The Mountain Trails
Part IV – And we move on…
So right after a heavy breakfast consisting of Tibetan breads and mashed potatoes with eggs, well I hated to fill up myself so early in the morning but didn’t have much of a choice; we would finally walk - trek in the truest of sense.
Though it was bright and sunny, the winds made the chill unbearable. We took one group photograph and Amar gave us the last minute briefing. But no one seemed to pay attention to him.
We put our best foot forward and there was no looking back.
Tumbling is at an altitude of 10,000 feet and our next destination was Kaalpokhri which is at 9000 feet. The very thought of walking down was good. But we had no idea what was in store for us! The distance between these two points is fourteen kilometers. It sounded okay to us.
We entered the Singalila Wildlife Sanctuary and our entire route would be through this sanctuary. This place has a large number of Himalayan red panda, barking deer, black bear and leopards. The park has an area of 78.60sq.km with mixed vegetation of Magnolia, Rhododendron, Oak, Pine Hemlock, Silver Fir, Juniper, Mailing Bamboo, Buk, Kawla, Bhujpatra etc. The Singalila Park also has a priceless collection of different species of rare orchids that adorns the forests.
The walk was good. Dipanjali and I walked together. Far ahead of us we saw Niru & Jun. They were giving our porters quite a competition where speed was concerned.
I wanted to tell them that this was not about speed. We were not competing against each other in a race. We were here to enjoy the beauty, the silence, the fresh air as we walked. But then I let that pass.
The road was rocky and it went up and then it went down. Like a see-saw sliding coherently. Amar switched on his transistor, which was a constant companion to us throughout the walk. At times depending on the frequency of winds it caught different channels. But music knows no language and it was so soothing to hear those unfamiliar tunes in this age when we are fed heavily on Bollywood music!
We reached our first pit stop after walking about four kms. It was a small village, with a few houses and this was our tea/coffee break. We rested for a while and again we were on our foot walking.
I never asked Amar or Tshering how long we’d have to walk to reach Kaalpokhri. I knew it was “fourteen” kilometers, but there is a huge difference when you walk that stretch in plains and in hilly terrains. All said and done things were looking good.
I put on my portable music devise and kept walking at my pace. The walk was amazingly good and at one point we saw the Sleeping Buddha. It looked marvelous. And it motivated us to walk further, so that we could see this beauty from a closer range.
We must have walked for another two hours and passed by many trekkers like us when we reached another small little hamlet – it was Garibas. By then the girls had pangs of hunger and they ordered some instant noodles in the first shop they spotted. The rest was good. We were all relaxed and as Amar showed us the way, we knew things would not be a cake walk for us. The up hill had started.
Simple geographic logic. From Tumbling we descend about 550 feet till Garibas and Kayakatta and after that we walk uphill another 1500 feet.
There was nothing much to say, because this is what we had come for in the first place.
As I stared my uphill climb, I remember what Nirav told me. “Take ten steps or a curve, rest for ten seconds or until and unless you start breathing normally and then walk again. Baby steps, mind you.”
And this I followed with all my heart and soul.
Kayakatta was our third pit stop, but no one was too eager to waste time. We did not know how long would it take to reach Kaalpokhri. Even the girls with speed now slowed down and we all walked in tandem. The only high point about Kayakatta was the cell phone signals. After twenty four hours we were able to make calls to home and speak. My phone was some hidden inside my back pack and I was not in a mood for some treasure. So I let that pass.
Tshering noticed that I was the only one who was not making any calls. When he asked me, I told him, it would take quite a while to dig the phone out from my bag.
“Don’t worry Ma’am, once we reach Kaalpokhri, I will call Sir from my phone and you can talk to him”, he assured me. So it was a deal and I agreed.
In the mean time Amar, the sweet chap he is, tried calling my home from his phone and it was a sweet surprise when he handed his phone to me and said, “talk to your daughter, she is on the receiving end!”
At times both Dipanjali & I would look at each other. We had the same expression – “The cannot take it anymore” signs showing on our face. But we shrugged and let that feeling pass. We’d crack a joke or say something silly and kept walking.
The road seemed endless.
Exactly at three in the afternoon we reached Kaalpokhri.
We hogged liked pigs when our lunch was served and soon realized we had nothing else to do! Amar, Dipanjali and I went for a leisurely walk around the place, you know, again to acclimatize ourselves with the weather while the rest tried taking a cat nap.
As we were walking around, Tshering came running and pulled me by my hand and dragged me to a hillock nearby.
“What is the phone number?”, he asked me.
“Whose?” I asked him back! And then I remembered our deal. I told him that I had already spoken with my girl and “Sir” when Amar called them while we were in Kaalpokhri but he would not listen. He insisted that he wanted the phone number.
And I guess I had an attack of black out. I simply could not recall Nirav’s phone number. I kept on mumbling one number after another but I was at loss. I tried to spot Amar to ask him what the phone number was, but both he & Dipanjali was far away and they would not hear my voice. It took quite a while for me to remember get the right number!
After speaking to Nirav & Nior as I thanked Tshering, he said, “It’s okay Ma’am. And don’t worry about forgetting. You will forget a lot more as you scale up the altitude due to lack of oxygen”.
I was clueless. Did not know whether to take this as a warning sign or laugh off.
As we sat in the dining hall, charcoal was burnt to keep us warm and we ordered some Tomba.
Tomba is a local wine, made with millet seeds and fermented rice. The wine is served in mugs made of bamboos. The rule is, you keep sucking the wine with a straw which is again made out of bamboo. As the wine decreases, you pour some piping hot water into the mug and you have another Tomba for yourself. Tomba tasted similar to champage and as we all gathered around the fire place, we had a good time laughing talking and getting to know one another better.
Soon dinner was served and we retired.
But then again it’s a different story that both Dipanjali and I could not get a wink of sleep. Both of us were worried about the next day’s trek…
Pat V – The “Being on top” (of the world) feeling…
Kaalpokhri is more like a transit camp. With limited facilities. Trekkers usually stop by this place for their food. The rooms and the bathrooms were basic. Nothing much to say and it was expected.
Dipanjali was the first one to get out of the bed. She took out her toothbrush and paste and then gave out a “Oh NO” cry. I asked what could be bugging her so early in the morning. She showed me the toothpaste and said, “The damn thing is frozen!!!” She gave it to me and I tucked the tube between my pillow & quilt for a while! Overcoming our first obstacle, she went out to brush her teeth.
You will get a better idea when I tell you this. Kaalpokhri does not have attached bathrooms. There is no electricity too. But you get hot water any given time of the day. They have mechanized a system by which the iron water pipe runs through the fire wood “chulha” (stove) and this helps in keeping the water warm. The tap is outside.
I saw Dipanjali; as I looked outside the window, walking back to the room, her toothbrush still in her hands. As she entered I asked, “What’s the matter?”
“Ice, ice baby”! She said while trying to match her words with a dance! Icicles formed in the tap. We woke up way too early. The kitchen was closed and the stoves were yet to be lit!
I got out of the bed immediately and took my camera and rushed towards the tap. I wanted a picture of it badly and I hated it when I saw Tshering smashing the icicle! I gave out a “No, stop it, will you?” cry, but the damage had already been done!
Exactly at 8.30 a.m we were all set to make it to our summit. Sandakphu, which was 6 kms and at an altitude of 13000 feet. So you can imagine how steep the climb would be.
From the place where we stayed, Sandakphu was clearly visible. I just looked up at the mountain; saw the roof of one of the lodges… that was our landmark. I mean there were the clear blue skies just above it. Only that. Nothing else.
And we began our trek. Walked and walked. Rested at every curve, got hold of our breathing and walked further up. The curves were very steep. Every curve we took we knew we were inching closer to our summit and that came as the biggest motivating factor.
The six kms seemed an endless sojourn. Bikeybhanjan was our pit stop. We rested for a while and then we moved on.
Amar kept telling us over and over again to walk slowly. But Jun and Niru belonged to the impatient category and they did just the opposite. Tarun and Kakoli were in their world of their own and matched their pace with us.
As we took a break, to gulp some water, have some chocolates, we saw a milestone which read “1 km”.
Both Dipanjali and I gave out a cry! As if we had already reached! Amar told us, “Come on girls, we are just a few steps away from Switzerland.”
Switzerland???? What was he talking about? Was oxygen playing things in his brains too?
“Naah, it’s the view girls”, he assured us.
One curve, two curve and three and there we were… we saw “Sandakphu check post”! We reached Sandakphu exactly at 1.00 p.m. Our estimated; time, not a minute more, not a minute less.
Yay!!! We made it! We made it! We hugged each other and all the tiredness went off almost immediately. As we looked across the mountains we could not believe we had crossed seven ridges. It was unbelievable. But we did it.
As I looked to my left, I saw the Himalayas, the Sleeping Buddha looked like a jewel. It was worth every step we took. And it was majestic.
Amar and I celebrated our success by opening the pack of fags and taking a drag!
We took up a small log hut. And for our meals we had to walk to the lodge opposite us. The one which I saw from Kaalpokhri. The one that falls in Nepal. So technically we stayed in India and dined in Nepal.
It was cold. The breeze was wicked! The winds roared, like two giants waves crashing on a high tide. You could feel the cold in your bones. Insipte of wearing so much of warm clothes, there was no respite. The rays of the sun were weak. Did not do much to make us warm. Post lunch we walked down to see a temple. No one wanted to walk but Amar the boss instructed and we listened to him.
We were lucky, to have walked slowly, drink a plenty of water throughout our trek and eat chocolates whenever we felt we were drained out.
The girls who reached an hour earlier were not only dizzy, but their mouth going tasteless and they felt absolutely weak.
It was a weekend and place was full of trekkers, Indians and foreign. As we sat in the dining hall for another round of Tomba and some yak meat, the place looked liked a cozy pub, much similar to Calcutta’s Olypub!
By 9.30 pm, the generators were shut and we were all tucked in our respective beds. Sleep was not easy. There was too much of excitement in our system and both Dipanjali and I did not get a wink of sleep.
Part VI – Sunrise in Sandakphu and walking down
We woke up much before sunrise. Walking this far and not getting to see the sunrise would be such a waste and a foolish thing to do. The temperature in the altimeter showed – 5.7 deg celcius! Holy Cow!
As the first rays of the sun fell on the Himalayas; the Everest, Sleeping Buddha & Kanchendzonga all in a row looked majestic. What a sight it was!
Interestingly Sandakphu is the only place in the whole world from where you can see the five top peaks - the Everest, Kanchendzonga, Makalu, Lhotse and Nuptse. And more interestingly the Assam-Arunachal Himalayas can also been seen if you’re lucky like us to get an extremely clear weather.
As I started taking pictures, I had to open my gloves to get a better grip on the camera. The cold anesthetized my hands and fingers!
Post breakfast everyone was busy posing and taking pictures one after another. Amar was silent and I knew a lot of things were in his mind. I raised my eyebrows and he nodded his head.
“Tell me!” I exclaimed.
“Both you and Dipanjali have passed the fitness test!”
That was the second best thing we had heard in this adventure of ours. The first came from the Israeli guy we met in Tumblimg. He thought us to be twenty year olds! Said, “Indian women are ageless”!
Thank God for Vitamin E, I told myself!
Yes, we were fit. The pain relieving ointment & tablets remained untouched.
And soon we got ready to descend. From 13000 feet to 7000 feet. It would take us eight hours to reach Rimbick; precisely 16 kms we had to walk.
As we descended, I stopped in the middle of nowhere and started taking off one thing after another. I had worn a tee, two warmers, one sweat shirt and a jacket. One tights, one woolen track and a wind proof track and two pairs of socks!
As I got down to my basic tee & tights I felt a whole lot lighter!
As we reached Bikeybhanjan again, we took a tea/coffee break.
And then the de-tour started. Tshering showed us the path we’d tread. It was uphill again and I felt like squeezing his neck intensely.
We were assured we had to again ascend 2000 feet and then it was down down and down!
As we ascended the 2000 feet, we were on the opposite ridge and again it was unbelievable the distance we had covered on foot.
And now the downhill walk begun.
Walking down is a serious business. All you have is your walking stick, your eyes and ears to keep you sane and balanced. It was tough for me, more so because I suffer from vertigo. I had told no one about it. But Amar, the pro- mountaineer that he is could make it out instantly and asked me, “Nandini do you have a fear of heights?”
“Bingo!” I replied.
I don’t know how long we walked. My watch stopped working a long back. On the train to be exact. Taking a break here and there, finally we reached a spot where there is a water source. We sat down for lunch, which was packed for us in Sandakphu itself.
Feasting on Tibetan breads, eggs and veggies, I put on my eye-pad and rested for a while. A much needed power nap. Dipanjali too did the same. However our nap was insolently broken by a herd of yaks, which came to quench their thirst.
And we walked again.
We were inside the Singalila forest and it was dense. The walk way was narrow. One wrong step and you could tumble down like a rolling stone gathering a whole lot of dirt and grime.
The flowers were beginning to bloom all around.
Amar casually told me, “Aren’t these white Rhododendrons beautiful?”
I looked up and said, “Yes they are”.
“Look to your left, look to your left, where are you looking, the direction your sight is there are no Rhododendron”, Amar said.
I looked into his eyes and asked him sheepishly, “Amar, which is the left hand side?”
It was not only me. Gradually all were getting disoriented. The walk was a long one and this descend took all the concentration to think about anything else.
No one was talking. One wrong word and that would lead to a fight we all knew. We just had to reach Rimbick. That was the only thing that mattered now.
Both Amar and Thsering assured us that within the next ten minutes we would be out of this jungle and reach human habitations i.e Rimbick. And yes we did it … we reached Rimbick at four in the evening. We all smiled after a long long time I suppose. We stood together yet one more time and took a photograph.
The first house we saw, Niru exclaimed, “Yay! This is our lodge!”
Amar replied, “From where did you get this idea?”
No one responded.
And we kept walking further downhill.
At one time I saw Dipanjali jogging and I was shocked! Did she pop some pills to boost herself I wondered?
Amar who was walking behind her and ahead of me maintained a fair distance. He knew sooner or later one of us would hit him with our walking sticks. There was no sign of our lodge!
And can you believe it… we had to walk for another two hours downhill to reach our lodge? Nothing could be as bad as that.
Part – VII - Rimbick-ed & Partied!
My limbs could take it no more. Because I could stay out in some God forsaken road the whole night without food, I knew I had to walk to the lodge come what may! I asked both Dipanjali & Amar not to speak!
Once left once right we kept moving and then finally we reached what looked like a town. There were shops, there was a bakery too and then Amar asked me to take a right turn and as I did, we were in the lodge! Pheew! That was long indeed. We were introduced to the owner of the lodge. She greeted us flashing a big smile and asked us to “bathe” as fast as we could as steaming hot momos was ready for us.
The lodge was a beautiful one. Rooms were wooden and polished, neat and clean. For the first time in four days we did not have to worry about generators being shut down, we could charge cells without paying and we could bathe too! Now that’s a prize right!
As we walked towards the room, there were steps again and I vehemently said I would not walk a step more! Amar said, these were the last ones! As I walked down I saw an SUV parked and asked Amar, “Tell me, tomorrow morning do we have to walk up to the main road again or will our car come here like this one?” pointing to the car parked.
Amar smiled and said, “This is our car girl. The front seat belongs to you.”
I was not a mood to buy such boosters. Because a booster earlier about the Switzerland view made us reach our summit and there was no view as such! Even while walking down the whole day Amar & Tshering said in Rimbik there was a small movie hall and they were planning to reserve the whole theatre for us. All they asked us was to give names of the movies we wanted to watch!
But Amar was right this time. As I walked down the steps, and reached our room, in the lawn I saw Shyam! I forgot that Shyam had promised us he’d reach Rimbik the day we’d reach and party with us!
Five girls complementing how good a driver he was and playing such good music all the way from NJP to Maneybhanjan, he could not miss a chance to party one night with us!
Bathing and wearing a set of fresh clothes we were all in a party mode. We gobbled up all the momos and wasted no time to bring in the Old Monk!
We all sat in a group, talking and sharing our experiences and we were all elated.
Hard work surely pays without a doubt.
Dinner was lavish but I stuck to chicken curry and rice, which was the tastiest I had in the recent times.
As we lay on our beds, it was first time in four days we slept like logs.
We woke up early again. We did not have to walk today; we’d be travellling in a car. Nevertheless I took my cam and walked around the area and took some pictures.
One by one everyone got ready and it was time to bid adieu to Rimbick.
Our breakfast stopover was in a place called Dhotre. We again had momos and Tshering told me, “Ma’am there is coffee here. I will ensure the coffee is made the way you like it.”
I gave him an “okay” nod and he happily went inside the kitchen and asked the boy to prepare it, supervising it thoroughly!
From there we drove to Darjeeling. I don’t know why we had to stop there. The place is over crowded, time for shopping was less and well it was not what I was looking for.
From Darj we proceeded to NJP again, via Kurseong. The ride was good. Shyam again played some good music and by five we were in the NJP station.
The bags were being unloaded for the final time; Amar was settling the payments whereas Tarun and the three girls rushed to the nearest restaurant they saw. They were famished. Dipanjali was talking on the phone, while I took out the packet of fags. I took out two and put it in one of my pockets and five remained.
When the settlement was over, I went to Shyam and patted him on his arm and said, “Thank you Shyam, you’re such a good driver. I usually do not doze off on hilly terrains. But you managed that too!” I took out the packet of fags and handed it to him.
“This is for you”, I said. I won’t require it once I am inside the station.
He gave me his best smile and said, “Thank you Ma’am!”
I looked at Thsering. He was inside the car checking if we had left anything. I waited for him to finish his work. As he came out, I called out to him, “Tshering”
“Yes, Ma’am”, he said and came to me.
And we shook hands and smiled. I thanked him. He had taken good care of me, pampered me the most and treated me like a princess.
I took out my eye-pad and gave it to him.
“It’s a small parting gift from me”, I told him.
“No, no Ma’am I cannot take it. Already you have given me the altimeter. How can I take it? I have seen you using this eye pad and I know this is important to you.”
“Take it”, I insisted. I further told him I had another one at home.
We shook hands for one more time and he said, “Ma’am our next trip will be from where the Ganges emerges – Gangotri”.
“Done”, I said, as I walked to the restaurant where my other team members were and they drove away…
Published on 3/18/12