An experience that will never fade away from my memory
The mountains tell us their story and help us create ours. It’s been two weeks since I returned from my trek to Sandakphu /Phalut in Darjeeling district of West Bengal. I can still visualise the spectacle of Kanchenjunga getting lit by the first rays of the rising sun. It simply refuses to fade away in the midst of the hustle, bustle of my beloved Mumbai. And in the cacophony of this city, I can still hear the sound of the wind rustling through my ears as I stand on top of the mountain watching the clouds beneath me getting colored red by the setting sun. The mountains are beckoning again.
This was my second high altitude trek after the Kashmir Great Lakes Trek in July last year. And this was an unplanned trek! A last minute change of plans, as the Chadar trek, which I had originally planned was cancelled due to a landslide in that region. I had booked this trek with mixed feelings. With images of Kashmir GLT still fresh in my mind, and the disappointment of Chadar trek cancellation, Sandakphu, to me, seemed a poor replacement. Going through the reviews, as a routine pre-booking preparation, trekking to Sandakphu in the month of March didn’t seem like a good idea. It seemed a bit late to experience the snow-covered slopes, a tad too early to see the rhododendrons in full bloom and not the right time to see the Kanchenjunga range, as the skies were expected be foggy at this time. With all these doubts in mind, I flew out of Mumbai unsure of what to expect in the coming days.
A motley group of 19, with the very able team leader, Soumya Mitra, and guide, Chorten Sherpa, took off, brimming with enthusiasm from Maneybhajang in WB. It is about 4 hours’ drive from Bagdogra airport/NJP rly station. It was a misty morning. The surrounding hillside was enveloped in a thick layer of fog, which seemed to worsen as we ascended through the dense and tall pine trees and forests of rhododendron. Visibility was just a few feet as we trudged on. Some trees were in full bloom, and occasionally the rocky path was strewn with fallen bright red flowers. We gained about 3,000 ft. walking 11 km that day to reach Tonglu, our first camp site. As all trekkers will testify, there is no sight more relaxing and invigorating than that of the tents after a strenuous uphill trek.
“How glorious a greeting the sun gives the mountains!” ― John Muir
At Tonglu, it was windy and misty when we reached. The sun was nowhere in sight, but as dusk set in, the skies seemed to clear. The wind seemed intent on blowing the mist away to reveal mountain ranges, which had been elusive so far. Darkness welcomed a sky full of twinkling of stars. It was a magnificent display of the beauty of our universe. The moon was yet to rise and in the pitch-dark night, each and every star in the milky way seemed to watch me from the skies. I slept that night praying for clear weather the next morning.
Providence seemed to have smiled on me in the morning. The sun rose to an absolutely brilliant dawn and I couldn’t have asked for more. I haven’t seen a dawn more beautiful. The sun made its way out gently through a thick layer of clouds. The distant snow peaks of Kanchenjunga shone in the morning rays. It seemed that she finally had decided to lift off her veil and reveal herself and her surrounding peaks of Kumbakaran, Kabru and Pandim, which together form what the Buddhists in India and Nepal term as the ‘Sleeping Buddha.’ My prayers seemed to have been answered.
I remembered reading a Nepali quote about Mount Everest or ‘Sagarmatha’ as they call her. “You do not summit the Sagarmatha, she lets you summit her.” Similarly, after seeing the heavenly Kanchenjunga, I felt “one does not see the Kanchenjunga, she lets you see her.”
The second day of the trek was a 13 km walk from Tonglu to Kalpokhri through the Singalila National park. It wasn’t much of a gain in altitude but a descent to Gairibas and then an ascent to Kalipokhri. Most of the times we were weaving our way in and out of Nepal. Some residences and tea-houses dotted the route. It’s a nice feeling to have such a friendly country as a neighbour, where one can just stroll in and out. No questions asked! Many a tea-house, where we had our refreshments, were in Nepal. How many times during the trek I wished that it could be the same with Pakistan!
The Kanchenjunga was now visible throughout our trek. The pine trees had become sparse. The rhododendrons were still in a budding stage waiting for the right time, unlike at the lower altitude, where they were in full bloom and seemed to set the forest on fire. An occasional magnolia blessed us with large white flowers on a leafless tree. Plenty of pink flowers, presumably orchids, lined our trail. Kalipokhri is more of a large pond than a lake and water is brackish and black in color, hence the name. Nevertheless, worshipped by the locals, colorful prayer flags fluttered around it.
“Never waste any amount of time doing anything important when there is a sunset outside that you should be sitting under!” – C. JoyBell C.
Kalipokhri was to be our night halt on Day 3. The tents were already up when we reached and hot lunch awaited us. I crashed into my tent unaware of the spectacle that I was to witness a couple of hours later. If the sunrise was one of the most beautiful events I had witnessed in the morning at Tonglu, I have no words to describe the sunset that was on display that evening. The sky was a canvas, awash with all possible hues of red and orange. I wondered if any artist ever could prepare so many hues of one colour. The mountain ranges below, with clouds between them, welcomed the sinking sun as it slowly melted into them, leaving behind a myriad of glowing red. As darkness crept in, a hue of purple replaced the red in the horizon. It was simply hypnagogic. This vivid image of the evening will remain etched in my mind forever. And yet, again a canopy of silvery stars covered us and I went to sleep without praying for anything tonight. I had got more than I had prayed for!
Day 4 was to be the high point of our trek, figuratively and literally. The distance from Kalipokhri to Sandakphu is about 8 km and an altitude gain of about 1,600 ft. Sandakphu is the highest point in West Bengal standing at 12,000 feet. The name ‘Sandakphu’ means ‘Land of the Poison Plant,’ rightly called so, because of the poisonous Aconite plant found here in large numbers. As we reached Sandakphu, a 180 degree view of the Himalayas welcomed us! The Everest was clearly visible in all its glory, flanked by the Lhotse and Makalu on either side. I stood transfixed as I took in the view, my first view of the Everest.
Our halt for the night was still a kilometre away and we had to trek through a narrow snow-filled path to reach there. The tents were put up at the edge of a cliff. The clouds floated below and a gentle mist arose from the lower hills to gradually engulf us. The setting sun cast its diffuse red glow on them.
The next morning began with a climb to the adjoining hilltop to have an unrestricted view of the sunrise and a panoramic view for the Everest and Kanchenjunga. It was a heavenly sight to witness the world’s tallest peaks lit by the first light of the day. I was literally on top of the world!
The trek to Phalut is a long one, covering 21 km, though there’s no altitude gain. It’s a pleasant trail through wide-open meadows unlike the previous days, when most of the trails were narrow and rocky. The Himalayan panorama was visible for a large part of this trail the and mountains seemed to watch our every step.
A windy evening welcomed us as we reached our camp, which was partly surrounded by snow. ‘Phalut,’ in the local language, means windy, and this place lived up to its reputation. Unlike the previous evenings, it had started becoming misty again. It seemed as if the veil was falling again on the mountain peaks. The show was probably coming to an end. The peaks were no longer visible. To see them again in the morning, I would have to climb a mountain just behind our campsite at 5 in the morning, said our guide. In that chilly and windy evening that thought was not very welcoming. Nevertheless, as I retired for the day, I was determined to give it a shot the next morning.
“The world’s big and I want to have a good look at it before it gets dark.” – John Muir
I woke up at 4.30 am to find a layer of ice over our tents rendering it crisp. The opening flap of our tent crackled as I parted it to step out and be greeted by an icy darkness and the barking of stray mountain dogs. My tent mate, Ali and I, braved our way up the mountain, cameras in hand to witness the last sunrise of this trek. We reached the top well in time to see the day break as the Kanchenjunga slowly started getting lit up followed by the other surrounding peaks and then it spread to Makalu and the Everest and Lhotse.
Through the thin haze that hung over the air, the view was surreal. The peaks seemed like icebergs floating in an ocean of clouds. Both of us spent more than an hour there taking in that beautiful vista, embedding it in our minds and making sure that it lasts for a lifetime. This was the last day of visualizing the tallest peaks of the Himalayas. No other place in the world offers such a view. Standing in one place, I could see four of the five tallest peaks in the world and I felt lucky to be a part of that vista.
After breakfast, we began our descent to Ramman, a 25 km beautiful walk down through bamboo and pine forests. The rhododendrons reappeared as we trekked down the mountains. Flowers in shades of pink and white were in full bloom as we neared village Gorkhey. Located in a picturesque valley, Gorkhey has all the trappings of a film set. Colorful houses, pine trees, a plateau and the Gorkhey river passing by dividing Sikkim and West Bengal. It is a place worth spending a night.
On the drive back to Darjeeling, I reminisced. This trek was all about sunrises and sunsets. Though cliché, in the mountains, they were extraordinary, each more remarkable than the other. What has been happening for probably millions of years will continue. I just happened to witness that celestial spectacle. The sun will continue to rise and set whether anyone sees it or not. The day I stood on the mountain top looking at the snow peaks of the most magnificent mountain range in the world, I recalled these lines by the great mountain writer John Muir.
“We are now in the mountains and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us.”
I had come alone to this trek without expectations and a blank SD card in my camera. I was going back after meeting wonderful people, making good friends, a mind full of memories, a heart full of emotions and an SD card filled with glorious images of the mountain-scape.
PS: My heartfelt gratitude to Indiahikes and their team of Trek Leaders Soumya, Guide Chorten Sherpa and Buddha Lepcha for making this possible.
Written by Dr. Sharat Kolke