The Darjeeling district of West Bengal State in India is hemmed in on the west by Nepal and to the east by Bhutan, whilst the semi-autonomous state of Sikkim lies to the north. Much of the land is above 2,000m in elevation traversed by a long, steep and winding road which rises from the Ganges plain to Darjeeling town. Darjeeling was established by the British in the C19th as a summer hill station to escape the heat of Calcutta (Kolkata) and even today it is possible to see the remnants of Empire in the hotels, private houses, civic buildings, churches and most famously the Darjeeling narrow gauge railway which still operates stream trains built in Britain over 100 years ago.
But there is far more to Darjeeling than the traces of Empire and about 25 km west of Darjeeling is the Singalila National Park, a trekker’s paradise and famous for its red panda population. It was declared a Wildlife Sanctuary in 1986 and an Indian National Park in 1992. Indeed, Darjeeling has a strong mountaineering connection and is the home of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, the first director of which was Tenzing Norgay of Everest fame. Having come to SE Asia on business, we decided to take a few days out and follow the Sandakphu trekking route which traverses the western boundary of the park along the India and Nepal border. There are many trekking options but the most popular is a 5 day trek stating at Maneybhanjan which is reached by a 26 km drive along appalling mountain roads from Darjeeling. It is compulsory to take a guide on the trek and we booked through a local company, Adventures Unlimited, which has an Irish lady from Kerry as one its staff. We paid USD$300 each for the trek which included the guide, park fees, transport, food and accommodation.
The Sandakphu trek is quite challenging in places and reaches an altitude of 3,630m at Sandakphu, the highest point in West Bengal. The first day is short at 13 km (and for us was memorably marred by heavy monsoon rain!) and follows the tortuous hairpin bends of the horribly rutted road to Tumling, traversed by vintage Land Rovers from the 1950’s (these go as far Sandakphu and carry supplies to the villages and day trippers in the peak months). We stayed at a well run Nepali guest house at Tumling and rose just after dawn to see a spectacular view of Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world. The second day follows a 21 km route through several dirt poor but very friendly Sherpa villages, where we occasionally paused at tea shops for the ubiquitous cups of ‘black tea’, before the final ascent up a tortuously steep and badly maintained road to Sandakphu, the highest point on the trek. Here we were again rewarded with a spectacular dawn view of the five snowy peaks of Kanchenjunga, which from here resemble a sleeping Buddha. But that was not all. The views were immense and extensive, including four of the five highest mountains on Earth, and we savoured an incredible view of Everest soaring into a brilliant blue sky between Lhotse and Makalu.
The route next traverses the undulating Singalila Ridge towards our third night’s stop at Phalut. This 21 km section of the route is probably the most interesting as it passes through a varied landscape of silver fir, grassland pastures and forests of oak, rhododendron and magnolia, offering great views across to Nepal on one side and India on the other. The trekker’s hut at Phalut, run by the Gorkhaland Territorial Association (GTA), is little more than a filthy hovel, but this was soon forgotten in the morning when, after a short climb, we reached the summit of Phalut at dawn to witness a spectacular sunrise and an utterly jaw dropping 180 degree view of the Himalayas from far beyond Everest through Sikkim and Bhutan to Arunachal Pradesh in the east (around 320 km in length). This has to be one of the finest vistas of the Himalaya mountain range in the world.
The fourth day follows a long, steep 15 km descent from Phalut to the village of Gorkey passing through a very humid terrain of dense jungle which eventually gives way to crop lands near the Gorkey River. We stayed at the Eden Lodge (a misnamed establishment if ever there was one!) and, having worked up a real thirst in the unrelenting humidity, were glad to avail of cool bottles of imported very strong Sikkim beer! The fifth and final day of about 13 km follows an undulating path through thick jungle past numerous wretchedly poor Sherpa farmsteads and small villages provisioned only by mules, until a drivable road is encountered at Sepi Goan where we were met by a jeep that took us on the 3 hour drive back to Darjeeling.
The Sandakphu trek is not particularly long, but a combination of high altitude, poor food and accommodation, unrelentingly rough roads and variable weather (monsoon rain one minute and blazing hot sunshine next and all with high humidity) made it a tough challenge.
We have uploaded a video of the trek onto Youtube http://youtu.be/DE7bYJUGWv8
See also the blog on http://kernowclimber.blogspot.ie/2014/10/himalayan-high-5-day-trek-along.html