At 3,636m (11,992ft), you can only expect a whole range of snow-capped peaks from the Everest on your left to Pandim on the right. Thats exactly what should have happened when we reached Sandakphu, the highest peak of Bengal, after an arduous 32-km trek in a little less than three days.
But luck was not on our side to take a look at the Three Sisters three peaks between the Everest and the Kanchenjungha on that foggy April morning unlike in Tonglu (3,070m), the third highest in the Singalila range of the eastern Himalayas, where a spectacular sunrise kept was awake since 4.30 in the morning. Scaling Tonglu was not easier either.
We took a conventional trekking route from Maneybhanjang (2,134m) with packing bare essentials in our rucksacks on a bright sunny morning.
The first 2.5 km, quite steep, was a test of everything ability, agility and also of lungs and nerve, head and heart. Altitude sickness can start at this point before you reach Chitrey, the nearest village on the Indo-Nepal border, where a mug of coffee and steaming noodles soup are must to refresh the tiring nerves.
Once passed the first few hours ordeal, nothing seemed problematic nor even the sheer breathlessness rather we enjoyed the full bloom of rhododendron, magnolia and camellia dotting the lush green of the hills with red and white. The best season to take a trek to Sandakphu is certainly during October-November, but we chose this time of the year just to enjoy nature at its best.
Though a sudden hailstorm in the afternoon made us uncomfortable on our way from Meghma (2,900m) to Tonglu which may not happen in the autumn but walking amid pricking hails on 10,000ft with wind speed around 80kmph is a kind of experience which can hardly be described in words.
Trudging a spiralling steep road also used by Land Rovers to ferry fellow tourists, not trekkers, to Sandakphu for hours would certainly drain us had there not been thumba a local Nepali country liquor made of fermented millet. Besides thumba, certainly the drink to keep us warm at 2°C, tshang (Nepali hadiya) was available aplenty, as a bottle of brandy at Sandakphu may land you up on the other side of Rs 1,000!
For avid birdwatchers, the dense forest from Tumbling (2,900m) to Gairibas (2,621m) is the place to look for in the Himalayan foothills. From Yellow-billed blue Magpie to different species of Kingfisher, Verditer Flycatcher to Eurasian Blackbird birds of bright plumage and various shapes can be spotted in abundance in this avian paradise.
On our way back from Sandakphu, the 14-km continuous downhill trek to Gurdum was another adventure since the route we took was not a traditional one but amid greens with oak, dhupi, pine and bamboo bushes of different colour blocking the 2-ft-wide mud road every now and then. Leopards and Himalayan red pandas are common sighting in this forest, a part of the Singalila National Park, though we could not spot either of these since a thick fog engulfed the hills till 11 in the morning.
The trek virtually ends at Gurdum but you have to walk another 4 km to Srikhola to get a four-wheeler, which would drop you at Siliguri, the nearest railhead. Srikhola, as the name suggests, is on the bank of a river (khola, in Nepali, means river) in the foothills of the Himalayas where we found momos for the first time in four days.
Since preparing momos is quite a time-consuming matter, villagers on our trekking route could not offer it quickly but we had a delicious dish of steamed frog at Lamay Dura on our way to Tonglu on the first day. At the end of the 52-km trekking, we found one thing missing from our itinerary: scaling Phalut (3,600m), which would take another two days to cover from Sandakphu. We are waiting to take a trip on that route for an amazing view of the Everest, which we missed this time!
Day one: Maneybhanjang Chitrey (breakfast) Lamay Dura (lunch) Meghma (snacks) Tonglu/Tumbling
Tonglu/Tumbling Gairibas (lunch) Kalapokhari
Kalapokhari Bhikheybhanjang (lunch) Sandakphu
Sandakphu Gurdum (lunch) Srikhola
Srikhola Dhotrey Maneybhanjang Siliguri
Where to stay
Hotel Exotica (9733378192);
Siddhartha Lodge (9733080318) Tonglu, Gairibas and Sandakphu: DGHC trekkers hut (0354-2257554)
Goparma Hotel (9832087982)
New Jalpaiguri (Siliguri):
95 km from Maneybhanjang
90 km from Maneybhanjang
How to go
Bagdogra and New Jalpaiguri are well connected with Delhi and Calcutta. Take an auto-rickshaw or a cycle-rickshaw to go to Tensing Norgay Bus Terminus (Siliguri); Hire a Mahindra Commander/Tata Spacio (Rs 800 to Maneybhanjang); Take a break at Mirik for a breathtaking view of the lake there. From Maneybhanjang you can start the trek or hire a Land Rover (Rs 4,000 only to drop at Sandakphu)
Points to remember
Entry fee to Singalila National Park:
Rs 25 (per person)
Fee for still/digital camera: Rs 25
For video/handycam: Rs 250
Guides fee: Rs 250 (per day, without food)