Thursday, 16 October 2014

Tomb Raider for a Day! A Moto Trip from Siem Reap to the Beng Mealea Temple, Cambodia

Heaven on Earth

Angkor Wat is a name that has summoned up adventure, excitement and mystery for me ever since I was a small child. The largest temple complex on earth, and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, nothing can prepare you for its sheer scale and majesty. You are reduced to superlatives. Built over 800 years ago to express divinity - the setting down in stone of the divine power of the kings of Angkor - these enormous temples were surrounded by thriving cities built of wood and thatch. Here was the capital of a kingdom that ruled for over 500 years, home to over a million people, its engineering, urban planning and water management systems equalling, if not surpassing, cities elsewhere in Asia and in Europe.

We have been in Siem Reap, Cambodia, for three days, exploring the numerous temples which make up this World Heritage Site. We watched the sunset from Phnom Bakheng turning the stonework of Angkor Wat pink and gold, and stood spellbound awaiting the sunrise behind its five distinctive lotus bud shaped towers, the physical embodiment of the microcosm of the Hindu universe: the five peaks of Mount Meru. Charcoal grey and silhouetted against a kaleidoscopic sky of moving cloud tinted myriad shades of grey, purple, lilac, ruby red and apricot, all reflected in the water of the large moat surrounding it, the complex at dawn presented a spine tingling scene. In the daylight we wandered amid its ornately carved labyrinthine galleries depicting the battles from the great Indian epics: the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Gods and demons, men and beasts, all exquisitely executed in sandstone. And the apsaras and devatas, so perfectly carved and lifelike - dancers and deities that might just take form and walk out of the very walls.

From a tuk tuk we gazed in wonderment at the great city of Angkor Thom, its entrance bridges lined with impressive avenues of carved heads depicting gods and asuras in the form of a stylised balustrade with ornate nagas (multi-headed serpents). These lead to a tower, a panoply of intricate carving featuring elephants topped by four enormous sandstone heads facing each cardinal direction. The narrow gateways below propel you to another world, a microcosm of the universe, at the heart of which is the Bayon.

We wandered in awe through this mysterious monument, its giant carved faces staring benignly into the surrounding jungle canopy, timeless, still, with knowing eyes and smiling mouths. We admired the history and culture of the Khmer, fashioned in exquisite detail: the great friezes of war - battles with the Cham and the Chinese - warrior elephants and soldiers in boats and chariots; nobles in exotic palanquins. And the prosaic, for the people who created this temple projected their everyday lives onto stone: a timeless portrayal of rural life still seen in the Khmer villages of today.

In the sweltering heat we explored the dark recesses of the pyramid-like Ta Keo, and the temple mountain of Bakong with its fabulously carved elephant statues surrounded by a moat studded with cerise pink and white lilies. We watched as a huge gunmetal grey cloud swirled menacingly above the pool of Srah Srang just before a monsoon deluge engulfed it, and sat becalmed at the peaceful scene of a man fishing on the lake surrounding the island temple of Neak Pean, as the heat of the day ebbed away and the sun slid low in the western sky.

We wandered speechless amid the photogenic ruins of Ta Phrom, marvelling at the stonework smothered by gigantic silk cotton trees and strangler figs as if in a desperate and deadly struggle with the jungle for survival. Merged with the jungle, but not yet a part of it, this was the location for the film, Tomb Raider. We marvelled at Banteay Srei, a small, bijou temple with ornately carved red sandstone bas reliefs nestled at the foot of the Kulen Mountains, where the air positively crackled with the ions of an impending storm, sending frenzied flocks of Red-breasted parakeets shrieking to and from their roosts in the tall trees nearby.

It’s now day four, we have used up our three day pass to the antiquities, and besides feeling a little more adventurous, we’re keen to escape the thousands of other tourists here. In particular the hordes of Chinese, every one a fashion disaster, who seem impervious to other visitors, talking loudly and persistently, hogging the best views to take endless photos but ruining ours by barging into almost every frame. So we have booked an off-the-beaten-track journey which will take us on a 125 km round trip to visit a stunning heavily overgrown temple complex hidden deep in the jungle. And we are going to do this by Moto…

On Yer Bike!

In Cambodia, two wheels definitely rule and the major means of transportation is the Moto. These motorbikes, usually of around 125cc, are veritable work horses, zipping along the narrowest dusty tracks deep in the Khmer countryside, or powering their way up muddy mountainsides where no four wheeled vehicle dare go. We have just been deposited by the side of a quiet road on the outskirts of Siem Reap and a helmet has been thrust into my hand. I haven’t ridden a moped for over 30 years, let alone a motorbike with gears, and to say I’m apprehensive is an understatement! Moreover, Martin has never been near a motorbike and is looking on with considerable bemusement as we are shown how to start the engine and operate the gears. No driving license is required and no questions asked about any previous experience. Sensing our trepidation, our young guide from Khmer Tours seeks to reassure us and we are given the opportunity of getting used to riding our 125cc Honda Dreams along this quiet back road before we set off.

I quickly get the knack of it and am soon whizzing up and down the road, waving as I pass Martin who looks as far removed from ‘Easy Rider’ as it’s possible to be! Within 15 minutes we’re deemed proficient enough to handle them and, following our guide, enter the hectic flow of traffic out of Siem Reap. After a short distance we turn off the main highway onto a narrow dirt track and the fun begins. Weaving at speed around pools of muddy water is much more difficult than it looks! I concentrate hard trying to maintain my balance and after several minutes I begin to relax and enjoy the scenery.

We pass through densely vegetated jungle to emerge into open countryside comprised of tall palm trees and watery flatlands vibrant green with young rice plants and dotted with cerise pink water lilies. A herd of water buffalo is slowly moving amid the verdure and a man with a net, submerged to his knees, is fishing. We pause to take photographs of this idyllic scene unaware that these paddy fields were once strewn with landmines which have been cleared by a Dutch aid agency. When told, we find it hard to believe that prime agricultural land such as this was mined and shudder at the evil of Cambodia’s notorious killing fields.


Alongside the road, half hidden and shaded by trees, are numerous wood and rattan houses built on stilts. Pigs and cows wander freely, chickens scatter in all directions as we pass and half naked children spill out onto the roadside to wave at us. The Cambodians are undoubtedly the friendliest people I have met anywhere in the world and its hard to reconcile the images of their beaming, beautiful faces with the brutality and horror of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.

We emerge back onto a tarmac road as the sky overhead begins to turn an ominous shade of grey. Before long, large raindrops begin to fall and we are forced to take shelter at a roadside dwelling. We are instantly welcomed into a farmstead comprising a couple of houses and some small sheds for livestock, and are seated on a wooden platform under a rush roof as the rain comes down like stair rods. A wooden ladder way leads up into an upper storey with rattan walls and behind us a man is lethargically swinging in a hammock, seemingly oblivious to the deluge. A family of four is sheltering on a similar platform opposite, a small boy laughing loudly as a line of squawking chickens dart underneath it for cover.

The rain soon stops and back on the bikes we head towards a line of low hills in the distance. A steady stream of Motos pass us and I am absolutely amazed by what is conveyed on them: a family of four crammed together like sardines in a can; a man with a huge wicker basket from which bulging sacks are suspended; a woman almost hidden by an enormous load of freshly cut animal fodder; a young man with two pig carcasses slung across the back… It’s a wonder they manage to keep the bikes upright!!

Once again we leave the main road, turning down a rough track through cultivated fields. The underlying bedrock of laterite gives the earth here its distinctive rust red colour which contrasts sharply with the bright green foliage of acres of yams. Every so often we pass bagfuls of the tubers stacked up by the roadside and are hailed loudly as we speed past, by the workers either harvesting them or loading the bags onto huge trucks. By now the heat is great and would have been intolerable but for the breeze set up by our passage. After traversing a maze of roads and muddy tracks, we arrive at our destination, about 40 km due east of Angkor Wat.

Beng Mealea: ‘The Lotus Pond Temple

Having taken lunch in a small roadside shack, we set off under a ferocious midday sun to explore the temple of Beng Mealea which means ‘lotus pond’. Dating from the early 12th century and built on the ancient royal highway to Preah Khan Kompong Svay to the same floor plan as Angkor Wat, this site has only been accessible in recent decades due to the civil war and the presence of landmines in the area. It has not been restored and is largely in the condition in which it was found by French archaeologists. The bus loads of tourists that afflict the main sites at Angkor are pretty much absent here and intervention in the form of a wooden walkway round the site to facilitate visitors is not really intrusive. In fact, most tourists tend to stick to this walkway, but only metres away you can clamber inside the ruins and have the place virtually to yourself. With its authentic jungle atmosphere, the scene is set for a real Lara Croft adventure!

We walk up the southern approach causeway to the temple, past crumbling sandstone balustrades sporting huge intricately carved nagas. The air is absolutely still, the heat tremendous, and the sweat literally oozes out of me. At the top of the causeway we come to a jumble of fallen moss covered stones surrounding a collapsed entranceway above which enormous trees arch, offering some welcome shade. Continuing east along the outside of a large wall, we head towards the SE corner pavilion arriving at the wooden walkway. Eschewing this, we climb down into a narrow open enclosure and clamber carefully through a partially barred entrance over a tumbled mass of fallen masonry into one of the cruciform cloisters. The sun is mostly obscured by the jungle canopy and inside, all is bathed in a strange green light; the stones, still moist from the earlier rain and slick with moss and algae, present formidable obstacles and great care must be taken to traverse the chaotic jumble safely. We proceed, with the guidance of a local villager, to scramble in and out of the various enclosures spying small courtyards flooded with the all pervading green luminescence through intricately carved stone window balusters. These in particular lend an air of mystery and secrecy as it’s almost impossible to see what lies behind them.

The villager takes us on a tortuous route through dark interconnecting galleries, along narrow ledges and over roof tops. We often have to crouch down to squeeze through small spaces to continue our exploration, passing huge webs with terrifying-looking spiders lurking in the centre. My skins crawls! Lichen encrusted pediments and collapsed friezes depict legends of Vishnu, Shiva and the Buddha and finely carved apsaras, the very epitome of serenity, stare seductively from the walls. Even though the inner sanctuary has collapsed, the former grandeur of the site can be glimpsed in its ambitious vaulting.



But this is a temple engaged in a desperate struggle with the jungle which seems to be slowly strangling and choking the life out of it. Lianas the thickness of a man’s arm hang down from enormous silk-wood trees and the aptly named strangler fig, the roots of which have colonised the blue sandstone walls and roofs of all the buildings. It resembles a skeletal mesh that is stealthily encasing the entire site. I find the sight mildly disturbing and quite eerie as it reminds me of the visual effects created by Giger for the Alien films. Clouds of bright red dragonflies fill the air, and, apart from our laboured breathing and the constant drone of thousands of insects, the silence is profound and slightly unnerving. At this moment, I really feel as if I am in an India Jones movie!

Scrambling over the tumbled mass of stone is, however, absolutely exhausting in the relentless humidity. I had no idea it was even possible to sweat this much. My cotton shirt is totally drenched and rivulets of sweat are cascading down my spine and running down from my temples to drip off my chin. We complete our visit by taking a walk around the perimeter of the site, admiring the sheer scale of it and the mastery of its creators.

It’s then time to begin the journey back to Siem Reap on the Motos. After the stifling heat of the temple, I am relieved to feel the cooling effects of the breeze as we speed through the countryside past children playing in flooded paddy fields, people returning from working the land and women cooking out in the open on rustic clay ovens. We take a slightly different route this time, if anything more difficult and exhilarating, involving some very narrow muddy farm tracks and across rickety bridges where waves of panic sweep over me when I see how close I am wavering to the water’s edge! There is even a river crossing which is deeper than it looks: taken in third gear, my feet and legs get drenched. Local people stop to wave, amused no doubt by the sight of two foreigners struggling to stay upright on the slippery roads! Dodging slow moving ox carts and speeding Motos, we make our way along the bright orange tracks without mishap, arriving back at Siem Reap some eight hours later.

I’m not sure our travel insurers would have been too happy with our escapades, but I thoroughly enjoyed the chance to escape into the countryside to see the real Cambodia and to explore a temple tucked away in the jungle far from the tourist hordes. And, of course, fancying myself as Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft for a few hours... Well, a girl’s allowed to dream after all!

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Five days in the Eastern Himalaya: The Sandakphu-Phalut trek, India and Nepal

Day One: Monsoon Madness!

I step into a room with a cement washed floor. Faded and dusty, age curled posters depicting blooming rhododendrons, conifer forests, red pandas and snow clad mountains cover the grubby plastered walls. ‘Namaste, welcome to Singalila National Park’, says a man in a beige uniform, hands pressed together. He bows deeply and smiles broadly as he places a white khata (scarf) with red and black patterns round my neck to wish me a safe journey. ‘Namaste’ I reply, repeating his gesture. The park, which is closed from June 16 to September 15 each year on account of the monsoon rains and animal breeding season, has only this day reopened and we are the first official tourists of the new trekking season.

It’s around midday and we have just arrived in the village of Manebhanjan from Darjeeling, a 26 km journey along shockingly bad mountain roads by jeep. We are about to embark on a five-day trek of over 70 km with Adventures Unlimited, a Darjeeling based adventure travel company. The cost, $US 300 each which includes the services of a guide, all accommodation, and food and transport to and from Darjeeling. There is no porter service, so we have to carry all our gear including rain wear, spare items of clothing and a sleeping bag, which just about fit into a 35 litre rucksack. Large sections of the route lie in the Singalila National Park, declared a Wildlife Sanctuary in 1986 and an Indian National Park in 1992. The two highest peaks of West Bengal, Sandakphu (3,630 m) and Phalut (3,600 m), are located on the Singalila Ridge and we will be climbing to the summit of each.

You cannot do the trek without a permit and an official nature guide. Ours is a man named ‘DG’, a very polite powerfully built yet small framed Sherpa with one pierced ear, his initials tattooed on his hand, who looks much older than his 38 years. He ushers us into a tiny restaurant. Here we enjoy a hearty meal of freshly steamed beef and cabbage momo (Nepali dumplings) served with red garlic chilli sauce and a steaming bowl of oily broth washed down with lashings of black tea. Before the off, there is just one more formality: we must register with the Indian army. Further down the road we enter a rather grimy office with pale green wooden panelling. A plainclothes man sitting behind an oversized wooden desk inspects our passports and meticulously and slowly copies all the information into a large, dog-eared ledger. He then asks us to sign our names before wishing us a successful trip.

Through the open door I can see huge drops of rain hammering down incessantly on the dirt street full of potholes and awash with muddy water. Water cascades noisily off the roofs of the two and three storey concrete buildings interspersed with corrugated iron shacks. It’s mid-September and the monsoon season should be drawing to a close. Local people seem unperturbed by the rains; sari clad women out shopping wander up and down the dreary street. Most are shod in sandals and carry umbrellas to keep the worst of the rain off, while men bent double under heavy loads aren’t even bothering to avoid getting wet. It doesn’t feel cold. We, however, are clad in GoreTex clothing from head to toe. Stepping outside, the strident hiss that instantly descends on our jackets is a sobering indicator of the strength of the monsoon rain and we have around 13 km to walk with an ascent of nearly 800 metres ahead of us. Walking through the bazaar of this bustling village past small shops with fruit and vegetables literally flowing out onto the pavements, dodging cattle and a constant flow of jeeps loudly honking their horns, we pass a flight of crumbling concrete steps with a sign that says ‘Welcome to Nepal’ in Nepali and English.

This village is right on the border between the Indian state of West Bengal and the Kingdom of Nepal and the 5-day route we are going to take actually weaves its way in and out of the two countries. The Singalila National Park is especially famous for its rhododendrons and magnolia trees that flower in spring, and, as it falls in the Indomalaya ecozone, three biomes are present: the Eastern Himalayan subalpine conifer forests of the Temperate coniferous forests (3,000 to 4,000 m); the Eastern Himalayan broadleaf forests of the Temperate broadleaf and mixed forests (3,000 m to 4,500 m) and the Himalayan subtropical pine forests of the Subtropical coniferous forest (1,800 to 3,000 m). The park’s fauna includes the Red Panda, Leopard Cat, Barking Deer, Yellow-throated Marten, Wild Boar, Pangolin and the Pika. Larger mammals include the Himalayan Black Bear, Leopard, Clouded Leopard, Serow and Takin, and there are over 120 species of birds including many rare and exotic species. It’s unlikely that we will see any of these creatures, especially the Red Panda, of which there are only around two dozen in the park, but a visit to Darjeeling Zoo the day before ensured that we had seen a good many of the above species.

As we pass beyond the outskirts of town, the paved road begins to climb steeply through conifer trees and bamboo groves. Almost instantly, I begin to sweat heavily. Before long I stop to remove my glasses; it’s impossible to see through them as the rain is so intense they are covered with water drops and have misted over with perspiration. We trudge on along the steepening road up numerous hair pin bends stopping occasionally for a jeep to pass by. Within 15 minutes I am literally drenched in sweat and the GoreTex jacket feels useless. I’m as wet inside as out! I can’t say I am enjoying this experience at all and negative thoughts begin to crowd my mind: ‘what if the whole five days are like this and there will be nothing to see? It will be an utterly miserable experience! If the weather continues like this, should we simply throw in the towel and return to Darjeeling?’ One look at Martin and I can sense he is thinking the same as me!

We have been walking for over an hour and I am relieved when DG tells us that we will soon be stopping at a tea house in a place called Chitre just inside Nepal. This is music to my ears, as the pace set for the ascent so far has been quite fast and the gradient is among the steepest along the whole 5-day route. The trees begin to thin out giving way gradually to a large grassy expanse with signs of cultivation. As we ascend higher, I spot the white and gold of a Buddhist stupa rising above a collection of corrugated iron and thatched roofed wooden houses, above which limp prayer flags struggle to flutter in the downpour.

We enter a dimly lit building past a kitchen lined with shelves of huge pots and pans and rows of neatly displayed china plates and tea cups. A woman is standing over a gas stove stirring a large pot of dahl while a man wearing a Nepali hat and golden wellies watches her motionless from a nearby couch. DG helps me peel off my soaked jacket and we pass into a room with bare floorboards and lilac painted walls containing several tables and chairs. A row of windows flood the room with light and give panoramic views of the mountainside and stupa below, just visible through the cloud. A flat screen TV loudly broadcasting the news takes pride of place. We make ourselves comfortable at one of the tables by a window. An old man with a white beard in a check trilby hat is seated on a couch nearby eating a meal of rice and dahl watched by a young girl, and in the corner opposite us a young man is sipping a cup of tea watching the news intently.

It seems a Chinese delegation is in India in connection with a high speed train project. The young man lifts his head with a snort of derision and he and the old man strike up a conversation. Judging from the young man’s body language and the tone of his voice, it is obvious he does not think much of the scheme. The old man glances at the screen occasionally through bleary eyes, but he seems more interested in his plate of rice and dahl. I am discussing the possible content of the news bulletin with Martin, when the young man tells us in surprisingly good English that the Chinese had been in Mumbai to press the Indian government to agree to let them build a bullet train line to Ahmedabad. He believes they are trying to undercut a similar project which Prime Minister Modi had recently discussed with the Japanese. It turns out that he is a Sherpa, as are many of the people who live in this part of north eastern India, and his dislike of the Chinese is evident. ‘The Chinese are our enemy,’ he says, eyes narrowing, ‘you cannot trust them’. With this he rises, bows, and wishes us a good trek, nodding to the old man who mumbles something in reply as he leaves the room.

I drain the remains of my teacup, reluctant to return to the incessant rain. Putting on my sodden jacket is a thoroughly unpleasant experience and I wonder whether a plastic poncho and an umbrella like DG has would not have been a more sensible option. It feels like I have entered a power shower as I leave the tea house. The gradient is less steep now and we leave the road every so often, taking short cuts along smaller, unpaved tracks running over the spine of a hill above steep wooded valleys. DG alerts us to the presence of leeches, one of which has attached itself to his trouser leg. Undoubtedly the scenery would be breathtaking if only we could see it, but the rain continues to fall steadily from a light grey sky. Around an hour later and back on the main road, I spot a black and white distance marker. These will become constant companions over the next few days. It notes that Lamey Dhura is one kilometre away and, as we are making good time, DG asks if we would like to stop there for another cup of tea. A suggestion that is quickly accepted!

As we approach Lamey Dhura, a hamlet of just five Sherpa families, the rain begins to ease a bit and gaps in the cloud appear revealing more of the surrounding deeply wooded valleys and mountains. The wet road cobbles leading down to a cluster of desultory shacks gleam in the glassy light. Chickens scatter as we approach the rather grandly named Lamey Dhura Sherpa Tea Stall past a wattle cowshed with its forlorn-looking occupant tied up near the doorway. It was too wet to sit outside, so we were ushered into what can only be described as a hovel. Never before have I witnessed such abject poverty. On an earthen floor huddled together on low stools round a crudely fashioned clay fireplace built up against a wall are three dishevelled adults barely visible in the clouds of blue wood smoke rising up into the wattle roof. They warmly welcome us, a grubby curtain is pulled aside and we’re shown into a room with two couches covered in a vividly patterned fabric down either side, on top of which folded blankets and items of clothing lie scattered about. A table with a soiled lace cloth, a couple of grimy plastic chairs and a rickety wooden cupboard containing plastic dishes complete the furniture.

The wattle walls are lined with plastic sheeting and newspaper. One wall sports a garish poster of two infants, while a further curtain hides the entrance to a room beyond. The shack is neither wind tight or water tight, and an enamel bowl on one of the couches is steady collecting drops of rain water seeping in through a broken skylight in the roof. Deep pits on the earthen floor betray the presence of other leaks. I remove my jacket and sit down at the table in front of a large tray of red and green chilli peppers which are being dried. My sodden woollen base layer begins to steam and I feel chilly and uncomfortable in this miserable room. Thankfully cups of steaming hot black tea and a plate of biscuits soon arrive which raise my sprit. The man who brought the tea disappears into the room beyond and I catch a glimpse of a woman and a child huddled together in bed, probably to escape the damp and cold. Life in this remote community must be one of continual hardship in the face of such grinding poverty. There isn’t any comfort in this shack which is little better than that occupied by the family cow and it disturbs me to see people living in such wretched conditions in the 21st century. I’m not at all sorry when DG signals it’s time to leave, even though that means a return to the rain.

I am however, delighted to discover that the monsoon deluge has now virtually stopped as we step outside to begin the 2.5 km leg to Meghma, the last village before Tumling where we will stop for the night. I begin to enjoy the walk as the cloud drifts languidly up through the densely forested valleys of chimal and magnolia trees, I notice lots of colourful flowers along the roadside and patches of pale blue sky begin to peek though the clouds. Meghma, from the Nepali word for ‘cloud’ isn’t living up to its name at all, and we can clearly see the stupa of a monastery and a cluster of buildings, many two storied, below which is an Indian army camp. As the village lies right on the border between India and Nepal, we must stop to have our passports inspected and our details recorded at the Indian border check post.

After signing the register, we pause to admire the Sangchen Ugagyur Hoshal Dechen Choling Buddhist monastery before passing through the small Nepalese village. The people who live in the cluster of brightly painted houses, some built of stone and wood with impressive window boxes of bright orange begonias, are Sherpa. Children smile and wave at us as we walk by. The village has a friendly, welcoming feel to it. This is a farming community and we pass by numerous wattle pigsties and cowsheds, noisy hen houses, and meet people driving their cattle. A man with a large wicker basket is washing root vegetables at a spring. A simple ‘Namaste’ draws an instant smile and reciprocal greeting from everyone we meet.

We take the drivable 4X4 road to Tumling passing by a wall on the top of a hill covered in brightly coloured Buddhist motifs before coming to a number of small whitewashed buildings sited on a stream and surrounded by prayer flags. We stop to inspect the one nearest the road to discover a small horizontal waterwheel driving a prayer wheel in the room above. A plaque on the exterior of the building stating that it was dedicated to the ‘welfare and prosperity of all sentient beings’ and expressing the hope that ‘peace and harmony would prevail on the universe forever’, catches my eye. I am touched by the beliefs of these gentle Sherpa people.

The road rises steeply as we approach Tumling, another Nepalese settlement at an altitude of 2,970m. We arrive here well before dark after a journey time of about 5 hours including stops. We are staying at the Shikar Lodge, a chalet type building of stone and wood with a corrugated red iron roof sporting window boxes brim full of bright begonias. Across a small courtyard are several rooms for trekkers, all named after local flowers, and we are very pleased with Aster, the one allocated to us. Wood panelled and carpeted for warmth, it is clean and contains two large beds, a table and an en suite bathroom. Hot water is instantly arranged for us and I feel much better after I have washed, changed into a dry base layer and Martin opens a large bottle of beer. As it’s early in the trekking season, the lodge isn’t yet well provisioned and, as this is the only bottle of beer left, we cherish every sip!

DG tells us that dinner will be delayed slightly, as the cook, who is also a school teacher, is preparing a local chicken for us, so we have time to leisurely finish our beer and have a snooze. It’s pitch black when he knocks on our door to announce that our meal is ready. This is taken in the dining room of the main building opposite. We are shown into a large room with bare wooden floorboards where a window table has been set for us. The wooden walls are painted green and adorned with numerous framed photographs of the mountain views, flora and fauna, as well as certificates, flags and other mementoes from mountaineering and trekking clubs from India, Nepal and well beyond.

Beside us is a stone built fireplace. Unfortunately, no fire has been lit and it feels decidedly chilly. As there is no restriction on burning wood on the Nepali side of the border, and given the nature of the weather that day, it would have been nice to have had a small fire so we could warm up and dry some of our wet clothing. DG on the other hand, is warming himself in the kitchen next to the cooking fire, a pattern we will see repeated over the next few days. The food is simple, delicious and plentiful, consisting of vegetable soup, local condiments, jeera aloo, plain rice, dahl, chapattis and the chicken in a spicy sauce. However, I will never understand how every cook in this part of the world manages to absolutely massacre cooking a chicken which universally seems to have little or no meat on it! I get the scrawny neck, a rubbery bit of the wing and some offal from this one! A desert of apple and custard follows.

Stomachs full, we retire to bed as DG is planning to wake us around dawn if the mountains make an appearance. Adventures Unlimited supplied me with a new three season North Face sleeping bag (synthetic), but Martin, weighed down with a tripod and lots of camera equipment, chose not to take the one offered him, preferring to take a chance with the blankets that were provided at each hut. Our room at Tumling proves to be fairly warm and blankets plentiful and we both enjoy a cosy and sound night’s sleep.

Day Two: The Slog to Sandakphu

It is well after dawn when DG knocks on our door to tell us that the cloud had finally lifted and the mountains were now visible. We quickly dress and walk the short distance uphill through the village to a grassy viewpoint by a rusty old signpost with a barely legible ‘Welcome to Singalila National Park’ inscribed on it. I stare into the distance directly ahead of me where veils of white cloud are draped like silken scarves across the blue-green outline of what seem like hundreds of interlocking mountain ridges. I can’t initially see any snow covered peaks, but then, to my utter amazement, I realise that I’m not looking high enough and it is only when I raise my eyes that I see the magnificent sight of Kanchenjunga soaring well above the white veils of cloud, its five snowy peaks glinting in the sunlight against a powder blue sky. At 8,586 m, this is the third highest mountain in the world, and unsurprisingly, was once thought to be the highest; in the Tibetan language it translates as ‘the five treasures of the high snow’. We are about 60 km away, but this mountain is absolutely huge and it takes me a while to get my head around how enormous an 8,000m plus mountain actually is.

DG points out our final destination of the day, the summit of Sandakphu, the highest point in the Indian state of West Bengal, where a cluster of buildings can be clearly seen. It looks a long way off and will involve a steep descent and ascent through an intervening valley, a distance of about 21 km. Far below the summit on a ridge is another settlement named Kalipokhri where we will stop for lunch before the final steep pull up a zig-zag road to Sandakphu.

Having taken our fill of our first sight of the mighty Himalaya, we return to the lodge for breakfast. Porridge, more jeera aloo and a delicious local bread are placed in front of us which we consume with gusto washed down by black tea. I never fail to smile when I hear people from this part of the world seamlessly slip a large number of English words into their languages – the ubiquitous ‘black tea’ is one such phrase! We set off at 7.30 am heading towards the village of Jhaubari about 4 km from Tumling, passing through an elaborate iron gateway and a check post into the park en route. The weather is quite benign, warm but not particularly humid. The route meanders up and down along the top of a ridge offering fine views over Nepal, the landscape dotted with numerous small farms of wattle houses, cattle sheds and pigsties surrounded by rectangles of verdant crops. However, I notice how deforested this side of the Singalila ridge is compared to India where the forests are protected. In Nepal much of tree cover has vanished – felled mainly for firewood.

Within an hour we spot the village of Jhaubari spread out in a ragged line across a hill top in the distance. On the approach to the village we pass by a whitewashed Buddhist shrine and a number of abandoned and decaying buildings before entering the muddy main street lined with prayer flags and flapping laundry. Brightly painted private houses sporting satellite dishes, mere shacks and scruffy shops parade cheek by jowl, side by side: the long and the short, the wide and the narrow. Rusting tin shacks and thatched hovels of wattle and daub elbow single storied tin roofed buildings and double storied trekkers’ lodges with stone façades, as heterogeneous a jumble of decay and pretence as could be imagined. An elderly woman, hair scrapped back in a bun and brandishing a walking stick, is coming down the muddy cobbled road driving a flock of goats. She expertly turns them down the road towards Gairibas. We follow her.

Parts of the road down to Gairibas are very steep and its cobbled surface is in a parlous condition in places, washed out by the monsoon rains. I wonder that any vehicle can get up to Jhaubari. However, the work horses of the Singalila ridge can: the mighty Land Rover, much loved and cherished by the local Sherpa. I don’t think anywhere else in the world has such a concentration of these vehicles, many of which, green paint chipped to the metal, are older than me! I watch intrigued as a first series groans up the wretched road in front of me, belching blue fumes as it lurches this way and that, making steady upward progress. Without the Land Rover, many of these remote mountain communities would find it hard to get provisioned and would be totally reliant on mules. In fact, it is possible to take a Land Rover ride all the way to the summit of Sandakphu, a trip offered by many of the Darjeeling tour companies. But that would be cheating!!

The road is fairly busy not just with jeeps, but also people on foot. A man carrying a large wicker basket slung over his shoulder rushes by us going downhill and another in gold wellies brandishing a long whip passes us slowly making his way uphill with a grey mule, the bell round its neck clanging loudly. According to DG, the panniers slung over the mule’s back contain buttermilk and the man is en route to Manebhanjan to sell it. In fact, the production of buttermilk is big business in these parts and the cattle that produce it may be seen grazing on the lush grass all over the mountains. They look very different from the cattle we have at home, much larger with curved horns and bushier tails; many are actually yak hybrids.  

The air temperature begins to rise as we proceed to the valley bottom and by the time we enter Gairibas I am sweating profusely. We make our way past several malodorous wattle buildings housing livestock to the army check point opposite the grandly named Magnolia Lodge. A young man in uniform takes my passport which he examines intently, leafing through each page inspecting the various stamps within. He is looking for my Indian visa and once located, slowly and methodically copies all the relevant information into a huge ledger. I’m glad of the break, a chance to remove my pack and take the weight off my feet before we begin the slow climb up the road leading out of the valley towards Kalipokhri, which is about 6 km away. It’s now mid-morning and the humidity is high. The constant chirping of cicadas is almost deafening as we pass through thick bamboo groves and the densely wooded lower section of the road. This is undoubtedly much steeper than yesterday’s road up from Manebhanjan and I can feel the sweat running down my cheeks and dripping off my chin. The cloud now suddenly descends swallowing the views, but brings almost instant relief as the temperature falls making climbing less onerous.

The road rises steadily through forests of oak and rhododendron before levelling off and then descending. We round a corner to find a team of men repairing a damaged section of it on the hill going down to the small settlement of Kaiyankata. It looks like very hard work: one man constantly fetching stone in a wicker basket; another breaking it down to a suitable size then setting these new cobbles into place and a third shovelling and packing gravel between the cobbles to make a level surface. At Kaiyankata we make a welcome stop at a Sherpa tea shop, a low wattle building with a rusty iron roof surrounded by fluttering prayer flags and well tended gardens. 

The fragrant smell of wood smoke fills the air and following thin blue puffs of vapour being emitted from a nearby roof, I enter the kitchen, a lean too constructed against the main building. I am instantly seated on a small stool in front of a long, rustic clay oven built up against the wall. The wood burning in the central semicircular fireplace emits a welcoming red glow. On top of it two pots are gently steaming away. Nearby is another fireplace which is not in use and there are two sets of three small circular clay domes where pots removed from the fire are placed to cool down. It’s an ingenious, low tech method of cooking and I would have loved the chance to try my hand at cooking on it.

As the water is being heated up for black tea, Martin and I are conducted into a small room with a wooden floor, table and two couches. A simple wooden shelf running the length of a wall houses a collection of bowls, plates and mugs. A dusty and faded paper flower display in a vase on the table attempts to add a splash of colour. I take off my boots and socks and sit crossed legged on the couch soaking up the atmosphere. A cream coloured dog with a matted coat strolls in the door, sniffs the couch nearest it and duly urinates over the leg and fabric covering before we shoo it out loudly. My stomach churns! The hygiene in these tea shops leaves much to be desired!

After being refreshed with black tea and sweet coconut biscuits, we press on towards Kalipokhri where we will stop for lunch. The road is cut into the hillside above deeply incised valleys densely forested with oak, magnoila and rhododendron and we cross several crystal clear mountain streams tumbling down noisily from on high. The road here appears to be less well used, more overgrown with weeds and vegetation and we encounter many colourful flowers. Dense clusters of small white flowers with yellow centres are particularly fragrant, but DG, our trained nature guide, has no idea what they are! We spy some raspberry canes and stop to pick handfuls of the small, sweet juicy berries.

After just over an hour we spot the stupa of a small shrine on a knoll above a lily covered pool of brackish water, across which are strung lines of coloured prayer flags. Light raindrops trace concentric circles across the mirror flat surface of the pool, blurring the reflection of the flags above. We have reached Kalipokhri, named for this pool which means ‘black water area’. We soon encounter a collection of algae stained cement and galvanised iron buildings, a few of which appear to be trekkers’ lodges, flaunting their misery across a muddy road foetid with animal ordure. A few straggly chickens foraging in the grass at the base of the buildings and the cloud billowing across the road lends the place a melancholy dreariness.

We step from the road into a room with an earthen floor containing a large table and numerous plastic chairs, ingrained with grime, as seems to be customary in these villages. Adjoining this room is the kitchen, the clay oven glowing brightly, firewood neatly stacked on a rack above it, below which corn cobs are strung up to dry. DG takes up his usual spot right near the fireplace. We, however, are consigned to shiver in the damp of the other room, the battered main door to which is swinging wide open allowing the mist to blow in. The woman of the house is going to cook soya bean and cabbage momo for our lunch. Meat seems to be at a premium in these villages. Hot black tea soon makes its way to us and we are grateful for the warmth as we have now climbed to over 3,000 metres and it feels decidedly chilly up here.

The momo arrive steaming hot, and a brand new bottle of green chilli sauce is presented by the man of the house to go with the spicy tomato sauce the woman has put in a dish. It’s so cold, the sauce won’t leave the bottle easily and much merriment is generated by all of us attempting to coax it out! The effort is well worth it, as the sauce is delicious, as are the momo, and the cook is delighted when we clear our plates, making seconds readily available.

We have another six kilometres to go before we reach Sandakphu and the weather looks like it is going to take a turn for the worse as we set off passing an old man from the village of Gorkhey en route to Jhaubari with several brooms he has made slung across his back. We pause briefly at Bhagsa, a settlement of a few houses and a shop, where I spot DG buying some tablets, before descending to Bikheybhanjang past numerous sacred streams bedecked with coloured prayer flags and rock outcrops inscribed with Buddhist symbols. The going now begins to get tough as we commence the final ascent to the summit of Sandakphu. A flight of steep steps lead up towards a white stupa bearing a pair of Buddha’s eyes, wisely staring out over the valley below. We pause here for a short break, as the altitude is now beginning to take its toll on all of us. I spy DG, leaning heavily on his umbrella, slyly popping a couple of pills into his mouth.

The road now deteriorates into a deeply rutted track strewn with loose stone and boulders and the gradient is punishing. My lungs feel fit to burst as we make our way slowly up the zigzag road, gasping for breath the higher we climb. To add insult to injury, the heavens open just a few kilometres from the summit and we are forced to don full rain gear which makes the climb even more uncomfortable. It is with some relief that I see a milestone emerge through the gloom indicating that Sandakphu is 0 km away, but I am crest fallen to discover from DG that we still have to traverse over 300 metres to reach the hut we’re staying at. Dejected, I sit down heavily on the wall of the penultimate hair pin bend as the rain literally pours down round me. Martin takes pity on me and produces some energy sweets. Having devoured these, we make the final assault on the road, arriving soaked through at the Sunrise Lodge some nine and a half hours after leaving Tumling.

We are shown down a dimly lit long, wet concrete corridor past a couple of squat toilets to a cramped three bed dorm with a table and too few hooks to hang up our wet clothing. Our room looks out over the mountains, but at the moment the window is streaming in condensation and nothing of the scenery can be seen through the rain. We change into dry clothing, order two beers and after we have consumed these, take a snooze before dinner.

This is served in an adjoining building, where DJ is already ensconced by the kitchen fire. We are seated in an adjoining dining room at a table with a sticky plastic table cloth. It feels so cold and damp in here that even a scrawny looking cat with no name is trying to worm its way onto my lap. Seeing that it is riddled with fleas, I push the poor thing away. Dinner is served but is hardly worth getting excited about. DG had warned us about the meagreness of the food on offer here and had brought along some popcorn and a packet of vegetable soup to augment the plain boiled rice, masoor dahl and a small helping of cumin flavoured potatoes which are served with rubbery chapattis. We eat in silence casting our eyes towards a nearby wall which is inexplicably decorated with cuttings from international cookery magazines. It’s absolute purgatory to partake of this very bland meal while reading about, and seeing pictures of, Nigella Lawson’s über-delicious culinary sensations! At least the Sikkim beer ‘Hits’ the right spot!!

We don’t hang round long, preferring to return to our room where we can climb into bed to keep warm. However, on leaving the building, Martin notices that the sky has completely cleared and the Milky Way casts a glorious arch high over our heads. There is little light pollution here and, as our eyes become accustomed to the dark, we see that the sky is literally peppered with an infinite number of various sized stars. He sets the camera up to take some time lapse sequences before, chilled to the bone, we retire for the night.

Day three: The Sleeping Buddha

After a fitful night’s sleep due to several dogs’ sporadic and annoying barking, we are awoken by DG knocking on the door informing us that the mountains are clearly visible. Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I pull the curtains aside and wipe the window free of condensation. The night sky is brightening rapidly with the onset of dawn and deciding not to rush to dress like Martin, I remain in bed and watch as the rising sun turns the five snowy peaks of the Kanchenjunga range marshmallow pink, then soft apricot, before eventually brightening to creamy white.

When I finally arrive at the viewing point on a small wooded hill a five minute walk away from the hut, Martin points out that from here Kanchenjunga and its surrounding peaks look like the body of a giant sleeping Buddha. The mountain is considered a holy deity in the State of Sikkim and climbers are not permitted to surmount its summit. We stand in reverent awe for nearly half an hour watching the cloud playing about the valleys and endless interlocking grey-green ridges below this giant mountain, before strolling back to the hut for breakfast, stopping en route to admire the incredible view of the road we had climbed yesterday switch-backing its way up the spine of the ridge all the way from Bikheybhanjang.

Sunlight is streaming in through the windows of the dining room making it a far more welcoming place to sit and eat than the night before. A pot of black tea arrives and we sip this while waiting for our breakfast. The man of the house enters the room with a flourish, brandishing a small brass plate containing charcoal and incense which he waves about in front of a small shrine, before wandering round the room allowing the fragrance to permeate the four corners. He then sits down opposite us and proceeds to add up some bills with the aid of a calculator, mumbling loudly as he enters the amounts meticulously into a well-thumbed grubby ledger. Breakfast is no better than dinner, and I am disheartened to lift the lid of a plastic container to discover a large doughy pancake wrapped in old newspaper. I turn down the watery porridge, fearful that the milk might upset my stomach, and smear something resembling raspberry jam onto the pancake. Every mouthful lodges in my throat and I eye the nearby pictures of Nigella’s recipes longingly!

The route to Phalut, 21 km in total, traverses the top of the Singalilia Ridge; there is no proper water supply and only one small tea shop en route. As it’s so early in the trekking season, DG is unsure whether or not this will be open. Water is the least of my concerns: the lack of food, and therefore calories, is far more worrying. DG had been hoping to take some boiled eggs with us to eat en route, but we are informed there are none to be had in Sandakphu. I find this hard to believe as there are chickens running about everywhere! This private lodge seems to be particularly badly run, with inadequate provisioning and very poor food for which there is no excuse, as Land Rovers arrive here daily.

The sun is hot on our shoulders as we leave the cluster of buildings round the summit. The air is perfectly still and the atmosphere clear, revealing a long line of mountains, the sleeping Buddha being particularly prominent. Sandakphu means ‘height of the poison plants’ and we pass a tall clump of attractive deep purple flowers which have lent their name to this place, a species of Monkshood with the botanical name of Aconitum ferox, colloquially known as Indian Aconite, considered to be the most deadly plant in the world. I seem to recall a murder that took place in London several years ago involving a woman who poisoned her husband by lacing a curry with aconite, earning her the moniker 'The Curry Killer'. A deadly plant indeed, but absolutely beautiful to look at!

Martin suddenly stops and stares into the blue yonder, before pointing to a distant mountain peak. ‘That’s Everest’ he says quietly. An unexpected wave of emotion washes over me as humbled, I behold the world’s highest peak sandwiched between Lhotse and Makalu. Martin is excited - although about 160 km away, through his binoculars he can clearly see the South Col and the Hillary Step below the summit. I am delighted for him as I know how much he has always wanted to see this mighty mountain. Here the view is grand indeed, unimpeded by trees or buildings, and we feast our eyes on an unforgettable 180 degree view of the Eastern Himalaya with ranges belonging to Nepal on the west, Sikkim and Bhutan in the middle and Arunachal Pradesh in the east, spotting four of the five highest mountains on Earth.

Our cameras snap away for several minutes before we continue along the undulating road through a delightful sylvan landscape of silver fir, oak, rhododendron and magnolia which look magnificent bathed in autumn sunshine under an impossibly blue sky. DG points out an unusual looking bird foraging for insects in some grass by the side of the road, confidently informing us that it’s a type of magpie. Having lived in the Middle East, I instantly recognise it as a hoopoe, an exotic looking bird with cinnamon pink plumage, black and white wings and tail, curved beak and a striking rust and black stripped crest…

After around 4 km the landscape begins to change; the trees thin out, eventually giving way to rolling grassland dotted with the silvered and skeletal remains of numerous dead silver fir and patches of flowers, including cerise pink Geraniums. According to DG, the trees were destroyed in deadly storms that periodically afflict this region, but I rather think they have been subjected to a fire. We leave the track, passing by a herd of goats and a series of pools so blue they look as if they have swallowed the entire sky, their mirror still surfaces perfectly reflecting the stunted remains of the dead conifers. The scene is hauntingly beautiful, but there is no time to stop and soak up the atmosphere as Phalut is still over 13 km away.

We have to stop at another army checkpoint and knowing that it will take some time to process and record our passport and visa information, I am grateful for the opportunity to drop my heavy backpack as the humidity and altitude is already making me feel tired. From reading official descriptions of the route, I was given to believe that Sandakphu to Phalut was a leisurely stroll along the Singalila Ridge, but now DG informs us that this is not the case at all. We must descend about 400m, only to ascend over another 350m more to reach the hut at Phalut. To say I feel cheated is an understatement. It would have been nice to have had more accurate information about the trek before we started.

To add insult to injury, we realise that we have lost, or failed to pack, our sunscreen and Martin’s head and forearms are getting burnt. We manage to protect the top of his head with a buff and begin the steep descent down a metalled road with numerous hairpin bends towards a broad valley bottom where we take a well earned rest on a fallen silver fir. I remove my boots and socks to let the air get at my feet which, white and wrinkled, resemble two steamed puddings! The lack of calories is beginning to take its toll and I am relieved to find a high energy chewy bar lurking in the depths of my rucksack. As we begin the lung bursting climb up towards Phalut through forests of conifers, chestnuts, rhododendron and magnolia, the cloud descends like a silent shroud, and we welcome the instant cooling effect this brings. Saffron coloured fungi dot the ground beneath some of the trees and the sight of massive silver firs, some partially stunted, standing sentinel like a silent army in the churning mist, is slightly unnerving.

The trees eventually begin to thin out, the terrain becomes grassier and we spot lots of flowers, including the beautiful deep blue Himalayan gentian and mauve coloured Aster. About 7 km from Phalut, we arrive at Sabarkum, a collection of rectangular and circular galvanised huts half hidden in thigh high yellow grass, with a line of prayer flags strung across the track way leading to it. All looks deadly quiet and I begin to despair of it being open for lunch, when a head appears in one of the doorways. DG runs ahead to speak to this man.

Luckily for us, the tea shop is ready for business and hot noodle soup, steamed potatoes and black tea are on offer! DG has also brought along some cheese and apples and we greedily tuck into this meagre fare, glad to replenish our weary bodies with much needed calories. After buying some bottled water, we continue on our way down a steep and rutted road, one of the arterial routes from Nepal to India through this mountain range. We pass several Asian trekkers brandishing umbrellas and little else, who had come from Gorkey and were en route to a place called Molley, about 2 km from Sabarkum.

The route now undulates along a ridge above densely forested valleys, the tops of the trees poking up through the mist which billows across the road in front of us. Fine drops of rain begin to fall, but we decide not to stop and don our rain gear which is still quite wet from the previous monsoon downpours. It’s a good call, as the mist soon begins to lift, blue sky replaces the gloom and sunshine floods a quite stunning landscape of verdant rolling hills grazed by yak hybrids. Their clanging bells break the erstwhile silence. Phalut is derived from the Lepcha word Fak-Luk, which means ‘Barren Peak’, and this landscape is a real contrast to the dense forests that are so common at the lower levels. However, I wouldn’t describe it as barren, as it looks chocolate box pretty at this time of the year.


The final 2 km of the day involves another steep climb up towards the hut we’re staying at, but this is leavened somewhat by the majestic scenery and the sight of several herders donning whips and whistling loudly as they drive their herds of yak hybrids through the lush green pasturelands. Close to the top, I pause for breath. The sight of the hills and ridge we had just traversed bathed in the warm tones of late afternoon sunshine rising above columns of luminescent cloud slowly churning in the valleys below, is utterly magnificent.

We finally reach the hut run by the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) at Phalut, a large stone building with a rusty roof of galvanised sheeting, passing a man with a grey mule who shows us to the entrance. I can scarcely believe my eyes when we enter a dusty rubbish strewn wooden corridor and DG conducts us to our room. The place is absolutely filthy, the painted wood panelled walls ingrained with years of grime. Empty alcohol bottles lie abandoned outside our door and the window sills are thick with dust, blackened candle wax and covered with dark rings left by wet tea cups. The faded curtains, shabby and soiled, hang forlornly from makeshift curtain poles above windows so dirty with mould you can barely see through them. I dump my pack and sit down on one of the beds in our dorm, which promptly collapses, concertinaing me between slats of wood and musty blankets! If we didn’t laugh, we’d surely cry, for this place is grim beyond belief, the worse mountain hut we have stayed at anywhere in the world. To add insult to injury, there’s no beer available here, so it’s yet another cup of black tea!

As it gets dark, DG brings us a candle stuck in a beer bottle as there is no electricity anywhere in the building except the kitchen. It’s really cold up here and thankfully we are invited into the kitchen which is warm, lit by a bare and very dim light bulb. A young man and woman, faces illuminated by the light of the fire, are sitting on their haunches next to a clay oven preparing a meal of curry and plain boiled rice. DG instantly takes up residence on a stool right next to the fire, while we are seated on the opposite side of the room at a small table on a couple of rickety old chairs, fabric once covering the horsehair stuffing long gone.

A dish of popcorn arrives with more black tea, followed by a bowl of tasteless vegetable soup, but hungry, I wolf it all down. The kitchen is a wretched affair with a concrete area containing a tap, plastic bowl and a drain in a corner below a window where the woman is now busy washing utensils which she dries and replaces on a long shelf running along the length of one wall. Suspended above the clay oven is a rack full of chopped firewood atop which our water proofs have been spread out to dry. This turns out to be quite a mistake, as they smelt like smoked kippers afterwards!! The rather bland vegetable curry, seemingly comprised of anything that was available - potatoes, cabbage and what appear to be cauliflower florets - arrives with a heap of plain boiled rice, a chappati and a small bowl of watery dahl which tastes of salt and little else. Despite my hunger, I struggle to muster much enthusiasm for this meal.

The man and woman are husband and wife, and have travelled up from Gorkey in the last few days to reopen this hut for the trekking season. They will remain as caretakers here for the next three months. A middle aged man who is sitting quietly smoking a cigarette in another corner of the room is their friend. The hut is provisioned only by mules, hence the lack of everything including beer up here, yet I was surprised to hear the woman chatting on a land line telephone. It seems inexplicable that despite the numerous checkpoints and constant bureaucracy, three days into this trek no one had the nous to call ahead to inform this GTA-operated hut that three people would be arriving there and to ensure there were adequate provisions. DG informs me that on numerous occasions during his 18 years as a guide he has arrived here to find all the beds taken and has had to sleep outside in the open, even in the brutal cold of winter. The capacity of each dorm could be immediately doubled if the GTA had the sense to install bunk beds, yet complaints about the facilities and state of the hut continually fall on deaf ears. It’s a shameful and unnecessary situation which reflects very badly on the local authority. After a visit to the squat toilet, which at least does not smell too much, we retire to bed. I’m glad of my sleeping bag, as the blankets feel damp and smell musty. Martin says that the sky is crystal clear and full of stars, and we fall asleep hopeful of another fine dawn.

Day Four: Himalayan High!

It’s almost dawn when DG knocks on the door to wake us up. We dress and follow him uphill for around half a kilometre to the summit of Phalut (3,600m). It’s a steep climb and I’m soon struggling for breath. I decide not to rush, preferring to soak up the predawn atmosphere. The sky is lightening by degrees on the eastern horizon turning the cloud nestled above some snowy peaks ahead of me pink and apricot. Rounding a corner, I am suddenly face to face with a solitary yak hybrid, its curved horns silhouetted against the sky. It becomes aware of my presence, turns, eyes me, snorts, then casts its gaze once more into the distance, seemingly standing in silent reverence to the majesty of the mountains which are being revealed in the predawn light. It’s such a magical, spiritual moment, a memory I shall take to the ghats.

The golden orb of the sun suddenly pierces the horizon, bathing every blade of grass in lurid light. Ahead of me prayer flags are fluttering around a stone structure marking the summit. The local people believe Phalut’s peak is an omniscient god and call it ‘Omna Re Ay’. I join Martin who is standing amid stems of bright yellow ragwort and the dew covered foliage of lilies which must have looked magnificent a few weeks ago. Our shadows are long and the giant outline of Phalut is reflected on the cloud in the valley behind us like a mystic pyramid.

We stand enthralled as the snowy peaks of the Himalaya reveal themselves, giving us an uninterrupted view some 320 km in length. In the far west I spot Chamlang (7,319m) rising up through veils of cloud like a square wall of snow, then Everest, the highest mountain on Earth (8,848m) flanked on the left by Lhotse (8,516m, the fourth highest peak) and to the right by Makalu (8,481m, the fifth highest peak). Scanning further east I see the distinctive peaks of the Three Sisters, then Kumbhakarna (otherwise known as Jannu), an outlier of Kanchenjunga which formed the head of the sleeping Buddha as seen from Sandakphu. With an elevation of 7,712m it means ‘the mountain with shoulders’ and from this perspective it’s easy to see why! A long ridge runs from it to Kanchenjunga, the main peak of which is the highest mountain in India. It’s about 48 km away from Phalut as the crow flies, but looks absolutely enormous, like a white wall suspended from the sky. We can clearly see a huge glacier on its southern flank, and its amazing to think that the melt water from this great body of ice eventually feeds into the Ganges River, the lifeblood of the Subcontinent sacred to millions of Indians.

Further east is the summit of Pandim (6,691m) and then the great Tibetan peaks of Narsing, Dongkya, Chola and Chomolhari straddling the border between Tibet and Bhutan. In front of this incredible backdrop are wave after wave of spiky mountain ridges in a hundred shades of blue-grey. This uninterrupted view from Nepal, through Sikkim, Tibet, Bhutan, to Arunachal Pradesh in the east is surely the finest view in the world of this incredible mountain range. Compensation indeed for the foul weather of the first day and, with the exception of the first night, the lack of decent food and accommodation! DG leaves us to savour this incredible scene. For over half an hour, we stand mesmerised by the raw beauty of the very roof of the world, watching the kaleidoscopic patterns created by cloud billowing about in the valleys, revealing then obscuring hundreds of razor sharp brown pinnacles and blue-green ridges, the nearest fringed with conifers. It feels like we have the whole world laid out before us. Behind us, a wild horse has appeared on the hill slope to graze, and we can see a cluster of buildings reflecting the early morning sunshine atop the summit of Sandakphu way off the distance.

We eventually make our way reluctantly downhill to the hut where cups of black tea are waiting for us. Breakfast is another dull affair, with yet more chappatis and something resembling jeera aloo along with more watery dahl. We request some hot water to have a wash, which is taken to the wash room, a grim and grimy concrete cubicle with a window and a tap. It would be absolute purgatory to wash here in cold water! I am not sorry when we finally leave this dump of a hut and hit the trail which will take us downhill the 15 km to Gorkey.   

The sun is hot on our backs as we traverse the treeless terrain giving excellent views into the lush wooded valleys below. Patches of pretty purple flowers with circular heads catch our attention, and we instantly recognise these as being of the onion family. DG begs to differ, and looks surprised when we break the stem of one and wave it under his nose. Very oniony indeed! After about 20 minutes we come to another army checkpoint. The plainclothes young man on the gate looks delighted to see us. We can imagine how mundane and monotonous life is up here and our arrival is probably the most exciting thing that will happen today! While our passports are being inspected, he asks would we like some black tea? Having warmed to him, we accept his offer and two plastic chairs are produced for us. He tells us that the men in this camp will serve here for a few months before being stationed elsewhere in the NE region of India.

The military presence is mainly due to potential problems with secessionist movements in Sikkim and Gorkhaland, and to prevent illegal cross border trade in the region. Sikkim, once an independent monarchy, became the 22nd Indian state in 1975; many who wish to see it regain its independence claim this took place under Indian coercion. The movement for a separate state of Gorkhaland gained serious momentum during the 1980s when violent protests were carried out by the Gorkha National Liberation Front (GNLF). Centred in Darjeeling, the agitation ultimately led to the establishment of a semiautonomous body in 1988 called the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) to govern certain areas of Darjeeling district. However, in 2007 a new party called the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) once again raised the demand for a separate state of Gorkhaland. In 2011, the GJM signed an agreement with the state and central governments for the formation of Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA), a semiautonomous body that replaced the DGHC in the Darjeeling hills (and which incidentally runs the Phalut Hut…). The demands for an independent Gorkhaland haven’t gone away, but since then an uneasy peace has largely prevailed.

The tea arrives after what seems an eternity but is well worth waiting for as it is flavoured with ginger and really delicious. The heat is steadily building as we continue down the track and we’re glad to be wearing long sleeve base layers as our forearms got burnt during the final ascent to Phalut yesterday. We are soon passing in and out of groves of chestnut, hemlock, rhododendron and magnolia which offer some shade, but the humidity is relentless. Along the path we spot many flowers in bloom including Geranium, Bistort, Senecio, several types of orchid and we stop to pick more sweet juicy raspberries. As we descend lower into the virgin forest, thick stands of bamboo begin to line the route. Some of the moss dappled trees are huge, bristling with parasitic ferns and the sound of insects is almost deafening. The track is well used by mules, a team of which driven by two young men pass us en route from Phalut to Gorkey. As a result, some sections are very eroded and, due to the recent monsoon rains, also extremely muddy.

Just over half way DG stops at a wooden bench for us to take a break, but there’s no shade and the heat and humidity is relentless, so we decide to press on after just a few minutes. The final part of the route gets progressively steeper and the humidity higher, making trekking quite uncomfortable. At least there are no mosquitoes about, but Martin begins to suffer from mild heat exhaustion. DG goes on ahead to our accommodation to tell them to prepare our lunch and I instruct him to make sure there are cold beers waiting for us! Through the trees we eventually spot some thatched wattle houses and below them the Rammam River which forms the border with Sikkim. The village of Gorkey lies in the bottom of the valley surrounded by lush pine forests. The path down to the village through the pines is relentlessly steep and exposed tree roots render it dangerous in places. We take our time, finally emerging through the trees into small plots full of paper dry maize plants. The heat is tremendous as we traverse the labyrinthine sets of steps linking each farmstead to the village and I am wondering where on earth our accommodation is, not wishing to spend any more time than necessary wandering round looking for it under the fierce midday sun, when DG belatedly appears to show us the way.

We are staying at the Eden Lodge, a misnamed establishment if ever there was one. We enter a galvanised roofed building with a kitchen on one side and a low partition dividing it from a small dining area with a wooden table almost devoid of varnish on the other. A sense of how close we are to Sikkim is indicated by the calendar on the wall bearing the image of a very distinguished looking moustached gentleman from the Sikkim Democratic Front. DG duly produces two large bottles of ice cold Hit beer brewed in Sikkim. What bliss after almost two days on the wagon in this heat!! A large bowl of chow mien is quickly set in front of us which is a welcome and very pleasant change from rice and dahl.

A loud crack of thunder suddenly rends the air and large drops of rain begin to hammer on the galvanised roof of the dining room. In seconds the pathway outside is awash with monsoon rain. I’m relieved that we’re not walking down over the steep muddy sections of the track from Phalut in this! The rain lowers the temperature making it far more comfortable and after consuming another bottle of beer each, we are shown to our room in a nearby building. The good news is that it’s en suite and carpeted, containing two single beds and a table. The bad news is, it doesn’t look as if it has been properly cleaned for months; the lurid blue paintwork is predictably ingrained with dirt and the hand basin is caked in the toothpaste and congealed soap of countless other trekkers. Worse still, the ill fitting windows have let in an enormous number of small fruit flies whose corpses litter the table, beds and floor.

Tired from the heat and humidity and woozy from the beer, we crash and burn. We are awoken some hours later by the sound of a generator; almost immediately the fumes from it enter our room nearly choking us. We find DG and ask to be moved to another room where we’re not going to risk being gassed in our sleep! It’s pitch black when we walk up to the dining room for dinner. The rain has stopped and the air is permeated with the sweet musty smell of damp earth mingled with the fragrance of a joss stick stuck in a ceramic pot suspended from the eaves above the dining room door. Black tea in ornately decorated Chinese looking cups with little lids is served (great for keeping the omnipresent flies out!), followed by a very tasty aloo curry and rice with chapattis. Suitably full, we retire to our room just as the generator stops. A candle has been provided which, when lit, only serves to attract every bloody fly in the valley! Caught by the flame, the table is soon black with their corpses. Unable to bear the carnage any longer, we blow it out and are soon fast asleep.

Day Five: The End of the Road

The Eden Lodge is situated close to the junction of two rivers: the Rammam and a tributary named the Gorkey Khola. The riparian settling is particularly picturesque and serene. The sky is slightly overcast, it’s a little misty but not particularly humid, far better conditions for trekking than those of yesterday. A woman is busy in the kitchen rolling out small balls of dough which she pops into a pan of boiling oil. She is making an unleavened deep-fried Indian bread called puri. There is a small clay oven in one corner of the kitchen below a rack full of firewood, but I notice that she is cooking on a gas stove. The puri are served with jeera aloo, both of which are exceptionally good, naturally washed down with the ubiquitous black tea. I am particularly struck by the brass plates we are eating off and resolve to buy some to take home when we return to Darjeeling later that day.

We set off round 8.00 am, crossing a small bridge over the Gorkey Khola before climbing steadily up a series of steps through a stand of pine trees which brings us out into fields planted largely with maize. Very soon we arrive at Samandeen village, a settlement of well kept brightly painted wooden houses occupying a large meadow in the midst of a forest which has an alpine feel to it. Indeed, the houses at this lower altitude seem to be of a better quality than those we encountered higher up. The track skirts the village before entering dense forest interspersed with thick bamboo groves, where it begins to descend steeply to a rushing mountain stream which we cross by a concrete bridge. From here we face a steady uphill climb towards Rammam. Several heavily laden teams of mules pass us en route to Gorkey and a couple of girls neatly dressed in white uniforms hurry by on their way to school. The humidity begins once more to take its toll, we attract a few unwelcome leeches and I am relieved when we eventually reach Rammam village which is sited at an altitude of 2,438m.

Entering the school playground, we pause for a few minutes to admire the view over the State of Sikkim which lies opposite. The forested mountain slopes are interspersed with tiny farmsteads reached by zigzag roads surrounded by cascading terraces where farmers grow crops such as potatoes, millet and maize. Birdsong fills the air and thin wisps of cloud hug the tops of the mountains. On the playground wall there is a sign exhorting the children to dispose of their rubbish in the bins provided. This appears to have had little effect, for the trails have all been peppered with plastic sweet, biscuit and crisp wrappers. Trekkers are threatened with fines for dropping litter and plastic is supposedly banned, but the problem clearly lies with the local communities.

We stop at a Sherpa tea house at the other end of the village. DG goes to buy some coconut biscuits and I, seated in the shade, remove my boots and socks to rest my weary feet. Black tea is brought to us and we watch the villagers going about their business. A woman rushes by with a stick in her hand only to reappear minutes later loudly chastising a black dog which she is holding by the scruff of its neck. A young boy bent double under the weight of a wicker basket full of animal fodder flashes a smile at us, and a wizened old woman leading a cow slowly by a rope bows, hands clasped together, as I call out ‘Namaste’ to her. DG brings an enamel pot full of a dark cream coloured liquid with small flies swimming on its surface. It’s fresh unpasteurised milk which we politely turn down, not wanting a bad attack of Delhi belly. Before we leave I visit the toilet. Prime Minister Modi has recently made it clear that he wishes every household in India to have access to a toilet to consign to history the need for open defecation. With the possible exception of Lamey Dhura, all the communities that we have passed through seem to have had toilets, the majority of them simple squats, and those I have used have been fairly clean by Indian standards, especially the one here at Rammam.

After about half an hour, we press on towards Sepi Goan which is over 9 km away and involves a descent of over 700m. Here DG informs me a jeep will be coming to collect us to take us back to Darjeeling. The track weaves its way past numerous Sherpa farmsteads denoted by the coloured flags displayed outside. Many small streams cascade down from the highlands, some obviously sacred as they have attracted prayer flags, and rock outcrops are decorated with colourful Buddhist inscriptions. We pass an impressive long line of white flags bearing black Tibetan script, apparently in honour of the dead, and past umpteen clusters of houses almost subsumed by the rampant tangle of jungle vegetation. The simple yet hard life of the Sherpa villagers is played out in front of us: a man using a wash board to launder his clothes at a spring; another using a whetstone to sharpen a sickle; a teenage girl milking a cow; a young man felling a tree with an axe; a group of men and women rushing by in golden wellie boots burdened by loads almost as long as they are tall.

The track now descends very steeply towards the Srikhola River to a wooden suspension bridge built by the British in the dying days of the Raj. Mist begins to billow about the mountain tops and stealthily creep up the valley. Rain is in the air. We eventually come to the swaying bridge garlanded with coloured prayer flags enjoying the great beauty of the roaring, foaming river with chalet type buildings more reminiscent of the Alps than the Himalaya built above its banks. On the opposite side of the river is a driveable road and a couple of kilometres outside Sepi Goan our jeep is waiting. It is with a great degree of relief that I remove my pack and climb into the back seat. There is one more formality; we have to stop in the town of Rimbik at the final checkpoint to register that we have left the park. This completed, we begin the three hour drive back to Darjeeling. As with the drive on the way to Manebhanjan - in monsoon rains - so was our return trip to Darjeeling.

Drifting in and out of sleep, I ruminate on the events of the last five days. We have covered over 70 km with over 3,000m of ascent and descent, in trying conditions. The weather certainly took its toll, and on the first day in the monsoon downpour my spirits were so deflated I could cheerfully have turned tail and headed back to Darjeeling. The heat and the humidity, especially in the jungle, were sapping, and the lack of decent food and sufficient calories left us both feeling decidedly weak at times, which made climbing at altitude harder than it should have been. The accommodation in India left much to be desired, especially the wretched hut at Phalut which was substandard in every conceivable way. The only place we stayed at that was anywhere near adequate was the Shikar Lodge in Nepal on the first night. Moreover, parts of the route, such as the road to Sandakphu, was pretty monotonous and we feel that having a guide is unnecessary and we would have been able to find the route quite easily with a map ourselves. 

We both agree that this has not been our all time favourite trek, but its deficiencies pale into insignificance when we remember the friendly and simple people we have met along the way, whose hard lives we feel privileged to have shared, if only for a fleeting moment. And of course, the utterly spellbinding views of the mighty Himalaya Mountain chain and especially of Everest, at dawn. This was a life's dream which rendered us totally speechless. I will leave the final words to Indian-American astrophysicist, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, as they encapsulate our experience perfectly: 

… who amongst us can hope, even in imagination, to scale the Everest and reach its summit when the sky is blue and the air is still, and in the stillness of the air survey the entire Himalayan range in the dazzling white of the snow stretching to infinity? None of us can hope for a comparable vision of nature and of the universe around us. But there is nothing mean or lowly in standing in the valley below and awaiting the sun to rise over Kanchenjunga.

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