The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, February 27, 2000

A walk in the clouds
By Manpreet Singh

A TREK from Darjeeling to Sandakphu is an arduous, overwhelming and rare experience. Once on top of the lush hills at Sandakphu (which in mountain people’s language means ‘heights of poison’) , at an altitude of about 12,000 feet, you feel the rewards outweigh the fatigue of the strenuous climb.

Splendid sunrise: A major reward for trekkers at SandakphuA panoramic view surrounds you! Five of the world’s highest mountain peaks stand majestically in front of you. These are Everest, Kanchanjunga, Makalu, Lhotse and Nuptse. A splendid sunrise and rich flora and fauna await you. Only yaks and a number of hill birds — flycatchers, sunbirds, emerald cuckoos — are your constant companions. And meeting hill people, when seen to be living a simple and contented life is a welcome escape from the humdrum nature of city life.

  You can begin your trek from Manebhajang village situated at an altitude of about 7,000 feet, surrounded by lush hills and snow-covered mountain peaks. It takes about an hour’s bus ride from Darjeeling to reach here. You can decide whether you want to make the trek to Sandakphu a two-day affair or prolong it in which case you can undertake longer treks.

The best time to trek in this area is April-May or October-November. After May, the monsoon brings joy which blocks the majestic view of the mountains. In December it becomes unbearably cold. It is prudent to pay a visit to local trekking agents or Youth Hostel, for gathering information about weather conditions and trekking material before you start. Although there are a number of small villages en route, which provide snacks and food, it is advisable to carry your own water bottles and snacks, which may come handy at certain stretches where you don’t find even a single person for hours.

Our expedition started from the sleepy Manebhajang village, early in the morning. It was a test of our physical and mental endurance to trek on those narrow, steep and cobbled trails. These trails are said to have been made on the orders of the Nizam of Hyderabad, who desired to have the spectacular view of the most majestic range of mountains from Sandakphu. It is also said that he never used this trail. "One can see the world’s most spectacular sunrise from Sandakphu", our guide announced, with pride shining in his eyes.

Another important stop before we finally reached Sandakphu was Meghma (the place of clouds). Situated at an altitude of about 9,000 feet the village has only 15 houses with a population of less than 70 persons. The Nepal border is just five steps away from here and there is no army or border police presence here. White clouds envelop you. You feel as if you are standing or gliding in the skies.

During the monsoons, Meghma is famous for being at its cloudy best. Says an American adventurer, "Those same clouds that obscure the distant crests and vales hover over the very ground one walks on. Making my way through this haze made me feel like an angel." This being a rough trek, the foreigners here outnumber the not-so-adventrous Indians. The sight of some Bengali families, taking this trek comes as an inspiration.

In the evening we reached Sandakphu covering a distance of 33 km from Manebhajang. Some trekkers experienced mild altitude sickness, headache and blisters. The trekkers’ huts that we stayed in had no electricity. We spent the cold night in candle light. Tired and exhausted everyone slept early, so as to rise early for the much-awaited sunrise at Sandakphu.

Luckily, the skies were clear the next morning. We all were ready with our cameras to capture the spectacular mountain peaks being unveiled by the Sun God.

The sun rose lazily, spreading its rays all around. All the five majestic peaks appeared one by one, within a span of 20 minutes. Soon the entire mountain range was glittering in the bright sunlight. The sunrise also brought some relief from the biting cold of the night.

From here, you can either walk back to Manebhajang or, to make the trek more interesting, do what we did — start for Rimbik. After bathing in the sunshine we began our sixhour long descent to Rimbik village.

Rich flora and fauna of the hills and diverse vegetation welcomed us. We walked by alpine shrubs and tiny colourful flowers, through temperate forests of oak, chestnut, cherry, maple and birch to the more tropical area with maze, barley, bamboo and millet. We came across about twenty varieties of rhododendrons. The silver fir trees looked gracious.

At Rimbik, after a tiring trek you can relax in the lawns of beautiful Sherpa huts. The place is steeped in nature’s beauty. From here you can either take a bus or trek to Darjeeling. The bus takes about six hours to reach Darjeeling.

Many not-so-adventurous and elderly tourists hire Land Rovers to reach Sandakphu. The ride is very bumpy and dangerous, a minor mistake on the driver’s part can mean an instant death in the ravines. But to the young and adventurous, trekking Sandakphu, the heights of poison, remains a pleasure.

This feature was published on February 6, 2000