Sandakphu

Sandakphu Journal

May 5-14, 2009

A journal I wrote on a glorious trek on the Singalila ridge in Darjeeling region. My companions were D, M, S, T – friends and colleagues. The trek was organized by Fabian at Big Foot Treks and fantastically supported by his crew Neeraj, Binod, et al.

Photo slideshow is at ezshow.me/sandakphu.

May 5 4PM Reached Darjeeling!

12.30pm @ Bagdogra. Neeraj greeted us on arrival at Bagdogra airport. He had two Sumo cars waiting, we loaded our bags and waited for S’s arrival. The ride up in the car from Bagdogra to Darjeeling was marvelous. Bagdogra was 32C, and we waited half an hour for S’s plane to arrive. As we drove towards Darjeeling, about half hour out we saw the first glimpse of hills on the horizon. Lush tea gardens on the plains, with a few pickers sweating it out. Gulmohur trees in bloom.

1.30pm @ Kurseong. As the ascent began, it cooled down quite rapidly. Kurseong had some pretty steep inclines on the road. People at Kurseong seemed Gorkha and Tibetan, life on the hills. Lots of school children in uniforms returning from school. The clouds rolled in, temperature dropped to ~20C – very pleasant. Streets are narrow, crowded but traffic moves OK. The toy train runs by the road from Kurseong to Darjeeling via Ghum. Clouds and fog is very thick in patches. At Ghum we saw the road sign to Sandakphu!

Fabian was at the Dekeling Hotel as we arrived. Well mannered and professional, quite impressive. Dekeling Hotel is OK, rooms are well furnished. The Tibetan lady who owns the place is very courteous – asked about tomorrow’s breakfast plans. As the bags were brought up to our rooms – 3 flights of stairs – which we all agreed were quite steep – is it just us, out of breath or are the stairs really steep? – then we saw a small sprightly woman bring up 3 bags – M’s big suitcase on her back, held by a head band, M’s duffel bag on her head, and a third small suitcase in one hand. She made the stairs effortlessly and was giggling on top! Amazing. She got a generous Rs. 100 tip. We had tea, coffee with Fabian and Neeraj – made plans to do Tiger Hill tomorrow for sunrise. Then we took a stroll through the streets of Darjeeling and made our way to Park Hotel – our lady of Dekeling recommended that as best restaurant in Darjeeling – great food.

May 6 Darjeeling

Woke up at 3.30AM, out in taxi by 4AM. Thick clouds all the way to Tiger Hill. No view of sun or mountains for a long while. Saw some briefly around 6AM. Breakfast at Dekeling – made to order – great masala omelet with cheese! Then we went out with Neeraj – through Mall Road to Himalayan Mountaineering Institute – good exhibits, most were hand made, donated climbing equipment, photos, and memorabilia. Everest room was superb. Wrote in the Guest Register. Walked back to Glenary’s for lunch – Veg Manchurian and Veg Chowmein – superb!

Relaxed in the afternoon. Fabian came and collected the advance. We then walked out to Western Union, cashed some Rs. Dinner at Glenary’s again – Chilly Paneer and Egg Chowmein – good to get high quality Indian Chinese food. Before dinner I had packed my bags, to leave one bag at the hotel. Went to bed early around 9PM.

May 7 Trek: Maneybhanjang to Tumling Distance: 11 km Altitude: 3078m

Woke up at 5.30AM to a beautiful bright morning. Got a chai from the street. Had a shower and got ready. Breakfast at 6.30AM – omelet, toast, and cheese. Loaded the jeeps and started out promptly at 7.30AM. Drove to Maneybhanjang, reached there around 9.30AM. Between Sukhia and Maneybhanjang, Neeraj pointed out a view of Kanchenjunga, snow capped massif visible against the blue sky, high above the clouds. Went through passport control and then a short drive to the trail head at the park entrance. Neeraj bought park entrance tickets – Rs. 150 each. We did lots of group photos and started the trek. Singalila National Park requires an approved guide to accompany all trekkers. Binod joined us as the guide.

Maneybhanjang to Chitrey was moderate gradient – a bit steep in parts – the day was bright and the sun shining hard. I had to stop frequently, the heat was bothering me – about 25C. Also, the equipment – camera, binoculars were too heavy and inconvenient on the neck. Gave the binoculars for Binod to carry. Arranged a carabiner on the shoulder strap of the back pack to hang the camera – worked much better as it relieved the weight off the neck. Hydration camel pack is working great.

Reached Chitrey around noon, visited the Monastery. They were painting the place in preparation for Buddha Purnima (in 2 days, we should be in Phalut then). The monks were very kind and nice, they lit candles and let us shoot pictures inside. We took about 45 minutes break there and then headed up again through Chitrey village along beautiful meadows and clouds rolling occasionally. We got glimpse of Kanchenjunga from Chitrey. Good progress, the grade was easier. Short while later the kitchen staff brought along hot lemonade and crackers! What a treat, to sip hot beverage on the trail. Weather had cooled down to 18C. About 45 minutes later reached Lamadura village (in Nepal) where the kitchen staff (DB and Subhash) had a table set for lunch. What great service. Noodle soup, pasta with vegetables, and hot tea. Superb. Could hear Radio Nepal on the transistor radio at the tea stall. Gentle climb through rhododendron and orchids to Meghma, an Indian border control post again. Continued climbing through the village, could now see Tumling in the distance, the climb got a bit steeper now, over a little creek first to Lower Tumling and more climb to Tumling, we reached there around 4.30PM.

Rooms were ready at Sherpa Lodge – really great. Planck beds with mattresses, blankets and pillows. Rooms had attached bath and wash sink. Solar electricity light in the room and a fireplace! Relaxed in the room while were were served hot tea and biscuits. Dinner at 7PM. Lodge lady – Nepali sherpani – is a superb host, has a very nice kitchen and living room – cosy and warm. Dinner was tomato soup, rice (had small amount), dal, cauliflower, egg plant, omelet (for me, chicken for the rest). Made plans for 7AM start tomorrow.

May 8 Trek: Tumling to Sandakphu Distance: 24 km Altitude: 3636m

Last night we went to bed early, around 8.30PM. Room in Tumling was nice, fireplace kept us warm through the night. T was tending to the fires in both rooms. Wash sink had running water. Indian style toilet. Slept well till about 2AM, then had light broken sleep till 4.30AM. Room began to get lighted by the light of dawn. Finally got out of bed around 5AM. Had coffee – room service! The day looked bright and clear. Took pictures of flowers in the garden. Had breakfast – oat meal, eggs, toast. Loaded up and got started on the trek around 7.30AM. Just beyond the lodge we reached a vista point and got a clear view of Kanchenjunga, full range, massive and impressive. Wish I had come here at sunrise. Trail from Tumling to Joubari was easy, mostly descent and some climb. Just before Joubari, we got a glimpse of Lhotse-Everest-Makalu – amazing, we have already seen the four 8000+m peaks! Also spotted three magpies – large birds – about a foot in size, blue with long yellow tails. At Joubari we saw a burnt out cluster of buildings. Neeraj said these used to be a cheese factory. The Maoists destroyed it a few years ago. Now the village seemed quiet and peaceful. Met a couple of young girls in the village, one was washing some vessels at the village tap, other walked out of her house as S and I began chatting with the first girl. They were shy initially, but then agreed to be photographed. Joubari is a junction. The road continues straight to Imla, a district of Nepal. Right turn at Joubari takes us towards Sandakphu. It is a straight descent from Joubari to Gehribas, deep in the valley. On the next range across the valley we can see a steep climb up to Khalpokhri and beyond that up in the clouds – Sandakphu. Hard to believe that we will climb all of that today. Descent to Gehribas was easy. Then a bit of a climb up to Kanyakutta where we had lunch in a sherpa house, with the family coming in to their kitchen while we had our lunch, very friendly people. Lunch was excellent – mushroom soup, batura, potato-noodle curry, egg boiled and fried.

Started on the ascent around 12.30PM. This was tough, slow going for me. Neeraj kept reassuring me that he would stay with me all the way today. Took us till 3PM to get to Khalpokhri – has a lake (pokhri) which is usually full of algae (khal). The weather had turned into clouds and fog, began to be a bit cold. We had tea and biscuits at Khalpokhri, in a sherpa tea stall. Then changed into warm clothes – waterproof jacket and gloves – it was very windy and cold, probably 10C. At the border control post, I accidentally ended up giving D a serious dent, the tripod strapped to the side of my back pack took a bit of skin off his nose. Ouch. Slow going on the ascent. After a while the gradient got really nasty. I had to stop for breath every 15 to 20 paces. M and Neeraj kept with my slow pace. Others went on the even steeper shortcut trail. We took the road, winding and steep. Not easy. I was really glad to have the company and encouragement of M – he started counting the turns and set up a rhythm of short stops to catch our breath at every hairpin turn and stop for a break – sit down for a minute or two every fourth turn. We (me) were very slow, but made steady progress. After a while Neeraj insisted on taking my tripod, was quite a relief to get that weight off my back. M gave me bites of yogurt lemon bars – which helped too. We continued to count turns and kept climbing – very strenuous. Neeraj then insisted on taking my camera too. Then he went ahead on the trail, I figured he will go up to Sandakphu, drop the gear and then come back to fetch us. Took a while, M and I kept climbing slowly. Dense fog and very low visibility. Neeraj came back with Binod and they took my backpack too. Now I could climb steadily. Took another 45 minutes, we finally reached the entrance to Sandakphu. I was immensely relieved to have completed the trek today. 24 kms and almost 900m climb from Tumling, actually 1500m up from Gehribas. Amazing that we did it.

Sherpa Chalet at Sandakphu is a very nice place, lot of other trekkers. Also, families that came up in Land Rovers. We celebrated with tea and chocolates. Had a wash – no running water, had to use mug and bucket. Freshening up and changing to dry clothes was a big relief, took away most of the day’s fatigue. Dinner at 7.30PM – mixed vegetable soup, rice, egg curry, beans, mixed vegetable. Quite good once again. Took a Tylenol just to relax the muscles aches. Unpacked and ready to sleep. Sharing the room with M today. Rooms are very tiny, am sharing a Queen size bed with M. Very cold, probably 0-5C. Sleeping bag feels very warm. Plan to get up at 4.30AM for sunrise.

May 9 Trek: Sandakphu to Phalut on the Singalila Ridge Distance: 23 km Altitude: 3566m

Woke up at 4.30AM, we all got ready quickly (used mineral water to brush teeth; water in the buckets was really murky) and headed out to a small ~50M rock above Sandakphu. The sun had just begun to rise. Bitterly cold and windy. Neeraj helped carry the tripod up the rock. Could clearly see Lhotse-Everest-Makalu, Three Sisters, Frey’s, Kumbhakarna (Jano), Kanchenjunga massif with Kabru in front, and Pandim. Spectaularly scenic, no clouds on the peaks, some low lying clouds beneath the peaks. Spent about 40 minutes shooting and admiring. Returned to Sherpa Chalet for tea, and continued to shoot from the clearing in front of the Chalet. Then packed and got ready. Breakfast was scrambled eggs, pancakes, porridge, French toast, and tea. Great. After signing at the border control post by the Indian flag, we got started on the trek to Phalut around 7.45AM. Got some spectacular views of all peaks, with conifers and rhododendron forests in foreground. The trail goes along the ridge with views of Nepal hills to the left, Singalila National Park to the right and peaks to North and North East. Gradual descent to a valley, where by a stream the kitchen staff (Mane Gurung) had begun preparing our lunch. We had a picnic lunch there – tomato soup, baked beans, potato bhaji. Others had fish curry, Chinese pork sausage, and meat dumplings (momo).

Then a bit of a climb up to Sabargram. Just a border security post, no village there. Could clearly see Phalut from there two hills away. The trail climbed the first hill – a bit steep – and then a descent to the ridge between. The meadows at the top of the hill were lush green, with yaks grazing on the slopes. One yak was just besides the trail started walking alongside us (M and me). Fabian had cautioned that some yaks can get nasty. This one seemed to not like us much, had certainly decided to pay us some attention. M and I quickened our pace and climbed up the trail to the first turn, hoping that the yak would loose interest once we were out of sight. A moment later I heard the yak call – like a braying sound – looked back and saw the yak standing at the top of the first turn staring intently at us and snorting. We hurried up and climbed to the second turn. Thankfully the yak did not follow us anymore. The sun went behind clouds and it began to get a bit cold. Typical Himalayan afternoon weather. M and I kept our slow and steady pace. Neeraj was following us from the front, about 0.5 km ahead. Rest were 1-1.5 km ahead, we could occasionally spot them ahead on the trail. We could hear thunder in the distance and see clouds gathering at the top of Phalut. M and I were climbing up the Phalut hill, when Binod returned and offered to carry my back pack – that was a welcome relief, allowed us to make it up to Phalut around 4.50PM.

The lodge is tiny, but OK. T and S took a room. I had the single room, with the only bath attached to my room. D and M shared another room, outside the front door, so they had no access to bathroom after I locked up and went to bed. Around 5.05PM a huge thunder storm broke over Phalut, the rain and wind were nasty, continued all through the night. M and I beat the rain by a mere 15 minutes. Lucky.

For dinner we had to bundle up and walk up to the trekker’s hut. We had a candle lit dinner in the room, which was also the main sleeping quarters for trekkers. The windows were leaking and the room was extremely cold. M had just the soup and then threw a tantrum about the cold, said he cannot say here, has to get into his sleeping bag. He abandoned dinner and left. We had cheese pizza, rice pulao, matar paneer, spaghetti and sauce, fried apple, and tea. Mane (the cook) enquired about M and was visibly disappointed that M chose to skip dinner. The night was cold and damp. Outside, the wind was howling fiercely and a raging thunderstorm continued almost all night. Hail made a racket on the tin roof of our hut. M and D reported going out at 2AM and they saw stars. It was the night of Buddha Purnima – full moon. It must have rained again later. My sleeping bag was remarkably comfortable, I got a good night’s sleep. We had warmed up the sleeping bags with a bottle of hot water that the cook gave to each of us.

May 10 Trek: Phalut to Ramam Distance: 24 km Altitude: 2490m

We had declined Neeraj’s offer to wake up for sunrise. Fabian’s advise was to not venture up the 150m Phalut hill if there is no wind – it seems you get clear views of the peaks only on days that are windy. Early morning there was no wind, it was bright and sunny, but clouds and haze in the distance – no trace of last night’s storm. The Bengali family next door marched up to the Phalut peak, and reported that the peaks are not visible due to clouds.

We had breakfast in the Trekker’s hut – boiled eggs, porridge, pancakes, and tea. We started the trek around 8.30AM, a small descent to the border control outpost and then a steady descent all the way down to Gorkhey river. M and I helped ourselves to a few rhododendron cuttings and one sapling from the forest. From Phalut we could see Sandakphu in the far distance and Sabargram in between. Down the valley we could see a village – Samandam – would be our lunch spot today. The descent to Gorkhey river was steep but nice. The surface was clay and leaves, very few rocks. The trekking poles were a big help. All along the trail there were deep gullies, could imagine these were full of water in the storm last night. M often wanted to take these shortcuts, Binod allowed on several occasions, but often cautioned against going down the very steep ones. Lots of rhododendron, bamboo, and several varieties of big trees covered in moss. Looked like excellent red panda territory, but we did not spot any. Saw a magpie and several other smaller birds. Plenty of orchids. On the hill facing Gorkhey river, we took the high road at the fork. The lower road descends to Gorkhey village (sign claims attractions are coconut and hot shower). The high road crosses the river at a higher point. Went through a few huts and fields, then over the bridge. M slipped on wet muddy rocks and hurt himself – small bruises on his right elbow and knuckles. He broke one of his trekking poles. After crossing the river, it is about 200m climb up to Samandam, a very scenic village, surrounded by a meadow and fields growing potatoes, peas, and mustard, all in bloom. Little kids (Sarita and Sanjay) came up to me and asked for ‘goli’ candy. I did not have any, offered them gum instead. Their mother was sitting by the trail with three more kids by her, tending to the horse and fields. Very pleasant person. Lunch was elaborate – noodle soup, macaroni and vegetables, cheese wrap (awesome) with tomato onion chutney, and tea. We lazed around for a bit and then started the walk to Ramam. A slow descent followed by some climb, and then a gradual ascent up to Ramam. The clouds came in and we could hear thunder in the distance. So a big concern was to get to Ramam before the rain arrives. From various points on the trail we could see across the Gorkhey river valley into Sikkim – beautiful hillside with forests, meadows, and terraced fields. The scale was quite daunting and hard to capture in photos – about1500m drop into the valley. The trail all day was remarkably nice, well maintained and easy to walk on, no rocks. We got into Ramam around 4PM. The trek after lunch was short and quite comfortable.

At Ramam we are staying in a private lodge, run by a family, very friendly and nice. It turns out this is our pony man’s family. About an hour later it started raining heavily. We have 3 rooms and a common dining area. Rooms to D + me, M + S, T today. We sat around the dining table talking about the trek, the day, and the excellent service of Neeraj, Mane, and rest of the crew. S collected money and planned the tips. Dinner was brought to us, the kitchen staff – DB, Subhash, and Mane – walked through the pouring rain. Maggi soup, Spaghetti, okra and potatoes, grated cauliflower, rice, black dal. Mane brought a surprise desert – a cake with chocolate topping decorated with icing that said Sandakphu 2009! Unbelievable, how Mane managed to make such fancy food in such spare conditions. Terriffic. There is only one toilet, is in an outhouse, not bad. Stopped raining later in the night, does not seem to be as cold as Phalut.

May 11 Trek: Ramam to Rimbik Distance: 15 km Altitude: 2331m

The trek is over. We are all in Rimbik. Last night was a little rough for me. I had to get up around 12.15AM, had diarrhea. Took Immodium and Metronidazole, went back to bed. Though I did not have to go to the toilet again at night, I woke up with dehydration. Had lots of tea in the morning. T fixed me up with an electrolyte. D got me a multivitamin. I did not have any appetite, just had a few spoons of porridge for breakfast. We packed and started the trek around 9AM. A light drizzle made us get out rain jackets out. It is a steady descent through villages into Sirikhola, the surface was rocky and slippery. The forest and canopy along the route was really majestic. We could continuously see across the Gorkhey/Ramam/Sirikhola river into Sikkim, about 1500m high mountainside with little villages and lots of terrace cultivation. We could see Darjeeling and Tiger Hill in the distance. We went through some spectacular rain forests with massive greenery, water falls, cardamom shrubs. I was feeling full and uncomfortable, making very slow progress. S stayed with me and Neeraj kept an eye on me from the front. Around 11AM I was extremely uncomfortable and had to sit down for a while, and threw up. Neeraj carried my backpack from there and S carried my camera. We made it to Sirikhola Trekker’s hut before 12PM. Immediately the kitchen staff were fussing over me, got me tea, then a small glass of lemon juice. DB Lama offered to check me out and prepare a potion. I agreed to that, was willing to try anything to feel better. For lunch I had just the soup. S arranged with Neeraj and Binod to get me a pony for the last leg to Rimbik. That was a good decision. The pony ride was fine, started at 1PM and reached Rimbik around 2.30PM. From Sirikhola to Rimbik the trail transforms from a trekking trail to a road, with increasing amount of civilization – electricity, dish TV, cars, … appeared as we approached Rimbik. We got to Hotel Sherpa – an extremely nice place, with a manicured garden overlooking the valley and hills. I sat down on the lawn chair, basking in the sun. Eric and Krishna came in shortly. Rest of our team came in around 3.30PM. We sat on the lawn and had tea for a while. Then went to the rooms – hardwood floors, fresh linen, running hot and cold water, shower, … the room is better than Dekeling in Darjeeling. We had to go to the government office and register again. Called mom and dad from the STD booth. They were glad to hear that the trek concluded successfully. The shared bathroom was superb, had hot shower, and a wash sink.

S organized the celebratory toast and gathered the troops. I was there in flesh but abstained from the spirits, had no appetite and was feeling very tired and dehydrated. Dinner was elaborate, Eric and Krishna joined us. Neeraj and Binod joined for beer.

May 12 Rimbik

We woke up leisurely around 7AM, with room service of tea. The sky was overcast and soon it started raining. We all felt quite relieved that we got such fantastic weather for the five days we were on the trail. Breakfast – the final meal served up by Mane – was fantastic. Porridge, and cheese roll with tomato onion chutney – superb. M did justice to the boiled eggs. We thanked Mane, DB, and Subhash.

We loaded up and started the ride back to Darjeeling around 9AM. It kept raining all the way to Maneybhanjang. We returned to Maneybhanjang exactly where the trek started, at the park office and trail head to Sandakphu. Binod parted company there. We then proceeded to Darjeeling, reached Dekeling Hotel around 2.30PM.

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