When we decided to make a trip to Kurseong and Makaibari, reactions were predictable. Many had not heard of these places, some thought it must be an inaccessible place somewhere in a remote corner of the north eastern part of India and the ones who knew its location, presumed that we would be halting there for a day before moving to Darjeeling for a full-fledged vacation. But, try Kurseong as a holiday destination and you would be pleasantly surprised by what it can offer.
Kurseong is a quaint hill town, perched roughly midway between Darjeeling and Siliguri. This is one of those way-side places that you pass through on your journeys but rarely remember its name, much less choose it as a destination.
You can reach Kurseong by road or by rail, both running together for most of the stretch, with the narrow gauge railway line criss-crossing the road at every bend. But if you take the train, be prepared for a slow journey – almost double the time.
Darjeeling Himalayan Railways, started in 1881 and still fully operational with most of its original features intact, has been conferred a World Heritage status by UNESCO and has several unique engineering marvels – the Batasia loop, the Z elevations at a few stretches etc.
But then, I will be digressing if I go into that in detail. So, look at this road or rail journey through rose-tinted glasses, with visions of Rajesh Khanna crooning “ mere sapnon ki rani kab aayegi tu” (the queen of my dreams, when shall thou come – an evergreen hindi film song shot on this locale)
Kurseong would look picturesque from across the hills, but certainly not so if you are standing on the main road near the Railway Station and the market place. Take a look.
But, move away from here onto the upper lanes through churches and houses with pretty laced curtains on the windows and flowers blooming in tin pots on window sills or onto the roads leading to the tea gardens, the hill town and the valleys engulfed by mist and you will feel very differently about this place.
The obvious place to visit, while at Kurseong, is the Makaibari tea estate. The long leafed Darjeeling tea is known to tea lovers all over the world for its distinctive flavour and you can see how it is grown in Makaibari tea gardens and processed in their factory, which was set up in 1859. Unlike other tea gardens of Darjeeling which have been taken over by multinationals, Makaibari is still with the same family for four generations now. Also, Makaibari tea estate was the first one in the region to adopt organic tea growing and has been a trend-setter.
At Makaibari, great emphasis is laid on the plucking standards – smallest shoots comprising two leaves and a bud are plucked by hand and women are preferred for the greater dexterity they have.
It is hard work indeed, as 22000 such shoots have to be plucked to get a kilogram of tea. Plucking starts early in the morning before the overnight dew evaporates.
At the factory, the plucked tea leaves go through the process of withering, rolling, fermentation and drying. The green leaves are evenly spread on huge troughs, through which hot and cold air is blown in a regulated manner so that moisture is removed slowly in about 15 hours.
The withered leaves then go through a roller machine which twists and twirls the leaves gently without breaking them. The rolled leaves are then spread in a thin layer in a cool and humid room for 3-4 hours to allow fermentation. The fermented leaves then go through a dryer with regulated temperature.
Almost all the machines at the Makaibari tea factory have the “Brittannia” marking: These had come from England a century ago and are fully functional even now.
The tea leaves then go through the final steps of sorting, grading and packing.
Makaibari produces the world’s most expensive tea, “silver tips” – which is plucked under a full moon. Visitors are taken around the factory and the process of making Darjeeling tea is explained. There is also a museum which traces the history of the Makaibari tea gardens and displays the milestones achieved over the years and other testimonials.
While at Kurseong, take time to visit the churches and the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway museum, watch the train move through the crowded market place with the people going about their business just two feet away from the track and taste the excellent momos at West Bengal Tourist Lodge.
Also, skip Darjeeling if you want the magic of kurseong and Makaibari to linger.
What is it that makes me go back, again and again, for a hike in the Himalayas, I wonder often. I lack stamina, have not been into any form of sport my entire life, cannot really call myself adventurous, I get easily scared when the weather turns foul at higher altitudes in the mountains and crossing a glacier gives me the jitters.
In short, I am a very unlikely candidate to keep up with this activity for so many years. And yet, I have gone for trek after trek, year after year, well into my forties and fifties. I am sure the credit goes to the Himalayas for stoking and keeping this passion alive in me. The bottom line is – If I could do it, you can do it too!
People like you and me who are not adventure freaks or into serious mountaineering but who would like physical exertion, breathe in the fresh mountain air and be one with nature can hike on the innumerable trails in the Himalayas. At the lower altitudes, these trails take you through villages, meadows, forests and streams and as you ascend, the tree line recedes giving way to glaciers and snow laden mountains, Himalaya meaning the abode of snow.
So, here are a few tips for the uninitiated on how to go about a hike in the Himalayas. Just do it and let the magic unfold.
1. As a first trek, choose a simple one of not more than 2 or 3 days and not taking you above 8000 to 9000 feet. There are several good treks at lower altitudes like Mcleodganj- Triund near Dharamsala, Nag Tibba near Mussorrie, Deoriataal and Tungnath-Chandrashila near chopta, Parashar lake near Mandi, valley of flowers in Uttarakhand, Dayara Bugyal near Uttarkashi, Sandakphu near Darjeeling, Beas Kund near Manali etc. Don’t dream of doing the Goecha La trek in Sikkim or the Pin Parvati trek straightaway. The tree line ends at about 11000 feet and conditions generally get harsh beyond this altitude requiring acclimatization. A trek involving crossing of a Pass at 12000 feet or above should be attempted after experiencing a couple of treks to lower altitudes.
2. Read about the terrain, the trek route, the level of difficulty, the best time to trek, how to reach the starting point of the trek, the flora and fauna of the region, the villages en route etc. Most of the information is available on the internet. This will make the trek enjoyable and wholesome rather than experiencing it as an adventure activity alone.
3. The next aspect that you need to decide is whether to go with people/organizations well established in this field or you want to go on your own with a group of friends. The benefits of starting with an established group are many. They have a wealth of knowledge and experience which they share with the participants in their orientation sessions, take care of all logistics of arrangements and also provide trekking gear. Some of the prominent ones are The Youth Hostel Association of India (www.yhaiindia.org), STEP Trekkers (www.steptrekkers.org), Indiahikes (www.indiahikes.com), Indian Himalayan Adventures (www.ihaclub.com). A few treks down the line, you can think of doing it on your own, hiring guides, porters, cooks and tents.
4. Do not start buying expensive and top end hiking gear immediately. Yes, a good pair of hiking shoes is a must, which should be used and broken into before the trek. The need to buy other equipment will depend upon the nature of the trek and what can be hired or borrowed easily. You can start buying rucksack, sleeping bag etc after you have done a couple of treks and intend being a regular.
5. Start walking regularly for about 45 minutes to one hour every day, at least for one month before the trek. This really helps. And climb stairs to the extent possible. Otherwise, you will end up with extreme stiffness in the legs on the first day of the trek. Even if you have been walking regularly in the plains, it would still be better to have an acclimatization walk in the hills on the first day and start the trek the next day.
6. Packing your sack sensibly with the essentials with the weight distributed evenly is an art which needs to be perfected over the years. Take minimum number of shirts and trousers but you can be liberal in the number of undergarments and socks. One warm sweater, a jacket with windproof covering, a woolen cap/muffler, thermal gloves, and sunglasses are the essentials. The clothes should be packed in 3 or 4 separate thin waterproof covers to keep them dry even in a heavy downpour. Stack the clothes packets vertically with two packets at each level so that the weight is distributed evenly from the bottom of the sack to the top. The heaviest items should be in the middle portion. Pack the rainsheet, gloves and woolen cap in the top compartment of the sack for quick access. Many sacks come with a separate access to the lowermost compartment, which would be ideal for packing the sleeping bag. The water bottle goes obviously on one of the side pockets for easy access while walking.
7. For protection from rain, a rain sheet is the best and will serve the purpose much better than a raincoat or a waterproof poncho or waterproof trousers and uppers. A rain sheet (called a barsati in Hindi) is just a large waterproof sheet folded and stitched at the top to form a hood over your head and body and is large and loose enough to cover your sack too. You can hold the sheet ends and continue to walk comfortably or it can be made hands free by attaching strings to the sheet which can be loosely tied over the abdominal area. It generally rains in intermittent spells during the day and a rain sheet is the easiest to put on and take off.
8. Do not trek on an empty stomach but at the same time, do not have a very heavy breakfast as it would tire you before you have trekked even a kilometer. Walk at your own pace, steadily without having frequent resting/snacking breaks. Whenever you feel tired or out of breath especially while walking uphill, take very short rests leaning on rocks instead of sitting down. If you sit down frequently, thinking that the rest will energize you, walking will become even more difficult. Take small sips of water whenever you feel thirsty and sucking sugar candies also helps. Munch on snacks like dry fruits or chocolate while walking and ideally you should have two snack/tea breaks and one lunch break in a trek of about 10 kilometres of 6 to 7 hours.
During these breaks, you should relax with the sack off your back and take off your shoes too if you like. If you are already at some height, put on your sweater or windcheater as soon as you sit down as the heat generated in the body while walking dissipates immediately.
9. While walking, keep to the mountain side and watch where your next step is going to land. If you want to take photograph or just enjoy the scenery around, stop walking for a minute or two. Doing any of these while walking, can lead to a stumble and a fall, sometimes with very serious consequences. Another safety aspect to be observed is not to overtake another trekker when the path is narrow and certainly not without intimation or in a hurry. An accidental rubbing of the sacks or rolled floor mats on top of the sacks can actually topple over either person.
10. Be aware of Mountain Sickness which can strike anyone as altitude is gained, especially if the ascent is not gradual and the body is unable to acclimatize. Headache, nausea, dizziness and inability to follow instructions are some of the symptoms as oxygen supply to the brain gets diminished. If symptoms persist, it is safest to descend to lower altitudes as Acute Mountain Sickness can be fatal once it sets in. Also, once you have reached some altitude, do not go to sleep at night without eating, irrespective of how tired or exhausted you are after the day’s trek as this can also have serious consequences.
11. Respect the mountains, the local customs of the villagers and ensure that your hike is environment friendly. Littering is a big NO NO. Walk up to the village or shepherd huts near the camp and interact with the folks to get an insight into the life in the mountains. You will be amazed at the friendliness and warmth that you would receive. If you can, carry small gifts for the children that live in remote areas.
12. Once you reach the camping place and the tents have been pitched, keep your sack at the head of the mat assigned for you and take out only the bare minimum items for changing clothes, footwear to be used in the camp etc. DO NOT unpack your sack completely and fill up the limited space inside the tent. Just imagine what the tent would look like if all the occupants did likewise! If it is a sunny day, you can leave the shoes outside but before you retire for the night, keep the shoes in an orderly fashion between the outer layer and inner layer of the tent to ensure that these do not get wet due to rain or even dew.
13. While there is still some daylight, locate essential items like medicines, torch, water bottle, plate, mug, muffler etc that you may need at night. Rummaging through the sack for any of these in the darkness, with the help of a torchlight can be very difficult and extremely irritating for your companions. Since you will be sharing a very small space with several others, follow basic etiquette like not talking too loudly when others are resting/sleeping, not airing your smelly pair of socks on your sack etc. Of course, if you snore, you cannot do anything about it except sympathize with the other occupants the next morning.
14. The Himalayas abound with wildlife – panthers, black bears and birds – but it is very unlikely that you would encounter them during the day. If you have to go out at night to answer nature’s call, don’t go far from the cluster of tents and take a bright torch and also a friend along if possible.
15. Lastly and most importantly, enjoy the hiking and camping experience. Breathe in the fresh unpolluted air and the heady scent of pine cones, have your dinner under a sky filled with unbelievable number of stars, nestle cozily in a warm sleeping bag inside the tent, get up at the crack of dawn to experience the silence and the wilderness around, huddle around the fire in the make-shift kitchen with a hot cup of tea and chat up with the cook, catch the first or last rays of the sun on the snow peak in front and share stories with fellow hikers during campfire.
Experience all of these and more – the laughter and banter among friends, a great appetite, good physical exercise and watch the cares and worries dropping off like withered leaves.
I dived into the blog world last year with much trepidation. Will someone ever read what I write? Will I sink without a trace? And what should I write about? It was easy to choose “travel” as the subject as I have travelled quite a lot, mostly within my own country – India – and if not interesting, I would at least be authentic, I thought. Also, I have always enjoyed reading travelogues, which helped me veer myself more in this direction.The kind of travel I have enjoyed the most is hiking in the Himalayas, so I zeroed in on this topic and took the plunge.
Writers want readers and I am no exception. Not being very active in the social networking area, my hope for attracting more readers lies in effective usage of the tools available for increasing visibility.
I do want to write on other matters too that are close to my heart. And it has always been a dream to write short stories. It is another matter that I have not even made a first lousy draft. But I will, I will, now that I am here and intend sticking around.
Trekking in the Himalayas is a complete adventure. But for me, the adrenalin rush is pronounced when I have to cross a glacier. When a trek route is being discussed and finalized, the first thing that I ask is “how much of snow will be there?” I am not bothered much about the altitude, having gone up to 19000 feet while going around Mount Kailash in Tibet. Snow conditions depend not just on altitude alone but also on the geographical location and the month of the year. But walking on ice is not a cakewalk (pun intended) for me.
The following 3 photographs were taken on my trek to Har ki dun, a beautiful valley at the base of swargarohini peak in Uttarakhand region of the Himalayas. We had taken a circuitous route which entailed crossing a series of glaciers on one day, most of them being on an incline of about 60-70 degrees requiring fixing of rope.
A few years later, on a trek to Indrahara Pass in the Dhauladhar range of the Himalayas, I opted to stay back at the last camp at the foot of the pass and 5 members of the group left at four in the morning to negotiate the steep (read scary) snow track , full of crevasses. You can see my good friends Arvind, Jaspal and the guides in the following photographs. Hair-raising adventure indeed!
As I crossed the ridge, quite out of breath after the three and a half hour’s stiff climb, my eyes fell on kareri lake, with the Dhauladhars rising majestically from its banks. It was like a jewel shimmering in the midst of that vast landscape! Kareri dal is a natural lake at an altitude of about 11000 feet, fed by the glaciers of Minkiani Pass in the Dhauladhar range of Upper Himalayas. We had trekked for 3 days to reach this piece of heaven on earth. The lake can be reached directly from Kareri village, involving a trek of 13kms, but we had taken a circuitous route and returned to the road head through Kareri village.
Every summer, as the temperatures soar in the Indian plains, the higher regions of the Himalayas beckon the avid trekker. And forgetting all the travails, the weary feet, and the leaking tents of the earlier treks and buoyed by the selective memories of the time spent in the lap of nature, the trekker starts collecting the gear for yet another hike in the Himalayas. Believe me, the pull is very strong.
There are two ways to do this trek. You have to reach Dharamsala in either case and from where arrangements have to be made for porters, guides and provisions. The route commonly taken is Dharamsala – Gera(roadhead) – kareri village – kareri lake – Minkiani top – Kareri lake and return the same way. The other route (which was what we took) is Dharamsala – Salli(roadhead)-Chandrela Mata Mandir – Daler – Kareri lake – Minkiani top and the return is through kareri village and Gera. The first night, after engaging the cook and porters and making other arrangements at Dharamsala, we halted at Drini Forest Rest House, an hour’s drive away. The Rest House was well maintained and we spent an enjoyable evening and the next morning there on the lawns.
Day 2:- Our rucksacks packed, we left Drini after breakfast for Salli village, 8kms away, on a hired jeep, and started the first day’s trek of 6-7 kms to Chandrela Mata Mandir(temple). The terrain was initially barren and with the sun blazing, the uphill walk was quite tedious till we reached a stream and had our first break. With our shoes off, sitting on the rocks with feet in icy water and sipping fruit juice and munching biscuits, we got into the groove of Himalayan trekking. The rest of the trek was along the stream as the path ascended gradually and there was more vegetation.
This is a well trodden path with villagers going to the temple, women returning from the forests with sacks of lungdu, a variety of leafy greens, which is a speciality in this region. We were to taste this eventually when we had lunch at the home of our cook in Kareri, our last camp. We reached Chandrela temple at around 2 in the afternoon. After stopping briefly at the temple of the Goddess, which was manned(?) by kids who blew the conch and put a dash of vermillion on our foreheads, we pitched our tents on the grassland adjacent to the temple. An unused shepherd hut was to be our kitchen, and the same pattern followed at the higher camps too. A huge flat-topped rock served as our sit-out, chatting room, dining table and lying on it after dinner, facing the star-studded sky and identifying the constellations, it somehow seemed to be worth all the trouble taken to reach here.
Day 3:- There were dark clouds in the horizon as we left the campsite after a breakfast of parathas and pickle with tea. The day’s trek was along the stream as the boulder-strewn path ascended gradually. There was very little vegetation and but for the interest generated by the hydro power project that is coming up in this area, with the tunnel for the water course nearing completion, there was nothing much to recommend for the day’s route. A little drama while crossing the stream, which required jumping from boulder to boulder, with two participants slipping and getting wet, and we were through with the day’s trek as we clambered up, passed the shepherds’ hutsand reached our campsite at Daler, at the base of Baliyani Pass.
And what a campsite it was! It was a flat meadow with fresh grass that had come up after the snow had melted and the lower ridges of Dhauladhar loomed all around. The top- most ridge to the right was our next destination as Kareri lake was beyond this ridge. Every time we looked up in that direction, a little apprehension crept in, despite years of walking in the Himalayas, as the trail seemed very steep and quite difficult to negotiate. This place got the name Daler as the excess water from the kareri Dal(meaning lake) used to overflow from over the ridge to this area. Now, the excess water from the lake has been channelled to flow down on the other side to kareri village through the kareri nallah. We spent a wonderful and sunny evening at this camp, interacting with the gaddis (the shepherds who take their flock of sheep every year for grazing in the high grasslands which come up after the snow melts) and were treated to tea and fresh khoya ( thickened milk) by a warm-hearted gaddi woman.
Day 4:- It was not a clear day and dark ominous clouds were gathering all around. We debated on whether it would be better to leave early and go through the stiff climb before a heavy downpour or wait till it rains and the weather clears up. We finally took our guide’s advice and set off soon after breakfast. This trail was not only steep but also risky at certain patches, which had to be negotiated carefully, consciously keeping to the mountainside, as an accidental slip could mean a fall down the steep gorge to the right. To add to the woes, it started raining and climbing became more difficult with the rain sheets. A first time trekker of the group used all fours to negotiate the risky stretches and this was promptly categorised as “octopus-style climbing”. It was a very sensible thing to do, under the circumstances. No looking around, no photography – we concentrated only on where our next step was going to be. After an hour and a half of this kind of scary climbing (thrilling in retrospect), we took a break as we had covered half the distance and had crossed the “danger area” as our guide put it. It was still drizzling and we huddled within our rain sheets, and de-stressed by munching biscuits and wafers. We covered the rest of the trail in an hour and crossing the ridge, came upon huge grasslands and then the lake. As I said earlier, it was indeed like a shining jewel in the midst of that vast landscape.
There is a temple on the banks of the lake, with a few make-shift log huts (with no doors – just stacked logs and a tin roof) but having a large cemented terrace overlooking the lake and facing the Dhauladhars. We set camps in these huts and had all our meals on the open terrace, around the fire on which the food was being cooked. Soon after we had reached Kareri lake, the weather changed again dramatically with hail storm and heavy rain, which is typical of Dhauladhar ranges.
Day 5:- We did not have to move camp this day and everyone was relaxed. We had no specific plans for the day – just walking around the lake, through various trails leading to shepherds’ huts, up the trail leading to Minkiani Pass and as far up the glacier as we could climb without difficulty, on to an adjacent meadow for a game of cricket, lazing under the sun on the terrace with a book and of course, waiting for the next meal. It was such a wonderful day, spent in the lap of nature, with good food and friends around, far from the worries and stresses of urban life.
Day 6:- We left Kareri lake after breakfast and started the downhill trek of 13 kilometres to Kareri village. It is a beautiful trail passing through forests, with the gurgling stream never far away, and but for the length of the trail and several steep stretches (which take a toll on the knees and toes) it can be rated as one of the most delightful hiking trails of the Himalayas. We reached Kareri village at around 2 in the afternoon and stayed at the old and poorly maintained Forest Rest House, built during the British time. The cook belongs to this village and he invited us for lunch at his home. We had no energy to explore the village that day.
Day 7:-In the morning, feeling fresh and energetic again, we walked through the village, its alleys and terraced fields and were invited by many to enter their homes and have tea. It was a pity we could not say yes to all of them. The village has a primary and middle school, and almost all the children continue their schooling in the High School at Gera, involving a 12 km walk every day. After breakfast, we too walked the 6 kms to Gera and then onward to Dharamsala.
This was a nice, circular hiking trail, which took us from 5000 feet to a height of 11000 feet, through green meadows and forests, glaciers, lake, shepherd huts and a vibrant village with hospitable folks.
This place just took our breath away, literally and figuratively. We were at Dalotu in Himachal Pradesh at 11000 feet, and had trudged for the last three hours up the steep mountainside through dense pine forests. We were gasping for breath, as it is, but what really took our breath away was the 360 degree view of unparallelled beauty around us. We were totally unprepared for the magnificent surroundings of this place and the “been there, seen it all” seasoned trekkers amongst us were also awestruck by the sheer beauty.
We were a part of Indian Himalayan Adventures, a Delhi-based non-commercial adventure group consisting of people who share the passion for trekking in the Himalayas, and had decided to go to Kugti Pass, the highest pass in the Pir Panjal range of the Himalayas. The plan was to go up to Kugti Pass from Bharmour(65 kms from Chamba) in Himachal Pradesh, along the shepherds’ trail but unlike the shepherds, who cross over the pass with their flock and descend into Lahaul valley, we planned to return the same way from the top of the pass. But the plan had to be modified, based on reports from Bharmour, of excessive snow not only around the pass but even below alyas, which is a generic term for the camping place before the ascent to the pass. Kugti pass, at a height of 16500 feet and prone to avalanches, is daunting and is generally opened by the nomadic shepherds (Gaddis), who are the first to cross over to Lahaul. But before that, they pray to Goddess Marala Mata for safe passage and sacrifice sheep at her altar. Our modified plan was, therefore, to go up to Kugti village and further on to Kelang temple or Duggi depending on snow conditions and thereafter, take a diverted route towards Chobu Pass, which is at a lower altitude of 14000 feet.
The trekking route falls in Kugti Wildlife sanctuary. Hence, necessary permission for the trek has to be secured from the forest authorities at Chamba. Bharmour is also the base for the trek to Manimahesh lake, a pilgrimage undertaken at the time of Janmashtami by lakhs of devotees. Bharmour has an excellent PWD Rest House, for which prior booking is necessary. At Bharmour, we finalized the arrangements for the trek, collecting tents and other equipment, meeting the guide, porters and cook who would accompany us and purchasing and packing necessary provisions as practically nothing is available beyond this point. We left Bharmour the next day by a hired jeep for Dharol, 19 kms away. Places like Dharol are quaint and hard to find, even by Himachal’s standards. It has exactly two house-cum-shops, one on each side of the road. The trek to Kugti Pass via Kugti village begins from here.
Kugti is the last village on this trail and is at an altitude of around 8500 feet. The trail from Dharol to Kugti ascends gradually, winding along the river Budhil, a tributary of Raavi. The Budhil valley is green, consisting of dense mixed forests and the snow-capped mountains of Pir Panjal range are visible right from the start of the trek. The gradient is moderate and after 4 kms, the path winds down to Kugti secondary school, located on the banks of Budhil. The school was having a lunch break and the children were playing or moving around happily. The school, catering to the children of Kugti up to class 10, is about one and a half kilometers ahead of the village, though the primary wing is located in the village itself. The stretch from the school to the village was uphill all the way and it was a relief to reach the Forest Rest House where we were to stay that day. Most of the Forest Rest Houses in Himachal Pradesh have idyllic settings and the Kugti FRH is no exception. A walk through the village in the evening reaffirmed the general belief that cricket is indeed the national passion! The village has three or four paved open spaces surrounded by houses on all sides and cricket was in full swing at each of these courtyards, with spectators cheering from the windows and ledges of the quaint houses. Kugti is indeed an active and vibrant village!
This was the lower Kugti and there is an upper Kugti as well, with about 40 houses. The village is electrified and dish antennas sprout out of every house top. While there is no telephone connection, Kugti remains connected to the outer world through television! Dinner on the verandah of the Rest House, under a starlit sky, was a great way to complete the first day of the trek.
We left for Kelang temple the next day and came across streams of boys and girls on their way to school. It was Monday morning but the kids were cheerful and smiling and there were no signs of Monday blues, which is perhaps an urban concept perfected by weary urbanites. The tiny tots were also heading to the primary school within the village.
At the end of the village is the khud or the stream which is the water source for the village, and a separate ledge has been made for the womenfolk to wash clothes in running water. Kelang is about 5 kms from Kugti and is at an altitude of around 10000 feet, the height where the tree line generally ends in the Himalayas. The trail out of Kugti runs through terraced fields for a kilometer or two. Barley, potato and rajma are the main crops and there are apple trees on the higher slopes. Thereafter, the Budhil valley opens up, unfolding its beauty and the trail continues gently along the river.
After crossing a large stream which gushes down to join Budhil, the stiff climb to the Kelang temple begins. Kartikeya, the son of Lord Shiva, is the deity of this temple. About 200 metres further up is the temple of Marala Mata, whom the shepherds worship before venturing out onto the Kugti Pass. We stayed in a large bare room within the temple complex.
After having a hot lunch of khichdi, which the cooks had rustled up in no time, we walked towards Duggi, which was originally planned to be our second camp. After just a short walk from the Marla Mata temple and with a turn of the path, the majestic Pir Panjal range comes into full view. It was a lovely walk through forest and alpine meadows but we could not take our eyes off from the range in front of us! The route from Duggi onwards was completely snow-bound and a couple of avalanches seemed waiting to happen.
It was on our way back to Kelang that we saw two brown bears – a mother and a cub – on the opposite mountain. They were engrossed in digging out and eating something (a type of insect, the locals told us) and were also moving up gradually. For over an hour, we watched their movements and were thrilled to see them cross a glacier effortlessly. Kugti wildlife sanctuary is rich in high-altitude Himalayan wildlife like the brown bear, Himalayan black bear, goral, leopard, and Himalayan tahr. We spent an enjoyable evening in the courtyard of the temple, looking across the valley at the alluring green ridge far away, which would be our next camp. But to reach there, we would be going all the way down to the level of the river and then climb to a greater height.
The next morning, we walked back towards Kugti for about 2 kms and then took the narrow trail on the left, which led us downhill to the stream, crossed two picturesque small wooden bridges and were at the foot of the mountain on the other side. The initial climb was through tilled fields and we struggled uphill through this terrain in the hot sun with practically no shade. But as we climbed higher, the fields gave way to thick pine forests.
The trail being narrow, we were ambling along single file, laughing and joking, until some swift black movement in the path ahead was spotted. Suspecting that it could be a black bear, we advanced cautiously. Sure enough, there was a cave and fresh droppings nearby and thankfully, the animal seemed to have moved off on hearing human voices. It was with some trepidation that we covered the remaining forest area and came on to a clearing. As we moved uphill towards Dalotu, the ridge that we had seen from afar, we were treated to spectacular views of the Pir Panjal range. Dalotu is at an altitude of about 11000 feet and is a flat wide ridge, connecting the mountain that we had climbed up to the higher snow ranges. The place was covered with fresh grass with small purple flowers scattered all over. Dalotu is surrounded by valleys on all sides and gives a 360 degrees panoramic view, with half of it being dominated by the Pir Panjal range, including the Kugti Pass and the Chobu Pass. One look at the latter made it clear that this pass would also be inaccessible. It was early May and the shepherds had not yet reached this height.
We pitched tents and camped at Dalotu for two blissful days. The place is so beautiful, that any description would fall short of the magnificence that meets the eye. Playing cricket with makeshift stumps and bat, with the mighty Himalayas as the backdrop, was pure unadulterated fun!
In the morning, as the top of the snow peaks glowed with the first rays of the sun, we had some tranquil moments, doing yoga or meditating. A huge rock served as our dining table and we relished everything that was put before us by our able cook. Giving due thought to the menu at the planning stage had ensured that we had fabulous food all through. While walking further up towards the snow line on the second day, there was an adrenaline rush as we spotted a Himalayan black bear on the snow above us and right ahead in the direction we were heading. Himalayan black bears are dangerous to approach as they are known to attack and this one was watching us advance but stood its ground. After several photographs and video clips were shot, the bear decided to move away and disappeared into the forest. After waiting for some time, we slowly moved up and reached the snow line, with the thought of the bear making another appearance hovering constantly at the back of our minds. This episode of seeing the bear, coupled with bear tales recounted during the campfire, led to some drama at the middle of the night as one of the members mistook the wind rustling against the tent to a bear sniffing around!
The two days that we spent at this uninhabited and totally unexplored part of Himalayas were sheer magic. We left Dalotu the next day and after an easy downhill walk of 2 hours through a different trail in the forest, reached Kugti village and from there, on to Dharol and then Bharmour. In this circular trail, one encounters forests, rivers, glaciers, glacial streams, waterfalls, meadows, valleys, snow ranges, wildlife, temples, quaint villages and lovely people. WHAT A DREAM PACKAGE! It was a complete and total experience of the Himalayas. And something which a travel operator cannot simply offer!
It was a cold but clear December evening and we were at Sandakphu, at an altitude of 3600 metres, witnessing the mighty Kanchenjunga – the third highest peak in the world – come aglow with the rays of the setting sun. Much as the horizon at Sandakphu is dominated by Kanchenjunga, which is bang across – in your face, so to speak – our eyes kept darting to the awesome threesome far away at the extreme left – Makalu, Lhotse and Everest. It is only on a clear day that these can be seen and of the three, Everest seems to be the shortest as it is farther off and is distinguishable by its midriff and above perpetually swathed in clouds.
The trek to Sandakphu, which is at the crest of the Singalila ridge near Darjeeling in India, is one of the popular hikes in the Himalayas, as it is the only easily accessible place in India from where four of the five highest peaks in the world can all beseen together! Four out of five is a grand score indeed and that too, for someone who is not into serious mountaineering. Singalila surely merits the title of “a ridge with a view”.
This trek can be easily attempted by first timers but is no less enjoyable for the seasoned trekker. It is a typical tea-house trek, with good lodgings available en route. So, no need to pitch tents or carry sleeping bags! Just hire a guide from Manebhanjan and hit the trail!
It is a short five day trek starting from Dhotrey, which can be reached from Darjeeling by road in an hour, via Ghoom and Manebhanjan. You climb for the first three days, halting at Tumling and Kalipokri to reach the ridge top at Sandakphu and then descend on the other side of the ridge to Gurdum and finally to Rimbik via Srikhola to reach the road again. The distances to be covered each day range from 6km to 13 km but certain stretches are steep, like the final ascent to Sandakphu.
A fascinating aspect of this trek is that you go in and out of Nepal for the first two days as the border is quite porous in these areas. When we reached Tumling after the first day’s trek, we were amused to learn that the road belongs to India and the village on the side of the road is in Nepal!
At Tumling, make sure to be up at the crack of dawn to catch the first rays of the sun on the peaks of Kanchenjunga. It was a magnificent moment for us and we were to experience it again at Sandakphu, at a much closer range. Kalipokri, where we halted after the second day’s trek, is also on the Nepal side of the border but being positioned below the ridge, offers no views of Kanchenjunga. We had a great time playing with the kids of the Nepali owner of the lodge at Kalipokri.
The trek also passes through Singalila National Park, which is a natural habitat for the red panda and himalayan bear. Both are elusive and cannot be sighted easily but the walk through the forest is enriching nevertheless. The trek from Kalipokri to Sandakphu is short but steep and suddenly, we were there on the ridge, with an unhindered and magnificent view of Kanchenjunga. November and early December are the best times to go to Sandakphu for clear views of not only Everest, Makalu and Lhotse but even Kanchenjunga. April is also considered a fairly good time with rhododendron blooms all around but clouds and mist could act as the spoil sport. On a misty day, you could be standing at Sandakphu and not even have an inkling that the mighty Kanchenjunga is right across, let alone have any view of the Everest group.
We woke up to a very clear morning the next day and feasted our eyes on the changing colours of Kanchanjunga – a glowing orange at dawn to a blinding white by the time we left Sandakphu. The trek for this day was downhill all the way and passed through lovely forests on way to Gurdum, a picturesque hamlet. The trail on the last day of the trek is fairly level and passes through Srikhola and then, on to the road head Rimbik, from where you can either go up again to Darjeeling or come down to Siliguri to take a train to any part of India.
If you are reasonably fit and yearn to walk in the Himalayas, a trek to Sandakphu to gaze at Everest and be awed by the grandeur of Kanchenjunga should certainly find a place in your list of things to do! Make it happen.