Trek to Sandakphu-Reaching Darjeeling

After the picturesque and pleasurable trek of Chandrakhani in 2000, there were several YHI trekking plans that never materialized due to one reason or the other. I had already made a huge bucket list by now starting from Sarpass, Valley of flowers to Jaisalmer and Kodaikanal-Munnar. Finally after 14 years of drought I had resorted to make it happen, no matter whatsoever the circumstances. In fact, my opinion is, 90% of the time there would always be challenges in any plan and you would never find a smooth passage.

Chandrakhani in fact just happened and I don’t remember me doing much of the planning. Sonali, my cousin and her husband Bhupesh guided me in terms of the YHI membership, while most of the booking was also done by the group, and  I just had to join the group. Even the trek as such was much easier and apart from hail stones the weather was always favourable. The camping in the tents, sleeping bags, bed tea, lots of new friends from different regions, the visit to “Malana Village” were few of my fond memories.

With Sandakphu, the job started right from fixing the date, doing the air line and train booking to having a rough plan of the trip. In fact deciding on the trek itself took me some time, as I had shortlisted three of them (KodaiKanal-Munnar, Jaisalmer and Sandakphu) and all of them seemed inviting. My cousin Harshali had already been to Jaisalmer and Sandakphu treks earlier and had highly recommended both of them, while I have this strange fascination for mountains in south and had heard a lot about Munnar. But after a lot of deliberation I chose Sandakphu, partly because Harshali was there to give me tips and secondly, having visited Himachal and Karnataka earlier wanted to get a bit closer to Darjeeling, Sikkim and Nepal.

I must thank my family especially my wife. As Vivaan, my younger child, was still 9 month, she was not able to join her college yet, due to our domestic responsibilities to raise our second kid. While I was talking about taking this 14 days break from all responsibilities. But then she knew my craving for the trek, which was long pending. In fact this year I made use of most of my monsoon as well, by joining for few good, one day treks, in Sahyadris.  Having said that a YHI trek experience is unique and this was the time for it. Since the leave was applied much in advance there wasn’t much of a hassle.

The day had finally arrived. An early morning drop by Meru at the airport, fully packed with list of things as per Harshali’s checklist (it really helped) and at the same time trying to travel as light as possible. I had left home quit early in the morning and after clearing the security check I was writing this status on my face-book. Felt really good, although this was just the starting and the fun was yet to begin. I had decided to make most out of this trip and really enjoy every aspect of it.

The plane took off on time with a minor delay. Soon I was hovering over the rash mountainous terrain of Sahyadris. The villages and towns were quite densely populated. The dramatic landscapes, with rough mountains were fascinating. Few huge lakes and serpentine curvatures of the rivers looked interesting, with the water and sand forming amazing artistic structures. I just admire and even feel jealous of birds for this very reason, that they can fly up in the air and take a nice and beautiful bird’s eye view of the entire place at their will. I wish I could be a brid.

The greenery was really thin here.Now suddenly plains with farm fields started appearing. The population was still dense, but the appearance of lakes and rivers was quite prominent. I wished I could map the terrain to the exact location like some of the international flights allow doing, by looking at the route map. The plain region stayed for a while and then the mountains started appearing again, but then these were thickly wooded, with plain fields around and the population was thin.

The menu of Indigo was quite interesting with ample options for rice, cup-noodles and sandwiches as well as drinks. I ordered for a chicken sandwich, although priced at 200 was really nice and fulfilling. We had covered lot of distance by now.

As we reached Guwahati, I could tell, nature has smiled upon this region. The thickly wooded jungles, green mountains, cute sparse villages and tiny rivers gave me a feeling of peace. This place was completely away from the hustle-bustle of the cities or rather civilization, where nature still played a huge role.

Navin my fellow passenger had a sound sleep and I kept wondering how people could give up on serene landscapes and nature’s beauty that sooth our eyes and get busy with mundane sleeping, eating and chitchatting.

The Himalayan mountain peaks appeared on the horizon and looked much like those spongy, cotton like, snow white clouds, that drifted past the greenery below as we approached ground. The clusters of coconut trees, tiny houses and village culture looked fresh and beautiful. The fully crowded plane was almost empty making me feel a little awkward. Was I heading to no man’s land?

We had left Mumbai at 7:35 and landed at Guwahati at 10.15. After a quick cleanup and few announcements we left Guwahati at 11.15. The weather here was quite pleasant with temp of 20 degrees.  Since my seat was quite close to the Pilots cabin, I could closely watch the activity of Air hostesses in that area. The confident and no non sense command on languages of one of the lead air hostesses was impressive and the ease with which she carried on with those announcements, without a single slip of tongue and the consistent pace of speech was admiring.

Soon we were at Baghdogara, but the weather was so cloudy to give me any glimpses of Himalayas or landscapes below. We landed at Baghdogara at around 12. The baggage pickup was quite quick and I was impressed with the Indigo’s service. The air hostesses and even the rest of the staff were quite efficient and the flight was on time irrespective of the time delay for take-off.

The prepaid taxi for Darjeeling was tagged at Rs. 1800. I decided to check other options as informed by my cousin earlier. A gang of taxi owners surrounded me as I enquired with one of them. There was very little scope to talk, as all of them wanted me to go with them. Finally Chandra the guy with whom I started the conversation initially, grabbed my bag and started literally running towards his car and I had no other choice but to follow him.

The plan was to reach Siligudi with Chandra, have some food and continue my journey towards Darjeeling. I was dying to have some food now.

The tea estate welcomed me right after we had left airport. As per Chandra many of those were converted to Malls, like Citi-centre. The road looked good, but then the place looked far from development. The inflow of tourists does not really change life of common man much. A large population of Nepalese Gorkha live here. Calcutta and Guwahati are around 12 kms distance from here. Nepal and Bhutan are also quite close-by. In fact I had seen a Bhutanese plane at the Guwahati airport for the first time.

While Chandra took 400 from me for a drop to Siligudi (30 minutes distance), the shared cab was fixed at 130 rupees for a drop to Darjeeling (4 hours distance). Off course the Sumo was cramped with 10 passengers, and they could hardly sit. People still prefer this mode of transport, as the public transport is not that reliable and frequent.

The Taxi owner convinced me that there would be a halt for lunch soon. Since these taxis can take hours to get full-house, my thought was, taking this taxi would be a safe bet, rather than spending time on food now, although my stomach had started yelling at me.

The initial road was very scenic with tall and thick Sal Tree (‘Shorea Rubusta’) forest all around us. A never-ending patch of military camp gave an understanding of how huge this establishment was. With lodging boarding quarters and training camps spread all across few acres, I could see the barracks, the canteens, the poultry to breed hens and the cluster of military colony on the outskirts. This was a small town in itself. A tiny river with a narrow bridge was on the farthest end of this camp.

Now we were on a mountainous foggy winding road with huts and tiny houses alongside. We pulled over at one of the restaurants here.I just wanted to stuff something in my stomach and can’t really wait. The beautiful weather had probably aggravated my hunger a bit. The hot Momos served instantly was a good option. A Rs. 30 dish of veg Momos with spicy chutney and tea made me really fresh. Being exploited and used to the exorbitant price tags in Mumbai hotels, this was quite reasonable deal for me.

This was my first encounter with Momos and I really loved it. Although quite similar to “Ganapati Modaks” they are the year-round food here and available in veg and non-veg options. The cabbage and iskus (or chicken) stuffing, wrapped inside rice dough and steamed using stacked containers were healthy and quickly available all around.

Darjeeling seems quite popular amongst Europeans as well; especially British and you might meet them on your way. After the wonderful hot Momos, we were ready for our next leg of the journey. As we climbed up the mountains through winding road, the weather started getting much pleasant and the beautiful natural beauty started unfolding itself as we continued our journey.

Although the road was quite scenic, I could not completely enjoy it, as it became horribly bad with ample pot-holes and work-in-progress in many places especially after Kurseong. The ride here becomes too bumpy and with 10 people cramped in the vehicle, there is very little room for movement.

We still had half the distance to cover and the road condition did not seem to get any better. I had decided then and there, that any time in future, if I have to come down to Darjeeling, I would wait for the mini train route from Siligudi, to get fixed. I would rather enjoy that 7 hours of scenic journey, than this roller coaster.

This train is the oldest (150 years) mountain rail and one of the marvels that British left in India. Although it’s now operational only between Darjeeling and Kurseong, due to landslide in one of the mountainous sections, plans are underway to restore the route up to Siliguri. Although it takes 7 hours to reach Darjeeling the route is most scenic and enjoyable. This train and its route are recognized as one of the “Unesco World Heritage Sites”.

We left Ghum and I took a real deep breath, now I was definitely close to Darjeeling. Sanjay an army man born and brought up in Darjeeling gave me some of the local insight into Darjeeling. He seems to love his place and proudly says people can’t sleep in most other places, if electricity is down but that’s not the case in Darjeeling. The weather is wonderful year around and the natural beauty keeps your mood happy and pleasant all the time.

Sanjay works for army and was coming down from the camp. He prefers staying in Darjeeling and commuting to and fro from his work place, although he has an option to stay at the camp. He advised me to get down at the railway station and keep going up the hill for Hotel Broadway, where I had booked for my initial three days of stay before my trek to Sandakphu. Hotel Broadway is the youth hostel franchisee out here.

This route through winding, zigzag roads up the hill, towards Hotel Broadway seemed never-ending. It took lot of energy and solid 30 minutes to finally reach my destination. The initial assumption of 15 minutes’ walk was wrong and gave real tough time to roll my cabin bag on the uneven road. Had I got the idea of the distance, a porter would have been a better choice.

A patient school kid accompanied me more than half the distance, helping me not to lose my track on this maze of uphill roads.  That really gave a feeling of warmth and hospitality in contrast to place where I was coming from, where people hardly had time for themselves, leave around the strangers.

A quick talk at the reception and I was in my cosy wooden room, overseeing the Kanchanganga. The view from the gallery gave a foggy yet spectacular view of Darjeeling on a backdrop of omnipresent Kanchanganga range. The atmosphere was getting foggier and it seemed too cold now. It was not felt in the vehicle, but now I could really feel the cold. It was hardly 5 pm now, but it was as dark as at 9 pm at night.

I was really hungry and the dinner won’t be available until 8 pm, as informed by the manager. I ordered for hot Veg Momos again and went for a hot water bath. Having some trouble to understand the geyser operation, had to take a bath with lukewarm water  L. Now I really wanted to eat and go to sleep in the comfy bed with the inviting thick blankets. The dal fry was wonderful. After the daylong travelling, now I was really tired and fell asleep after watching the TV for few minutes.


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