As with most things, public memory is short. While lockdowns and grim news had people feeling apprehensive and uncertain, there was a welcome change of air towards autumn of 2020. Of course, it cannot be discounted that Covid-19 was still a looming threat, but people had begun to get on with life in a “que sera sera” kind of way. A sort of “whatever will be, will be” sentiment did come over many. And I sure was one of them.
In September last year, I’d begun contemplating on trekking to Phalut and beyond. With travel restrictions fairly eased by October 2020, it seemed the stars were lining up to embark on this long awaited jaunt. The weather looked favourable — there was warm sunshine and gentle breezes. Trek plans often fall into disarray due to poor weather conditions. On the same right, good weather is all it takes to make a swift decision. Besides, what I had going for me was the fact that amid the lockdowns, I’d kept fit by going on regular walks.
Trekking to Phalut basically entails going beyond Sandakphu. Most trekkers will usually return from Sandakphu. Since we’d already trekked till here on a few earlier occasions, my trekking companion and I decided to do go for the complete circuit trek this time round.
We started from Mane Bhanjang, led by our guide Yogesh Rai. We made good progress since we were in ship shape and were, by now, well accustomed to the terrain. Following an overnight halt in Tumling, we continued on to Sandakphu without breaking too much of a sweat. I will admit we felt like ‘professional trekkers’ for the very first time, given how easily we’d made it. The regular walks had ensured we used our energy reserves wisely. Needless to say, the splendid view of the Kanchenjunga range was mesmerising.
Of rolling hills and visual delights
We set out for Phalut early next morning, after only a cup of tea. We’d decided to have breakfast along the way. Early mornings are when the prettiest sights come into view and in this case, we had the Singalila range to feast our eyes upon. After an hour’s walk, we arrived at our breakfast stop. We basked in the warm autumn sun looking at the picture postcard views. Some distance away, there were a few Jersey cows and a lone yak grazing. With yaks, one must keep in mind they are temperamental animals and they fiercely protect their calves. It is best to keep as much distance from them.
Accompanying breakfast were the calming chants of an old Tibetan person. Deep in prayer, his fingers gently moved the prayer beads in his hand. We were once again on our way and the trail was now a gentle descent. I specifically remember this one particular bend. As we went around, it threw up spectacular views of acres upon acres of beautiful rolling hills. You’d simply want to glide with outstretched arms like a kite in open skies. It is one of those ‘aha’ moments that forever remain etched in your heart!
There was a group of young trekkers ahead of us. These energetic souls had strayed downhill, away from the designated trail. Perhaps, it was the mountain views that had swayed them much too strongly.
A short while later, fatigue had caught on and as soon as we came upon a clearing, we simply hurled out rucksacks to the ground and lay on the grassy slopes. Yogesh’s timing and choice of offering couldn’t have better. He reached for this rucksack and brought out two juicy apples. From what I recall, apples had never tasted so good before. We enjoyed every morsel of that fruit.
Phalut’s panoramic beauty
At the 14 km mark from Sandakphu, we reached Sabargram. It also offered us a much- needed tea break and an hour’s rest. In an enclosed area, adjacent to the shop, there were a few Bhutia horses. These horses belong to a breed of small mountain horses, and are found mainly in Sikkim and Darjeeling. It shares similarities with the Mongolian and Tibetan breeds.
We still had seven more kms to Phalut. The climb had become increasingly difficult and at that moment, the only solace seemed to come from looking at the mountains, every so often. The final climb to Phalut was even steeper. But at the end of a tiring third day, there was no soft mattress or comfortable pillow to rest our aching bodies. In fact, trekkers’ accommodation in Phalut does not offer options.
A West Bengal tourism department-built cottage did exist but it was in poor shape, with terrible sanitation. It was pathetic to say the least. With little by way of choice, we decided to stay at the ‘equivalent of an AirBnB’. A forest guard had used his entrepreneurial skills to great effect. He’d divided his state-allotted accommodation into a few rooms. It was the ideal ‘side-hustle’ in the back of beyond. Since we didn’t have the luxury of choice, this was going be our camp for the night.
We freshened up and headed out to catch some mountain views. And these views more than made up for the tiring walk and the less-than-optimal accommodation. We caught sight of the Sleeping Buddha, Mount Pandim and the ‘three sister mountains’ — comprising Makalu, Everest and Lhotse. We’d never seen these mountains in such close proximity before. Now, just as sunrises in the mountains are stunning, so too are sunsets. And here in Phalut, we were rewarded with a stunning sunset.
Lost in thoughts, we kept our gaze on the mountains. Inch by inch, the sun went down, until it disappeared over the horizon. The Himalayas, meanwhile, went from red to a soft white. That particular night, we slept on a hard surface and I will admit that, despite being a seasoned trekker, I missed the comforts of home on this occasion. Outside, the winds howled and it was a dark moonless night.
This is first part in a two-part series. The second part can be read here.