Of ravines, wildflowers and a Red Panda...Sandakphu

15th May 2016
Photo of Of ravines, wildflowers and a Red Panda...Sandakphu 1/20 by Gauri

The beginning-

Darjeeling(6700 ft)-Dhotrey(8500 ft)-Tonglu(10130 ft)-Tumling(9600 ft)

I stepped out of our jeep and breathed the fresh air of Dhotrey- a small and quaint hamlet nestled amidst thick pine forests. Delighted to have left the mad rush of Darjeeling far behind, I was impulsive to venture on what I was considering to be one of my most cherished treks. Every house, window sill, verandah and toilet in Dhotrey was lined with fresh and blooming wild flowers and intoxicating roses. Overlooking the houses were never-ending foliage of dark green pines with a few brown pines peeping out. With a 7kg rucksack, a batch of 5 and a cheerful Sherpa guide named Bheem, I began my expedition with YHAI. 54 kms of uphill and downhill trail passing through thick and beautiful forests and ravines of the Singalila National Park seemed thrilling. I couldn’t wait to witness the unrivalled panoramic view(also referred to as the sleeping Buddha) of the highest snow clad peaks of the world- Everest, Kanchendzonga and Lhotse from Sandakphu- the highest point of WestBengal at 11900 ft. I was 4 days away from the eagerly awaited spectacle!

Photo of Of ravines, wildflowers and a Red Panda...Sandakphu 2/20 by Gauri
The quaint village-Dhotrey
Photo of Of ravines, wildflowers and a Red Panda...Sandakphu 3/20 by Gauri
Trek starts through the Pine forests of Dhotrey

The trek route passes through narrow paths of wood and stones, lined with wild strawberries and flowers in abundance, too tempting to be missed out! It was 6 kms of gradual elevation till Tonglu, our first pitstop on the Indo-Nepal border. The weather changed from sunny to cloudy with fast winds making our bodies shiver under our jackets and our teeth chatter. We reached a remote but cozy homestay at Tonglu. Two adorable calves and a thick-furred dog played in the courtyard. The interiors of the house were made up of wood, the kitchen had a huge “Chulha” and was neatly stacked with utensils. Sizzling and delicious homely food that was served, disappeared instantaneously! Here on, potato became a loyal friend and stayed with us for every meal for the next 6 days! While bidding goodbye to the family, my eyes caught sight of a large size photo of a Red Panda hung on a wall. I closed my eyes and secretly made a wish. We continued for 2 kms on a straight and downward path till we reached Tumbling in Nepal, for a night halt at a beautiful homestay called Sidhartha Lodge. Piping hot Horlicks served after dinner was a perfect way to end the chilling and tiresome day.

Photo of Of ravines, wildflowers and a Red Panda...Sandakphu 4/20 by Gauri
Tonglu to Tumling

The majestic wanderer-

Tumling(9660 ft)-Gairbas (8600 ft)

I woke up to a bright morning at 4.30 am next day. The sun was casting its rays on the rolling layers of valleys and ravines in front of me. Taking warmth from the hot cup of tea in my hands, I stood at the ridge of the mountain, staring into infinity. My gaze stopped on a bird rising calmly from the valley below, flying in circles. I was undoubtedly looking at a Himalayan Griffon Vulture! I had last seen this majestic wanderer almost 10 years ago during my trek to the Valley of flowers in Uttarakhand and since then, have craved for another glimpse of this beautiful scavenger. Soon, a second one flew from the far end and encircling in front of me. With a wingspan of almost 7 to 9 feet, these Griffons are the most heaviest and oldest of the vulture family and are gorgeous beyond limits! One of them was a juvenile and merrily perched itself on a treetop for some sun-basking, while the other - attacked and annoyed by two crows finally went out of sight.

Photo of Of ravines, wildflowers and a Red Panda...Sandakphu 5/20 by Gauri
Photo of Of ravines, wildflowers and a Red Panda...Sandakphu 6/20 by Gauri
Himalayan Griffon Vulture
Photo of Of ravines, wildflowers and a Red Panda...Sandakphu 7/20 by Gauri
The dew kissed valley of Tumling

After an epic start to my day, it was time to head to Gairibas, 7 kms of gradual downhill walk. I was eager for two reasons- one, I was told of possibilities of sighting a Red Panda in this zone and two, this was the start of the Singalila Ridge- a paradise for birds. I requested Bheem, our guide, that we take the longer route through the forest and he happily agreed. The trek route is serpentine and the beauty of the surreal forest is indescribable. Birds were in abundance- sunbirds, thrushes, woodpeckers, flycatchers, finches, Yuhinas to name a few. A thick carpet of snow-white clouds hugged the mountains not very far away from me; the magical views forced me to stop every once in a while and wonder in awe. An abandoned house stood on a hill, bravely facing the harsh winds of time, apparently one of the prettiest frames clicked during my trip!

Photo of Of ravines, wildflowers and a Red Panda...Sandakphu 8/20 by Gauri
Caress of the clouds, Gairibas
Photo of Of ravines, wildflowers and a Red Panda...Sandakphu 9/20 by Gauri
An old abandoned hut, Singalila

The unforgettable tryst-

Kaiyakatta(9000 ft)-Kalipokhri(10400 ft)

Leaving Gairibas behind, we reached a small home in Kayakatta for lunch after a steep elevated climb. This family had a small baby that resembled the one on the “Parle-G” wrapper and I instantly indulged in senseless, animated conversations with equal reciprocation! Story goes that a disloyal business man who once stayed here was beheaded by the locals and hence the place got its name..Kaiya means 'businessman' and Katta means 'behead' when translated into Nepali. As we set to leave, my eyes met another poster of the Red Panda hung here too. Somewhere I was dejected in my heart as I had crossed the Panda zone already and now the chances were bleak-almost non-existent!

Photo of Of ravines, wildflowers and a Red Panda...Sandakphu 10/20 by Gauri
The Parle-G deja vu!

Kayakatta to Kalipokhri was a mix of straight paths and elevations. I continued on the trail with careless footsteps, engrossed in bird calls, when I suddenly heard a hurried and excited voice asking me to follow it. My team mate had a look on his face that was so evidently conveying something! He had seen a creature disappear into the woods not far away. My heart pounded as I nervously followed him until we reached a spot from where he pointed towards the direction down below. Our guide Bheem , skid himself on the wet soil covered with moss, grass and creepers and we followed. Five feet away, a timid, shy and fluffy bundle of extreme cuteness was staring right into my face. It was impossible to believe that I was looking into the eyes of a Red Panda at such close proximity! It perched itself on a branch, absolutely motionless, looking at us from the gaps of the thick shrubbery. After almost ten minutes of being into this moment of sheer fantasy, I gently made my way back to the trek path, still trying to come in terms with reality, so fascinated that I had almost cried…

Photo of Of ravines, wildflowers and a Red Panda...Sandakphu 11/20 by Gauri
The unforgettable tryst with the Red Panda

This was perhaps one of the most happiest moments of my life- seeing an endangered Red Panda in wilderness! More so, because it had shown itself up when I had lost all hopes..The tryst soon spread like wild fire all the way to our base camp at Darjeeling and upto Sandakphu, to the other guides and locals too, becoming the hottest talk of the town!

Talking endlessly about the saga, when we finally reached Kalipohkri, the weather had changed again. Kalipohkri in Nepali means black pond. This pond is considered to be sacred and worshipped by the locals as a granter of wishes. We stay put at Himchulee lodge. The long and adventurous day had finally ended and our chats faded in the sound of the heavy rains and wind that night.

Photo of Of ravines, wildflowers and a Red Panda...Sandakphu 12/20 by Gauri
The wish granter-Kalipokhri

The wait and the disappointment -

Kalipohkri(10400 ft)-Bikheybhanjang(10761 ft)-Sandakphu(11929 ft)

Nothing much had changed in an hour of wait inside the cubicle made of glass and wood. The clouds seemed to be making a mockery of my desperation. I closed my eyes and let out a deep sigh, my mind wandered into a flashback…I recalled how the weather had drastically changed a little beyond Kalipokhri. Here on the entire route had been covered in a thick blanket of clouds and fog with intermittent showers. I had read a milestone at Bikheybhanjang or the "Poison Valley" which read “Sandakphu-4 kms”, there on I had kept a hawk's eye on every mark that followed.

When I had reached the milestone that read 'Sandakphu 0 km', I had been engulfed by a heavy downpour. Standing at the lower end of an 80 degree elevation, I had looked down at my drenched shoes. My rucksack and camera had felt heavier than ever, my stops had got more frequent as I panted due to low oxygen levels. Each step had felt like a humungous task. I had taken 3 long hours to cover 4 kms and had finally made it to the crown of Sandakphu. All of this for just one magical glimpse of the peaks! Apparently the weather had turned awful, draping Sandakphu in a thick blanket of fog and mad winds. I had felt an instant weightlessness the moment I had reached the top…it was an utter disaster !

Photo of Of ravines, wildflowers and a Red Panda...Sandakphu 13/20 by Gauri
The mockery! Sandakphu soaked in clouds

Awakened by the chatter around me, I looked outside the cubicle one more time, the cloud was denser and moving like a witch on a broomstick. After almost an hour of shivering underneath my jacket and and listening to a long thread of interesting and near-death experiences shared by our camp leader, we eventually gave up. Darkness had creeped in, temperature had hit a low of 2 degrees and we retired into our rooms at Namo Buddha guest house after gulping our dinner of hot khichadi. I still had hopes of a miracle to happen at the wake of dawn.

Nothing much had changed the next day. It was still gloomy and drizzling with no trace of the sun. The disappointment on our faces were evident. The last batch which was here the previous day had got generous views of the peaks! Sandakphu had shown a cold shoulder to me. After an hour of wait, I finally left Sandakphu with a heavy heart and a shattered dream..

All’s well that ends well!

Sandakphu(11929 ft)-Gurdum(7150 ft)-Rimbik(6500 ft)

Sandakphu to Gurdum, a never-ending steep descend passing through ravines, dense pine and bamboo forests, was covered in no time, listening to the melodious Nepali song ” Resham Firiri” sung by our guide to entertain us on the way. The weather had cleared at Gurdum the next day and I was greeted by an amazing sunrise at 4.30 am through the window of Sherpa Homestay.

Photo of Of ravines, wildflowers and a Red Panda...Sandakphu 14/20 by Gauri
Sunrise from my window at Sherpa homestay
Photo of Of ravines, wildflowers and a Red Panda...Sandakphu 15/20 by Gauri

Gurdum is a village decorated with wild flowers, roses and birds in plentiful! We finished our breakfast of hot Aloo Parathas, listening to “Hamro pahado ki rani”, Nepali version of “Mere Sapno Ki Rani”. Though it brought back memories of the then heart throb Rajesh Khanna following Sharmila Tagore seated in the toy train in Darjeeling, the Nepali version made us laugh till our stomachs hurt! We started towards Rimbik- here the trek route runs parallel to the pristine and merry Sirikhola river, playing hide and seek through the mountains and valleys. Sirikhola plainly means Godly River in the local Nepali dialect. Huge boulders manifest the river and are home for Plumbeous Water redstarts and thrushes. There is an old and beautiful hanging bridge over Sirikhola, beyond which, the path merges into a pucca road, however, it gifts a trekker with alternating and brilliant views of the mountain ranges adorned with clustered huts and dense forests with every snake bend.

Photo of Of ravines, wildflowers and a Red Panda...Sandakphu 16/20 by Gauri
The pristine Sirikhola river
Photo of Of ravines, wildflowers and a Red Panda...Sandakphu 17/20 by Gauri
Hanging bridge over Sirikhola

Surpassing the serene forest and gloomy villages with a few dogs for company, I finally reached my final camp at Hotel Green Hill at Rimbik at sunset.Having a bath after 6 days at a cost of INR 50 per bucket of hot water was an absolute luxury! What felt impossible at the start was now a proud achievement! Tucking myself under a cozy blanket that night, I dreamed of Sandakphu, with its gleaming peaks and the serene sleeping Buddha gently smiling..

A lesson well learnt–

I was gripped with a sinking feeling of failure, of a mission unaccomplished, of a dream unfulfilled. When I imagined the sleeping Buddha and the Everest drifting away into eternity, the pain was unacceptable. On my way down from the magical Sandakphu, I realised a hidden meaning, a lesson learnt. Sandakphu had taught me that life cannot be a sum of mere success or failure, after all its the journey that matters, and the journey surely had been a splendid one! Life need not be fair at all times and one need not accomplish everything one desires. Sandakphu had gifted me with the most memorable episode- my tryst with the Red Panda, I couldn’t have been more thankful. For the spectacular views of the “sleeping Buddha”.. there can always be a ‘next time’!

Sandakphu will be cherished always, as a beautiful tale.. Of ravines, wild flowers and a Red Panda!

Photo of Of ravines, wildflowers and a Red Panda...Sandakphu 18/20 by Gauri
Photo of Of ravines, wildflowers and a Red Panda...Sandakphu 19/20 by Gauri

Information guide

What :- At 11929 feet above sea level, Sandakphu is the highest point of West Bengal and Singalila Ridge at the Indo-Nepal border. Considered as a trekker’s and birder’s paradise, the trek usually takes 5 to 8 days depending on the length one may choose, the least being 54 kms combining uphill and downhill trek. The last lap comprises of a steep climb of upto 80 degrees vertically and the trek level is considered as difficult.

When :- Sandakphu can be visited during different months depending on ones area of interest.

March-April :- Millions of red and pink rhododendrons bloom and the entire trek becomes a visual treat.

May-June : Blooming season ceases but a few of these flowers can still be seen on higher altitudes. Weather swings from pleasant to chilly clubbed with unpredictable overcast, thick fog and showers. Not a great season for panoramic views from the top.

Oct-Nov: Probably the best season to get crisp and clear panoramic views of the peaks with brilliant sunrise and sunsets

Dec-Jan:- With temperatures hitting as low as -20 degrees celsius, ideal for a snow trek- definitely not for the faint hearted!

IMP : One day acclimatisation necessary at Darjeeling to curb altitude sickness.

What to expect:-

Spectacle : Sandakphu offers a 180 degree panoramic and breathtaking view of 3 of the highest mountain ranges in the world- Mount Everest, Kanchendzonga and Lhotse in a row, including Makalu and 3 sisters. The entire range, due to its appearance, is also referred to as “the sleeping Buddha” or “ Kumbhkarna”. On a bright and clear day, the spectacular views of the snow clad peaks during sunrise and sunset along with dense clouds covering the valleys can drive a nature lover insane.

Birdlife and flora : Being the foothills of Himalayas, there is ample birdlife, especially in Singalila Forest. It also embraces countless wildflowers which are visually captivating. In April-May, the entire forest blooms with bright red and pink rhododendrons!

Red Panda:- Singalila is home to the endangered, shy and extremely adorable Red Panda. Indeed a very difficult sight to catch, but if you do- consider yourself one heck of a lucky soul!

How :-

Trek : This is certainly the strongly recommended approach. One can team up with YHAI ( Youth Hostels Assoc of India) for a budget plan, however, their itenaries and date slots are fixed. Other options as below:

Long route: Maneybhanjang-Chitrey-Megma-Tonglu-Tumling(Nepal)-Gairibas-Kalipokhri-Bikheybhanjang-Sandakphu-Phalut-Ramman-Rimbik (approx 84 kms- 8 to 10 days)

Short route: Dhotrey-Tonglu-Tumling-Gairibas-Kalipokhri-Bikheybhanjang-Sandakphu-Gurdum-Sirikhola-Rimbik(approx 54 kms- 5 days)

Motorable : 4×4 Land rovers ply from Maneybanjang/Dhotrey right upto Sandakphu and back

Do Visit https://gauricosmos.wordpress.com/2016/06/05/birds-of-singalila/ for exclusive info and pics of the birds I found at Singalila.

Photo of Of ravines, wildflowers and a Red Panda...Sandakphu 20/20 by Gauri