Thursday, January 14, 2010

Trek to Sandakphu - Heralding 2010 with Kanchenjunga

[Dec 29, 09 - Jan 03, 10]

Fact file:

Place: Sandakphu (near Darjeeling in West Bengal, India)

Famous for: Breathtaking views of Kanchanjunga

The trek route: Follow the map (courtesy, there are many different routes you can take, but under any circumstances, one has to reach Maneybhanjang and the best route would be Maneybhanjang - Tumling - Gairibas - Kalipokhori - Sandakphu and then return via Gurdum - Srikhola - Rimbik.

How to reach:

Nearest rail head - New Jalpaiguri (NJP)
Nearest airport - Bagdogra

Reaching Maneybhanjang from NJP: Just outside the NJP railway station, you can see the jeep stand where you can get a shared ride to several places. You might be lucky if you can get a direct jeep to Maneybhanjang. Alternately, if you are around 5-8 people in number, you can hire a jeep (around Rs. 175 per person) directly to Maneybhanjang.

Otherwise, board a jeep to Darjeeling and get down at Ghoom (Rs. 150.00). From Ghoom, take another jeep to go to Sukhiapokhori (shortly called as Sukhia, Rs. 20.00 p.p). From Sukhia, change jeep to go to Maneybhanjang (Rs. 30.00 p.p).

Sometimes, it is also possible to get a jeep directly to Sukhiapokhori (Rs. 150.00 p.p).

Best time to visit: September-December, March-April

Place to stay: There are several places to stay, check those places out yourself.


- There might be delays in the jeep stand at NJP because they wait for the jeep to become full.

- You have to take a guide for the trek, else you will not be allowe
d to enter into the trek route beyond Tumling.

- You have to pay fees for your camera and forest entry


I expected Pradipta to be already there at the New Jalpaiguri (NJP) railway station when my train, the Kanchenjunga Express from Guwahati entered Platform No. 2. His train was scheduled to arrive 30 minutes before mine. I tried calling him up on his mobile, but it was not reachable and an inquiry revealed that the his train was late by an hour or so. My best companion during this wait was The Telegraph, the national daily from Kolkata. There were several news reports about the possibilities of a road blockade in the Darjeeling area and I was slightly worried whether we can reach Maneybhanjang early and in time. We were teaming up for a trek to Sandakphu for the New Year 2010. The planning for this trek started around November 09 and we zeroed in on Sandakphu (3700 m height) for the reason that at this time of the year, it is quite difficult to trek in the himalayan territory of northern India. Sandakphu is one of the highest points in the eastern part of India from where one can have a very good view of Kanchanjunga peak, Mt. Everest and a portion of the Himalayan range. Our idea was to be present at Sandakphu top on Jan 1, 01 and herald the first sunrise of the new year within Kanchanjunga's warmth. My thoughts were suddenly disturbed by the announcement that Uttar Banga Exp. is entering platform 3. Very soon, Pradipta embarked with his huge rucksack behind. I did not have a rucksack of my own, so had to buy a medium sized one at Guwahati. It was 8:15 AM and we briskly walked towards the taxi stand to enquire about our trip to Maneybhanjang. We were asked to board a taxi going towards Darjeeling and get down at Ghoom. Ghoom is around 5 kms before reaching Darjeeling. It was 8:30 AM, but the taxi waited and waited for two more passengers and by the time we started for Ghoom, it was 10:30AM. Squeezed between 4 passengers at the back seat of a Tata Sumo for a turbulent ride along the pot-holed roads of Siliguri is not an experience good enough to narrate. It took us around 45 minutes to get on to the main road which leads to Darjeeling. The driver of the vehicle decided to take a short-cut road which goes through Makaibari.

Sandakphu is a popular trekking destination in the Darjeeling area. Although there is a jeepable track to reach to this place, trekking is the preferred mode unless people are too lazy. I am told that the trek through the Singalila National Park and the views of the valleys and the himalayan mountain range en-route is a great experience. The most frequented trek trail is the one which starts from Maneybhanjang and ends at Rimbick and this takes around 4-5 days depending on the trekker. We had around 3-4 days for the trek and we were not sure how we are going to complete the trek. It was a turbulent ride along the steep and winding roads until we reached Kurseong, one of the important towns in Gorkhaland. The surprising part was that all along the topsy-turvy ride, there was one guy (a local) who was standing on a small pedestal at the back side of the vehicle and all of us inside appreciated the balance he was able to maintain. But, then we found that such a standing mode of journey is popular amongst the local people. From Kurseong onwards, the roads have become wide and more interestingly, we could see the narrow gauge railway line for the Himalayan Mountain Railway. I remembered several scenes from old movies where the small train used to be picturized, the most popular being the song "Mere Sapnon Ki Rani Kab Aayegi tu". For us, Sapnon ki Rani became less and less important, the journey was so painful that we wanted to reach our destination at the earliest possible. The main vehicle road crisscrossed the railway line and at many places, the railway line was right in the front of houses. Soon, we reached Ghoom and we got down near the Ghoom Railway Station. The location and the building of the railway station looked nothing less than a similar one in Switzerland, but the only issue was the dirt which was spread all around the place. From Ghoom, we have to go to Sukhia Pokhri and from Sukhia Pokhri to Maneybhanjang. We had a company now. His name was Maharaja and he was also going to Maneybhanjang. Taxi services in the Gorkhaland region is quite well organized and a very popular means of transport because of the narrow roads. It took us 20 minutes to reach Sukhia and then further 20 minutes to reach Maneybhanjang. Maharaja helped us a lot in giving us inputs on the road network and also a brief information about the trek in general. It was 14:30 hrs when we reached Maneybhanjang. Our plan was to have food at Maneybhanjang and start the trek immediately by 16:00 hrs, camp at one of the places en-route for the night and then proceed further the next day. When feasting on hot momos, we initiated the discussions with the owner of the restaurant on the possibilities of starting the trek in the evening and the associated necessities. The suggestions were not very encouraging - a guide was a must for the trek and if we started the trek that evening, it would be dark in No Man's Land. There were other groups of trekkers who had also assembled at the same restaurant and were discussing about going to Sandakphu. In the process of discussions, somebody told us to consult with Jivan sir, who it seems was well versed with the technicalities of the trek. A short chat with him gave us the easiest solution. We were not starting the trek that evening but the next day morning, i.e. on the 30th Dec.

We shifted to Jivan Sir's (he is a teacher in the local school at Maneybhanjang and that is why the Sir with his name) lodging place for the night stay. During the evening, we chatted with him on all the details related to the trek. He arranged the guide for us, booked our accommodation at Tumling and everything seemed to be ready. We were also lucky to meet an elderly person (Mr. Ray) from Kolkata who organizes trekking to Sandakphu ( and many other Himalayan trips and treks. Suddenly, we realised that we had more information on the Sandakphu trek than we need. The evening was spent walking around the small town around the only football ground and on the main road. The most unique thing we found about this place was the so called Land Rover, the jeep which ferries people and goods up on the mountain roads up to Sandakphu. Sometimes the engineering solutions at these places are nothing short of a marvel. That vehicle which looked like probably redone with an aluminum body is able to transport both people and good without any problem in that rough terrain. It was getting colder outside and we got back to our hotel quickly, had a good hot dinner and huddled ourselves in our cold room. We had our sleeping bags with us and that saved us from all the trouble during the night.

It was bright and sunny the next day morning. Bimal, our 22 year old guide was a bit late in reporting, but then we were told that we will be taking a short-cut, but a steeper route close to Bimal's house, to climb up. The time was 8:00AM and off we started with our heavy rucksacks. We hit the trail pretty fast through the short-cut. A part of the trail is along the jeep road which goes up to Sandakphu. We were told of the complexities of the trek route the previous night, so we were expecting what was ahead of us. The initial stretch of climb up to Chitrey (2 kms) was supposed to be steep and it really was, maybe around 60 degrees or so. Soon, it became clear that our stamina had taken for a beating. We were already puffing our way up within 30 minutes of the trek, but then, we were determined. It took us slightly more than an hour to cover the 2kms up to Chitrey, a beautiful place with a monastery. We stopped at the monastery for sometime and proceeded on our way. We were not in a hurry, as Tumling, our last halt for the day was around 6 kms from Chitrey and we were pretty sure that we will hit that place around 14:30-15:00 hrs. The trail beyond Chitrey was just the sort of terrain we required to boost our stamina - easy walk on grasslands along the side of a hill with sights of Kanchenjunga at a distance. This stretch of trail occasionally crossed the road and you could see few jeeps passing by and also . It was not long before we reached Meghma, a beautiful valley with a very small settlement. We were very close to Tumling and there were two ways to get it. One way is to climb up to Tonglu along the stairs which were visible right in front of our eyes and the other option was to go along a short-cut route along the side of a hill. The weather was changing quite fast - it was a very sunny and bright afternoon, but now clouds have started hovering and it was becoming gloomy. We took the shorter route to Tumling along the side of the hill. It took us around 30 minutes to reach Siddhartha Lodge where we were booked. It was getting dark and cold. We were planning to walk up to Tonglu in the afternoon if the weather permitted. It was time for lunch and the menu was noodles which we had brought with us. The weather became really bad by the time we finished lunch and it was just not possible to go out anywhere. We somehow passed our time partly sleeping, partly going outside the lodge to see the surroundings and partly chatting with the owner of the lodge. The night was very chill, there was no electricity (which was of course good !) and after having hot dinner of rice, dal and sabji with another group of trekkers, the best thing to do was to try falling asleep. Good night!

It was probably around 5:30 when I woke up the next day morning. It is generally a well-known theory that the weather is usually good early in the morning and most of the peaks are visible without much difficulty. We wanted to see the sunrise from Tumling. I just looked outside my room window and the only thing I could see was total mist and this gave me some additional time to sleep and be warm inside. The next time I woke up, it was around 6:30 and what I saw outside the window was white layers which looked like snow. I woke Pradipta up and rushed out of my room and to my surprise, it was really snow everywhere outside. Wow, thats fantastic - in Europe or in the US, we would have known through weather forecast that it would snow on that day, but in India, these are surprises which people would certainly like. I got all my warm clothes on and ventured outside. The weather looked like clearing up and the sun was about to be seen on the horizon. Thick white clouds were hovering all around and moving very fast, so I was waiting for the moment when the clouds in front of the Kanchenjunga peak would clear up. It seemed like it had snowed quite heavily, maybe around 2 inches or so and the entire shoe was getting covered almost. Even the two dogs from the lodge were happy on seeing the snow and they were running helter-skelter all around and tossing themselves up in the snow. Meanwhile, Pradipta had also come out and the surrounding atmosphere was just the kind of atmosphere which can pep anyone up. It was now time for us to pack things up and leave - our aim was to cover the stretch from Tumling to Sandakphu in one day. There were two thoughts running in our minds - the fact that we did not have proper clothes and shoes to hike in the snow and secondly, in such a weather whether it would be possible to view Kanchenjunga from Sandakphu.

After a quick breakfast, we started from Tumling around 8:00AM and we were mentally prepared to walk in the snow. Our guide told us that now in this weather, it would be difficult to take short-cuts as the trail wont be clearly visible and we might end up in a ditch or hurt ourselves. We decided to walk along the stony jeep road. Our next target was Gairibas from where the real steep trek supposedly starts. It was tough to walk in the snow with those heavy rucksacks and the weather was playing hide and seek - sometimes clearing up and sometimes making it difficult for us to view the path ahead. In half an hour, we were at the check post for entry into the Singalila National Park. Trekkers are not allowed to go ahead beyond this point if they don't have a guide with them. Most of the time, it was a downhill trek to Gairibas, but the road was difficult to walk as the snow covered most of the stones on the road. In spite of the poor weather, there were people outside - one has to of course work for survival. Our concentration was more on the road just to ensure that we do not fall down and break our bones. Well, there was nothing else to see around too as everything was embossed in thick layers of snow. By 10:00 AM, we were at Gairibas. Our guide tells us that the real trek should start from here. We took a short break with tea at Gairibas, registered again at the forest check-post there and off we started our climb. The climb was again along the jeep road with occasional short-cuts once in a while. Our guide kept on telling us that the uphill climb was not too long and pushed us along. Our next destination was Kalipokhori. The weather was not good at all for trekking. Sometimes, the visibility ahead used to be very clear, but in general, it was very misty ahead, there was light snowfall and the occasional wind. There was nobody on the roads except us. The trek was becoming real tough and we had to stop more often than required. We had no other option, but to keep going ahead. After 2 and half hours of strenuous trek, we could see a pond with water which looked black in color. That is how we realised how the name of the place Kalipokhori was named. We took a much needed break in one of the small huts which worked as a part-time restaurant of sorts, got ourselves close to the fire and then had vegetarian momos for lunch.

We did not spend much time here as we wanted to reach Sandakphu before it got dark. After crossing the last house in the village, Bimal suggested we take the short-cut route. Well, the tracks were not visible at all, but Bimal was confident and so we kept following him. The path was really steep, it was very slippery due to the snow and the visibility was nil. The challenge was most welcome for us. Along the route, a few young chaps rushed and crossed us. It seems a jeep got stuck in the snow and help was required. We probably walked for almost one and half hours before we hit the jeep track. A couple of jeeps which were going down stopped and asked for water so that they could pour into their engines. It looked like the jeep folks also had a tough time. The road ahead was steep and we could realise that we are reaching our destination quite quickly. It was another one and a half hours before we could see the Sandakphu peak ahead of us. It was a thrilling experience. Gathering the last bit of energy we had, we climbed the last stretch of steep climb. Bimal had already gone ahead of us to find a place for us to stay for the night. Our excitement was at its peak when we reached the summit. The only sad part at that point was the fact that we could not see any of the peaks for which we came there. We could also not imagine that we will trek up to Sandakphu in almost two days of trek. Bimal had already fixed our lodging and we rushed to have a change of clothes. Our hands and feet had already started freezing. We requested the hotel supervisor to light the fire and also arrange hot water. It was 5:30 PM when we sat around the fire-place deciding what to have for dinner. The supervisor suggested that we have "khichuri"... We added some more flavor to it by asking him to prepare "crispy aaloo bhaaja"... All along we felt bad for the fact that we may not see Kanchenjunga at all due to poor weather. But, our hotel supervisor tried his best to convince us that, based on his experience all the years, the weather would be very clear the next day. There was no harm in accepting his confidence. It was cold outside and we were also very tired. It was the night of 31st december and we knew that people in the cities would be partying the whole night. But we had no scope. Dinner was ready by 7:30 PM and it was an awesome meal at 3000 metres. We crashed into our beds immediately after dinner and the cold and damp room did not allow us to sleep immediately. After sometime, I did not know what was happening. Around middle of the night, I was awakened by lot of noise outside and the song "Sandeshe Aate Hain, Humein Tarpate Hain" disturbed the peaceful night. I realised that it was midnight and the first day of January had just set it... I was in no mood to get up... Getting back to sleep was tough and I was waiting desperately for the morning to arrive. It was around 5 AM when I heard some sounds outside and I woke Pradipta up from his deep sleep. From our window, we could see that the sky was crystal clear and that some people had started gathering to view the peaks. We were excited. We took our jackets and rushed outside to one of the vantage points from where we can get a good look at the Kanchanjunga peak.

People (including us) began to get desperate as the skylight slowly began to get bright. There was lot of chatter around. We could see the white peaks of Kanchenjunga in the semi-darkness and I was missing my camera stand to take some snaps. The sun was still not visible, but there was sufficient light now to see the Kanchenjunga peaks. But, the wait was for the view when the first rays of the sun falls on the peak. We did not have to wait longer. As soon as the first rays of the sun began to fall on the peak, the white peak started to become golden in color. This was an awesome and beautiful sight. We have achieved our goal. First, we completed our tough hike to Sandakphu and next we could see the Kanchanjunga peak glowing in eternal beauty with the first rays of the morning sun. We rushed to different vantage point to get different views of the entire range. At a far off distance, we were shown the peak of Mt. Everest also. We were told that this was a very rare day since all the peaks were visible with very high clarity. We were considered lucky. After spending a good two hours enjoying the breathtaking surroundings, it was time to start our way back to mainland. We have to go down 22 kms before we can hit the first village, Rimbik, from where we can get a jeep back to Darjeeling.

It was a bright and sunny and we expected a nice downhill trek. After a quick breakfast, we started going down. The trekking path was filled with snow and it was slippery since the snow started to melt. The excitement of the morning still remained and with a few stops for water in between we trekked down quite quickly to the first village Gurdum. The last stretch of 3 kms to Gurdum was extremely steep and it was difficult to trek down. We wondered how it would be if climbed to Sandakphu from this end. That would be a great challenge no doubt. Gurdum had a small settlement of around 10-15 families. We realised that the people out there would have to trek quite a bit to get essential commodities for their living. And I am not sure what they did if they needed a doctor urgently. Our next destination was Srikhola. The trek sometimes passed through thick jungles all along and for the first time we found a small waterfall just after reaching Srikhola. You would be surprised to know that Srikhola has a youth hostel. We were getting tired and Pradipta had a sore heel to add to it. Our progress was slow as we knew that our next halt would be Rimbik where we have to stay for the night. It took us 3 hours to trek from Srikhola to Rimbik and we checked into the first decent hotel (Hotel Kanchanjunga) as we entered the village. Dinner was exciting again: dal-bhaat :) Jeep tickets to Darjeeling were reserved for us for the next day early morning. It took us 5 hours to reach Darjeeling from Rimbik the next day. We spent a peaceful day in Darjeeling roaming around the beautiful place. The weather was great and lot of people were there on the streets. Soon, the time came when we bade goodbye to Darjeeling and then returned to our respective destinations - Kolkata for Pradipta and Guwahati for me.

True memories die hard and this one was really special. Expecting more such treks in the near future.

Hej Da.