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Wednesday, October 24, 2012
A Trek to Sandakphu is a trek to heaven
While we were in Darjeeling preparing for a trek to Sandakphu, it was raining continuously. Rajan, our guide said November is usually cold but not wet. Perhaps, I thought, this was how nature chose to respond to human attempts to dominate her as if serving a reminder of her existence. Suddenly a credible thought crossed my mind. If it is raining in Darjeeling, it may be snowing in Sandakphu. I prayed to the almighty to not to throw any surprises on my first ever trek in high altitude. Pray but be prepared was our mantra and hence armed with all means to meet such surprises, 53 of us stretched our ambitions to a height of about 3636m, decided to take uncertainties head-on and were ready to scale the only corner in North- East India which provides a 180 degree view of four of the five most formidable peaks in the world namely Mt Everest, Kanchen Dzonga, Makalu and Lhotse peaks.
From Dhotrey - Land Rovers were once Clint Eastwood favorites. They are obsolete by more than half a decade and now seen only in this part of the world.
We started off from an incredibly picturesque village called Dhotrey. Bright white Buddhist monasteries greeted us providing an insight into the mountainous civilization. We kept walking as desultory and dangling conversation prevailed amidst dazzling surroundings. We also passed through the Singalila National Park where the elusive Red Panda lives freely in serenity. The walk slowly turned into an arduous climb. Finally we reached Neelu Di’s Shikhar lodge at Tumling situated at a height of about 3070m after crossing into Nepal and had a cup of hot soup to keep ourselves warm. Fresh breeze blew past us and huge white clouds sailed in the clearest of skies. It was pitch dark by 5 PM. By about 7.30 PM, there was a huge gathering of fellow diners near the hearth while the bright flames kept dancing into it. Post dinner, weariness had begun to weigh on the eyelids and soon we abandoned ourselves to sleep.
Sunrise at Tumling
After a lip smacking breakfast, we were off to our next camp at Kali Pokhri (Kali, in Nepalese dialect means Black and Pokhri means Pond). The road is full of ups and downs and taxing on the knees but is beautiful, fully laden with Bamboo and Rhododendron forests. Clear skies accompanied us most of the time but we knew that change is constant in mystical Himalayas. In no time, we were once again walking into mist. The heart kept hammering into the chest as we kept climbing up. After an assiduous walk, we reached Kali Pokhri. By about 3.30 PM, it was really cold and pitch dark. Once again we had an early dinner and were off to bed.
Approaching Kali Pokhri
Next day amidst clear skies we started walking skywards - towards Sandakphu. The dazzling blue sky, the lovely mountains, the chirping of birds, the cold breeze blowing with an immense roar, everything seemed eternally lovely. The road towards Sandakphu is resplendent with ethereal beauty of Magnolias, Rhododendrons, Primulas and other sub-alpine flowers. It is becoming increasingly difficult for me to describe the walk to the climax. You got to be at the place to experience the feeling which no words can describe. If you belong to the concrete jungle and your heart is a chaotic battlefield every day, this is an ideal place to be. We hoped the weather stayed as it is and not deteriorate. But as they say - Man proposes and God disposes. The fog returned. The weather which looked like a beautiful lady now appeared an evil witch eager to rob us from the post card perfect views around. When we reached Sandakphu, the wind was blowing with an unrestrained rage and thick fog had blocked the view of the mountain ranges. Soon we made ourselves comfortable in the cozy room inside Sherpa Chalet lodge. I had a headache and was gasping for breath due to thin air. In spite of the mountain sickness most of us had a question in our hearts. Would the weather Gods allow us a glimpse of the mountain ranges tomorrow?
The summit - Sandakphu
All night the winds kept howling. I got up at 5 AM, took a stroll outside to catch the rising sun but it hid itself behind thick wall of fog. We waited like a fisherman does after throwing his bait but to no avail. The formidable obstacles we cleared to reach the top now started appearing futile. There was a ray of hope though which made us stare at the huge white wall of mist in front of us which wasn’t ready to budge. At about 8 AM, it was time for the descent and to move to our next camp at Gurdum.
The Kanchen Dzonga peaks : The moment of truth!!!!
After only a few steps down, fate sprung a pleasant surprise. Strong winds started pushing the fog away as if revealing a mystery. A huge white mountain appeared miraculously from nowhere putting a blossomed smile on our faces. This was it! We awaited the revelation of an amazing truth and only a few seconds later we glanced admiringly at the gigantic Kanchan Dzonga. I was speechless, unable to distinguish dream from reality. I kept staring at the angel white ranges with reverence. Further contemplation of the scene made the mountain appear like the beautiful woman, who looks depressing and unattainable.
A few moments later, the fog was back turning our hearts into ice. We only got a chance to see the imposing Kanchan Dzonga and nothing else and hence I thought the visit wasn’t completely doomed. I looked up to thank the almighty and got a feeling of déjà-vu. Some faded images came back to life and I recalled standing at about 5487m at Khardung La in Ladakh wondering how much higher the sky would be. I wonder about it every time standing at great heights. Later with utmost agony, we started our trek downwards as we had to reach Gurdum. The limbs were ready but the soul was reluctant to leave such a wonderful place. The beautiful memories of Sandakphu had squeezed itself into the heart. This place definitely is a distinct path to heaven. My mind immediately made a decision to come back for a complete view of the mountain ranges and to experience the solitude of Sandakphu once again.
How to Reach
Bagdogra Airport is about 90 km from Darjeeling. All major flights fly to Bagdogra. A return flight may cost you somewhere between INR 10000-20000. From Darjeeling you can trek to Sandakphu via Maneybhanjan. Group treks or private treks are available. You can also opt for a jeep safari from Maneybhanjan which may cost you somewhere between INR 5000-10000.
New Jalpaiguri (NJP) railway station is about 69 km from Darjeeling. Buses and taxis are available. You can also take a toy train ride from NJP to Darjeeling which takes approximately 9 hrs. The fare is INR 30/- for second class and INR 350/- for first class.
Singalila National Park remains closed for tourists from 16th June to 15th September. Snowfall usually starts in the last week of December and continues intermittently till February.
Best times to visit Sandakhphu:
21st March to 30th April: If you get clear sky during this time, you are lucky. Stormy winds with rain are common. 25th December to 31st January: Expect snowfall.