“I was left behind as all my friends moved on. For the first time the advantage of being left behind became clear to me. There were no voices, no questions to be answered. Silence was silence. Miraculously clouds changed in to fog and fog began to pour; gently, caressing,“ Om manipadme hum”, a Buddhist chant meaning the quintessence of existence within us, the purpose of life bigger than life. I chanted the hymn and walked on.”Nirlep Singh ponders the mystery of the self within trekking along the serene landscape of the Singalila National Park.
Singalila national park trek begins at Mane Bhanjyang. Mane Bhanjyang can be reached directly from New Jalpaiguri railway station where hired vehicles are available. Guides (about Rs350 per day) are mandatory within the park and can be hired privately through the DGHC, travel agencies or at the trek’s starting point in Mane Bhanjyang.
Mane Bhanjyang located at altitude of 2100 meters is a curious mix of nature, history, innocence and defiance. Tall pines with warm green foliage rise from mists. Land-rovers of world war-II vintage still ply on Singalila treks. A young lad was busy inflatinga jeep tyre with cycle pump! GL (for Gorkha Land) number plates on vehicles testified to the defiant mood of Gorkha hill council. A Budhist temple quietly oversees from a higher vantage. An air of non chalance prevailed.
After a peaceful nights’ sleep we started off at 8.00 am next day. We bought entry tickets from forest department office and walked towards Chitrey. Occasionally a land rover would plough through the silence. A monk walking through pine trees transformed the exuberant into austere. Young monks playing cricket in a vast meadow brought about tensions of contradicting elements. Presence of a variety of human elements alongside one of the best landscape terrains makes this trek very fulfilling. Apart from clicking the stunning landscapes one can also experiment with human landscapes; that is to bring into pictures traces of human presence.
Trek to Chitrey leads through a verdant landscape. Grassy slopes were a gog with profusion of bugiflower (local name). Rows of white prayer flags on slopes complemented the meditative air. Most places of shelter, tea shacks, civilian faces on this route are Nepalese. Only tourists, SSB (Seema Suraksha Bal) and land rovers mark Indian presence. We had barely walked three kilometres from Chitrey when fog joined us unexpectedly. Walking through thick fog was like playing blindfold in white darkness. We stopped for tea at Lameydhura tea stall.The tea shop had a hen, cat and a dog; natural foes existing in melancholy union.
The trail now ran into a jungle. Visibility was cut down to a few meters. The ground was covered with tapestry of maple and rhododendron leaves. Coming out of the jungle the trail continued into Megma, a Nepali village. Rooftops, fences, wicket gates were made of malingo bamboo flats. The village wore a sad wet apparel of quiet. Rain continued to pour. Goats bleated in their dank pens. A couple of yaks were anchored to wooden poles. We were nearing Tumling, our halt for the day which was surprisingly different from Megma. Perched on aridge it over looks great peaks on both sides, notably Khangchendzonga to its north. We moved into a guest house and offloaded. I took off my shoes and saw my socks were all red with blood. There were a couple of dead leeches inside two layers of socks. I had no idea all along that I had company. I recounted my excursions in wet slushy streets and knew from where they latched on.
After a quick change and steaming cup of tea we were out to catch a glimpse of Khangchendzonga. At sunset the elements rose in silent mutiny. Thick clouds filled the basin. A muted Khangchendzonga hurriedly put on varied hues on its great white mantle before calling it a day. Then…..there was silence. Stocks of aconyte flowers gently swayed to straggler gusts.
It rained in the night. Morning came bright & sunny with a gentle nip. After breakfast we set off to a fulfilling days trek to Kalipokhri (approx 3000meters). It was a gentle down hill walk through meadows till Gairibas where we stopped for tea. From here onwards it is gradual ascent till Kalipokhri.
Entering thick rhododendron forest was a mystic experience. Near Kaiakata grove of rhododendron trees stood like vertical verses. Moss hung on their trunks as cloak of antiquity. We slowed down. We were chatting along merrily when a blood-pheasant family crossed our path and quickly vanished into a thicket. The rhododendron forest is also home to Rufous vented tits and Golden breasted Fulvettas along with other exotic birds.
We reached Kalipokhri in the evening. The village is named after a small pond with blackish water. We checked into a guest house there. A ‘Pine’ish aroma wafted about the place. Hot tea was immediately served. The sun had signed off. Thick fog hung like a certainty. However the guest house was a buzz with local faces, flavours and dialect. One SSB Jawan offered us ‘Toomba’; a local brew. It’s a decoction prepared from fermented marua seeds and hot water served in malingo bamboo tumbler. Mellow blend of exotica and alcohol made us open up with the locals gathered there. Embers of laughter andreckless gossip filled the pantry. Lazy wicks of kerosene lanterns burnt with new vigour.
Next morning I quietly exited to take some pictures. Looking back I could see the ridge line we had walked yesterday. At the end of layers of mountains a faint serpentine shimmer suggested rivers flowing down. Two kids gave me ‘cheeeese’of a smile interrupting their noodle-breakfast. Their imprint still resides in me. Kalipokhri onwards, the terrain changes. It moves into higher country. Sandakphu is 6 km’s walk from here. It’s a steady upward gradient till Bhikhaybhanjyan gand there on tortuous switch-back loops lead to Sandakphu (3600 meters). Bhikhaybhanjyang gets its name from aconyte flowers which grow in abundance here. Bamboo arte facts keep popping up with surprising omniscience. Fences made of chequered bamboo strips ran down the slopes. Fog persisted. It seemed we had a rendezvous of sorts with fog all along. After checking in the guest house at Sandakphu we moved out and sat near Kumbhakarna observatory hoping for things to clear out and Khangchendzonga to show. Even after one hour of waiting all we could see was a game of volleyball in SSB compound. Without further ado we joined the game. Spiking at 3600 meters was good consolation for a fogged out Khangchendzonga!
Next day we were up early to lap up the spectacle of seeing sunrise on the mighty Khangchendzonga .Adventurous ones were perched atop Sandakphu top, a rocky mound near our guesthouse. We settled for a small mound amidst a rhododendron clearing. Khangchendzonga stood there, Silent, grey and massive. Its arms stretched out a long way on both flanks. Rhododendron and silver furs on the slopes provided a beautiful foreground. After a short wait first light broke on one of the flanks. Silent grey graduated into pink blush-on. Colors converged on the peak. We clicked frantically, changing lenses, filters, moving tripods. Moments later a cluster of gentle crags became visible on both sides of Kanchanjunga. These were in fact giant peaks of Kumbhakarna-7719 meters,Kabru-7338 meters and Pandim-6691 meters!!
After we had our fill of Kanchanjunga mass if we looked towards the Everest peaks. But it was heavily clouded over. It set me off into a reverie. John Kraukauer, himself a Everest summiteer writes in his book “Into thin air” how in 1852 a Bengali computer(computer was a job title then) named Radhanath Sikdar, working out of survey’s Calcutta bureau had “discovered” that a mountain hitherto known as just peak XV was in fact world’s tallest mountain, relegating Kanchanjunga by a spot. The mountain was later named Mount Everest after Sir George Everest, the surveyor general of India. I ruminated on the idea that with some stroke of luck the peak might have been christened Mount Sikdar after Radhanath Sikdar!! It also made me wonder if Sandakphu was the place from where surveyors gathered data about peak XV. Evening brought another revelation from Pasnag Temba, the owner of the guest house that Nepali cap is designed after the north face. Click!
It was morning again. Time to move on a trek which I would call a landscape photographers’ dream; trek to Phalut (3600 meters). The stretch of20 km’s to Phalut is visible from Sandakphu. The ridge line juts into the Khangchendzonga basin with Phalut top coming tantalizingly close to the deity.
On the way we passed through vast meadows. It was October and Iris bloom had lived out its color. Wind drove fog like a seasoned shepherd. We reached a place which resembled an amphitheater of trees brought down by weathering, lightening and age. Clicking this theatre of life was a unique experience. Dead trees on bald green slopes kept appearing with striking regularity. Small water ponds provide reflective interludes at places.
Phalut top was now visible. Ridge fading into wisps of fog heightened the mystique. First thing we did after reaching Phalut was to hit Phalut top. It provides some crazy 360-degree vistas with Sikkim in the east, Khangchendzonga in north and Nepal in the west. For us only Nepal side was visible. I could see at least ten layers of mountains come to life with fading light. The sight gave me a high and it’s not an overstatement. A long fence separated India from Nepal. As a photographer I couldn’t care less for its divisive intent. I clicked it as part of one landscape.
Lights came up in distant houses in Nepal. Folding my tripod I trudged back towards the Gorkha hill council guest house. It was a cold, Toomba-less evening. We were already drunk with nature.
Next morning I was up at 4 am to have one last look at Khangchendzonga. The deity was still not visible. After paying obeisance to the deity I came back. Looking eastwards I could see Darjeeling lights down below. Sun came quick and sharp.Shards of light lighted up the meadows into hot yellows. We had thukpa for breakfast and moved on to Gorkhey, 16 kilometers downhill. The trail passes through deep and eerie gullies of malingo bamboos. After the frail frames of bamboos it was the turn of Giant hemlocks’ to surprise us. We had never seen trees this tall. They towered above everything. Chestnuts and pines had a dwarfed presence. The forest looked unfettered and undisturbed like a sacred, ancient grove. The valley now started to open out. Lower hills were covered with rhododendrons, spruce, oaks and giant magnolias. The last turn of the trail brought us into Gorkhey; a fairy-tale hamlet. Gorkhey khola a small stream runs through it. Village folk were busy stacking straw and other provisions for winters. A torrential downpour began the moment we moved in the guest house.
Next morning we continued onwards to Ribdi, the nearest road head in Sikkim. Nobody spoke a word except ask directions. We were deep in stupor when a jeep drove us to Gangtok. Silence thickened.
Time to visit: Singalila national park is best visited between March to November. The best time is spring(April-May) when the wild flowers and rhododendron are in bloom. September and October are also good months to visit. November would provide clear skies for landscape photography. Monsoon months (July-August) may be avoided.
How to reach: New Jalpaiguri (NJP) has very good train connectivity with New Delhi. Get down at NJP and hire a jeep to Manebhanjyang. Rate for full jeep would be Rs 3000/-. The distance of 80 km’s is covered in approx 3 hours.
Where to stay: All the places on the route have guest houses. Night halt should be planned at Tumling, Kalipokhri ,Sandakphu, Phalut, Gorkhey.
What to carry
- A good wide angle lense.
- A Polariser filter.
- Spare set of batteries,tripod.
- Lense sleeves andcamera cover to shoot incase it gets wet.
This article was first published in the March 2012 Saevus magazine edition.