Sandakphu or can say Shangri-La

There are certain places that one can just dream of. But then sometime dreams come true. ϑ

The legacy of my treks started with YHAI(Youth Hostels Association of India) and it still continues with them (These are the best people for a tension free and cost effective solution for adventure) .YHAI West Bengal Branch had announced the National Himalayan Trekking Expedition to Sandakphu (Darjeeling, West Bengal) sometime in October, and the day I read about it, I knew I had to be there, no matter what it takes. I managed to pull Anil Mama (my uncle) and Sudhindra (trek mate) to accompany me. The dates were decided (2nd Dec 2006) and as usual I was thrilled and excited to be there.

Somewhere on the route I read ‘No sweet without sweat’, that is so true.

Sandakphu lies on the Indo-Nepal-Sikkim border in the state of West Bengal.
Now if you take a map, you will find Mumbai at the extreme west of India and Sandakphu (you will have to locate Darjeeling) at extreme east of India. To conclude, a whole lot of journey. It takes two days to reach New Jalpaiguri or NJP (the nearest railway station). The train journeys are never pleasant especially in accompaniments of cockroaches in a 2 – tier Ac coach (all the big bucks I spent on the A/c thing were a mere waste). From NJP our next destination was Kurseong.

Kurseong is a small hill station in the hills of Darjeeling, 57 km from NJP.
This place is clean and peaceful and pretty well developed with plush boarding schools and lot of picnic spots. I could only manage to visit the Eagles Craig, Deer Park and Forest Museum. Our main purpose was to catch the toy train for Darjeeling.

Next to come was the famous ‘Sapno ke Rani’ Train. It is the heritage toy train that runs on the hill roads of Darjeeling. There are three toy trains that run in this area one is from NJP to Darjeeling (vice versa), second from Kurseong to Darjeeling and third is the Darjeeling Joy Ride. I recommend the second one because the first one takes about 9 hrs which if done by car would take 3 hours. Moreover Kurseong to Darjeeling is said to be the best toy train route and it runs on the oldest of steam engine.

The toy train ride is a joy ride offering a slow glimpse of the flora of eastern Himalayas and the Indo – Nepal culture that prevails here. One can actually peep into someone’s house as the train passes by the tiny houses along the road.

It runs at an amazingly slow speed and has two coaches plus a steam engine. Every coach has its own set of brakes and an attendant to use them. Its fun when the driver screams ‘Brake Laga’ and the some what sleepy attendant rushes to turn around the brake wheel and then giving you a look as if ‘Gosh! I saved you’. It took four hours to get to Darjeeling which could have been covered in an hour had I taken a Taxi. Initially I was enjoying the landscapes and the Alpine tree line, but later it was difficult to deal with the slow pace.

So there we were in Darjeeling, the ‘Queen of Hill Stations’, beautiful and full of clouds. But I was more excited seeing the shopping arena. This place is a shopper’s paradise. It has a huge market with trendy clothing and cool accessories on sale. Of course ‘Made in China’ but they were smart and cheap. Apart from that there is a Multiplex, Coffee Bars, Cake Shops, and Pubs. I even heard a rock show at Mall Road and they were good.

The people here are sweet, humble, well dressed, polished and good looking. Pretty girls with silky hair and smart guys with gelled hair and trendy attitude, looked like a plush and up market place.

Now the task was to search for the Youth Hostel Camp at Jalapahar. It was a trek in itself. The roads here are very steep and tiny, feels like a roller-coaster ride if you take a Taxi. And mind you they loot you a lot in terms of fares.

The weather changes here as noon turns on. Clouds come down and what can I say about the cold…I was wearing three layers of woolens. And by the time it is five in the evening, it gets dark and is night time. Eight o’ clock looks like mid night.

The first two days went in getting acquainted with the fellow trek mates and wandering around Darjeeling. All the while I was searching for the glimpse of Mt. Kanchendzonga but the weather was cloudy so I was a bit disheartened wondering if I would get to see her. But thankfully on third day she gave a grand entry with a clear sky and blazing sunshine. She looked great shining is the golden dawn and stood like a gigantic wall in front of Darjeeling .

Our trek started on the third day and we first headed to Manebhanjan (27 km from Darjeeling). Manebhanjan is a check post and gateway to the Singalila National Park. After the formalities the taxi dropped us at Dhotrey from where the actual trekking began. Dhotrey is small hamlet which gave a closer look at the mighty Kanchendzonga range ( ‘Kanchendzonga Massive’).

Sandakphu trek is quiet a royal trek with best of accommodations and food available on route. Moreover it’s a kaccha (undone stoned) road route. Sometimes the walk gets monotonous but mind you at times these roads become overly steep and some short distances look infinity to conquer.

That reminds me of the classy land rovers one gets to spot in this area. The road to sandakphu is meant only for 4 wheel drive vehicle. So ideally the roads are for SUV’s. Well there are no SUV’s here but modified age old land rovers are found. Said to be the remains of World War II, they are generally overloaded and looks like they can break any moment. If you plan to take a ride in this then get ready for an amazing vibration massage.

A trek of 7km from Dhotrey took us to Tumbling(2980 Mt). Tumbling is in Nepal. Well I never thought my first foreign trip would be this way but anyways we all were excited being in Nepal.

Tumbling is where I want to spend my honeymoon (coz sandakphu is very cold ϑ). What a place! I have never seen a village which is so not a village but still a village. Now I am sounding like a fool… but I am actually out of words. The cute wooden houses , the hospitality, the people, the weather, the sunset , the moon rise, the sunrise, and the moon set, the frozen dues, the colorful flowers , the cute puppies and a charged up camp fire was indeed a mesmerizing experience and accommodation at Shikhar Lodge was 10/10.

Next day while everyone got up early to struggle for the glimpse of sunrise I was lavishly sleeping in the wonderful shack of Shikhar Lodge . When I realized I am missing something amazing I struggled to get out but thought I would miss it anyways. So I went to the bathroom. Luckily the bathroom had a window which gave an amazing view of the sunrise. Lazy gets a reward too.

After the thanksgiving (YHAI ritual can say) to the camp leader and people helping him, we headed for Kalapokhri(3108 Mt) which was about 13 kms. This marked our entry in the Singalila National Park . The entry check post had no one to welcome us. Until Garibas the route was gradual and downhill mostly. Garibas is a Nepal army check post. Next came Kaiyankata where we had lunch. Yhai lunch boxes are never exciting. I saw some of my friends having noodles. Now that is typical of YHAI treks, they are incomplete without Maggie. Well because we were in Nepal it was Yay Yay instead of Maggie but it was delicious . So bye bye to the pack lunch and there I was in the Nepali hut having Yay – Yay and Momo(I was a momo fan by now). After lunch we were back on track for Kalapokhri.

Kalapohkri is known for a holy pond which is fenced by Buddhist prayer flags. After a tiring day it was quite serene and rejuvenating to watch the lake view and the gushing clouds. I have an incredible fascination for lakes at higher altitudes, they are crystal clear and clam offering very good reflection of sky and surroundings.

Kalapokhari gives the view of Sandakphu (back side). Nothing great about it because only a hut could be spotted still it gives an idea(misleading one) of how much the climb will be. Apparently it looks adjacent to Kalapokri but one could not spot the in-between mountain trail to be traversed to reach sandakphu .

We were all set for the next destination aka Sandakphu . We were told that its just 6 Km hence we were pretty relaxed but the last 3 km are …uuffff… tiresome moreover my backpack was giving trouble. My sack must be the heaviest of all. To reduce the weight I was wearing all the woolens that I had, making me look like an overly blown balloon( I look like a balloon anyways). On the way comes BkeBhanjan also known as valley of poisonous plants(Nilo Bikh)

So there we were on one of the finest places on this earth, Sandakphu a place I have been dying to see. Heaven is what you feel being there. I remember seeing a movie ‘God must be crazy,’ in which a bush man in Africa goes in search of end of the world and finally he get it. It gave me the same feeling. I was above the clouds , felt as if god was few km above me.

The floating clouds look like waves in the sea splashing on the nearby mountains. And when this cloud ocean ends the almighty Himalayas welcome you. The view here is spectacular. The Best of Himalayas are here. Kanchendzonga , Pandim ,Lotse, Makalu, the Three Sisters and Mt Everest what say!!!. If you roll ur eyes in 360 degree it feels like you are in white Garden with clouds and the snow peaks waving ‘hello’ to you. Nothing can capture that moment.

Sandakphu and Phalut are two places which gives the closest view of Kanchendzonga. Infact Mt Everest was spotted first from Sandakphu. Kanchendzonga looked like a queen sitting on her throne saying ‘I am watching you’. Sometimes the Kanchendzonga massive looked like a sleeping Kumbhakaran with Huge Tummy. And Mt Everest is quiet far but just the idea that I saw Everest is so very exciting and thrilling. Well I cant conquer these giants but at least I got to see them.

I could sit there for ages eying the majestic panorama but the wind here is crazy. Sandakphu — the phu here stands for breeze. It is difficult to stand through the strong air currents. It feels as if the breeze will tear you apart adding to this is the extremely cold climate.

I was lucky to be present at Sandakphu on the almost Full Moon eve. The sight is surreal resembling fairy tale world. The moon, stars, gently flowing cloud loaf and the Kanchendzonga in moonlight, indeed a blissful sight. Felt sad as I could not walk on the clouds.

And of course Sunrise, an amazing experience to witness. The sun comes out through the semi transparent clouds and turns into dark orange molten glob as if it has just come out from the furnace. The sight when the sun is half underneath the clouds and half in the sky is phenomenon. And at the same time the Kanchendzonga is at its best form changing colors from orange color card. The thrown of her highness turns golden with snow shine resembling diamonds makes the queen look beautiful and magical. I was struggling to photograph both the events simultaneously.

Next to come in the trek was Gurdum the route to which passes through the dead valley.
Dead Valley because in 1988 a forest fire broke in that area and the entire tree line was burnt. Now there stand barren poles of alpines along the slope. The route from sandakphu to Gurdum is very steep, so one has to be very careful while getting down.

Gurdum is a tiny hamlet with variety of plantations seen. For the first time I saw French Beans fields. Apart from that there were different types of chilies, potatoes, cauliflowers etc. and ofcourse tea garden.

After Gurdum we headed to Rimbick via Srikhola. Till Srikhola the route is marvelous. The trek route is along the river Siri and passes through a sub tropical forest. A variety flora fauna could be found. A sudden patch of orange or yellow color trees could be spotted just like a pleasant change in the lovely greens. On the left side lies Sikkim.

From Rimbick a 3 hour drive took us back to Darjeeling. After which was Kolkatta and then Mumbai.

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Posted on July 3, 2007, in Travel. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. aah that was a nice description! Reminded me of the whole trek and the best time we all had.. I wish I can go there again!

  2. Wow.. I did re-live the whole sandakphu trek extravaganza… thanks a lot to you. Though you said that you wrote the travelogue after quite some time I think you can re-tell the whole experience even in your later life without missing out the details. Hats off.. I got to learn one thing that – experiencing and keeping it to your self is not at all an experience. So share it and re-live it! Great.

  3. Reetam Banerjee

    Hi, it was a nice description. It is a trip I also underwent and alomost at the same time. In fact we came down from Sandakphu to Gurdhum on the same day , but we had lunch in Gurdhum and procedded towards Srikhola for the night hault. It reminds of the excellent trek. Just one comment on your story is that: You might have heard that the local people, guides, call “Sandakphu” as “Santakpur”. This is the original name of that place. Since the British were unable to pronounce it properly, the name was consequently modified to “Sandakphu”, which is commonly known to everybody now. The word “Santak” means “The Sun” and “pur” as we Indians know is referred to a place (as in Hastinapur). The name signifies that it is the place from where Sunrise can be watched brilliantly. There is no referrence to the “Wind” against the word “Phu” as you have mentioned. Sorry to criticise on the beautiful travelogue, but I just wanted to state the fact.

  4. dear friend:

    i am a member of yhai, duirng 90 i was state treasurer of tn state,
    organising secretary, i had been to darjeeing winter trek 2005 it was
    really wonderful. if you wish i can upload the photographs for you

    thanks and regards

    sekar

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