If you have not had enough of all of us ranting about our great trip yet, read this, the official, sobered down version! Published in Deccan Herald's Sunday Herald supplement. Loved it that they retained the title! :-)
Eons ago, for cavemen and clans, the practice of undertaking a long journey was apparently necessary, usually, to learn the art of survival, meet new people and things and become more a 'man', quite like a rite of passage.
Not quite so loft, but it was with something similar on our minds that four of us friends set out on what we assumed would be a trip of a lifetime. The might of the Himalayas suitably humbled us, wiped more sense and sent us back with many more lessons than what we perhaps had expected to learn. The destination was Sandakphu — the highest peak in West Bengal. What caught our fancy was the fact that it was perhaps one of the easiest trekking routes in the Himalayas. Mountain obsessed that we were, plus the supposed easiness of the route, it seemed the best option for a short trekking expedition.
One summer morning, happy to escape the Bangalore heat this year, we set out, first to fly, then take a train, then a cycle rickshaw, then a taxi, then a beat-up old thing that once used to be a jeep, all to start walking, all for that view of the mountains — a sight that we had decided would be surreal and overwhelming in superlative degrees. From the sticky, unbearable heat of Kolkata to New Jalpaigudi (NJP), a place that can easily be called the gateway to the entire north-east of the country, is an overnight journey. We board the train from Sealdah and thankfully, as the night progresses, the air cools down. The vast Ganga is replaced by endless miles of green fields, tiny hamlets, farmers tilling their land by 5 am and quieter roads.
There is nothing to do or see at NJP. The only distinction that the town has to its credit is that it is a stopover to every place else; no one stops there, except to catch the next bus or shared cab. That apart, there is just a tall bronze coloured statue of Tenzin Norgay, the Sherpa who made that tribe famous for their mountaineering expeditions. Be prepared to be met with blank looks from most taxi drivers from here on. A lot of the villages along the famous route to Sandakphu are in Nepal and most NJPians would not have heard of these places. In fact, all along the way, the India-Nepal border is so indistinguishable that you would never know which foot of yours is in which country!
The longer trekking route is to hire a tax or take a shared cab to the village of Dhotrey and then start the trek, through villages with adorable names like Tumbling and others. We instead hire a taxi and drive up over five hours to a quaint little town called Maneybhanjang, passing by restaurants that sell fantastic momos, and towns of Kurseong, Sonada, Ghoom and Sukhiapokri.
At Maneybhanjang, we get the first inkling of how cold it will get higher up. The next morning, a land rover, barely held together with a few nuts and bolts, takes us on a very back breaking trip to Gairibas, from where we are to start the trek to Sandakphu. Anil, our guide, barely out of his teens, accompanies us. It is mandatory to hire a guide for the trek; they cost Rs 350 per day and are trained to point out trees, birds and plants to the awed outsider. Some, like Anil, will chatter away happily and tell you their life story.
Most of the trek will be through the Singalila National Park, for which you need to buy a ticket. Trying to hold our backs together, we see our first white magnolias and the blushing pink rhododendrons. From Gairibas, the distance of some 13 kms does not seem much. But one and a half minutes into the trek, we are ready to almost give up. Egging each other on, motivated by Anil’s amused looks, we soon get into the momentum. Once the pain settles in, the route is sheer joy, for, along the way are hundreds of rhododendrons, in full bloom, in different hues, for as far as the eye can see through the mist.
Trudging on, we reach Sandakphu several hours later, passing by Kalapokhri in Nepal and miniscule villages with local chang bars. It is at an altitude of 3636 metres. Cold is not the word for what is happening there, though it is supposed to be summer; the altitude makes every breath a pain. We are horribly ill-prepared and the wind-throw, as villagers there call it, lets us know very soon just how ill-equipped we are. There is no running water, hardly any electricity and just three layers of blankets to try and keep warm. We spend a day and a half leaving agnostic ideals and cynicism aside and praying for the clouds to lift.
We try to keep warm with rhododendron wine and chang, the rather nice local wine served in tall bamboo glasses or mugs called tongba with millets, on which you pour hot water and sip through tall straws. The morning that we have to leave, someone up there shows kindness and the sun breaks through. We run up a hill and there is Kanchenjunga! Sitting beside a Buddhist prayer place, with coloured prayer flags, fast winds and hands that are fast turning a dangerous blue, we seek to understand the magic of Junga. It is all we had expected the sight would be — overwhelming and surreal. Sandakphu is one of the best places in the region to see the entire formidable Himalayan range, if luck shines. Mount Everest is there for one second, hidden the next. Only Junga obliges, along with her surrounding consorts.
The trek back through the forests, along Gurdum, to Shri Kola, the most picturesque hamlet by the river, then to Rimbik is harder. But hope of sighting the red panda and the rhododendrons all along, the memory of Junga and plans of being back in another season, another time, makes us still smile through the pain of putting one foot after the other. A friend brings up the phrase ‘Junga Junkies’. And that is exactly what we have all turned into by then.