Sandakphu Trek : Kangchenjunga like you have never seen it before!

 
View of Sleeping Buddha formation of Kanchenjunga from Sandakphu
 
 
 
When seven of us, friends from the engineering days, signed up for a Himalayan trek none of us had any clue what we were getting into. We chose Sandakphu because it is a relatively short trek and is considered to be of moderate difficulty. You know, not so easy that it won’t come with bragging rights. Not so difficult that we repent getting ourselves into it.
 
Sandakphu is about 35km trek from Maneybhanjan which is the base for the trek. Mane bhanjan (alternatively spelled as Maney Bhanjang or Manebhanjang) is a tiny hamlet in Darjeeling district in West Bengal, on the Indo-Nepal border. The border is a narrow ditch and one can hardly make out any difference in the lifestyles of people on the two sides. They cross over with nonchalance to buy grocery and for work. Maybe I am being simplistic but it makes one wonder why all national borders couldn’t be like this. Anyway, I digress.
 
If you are a first-timer, the standard prescription for a mountain trek is that you train yourself to be fit enough to run 4.5kms in half an hour. The fitter you are the more enjoyable the trek becomes. Your mind then is on the resplendent scenery and not on the shortness of your breath.
 
We traveled with Denzong Leisure (http://www.denzongleisure.com/) and paid approximate 9k per head for a group of 7 people. This included transport from and back to Siliguri, all stays, meals and services of a guide. We were moderately satisfied with their services. There was nothing untoward about the experience but we would have liked our tour leader to be more of a man of the world. There are other groups which conduct the trek, like Indiahikes (https://indiahikes.com/sandakphu/), which are favorably reviewed by trekkers.
 
Trekking route map of Sandakphu and Phalut from Mane bhanjan
Route Map: Mane Bhanjan to Sandakphu (Courtesy: Indiahikes)
 
 
We went in May. There are two good seasons to trek Sandakphu. The summer treks happen in April- May and the temperature is usually in the high single digits. The winter treks from October to December see the mercury stay below 5 degrees consistently. We covered the circuit in four days and took the route that goes via Tumling, Kalipokhari and Bikhey bhanjan. We descended via Srikhola. Some trekkers with more time at their disposal proceed to Phalut which takes another day to reach. It is at roughly the same altitude as Sandakphu but takes one further up close to Kanchenjunga.
 

Getting there

Mane bhanjan, the base for the trek, is at an altitude of 2150m and at a distance of about 80km from Siliguri. It should take you about 3 hours to drive to Mane bhanjang from Siliguri. Siliguri is serviced by the New Jalpaiguri Railway Station (different from Jalpaiguri) and the Bagdogra airport. Bagdogra is connected to Kolkata, New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore & Guwahati by direct flights.

The Journey to Sandakphu

Ancient Land Rovers that operate in Sandakphu
Range Rovers that ply here
Our train to Siliguri was late and hence on the first day of the trek, by the time we reached Manebhanjan, it was too late to trek onwards to Tumling. So we drove to Tonglu that evening and stayed in a trekker’s hut. We drove in an ancient Land Rover. These are pretty much the only vehicle capable of negotiating the terrain. For those who want to enjoy the views from Sandakphu but are not favorably disposed to trekking, it is possible to go all the way up to Sandakphu on these Land Rovers and the drive time is roughly 5 hours.  
 
The trek is dotted with settlements every 6-8 km, almost all along the border and most have an SSB checkpost. The settlements are no more than about 10 houses which offer basic accommodation and food to trekkers. Basic creature comforts that we take for granted are non-existent here. Who knows, maybe the simple folks of these hills don’t desire these either. One wonders what makes these people chose to stay in such extreme conditions and isolation. Wouldn’t life be a lot easier in a city nearby? It could be a strong sense of rootedness in the land of their forefathers that anchors them to this place. It could be a preference for the slow life. It could simply be a fear of the big city – a case of choosing the known devil over an unknown one.
 
Morning views of Tonglu on the way to Sandakphu
This dog followed me on my morning stroll in Tonglu
Rhododendrons in bloom near Sandakphu
We were a bit early for the Rhododendrons – they had just begun to bloom
 
 
I woke up early next morning to take a walk and breathe in some fresh air. The Rhododendrons were just beginning to bloom. The only sounds I heard here were the rustling of leaves and the fluttering of Tibetan prayer flags that stand in the way of the strong gushing winds. Sometimes I caught the occasional chirping of birds. 

Sacred lake Kalipokhari on the way to Sandakphu
Kalipokhari: The Sacred Lake
 
We left Tonglu the next morning and proceeded towards Kalipokhari. We covered 15 km on the first day of our trek and were already beginning to feel accomplished. Kalipokhari is a lake that is held sacred by the locals. It is forbidden to take a dip in the lake. As if anyone in the right mind would attempt such a thing, what with the freezing water. The lake plays peekaboo with visitors – visible now shrouded behind a cloud ball the next minute. We again put up at a trekker’s hut there. At night, to keep our spirits high, we tried Tongba. It’s a local alcoholic drink made by seeping warm water through fermented barley. It is of Tibetan origin and is also widely consumed in Nepal. 
 
Scenes from Tonglu on the way to Sandakphu
 
The next day we trekked to our summit, Sandakphu which is 7km from Kalipokhari via Bikhey bhanjan. The stretch from Kalipokhari to Sandakphu goes through the Singalila national park. The ascent was steeper than the day before and our bodies had begun answering back. Nevertheless, the splendid scenery along the way kept us upbeat. The last few meters before the summit are always the most difficult. There is a constant feeling of getting there but not quite. The moment when the clouds part to reveal the peak, within touching distance is a moment of unadulterated joy. 
 
The evening was cloudy and we were robbed of the famous sunset views.
We chose to make the best of a bad situation by heading to Aal. Aal is a half hour walk from Sandakphu. Some trekkers pitch tents at Aal and there are also a couple of trekkers hostels. Most trek guides bunk here. We sipped some more Tongba, a local vodkaesque tipple. We took our turns smoking some very nice and fresh organic matter of very questionable legality. This went along with stories from the seasoned trekking guides. The walk back to Sandakphu was in the fading light of dusk that lent an eerie beauty to the peaks. The sky was lit up in a hundred shades of orange with the drifting white clouds forming a magical background for the silhouettes of the mountains. Throw in some denuded rhododendron branches and pine trees and you have a setting fit for movies. 
 
Million Dollar Views of the Sandakphu Sunrise
 
Lovely sunrise viewed from Sandakphu
The first rays of the Sun
 
 
We spent the night at Sherpa Chalet, which is among a handful of places to stay in Sandakphu. The grind was over. Well almost. The view we were about to be treated to next morning was the piece de resistance. We woke up at 5am to get our fix of the majestic sunrise. Slowly but surely, the sun’s rays started lighting up Kanchenjunga. We saw the unique “Sleeping Buddha” formation of Kanchenjunga which is only visible from Sandakphu. We got exquisite views of 4 of the 5 highest peaks in the world – Mt Everest, Kanchenjunga, Lhotse & Makalu – all except Godwin Austen. Not all summiteers are lucky to find fair weather that allows such memorable views. We counted our blessings and I made a mental note to do this more often.
 

 

Sleeping Buddha formation of Kanchenjunga from Sandakphu
The Sleeping Budhdha: Kanchenjunga from Sandakphu
Homeward Bound
 
At around 10am on Day 4, satiated with the sights we took in at dawn, we began our descent. We descended through Gurdung to Srikhola. It is a topic of frequent conversation among trekkers on whether the ascent is tougher or the descent. A wise man put it aptly. During the ascent, the descent seems easier and during the descent, ascent feels like the easier bit. We stopped for the night at the riverside village Srikhola, after walking downhill for about 17km. When almost nearing Srikhola, we spotted a house with some country chicken grazing. We picked one up to be freshly roasted on a fire to celebrate our conquest of the peak and a safe descent thereafter.
 
Roast chicken on barbeque
Our guide Mingma roasted a country chicken for us!
 
 
Final Musings!

 

 
Somewhere during our descent, we finally came back to cellular network coverage after four days and informed our families of our safety and well being. Being away from the connected life provided a great opportunity for introspection and for attaining peace with oneself. Free from worldly distractions, we also truly enjoyed the company of friends. For some time, it felt like we were back in our hostel days when each other’s company was ample entertainment and no digital diversions were needed. The trek was a lesson in finding contentment in simpler things and being grateful for things that we consider an entitlement. We came back with very tired bodies but perfectly refreshed souls. 
Himalayan trekkers
The victors are posing!
 

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