It is not often that I, figuratively speaking, airdrop myself into a group of nine people (of which I know only one person quite well) for a period of five days and look back to realise that I have had the time of my life.
Because it is not often that I airdrop myself. Period.
In a more serious vein, I continue to walk the ridge between solo travel and group travel (with strangers - some of who turn friends). Why, I have only recently made the exception of traveling with a friend (and have had company on my journey that began in late-March with Amritsar followed by Makaibari and now Sandakphu)!
Walking this ridge, though, is a lot trickier than the ridge along the Indo-Nepal border that led me 3636 meters/11,941 feet above sea level to Sandakphu – West Bengal’s highest peak.
|Somewhere at the start of the trek to Sandakphu | April 2016|
I first got acquainted with Sandakphu through a blog-post some time ago. Back then, I had no idea that it is the highest peak in West Bengal. And it wouldn’t be until a few days before the trek that I would also learn that it is fêted for being the peak that offers a panoramic view to four of the five highest peaks in the world!
Yes, Kanchenjunga and Everest are visible from Sandakphu.
And clearly, reading up on places I’m traveling to isn’t a preference for me; so much for the element of surprise! And I was going to learn as much as I could through my experience itself by joining a group.
Ours was a 5 day trek that commenced from Maneybhanjang – a place where a message by your telecom provider welcoming you to Nepal flashes on your screen; this is also more obviously known as ‘international roaming has now been activated’.
Maneybhanjang is a rather lackadaisical town on the Indo-Nepal border that boasts of a temple (that had devotional songs blaring through most of the day as well as parts of the night) and a few guesthouses for eager-beaver trekkers like yours truly. This was where I met the rest of the group I’d be trekking with for the first time.
Chai pe charcha
Before we knew it and evolving our own template of a chai-pe-charcha, we were seven of us animatedly exchanging travel anecdotes from different parts of the country we’d set foot in – laughing cacophonically at both, the bizarre and the dangerous. Though for reasons best known to members within the group, it must be noted that ‘subconscious’ grooving to the devotional songs in the background was observed among a few.
And that is how the ice between seven strangers had been broken. We were still going strong with our stories – and some of these stopped being travel related a while ago – when a lanky lad walked in and requested to join in our conversations. Another round of introductions later, we were back to being mild-mannered and talking about all things travel!
|My gang of entertainers | Sandakphu - April 2016|
Day 1 - Destination: Tumling
The next morning we were up early and swaddled up to begin our first day on the trek. We were going to trek the first 13 kilometers towards Sandakphu starting at Chitrey. But before that our group was going to have an addition – the lanky lad from the previous evening decided to ditch his solo hike and join us instead. He would soon realise that we were not as mild-mannered as we’d posed to be the previous evening!
The Chitrey Monastery made for an excellent starting point – not only because, well, there was a monastery but because thanks to the organizers, we were spared the torturesome 3 kilometre uphill climb from Maneybhanjang to Chitrey. Perhaps they were clairvoyant enough to realise that may be someone might decide to turn back before even getting to Chitrey!
But after tossing coins and turning prayer wheels in a bid to attract divine providence for the days that lay ahead of us, we finally began our trek.
|Day 1: Take 1 - Right outside Chitrey Monastery | Sandakphu - April2016|
|One of many 'Po' moments during the trek, courtesy steps | Sandakphu April 2016|
|Trees so tall! | Sandakphu - April 2016|
I was barely into my first kilometre when - what I call - the ‘ruptured lung syndrome’ kicked in. My lungs were gasping and in all probability were holding on to my rib-cage for dear life! On the outside, I was doing the exact same thing, but holding on to my wits instead. Neither was my 60 litre backpack making this any easier.
But I had lessons from my previous treks to remind myself of: Synchronise the rhythm of my step with the rhythm of my breath; also known as surrendering to the idea of walking slowly and trailing at the tail of the group.
An hour into the trek, my lungs seemed to have acclimatised not just to my backpack and the altitude but also the terrain beneath my feet.
I was still huffing and panting.
I was still taking breaks every now and then.
I was still dreading steps.
But I was getting used to it. My laboured breathing and the ponderous walking forced me to reckon with my present – and nothing else; no past, no future - those would have to wait.
Rhododendrons in full bloom, dotting the background turned out to be the best companions all along the route through the five days. And so were the tall moss-laden trees that made the filtering of sunlight to the bed of the forest almost impossible. Ditto for the avian population – though they were impossible to click with their ADHD-like constant flutterings!
|Rhododendrons in full bloom | Sandakphu - April 2016|
|Rhododendrons | Sandakphu - April 2016|
|When rhododendrons had company | Sandakphu - April 2016|
|Prayer flags | Sandakphu - April 2016|
Day one was turning out to be just fine. But the weather changed rather dramatically after lunch; so where prior to lunch we were getting rid of our layers of clothing, the wind slapping our faces later that afternoon had us reach out for all the winter gear that we’d been trekking with. It didn’t matter as long as it made the backpack lighter – even if by a few grams! This dramatic change in the weather we gradually realised would continue to be the norm for the rest of the trek too.
13 kilometers and 8 hours after we’d begun that morning, we allowed our feet and lungs some respite in what was the most unexpected oasis of cosiness that we could have imagined. Our guesthouse at Tumling was the stuff luxury is made of – rooms with a fireplace and a three course meal that left us greedy for more dessert.
At this point, I would like to draw special attention to our two guides – were it not for Yogen and Mingmaw – this oasis of cosiness and the three course meals that I speak of would never have happened. All through the day, they ensured we were snacking; and snacking healthily at it. They ensured we stayed hydrated – which is crucial when you’re trekking especially at an altitude! They did this and more throughout the length of the entire trek.
Fatigue couldn’t cast a shadow on our camaraderie as a group and we resumed our banter which ranged from the inane (you would never imagine what a giraffe and a refrigerator have in common) to the whacky (think: shisha. ‘Nuff said).
Day 2 - Destination: Kalipokhri
A comfortably snug good night’s sleep and a wholesome breakfast later, we resumed our trek from Tumling to Kalipokhri through the Singalila National Park. Tumling is the first point in this journey where the mighty Kanchenjunga range can be viewed from. In fact, the mountains resemble what is famously known as the sleeping Buddha. However, luck wasn’t in our favour as fog marred our view not just the previous evening but even the next morning. We were somehow hopeful that in two days, Sandakphu would compensate!
|That's all I was meant to capture of the 'Sleeping Buddha' from Tumling } Sandakphu - April 2016|
|The entry into the Singalila National Park | Sandakphu - April 2016|
|Because chai | Sandakphu - April 2016|
|Even dogs live it up at Kalipokhri | Sandakphu - April 2016|
What followed through that second day was some more gasping, panting and trailing behind on my part. But Nature continued to leave me overawed. Another 13 kilometers later, we were in Kalipokhri at another warm guesthouse teeming with enthusiastic trekkers from different parts of the globe.
A hot cup of black tea later, I stood watching the Sun dive somewhere deep behind the mountains even as the cold winds rasped at my ears.
Sandakphu’s summit was now closer than it had ever been. Tomorrow was the day I was looking forward to. But before that, we had an evening of ghost story shenanigans to partake in. Sadly, some stories never made it beyond the ‘to be continued’ mark – and let it be known that this was not due to the story’s scary quotient!
Day 3 - Destination: Summit
On the morning of our third day, excitement could be detected almost everywhere. Groups of people with their guides (and some luckier ones with their mules) were readying to make it to the summit which was a mere 7 kilometers away.
I chanced upon an engaging conversation with two middle aged couples from Australia on everything from travel blogging to the state of affairs within the development sector to climate change and to things they could do in Delhi!
I was feeling upbeat that morning. My body wasn’t achy-painy and it was feeling stronger even under the weight of my backpack. We had ascended from 6600 feet at Maneybhanjang to 10196 feet at Kalipokhri in two days.
The summit was another 855 feet uphill.
But this seemingly tiny patch relative to the distance we had covered so far was the most arduous part of the trek – for the final 3.5 kilometers (starting at Bhikeybhanjang) is a steep ascent and it took us about 4 hours to scrambling to the top sometimes even on my fours!
But to the top we finally did make it; albeit with me retaining my position at the tail!
|'Nuff said | Sandakphu - April 2016|
|"We've come too far to give up who we are..." | Sandakphu - April 2016|
The summit was something of a disappointment though because guesthouses have mushroomed right at the spot where the trek concludes. But that couldn’t dampen the excitement of having successfully completed the trek having walked that ridge between the borders of India and Nepal.
Coincidentally, that day – April 14th 2016, was also the Nepali New Year and so festivities and celebrations were underway even at 11,941 feet above sea level. And we sure did partake in them ourselves a bit too – some more than others!
It was also the day I got introduced to Tongba for the very first time!
We may have been denied the views from Sandakphu but that same evening our guides found ways to celebrate our achievement (alongside the New Year celebrations). We trekked another 3 kms to am open plain field to soak in well some fog - secretly praying it would suddenly clear out. But that wasn't to be! But then we met 'tongba' - a millet-based alcoholic beverage found in the eastern mountainous region of Nepal, neighbouring Darjeeling and Sikkim. The fermented millet is put in a container - traditionally called a Tongba - and boiled water is poured in it to the brim. It is then left undisturbed for about five minutes. After which it is ready to drink. A fine bamboo straw with a blind end, but perforated on the side to act as a filter, is inserted into the container to suck out the warm water and alcohol from the millet grains. More hot water is added as the tongba becomes dry, and the process is repeated until the alcohol is exhausted. Sure, it's fermented but tongba is more beverage-like than alcohol-like. What's not to love about indigenous food and beverages ;-) #sandakphu #sandakphutrek #himalayas #mountains #india #nepal #indonepalborder #adventure #trek #trekking #passionpassport #getoutside #tongba #beverage #lonelyplanetmagazineindia #lonelyplanetindia #storiesofindia #hgwanderlust #indiaphotosociety #natgeotravel #travelstoke #travel #travelblogger #nikonphotography #whyiloiter #HaveFeetWillTravel @mappingjourneys
But viewing Kanchenjunga and Everest from Sandakphu was not meant to be. All around us the visibility was reduced to no more than a few kilometres. We were left to contend ourselves with the knowledge that climbing close 30 kilometers uphill in three days – the slick city dwellers from the plains that were are – will remain our real highlight.
Day 4 - Destination: Rimbick
We began our downward descent from Sandakphu to Rimbick on the morning of the fourth day of our trek. And this day remains as the highlight of my entire trek.
Because running downhill like a mountain goat until your body reminds you that you are anything but a mountain goat is one of those bittersweet memories treks are made up of for me.
So by the time we covered 12 of the 21 kilometers and made a stopover at Gurdum for lunch, my toes (squished inside my shoes due the pressure of running downhill) and my knees (thrashed from all the jerks and thrusts) were screaming for mercy.
An hour’s reprieve was all I could offer them both.
|When mountain goat mode was activated | Sandakphu - April 2016|
|Bamboo Trails | Sandakphu - April 2016|
|Srikhola | Sandakphu - April 2016|
But when we did resume, my paced has slowed. The downhill climb was rough on everyone. But it was the views – watching mountains growing taller again, dashing past bamboo forests and walking along bridges suspended over rivers (thank you, Srikhola) that more than compensated for all the pain we were willingly submitting ourselves towards.
That night after we reached Rimbick, we experienced thunderstorms. Somewhere the clouds were de-misting the views and the skies would perhaps be clearer for another group of eager-beaver trekkers like us!
This is not a promotional post. The trek, however, was organized by Mapping Journeys
This is not a promotional post. The trek, however, was organized by Mapping Journeys
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It's an oft asked question: What did you see? It's an oft expected answer: *cue: name an exotic species* Sometimes all it takes for us is to stop and pause a bit to find the exotic in the everyday and the everywhere. Even what nature discards looks beautiful! Glimpses from the trek downhill from Sandakphu onward to Rimbick @mappingjourneys #Sandakphu #trek #trekking #india #nepal #indonepalborder #himalayas #mountains #adventure #nature #naturephotography #natureporn #trek #trekking #indiaphotosociety #instatravel #travelgram #travelstoke #wild #trees #nikonphotography #HaveFeetWillTravel
Perspective That's what trekking Sandakphu had moments filled with! That's what being in my natural environment does for me. . It's like Carl Sagan said (and he said it best): "Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there--on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam." . As it turns out, we're not as grand as we would like to believe! #sandakphu #westbengal #singalilanationalpark #nepal #indonepalborder #india #trek #trekking #adventure #himalayas #mountains #getgalvanised #passionpassport #perspective #nature #naturephotography #trees #lookup #carlsagan #picoftheday #indiaphotosociety #travelpics #hippieinhills #travel #wanderlust #vagabond #lonelyplanetmagazineindia #lonelyplanetindia #natgeotravel #HaveFeetWillTravel
Pause the noise inside Every trek for me is a refresher's course on being present. Nature has her way of ensuring I'm nowhere but in my here and now. Because no matter how arduous these routes seem, one trick always works for me: synchronizing the rhythm of my step with the rhythm of my breath. Mindfulness is an over used word these days. Instead I'd recommend a trek -- rest assured you'll never use the word out of context. Throwback to this date last month when I couldn't wait for Sandakphu to happen P.S : There's a new post on my blog about overcoming mental blocks. Do give it a read. Link's on my Insta profile P.P.S.: It's not about trekking though. Not yet. Photo: Sandakphu Trek | April 2016 PC: @lizysnaps @mappingjourneys #Sandakphu #trek #trekking #adventure #mountains #himalayas #bepresent #zen #mindfulness #nature #natureporn #focus #_soi #storiesofindia #lonelyplanetmagazineindia #huffpostgram #travelgram #travelstoke #travelblogger #amwriting #whyiloiter #nikonphotography #HaveFeetWillTravel