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Sandak-phew! December 30th, 2019

The Beginning

I miss Boston, I said to my wife one day.
What exactly do you miss? The snow, the cold, or the wind? she asked, rather derisively.
All of the above, I said.
Well, you know where to go then! she said.
Never quick to pick up on sarcasm, I said, Yes I do! I think I will head back to the Himalayas.

A few clicks on my Mac, and a couple hours later my trek to Sandakphu was booked!

It is going to be cold there, my wife said.
Well, it’ll be a few degrees above or below zero celsius. I think I can handle that, I said.
This will be different, she said, gently.

I paid heed to her words and headed to the nearby Decathlon sporting goods store. A pair of new snow-proof shoes, a down jacket, fleece, thermals, woolen scarf and socks and a sturdy stick were acquired. I already had a good pair of gloves and a woolen cap. I was all set.

Or so I thought. But wait. That part comes later in the story.

The Trip

The first day began at 4:30 am when my alarm went off. I left home at 5:00 am, was at the airport by 5:15, boarded my flight at 6:00 and was on my way to Ahmedabad at 6:25. A leisurely breakfast at Ahmedabad airport was to be followed by the 2-hour flight to Bagdogra. I was startled to hear the boarding announcement – it’s a bit early, I thought. And it was. They were practically hustling us onto the plane. On boarding, I found out why. The captain came on the PA system and said, If everyone is not seated this instant and we do not push back, we will be delayed by five hours because they are closing the runway in five minutes! Soon we were off. We were to have even better luck at the other end. Ours was the last flight to land that day – all others were re-routed to Kolkata because of dense fog. Landed in Fog-Dogra! said my text to my wife.

Everyone else who was to go to our base camp at Kopidara was already in the SUV arranged by TTH, the company that organized the trek. I was greeted warmly by Haroon, Arvind, Ranjan, Chetan and Vanishree. The bags were loaded onto the roof and tied, and we were off.

A quick lunch of rice, dal and potato curry at Gopaldhara followed by a bracing cup of liquor tea (tea without milk), then a short stop at Maney Bhanjan, a border town where a narrow gutter (really!) divides India from Nepal, and we were in Kopidara (elev. 6700 ft), where fellow trekkers traveling from elsewhere were already tricking in. I met with Sumanta, Shubhankar, Soumi and Sonali, who had traveled from Durgapur, West Bengal.

By the time I stepped downhill to the terrace where tea was served, I had met everyone else: Nivedita and Vivek, Teju and Kapil, Namrata and Shashank were lovely young couples from Bangalore. Also from Bangalore were five young IT professionals, Sachin, Darshan, Manjunath, Rakesh and Asthik, and a mechanical engineer, Varun. A group of 22 in all. We were to become good friends over the next five days.

Our trek began the next morning. We were heading to Tumling, a summit at 9,700 feet. We walked through a thick pine forest, stopped for tea at the Sherpa Hut by the Indo-Nepal border and continued through grassy terrain to Meghma, our lunch stop. From there to Tumling was short work. The night at Tumling and the next morning were very cold and windy, an early sign of what lay in store for us. After capturing our first brilliant sunrise views of Mt Kanchenjunga, we were off toward our next stop, Kala Pokhri (meaning Black Pond).

This leg of the trek was to be dominated (nay, shrouded) by a thick fog that made things very interesting. Was I about to step into an abyss? Was that a tree walking toward me or a fellow trekker? Was I in the Himalayas or on the set of “Hamlet”? Lunch was served at Gairibas, a little hamlet in the valley, and we began climbing toward Kala Pokhri (elev. 10,400 ft).

Upon reaching there, we discovered it was a really tiny village of maybe half a dozen tea houses (aka home stays). We ate our dinner and were off to bed. The morning at Kala Pokhri was even colder and windier than Tumling, so few folks ventured out. I was up by 5:00 am and out by 5:15, camera in hand. I was back by 5:20, shivering and disappointed that there were no views to capture. All you could see was the fog.

Now I was worried. Would we get to see anything? Everyone else looked skeptical too. We started off at 8:30 am as usual, but there were few smiles on our faces. Plus the going now was much tougher. It was very cold and the paths were laden with snow. There had been a heavy snowfall here some days ago, and the remnants of it were frozen on the ground, which made for a very slippery trail. We kept going, and suddenly came to a dead halt, blocked by a building.

We had reached Sandakphu, and were entering the Sunrise hotel, our camp, via the back alley. In front of our rooms was a retaining wall of about six feet, which made it difficult to see what was beyond. We climbed up the steps, and literally stopped in our tracks! Here was Mt Kanchenjunga, along with all the other mountains that formed the famous Sleeping Bhddha, right in front of us! What a glorious view! I thought. I will never see anything like this again!

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I had a premonition that there was more to see here. I climbed up to the next level toward the building that housed the dining hall, went inside, and climbed the two floors to the terrace. And right there, on my left, was another sight for sore eyes! Mt Everest, Makalu, Lhotse, Chamlong… all the tallest mountains in the Himalayas (and the world) were lined up in front of me! Oh my god, I thought, I can die now!

Everest

We had a nice lunch of hot and sour soup, fried rice and chow mein, went for a walk along an icy trail to a nearby sunset point, braved the difficult climb up and back down, and were back in the relative warmth of our (unheated) dining room. It was Christmas today, and much merriment ensued. It was -10c outside, but you could not tell that from the action on the inside! Tired, we went to bed, feeling reassured that the most difficult part of the trek was over. All that was left was the descent to Sepi.

Oh how wrong we were, how naive! We began walking amid much cheering, but very quickly everyone realized that the descent was going to be the toughest part of the trek. First, it was the sheer distance – over 15 km. Second, it was the grade – quite steep in places. Third, it was the snow and ice, which raised the constant specter of a nasty fall or worse. We had to be slow, measured and circumspect at all times. Now the group stretched out over a long distance – the seasoned trekkers out in front, the not-so-experienced ones way in the back. After being among the leaders for the first three days, I was now much slower, more deliberate, safer.

After a short lunch at a lovely home stay nestled in a valley at Gurdum, and another long and arduous climb down, we crossed the bridge on the Siri Kola river and soon entered the village of Sepi (elev. 6230 ft), our final night halt. Once the full team assembled, there was an emotional ceremony where certificates were awarded to al the successful summiteers (yes, that is what we were now!) and we settled down to our farewell dinner, which was preceded (and followed) by consumption of long-awaited alcohol and ensuing merriment.

Goodbyes were exchanged the next morning, along with promises to keep in touch. The six young Bangaloreans left for Gangtok, another ten were headed to the New Jal Paiguri railway station at Siliguri, where they would board trains to Kolkata. Six of us set off toward Bagdogra airport. Three dropped off on the way to head to Darjeeling. Chetan, Vanishree and I made our way to the airport at Bagdogra.

The flights were on time, and I arrived home in Pune, by way of New Delhi, around 2:30 am the next morning. A hot shower and my own bed! I lay down, looked at the ceiling and realized how achy I was all over, yet I could not feel my fingers or my toes!

The Terrain

The terrain in this part of the Himalayas offers much variety, even for an uninitiated observer like me. Around 6,000 ft, there are dense evergreen forests of pine, spruce, stone oak and other varieties of firs. As you go higher, you start to see rhododendrons, blue junipers and other, shorter varieties of firs. Still higher, and short grasses is all that grows here.

The Singalila national park (we trekked through it from Tumling to Kala Pokhri) offers a variety of wildlife (animals and birds) including the red panda, but perhaps because of the severe winter, we saw nothing. Occasionally I would hear a rustling of the bushes, only to find an overladen, angry mule huffing at me, get out of my way!

Nepali villages are quiet, idyllic, colorful and clean. We passed many large and small towns including Panighata, Dudhia, Soureni, Mirik (home to an eponymous lake), Pashupati Nagar, Maney Bhanjan (you can drive from here to Sandakphu if you have a sturdy Land Rover and nerves of steel), Rimbick, Namla, Hatta, Dhotrey, Majua and Sukhia. None looked prosperous, in fact many wore their poverty on their proverbial sleeves, but every town looked happy, somehow.

My only apprehensive moment came when we passed by a sign that said Naxalbari 5 km (Naxalbari is the town where India’s deadly Maoist movement originated many years ago and spread throughout the country, taking many lives and destroying much property in its wake). A little shiver went through me as we drove on.

The Weather

But sir, you have lived in America. This must be nothing for you! said a fellow trekker, on the first day. How was I to tell him that I had always kept the thermostat in my home at a cozy 72 degrees Fahrenheit, that my car had seat warmers I could turn on even before I got in, and that my office was so warm in the winter that I sometimes had to step out just to feel the cold?

My wife had issued a warning about the weather, one I was to recall many times through the trek. What can I say about it? That it was bitterly cold? Well, bitter is an adjective that is so meek, so colorless that it deprives the mountain cold of its laser-like power to penetrate your very being, rendering everything inside you completely frozen. It can debilitate you, Worse still, it can scare you.

Like when I woke up around 4 am in my dormitory bed in Sandakphu and discovered that the hot water I had carried up in a plastic bottle after dinner had frozen solid right beside my bed.

Or like later that morning, I discovered that I could not photograph the sunrise because my fingers did not have enough tactile feeling to operate the shutter button on my camera.

Or like that night, when I sat down in my bed to begin dressing, my feet could not tell whether my woolen socks were on them or off.

It is not merely the temperature, or the wind chill, or the high altitude, or your state of tiredness. It is the perfect storm, so to speak, when all these factors work together to make for a truly harrowing experience.

Then again, I am sixty-two now. Maybe I react to it differently.

The Food

It is easy to be uncharitable about the food of a land that cannot grow much. And in fact, not much more than potatoes and squash grows in these parts. Add to this the TTH rule that only vegetarian food would be served, along with the need to cater to the tastes of trekkers from all over India, and you are pretty much stuck with the lowest common denominator in terms of the food.

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Thus, most of our meals consisted of rice, potato and/or squash curry, dal and rotis. An occasional boiled egg at breakfast or an omelette at lunch was an added bonus. I had no complaints about the menu, even if I occasionally longed to see at least traces of the actual legume that went into the dal! I was very happy with the soup we were given every evening, and the snacks that accompanied our afternoon tea were often very good.

Having said this, though, I could not help but feel that counter flour (aka Maida in India) does not make for rotis of the greatest quality. While this substance is ideally suited for cakes and pizza bases, when presented in the form of a roti, it assumes a glutinous texture in your mouth that makes it liable to get stuck in your gullet. And even when it makes it past the gullet, it does get stuck further down the digestive tract, if you know what I mean. And the substitutes that are available, such as the momos (dumplings) and the ubiquitous Maggi noodles, tend to demonstrate the same obstructive behavior.

On the other hand, making you go number-two less often is probably a desirable quality of this kind of food, given the difficulties the harsh weather creates in that department!

The People

The people I met in the Indo-Nepalese area were uniformly happy, courteous and helpful. They kept their homes and villages clean and beautiful, played badminton on the streets and smiled a lot. Every home, no matter how humble, had a row of flowering plants in the front balcony, and the traditional cabinet in the dining area where polished  jugs and glasses made of brass or copper were displayed. There were no beggars to be found even in the poorest areas. These are a proud people.

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In all our days in the hills, I saw not one instance of drunkenness, rude behavior, yelling or loud arguments, street fights and the like. Which is more than I can say about many parts of India, urban or rural. I think that is a testament to the temperament of these people. It may have something to do with their Buddhist faith too.

The two local assistants who helped our trek leader, Pawan Kumar, were a great example. Mangesh and Narbu were strapping young lads who could set such a scorching pace when they started to climb the mountains that they often reminded me of the mountain goats who can climb over the steepest rocks. But they always stayed with the group, helping those who needed help, and upon reaching our destinations, they would disappear into the kitchen, helping with chores, only to emerge when tea, soup or dinner was served. You would see them urging the trekkers to eat more all the time. And the smiles never left their faces.

The Lessons

In the end, a trek is only a long walk, punctuated with the ever-present element of danger (often a result of one’s own stupidity) and some wonderful sights. And like any long walk, it should provide the opportunity for quiet contemplation, perhaps even meditation. That was my fervent hope – that yet again, I would be able to reflect, introspect, understand and improve.

This proved to be a pipe dream. The ever-changing weather, the difficult terrain and the constant need for circumspection created a situation where I could not be anywhere but in the present moment, with my attention fully focused on my next step. There was no room for error, and so any kind of daydreaming, reverie, musing or engrossment was impossible. Thus, the Sandakphu trek is most certainly not helpful if your pursuit is going to be a spiritual one.

Wait, you are thinking. Surely the trek afforded me a few moments of solitude? Well, let me offer you this. How much thinking do you think you could do if you found yourself balancing your torso on a wobbly stool with a toilet-seat top that was precariously perched on the slippery edges of an Indian pan-toilet, and the bucket next to you that you thought was full of water was actually full of solid ice?

I think you get the idea.

Still, a few insights did come my way.

Like how the wet wipe is a great human invention that can keep you daisy-fresh for days on end without the need of a drop of water or soap.

Like how the altitude of where you are going has nothing to do with how difficult getting there is going to be.

Like how the shady side of the hill looks nicer, but has most of the unmelted snow.

Like how the trodden path is actually slippery packed ice, while the untrodden track on the side has loose snow that gives your step a firmer grip.

Like how the ascent is hard and tiring but the descent is tricky and dangerous.

Like how the greatest thing you ever saw in your life can often be just behind a retaining wall.

Like how one day it is so foggy you can’t see your feet, but the next day it is so clear you can see Mt Everest.

The End

I am back in Pune now, in the warmth and comfort of my own home. Yet the words of three people ring in my ears. I will remember them for a long time.

First, it was Teju and Namrata who got so emotional when thanking their friend Nivedita for her encouragement and support. That was beautiful. It brought tears to my eyes.

Second, it was Vivek who pointed out how privileged our lives are in Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore and Kolkata, where we open the faucet and there’s water, where we turn the switch and there’s electricity, where we turn on our phone and there’s the internet. It was humbling to see how people live in the mountains, he said. That was heartfelt. It really made me think.

Third, it was Pawan Bhai, our trek leader, who caught up with us just as we were leaving, and said, I am a man of the mountains. You city people go ahead and keep doing all the great things you do. I will be right here, roaming among the mountains. That was profound. It left me speechless.

Amen to all that.