Sandakphu-Phalut Trek

Would you like to go for a trek early next year?

Came the question from a senior colleague and a dear friend at work, sometime in October last year.

At that point in time there was so much going on at work and home that I was about to say no without a second thought. I didn’t have the energy or the mind space for even a day trek around Pune or so I thought. But in that short interval, between him asking and my mind running a quick scan of my life, Mr. Sanyal did something after which I knew there was no way I could refuse. He painted a picture.

“It’s an 8 day trek along the Indo-Nepal border and when you climb to the highest point, Phalut at 12000 ft, you see four of the world’s highest peaks – Everest, Kanchenjunga, Mahalu, Lhotse in one clear, straight line”

An idea had been planted. A simple one. And I was sold.

Next thing I knew was that we were scouting for trek organizers, booking our flights in November and of course dreaming about those spectacular peaks.

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Day 1: Pune – Delhi – Bagdogra – Darjeeling

We had a 6:30 AM flight scheduled from Pune to Delhi. Anyone who has known me for a while also knows just how much I value my sleep. Getting up in the morning is an incredibly difficult task for me. So obviously colleagues travelling with me were worried about me making it to the airport on time. This is the picture I got that morning at 5 AM that morning. Vilas pretend-praying to God with a caption that read – ‘God, I hope Chaitra wakes up on time’. Overly-dramatic and also super fun people – one of many reasons why I have loved working with them for close to 4.5 years now. It’s the people, it always is the people. Out of this 8 member trek group, four of us were colleagues and the rest – we were meeting for the first time.

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Our wonderful trek guide Mr. Tamang was at Bagdogra airport to receive us. From Bagdogra, we started the 90 km drive upto Darjeeling. We stayed at a lovely little Buddhist hotel that night and our 8-day long trek was scheduled to start early next morning. We spent the night walking around Darjeeling market.

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It was also on this day we were told that there is no possibility of a bath for the next 8 days. Maybe I hadn’t read the instructions sent over the email or something but this was a major jolt. We were going to be travelling through and staying in resource constrained remote villages with no electricity, so unless we wanted to make history by taking an ice-bucket challenge every day, we had to bid goodbye to bathing for 8 days. Unsettling it was, to say the very least.

Day 2 Maney Bhanjyang to Tumling (9500 ft) – 12.5 kms

Next day morning, after a heavy city breakfast we drove about 20 kms to the Indo Nepal boder town, Maney Bhanjyang. After getting all our permits to traverse through Singalila National Park, we formally we began out 1500 meter ascent for the day.

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That day – our very first day – I realized how absolutely crazy I was to have taken a decision to trek upto 12000 ft without any training or prep. The thing about climbing mountains is that it has been immensely difficult for me, no matter how big or small the trek be, because I don’t really have a fitness regime nor am I athletic by nature. In fact my entire school life I have done everything I could to actively avoid sports or physical activity of any kind. Trekking, though is a resounding exception to the rule. I love climbing mountains because there is a certain mix of thrill, tranquility and joy that I can experience only atop a mountain. No other place comes close. When you see the sights you are seeing, experience the view from the top, take in that cold fresh mountain air and walk through nature’s most stunningly beautiful creations, every goddamn ounce of effort seems completely worth it.

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It was a delight to see the sign for the village ‘Kaiyya Kata’ (in the picture above) where we going to having our lunch. :) Kaiyya means ‘A trader/marwadi’ and Kata means ‘cut’ – the name of this village literally means ‘the place where the trader was slayed’. Apparently many years ago there was a rich business man who got richer each day by exploiting the villagers and one fine day few of the villagers decided that they had had enough. They entered his house in broad daylight and slit open his throat. Ever since, this village has been called ‘Kaiyya Kata’. After being regaled with that horrifying story, we were served piping hot soup, noodles and fried rice which we consumed with gusto:)

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We reached Tumling which was on the top of a mountain at around 4:30 in the evening. The entire village had just 4-5 houses. We could barely see anything because of the thick fog surrounding us. We put all the stuff in our rooms at the humble tea house where we were going to stay for the night and rushed to the kitchen for that much awaited cup of steaming hot tea.

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After a simple and delicious plate of hot food, we all went to bed. The cold winds roared on all night as we retired to our rooms.

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On that first night, I had about 4 layers of clothing on – 3 blankets (provided to each person by the tea house), 2 sets of socks (1 pair cotton and 1 woolen), woolen cap, gloves, a muffler, 2 t-shirts, a sweatshirt, a jacket – let’s just say I put on all the clothes I had and still my feet were cold. Also, an advised strategy is to tuck in your water bottle under blankets with you as sleep because otherwise you’ll have frigid cold water to drink early in the morning. We all got a bottle of hot water in the mornings to wash our faces. Just seeing how constrained for resources these remote villages without electricity or transportation are, you don’t even feel like asking for more because you know how hard it is for them to carry that wood up here to heat each drum of water.

Day 3: Tongloo – Kali Pokhri (9678 ft) – 15km

We bade goodbye to the lovely family at our tea house that took care of us and started out towards out next stop, a small village in Nepal called Kali Pokhri. Two of my dear colleagues had grossly underestimated the severity of cold and didn’t have enough warm clothes to wear. The next day, as we walked away from Tumling we made a stop at Tongloo to buy some home-knit sweaters and socks. Seeing someone shiver when its so freakishly cold has a multiplier effect on others too. So it was in the group’s best interest to make sure these guys had warm clothes to survive the next 7 days. :)

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After a long, long walk we reached the tea house at Kalapokhri. Kalapokhri means ‘black lake’. The lake in the picture below is supposed to be the black lake that this village is named after.

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We had twin sharing rooms here. I went out for a walk by myself in the village as soon as we arrived. Enjoyed a delightful sunset that evening.

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Day 4: Kali pokhari to Sandakphu (11,929 ft) – 6Km

Sandakphu was the highest altitude were going to climb upto in our 8 day journey- about 12,000 feet. It was only 6 kms but all of those six kilometers were a vertical climb. This asked for punching way beyond my weight. Mr. Tamang kept motivating me through the climb but a certain point all I wanted to do was collapse. And I did that. :) I looked around – Mr. Tamang was nowhere to be seen. It was very foggy all around. So I made the most of it.

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But turns out, Mr. Tamang was tracking me with his binoculars from a higher altitude. :)

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Sandakphu was unbelievably cold. Every day, we would start walking at about 7 AM in the morning and reach out destination 4 PM in the evening. As soon as we reached the tea house, I would go get two cups of tea with the group and retreat into my room to make the best use of the available day light to get a few pages of reading done. I’d started this very interesting book No one else by Siddharth Dube on the flight from Pune to Delhi and I couldn’t put it down after that. None of these villages had electricity so I could basically only read for an hour every day. By about 6:30 PM, it would be time for dinner and after dinner, the group gathered around and chatted. That last portion of the day was basically entertainment time. Our group had many raconteurs and talented singers so all us huddled together under many layers of blankets and had some very memorable end of the day sessions.

Day 5: Trek Sandakphu – Molley  (11700 ft) – 16 Kms

Next morning I happily slept an hour extra as the enthusiastic shutterbugs of our group got up early to capture the sunrise from Sandakphu peak. This was coldest morning of the entire trek.

After breakfast, Mr. Tamang came to all us with a worried look on his face and asked us if we were feeling okay and if anyone of us had trouble breathing? Apparently, a person from a trek group that arrived shortly after us the previous evening had passed away this morning due to a cardiac arrest. The group hadn’t spent enough time acclimatizing at lower altitudes- the exertion in addition to this person’s underlying asthmatic issues led to his demise. Even transporting the body from this altitude to the city would be a painfully long journey. Especially because the only vehicles that can negotiate this terrain are age old, super bumpy British land rovers.

Not the brightest note to start the day and on this day we were to walk 24 kilometers upto Phalut and then to Gorkhay. But the day picked up eventually because this was also the day I got the first clear, grand and oh-so-breathtaking view of the Kanchenjunga and Everest. Glorious.

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Day 6: Molley  to Phalut to Gorkhay – 24 Kms

24 kilometers is A LOT even on plain ground but walking 24 kms at high altitude was one of the hardest physical journeys I’ve ever undertaken. By the end of the day, I really couldn’t feel my legs or arms or anything for that matter. Even laughing was painful and it didn’t help that there were so many funny people around. :)

We finally reached Gorkhay by about 4 PM  and this was the happiest day of our trek for me. Two reasons;

  1. One bucket of hot water per person was available here to have a bath. And there was a bathroom too. There is nothing that could have been more glorious than getting the opportunity bathe after 6 days of mountain climbing.
  2. Second reason was that Gorkhay – this village we were in – was a little piece of heaven. I can’t think any other place abroad or here that I’ve been to that was more stunningly beautiful and idyllic than this. I could have stayed there for a many days soaking in that beautiful landscape, sitting under cherry blossoms, reading a book while drinking umpteen cups of hot tea. I did get a lot of reading done here that evening. I also woke up early next morning, walked up to the bridge by the river and read my book in peace for an hour. The community kitchen was close by and I was supplied with many cups of piping hot tea. Pure happiness! :) If there could be a picture of heaven in my head, it would be something like this.

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I felt so possessive about this place that a part of me was happy that it takes a 24 km walk to access this village. No other way to get here than to climb through all those mountains. :)

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We had a brilliant dinner and campfire at night. And later during our entertainment time, I was peer pressured into singing publicly. Singing in public is second on my list to actively avoid at all times but this group of people wouldn’t let up. I don’t think I have ever been this nervous in my life – that too sitting in a small dark room (the darkness definitely helped :)) with just 6 people in it. This was the only song that came to me. I absolutely adore this song and so didn’t want to massacre it by singing it aloud but after all that pestering I thought to myself – if they are willing to endure it, then so be it. :)

Day 7: Gorkhay to Ramam – 3 hours walk time

Saying goodbye to Gorkhay was hard. None of us wanted to leave this little paradise. Next day’s trek was a quiet, peaceful walk through the forests. We reached Ramam and could  finally charge our phones and camera batteries here. All the others went for a walk around the Ramam village. I stayed back and continued reading the book which was nearing an end. When books come to an end, especially ones I have loved, I always feel a little sad. It’s like losing a companion. This was one of them definitely.

Anyway, this was a relaxed night. We had our own bonfire at night after dinner. I’ve always believed that a good night’s sleep can cure most things. But this particular trek I was amazed by even severe physical pains that sleeping overnight could take care of. No pain killers needed. Just sleep on it and it becomes okay – everything does.

Day 8: Ramam to Sepi – 3 hours walk time

Last day of the trek we walked upto Sepi from Ramam. And from Sepi, we drove to New Jalpaiguri Station and took an overnight train to Kolkata. Then a flight to Mumbai next morning. And that was the end of a beautiful trek. I’m hoping to go back very soon to discover the foothills of Kanchejunga in Sikhim. That’s a 10-day long trek that goes up to 16000 ft.Hopefully very soon.

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These mountains you are carrying, you were only supposed to climb. – Najwa Zebian

Only climbing from now on…Deal?

Deal.

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