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 be seen 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.