One Place At A Time!
My Sunrise experience at Mt. Sandakphu
Many of you may know me as a guy who has never been a writer/blogger, and yet here you are, reading my first ever travel excerpt, and it’s only and only because I cannot comprehend my experience and keep it just to myself from my recent trek to Mt. Sandakphu. Sandakphu is the kind of trek you’ve read about, heard about a lot. I am sure you may have also seen many pictures of the ‘Sleeping Buddha’ range as viewed from its summit. But let me tell you that one is not prepared for the landscapes that lie ahead once you reach Sandakphu.
The mighty Mt. Kanchenjunga towering right in front of you, the trio of Mt. Makalu, Mt. Everest and Mt. Lhotse lies to your left, and as you move your gaze towards the right, one can see the vast expanse of the mountain ranges of Tibet and Bhutan, including Mt. Gangkhar Puensum (the highest unclimbed mountain of Bhutan).
Eyes turned moist and I was overwhelmed by the visuals, realizing how small and insignificant we all humans are. This is the story of one of the most beautiful Himalayan treks that I have ever embarked upon. If you’re still reading through this, it’s only because outdoor life is a living, breathing aspiration for you. In July 2018, I had successfully summited Mt. Stok Kangri with Trek the Himalayas (TTH) and since then, I searched for a mountain that could give me a similar
altitude and the adrenaline rush associated with it. Sandakphu was nowhere near that altitude, nor it came in the challenging category trek, however, something about the trek had me hooked to it. I read its description a couple of times, and the fact that this trek had constant flirtations with the India-Nepal international border and its summit views included 4 of the 14 eight thousand meters peaks of the world, made me finalize it. This trek had tea house stays
throughout its duration, and being a luxurious trek, it had a nice ring to it. So, on the morning of 13th Feb, I took a flight to Bagdogra, and after a beautiful 4-hour drive through a road dotted by tea gardens on both sides, our trek group arrived at the base village of Kopidana. We were a group of 6 trekkers (Megha, Karishma, Chandu, Wasim, Nitish and myself) all coming from Mumbai-Pune locality, and there was an instant bonding between us all. At Kopidana we were introduced to our trek lead, Devendra Bisht and local guide Ram Ji who belonged to the border town of Maneybhanjang. After a brief round of introduction over a few cups of black tea and then going through the itinerary over dinner, we were sent packing to sleep in our cozy beds and blankets by 9 pm. The wake-up call came in at 6.30 am and we all were up in an instant, very excited to begin our 4-day trek. After a wholesome breakfast and packing our bags we were ready to trek to Tumling, a small village in Nepal.
We started our ascent by 8.30 am and reached the small hamlet of Chitrey by around 10.30 am for some light snacks and tea. After a good rest we began our journey forward, the route after Chitrey is more of a gradual ascent with ups and downs in the path, one can see a lot of SSB posts on the way and greet our jawans guarding them a resounding ‘Jai Hind’. At around 1 pm we reached our lunch campsite at Megma village.The lunch host was an extremely sweet old school teacher, who had prepared a delicious spread consisting of some crisp French fries, cabbage vegetable, fresh mint chutney, hot dal and rice, fried papads and a local pickle. We all literally hogged on the food without making a sound and then visited the local monastery, clicked a few pictures before proceeding back with our upward journey towards Tumling. We reached Tumling by around 3.30 pm and immediately checked in to our local homestay
called Satkar lodge. Tumling is a small village consisting of around 15–20 local families, while the road adjacent to the village lies in India the village actually belongs to Nepal. Later in the evening, soaking in the warmth of the fireplace in the dining area, sipping on our black tea and munching through piping hot ‘kanda bhajiyas’, Maggi and omelets, we all narrated our stories of previous trek experiences to each other. Potato and rice being the staple food of the region, its presence is strongly felt in the food throughout the trek. Almost all vegetables prepared have their main ingredient as potato and the sweet dish also generally revolves around rice pudding or on some occasions fresh fruit custard. However, the food throughout the trek was homely, served hot and extremely delicious. The next morning, we all woke up at 5.30 am, except in the case of Wasim who was awake from 3.30 am and not taking any risk of missing the sunrise. This was going to be our first glimpse of the ‘Sleeping Buddha’ range, however, due to low visibility and foggy conditions, we all were left a bit disappointed.
At every homestay that we stayed, we would always wake up to the divine chants of ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ the Tibetan prayer playing over the stereo each morning. And to wake up to this, sipping hot water from the thermos and walking outside your room to enjoy the surrealistic views whilst shivering in the cold, was one hell of a experience that we all looked forward to every morning. After a good scrumptious breakfast, we were ready to make our push to the next campsite at Kalapokhri village. The walk today began with a good 2 hours of descent, making us lose all the height gain which we had achieved the previous day. This meant only one thing that a good steep ascent would soon be approaching us and many in the group were vary of this. As you cross a stone milestone with the word Nepal inscribed in the devnagri script on it you are suddenly ushered into a new country much to your amusement. The route today passes through the famous Red Panda wildlife sanctuary, the Singalila National Park, bamboo forests on both sides of the trail and a completely downhill path that leads you to Garibas village, which acts as a rest stop before you began the steep ascent until Kalapokhri.
The walk today was of almost 17 km and the weather was extremely cold and foggy postlunch. We could hardly see the team member walking in front of us, but finally, after a long tiring walk, we made our way into the small sleepy village of Kalapokhri at 4 pm which was entirely lost in the dense fog.
‘Losar’ the Tibetan new year had recently been celebrated and at every homestay that we stayed in we were given traditional sweets prepared by the locals. One thing which I observed at every village was that each Nepali house was decorated elegantly. Right from posters of superhit bollywood films, mandala artworks, khukris and artistic frames were hung around the living rooms. The exterior paint of their houses were bright and in contrasting combination which made them look way more prettier. And almost each house had a dedicated garden which consisted of different flowering plants and veggies. Over a span of half a decade of my trekking and traveling in the pahadi states of Uttarakhand and Himachal, I was always bowled over by the hospitality of the locals and this faith in the pahadi’s has now been carved out on a stone after experiencing similar welcoming nature by the families residing near the Indo-Nepal border. Over a few games of cards, fresh popcorns, soup and hot dinner (all prepared by an old but cute and fit Nepali lady, who everyone loving called as ‘amma’) we all chatted nonchalantly and when the temperatures started dropping to sub-zero levels, we all went in our rooms seeking the comfort and warmth that our thick yet soft blankets had to offer.
One convenient aspect of trekking in this region is that roads and electricity is available right up to the summit. Though the electricity is erratic and the roads in extremely bad shape, it does provide a sense of comfort to all the trekkers. Also availability of Airtel network and Wi-Fi connection at every homestay keeps one connected with the outside world.
After leisurely waking up at 8 in the morning the next day, we all braced ourselves for one final summit push of Sandakphu. The trek distance was merely a 6km ascent and with an eta of 1 pm set by our leaders, we reached the summit by noon itself much to our surprise. However, this joy was short-lived as the sky became packed with dense clouds and a thick fog descended on the summit plateau. The temperature began to spiral downwards and we
had to cancel our sunset view walk of the evening. Spirits a little dampened, we settled in the common area of our homestay and began playing cards, which now had been a ritual in the evenings. But as the night picked up so did the spirits of all the groups resting in the common area. Nepali pop songs and Bollywood 90’s hits blared through the speaker systems and suddenly the common room resembled a local club with random strangers swaying and dancing to the beats. This energy and atmosphere at 12000ft in the summit camp were an incredible experience itself. However, after a scrumptious dinner, we all were advised to go to sleep early by our lead as the D-day awaited us the next morning. I remember praying religiously to the Gods that night for a clear sighting the next morning. Sandakphu is a tiny village consisting of a SSB camp,a few wooden houses and lodges which are run by the local families. Its a flat plateau peak to which tourists and trekkers throng to in numbers to experience the ultimate sunrise views each season which commences in November and runs right up to the onset of monsoons. A few trekkers also further trek to
Phalut which is a bit lower in altitude and another 20 km from Sandakphu and is located a little more closer to the Kanchenjunga range. However, the proximity of these surrounding ranges even at Sandakphu is mind boggling.
Three loud knocks at the door and the yelling of Wasim had me on my feet at 5.40 am the next morning. It was extremely windy and cold and I shivered as I made my way out of the homestay to reach for the stairs leading up to the terrace. As I was walking up, still a bit sleepy, I was unaware of the unbelievable sights that had opened up behind my back. The Gods had been merciful and the entire sky had cleared and right in front of us lay the amazingly mighty ‘Sleeping Buddha’ range, all of its peaks crystal clear in view. The 8586m Mt.Kanchenjunga in all its glory, its peak however lost to the surrounding clouds, stared at the 20–25 odd group of people who had braved the cold and had gathered on the terrace. As I scanned a little westwards and bingo, the golden jackpot I could make out Mt. Makalu, Mt. Lhotse and the revered Mt. Everest. The entire range was so humongous and close that it was impossible to believe that I was actually seeing 4 of the world’s highest peaks at the same time. As the sun rose and its rays made the snow on the peaks sparkle like gold, I thanked my stars that I was standing there at that moment to experience such a magical and magnificent moment ever to be visualized. The vast expense of the peaks of Tibet and Bhutan lay on the eastern side and behind us were the small hills and plains of the Indian states of Sikkim and West Bengal. It was a dead drop gorgeous view all over.The Gods were kind and the famed 180-degree Sandakphu view was right in front of us.
Fighting back a few overwhelming tears, I fixed my gaze on the Mt. Kanchenjunga summit, thanked it and prayed for the safety of the climbers that were going to push for its summit in the upcoming climbing season. After spending around another hour and soaking in those surreal views, it was time for our breakfast and then to pack our bag packs and be on the move towards the next camp at Sepi. The walk today was a long tiring descent of 15 km. I quickly filmed a few review videos for TTH with the Sleeping Buddha range in my backdrop and by 8.30 we were on our way downhill.
As a habit of collecting and bringing back natural mementos from every place I travel, I was lucky enough to find the bark of the Bhojpatra tree (found only above 10000ft) and small pine cones which I happily stuffed in my tiffin box for safekeeping. But the cherry on the cake was spotting a Rhododendron tree, the national flower of Nepal in its full bloom post our lunch break at the small village of Gurdum.
The blooming season of these world-famous flowers starts by march and lasts till the monsoons. A medicinal herbal juice prepared from the extract of the Rhododendron flowers is quite a common delicacy in these parts. After crossing a few wooden bridges over the Srikhola river (Khola stands for river in Nepali), we reached Sepi by 4 pm and post the last body stretching session for the trek, I quickly took a bucket of hot water (Rs.50 per bucket, as bathing is considered a luxury on treks) and had a relaxing bath after 6 days.
The trek for all 6 of us was an extremely successful one and after one last round of briefing conducted by Dev bhaiya and Ram Ji, we all were handed our trek completion certificates after sharing our experiences. TTH has been that one organization that has the required capability, management and technical skills of giving its client the most memorable trek experiences ever. Be it on the challenging 20000ft Stok summit or on a relatively luxurious Sandakphu trek, the services, the food, the local guides, the stays are just impeccable. As we partied and danced away our last night together until the wee hours at the basecamp, there was this one mutual feeling that we all had and that was of gratefulness. Grateful for the guides and the trek lead who encouraged us and kept our spirits high, grateful
to the local families living in the hills to let us in their homes and sleep in the warm beds and served us piping hot food for the entire duration of the trek, grateful to mountain Gods for allowing us to summit and descend back safely.
As I made my journey back to the Bagdogra airport the next day, I mentally was still on the terrace of my homestay at Sandakphu summit, watching the mighty ranges and realizing that those two hours on the morning of 17th Feb 2021 were by far the best views I could ever soak in. I am saying this now and I’ll say it even any other time, this has been liberating and an equally empowering experience for me. The mountain gods bestowed all their blessings and I
could envision the beauty of this trip with my heart too. I am gonna try my best to continue penning down my trips. I am gonna keep going back to old photographs and live those days again through the pictures and meanwhile, let me know your views on reading this!Keep travelling! Keep experiencing! Keep loving! Keep exploring!