In Bengali, there’s a popular song which, when translated, goes roughly like this – What if this path we’re on never ended? How would that be?
It’s meant to sound romantic, but I’ve always found it a tad ominous. And turns out, I was right. This song became the theme of our “short and easy” trek to Gairibas from Tumling. Which is funny because the distance from Tumling to Gairibas is a mere 7 km, that too via a straight, downhill path through the Singalila National Park. Except for the last 3 km of steep downhill walk [which may be hard on unaccustomed knees], the rest of the path is fairly easy. Usually, it takes around 2 hours to reach. How long did we take? Twice the estimated hours. Plus some more.
The journey begins
We set out from Tumling at 10 am, with an estimate of arriving at Gairibas by around 12. The day was bright and sunny. We even got a glimpse of the Kanchenjunga that morning. So overall, we were in good spirits.
A local porter/guide was hired for the entire span of our trek to Sandakphu. You can hire professional guides from Maanebhanjang as well. Those are usually more experienced, but a tad expensive. They don’t carry your luggage though, so either you’ll have to carry it yourself or hire a porter. Our porter was a local guy and hence we figured he’d be able to do justice to the guiding part as well. He asked us to go ahead and that he’ll catch up soon with the luggage.
So we walked up to the gates of the Singalila National Park on our own, where you’re supposed to get the passes before entering the Park. And for that, it is mandatory to have a guide with you. Only, just before reaching the Park, we watched our guide ride right past us in a jeep, and into the Park.
All 3 of us were staring at the jeep.
“Isn’t that guy, I don’t know, supposed to guide us through this park?” I asked, flabbergasted.
“Ideally, yes. This is new,” said Rahul, now staring at the empty path beyond the Park gates.
Aishani and I ended up standing at the gate, twiddling our thumbs, while Rahul tried to charm the guards into giving us the passes, assuring them that he knows the way and that they will not be held responsible if we get lost in the park and are never found again. After profusely cursing the lack of professionalism in our guide, they relented.
Into the Singalila National Park
We got inside the Park and had walked down quite a stretch of the road when lo and behold – we see Viraaj, our porter cum guide smiling sheepishly and walking towards us. After some light chastising, we started walking together.
Maybe in order to make up for his earlier actions, the guide began suggesting a lot of things to Rahul. Among them was an alternative route to Gairibas, which according to him was not only a short-cut but was also full of birds. Rahul being a birder predictably took the bait.
“How long is that route?” Rahul asked.
“Oh, it’s shorter than this one. We have to go from up there,” said our guide, pointing up at what appeared to me was a dense jungle at a higher altitude. I could not detect any sort of path going up there. It really looked like the kind of area you simply look at and don’t try to get into.
“Oh okay, let’s try it,” said Rahul, as always ready for the road never taken.
The detour via Jaubari
The two of them started up that path, walking effortlessly. Aishani and I followed them, trying hard to keep the pace, clearly not used to the work & stamina it takes to climb uphill. We were huffing and puffing, grabbing on to the shrubs, trees, and the ground around us and silently cursing the guide for his spark of genius in putting us (me) through this.
“This is what real trekking feels like!” chirped Rahul, taking long strides, clearly excited.
“Like dying?” I muttered under my breath.
“What was that?” he asked, looking back.
“I… said… this… is… fun!” I managed to say, between breaths.
One of Rahul’s many qualities that have made him such an enduring friend of mine is his ability to detect sarcasm.
He stopped in his track, laughing.
“Okay, maybe we’re going too fast. Take your time. Here, this might help,” he said, breaking a couple of long, thick branches and giving it to us, to be used as walking sticks.
It did help. After what seemed like an eternity, we reached a clearing on the top. The guide had reached there first and was sitting on a rocky mound, chilling. I mentally smacked him a few times, before sitting down myself and breathing like a human again.
After resting for a while, we continued walking for quite some time through the forest areas and soon, we were out in a meadow. The moment I looked at the place, I forgave our guide for bringing us through this route. It was surreally beautiful!
This area is called Jaubari and is in Nepal. The route we took is a virgin one to Gairibas, frequented mostly by the locals and their cows. The place is all about pretty meadows, rolling lands, trees, and shrubs and you can see the fog sailing past the hills. The area is quite windy, and also extremely photogenic!
For a while, we didn’t notice how much we had been walking – so taken we were by our surroundings. But, as with everything else in life, reality soon smacked us on our respective arses.
“Is it just me, or is this route going on and on?” asked Aishani.
“It’s true. We have been walking for ages!” I added.
“Yeah…we should reach anytime now,” said Rahul, distractedly, his eyes flitting from tree to tree, looking for birds to shoot.
An hour later, he wasn’t that distracted anymore.
“Viraaj!” he called out to our guide.
He was nowhere to be found.
At the time we were hiking through a forest. It was late afternoon and hence the clouds and the fog were making a reappearance. We were walking through a completely new track, it was getting dark and we didn’t have our guide with us.
“What kind of effing route is this? We’ve been walking for almost 5 hours and we’re still nowhere close to Gairibas! And where the hell is this guide?”
Rahul had gone back to his regular cribbing self. Aishani was walking quietly, with this I-don’t-even-care-anymore expression on her face. And I was mentally pushing our guide off a cliff.
After walking for around 30 more minutes we finally spotted our guide, once we were out of that forest area. He had of course taken “shortcuts” of his own, reached early, and was now lying on his back, humming. When we reached him, he laughed saying he didn’t realize we were such slow walkers. Lucky for him, there wasn’t any cliff around.
Here’s what I learned – never go by the time estimate given by the local people. Their pace of walking is drastically different to ours. And don’t even get me started on their distance estimates or definition of shortcuts.
Finally, the path ends
We climbed down to Gairibas at around 4 pm.
Gairibas is a small village settlement, and a pretty one at that – as witnessed by us the next day, when it was nice and sunny. It has a BSF Camp and a couple of lodges. This place is popular with bird watchers/photographers.
We stayed at the Trekkers’ Hut. It is run by a woman named Promila, and is the only place in Gairibas where you can stay for the night. So, it’s better if you book in advance because she has a clear monopoly here and can get quite…umm…bitch-faced if you come here with the assumption that rooms will be available. But then to be fair, with Sandakphu becoming a popular haunt for birders, the number of people coming and staying at Gairibas has increased remarkably.
We retired early that night, trying to get as much rest as possible before the 3rd leg of our journey the next day – from Gairibas to Kali Pokhari, an approximately 11 km long and intermittently rocky route via Kaiyakata that constitutes around 7 hours of trekking. The road becomes 15km long if you take the alternative forest route from Gairibas – which we did, being the overachievers that we are. How did that go for us? Find out in my next post!