Situated at 3636m above sea level, Sandakphu is the highest peak in the Singalila Ridge which, in turn, is part of the eastern Himalayas. For trekking enthusiasts, this one is considered a medium difficulty trek with Sandakphu being located at a distance of about 32 kms from Mane Bhanjang – the starting point.
We commenced this long-awaited trek with a team of five teenage students, our guide Yogesh and the two of us. Our first meeting with this pleasing young man was in Mane Bhanjang. Yogesh was brimming with confidence and he’d definitely guided many trekking groups over the years.
Maney Bhanjang is a beautiful town situated along the Indo-Nepal border. Interestingly, the main road there separates the two countries. The shops along the left fell in Nepal while those on the right were part of India.
Chittrey, here we come
Following a light breakfast in Mane Bhanjang, we slung our haversacks on our backs and set out with a confident stride. We began climbing what was to be the first of numerous flights of stairs, crossing settlements and in a short while, we were amid thick pine forests. We’d heard the first stretch would be steep and we were mentally prepared for it. It wasn’t easy to say the least.
As we climbed higher along the meandering trail, Mane Bhanjang slowly faded from view. And much as the climb was difficult, it also seemed as though my haversack was getting heavier by the minute. I vividly recalled a trekker advising me, “Make sure you carry only necessary items for even a spoon will weigh a kilo when you are climbing.” His words rang true. The climb was steep and our endurance was tested but this was only the beginning. But reward came in the form of panoramic views we were greeted with. Thanks to the elevation, the beautiful Singalila Range seemed ever more imposing.
Our first brief halt was at Chittrey, a small village, well known for its hallowed Tibetan monastery. We visited the premises and after appeasing the gods, we continued onward to Hawk’s Nest — a popular tea joint for trekkers. We stopped for about half an hour to catch our breaths and a much-needed cup of tea.
‘Sound of music’
We then trudged across lush meadows and rolling hills. Our teenage friends seemed little affected with the climb and every so often, they would take the liberty of crawling up a slope along the trail. Even more, they managed to strike acrobat-like positions while shooting selfies.
The lush green meadows reminded me of the film ‘The Sound of Music’ and its song ‘the hills are alive with the sound of music…’ One could spend hours simply listening to the gentle breeze, the chirping birds and even the occasional cry of a distant cow grazing away lazily. The scenery was heavenly. These truly were moments that any trekker would cherish forever.
Soon we reached Meghma, a small hamlet located at an elevation of 2600m. Meghma stands unique in the fact that despite its remote location, there is a hand-made tea processing unit there. Meghma’s residents were mostly farmers who subsisted by selling their produce in nearby Maney Bhanjang. We broke journey for a cup of tea and once again, we set off on a gravel trail that led into Nepal.
There was no passport or document required to enter Nepal. As we gained elevation, the views kept getting better and it was quite the sight to behold cloud formations that were now much lower than us in the valley below. What caught my attention with equal interest were ancient watermills. To my initial disbelief, these were still in use. It sure brought me to wonder that these remote inhabitants actually adhered to sustainable practices much before ‘renewable energy’ began ‘trending’.
We must have climbed to about 3000m when we arrived at Tumling in Nepal’s Ilam district. Often, trekkers halt here for a night to acclimatise. We were famished by this time and Tumling was to be our lunch stop. After resting and replenishing, we were back on the trail, headed towards Jaubari – a further six kms away.
Just as dusk was beginning to approach, we reached Jaubari. This was a small settlement with a few trekker’s huts. On the first day, we’d covered 17 kms in a little over five hours of actual walking time. The dinner that evening was a simple meal comprising rice, lentils and vegetables but we relished every morsel. There was a sense of accomplishment we felt and much as our bodies felt sore, we were eager to embark on day two. We retired early since we wanted to be up before the crack of dawn to catch a glimpse of the early morning Himalayan views.
The following day commenced at 04:30 am. It was windy and cold but our spirits were high. We quickly layered on our jumpers, jackets, gloves and caps and before long, we were headed towards a hillock in the distance. From there, one could see the magnificent Kanchenjunga, the world’s third highest peak. It wore a dazzling shade of white and it seemed as though it was awaiting to be washed over by the early morning rays of the sun. We simply sat there — motionless and in complete admiration of the beauty.
The eastern horizon slowly began turning crimson and as the first rays hit the Kanchenjunga, you could see the beauty which only a poet could have described in words. We were awestruck by the sheer exquisiteness unfolding and we had a ring side view to this spectacle befitting of myriad superlatives.
We could have stayed there for an eternity but we had another 15 kms of trekking ahead of us and so we reluctantly strode back to our hut. Following a sumptuous breakfast of Tibetan bread, eggs and gravy potatoes, we bid goodbye to the caretakers and once again, we hit the narrow trail. The chilly morning had given way to bright sunshine and it shone brightly over our backs as we exited Jaubari’s limits.
A modern hotel in the back of beyond
The initial stretch seemed easy, gliding downhill as we did for about an hour and a half to arrive at Gairibas. This was to be our first tea-stop and from there, it was again an uphill climb through the Singalila National Park. This part of the ascent was difficult even for regular trekkers. Your endurance is tested with every step and at times, it felt as though my legs would give way and I’d collapse right there. Flights upon flights of stairs keep coming at you and quite obviously, you begin to hate it.
But with each step, you went a little higher and the vistas that came into view were simply ones to die for. After what seemed an extraordinarily long climb, we found ourselves at a hamlet called Kaiyakatta. We were surprised to chance upon ‘Habres Nest’ — a standalone hotel with all modern amenities. The caretakers there shared that wild life photographers would come and stay for weeks to ‘shoot’ the elusive red panda. This endangered species is exclusively found in these eastern Himalayan forests.
Our next stop was at the sacred Kalipokhari, a small pond with lots of Tibetan prayer flags planted along its periphery. We’d covered nine kms by then and had another six to go. This, we knew, was going to be the most strenuous climb of all.
Just as the mountain views kept getting better, the other interesting sight that now came into view were the stunted trees and bushes. This was because we were above the tree line – a geographical marker beyond which the high winds prohibit trees from growing any taller than a metre at best.
Stairway to heaven
As our destination drew closer, we came upon a staircase which trekkers fondly called the “Stairway to Heaven”. At the end of this final flight was Sandakphu, our long elusive summit. Much as we were sapped of all our energy, we had to walk this final treacherous ascent and there were no shortcuts.
However, just as these thoughts were further straining my already tired self, distraction came in the form of an approaching vintage Land Rover. The ‘old lady’ sailed by with a full load of Sandakphu bound tourists and it was amazing to see these over 50-year-old workhorses still in service. As it drove away, one could see its underpinnings in motion, but it trudged along with an experienced hand at the wheel. Indeed, you must be a daredevil to drive in these parts.
A short while later, we came across a milestone which read — Sandakphu, zero km. However, our destination was still some distance away but we indulged in a moment of celebration anyway. We clicked numerous photos and the excitement ran high in the knowledge that Sandakphu was only around the corner.
Life does go on without TV, internet and phone access
Almost as if to say “not quite yet,” we were looking at one final flight of stairs and in only moments thereafter, we were on the Singalila’s Ridge’s highest point. There was a sense of achievement — ‘we’d done it!’ Energetic high fives were exchanged, we rejoiced and we revelled in the deep sense of satisfaction we felt.
We caught the first glance of the ‘Sleeping Buddha’ in the early evening sky. Soon it was dark and as the mercury dropped, it was bone-chilling cold. We huddled near the bukhari. Dinner was served not too long after and although it was bland, we ate heartily while sharing stories of the journey this far. Once again, we retired early as was the practice in these parts.
There was no cable TV, no internet and of course, no phone reception. The little electricity was generator and solar panel derived and this the residents used to illuminate the summit for a few hours each evening. As we crawled into bed, we were awash with a sense of accomplishment and serenity in our hearts.
Everest, Kanchenjunga, Lhotse and Makalu
Everyone must have tossed and turned in their beds. The night felt long and we rose early. The panoramic view of Mt Kanchenjunga was a sight to behold in that chilling cold. In the horizon, one could see the reddish tinge of the sun and up above, a billion stars still twinkled — the Milky Way still visible.
Angie Weiland’s words came to mind – “In the soulful place where earth and sky meet, Nature embraces one divine heartbeat.” It was truly magical. I was certain we live for moments like the one we were front row spectators to. As the first rays of the sun hit Mt. Kanchenjunga, it seemed to take on the colour of strawberry ice-cream. Of course, this isn’t the most fitting analogy to describe the ethereal sight but this was what first came to mind.
The entire range, boasting four of the world’s highest peaks–Mt.Everest, Kanchenjunga, Lhotse and Makalu—stood there for us to partake of their inexplicable beauty. The ‘Sleeping Buddha’ was highlighted in all its magnificence. As the sun grew stronger, we basked in its warmth, sipping tea and admiring the view.
The descent was less exhilarating
Following a hearty breakfast, we discussed if we should head to Phalut, a further 20 kms from Sandakphu. We decided against it because of a paucity of time. We had to complete the trek in three days.
We therefore commenced the descent, winding our way through the Singalila National Park to Srikhola, a very steep downhill walk of 16 kms. We set out after catching one final glimpse of the majestic mountain range. We skittled down the forest making sure not to trample the fauna.
Along the trail, we came upon an alluring bamboo grove. This is what the red pandas feed on. It is so difficult to spot one that you’d need abundant patience and time, and this was definitely not an activity for hurried trekkers like us. We also came across plenty of moss and humus that serve as organic fertiliser for exotic orchids. There were also stretches where Yogesh advised us to be mindful of wild boars.
As we paced through the forest and descended further, we heard the roar of the river in Srikhola. It took us almost four more hours of walking downhill until we finally came upon a few dwellings. Srikhola was to be our final lunch stop. The food was great and we were all in a contemplative frame of mind.
Taking cognizance of Nature’s glory
The final leg on our descent lasted thirty minutes, with the trek culminating at the Srikhola bridge. We were now back within mobile reception area and our vehicle awaited us there. We bid farewell to Yogesh at Mane Bhanjang. Our group was most grateful to this young man for his services and for having looked after us so well during the entire duration of the trek. It really would not have been possible without him. We promised to return the following year and Phalut definitely featured highest on our bucket list.
The Himalayas are spectacular. When you live amid these majestic creations of Nature, you become more aware of the power and glory She wields and the sheer insignificance of us humans. They say when you are connected to the mountains, they beckon, and when they do, you cannot go too long without heeding the call.