A solo trip to Sikkim was when I had my first ever date with the Himalayas. Undulating mountainscapes, snow carpeted winding roads to the state's numerous alpine lakes and passes, temperamental mountain weather, and above all, the warm hospitality of the mountain people had all left me nursing a real bad hangover when I returned to the chaos of the plains. So much so that I called it the 'Great Himalayan Hangover'. A relentless conflict ensued in my mind between obligatory office work and recurring memories of the trip.
There was another unfinished job with the mountains that was constantly fleeting across my thoughts. A glimpse of the mighty Kanchenjunga. Kanchenjunga is the third highest mountain in the world and is situated along the border of Sikkim and Nepal. Besides its notoriety as one of the toughest mountains to climb, it is also revered as one of the most sacred mountains by the locals. When I arrived in Sikkim, the mountain gods did not seem to be in the best of their moods. Kanchenjunga did not reveal itself on two of the occasions when I had most piqued my curiosity, thanks to an overcast sky.
Kanchenjunga had shown its ever invincible nature. As I read more about the mountain, I became all the more obsessed with it.
So when a Trekker friend asked me to join her on the Sandakphu trek, I lunged at the opportunity! Sandakphu is the highest point in West Bengal and a moderately difficult hike rewards trekkers with something which no other treks in India can. A view of four of the five highest peaks in the world - Everest, Lhotse, and Makalu huddled together in a congregation and the majestic Kanchenjunga standing out gloriously aloof. As much magnificent as Kanchenjunga already is, its family of mountains presents themselves in yet another astounding manner, the Sleeping Buddha, giving the trek a spiritual dimension. Armed with this research, I readied myself for the trek, waiting keenly in anticipation for my tryst with the big mountains.
In the early summer heat of March, three of us left Bangalore to Siliguri and landed in Bagdogra, a modest airport in the Himalayan foothills of Bengal. A huge signboard at the terminal entry read ‘Gateway to Darjeeling and Sikkim’. Arriving later in the afternoon, we had made prior arrangements to travel to and spend our last night in the civilizations of Darjeeling before the week-long trek. The queen of hills as it is called, Darjeeling is a demanding 3 hour uphill drive from Bagdogra. A mountaineering feels to the trek started right away as our driver turned out to be one named Tseten Sherpa, a native of the hill town. As we chatted up our Sherpa along the way, he turned out to be quite a spirited guy, telling us of controversies and stories around the first ascent of Everest, about how the mountain folk treat their guests with utmost dignity and how it made sense in the greater karmic cycle of life to be kind to everyone. The sweltering heat of the plains of Siliguri slowly started to give way to crisp, cold air as we ascended the hills and by the time we reached Kurseong, about an hour away from Darjeeling, we ended up disassembling our neatly packed rucksacks and layering up with whatever warm clothing we could lay our hands on.
Gentle drops of rain had started beating on the windows of the car when our Sherpa announced that we had reached Darjeeling. Thick fog greeted the vehicles entering the hill town, and visibility was poor. Cutting the car right through the fog, ’This is real Darjeeling weather sir!’’ our Sherpa exclaimed. As he dropped us at the hotel, he wished us a good trek and parted. We promised to look out for him the next time we were in Darjeeling.
Rains started to gain pace soon and by nightfall, we could hear heavy drops slamming down on the ceiling of our 6th-floor hotel room. Electricity took off for the night and we were stuck in our rooms, with the last of dying phone batteries and absolute darkness for company. The last straw came the next morning when all of my hopes of catching a glimpse of sun-kissed Kanchenjunga came tumbling down. Looking from the balcony of our hotel room, it looked as if the entire hill town had been consumed by clouds. Grayish fluffiness encompassed the entire landscape. Despite this was a view worth savoring. With clouds above us and below us, our hotel seemed to be gloriously sandwiched between two cloud layers. Relishing the view and the delicious puri bhaji for breakfast, I concluded that the Himalayas weren’t so hostile after all. The owner of the hotel told us that it was snowing in Sandakphu.
Sandwiched between clouds in Darjeeling!
With a heavy heart for not being able to see around Darjeeling and a not so heavy poncho to cover our gears and clothes from the moody rain, we drove to Maneybhanjyang, and further on to Jaubhari, which was our base camp for the trek.
Somewhere along the 2-hour ride, the sun had decided to shine for a while on the mountainous road leading to the base camp. Jaubhari turned out to be a beautiful village on the Indo-Nepal border and we were quite excited for once to be living this life on the edge of two countries.
The stairway to Nepal at Maneybhanjyang.
So we were about 20 trekkers from myriad walks of life. There were college students, computer programmers, an artist, a researcher, all trying to wriggle out of their mundaneness for a while. The night in the base camp was spent in getting to know each other and the trek leader making us familiar with the various things that could go good and bad in the mountains, all the while emphasizing on the need to keep the trail clean and green.
We formally flagged off our trek the next day after a quick tea and breakfast. The weather looked great. A bright sun provided some relief from the early morning chill. Our guide for the trek was a local we called Sange Dai, a person who we were to fall in love with at the end of our trek. Sange seemed to have some sort of a mystic connection with the mountains which caused him to climb them in a nonchalant manner.
Sange Dai. In his late forties, he never seemed his age.
We were to gain about 3000 feet that day and were worried to learn that any ascent above 2500 feet without acclimatizing well to the altitude gain could potentially turn dangerous. The thought lingering in our minds, we set off. The trail began with a beautiful pine forest, eventually opening out to the vastness of an alpine meadow. It seemed to have donned a golden brown cloak for the dry winters of the region. A few more minutes into our climb we were at the Nepal border, marked by milestones, fenceless all through its length. An army camp set up there shooed us away from taking pictures. We went ahead, away from the camp and proudly posed for pictures with one of our legs in India and the other in Nepal!
The flamboyant morning sun had slowly started to turn gloomy. By the time we reached Meghma, our lunch point for the day, we were literally megh mein (for ‘within clouds’ in Hindi), and one could see no more than a few feet ahead. Every breath in let a swirl of cold air into the nostrils. I pulled my neck warmer up to my nose and felt warm.
At Meghma, there was border control force on the Indian side (Sashastra Seema Bal, SSB). We were required to prove our identities and make an entry in a register.
Enroute Meghma, when the sun turned gloomy.
A trekker passing into oblivion at Meghma.
Not sure if it was our tiredness or the culinary expertise of the Nepali folks, but modest hot daal bhaath (lentils and rice) tasted heavenly. We had our fill of it and proceeded to Tumling to spend our first night among the mountains. Sharing borders with the country boasting of housing eight of the ten highest mountains in the world and a vibrant culture of trekking, the trail to Sandakphu has tea house accommodation on most days. Tea houses are modest roofed accommodations built along Nepal’s numerous trekking trails to cater to trekkers coming from the world over. The Sandakphu trek is one rare trek in India that has tea houses. Tumling was where our first tea house was. With the highest ascent of the trek done, I guessed we were in the lap of the big mountains already, when temperature readings turned to be on the negative side. Interesting conversations brewed up by the fireplace at the teahouse. Stories of mountaineering feats were shared, some trekkers shared their previous Trek stories, and everyone ranted about their mundane lives in general.
Delicious porridge devoured for dinner, we soon retired for the night. Sange Dai promised a surprise over morning tea next day.
The cozy interiors of the teahouse at Tumling. Seen here is Barry, a vibrant hiker from the United States.
‘’Wake up guys! You can see the Sleeping Buddha’’ - exclaimed our trek lead the next morning. I leaped out of my cozy bed, rubbed my eyes, grabbed my camera and sprinted towards the balcony of our tea house.
And there it was - one of the most astonishingly beautiful settings of nature - Kanchenjunga with its family of mountains, Kumbhakarna and Pandim, forming the silhouette of a man sleeping on his back, stretching out majestically across borders which men drew according to their whims. Watching the Sleeping Buddha made the last of my bodily hair stand straight in obeisance. I silently whispered Aum Mani Padme Hu sending across a waft of warm breath into the cold air. A long pending desire had just come true. I had finally come face to face with the third highest mountain in the world. I took a few photographs and then stood silently, letting the feeling grow unto me. The silent aura I had created for myself broke when the trek lead told it was time to leave.
The picture above: The Sleeping Buddha. Mt. Kumbhakarna in Nepal forms the head of the Buddha, complete with a nose and chin. The belly is formed by the mighty Kanchenjunga, with its summit around the Buddha's navel, and the feet are formed by Mt. Pandim in Sikkim. Several other peaks of the Kanchenjunga family can be seen here too. The tiny V-shaped dent near the feet of the Buddha is Goechala.
Singalila National Park was all decked up to welcome us into its territory today. This park is situated along a ridge that eventually connects to the Kanchenjunga massif. Trees arched along the trail and a fresh snow carpet had been just laid out. A few minutes into the park and our identities were checked, and persons with cameras had to take a special permit. We were asked to talk in hushed tones and walk gently so as not to disturb the various birds and animals the park housed. Sange Dai told we could even spot a red panda if we were lucky. None of our stars though showered mercy on us and a red panda sighting remained a fantasy.
Entering the hallowed Singalila National Park.
Finishing lunch at Kaiyakatta, the weather started deteriorating again and visibility dropped to no more than an arm’s length. So much so that at one point in time, a bifurcation in the trail led to tense moments for a few of us who got separated from the rest and could neither see the ones ahead or the ones behind. A sweeper is usually present in trekking expeditions who take care of such situations - he’s there towards the end of the trek party and ensures no one is left behind. My secret wish for an adventurous mountain evacuation episode was punctuated when our sweeper eventually found us stranded!
The second teahouse of the trek was Kalipokhri (for ‘black pond’ in Nepali), a sacred lake along the Indo-Nepal border with a small human settlement alongside it. The lake was shaped like a foot and the locals believed it to be of the Buddha.
The sunrise alpenglow near Kalipokhri. This setting somehow reminded me of the philosophy of Yin and Yang.
The next day we were climbing to Sandakphu, the highest point of our trek. A grand view of sun-kissed Kanchenjunga was probably the only reason I lugged along my body on the tiring ascent. The trail to Sandakphu was generously laden with snow, and everyone had their fill of snowball fights and snow sculptures. These served as a good break from the monotonous ascent.
Winter Wonderland en route Sandakphu.
That was me during a game of snowball cricket played with the trekking pole!
Grabbing a quick lunch in a trekkers hut below, it was late afternoon when we reached Sandakphu. As we slowly marched towards our camp, the first one for the trail, we could sense this was one of those places where mountains had their say and us humans had to simply abide. A couple of inches of snow, gusts of winds threatening to blow us off our feet and bone chilling cold characterized Sandakphu. The sun already hid behind the morose gray clouds so we had no idea when he went down for the day. The evening saw fierce winds beating down on our purported campsite. They seemed to be attempting earnestly to bring us down on all fours. Setting up and sleeping in tents in these conditions looked straight out of the question, lest the mountain gods decided to hastily disorient their unwelcome guests. Fortunately for us, we had a plan B in place and could share an already crowded tea house for the night. A small change in posture inside the sleeping bag brought a piercing cold wave, ripping through all the cloth layers and directly hitting the bones. Amidst the howl of the fierce wind, that night I wondered how tiny man was in the grand scheme of things and yet how much self-conceited. I couldn’t sleep that night. Turned out it was the same with most of the others too.
Trekkers abandoning the supposed campsite.
An estimate of the cold at Sandakphu. Water in the bottle hardened to ice, and leaking water from a filter turning into icicles.
Sange Dai woke us up at five the next morning. The weather looked clear but the winds continued. We scurried up a nearby hilltop. The first rays of the sun had already touched down on the mountains when we got out of our sleeping bags and struggled our way up. The Sleeping Buddha looked glorious draped in a golden blanket. Taking out our cameras and keeping them steady was hand numbing, and most of us just soaked in the view. Meanwhile, Sange explained how Sandakphu was a vantage point for all the big mountain views. Looking westwards, one could faintly see the biggies from Nepal, Lhotse, Everest, and Makalu huddled up together in a row. Looking eastwards led our sights till Bhutan, with Chomolhari, the highest peak in Bhutan making its appearance. It was deeply satisfying and exhilarating at the same time to be at the confluence of three Himalayan countries, looking at Mother Nature's marvels.
The Sleeping Buddha draped in a golden blanket.
A close up of Lhotse, Everest (covered in clouds) and Makalu. Extreme haze did not allow the picture to be good enough.
Taking a customary picture at having accomplished Sandakphu, we set off on our way to Sabargram, the next campsite on the trail. The gray clouds were with us again after noon. Situated slightly lower than Sandakphu, Sabargram turned out to be calmer. The atmosphere in the camp that night was less tense. Some minor sprains, some tummy issues and all the tiredness notwithstanding, the joy of having reached the top in good condition was evident on everyone’s faces. Sange was in his mischievous self and shared stories of ghosts of the people lost in the Himalayas, making the night uneasy for some of the female trekkers in the group!
The trail to Sabargram. One cannot miss the tsunami like wave of clouds about to engulf the trekkers.
Footprints in the snows of time!
The next morning at Sabargram we had our final date with Kanchenjunga. On both of our previous encounters, the summit of Kanchenjunga was obscured in clouds. But that day, as though understanding our sentiments, the majestic mountain revealed itself fully. Our trek lead explained that the straight line horizontal distance to the summit of Kanchenjunga from this camp was only about 12 km. From frantically brooding for an year at not having been to view Kanchenjunga, to getting this close to its summit, I guessed I had come a long way. The Buddha still seemed to be sleeping in utmost serenity, oblivious to all the chaos that men created around him. There was only a two-minute window to this view after which the clouds decided to enshroud his sleepy charm.
The summit of Kanchenjunga as seen from Sabargram.
Today we were rapidly descending from about 12000 ft all the way down to 7500 ft to a village called Gorkhey. Gorkhey was a pretty hamlet silently tucked away amidst the mountains and lay along the border of West Bengal and Sikkim. Crossing a small wooden bridge over Gorkhey river led one to Sikkim. This countryside was straight from the fairytale of a bygone era.
Pine forest on the descent down to Gorkhey.
The village of Samandheen near Gorkhey.
That was officially our last night in the mountains together as a team. In the absence of the lure of the various paraphernalia of the plains, one ends up making meaningful relationships with like minded co-trekkers. With the mountain lifestyle stripping every one of the fake identities that they manage to create in the plains, it is only natural for people to connect to each others’ true selves.
Recollecting the entire journey over a sumptuous dinner, some shed a silent tear or two while some decided to speak their moods out. Promises were made to keep in touch back in the plains, pictures were taken and the final goodbyes bid. Because the next morning separated the group going to Siliguri from the one proceeding to Darjeeling, everyone was invariably making most of the night. The night sky and its infinite stars were witnesses to the bonhomie that was building up.
Our motley group.
Cut to two days later when I was back at my desk, I could perceive one thing. I had managed to forge a lasting liaison with the mountains. Digging hard for explanations to this were unfruitful, and I assumed it was best left that way. I just knew I had to go back again. The Himalayan hangover was stronger this time.
As for Kanchenjunga, its sheer beauty had managed to perform witchcraft on me. A book on the mountain now sits on my desk, waiting to engulf me within itself and purge my soul back to its icy feet.