I try not to give in to the urge to stereotype, even when it’s really, really tempting. But there’s this one specimen of humans that tests my restraint the most. You know who I’m talking about. The one that brings out the eye roll and under-the-breath muttering of “uncultured” in every Bengali and Tamilian.
Yep. Dilli da launda. (Not to be confused with the other tolerable, wonderful men from Delhi)
We came across 3 such loud-mouthed, way too much testosterone fuelled guys with the classic ‘Dilli se hu b*******’ attitude on our way up to Sandakphu. You’d think they would be better behaved on high altitude paths like these where, you know, accidents may happen. But no.
Let’s begin from the beginning. After the long trek to Kala Pokhari the previous day, I woke up on the morning of our final climb feeling well-rested & upbeat. We had poached eggs and bread for breakfast and were ready to go. Viraaj, our porter was MIA as usual and Rahul was out hunting for him. The morning was quite chilly and slightly cloudy. But then, that’s how the weather here at Kala Pokhari is most of the time. After a lot of peeking into adjacent lodges and cussing, Viraaj was finally spotted. And we were on our way to Sandakphu.
When you first begin your ascent in these areas, you’ll experience something called the ‘first breath’. You’ll know which one that is because it’ll feel more like your impending last breath. Simply put, right after breakfast, when you start walking up the steep path, you’ll experience a shortness of breath that may make you feel like you’re dying. This happens because your body is getting used to the climb and after a few minutes, you’ll be able to breathe normally again. I’m letting you know so that you don’t panic and start hurling abuses at yourself for your apparent lack of fitness (like I did). On this stretch, you’ll need to be really patient with yourself, believe me.
The last stretch of the trek to Sandakphu can be divided into two parts – the shorter and easier trail up to Bikeybhanjang (where you can rest for a while) and the steep, what-the-hell-was-I-thinking-signing-up-for-this feeling inducing 4 km climb to Sandakphu. After setting off from Kala Pokhari and getting over my first breath, I was having a nice time hiking down the trail to Bikeybhanjang. The road here was more or less even and hence easy on both the legs and lungs. Rahul was leading the pack, I was in the middle and Aishani brought up the rear end. We were walking quietly, taking in the beautiful nature and serenity around, when I noticed a bunch of guys in big puffy jackets, holding walking sticks & sitting on a rocky mound by the side of the road, resting. Which I found strange because on this trail one would hardly need any resting.
Rahul walked past them without a second glance. I looked at their leering faces once, decided they weren’t attractive enough for me to waste my precious breath on, caught snatches of the arrogant Dilli tone which further strengthened my resolve, and moved on. Aishani, however, was at the receiving end of an indirect comment, directed at us. She’s a fast walker, and our group was maintaining a good pace on that trail. My poker face might have deterred them from saying anything [I’m told I can look quite scary when not emoting]. Aishani has that don’t-mess-with-me face as well, but she’s short and hence looks more cute than intimidating. So they decided to take a dig at her, I guess.
“Arre yaar, what’s the rush? We’ll go araam se and still reach before anyone else. Dekh liyo,” said one of them in a mocking tone, while the rest giggled (as per Aishani).
Aishani has a pathological dislike for Dilli guys like these. I’m more indifferent. She detests them. After we reached Bikeybhanjang, she mentioned this comment, quite animatedly. Rahul and I were laughing at her annoyed face. There are a couple of stalls at Bikeybhanjang, where one can get food and beverages. But the shops were all closed that day. So, we just sat there for a while, chit chatting and drinking water.
After a while, we noticed a couple of other trekking groups approaching Bikeybhanjang and decided to proceed with our climb. And to my utter dismay, it began with stairs. By the time I reached the top, I was clutching my side, panting heavily. And we had just begun our climb.
The winding path that leads to Sandakphu is STEEP and at places quite rocky. There are some stairs led short-cuts at some of the bends as well. So basically, you can either drag your feet up the steep road and gasp for breath or hoist yourself up the stairs (thereby eliminating some of the extra distance and saving time) and gasp for breath.
After a couple of stair-y paths, we reached one bend and decided to rest there. One other group was resting there as well, with their porters. (Our porter had magically disappeared again).
Rahul, the only stranger-friendly extrovert in our group, started chatting with them. They had come from Bangalore, were delightfully well-mannered, and this was their second time on Sandakphu. I was eavesdropping on their small talk when I heard an impossibly loud burp that seemed to have echoed throughout the area. I didn’t even have to turn around. Aishani’s face was right in front of me and her scowl was indication enough. The Dilliwale group had arrived.
They came and sat there, clearly exhausted, shooting these weird glances at Aishani and me – we were the only women there. Women, who had begun from Kala Pokhari after they did, were climbing without walking sticks and had still reached here before they did. I guess their testosterones couldn’t take it. I watched one of them suddenly get up and start stretching. Another was viciously munching on what looked like a either chocolate bar or a protein bar (most likely the latter). The third just kept looking at us with unmasked disdain.
Aishani jumped up and urged Rahul to proceed. The group from Bangalore was resuming their climb as well. They proceeded towards the steep path, while Rahul led us towards yet another short-cut full of stairs. The Dilli group looked conflicted. Their porter was urging them to take the normal route. But their eyes were on us, taking a different path.
“What is that? A shortcut?” one of them asked the porter.
“Yes sir, some people go through that. But this path is better,” said the porter.
“Arre if there’s a shortcut why will we take a longer path?” retorted another.
“Sir, this will be easier for you,” repeated the porter.
“Arre laundiyaan chali ja rahi hai waha se, aur hum nahi jaa payenge? Kya bakwaas hai!” scoffed the third guy, while the others laughed.
Now, Bengalis have this innate (albeit at times misplaced) sense of superiority, which makes someone like me immune to sexist remarks like these. But that’s not the case with a Tamilian. And you do not call a short-fused firecracker Tamilian like Aishani a laundiya. You just don’t.
I was struggling with the stairs and Aishani was right behind me when all this was happening. Suddenly, I find her zip past me, in a surprising spurt of speed, her face all red. We had reached the next bend and she went up to Rahul and said “I am NOT going to climb with that f ***** anywhere near me.” I sat down on a rock, sipping on water, eating a chocolate and trying to relax my shaking knees, while Rahul tried to calm her down. “No, I don’t want them around me. Either we stay way ahead of them, or behind them. You decide,” said Aishani and came and sat down beside me. I could almost feel the heat emanating from her. Rahul looked at me.
“We stay behind them. Let their mardangi trek at peace,” I said. There was no way I was going to compete on this climb with anyone. I knew the trek was going to get much more difficult. Aishani’s rage and Rahul’s fitness may fuel them ahead for some time, but I had no such thing to bank on.
“Okay then,” said Rahul. Meanwhile, that group had reached where we were and was now sitting down, smirking at us. I stood up and blocked them from Aishani’s view, in order to avoid a possible accident. Rahul told us that the next short-cut from there is quite difficult so we’ll be taking the normal route. That group, however, proceeded towards the short-cut. Their porter tried to dissuade them in vain.
Now, here’s the fun part. The path they took was actually a goat trail. That is, it was extremely narrow, muddy and rocky, and was meant for the actual animal, not these human embodiments of goats. Walking up a goat trail is quite difficult and physically taxing. Even the group from Bangalore chose to not take that path.
We were gradually walking up the normal path. Rahul was way ahead, chatting with the porters and the Bangalore group, while Aishani and I were trying to conquer one step at a time. They reached the next bend before the Dilliwala group did. Rahul told us later how livid that group had been, on seeing Rahul and the rest there on the road, ahead of them. So angry, in fact, that inspite of all their huffing and puffing, they sped up and almost jogged past everyone else – just to stay ahead of everyone. At that, everyone else slowed down a bit as well, to make sure they did.
Thereafter, it was all about walking and panting at regular intervals. The sights along that path were beautiful, especially the forest filled areas. There was this silence there, punctuated at times by distant bird calls, a human laugh or the rumble of an incoming Rover (and not ruined by loud burps or curses anymore). Each of us was walking quietly, taking in the views and motivating ourselves to keep going.
The final 1 km to Sandakphu was the steepest. I was prepared to crawl on that stretch – my back and legs were hurting from the exhaustion and my lungs weren’t co-operating with me either. I was stopping to catch my breath at every third step. This stretch was really hard, and it took the last remaining shreds of my willpower to keep going.
And then, finally, we conquered the 11,941 ft milestone. My legs were shaking as I stood there by the milestone, posing for a picture. But the feeling of completing this trek and climbing the highest peak in West Bengal was unparalleled. I was totally proud of myself!
The summit of Sandakphu has a small village with a few lodges there. We stayed at the Sunrise Lodge, which is right beside the more popular Sherpa Chalet. From the summit, you can see four of the five highest peaks in the world, namely Kanchenjunga, Everest, Makalu and Lhotse. The view of the entire Kanchenjunga range is particularly stunning from here. From Sandakphu, the road to Phalut is a one-day trek, covering a distance of 21 kms. Phalut wasn’t on our itinerary this time. A good thing too. I don’t think my legs would have survived it.
After reaching the summit, we had our lunch and roamed around for a while on the trail leading to Phalut. The evening here was extremely chilly, with biting cold winds hitting us right in the bones. Soon we retired in our room, under warm blankets, with plates full of hot pakoras and a bottle of rum and chatted the night away. And the next morning, we woke up to this –
In the morning, the entire area in front of our lodge was crowded with DSLR clad people, trying to capture anything and everything. The skies were clear and pristine, and the views were truly stunning.
After breakfast, we began preparing for our descent. We had a long way ahead of us since we would be trekking down all the way to Gairibas this time. More on that in my next post!