It all began in the wee morning hours of 22nd April nearly 2500 kms away, exactly on the opposite end of India, where even the Sun takes an hour to reach – Mumbai. Our train hurtled across the breadth of India, passing first through the dry Western Ghats, then the even drier Deccan plateau – where in this time of the year the temperature easily touches 45-48 degrees. I was entirely engrossed in one of my books, quite ignoring the sand that would settle down on our seat no matter how many times one tries to dust it off. We gulped down cold fluids served by the vendors as fast as possible, since the water would immediately become warm and almost undrinkable. I was laden with grit as we entered the plains of the Hooghly, but soon that grit turned into grease due to the humidity blast. We had passed through the regions of Vidarbha, Chattisgarh and Orissa in the night thereby escaping the hottest part of India in some sense, yet the heat wasn’t so merciful, it had taken its share of the taxes. Thanks to Soumya’s connections, we got off at Santargachi and went straight to Park Street for a brief stopover. Now, Kolkata is an interesting city, lazy, perhaps dull if one compares with Mumbai, yet ever so vibrant in a different sense – in its food, in its eloquent people, in its yellow taxis! Reenergized with a meal that I savour till today and a customary visit to the Oxford bookstore, we headed now to Sealdah for a journey in the moonlight till New Jalpaiguri.
It was early morning, about 5 – 5:30 when I woke up from my upper berth. There was already too much light – the time zone effect had kicked in. The air was now cooler, as I looked outside, our train was zooming through the plains, piercing through the morning mist. In my previous trip to Uttarakhand, I was in awe to see the mountains emerging out of the crust so abruptly – vast plains and then the huge wall of mountains lying in the front, a wall that never ends, a wall that leaks rivers, so immense that there are cities on top of it. I was looking for this wall when we arrived at New Jalpaiguri, but no sign of it yet. From the NJP station, it is always a good idea to take a prepaid jeep upto Darjeeling. It set us back by Rs. 200 each in a Sumo that accommodated 11 including the driver, with couple more on the roof.
At 2042 metres, Darjeeling was more urbanised than I initially thought. The winding alleys, the vibrant people, open drains that sounded like waterfalls, tea shops in abundance, the overhanging electric wires, the whistling toy train and the missing Kanchendzonga. There were pockets of colonial era buildings with the best views of the valleys down below, and then there are pockets where it is really cramped and congested, where it did not seem like Darjeeling the hill station at all. Our base was Youth Hostel Kadambari, where we settled down on our assigned bunk beds – the dorm was okay with all the bare essentials. YHAI, which organises treks like these is a non profit organisation and perhaps the cheapest around that may take you to the Himalayas. The Sandakphu trek cost me Rs. 5775 including food and accommodation. Moreover, there’s always a chance of bumping into fellow trekkers who will narrate experiences that can last a lifetime.
Two days later on 26th April, we find ourselves in Dhotrey, a 3 hr drive from Darjeeling. An expectant look around the horizon to see Kanchendzonga betrays the diminishing hope that I had. After a mishandled episode of putting blames, and the death of a local – both unrelated incidents, dirt finally hit our shoes – in the literal sense that is. Our trail was a well laid one, almost too well laid for some. It was a constant ascent, but manageable. We moved in groups, the same groups that we had come from. In the orientation meeting a leader and a deputy was chosen amongst us – Shubham and Sowmya. Convention says that the leader follows the pack at the back while the deputy leads from the front.
We reached Tonglu located at 3070 metres by noon, where I began my tryst with a runny nose. The cold chills juxtaposed with the clouds as they rode on the wind making the temperature instantly drop. The sun could barely be seen, thoroughly ambushed by the invading cavalry of fog. As the battle continued, we waited in a gazebo on the top for others to catch up. The sudden change in weather gave me a moment of excitement, as I ran around trying in futility to capture these moments in my camera. But how can I feed inside the 16 GB memory card – the creepy cold, the refreshing air, the earthly smell and most importantly the perception of depth that we as humans are gifted with. Our lunch point was a quaint cottage few minutes from the gazebo where we were resting. As we reached there, seemingly on cue, the sun came out. The fare for lunch was simple – Dal, Rice, Rotis, Cauliflower, French fries and Salad, not so simple perhaps. The courtyard was big enough to accommodate us all, with a small bench and a long line of flowering pots – everything seemed enchanting as if straight out of a dream.
Our last stop of the day was at Tumling, which was slightly below our present altitude. The trail that continued to Tumling was a godly delight – the path wound along the meadows, as a queue of mountains lay in front of us, one after the other emanating some kind of strange mist, blocking the sun. The wind produced a rustling sound as it prowled through the grass, and the grass swayed in a tune that only nature knew.
We were given a large dorm to stay, the walls and the flooring were wooden keeping the room warm, besides offering us the charm of living in a wooden home. Supposedly, the Kanchendzonga was to be visible right in front of the cottage, but all I could see is layers and layers of haze. At this point I began to believe that we had violated some kind of secret contract that disallowed us from the views of the mighty mountain. As the evening approached, everyone assembled in the men’s dorm for fun and games – this is where our first proper introduction took place. Folk songs and stories took most of our time, mixed with glorious mouth organ tunes played by Tushar. And then we all sung in chorus, merry with happenings of the first day of our trek. We went to sleep early mindful of the early sunrise, and perhaps more so because there was just one toilet for the twenty-two of us.
There was a pattern to the weather in this part of the Himalayas – sunrises are clear and it starts warming up till noon, post which clouds start their reign and strong winds bring a chill. However, as night falls, the weather becomes clear again and we could notice the stars & constellations in the sky. The average temperature during the day would be in the mid twenties in presence of the sun, going down to single digits during the night. We set out for Kalipokhari at a comfortable time of 9 AM. The route was a mild descent, going through a forested area, however the charm of trekking was ruined as the trail was entirely concretized. Yesterday, we had covered nearly 7 km, but today the distance to be covered was 13 km. Multitudes of Rhododendrons rose out of the slopes colouring the entire landscape, with red, pink, white and purple colours. But, this year the bloom was restricted with locals blaming low rainfall. In fact, as we headed down to Gurdum later in the trek we could see the failure of peas & maize due to the absence of rainfall. It was a stiff climb to our lunch point, and the first thing we did having reached there was to free our battered toes! Lunch followed, and then a brief nap. Meanwhile, the hills nearby had called on the free spirits in our group. These unique individuals found their own special spots to relax amidst the shifting weather, lost in nature’s spectacle; while some others found joy in procuring Bhutan’s currency.
Post lunch, the four of us walked together, talking about matters ever so grave, passing judgements and making hypotheses with Akash always providing that unique perspective, on most occasions getting a mouthful. The clouds in the meantime encircled us, playing games. At one point we could see hundred metres ahead and suddenly the visibility would be barely a few feet. This on off situation would continue throughout the trek in the evenings as the weather changed drastically in no time. As we reached Kalipokhari, it felt as if we were in a blast freezer with a wind tunnel built inside. The wind here was at its peak due to the peculiar geography of the place creating a funnel like effect. The clouds were scampering across the surface, as if summoned by the god of Himalayas for an urgent gathering.
Meanwhile, Soumya was desperate to get in touch with his family, fortunately he found a BSNL signal and dropped a text. Abhinav, too did the same contacting his family. Moreover, I also got a full signal but from across the border costing me roaming charges. Later in the evening, yet again we gathered in one of the halls, this time Sowmya and Nilofer taking the initiative, both blessed with beautiful voice cords and an encyclopedia of songs. The night was unsurprisingly windy, for a while as I was tucked inside my warm blanket, I felt the roof would simply blow off, but we had small window near our beds from where I could see the stationary and peaceful, sleep inducing stars.
By now I had lost much of hope of spotting Kanchendzonga, and therefore concentrated on the sunrises, in hope of saving face back home. Sandakphu was an uphill 6 km trek from here, yet again the trail was well laid as Land Rovers would pass us occasioanlly. While the landscape was largely dry the four of us concentrated on reaching the top as soon as possible – taking it as a challenge. At the back for most part of the trail, we picked up speed once the climb began. I remember Akash saying to me – “Acha lag raha hai, saas phul rahi hai”. We took brief pauses, following Avinash our trek guide who led us through short cuts and long cuts alike, criss crossing the Indo Nepal border, providing us views that brought about epiphanies. At one point we were at the marker indicating the border, when we could see the huge expanse below, including our base at Kalipokhari. Surely it wasn’t us who had seized the moment but it was the moment that had seized us. We endured the sharp climb, burning every bit of energy possible, exerting our thighs, breathing like a horse; Soumya, Abhinav, Akash all did well, giving us four confidence of surpassing even higher peaks and taking on even tougher treks. Kishor, Vihari and Akshay were the undoubted stars of the trek, not just by being the most physically fit but also due to their practice of collecting garbage and keeping the trail clean. Sowmya was also extremely fit for her age, being able to do the tough parts with ease – truly an inspiration for us all.
Sandakphu at 3636 metres was an anticlimax – I expected to see views that would last a lifetime but all that I found on the top were lodges and an acute water shortage. I did not even try to locate the Kanchendzonga, the way I did at previous camps – imagining where it should be and then superimposing the postcard I bought. Post the ritual of room allocation, we settled down for a nap. Later in the evening, our YHAI guide – Abhijit Roy, took us to the sunset point, although by now fog had entirely enveloped us and the visibility was a few metres, as we set out to see the sun which was millions of kilometers away. Instead of being a sunset point it was truly a wind point – for it was super windy and cold there! It became tough to maintain balance. I remember Sowmya exclaiming – “It’s so windy I won’t fall” with her back to the wind. The moment reminded me of the Battle of Minas Tirith in Lord of the Rings, when Aragorn would summon the ghost army as it swooped across the war plains decimating the foe. Meanwhile, our tea champion – Soumya found a nice shop for tea, twenty bucks a cup, served hot in chinaware, while some among us had maggi. The night yet again was cold and windy, blatantly challenging us, the outsiders, as we hid in the warmth of the lodge, meekly giving up against the will of nature.
Gurdum our next stop was 14 km away, all downhill. Easiest of the easy paths passing through a Rhododendron forest and then through the sovereign of bamboos. Earlier in the day, I woke up at 3 to see if the Kanchendzonga had presented itself to the stars, but the veil wasn’t lifted. By around 5, all gathered to see the sunrise – to witness the burning peaks, braving the cold winds; but the warmth of our hope dismissed the conditions as we sat facing the now purple crimson horizon. We waited and waited, for the sun was late – as if the great peaks were forbidding the sun to appear, till it was high enough to hide them away. And then we saw the reddish purple sphere, we saw it through the conifers, we saw it from the glass cabin, we saw it through the fluttering prayer flags at a point higher than any found in West Bengal, we saw what 7 billion others see everyday but the mountains made it different. Back in the cottage, there was a picture of Sandakphu captured sometime in December, with pristine clear views of the Kanchenjunga, as pristine as the snow that had covered the cottage – perhaps I had chosen the wrong season to travel here.
We arrived in Gurdum by 2 PM just in time for lunch. After being on a diet of rice, dal, potatoes and cabbage, the fresh peas and soybean was a delight. The courtyard was skillfully lined with flowering plants, all blooming to their full glory – roses, orchids, daisies, poppies, succulents and so many more whose names I barely knew.
In the evening we had a small ceremony in the community hall where everyone was asked to put up atleast one performance. The group of Tushar, Kishor, Mayur and Akshay sang Bawara Mann, while Geetha, Honey, Giri put up a solid dance performance. Our group of Akash, Soumya and Abhinav opted for skit enacting Tony Greig and Navjot Sidhu. The other Sowmya put up a breathtaking solo indian classical dance performance. Amidst the darkness lit by torch light with sounds effects using Bluetooth speakers the night indeed became memorable.
We descended down to Rimbik the next day and started coming closer and closer to civilization. It was a marginal descent as we broke for lunch rather early at Srikhola. There was a river gushing by and everyone took a chance to dip their feet in the freshly made water. Post lunch I went for a nap on some of the boulders deposited on the river bed and it was peaceful as ever, as I heard the water flowing around me with the sounds of the bugs and the bees. There are always small moments that define a trip, lifting it out of the monotone and this was certainly one moment.
By evening, we reached Rimbik town and settled down in our dorms for one last time. It was Giri’s birthday today and to everyone’s surprise the ladies conjured up a cake using mere biscuits without compromising on the taste! Later, as everyone winded down tired of the day long hike, suddenly a spurt of energy came about and we in the men’s dorm started dancing – Kishor, Tushar taking the initiative. The owner noticed us and asked the men to dance outside and it was such a ruckus! A drab night was suddenly transformed as everyone just broke free! The owner lady too later joined us, however mindful that tomorrow we need to leave early she asked us to stop, but the guys were having such a great time that we wouldn’t listen to her! Finally with the lines – “So jao gabbar aa jayega” she managed to convince the crowd to sleep and so we did, but not before our Neta – Shubham tried an attempt in vain.
The next day the biggest concern in our minds was whether our train tickets would get confirmed or not, as we departed from Darjeeling by noon. With some last minute shopping at Goldentips, we took the Uttarbanga express by 6 in the evening from NJP reaching Sealdah early morning at 5. An Ola from Sealdah to Howrah Stn would take us via the Howrah bridge. With time on our hands, we tried some of the Bengali sweets and I became convinced that the Bengalis probably had the best food palate in India. We met Kishor and group on the station at platform no. 22, as the Duronto chugged in. Not disappointed by its efficiency, we reached CST the day next amidst all the comforts one can get, finally to put an end to this wonderful trip.
There was certainly disappointment of not seeing the Kanchendzonga or the other 3 eight thousanders, but that curiosity shall pull me back again for some day I shall return to Himalayas, maybe not at Sandakphu, but some place else to earn a glimpse of the great mountains.
This trip was originally published on ANOTHER ASSUMPTION
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