Note: This trek was organized through Youth Hostels Association of India, but can easily be undertaken without additional help. Certain locations require a mandatory guide and permissions though, which will have to be arranged previously.
Day 1: Trek to Tumling
A good night’s sleep at Darjeeling the previous night had us all springy and upbeat as we set out in jeeps to a small settlement called Dhottre, where the trek trail begins. Dhottre is a quaint little town, with a couple of small shops to grab some snacks and tea and a nice strong Bamboo walking stick incase that’s your mojo. In Dhottre, we were introduced to our guides for the trek – two cherubic personalities Sang-ay and Subhash. As we would find out soon enough, the two had a rather twisted sense of humor which they would accompany with monkey-like grins. They would sneak off from the camp in the evening, and go for a walk to down a quarter or two. Their euphemism for this was that ‘they were going to Rimbik.’ Oh, look, I’m rambling now. Anyway, from Dhottre, we began the first leg of the trek to Tonglu, where we would be reaching in time to have lunch.
The path from Dhottre to Tonglu is extremely enjoyable, where you can breathe in hearty lungfuls of cool mountain air, and is one of the best paths on the trek, as it winds through a jungle and the col-our green screams at you in all shades around you. A friend of mine exclaimed that it reminded him of Rivendell from the LOTR books, while I maintained that it more resembled Ellesmera from the In-heritance series.
At Tonglu, we were met with a small teahouse, in the middle of nowhere. It housed a cheerful family, and a smashing lunch. We whipped out our lunchboxes and helped ourselves to hot Dal Rice, Rotis and Aloo Curry. Aloo would remain a sort of theme throughout the next few days, as it is grown and used extensively in isolated and mountainous areas. I’m hardly complaining; aloo is bloody yummy.
And as we stepped out to take a walk around as we waited for others to come around, we witnessed some stunning views from the hilltop. Clouds clung to the mountains around us and moved noncha-lantly like a slow river of smoke carefully navigating the skies. I was instantly reminded of the album cover of Pink Floyd’s latest album, The Endless River, and could almost picture myself in the same. Its beauty won me over. Tonglu is a medley of scenic delights. On one side, the majestic Kanchenjunga range gazes upon you. On the other, tiny hills seem to pop up from the sea of clouds, as if surfacing for breath. You can sit in Tonglu all day and not feel the slightest whiff of boredom.
And soon, we had to head to Tumling. The sun sets fairly quickly and it is advisable to reach shelter before sunset. Tumling is very close to Tonglu and you can get there in half an hour at a reasonable pace. It must be noted that all these trails are well defined and easy to follow. A general fitness is quite sufficient to cover all these distances comfortably. So, if you randomly decide to hike up the Himalayas, you can do so by all means, but some places require a mandatory guide, and that might be the only point of worry. We reached Tumling well in time for the sunset and spent a good half an hour watching the last rays bounce off the Kanchenjunga. Our stay at Tumling was delightful, thanks to the cheerful hospitality and delicious food of the teahouse. These teahouses are economical, and charge anywhere between 300-500 for a night, for a cozy bed and warm food. Although rooms are almost always available, it might be prudent to call up in advance and confirm.
Sunrises and sunsets acquire a prime sense of importance up in the Himalayas. A 5:30 alarm would ring through and we would wake up diligently, make our way to the local high-point and gasp and wow-wow at the ensuing sights. It seems funny in retrospect but you have to be there to see it, I suppose. The only exception was at our next stop, Kalipokhri, where sheer cold prevented us from moving an inch without our warm layers of blankets.
Day 2: Trek to Kalipokhri
The trek to Kalipokhri was slightly longer than the previous day. It was a rather dusty path and through a more barren landscape. Enroute, we stopped for lunch at a small shack called Habre’s Nest in a place called Kaiakata. This area is noted for the fact that it registers a high number of Red Panda sightings, which is reflected in the naming of Habre’s Nest, as Habre means Red Panda in the local language. In fact the Red Panda theme flooded the rooms of the hotel, with posters, pictures and books of the ‘firefox’. The highlight of this stop was the incredibly hilarious and sarcastic owner of the small hotel, who owned us as well with his witty and acerbic remarks. A sense of humor is resonant across all cultures, and seems to be one of very few things common to us all. I never really managed to get the name of this guy, who reminded me immensely of The Dude from The Big Lebowski, but if you do happen upon this place, linger on for a chat with him and I’m sure you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Refreshed, we set out on the last leg of trek, a two-hour hike on a fairly even road, and reached Kali-pokhri, slightly exhausted. Kalipokhri literally means ‘Black Water’ and is simply named after a lake that marks the entry to the village. We loafed around for a while before the slow, creeping hand of the cold pushed us indoors, where we settled in for tea and dinner. We had eagerly been waiting for nightfall, for we knew that the night sky would treat us to a brilliant display of the starry sky and the Milky Way. We weren’t disappointed. A magnificent Starry Night presented itself, taking our breath away and bringing upon a not-so-mild case of neck ache. Kalipokhri would turn out to be the best view point for stars, and even Sandakhpu, which is at a higher altitude than Kalipokhri, had fewer stars visible. Lin Yutang once wrote, “Very much contended am I to lie low, to cling to the soil, to be of kin to the sod. Sometimes when one is drunk with this Earth, his spirit seems so light that he is heaven. But he seldom rises six feet above the ground.” This wonderful line would keep leaping into my mind for several days to come.
To Be Continued…