It all started when 22 of us weary souls suddenly planned to tour some of the beautiful locations at the Indo-Nepal border. Weary of trying to live up to our daily roles and responsibilities, we decided to unload our mental baggage and upload some good amount of physical baggage. Now, what happens when a group of confused individuals who are swiftly heading towards a too early mid-life crisis suddenly pack their bags and march toward the mountains without doing any research? From my first-hand experience, it turns into a murkha (foolish) sojourn.
We were to tour some of the picturesque locations starting from Maneybhanjyang, West Bengal and ending at Darap, West Sikkim.
We had zero trekking experience, except three of us. But they too were first-timers to this route. The only thing we had was courage and mind you, extreme courage comes out of utter foolishness. Among the 22, we had four categories of backpackers in our group-
One: The 3 regular trekkers- the wisest ones who carried no less, no more. Their motto- ‘Trek light. Trek wise’.
Two: The wannabe trekkers (includes me) whose bags were stuffed with extra warm clothes. Our motto- Jaaro le mornu bhanda bhari bokerai morum (Better die of the load rather than dying of cold).
Three: The gitangeys (singers) whose guitars looked like an unnecessary baggage, but were a necessity. Their motto- Kakrera mornu bhanda ghokro futayerai morum (Better die bursting the lungs rather than freezing to death).
Four: The tankers who carried nothing except excessively heavy luggage stocked with all kinds of liquor. Their motto – ‘Kill the chill before the chill kills you’.
On the wee hours of November 15th, 2019, we came out on the roads of Darap braving the pre-winter chill only to find out that the drivers of the vehicles supposed to pick us needed to be picked up by us, as they were dreaming cosily tucked under a heap of their fluffy quilts and blankets. After two hours of verbal wrestle with the drivers following which our brains heated up like the engine of an old car, we set off towards Maneybhanjyang— the gateway to the ‘Land of the Land Rovers’.
Maneybhanjyang is a brief yet busy town at the Indo-Nepal border in West Bengal. Though the sun was due to shine on the bazaar and the morning mist still danced around, the aroma of the freshly steamed momos oozing from the murky restaurants beside the road warmed our hearts and watered our mouths. Before we could relish on them, the Land Rovers arrived with the necessary passes made and we hopped into the four-wheeled rusty beauty.
Land Rover, I must tell you, is a gift to mankind. This one-of-a-kind ingenious invention introduced by the British tea planters in Darjeeling decades ago is an absolute sexy beast. She first roars like a lion then coughs a good amount of greyish smoke and takes off hoarsely humming all through the rough and rugged terrain, taking people closer to the mountains. Our first overnight stay of the tour would be at Sandakphu.
Sandakphu or Sandakpu or Sandakpur falls under the Illam district of Nepal and lies at 11,930 ft. Flanked by the mighty Himalayas from all corners, this windy hilltop is a tourist hub which is flooded almost all the year-round to witness one of the most beautiful sunrises and sunset moments.
You are highly mistaken if you are thinking it’s seclusion here. Away from the maddening crowd, you will find another world of the maddening crowd. With the increase in tourist flow, this place through the years has seen an increase in hotels. As for us, we stayed at a hotel whose name was a combination of a local surname and a fancy French word— the ‘Sherpa Chalet’.
With our alarms set for 5 o’clock to see the sunrise, we woke up on time. Like a mother who goes under hard labour and pushes out a new life, the impregnated sky turned into different shades of blue and yellow, pushing the orangy-red ball of flame, slowly birthing a new day. It took a complete 1 hour 15 minutes for the process. All of us who were complaining of the cold fell silent marvelling upon Mother Nature’s magic. But the silence soon proved to be like a calm before the storm, because as soon as the sun rose up, our voices too rose and all hell broke loose as our first battle for breakfast took place.
We had three kinds of breakfast eaters in our troop-
One: The westerners who preferred toast, half-boiled eggs, a bowl of soup and a cup of black tea.
Two: The Indo-Westerners who preferred chappati, aloo-chola, half-boiled eggs and a cup of black tea.
Three: The bhateys (rice eaters) who didn’t prefer bhuteko bhaat (fried rice) but preferred fai-rice (a local malaprop for fried rice) and a mug full of piping hot salted milk tea. Bigger the mug, better the tea. Higher the hill of fai-rice on the plate, healthier the breakfast.
The already irritated cook would sternly shout— ‘one menu for all’ ‘khaye kha, na khaye ghich types (either eat or overeat)] which would create a huge commotion among us making us look like hung-over drunkards crazily quarrelling early in the morning.
Since, I was the only female in the group and either buhari (daughter-in-law) or bhauju (sister-in-law) to all in relation, I was chosen as the ‘breakfast monarch’. And this monarch, swinging between being an Indian and a wannabe westerner, would settle for the Indo-Western breakfast for all.
After breakfast, we set off towards Phalut in the same Land Rover(s). Many people choose to travel this distance by foot, but we needed to save our energy for the final day, so we ferried in the vehicles making stops in between for photo sessions, dancing and singing fuelled by little passion and mostly by liquor. But the liquor how hard it maybe doesn’t make you drunk. It’s nature’s wholesome beauty that makes you high.
The stretch between Sandakphu and Phalut features one of the most panoramic sights. To traverse through these tough terrains wondrously decorated with rhododendrons, magnolias, shrubs, lightning-struck dead conifers and meadows overeaten by the horses and yaks, is an experience that one cannot explain in words.
Phalut, located at 11,790 ft is a little piece of heaven on earth. This hamlet which falls under West Bengal, is a combination of high and low meadows and hills. Similar to Sandakphu or any other high altitude locations, Phalut too is a playground to the merciless winds. Despite the sun shining upon you with all its might at day time, the rough wind is spine chilling and by night, the wind starts howling freaking your heart out.
After another bout of early morning fight over the breakfast menu and ending up eating what the breakfast monarch decided, we gathered to pray and thank Mother Nature. Then bidding adieu to Phalut we started uphill sharp at 8 am. Since this was the last leg of our journey and it would be a tiring travel by foot, we were heavily armed with necessary items like corn, chocolates, biscuits, dry fruits, ginger, drinking water, energy drinks and liquor.
The first stop would be the Phalut top, some half kilometres above the Phalut trekkers’ hut, the place where we stayed overnight. With favourable weather, from this point, one can see the mighty peaks of Mt. Kumbhakarna, Mt. Kanchendzonga, Mt. Everest and other elegant peaks. A brief photo session and we set off for the tedious journey that lay ahead— hills after hills towards home. The next ‘temporary’ aim would be to reach the Singalila ridge via Torifuley. If you are lucky enough, you will be voluntarily guided by a local dog and luck did favour us.
The walk till Singalila ridge from Phalut is tough. Steep uphills and slippery downhills. After one and half hour of trekking, we finally reached the much famous ridge with brief rests in between the trail.
If I had to put this philosophically, it would be- “The physical baggage feels much lighter than the mental baggage. The higher you go, the lighter it feels. That’s the magic of the mountains.” Now if I had to put this into realism, it would be- “The bag feels friggin’ heavy. This physical baggage becomes your mental baggage and you have no option other than carrying it all through the highs and lows of the hills. That’s the reality in the mountains.”
The next stop would be Chewabhanjyang. The route from the ridge till Chewa is tougher. Stony and bumpy pathway which tortures your feet if you are wearing the wrong shoes. Among us, only the three regular trekkers had the right pair. Rest had shoes which were suitable only for ramp walking at MG Marg. A brief halt at the Kalijhar Base Camp before reaching Chewa where the dog-guide chose another group of masters who offered him with chicken bones. Any day the dog would choose a group of wise men who would feed him some carnivorous diet over a group of foolish men who lured him with biscuits. With our big and pinky toenails already begging us for some rest, we reached the Chewa SAP (Sikkim Armed Police) post.
The generous staff prepared an organic lunch for us with everything they could acquire at 10,300 ft. After relishing on the food, we soon left towards Uttarey via Chitrey and making through the Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary. Now, if you think the earlier walks were tough and tougher, this slant downhill walk is the toughest. As the afternoon progressed, the pathway covered with thick Rhododendrons turned darker making the walk more difficult for us.
Every time we crossed someone going upwards, we would ask—“how long?” And every time the answer would be— “half an hour more.” Little did we know that these people whom we were enquiring were local potters for whom it was a ‘normal’ walk. So, after half an hour and another half an hour and another continuous walk, we finally reached the tarred road at Uttarey.
Though we couldn’t feel our feet, the look of achievement on our faces said that we have won the ultimate walking championship. But the bubble soon burst when a group of potters enquired about our tour. As we proudly replied that we had trekked whole day from Phalut till Uttarey and now will be heading towards Darap, the potters said how ‘murkha’ we all had been.
We realised that we had completed 3-4 days trek in nine and a half hours. While other trekkers would trek slowly, camping overnight at various points, we had backpacked as if we were going to a battlefield and had literally marched as if we had a mission to go an blow out some enemy bases. “Esari kaha trek garcha!? Bistari pata. Tara aatt chai maney tapai haru ko” (You don’t trek this way!? It’s done slowly. But I salute your courage),” said one of the potters mockingly.
Silence loomed over us and we started feeling the sharp pangs in our legs. But the foolishness pinched harder than the pain. Hurriedly one among us called for vehicles which would take us home to Darap, a one and half hour drive which we had aimed to cover by foot the same day earlier.
After we uploaded our pictures and videos of this trek we have been receiving numerous phone calls and messages enquiring about the whole tour and about how to do it. My husband’s phone rang so continuously that for once we even excitedly planned to give up everything we are doing (professionally) and become full-time tour guides. But soon we realised we have some serious EMIs to pay with our professions as securities.
Don’t get carried away by your courage.
The author is an artist and a freelance writer based in Gangtok, Sikkim. The views expressed by the author are personal and may not in any way represent those of TIME8.
Photo: Devika Kerongay Gurung