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Name : Tomosha Bhattacharjee  [On Dec 16, 2019]

State : WB

Title : Following the trekkers' trail

Article :

 

       Celebration time starts in Kolkata from Durga Puja and continues till Christmas. In between there is Diwali--- the Festival of light. Had it been just lights  I would have loved to savour the beauty of illuminated Kolkata but the earsplitting noise which is a part of Diwali  celebration leaves me in jitters. Each year I plan to escape from the nerve wrecking noise during this period and this year when Samar suggested visiting Sandakphu I agreed readily. We were a team of 4. One of our team members was a heart patient so trekking was out of the question. We chose the option of hiring a vehicle to visit Sandakphu.

      We boarded Humsafar Express from Howrah  around 9.15 pm, the premier train was already running late by 3hrs and  when we reached  N J P it was  9 am, the train had added 2and a half hrs to its late running. So much so for Premier Trains  timely arrival. The Bolero which would take us to Chitrey------our first halt en route Sandakphu----was waiting outside the station. The driver appeared to be a genial fellow, he loaded our luggage in the car quickly and soon we were on our way to Chitrey.In no time we reached the outskirts of Siliguri, what a welcome relief from the din and bustle of Siliguri town. Once you leave the plains behind and race towards the mountains you feel you are entering another world. A world breathing peace and contentment, a world filled with verdant greenery, rich flora and fauna. After crossing the army cantonment of Sevoke road we reached Dudhiya Valley and decided to stop for breakfast. We ordered for momos and tea. I must say the momos in these parts taste different, may be they have a flavor of the mountains. Breakfast over; we got into our vehicle which sped towards Mirik, the tourist spot we had to cross on our way to Chitrey. The weather was already changing, it was becoming foggy and visibility was getting poor. Our driver was extra cautious while negotiating the bends. Mirik looked dull and shabby; the lake seemed to have shrunk. I wondered how this place could still draw tourists. From Mirik we took a shortcut to Manebhanjan - the starting point of the trek route. The road was rather bumpy but nobody minded because it was past 1 pm and we were all exhausted. From Manebanjan to Chitrey the road is very steep in fact this is the steepest climb for trekkers.

 

       Chitrey (8340ft) had an aura of mystery shrouding it; the blanket of fog which covered this small hamlet heightened the element of mystery. When we alighted from the vehicle I wondered how far we had to walk to reach the home stay, but as the fog gradually cleared to my utter amazement I realized I was standing bang opposite  the home stay- Hawks Nest.  This village had the charm of an English country side- serene and green with blossoms carpeting the mountain sides. Hawks Nest is run by a Tibetan named Phunsuk whose ancestors had settled in India long ago. Since Chitrey is the first halt for trekkers on their way to Sandakphu the owner and his assistants are on their toes from morning till evening providing snacks, beverage or simple lunch to the trekkers.       We checked into our rooms which were equipped with basic amenities. However all toilets did not have the provision of running water. The lunch provided was a simple fare of rice, dal and omelets, but we enjoyed it thoroughly. After lunch we ambled down to visit the monastery which is Chtrey’s main tourist attraction. The monastery was as picturesque as Chitrey, it was painted in bright colours and indeed it looked stunning as the sun rays streaming through the parted clouds flooded the facade of the monastery. The prayer flags fluttered in the breeze, there wasn’t any activity in the monastery and some monks could be seen busy in their own work. The place breathed peace and tranquility except for the persistent barking of the watchdog.  After loitering around the Gumpa for a while we walked back to our homestay.  Temperature dipped as soon as night fell and heeding the request of Phunsuk we had early dinner and snuggled into the warmth of the blankets in our rooms hoping that the sky would clear the next morning.

The next morning the fog still hung low. The village was slowly waking up, some stray dogs were loitering around expecting biscuits from tourists, the cosmos flowers which were in full bloom danced in the breeze. The serenity of the surrounding was only broken by noise of the vehicles passing through the road. After breakfast we decided to look around this quaint village .Chitrey is surrounded by rolling plains, there are about 20 settlements. People here are mostly Buddhists. On an elevated flat land just beside the home stay we could see prayer flags flapping in gay abandon. I always marvel at the way flowers bloom in the mountain side, their dazzling colours leaves one in awe of God’s creation. After hiking for nearly a km we reached another home stay, the owner welcomed us warmly, and we gathered some more information about the place from him. By this time the fog had cleared and we could get a clear view of the mountain range from this spot. The memory of the two days we spent in Chitrey is something to be treasured.

 On the third day of our trip we started for Sandakphu. Bidding goodbye to Chitrey we set off for Sandakphu in a sturdy Land Rover arranged for us by Phunsuk. Our next stopover was at Tonglu, but before we could reach Tonglu our driver had to stop at a provision store by the road side ---- the reason--- one more tourist would be travelling with us. As this was the instruction of the Syndicate the driver had to abide by it. Very soon our co passenger arrived---a pleasing looking lady from Gangtok.  We gathered her name was Pema and she would be travelling with us till Sandakphu. Pema was good company, very accommodating and respectful. We halted at Tonglu for a cup of coffee.  Tonglu is situated at a height of 9800ft; there is a G T A trekkers hut where trekkers usually halt for the night.  There is an excellent view point from Tonglu, from here all the 5 peaks of Eastern Himalayan can be viewed clearly. Standing tall among other summits was the imposing Mt Kanchanjunga. Under the blue canvas the mountain peaks viewed from Tonglu was stunning. No less stunning was the texture of the heavens above, as I gazed spellbound at the azure sky – the clouds ruffled in ripples, they were like puffs of white magic changing shapes and size at random.

Tumling is about 2 km from Tonglu and is located at a height of 9600 ft.  On reaching Tumling the male members of our team got down to check availability of lodges and if need be book one room because we intended to spend a couple of days here on our return from Sandakphu. Just a km up the road is the arched gate which says Welcome to Singalila National Park. From here the road is downhill. The entry to the park is Rs 100 per head. Singalila park is rich in bio diversity, if you are lucky you can spot the famous Red Panda. Soon we reached Gairibas where we could spot the GTA Trekkers hut situated at an idyllic spot in the midst of the thick emerald green forest. The sight was so alluring that we decided that we would spend a day here on our return from Sandakphu. Trekkers usually stop at Garibas for tea break or they rest for a night in one of the lodges and start for the uphill journey to Sandakphu the next morning.

 After Gairibas we had to brace ourselves as from now on wards the road would be full of loose boulders and pebbles and there would be many hair pin bends. Our driver appeared to be an expert, the way he negotiated the bends was really praiseworthy. The mountain slopes were lined with pine spruce and birch rhododendron and magnolia trees, unfortunately rhodos bloom only in April and May so we didn’t have the pleasure of seeing the vibrant colorful rhododendrons. There were quite a number of Maple trees covering the mountain slopes, the slanting sunlight gleaming through the yellow leaves  of the maple trees gave them an exotic look. Just as we were about to reach Kalphokri one of our team members discovered that he had left his camera bag in the wayside tea shop at Gairibas where he had taken a cup of tea. No, his camera was safe as he had it slung around his neck but the bag contained all other valuables like cash, Cell phones, credit card etc. While he cursed himself for being so forgetful the rest of us tried to pacify him, our driver was dead sure that that nobody would steal the bag and whoever would find it would hand it over to the owner of the shop. He stopped the vehicle at Kalophokri and requested a lady in a provision store to ring up the shop owner at Gairibas and ask whether such a bag was found. To our utter relief we got to know that the bag has been deposited in the safe hands of the owner and she would be sending the bag in a vehicle which would go to Sandakphu. Though it is said honesty is a rare virtue in today’s world but we still do find this virtue among the mountain dwellers. Our team member who was a bundle of nerves a moment ago was now looking sheepishly and grinning from ear to ear. We waited in Kalphokri till the vehicle carrying the bag arrived, we thanked the carrier of the bag profusely and the driver too for the help he had rendered. So it was in this happy mood that we reached Sandakphu ----4km from Kalphokri, if one takes he shortcut route close to Nepal border. To tell the truth from Tumling the Indo Nepalese border is rather blurred and there are no movement restrictions.

Sandakphu literally means Peak of Poison plants—it was thus named due to the poisonous plants that grow close by, the summit is Singalila Ridge which is at an elevation of 11930. From this place one can get a panoramic view of the five highest mountain peaks of the world which resembles the Sleeping Buddha.  When we reached our destination the sky was dazzling clear we wanted to make the best use of the favorable weather so we checked into our hotel, had quick lunch and set off for a stroll. There aren’t many hotels in Sandakphu. There is a   GTA where trekkers usually stopover for a night before trekking further up – towards Phalut. I found many foreigners trekking to Sandakphu, we got into conversation with a couple of them, all of them were enjoying this trekking expedition. Evening approached fast; soon it was time for the sun to dip in the western horizon. Our hotel was the best spot for clicking snaps of the sinking sun. The setting sun was a symphony of colors, rich hues of orange blended with purple, crimson streaks of red covered the mountains; the clouds floating around the peaks also received shades of the dying sun’s brilliance. The sight was just staggering. We all stood spellbound gazing at the red ball of fire before it took its final plunge. With the dipping sun the temperature dipped too as velvety night enveloped Sandakphu, we went into the dining room where the aroma of freshly fried pakoras assailed our nostrils.  With great gusto we gobbled the pakoras served with piping hot coffee. The hotel where we had checked in had all the amenities of a good hotel except running water. The bath room was adorned with the latest sanitary fittings but they were of no use, there was a huge bucket in the washroom which would be filled by hotel staff twice during the day. In fact both water and electric supply was restricted in this place. At dinner we gathered the information that the sun rise would be at 5 am the next morning. 

 Sound of shuffling footsteps woke me up next morning. I tried desperately hard to leave the warmth of my cozy bed but couldn’t, my laziness got the better of me. A loud banging at the door woke me up with a start. One of my team members who had already gone to the terrace was calling out to us. I wore my monkey cap to ward off the biting cold and went up to the terrace to view the Sunrise. The grandeur of the rising sun in the mountains is difficult to put down in words. The riot of colors with which the sky explodes as the orange ball peeks in the eastern horizon is beyond description. I remembered John Muir’s words “How glorious a greeting the Sun gives to the mountains” As the sun inched upwards the mountain tops were sprayed with shades of orange, magenta red and blue. The soft amber hues splashed across the eastern sky ushering in a new day and with it new hope.    By 8 we were ready for breakfast when we reached the hall it was filled to capacity. Too many guests had arrived the previous evening the hotel staff was finding it difficult to cater to so many guests. We had to wait for awhile before our breakfast arrived---- Maggie and toast and boiled egg.

By 9 we were ready for our return journey. However before starting for Gairibas we decided to visit another tourist spot GOTHUM--which is en route Phalut The boulder road was worse than the one from Gairibas. The 7 km journey was bone crushing but when we reached the spot we realized it was worth the pain. The place was close to Nepal border; in fact we could see the Chinese built road in Nepal just across the Indian border. The landscape resembled an English meadow, way beyond horses and sheep were grazing undisturbed, down the valley there were some settlements. Pema was a sight to watch running hither and thither with the wind blowing through her hair. The quietude of the place was soothing and sleep inducing.  After whiling away sometime in the vast meadow it was time to return.

It didn’t take us much time to reach Gairibas on arrival we checked into the rooms already booked on our onward journey to Sandakphu. Pema bid us adieu at this point, she informed that she would be going back to Gangtok on that very day. The spirit and tenacity of this lady from the hills was really admirable. If you visit Sandakphu do spend a night in Gairibas. No words of praise can be enough for the team who had chosen the location of the GT A of Gairibas. It was simply breath taking surrounded by lush greenery on all sides with the lulling sound of stream flowing close by. An added attraction of the place was the twittering and chirping of various species of birds flitting from tree to tree. It was just heavenly! The verandah in front of our room was a place where one could spend hours gazing at Nature’s splendour and being lulled by it. Lunch was served soon—it was simple but delicious veg meal.  After lunch we went up the road to the shop where our friend had forgotten his bag. He thanked the shopkeeper a number of times for the favour done to him. We all sat down for coffee in front of the shop and watched soldiers playing carrom in the army camp just opposite to the shop. It is very painful to think of the lonely life these soldiers have to put up with. Before evening could envelope the mountains we walked back to the trekkers hut. Since people go to bed early here we were served dinner at eight—for dinner we had very tender well cooked chicken with chappati. It was simple but mouth watering, the culinary skill of the cook was really commendable.

The next morning we started for the last leg of journey, the lady supervisor arranged for a vehicle which would take us to Tumling where we had planned to stay for two days. Though Tumling was just 6 km away the driver demanded Rs.1000 and no amount of bargaining would make him budge from the quoted price. In Tumling we stayed at Shikhar Resort. This resort is run by a very gracious amiable and industrious lady Neela Gurung. It is actually a family business started by Neela and her brother, they had started with two rooms but now it has turned into a full fledged resort. One of our team members who had put up in this lodge way back in 2003 was all praise for the lady of the resort. She took personal care of her lodgers and was ably supported by her house keeping staff. The resort is well maintained, the entry to the resort has a small drawing room, a wooden staircase from the corner of the room leads to the upper floor which has a number of three and four bedded rooms, the cottages are named after different flowers. From some of the cottages near the dining room one can get a clear view of the mountain peaks on a clear day. The road to the resort from the main road is cobbled , this road leads to a small village down below. We had an excellent stay at Shikhar, food was served in buffet system, the dinner spread had an added attraction of sweet dish, to top it all  for snacks we were served crispy onion pakoras one evening and fried momos the next, never will I forget the taste of mouth watering momos. One evening a trekking team arranged a bonfire, there was singing and dancing and many trekkers participated in the masti. Since Tonglu was just 2 km away we decided to hike up to Tonglu. It is very difficult to remain unmoved by the all pervading magnanimity of Natures offering to mankind. As I walked up the road I absorbed the beauty of mountain side, home of various species of trees and ferns.

  All good things must come to an end and so did our trip. Before bidding farewell to Tumling we thanked Neela for her laudable effort in maintaining the resort and she promised us that the next time we visit Tumling she would provide us with a better room. Mountains are the place where you feel alive, it’s a much sought respite from the clamor of every day humdrum. As we travelled down the mountain I felt humbled that I have been born in a country which has the majestic and imposing Himalayas—the pinnacle of glory. My goblet of joy was full I felt revived and reborn.

 

 

AUTHOR: TOMOSHA BHATTACHARJEE