was feeling a bit tired by now so I decided to rest there for half an hour and get a little refreshed. I found another Bengali group of 10-12 people in the Gairibas trekkers hut but as they decided to halt at gairibas for the night I didn't want to join them. I wanted to reach Kalapokhri today by 3pm. I planned to cover the least distance possible tomorrow because I’v heard the last few kms steep climb to Sandakphu is extremely difficult and it takes time. Anyways after massaging my feet for a while with painkiller ointment and having a packaged mango drink, I was feeling ready. We left Gairibas at 11.10 am. Rudra said its a constant steep slope of 2 kms ahead till Kainakata. I was predetermined to cover this distance slowly in 1.5 hrs. I felt short of breath a number of times on the way but I had planned to rest for 5 minutes for every 15 minutes. Finally we reached Kainakata by 12.35 noon. We decided to have lunch as Kalapokhri is 4 kms from here and there's not another locality in between. I was disheartened to find only wai wai is available (once again ) for lunch. Sitting on yak skin, I had a semi boiled wai wai with cabbage leaves and omlette.
It was cold here…I had a few sips of brandy too. I checked my mobile…it showed Airtel Nepal. It was 1.10 in my watch when we started again towards Kalapokhri. The route was really rocky and within a km, I felt exhausted, my feet were hurting a lot and the road seemed endless. Rudra understood I was really tired and he started walking slowly. I really wondered how a 38 yr old man who underwent a gall bladder operation last year was walking with my luggage on his back without any signs of tiredness and that too much faster than me. He once said he had climbed till Sandakphu in one day,holy shit! And he said every year there was a Himalayan running competition in which the participants have to start running at 8am in morning from Maney to Sandakphu and this year a 41 yr old man from Spain reached Sandakphu by 12 noon. He also said there were 43 participants this year…(oldest being a 71 year old foreigner)…and out of those only two were Indians (one being a lady from Kolkata ). I couldn’t believe my ears and I felt I’m so unfit with respect to such people. Anyways I kept walking somehow keeping in mind that 71 year old man’s stamina.
Finally we could see Kalapokhri from some distance and it cheered me up. I walked the last few metres with renewed vigour and we finally reached the black lake after which the place is named Kalapokhri. My watch showed 3pm exact.I so wanted to find a place to stay where there will be electricity at least for so that I can recharge my phone and camera. Finally we found one…Tashi Delek guest house. Solar power electicity… available only from 6pm to 8pm. The owner opened a 3 bed room for me - charge Rs.200 only. Needless to say no attached toilet. I felt superbly tired and lay down on my bed after having a hot cup of tea. But sleep eluded me because of the cold…I was shivering…3 blankets also didn't help…finally I left the bed at 5.15pm and made myself a strong peg of brandy. I covered myself with a blanket and came outside to the kitchen (in search of some fire ) with the glass of brandy in my hand… I found two BSF jawans sitting there having a good time with old monk and Wills flake. They asked me to join them. I was more than glad to do so.we shared a smoke and a drink and I listened to their stories and the kind of tough life they lead at this altitude. I was so full of respect for them. The amusing thing was that they watch India Pakistan cricket matches even here…they actually took my leave as India’s batting against Pakistan in Asia cup was about to start and they couldn’t afford to miss it. It was just 6.45pm and dinner was getting ready…finally some veg momos, rice, dal and cabbage. They were cooking yak meat for themselves. I really enjoyed the food, I tried that yak meat also a little. It was tough and salty. Just now I came back to my room and though I was pretty much tired, I decided to pen down todays incidents quickly. Finally its time to bed and I’m quite warm now…hope will have a sound sleep.
19th March,Sandakphu 12.15 pm – Hell yeah…I finally did it alone (of course with the help of Rudra) - I reached Sandakphu today at 10.15 am. The journey has been ecstatic. I just had lunch (egg curry and rice) and finally have ample time to write about today’s trek. I woke up at 4.30 am in the morning and instantly felt something was wrong with me. I was feeling feverish. Ohh god,today is a very crucial day and shall I be down with fever? I left the bed,had a paracetamol,covered myself with as many blankets as I could,and tried to rest for sometime. Finally the fever came down around 5.45. I thought its better to leave the bed and see what condition I’m in…whether I’ll be able to walk or not. I didn't feel bad…I felt I can do it. Enthused,I went to the toilet and got myself ready as soon as I can. Only thing was that I didn't take a bath even today. Water was there but it was chilled, no one was awake yet to make me some hot water and I skipped it. My hair felt like ropes getting entangled with each other but better not to take a risk and fall ill…completing the trek was much more important.
Both of us were ready by 6.30 and after having a hot cup of tea and biscuits we left Kalapokhri for Sandakphu at 6.45 am. A total of 6 kms had to be covered today. 2 kms from Kalapokhri to Bikheybhanjan and then 4kms from Bikheybhanjan to Sandakphu and that's the part which is supposed to be the steepest and the toughest. We reached Bikhey by 7.30. The route was up and down and level at some stretches. Bikhey bhanjan means the valley of poison because you get a special type of poisonous plant over here called aconite which are blue in colour. You can mainly see them in September-October but Rudra spotted a few even at this time of the year. To be honest,I didn't get that many flowers on my route till now…there were rhododendrons and other Himalayan orchids here and there but I didn't get to see the kind of full bloom that I had expected. After having wai wai again for breakfast at Bikhey, we started for the final four kms towards Sandakphu. It was steep straight away at almost 60 degrees but as we passed the first hairpin bend Kanchenjungha was visible. The joy of getting to view Kanchenjungha from so close reduced the stress a bit. I employed the same ploy of resting for 5 min for every 15 min I walk. It didn't seem that tough as much as I expected. But there was a stretch in between where there were deep chasms on both sides of the road and the road was not that wide. I didn't look at the sides at all and walked looking towards the road ahead. When I crossed the stretch and looked down, I still felt dizzy. The Sherpa Chalet, the ‘largest’ hotel in Sandakphu was visible by now and it seemed that its only a matter of a few more metres till I reach there. But there were two more hairpin bends to be covered and they were really steep. Finally I saw that famous board of Singalila National Park, Sandakphu which read “leave nothing but footprints and take nothing but memories” and Rudra said “we are there”. I was overjoyed. It was just 10.05 in my watch. I covered the toughest 4 kms of the trek in 2 hours. Rudra took me to the trekkers’ hut…I was their first tourist of the day….and I had the privilege to choose my own room. I chose the one from which Kanchenjungha would be visible from the window (but little did I know then that it will be of no use). There were flakes of snow lying in front of the window and in the courtyard.I was feeling a little proud that I reached Sandakphu despite all the odds. I ordered for my lunch and went out to take a good look at the locality. I found a place from where Kanchan was clearly visible. I could see the peaks of Makalu and Lhotse too but couldn’t see the Everest.
Apparently Sandakphu is the only place in India from where Mt Everest can be seen. But there was another thing which made me worried…I saw clouds gradually covering Kanchan. It was 11 am in my watch. I sat there till Kanchan was no longer visible. It seemed like mother nature has shut the doors on her beautiful daughter.Locals told me she’l be visible again tomorrow morning.I came back to my room with mixed feelings.Lunch was served at 11.30. I was hungry and it was finished in no time. There was nothing else to do. Kanchan was not visible, there was no network of Airtel, I had no company to chat with, so I decided to sit in the so called drawing room, light a smoke and pick up the pen, and…ohhh I can hear voices and footsteps…do I finally have some company?
9.10 pm – Wow, today was inarguably the most enjoyable day of my tour so far. As I was writing in my diary in the afternoon, I heard some one speak in Bengali and come towards the drawing room…well, I found one…oh sorry two…oh no five gentlemen walking in with rucksacks behind their back and climbing sticks in their hand…and what more they were conversing in Bengali…we exchanged pleasantries and it was great to know that they all hailed from Kolkata and it was the first trekking experience for the four of them. One,the shortest of the group named Rabi da had huge experience in trekking… I was shocked to know that he was 38, he looked like he was hardly 30. Amitava da was 34 and the others Susomda, Sukanto da and Debasish da were 27, all of them were still bachelors. They looked like fun and we mingled with each other pretty well…they treated me like their own brother…we went for a walk again with the hope that the Kanchan would show her face at least once…but in vain. We then climbed a small cliff from where the Vodafone network was available and we finished our business of keeping in touch with the urban civilization. It was around 3pm by then and there were waves of cold wind blowing. We returned to our hut hastily and soon closed all the doors and windows of the dining area barring one through which light came inside. We opened a bottle of whisky to help ourselves keep warm (read it as an excuse ?) and poured hot water in our glasses. I never knew before the combination of royal stag with hot water and egg bhurji could taste such heavenly. Soon the sun set and it got dark outside….our manager Sharmaji lit a couple of candles and kept them on our table. Sukanto da opened a pack of cards and soon we were lost in playing bridge. After several rounds of bridge (most of which I lost ),we realized it was time to order our dinner. Sharmaji insisted us on having egg curry or wai wai again but we desperately needed something more non veg after the whisky. So after pleading a lot,we made Sharmaji arrange pork curry and chapati from somewhere. Another round of the golden liquid followed. The cold was getting bitter and bitter. Sharmaji informed us that last night it was -2 degree centigrade and tonight’s temperature might even be lower. Soon the dinner was served and we just jumped on the food as if we hadn't eaten for days. But believe me,only six of us playing bridge, drinking whisky, eating pork curry and chapati in a closed wooden dining hall in candle light at a height of 12000 feet at around -3 degree centigrade in a snow filled small Himalayan village seemed mystic to me and I guess to all of us. It was a moment to cherish forever. By the time we finished our dinner it was almost 8.55 in the watch and we felt a little buzzed by then. It was finally time for bed after 3 long days of climbing uphill.but before I lay myself flat on that bed, I decided to jot down todays extraordinary feelings before I forget them tomorrow; speaking of which my dad has always warned me not to drink much while trekking at high altitudes,but I couldn’t control myself tonight ,the ambience was such.Tomorrow’s trek is mostly downhill.Hopefully It wont be too tough. More importantly I’m hoping Kanchan will be clearly visible tomorrow in full colours, fingers crossed.
20th March,Sandakphu 8.05 am – Disappointment disappointment huge disappointment….I guess luck will always elude me. My eyes opened today at 3.30 in the morning. The first thing which came to my mind was Kanchenjungha. I removed the curtains immediately but it was still pitch dark outside. I waited patiently. In front of the window…by the way I was shivering even after covering myself with four blankets…gradually it was 4…4.30…the dark shade of the night lightened a bit…I could see a white reflection outside…I got excited and thought it was my Kanchan…but soon I realized it was the reflection of the gradually rising sun on the tin shade of the hut at one end of Sandakphu. My watch ticked on…it was almost 5.30 by now…generally it is dawn by 5 in these hilly areas…what happened today! By 5.45,finally the sun showed his face…and I found the reality….it was cloudy foggy and misty all around…and there was not the slightest chance that Kanchenjungha would be visible. And suddenly I felt THE headache,THE headache that I’v felt on many Sunday mornings,which is popularly called hangover. The excitement of being able to watch Kanchenjungha from so close didn't make me feel the headache but now the disappointment has doubled its intensity. I remembered that golden advice of my dad but now it has been too late…I’ve to walk downhill the whole of today with this headache and malaise, I thought. I took a paracetamol and started getting ready for the day. Amitava da was awake by now too and he was cursing our luck as well. We went walking to the cliff nearby and sat there for a while in disappointment… we realized one thing.. we were panting after walking such a small distance and were feeling short of breath even after speaking for sometime… this happened due to lack of oxygen at such high altitude…but we were descending today anyways. Soon the others were up too…and everyone carried a dry smile on their face. But it was not in our hands.. its the Himalayan goddess’ one of the mysterious ways to behave with us. Soon all of us were ready and Sharmaji had made his chef cook puri aloo for us. We finished our breakfast quietly.. the hot cup of tea helped me a bit to recover from my hangover…we have decided to stay here for a while if by chance at least some part of the Sleeping Budhha range is visible. I thought its better to take out my diary and write meanwhile….ohhh Susom da is screaming out loud from the top of the cliff….what happened!
8.55 am – Amazing ! At least we saw something if not Kanchan. And guess what that something was. It was the Mt.Everest, the highest peak on earth! While I was writing my diary, Susom da went on top of the cliff and was keeping an eye on the sky…the western side cleared a bit and suddenly a triangular shiny image appeared…he first thought it must be the clouds making weird shapes but gradually a peak was visible… he started screaming aloud...my guide Rudra and their guide Vinod and Sharmaji started running towards the cliff to see what happened with five of us following them….Rudra reached first and his eyes followed Susom da’s pointed finger…he said softly as if nothing had happened , “its the Everest” It was far…very far away…but it was visible…and it was the EVEREST. We kept on looking for minutes without uttering a word…I took out my camera and tried to focus…but unfortunately my camera was not good enough to capture a peak so far in this foggy weather. I thought “never mind…the camera in my memory has captured this image forever." Soon the peak disappeared behind the clouds again. But those 15 minutes will leave a permanent impact on my eyes and mind forever...we came back to our rooms and started to pack our stuff…it was close to 8.40 and we should leave Sandakphu by 9 to be able to reach Srikhola by 5 in the evening. Everyone’s ready…we should leave now.
||8.30 pm, Srikhola – It was a hell of a journey the entire day…and easily the most tiring day of my life…and I thought trekking downhill would be easy…in fact it was much tougher than climbing uphill. We started from Sandakphu at 9 am sharp, destination Gurdum,distance 10kms. It was downhill the whole way…the initial few kms, the route was very slippery due to layers of thin ice on the road, or due to the ice melting on the road and creating a puddle of mud. I was feeling the heaviness in my head, and to add to my woes was a pain in the instep of my left foot which suddenly appeared today morning. I couldn’t support my body on my left leg as a result and had to use my right feet for every step.This route was different from the one via which we climbed up. Rudra and Vinod said that there were wild animals like leopards and red panda but they wont attack us as we were walking in a group.
At one point me and Amitava da were trailing a little behind the rest of the group because Amitava da couldn’t help his photographic instincts from capturing this enthralling beauty in his camera; and suddenly we found ourselves all alone in a bamboo forest….it will be false to say that we weren’t scared.We walked faster to catch up with them and to our relief, after a while saw them waiting for us in an open area just after the bamboo jungle... and Susomda screaming “Amitava da open your red jacket fast”.We got puzzled a bit due to this unusual request…but soon realized there was a wild scary lookin black yak looking at us with great concentration as if he dint like strangers in his territory…we walked pass the yak as soon as we can (obviously after Amitava da opened his jacket ) and since then we tried to stick together close…and our walk continued. It seemed endless….finally the dense jungle ended…and we reached a very strange looking valley…the strange thing was that each and every tree in that valley was dead…without leaves and was standing tall…with their bare branches…and there were at least thousands of them…we named this place the valley of death…there was a point where this vast valley of death was surrounded by the Himalayas on all sides and we 8 little fellows felt lost in such ruthless beauty of mother nature. I was extremely exhausted by then and it seemed impossible to carry myself forward any more…my back,my thighs,my knees,my ankles…it seemed all of them have conspired together against me. Rudra said 1.5 kms more till Gurdum. Somehow we reached the top of a cliff where a wooden bench was fixed for the trekkers to rest. All of us needed some rest… its just one km from here till Gurdum….when I looked behind the bench I was shocked…we were actually sitting at the top of a mountain and there was a deep gorge just behind the bench….and the cluster of tiny huts which could be seen below was supposed to be Gurdum (how could it be just one km? little did I know about that one km that awaited us )…I felt dizzy….and thirsty too…we all shared the last few drops of water which were left…at least my lips were wet…(one can't imagine the state of my lips…it cracked everywhere and was chappy to an extent that even one full tube of dr.lips wont have helped)….
After a while we started descending the cliff from its right..there was a road that was almost angulated at 60 degree and 70 degree at places which lead the way to Gurdum…and it was pebbly, slippery, it was hardly a metre wide. We had to put our sticks and check for the steps ahead if it was safe enough to land our foot on them… the angulation was hurting my toes a great deal but I tried to keep myself steady at this crunch hour…there were places where I had to sit and hold the tall Himalayan grasses for support and had to descend with great caution…my blue jeans became brown…( but that was the last thing I was bothered about then) …but those tiny huts remained tiny only….it didn't seem we were getting closer. I couldn’t take any pictures all this while because I was busy managing myself. After at least 45 minutes,we reached a relatively flat area where Sukanto da lighted a cigarette…I was in no condition to smoke…it seemed my ankles didn't belong to my body any more…we sat there for a while…we saw a Nepali lady carrying a huge bunch of leaves walk past us downhill…we kept looking till she disappeared within a few seconds….we were dumbstruck…these hilly people have so much stamina.
The huts below appeared a little closer now and when we looked up, the mountain top seemed high enough. It was a matter of a few hundred metres more till we reach Gurdum and we carried ourselves somehow till the resort in Gurdum where we were supposed to have our lunch. I looked at the watch,it was 1.35pm…we walked for 4 and a half hours straight without any proper break. We were exhausted ( barring Debasish da who had endless stamina )... but the descent was only 2/3rd over…we have to reach Srikhola by 5 pm today evening which was still 6 kms from here. We decided to give ourselves some rest for at least an hour here at Gurdum…I was sweating like anything…there was an open space by the side where we started changing our outfits. We were looking damn tired I guess…our hairs rope like,our lips dry and chappy, our clothes all dirty, our faces unshaved for days, our nose and skin of the face blackened in the cold, we didn't take a bath in 4 days…I even had a blister on the sole of my right foot. Some hilly people who were working there came to see us and they were looking at me specially all amazed as in how could a heavy chap like me covered so much distance. I was amused amidst all the pain. We freshened ourselves up with the lesser cold water available there, changed our clothes, rubbed painkiller ointments on the thighs, calves, knees and ankles, drunk ample water and tried to catch a breath. Meanwhile our lunch was ready...dal rice omlette and sabji… though we were pretty hungry,we didn't eat much as we still had to cover 6 more kms. We were once again feeling ready to go and by the time we left Gurdum for Srikhola,it was 2.50pm in my watch.
The route to Srikhola was again downhill for a km,Then we crossed a bridge over a river to go to the adjacent mountain…we met a few school going kids on the way…hats off to their dedication….they walk 5kms up and down daily to go to a school in Srikhola from Gurdum to study…a lazy guy like me would have stayed an illiterate for life if I were in their place, I thought . Anyways once we crossed the river,the route was a mix of ups and downs and level road… but was quite rocky and pretty narrow, at times even less than a metre. We kept on walking…our guide Rudra kept us informed for every 500 metres we covered as it inspired us to cover the rest of the distance soon. My feet were numb by now and I was dragging them. I was trying to be mentally strong and was telling myself repeatedly that I’m almost there. The beauty of the route was really stunning and though I was trying to divert my attention to nature but the discomfort in the lower parts of my body was not allowing me to enjoy the serenity. But there came a bend soon where our guides announced that we were within 500 metres of Srikhola and we were overjoyed. We covered the last few hundred metres in a daze…and finally when we saw the magnificent, most beautifully placed bungalow beside the river in Srikhola (it was 5.10pm in my watch ), we thought we couldn’t have wanted anything more at the end of such a tiring journey. It was a perfect place to stay and refresh yourself mentally and physically at the end of such an exhausting trek. I still couldn’t believe that I walked that last 6 kms from Gurdum to Srikhola…my condition was extremely bad when I reached Gurdum…and Amitava da thought I might have to stay back at Gurdum itself… but yes I have finally finished the journey.
I was grateful to Rabi da for keeping me distracted in the final leg of the trek by telling inspiring stories from his previous treks. Though actually, the trek was not yet over, the last two kms from Srikhola to Sepi has to be covered tomorrow morning where we will get the only jeep available at 6.30 am in the morning to Darjeeling (Rudra booked our seats in that jeep beforehand only ). I was extremely fatigued but I didn't want to sleep or rest. I wanted to celebrate with my newly made friends.
We gathered together in our room and drank to the safe ending to our journey. We went to the river bank at night with torch and sticks…and the sound of the flowing river in the otherwise tranquil ambience was a treat to our ears and souls. On our way back we met a Bengali named Pinaki Banerjee who owns a hotel in Srikhola called “the Red Panda”. We learned that the gentleman is a trekker himself and he was in so much love with the Himalayas that he opened a business in this lonely world. He introduced us to another veteran Bengali trekker named Sumeet Choudhury who is 62 and has come to trek all alone till Sandakphu via the Gurdum route ( we were speechless…descending was so much tough in that route god knows how tough ascending would be). This was his 6th time to Sandakphu he told. Bidding them goodbye we came back to our hotel ,had dinner, recharged our mobiles meanwhile (they charged us rs.10 per hour for that ) and went to bed straightawa
21st march 6.15 am – we finally reached the end of our trekking route at 6.10 am today. We covered the final two kms in 35 minutes only. The road has ended finally…or has it? Maybe this is just the beginning. Its very hard to resist the alluring temptation of trekking in the Himalayas again. Our jeep (with a tongue twisting Nepali name) is waiting for all its passengers to arrive (it has a ‘capacity’ of 15 people, the driver said). Meanwhile we are helping ourselves with tea and biscuits. An extremely cute Nepali baby is staring at us from his mother’s lap as if he has never seen so many strangers before. Oh yes, I’ve decided to end the account of my trek here itself…we are heading to Darjeeling from here which is a lavish sophisticated hilly city where spending a day or two will be much different from the way we have spent the last few days in the extremes of conditions. So I have decided not to spoil that wild feeling by dedicating a few pages to Darjeeling…but yes before I end I’ll like to share a few necessary information with all my friends who would like to trek to Sandakphu in future.
How to reach – reach New Jalpaiguri from Kolkata by train (there are plenty of trains available ). Or reach Bagdogra airport by flight from Kolkata. Take a shared taxi from Siliguri to Ghoom ( 2.5 hrs ) and then again a taxi from Ghoom to Maneybhanjan (1 hr ). The trek route which I followed was : Maneybhanjan / Chitrey /Lameydhura /Meghma/ Tumling/Tonglu / Joubari / Gairibas /Kainakata / Kalapokhri / Bikheybhanjan / Sandakphu / Gurdum / Srikhola / Sepi (a total of 49 kms trek )
If one doesn’t want to walk,then jeeps are available from Maneybhanjan to Sandakphu but honestly speaking if you hire a jeep, you’ll miss much of the natural beauty on your way and the road is extremely bumpy and the ride will be very uncomfortable. Where to stay – You will get private lodges or huts of local nepali people everywhere throughout the trek.
Trekkers hut are available at Maneybhanjan,Tonglu,Gairibas,Sandakphu and Srikhola. Among the private lodges,Exotica in Manebhanjan, Shikhar lodge in Tumling, Pandim and Tashi Delek in Kalapokhri,Sherpa Chalet in Sandakphu, and Goparma hotel in Srikhola are worth mentioning. DGHC Trekkers Huts are affordable and quite good in condition considering the altitude. Contact for booking:
Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council Office (DGHC) ITDC Office 4 Shakespeare Sarani Kolkata
Phone: (033)22821715 - (033)22821715
When to visit – Sandakphu remains closed from 15th June to 15th September due to the monsoons, otherwise its open for the rest of the year…many people whom I’ve asked have said: For a good view of the Himalayan range, Oct-Nov is the best time. For snow, best time is Dec-March. For flowers,best time is March end to May. What all essential things to carry – a raincoat, a warm jacket, muffler, gloves, woollen caps and ear guards, enough other warm clothes, a good pair of trekking shoes (very important ),knee caps, crepe bandage, swiss knife, torch with enough batteries, tissue paper, sunglasses, moisturizer, lip guard, hand sanitizer,painkiller tablets and ointments, coca 30 (a medicine required for the breathing problems at high altitude), paracetamol, medicine for hill diarrhea,digestives and anti-emetics,dettol, band aids, cotton.geoline (water purifier,though you'll get packaged water at every point), odomos, a bottle of rum or brandy (highly recommended ), chewing gums and chocolates …you will get walking sticks from Maneybhanjan. Budget-A budget of Rs.3000 pr head should suffice on double sharing basis if you chose to stay at places where I stayed (including porter charges). I spent Rs.4500 as I was alone.
This was an amateur’s’s attempt to write an account of his trek…veteran trekkers may feel that I have over exaggerated the situations and emotions at times, but nevertheless it was an honest try to share my experiences with many who couldn’t go or who aspire to go there one day...needless to say,this is regarded as one of the easier treks in the Himalayan region. For reader’s convenience I’v put a map of the Sandakphu trekking route and an altitude profile below. Constructive criticism is always welcome
© Dr. Saubhik Ghosh Jan 2013
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