The Sandakphu Phalut trek is a unique one. Sandakphu, the highest point on this trek, straddles the porous India – Nepal border. In fact, the trail crisscrosses through India and Nepal throughout the trek. This makes it culturally very different from our other treks.
You stay in tea houses in most places, which is a distinct feature of trekking in Nepal. You meet Nepali picnickers around Sandakphu. It is likely that you will return from the trek humming your favourite Nepali song! Such is the level of cross cultural influence in this region. As a bonus, you even stray into Sikkim on the second last day of the trek.
This is a trek with many other superlatives to describe it – the only trek in India from where you can see four of the world’s tallest mountains, the highest point in West Bengal, the best rhododendron forests you’ll ever see, home to the rare red panda. I can go on, but I’d rather let the photographs here speak.
Day 1: A thrilling drive through Bengal’s famed tea estates
The drive from New Jalpaiguri to Jaubari, the base camp, brings you past lush green tea estates. As a first timer in this region, it came as a surprise to me that tea is planted even on flat land! The estates begin right outside Siliguri and continue on both sides as the narrow road snakes its way up the mountains.
You pass small settlements on the way. As you approach Jaubari, the tea estates give way to forests and patches of farmland. Jaubari is a small village ahead of Maneybhanjag, which is a market town and a regular base for this trek for independent trekkers.
Day 2: Steep forest climb, Buddhist temples, a different time zone
This eventful day begins with a steep climb through thick forest, that lasts well over an hour. It will leave you breathless as your limbs try to find a rhythm and your lungs get used to the gulps of air they’re required to suck in. Today is when you gain the highest amount of altitude on this trek.
The shrine at Chittrey is a good place to catch your breath after the relentless climb. You might find a few Nepali policemen peering at you suspiciously if you linger around for too long.
After a few more hours of grilling climb through forests, the temple town of Meghma is a welcome sight for two reasons. This is where you break for lunch. And you know that Tumling, the final destination for the day, is only an hour away.
The red structure to the left is a Buddhist temple. It is usually closed in the afternoon. But, if you spot a priest around, do not hesitate to request him to open the temple. He will be glad to show you around.
Meghma has a completely different look in spring. This is a close up image of the house that you see on the right in the previous picture! Make sure to check the time before you start from Meghma. Do not be surprised if the clock on your smartphone seems to have moved way faster than you imagined once you reach Tumling. These phones often adjust themselves to Nepal time, putting you an entire hour ahead!
Day 3: Trek through Singalila National Park to reach Kalipokhri, the black lake
Wake up early and step outside the tea house as soon as you’re up. If the sky is clear, begin your day with the view of the first rays of the sun illuminating the Sleeping Buddha. This will be, in all likelihood, your first encounter with the mighty Kanchenjunga range on this trek and it only gets better from here.
Today is also when you enter the Singalila National Park, which runs South from the Kanchenjunga massif. You trek through this almost all the way till Gorkhey. If you are quick, stick with the guide right in front, and really quiet, you might be fortunate enough to spot the shy red panda.
You will notice the vegetation changing dramatically on this trek. The cedars and spruce from Day 2 make way for oaks and rhododendrons and, finally, alpine grass as you gain altitude.
In the stretch from Tumling to Kalipokhri, different shades of red and pink greet you on these forest trails in March and April. This is when rhododendrons bloom.
The bean shaped Kalipokhri is your destination today. One of the myths associated with this place calls this the impression of Shiva’s right foot, formed when he was journeying through this region. Walk down here from your tea house to view the sunset and sunrise. Make sure you taste salted tea and yak cheese while you are here!
Day 4: Short, steep trek to Sandakphu
You trek only 4 km today but the distance hides the variety you gain in experience. The first 60-70 minutes of the trek are along forests. This vegetation then turns to shrubs followed by alpine grasses.
If you are here on a public holiday, you will pass groups of Indian and Nepali families and teenagers out for a picnic. It is a very merry atmosphere indeed.
As you come closer to Sandakphu, the Sleeping Buddha is revealed in its full glory. You get adequate time at the campsite to photograph it in its various shades as the day winds down.
This stone marks the border between India and Nepal. At Sandapkhu, the tents are pitched inside India but the tea house where you have all your meals is in Nepal. The no man’s land in between serves as a cricket pitch for trekkers!
Sandakphu is perhaps the windiest trek in our country. Trekkers huddling around a brazier with a cup of soup is thus a very common sight. This is the best place to pick up local stories and songs, while cooks in the tea houses hum along as they work.
Day 5: A beautiful trail to Sabargram through forests and meadows
This picture summarises the entire trail to Sabargram. You walk up through forests to reach the top of a meadow from where you can see rolling hills till afar in every direction. The meadows are so smooth that you eventually let go of your inhibitions and hop and run down their slopes till you reach the next slope going up through forests.
All the while, there are yaks grazing around. You pass a few check posts where soldiers often catch trekkers for a quick, friendly chat. Some might even offer you a freshly baked cookie from their kitchen!
This is the Sabargram campsite after a round of fresh snowfall. In winter, you are most likely to find snow between Sandakphu, Sabargram and Phalut.
Sabargram, again, is a very windy campsite. Prayer flags are tied here for the wind to carry their prayers and compassion far and wide. The Sleeping Buddha, partially covered by clouds, is right behind.
Day 6: Spot big mountains and trek through forests to reach the pretty village of Gorkhey
Early morning is the best time to catch a glimpse of Mt Everest, Mt Lhotse and Mt Makalu, three of the four tallest mountains in the world. These trekkers have spotted the big mountains just as they are setting out from Sabargram.
The trail and the trekkers are dwarfed by the gigantic Sleeping Buddha on the way to Phalut. It is an easy walk from Sabargram to Phalut as the trail alternates between descents and flat walks. This lets you save your breath for the 20 minute climb up to Phalut top from the trekker’s lodge.
The view you get of the Sleeping Buddha from the top is perhaps the last one on this trek as you begin descending into a forest towards Gorkhey.
In your excitement to view the mountains, you might miss noticing the multiple trails that converge at Phalut top. Some of these lead to Nepal and some to various parts of Sikkim.
Once you leave Phalut behind, the trail enters a forest through which you descend for a few hours. Towards the end, the trail emerges out of the forest, right into these fields above Gorkhey. The sudden appearance of signs of domesticity once you spot Gorkhey can take you by surprise.
Day 7: Picturesque villages and quiet forests make for a happy finale
Gorkhey is only place on the trek where you see not one, but two rivers. The Gorkhey river that you see here, is right outside the village on the way to Sepi. A steep climb on a forest trail begins as soon as you cross the river.
A 40 minute trek through the forest brings you to the picturesque village of Samamden. It is difficult to peel your eyes away from the quaint wooden huts and the horses grazing peacefully.
The trek culminates with a trail through forests, similar to the way it started. However, you are descending this time. The forest is thicker. You come across more locals walking down this path, making their way from villages around Gorkhey to the roadhead at Srikhola. What is also different is that forest stretches are interspersed with small settlements. These are a pleasant sight, with neat houses that have flowery creepers growing over their window sills.
Once you cross over the wooden bridge at Srikhola, you walk for a kilometre on a motorable road to Sepi. The fresh lunch awaiting you here is perhaps the last meal you will have together with your group of trekkers.
The drive back to New Jalpaiguri continues through forests almost all the way to Jaubari, after which you are back amidst tea estates.