Maneybhanjang is where we met Anil Rai, who would become part of team travellers for the next three days. It is a little town, nice little houses, a Nepal police station, a Buddhist gompa, with a Shiva temple in the same compound, some shops, garish with packaged chips and snacks for the tourists, kids who strike the naughtiest poses for a picture and the first inkling of how cold it would get further on. I have always been of the opinion that walking about town is the only real way to discover a place; we do a lot of it.
It is mandatory for all groups to be accompanied by a guide for the entire trek. We walk through dark unlit streets, it is hardly 6 pm, and reach a tiny almost-cubicle, the mighty sounding ‘Highlander Guide & Porter Walfare Assotiation’ (sic) opposite a frontier check post where a jawan is trained to look at you suspiciously. The happy Dendup Bhutia helps assign a route; the several pictures of the gorgeous mountains further boost enthusiasm.
The guide charges aren’t too expensive, just Rs 350 per day. Anil, this little boy who was several years younger than all of us, and our guide, proved to be rather entertaining. Towards the end of the trek, he had even begun to crack sarcastic wise cracks; that’s what the company he was with did to him!
Early the next morning, after Reena, a pretty Nepalese girl at the place where we stayed, fussed after us, we headed out to Ghairibas, further into the Singalilla National Park through which most of the route we were to take crosses. The mode of transport, an aging Land Rover, seemingly from another century, suitably gave the bones their first beating. Lovely villages, more cute children, a red partridge, our first look at the beautiful magnolias and rhododendrons.
I shall always remember Ghairibas for the best wai-wai I have ever had, with vegetables and parsley. And for one of the cutest soldiers any of us had ever seen. And also for the first five minutes of the trek when we all decided that we would not complete it! The backpacks seemed too heavy, the legs wouldn’t move and for the first few kilometers, we were close to giving up, crying, cursing and turning back. But soon everything got acclimatized and it looked like we could stumble on; there was no longer the dignified activity of ‘walking’ or the more adventurous ‘trekking’ either.
On that day, at quickly rising altitudes, with wrongly packed backpacks and unaccustomed, unsteady gait, it did not seem so, but I say this now, that those 13 kms from Gharibans to Sandakphu, our destination, was one of the most beautiful routes I have ever been on. The time of the year that we had chosen was when all the flowers were in full bloom. Walking along paths that were lined with red, shocking pink rhododendrons, breathing in real oxygen (!), hills along the way and when you look back, a valley that is glorious with specks of bright coloured trees! Could I paint a picture? Could I write an ode? But isn’t beauty of that stature beyond the parentheses that paint or words or poetry seek to constraint them under? All we also took were lots of “mental screen shots”.
The route takes you through little pit stops for sweet tea, local bars and villages, all of 4-5 houses big, places where the India-Nepal border is so indistinguishable that you might have one foot in this and the other foot in the other country. Kalapokhri, where we have a piping hot lunch, is slightly bigger. I meet a man there who is keen to know whether families give dowry for marriage in my community. People speak Nepalese, Hindi for the tourists, and look nothing like the rest of the state of West Bengal that they are supposedly part of. There are welcoming fire hearths everywhere. What catches the eye is the cutlery, beautiful mugs for the tea; a subtle effect of the travel trade.
All along, Anil and I talk of his story. I remain fascinated with this little kid who has been a guide for five years now, who used to have a girlfriend and a guitar; the girlfriend is seeing an Army man now, a trusted friend did not return the guitar. He talks of politics, of his Nepalese father and Indian mother, of Gorkhaland, of trying to work in Jammu, of classroom antics, the band he plays with, life and his philosophies, baked well along the route he takes. But Anil is a whole other story, for some place else, another time.
The last half a mile to Sandakphu is the hardest ever. But finally we are there at about 5.30 pm, it is near dark already. That is unnerving at first, how 5 in the morning never seemed early, how 8 pm was almost midnight. We stay over at the government guest house, one that does not have a bathroom. There is just one Dada, to look after the entire place; he is nice, always smiling. So are all the people we see on the way, they smile a lot.
Sandakphu is COLD! And we the biggest idiots for having taken just one flimsy jacket each. Chang, made from millets and served in tall mugs and long straws and the rhododendron drink do not help. Neither do three very thick layers of blankets in cozy rooms. Those two days, we use up almost one year’s quota of profanities. The village itself isn’t all too pretty, there are just a lot of big buildings.
At 12,000 feet, there is no running water, no firewood can be collected if the forest officials are around and even in peak summer, the temperature hovers around 2-3 degree Celsius, every single supply has to come from nearly 50 kms away, none of that is pretty. Yet, if luck is good to you, Sandakphu offers one of the best views of the Himalayas where the mountains seem to unveil themselves from amidst the thickest ever clouds below your feet.
By then, our bones and muscles have given away. The air is thin, every breath is painful and the rib cage seems like it is about to burst. We wait an entire day, go to see yak babies (D terms them yakkies), drink some yak milk (rather salty) and recuperate a bit. The wind throw does not let.
The next morning though, Anil comes and knocks to say that the sun is rising. We stumble out and climb a steep rock. I like to think that the sharp breath I take is not merely due to the altitude. It is freezing and our hands look blue, like we will get frost bite in the next ten minutes. J decides to chant Om and believes it will make you feel warmer; I try, doesn’t help much. D smokes, as usual; maybe that might have helped.
In a few minutes, the clouds lazily part and below us is the majestic Kanchenjunga, the K2 and several other surrounding peaks. I want to cry; and not just for the cold. I know then why she is irresistible, why there are many who simply have to come back to see her again and again. Sadly, we see only a tiny bit of Everest. The clouds don’t part entirely. We promise ourselves that we will be back.
The trek is all downhill after that. Through the national park, it is another 12 kms to Gurdum, a village that is only accessible on foot or on a horse. Foolishness continues; all we have is one bottle of water for the five of us for the next 12 kms! Anil is near exasperated. More flowers, more lovely paths, more details of Anil’s story follows.
The last hill before Gurdum is painful, every step forward a torture, every muscle in the leg crying for mercy. But perseverance gets us there. The plan is to reach Sree Kola, another 4 kms ahead, where we are told a river runs through the village. It starts raining when we are nearing, I live out a bit of my fantasy of trekking in the Amazon forests in the rains, though it is slippery and dangerous!
Sree Kola is the prettiest village and pleasantly, not too cold. The best part is the first bath in three days of trekking, that too hot water! Ah be the joy!! The next morning, we quite give up after groaning at every step. Anil decides that we walk just a bit ahead and take a shared cab to Rimbik from where we will go to Darjeeling and further on.
Rimbik is warmer, there is hot food, flat roads and we already hate it. Missing the mountains syndrome begins right there.
In lesser words, I promise, the account of the rest of the journey ahead, the Bagdogra fiasco, Hotel Decent (of the Jab We Met fame), flirting in Sikkim and more mountains. Tomorrow. Please do check back for the last part (I hope).