Knockin' on Heaven's Doors
Our trek began from Maneybhanjang, near Simana on the road from Mirik to Darjeeling. However, the weather gods thought it better to postpone our actual march by a good couple of hours. From personal experience, I have never known Maneybhanjang to be anything but wet. It had been raining continuously since the night before, the result being our seventeen strong team shuttled between Maneybhanjang and Meghma, our next destination, in a Land Rover. Although the road from Maneybhanjang to Sandakphu is motorable, it is a wiser choice to hike it rather than suffer the jolts and bumps of the track. It would be prudent to note here that throughout the trek from Maneybhanjang to Phalut, the road serves as the India-Nepal border with India on the right and Nepal on the left. Hence, any turn towards the left should be avoided.
Meghma, as the name suggests, is always cloudy. Situated on a ridge above Maneybhanjang, clouds from the northwest are ever present as is the cold and biting wind. Often has it been observed that while it may be raining at lower altitudes once you get higher, the weather clears up. This is due to low-lying clouds that remain trapped in the valleys until they expel all their moisture. So, while it was raining camels and elephants at Maneybhanjang, we had no problems at Meghma. Another four kilometres from Meghma is a small village called Tonglu. At an altitude of 9800 ft, it was the first experience of a high altitude environment for many of the trainees. If one is not careful, one may fall prey to the many dangers associated with such environments. Dizziness, nausea, lack of appetite, headaches, and disorientation are just some of the symptoms related to High Altitude Sickness. The only way to prevent this from occurring is to stay outdoors as much as possible. Fortunately, our boys found a football and with the World Cup fever around, few could resist the temptation. The good food and ample facilities in the Tonglu trekkers hut did help largely.
The skies cleared up towards the evening and although we weren't able to see the Kanchendzonga in the moonlight, the lights of Darjeeling lit up the opposite mountainside like a swarm of fireflies settling down to a meal. The next day dawned partly cloudy. But in spite of the weather gods playing foul, we were able to catch a glimpse of a sunrise on the Kanchendzonga massif. The road from Tonglu to Kalpokhri, our next destination took us through the Singalila National Park. We passed the check post at Tumling, about three kilometres beyond Tonglu and trekked down to Gairibas, another six kilometres. If however, one wishes to risk going into Nepal and miss the beauty of the Singalila National Park, one may take a short cut via Joubari. The second route is four kilometres long. The National Park came in stages- first a level of pine trees and other conifers, then a forest of bamboo glades and then finally, as we lost altitude close to the valley bottom near Gairibas, the deciduous trees began to show. Tonglu and Kalpokhri are on two opposite mountain ridges with Gairibas in situated in the valley in between. Although there is a trekkers hut at Gairibas, few choose to stay there. However, for advance trekking parties, who wish to cover the stretch from Maneybhanjang to Gairibas in a single day and move on to Sandakphu the next, find it most convenient. From Gairibas to Kalpokhri, a steep uphill climb takes the greater part of your energy and time. The road bifurcates at Kayakatta, about four kilometres past Gairibas. Both roads at the bifurcation lead to Kalpokhri. One is more or less level and the other, being a series of ups and downs. Depending upon the physical health of the traveller, one may take any one of the two.
Kalpokhri gets its name from a lake situated at the mouth of the town. It is considered holy by the Buddhists who inhabit the town and is decorated with prayer flags and a small temple. About a couple of hundred metres above the lake is a cave which the Buddhists use for their ceremonies and prayers as was evident from the smell of stale incense, a couple of tridents and coins placed as offerings. Dark, damp and crawling with leeches, we listened to the stories of the lamas who spend days on end inside. Legend has it that the length of the cave is greater than the distance between Kalpokhri and the Kanchendzonga. The truth about these stories is yet to be ascertained.
Our next destination was Sandakphu. At an altitude of 11,990 ft, it is the highest point in West Bengal. The road from Kalpokhri to Sandakphu is more or less level up to Bikhebhanjang, about half an hours walk from Kalpokhri. From Bikhebhanjang, the route is steep and does drain much of your energy. Throughout the trail from Maneybhanjang, there are numerous short cuts and offshoots from the main trail. Many of these have now been washed away by the rains or rendered impassable due to landslides. Also, many others lead into Nepal- routes where one would do well to avoid. As long as one sticks to the original road, there is hardly any chance of getting lost. Just as you feel like you can't take the exertion any more, you turn a bend and you see the words "No Sweet without Sweat". Corny as it may sound; at that point of time, this sentence seems to be most apt. Also, it means that Sandakphu is a mere five minutes away.
Sandakphu is at the junction of three trails- one leading to Maneybhanjang, one leading down to Gurdum and Srikhola, and a third, moving on to Phalut. The view of the Kanchendzonga massif is breathtaking from here. Set amidst rhododendron bushes in full bloom, magnolia trees and with fields of daisies carpeting the grass beneath, one is reminded of the carvings at the Diwan-i-aam in Fatehpur Sikri-"Agar firdaus zamin ast, u hamin ast, u hamin ast, u hamin ast"---(If there is heaven on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here). The actual Sandakphu top is a concrete platform overlooking the village. Unfortunately, the weather gods were still angry at us- there was no sign of the Kanchendzonga the next morning although the night sky was clear.
The next day we were to reach Molley- two kilometres below Sabargram- an abandoned village fourteen kilometres en route to Phalut. The road to Phalut is a tiring twenty-one kilometres and with first-time trekkers in the team, it seemed prudent to stop over at Molley. Molley wasn't too impressive. Caught between two ridges it suffered the worst of damp regions. However, being right in the middle of the Singalila National Park, the variety and beauty of the vegetation was worth the discomfort. The road from Sabargram to Molley leads on to end up at Gorkhey.
We travelled the two kilometres back to Sabargram the next day and headed on towards Phalut. The road passes through a series of ups and downs until it finally culminates in a short but steep incline ending at Phalut. Phalut is the northern most point in West Bengal and is the meeting point of three geo-political entities- Sikkim, West Bengal and Bangladesh. It was here that we realised the paucity of basic amenities of the Trekker's Huts in this area. For food and water, one has to walk nearly fifteen kilometres to the nearest village- Gorkhey. Firewood is used instead of kerosene and LPG rendering the forests around nearly bare. It was here that we finally got to see what most of us had come for. The majestic Kanchendzonga range in its full glory finally revealed herself to us on the next morning during the sunrise. From Phalut, the Kanchendzonga range is a mere twenty kilometres as the crow flies. It was the 1st of June and for most of the trainees who's Higher Secondary Examination results were to be announced this soon, it seemed a good way to start the month. From Phalut, the trail to Gorkhey is completely downhill. Now it might seem that walking downhill is easier, but as any experienced trekker will tell you, it is harder on the knees. Finally, after marching for about four hours, we arrived at Gorkhey.
Gorkhey is a small village on the river Rammam. The Trekker's Hut here is one of the most beautiful and well cared for I have ever seen. Comfortable rooms, western toilets and a well-stocked kitchen, not to mention the aesthetically pleasing architecture of the hut make for a very enjoyable stay. One could spend hours, either alone or with friends on a rock next to the gushing river with a mug of coffee along. The next day we departed for Sirikhola- our penultimate destination and nearly nineteen kilometres away.
The road to Sirikhola goes uphill for about a kilometre or so until it reaches a neighbouring village called Samanden. From Samanden, the road continues in a series of ups and downs, generally going downhill to Rammam. On the way, one may find, if the season is right, wild strawberries growing by the trail. We spent at least an hour more than we needed to get to Rammam. As soon as we would find some, the rucksacks would come off and a veritable feast would begin. Also along the way were pine trees, although not as much in number as in the higher altitudes. Difference was, these pine trees bore cones which many of the trainees were eager to collect. After a stop for tea at Rammam, we continued our way to Sirikhola.
The name Sirikhola is the same as the river that it is on. It consists of a Trekker's Hut, an eating house and an adjoining lodge. The amenities at this particular Trekker's Hut were not as satisfying as the one in Gorkhey. Quite understandable. This is because trekking parties normally do not stop over at Sirikhola- they would rather stay at Rammam and move on to Rimbick the next day. Nevertheless, the food at the eating house was most enjoyable and by this time the trainees were looking forward to going back home. Sirikhola is a haven for bird watchers. In the early morning, if one is early enough, that is, one may get to see a number of birds localised in that region. We could observe a couple of endangered hill mynas among other species.
The final day of our trek led us to Rimbick which was a mere seven kilometres away. We covered this distance taking as much time as possible, drinking in the beauty of the hills for the last time. On this route, it is impossible to get lost or to come in too late, unless of course, one is ill. The trail goes down to the riverbank, crossing the river and then moves uphill to end in a jeepable road which leads on to Rimbick. There, we were to stay at the Sherpa Tenzing lodge. We have known the owners of the lodge for a long time. It is managed by a person called Himal Sherpa and his family. Good food, comfortable rooms, running hot and cold water and above all, a sense of family that the owners offer you make for a fitting end to this wonderful trek. The next day, we hired a couple of jeeps to take us down to New Jalpaiguri via Dhodrey, Maneybhanjang, Simana and a stopover for lunch at Mirik.
Trekking is not just about carrying a rucksack and wandering around the mountains. There is more to it than that. It is about adjustment, of one's body- to the new conditions and environment and of one's attitude to act in a way befitting a trekking party. But more importantly, it is about loving the mountains and all the associated things- the flora that will engulf you completely, the fauna which will have you enthralled for hours on end, and the geographical features that make you wonder as to how on earth such things were made. But above all, I believe that it is about the people that live there and their lifestyles- which are so completely different from ours.
Arjya Bir Majumdar