Himalayan Singalila Ridge Trek from Sandakphu to Phalut
A week of vacation in the middle of the semester. What more could you ask to organize a trip a little more important than a simple weekend trip? The initial idea was to go to Sikkim, a mountainous region in northeastern India for the trek. We finally decided for the Singalila Ridge Trek from Sandakphu to Phalut from Darjeeling, to reach the highest peak of the surroundings (3600m).
So we decided to go to Darjeeling, at the gateway to Sikkim. It was the perfect opportunity to take a breath of fresh air and to have a little contact with the Himalayas.
We took the train to get to our destination. However, this time, the distance was really very important. So the trip lasted 12 hours! If it can be a little scary at first, the time finally passed very quickly, thanks to the people we met, with whom we play card games and chess. Add to this we read a bit, and at night it was quite chaotic and we do not sleep very well. We stay in bed a long time, to doze and here we are almost at our destination.
After coming out of the Howrah station we take a taxi to the heart of the city. We stroll in the streets of Calcutta impregnated with the crowd, the smells, and the horns. In the former capital of India at the time of the British, it seems that time has stopped. The frantic speed on the road contrasts with the slowness!
The visit to the Victoria Memorial and its park gives us a bit of calmness during the day. We are a bit hungry. So near the New Market, we eat a plate of mutton biryani. In the evening we go to the Sealdah station to take the night train to Darjeeling.
Day 1 - Darjeeling
The night journey goes well. We arrive the next day, not very fresh, in Siliguri where we take a taxi to reach Darjeeling. After 5 hours of the journey through the narrow hill roads along edges of the precipices, we arrive in Darjeeling. Fortunately, the view and the surroundings with the tea plantations allow us to enjoy the fresh air!
We go towards an agency in the Mall road to organize the trek. We opted for a five-day Sandakphu trek, to make the most of the mountain and the landscapes. The trek is through a national park that passes through Nepal.
Around late afternoon, we run through the steep streets of this colorful, bling-bling city for local tourists. We have to find a place to sleep that is not a luxury hotel at a staggering price, all before the night. Still, we end up finding, at the corner of an unlikely lane a small wooden guesthouse. Let's go. I sweat although it's cold.
The night has almost fallen. We have already asked the prices in a dozen places before we climb the floors of this one built on the flanks of the hill. An old lady welcomes us. There is a wary and benevolent smile at the same time. She takes us to a surreal bedroom with low ceilings, large windows, and a large bed surrounded by small statuettes of Buddha.
We do not care about the price, even if the lady tells us something that is finally in our budget, and we put our bags. We are at home. After a dinner of delicately scented rice with spices and a little dal, we soon fall asleep in our little nest of love.
Day 2 - Singalila National Park
We wake up in the morning to a pleasant view of the Kanchenjunga. We have a typical Western breakfast with toasts of big country bread, and a potato pancake drizzled with ketchup. I was about to finish my pancake when two girls come inside the restaurant, and rush to us. One of them ask us, you are going to Manebhanjan, right? It may be easier to get a jeep if there are more members.
She's right. Her charm takes over our body and prevents us from saying anything other than a "Yeah, perfect" with a little daze. It is almost obligatory to be dazed before such a perfect sequence of events. We are like cocks in legs as we focus a lot on the legs too, to prepare for the trek. We have all the information we need on the Singalila Ridge Trek.
So in the morning, we drop some of our stuff in the lounge. And so we set off towards the center of Darjeeling from where shared jeeps leave for Maneybhanjang, the starting city of the famous trek. After an hour of the journey through the hill roads, we pass through the border between Nepal and India.
On the way, we also pick up our guide. I like this kind of gift from the universe. I am with two girls who look cool and with a guide, what's better? Independent travelers at the base, the girls tell us that they like to travel solo. We do not have to worry, as we will not be on top of each other. We land on a small eatery in front of a house around 12:30 that serves tea and momo. I swallow a few quick and our jeep starts.
We go to the ticket office of Singalila National Park to buy the right to walk for days in the heart of a pool of rhododendrons and magnolias, century-old trees with colorful birds and wild red pandas. Now begins a gigantic lane of the concrete road. We are not happy to move on this kind of soil when the nature is so beautiful around. Four hours after our departure, we see a good half-dozen different landscapes.
We feel the chill as we climb higher. I already feel that this experience will be more complicated than I thought. I did not think much. I just decided to go. Arriving at the first village named Tumling, I feel tired. These are the beginnings of a great learning, but for now, part of me feels guilty about not being better. The sun goes down and the colors in Tumling, 3000m above sea level, is incredible.
From the pearly pink floating on a blue horizon, the silhouettes of the mountains stand out like a surrealist decor. The wind blows and at our feet, the valley is filled with rhododendrons in bloom, like explosions of bright red, and fuchsia pink. White points of magnolia highlight this hallucinating painting. This kind of show makes us forget the suffering of the climb, and to give them meaning. Be that as it may, an appeasement seizes me.
The guide tries to show us rooms in a lodge for the rich, but we flew away to look for a decent place. I always end up loving the places a little small because I know that it is in these that the real things happen. We end up finding a small dormitory. The bed is spacious and we are the only ones in the dormitory. I discover for the first time the joy of removing wet sweaty clothes from the day of the trek to change into layers of warm clothes. Removing the hiking shoes, especially are on the first trek is an indescribable sensation.
Around the table, while waiting for the food, none of us really speak. Fatigue takes us by surprise. It is 6:30 pm and if I was not so hungry, I would have gone to bed directly. The conversations go beyond the skills of my exhausted brain, and I let the words go over my head. I focus on my feet, which I massage. And then finally! The food is served to us. The blessing has never been so brief and intense.
The rice is served with a huge spoon and small potatoes fried in oil and coated with spices come to complement the whole. The yellow dal sprinkles the whole thing and spoons of pickles made of vegetables and mustard seeds fermented in vinegar come to decorate this dish already worthy of maharajas. The first bites fill me with flavors and a joy without a name. And as my stomach fills up, my brain goes out more and more.
After a big thank you to the cooks, and to our guide, we agree to put the alarm clock at 5 o'clock to admire the view. Soon we go up to collapse in our beds. With the cold, it's a miracle that I came out of the room to go and see the night sky full of stars and the milky way. It is 8:20 pm the last time someone mentions the time, and sleep wins us.
Day 3 - Tumling
When the alarms sound in the morning, the light is already in the dormitory, and my body is not really happy. It pulls from everywhere, and there is an unnameable chill as soon as I try to get out of my sleeping bag. Fortunately, I turn my head, and how beautiful this moment is. The cold no longer exists, the pain no longer exists, only there is the joy of waking up beside this formidable view of the landscapes.
So I go outside. It is 5am and the sun already bathes Tumling on all sides. The visibility is not great and is too bad for the view of Mount Everest, but there is a certain tranquility in the air. It is still early. The family that welcomed us last evening is still sleeping. The first teas and coffees come around 6.30am. At 7:30, we go inside and what a joy to discover a buffet of delicacies.
There are small Tibetan donuts called Kasai and Sha Phaley. They can be enjoyed with honey, jam or simply with the aloo dum, cooked in a thick spicy sauce. I do not know how much I'm going to need it. We raise the sails around 9am, and I tell myself that I will have to get a quintal of these donuts. The first part of the day is a gentle descent through light vegetation.
I don't really have another word to describe as it is green, but a little dry. I'm having a bad time with the girls between us. The condition of my feet is degrading every minute, and my psychological state is catastrophic. I tell myself that I am a big draw, that I am not worth a nail, that I am slow. Basically, I hate myself quietly during the first part of the day, and I feel it's necessary.
I am scared, as a kind of irrational fear takes over. My body tells me to move one step at a time because the mere prospect of having to walk for several more hours is killing me. I have enough energy to make the next step, and that's the only thing I know. So I look at my feet, walking alone in the back. There is physical pain, with a few tears of rage against myself for not being instantly the best in this sport that is trekking.
So I play a game to change energy, that works well. I feel that I walk a little faster. My feet make me suffer less and I do not think anymore at the end of the day. I take a sip of mango juice that I carry, all crowned with some almonds and grapes. I take off my shoes in an attempt to ease my suffering. After all, we still have 13 km of the difficult climb. I stick large anti-blister bandages that I cover with plaster to try to hold them.
At the foot of the arduous climb that awaits us, I try to debrief with my psychological state, which varies enormously and it is for the least tiring. When I look at the top of the mountain, I just want to curl up and wait for someone to pick me up. But when I look at my feet, one step at a time, and, surprisingly, I finally arrive at the top.
All this disturbs me. I feel my brain on full boil. At the same time, my body is forced to let go, because the alternative of letting go is not easy. I have to move forward, but I cannot move forward concentrating on the goal. So just one foot after another, and it will do it. I have no better words to express the flow of hormones that I receive in the face on the second day of trekking.
The girls are far ahead with the guide. We meet boys with horses, and we have the chance to see a wild red panda. And then at the turn of a cliff, we arrive in the village of Kalipokhri where our guide has already started to peel potatoes with an old Nepalese woman. Lunch is being prepared.
I take off my shoes, and seriously consider having him take a nap! My brain goes off until the food arrives. We throw ourselves like jackals on the whole. I have rarely been so hungry in my life. Once the bellies are full, it takes a little fifteen minutes to digest and it is time to go to the complicated stage to put the shoes back. The procedure becomes more and more simple for me.
I begin to understand that everything is learning on a trek and all the more so in life. The stretch that separates us from Sandakphu is about 7 km, which is not huge, but we get 600 meters in the mouth. Surprisingly the girls and I have the same pace all the afternoon. The guide is not far ahead and we walk in small villages with cute baby goats walking in the mountains shouting happily.
I see rhododendrons in bloom, with a mystical haze and climb not so difficult as that. Finally up to one point only. At some point, you just have to count your steps. For my part, I count to 9 and then I leave 0. The stairs are unnamed violence and when I step on the flat floor of Sandakphu, my feet are no more than a mountain of suffering. I am 3636 meters above sea level.
The guide who has now understood the kind of places where we want to sleep and the kind of prices we are ready to put, takes us to a little shack and opens the door to an absolutely delightful room. There is a gigantic bed that can easily hold four people and blankets everywhere. The strength that remains only allow me to change and snuggle into my sleeping bag on the bed.
After a few moments of rest, we join the family of our guesthouse who prepares a traditional Nepalese meal (which will be in passing one of the best we have eaten). The whole family is gathered in the small kitchen. We are offered the best seats near the fire whose flames lick the multiple pans used to prepare dinner and heat the water of the tea.
And as a bonus, we have the privilege to taste the Chang, the Tibetan craft beer made from millet and hot water. It is not bad at all and in any case, it fulfills its effect very quickly. We are quickly warmed and feel much better, as outside it's freezing! After dinner at 8:00 pm, all the lights are out. We tell the guide that we will only wake up if the sky is clear and the visibility excellent.
Day 4 - Molley
In the early morning, it's the new view of the landscape that wakes me up. The visibility is not good, and our guide let us sleep as much as we want and it feels good. After a breakfast in bed composed of omelets, and toast, the guide makes us understand that we have to get out of bed now and keep walking. This third day of walking is the vaguest of all.
My feet, my whole body ended up surrendering, at the cost of my mental presence. I'm here without being there. I'm talking but nothing really goes in my brain and everything is hard. My legs are tired and, even if the path is relatively flat, the slightest climb is complicated. We watch the herds of horses pass us in front. The landscapes follow one another again without any logic.
The desert steppes with calcined trees give way to a green vegetation and all in bloom. When my feet cannot stand, I see our guide walking towards an eatery to stop for lunch. I am now on the ladder of joy. Except that two minutes later, he comes out of the eatery, to say there is no lunch. We break from here! We only have a little tea, and then we break.
It is time for me to change socks when our guide announces that we cannot go to Phalut that day because there are no rooms available in this place. So we have to stay in Molley. It is a little away from the trek but just 3 kilometers downhill. When we arrive in Molley, the girls are already settled on single beds planted in a small room with 4 beds. It is cozy, it is comfortable and, since it is only 2 pm, it's hot!
Lunch is prepared with love and we eat again like big eaters. It's always rice, potatoes, and dal, but it's always a treat. After a little ginger tea, our sleeping bags call us for a well-deserved nap. And what happiness to have the time to let oneself sleep in the middle of the afternoon. What happiness for my little body to have not had to walk the 20 km originally planned but only 14 km.
We learn to be content with the little room, a hot meal and a whole afternoon to doze. Molley, I love you. After a stroll in the sunset, we get back, to be wrapped in our sleeping bags. But the silence lasts a short time. My reward comes to me in the form of our guide who knocks on the door shouting to come for dinner. It is happiness, again and again.
Day 5 - Phalut
We rise at 5 am to see the sunrise, that is breathtaking even if the Himalaya remains in the clouds. Then the fog rises very quickly from the valley. So, we take advantage of the mild weather to go watch the sunrise on the Kanchendzonga. At Phalut, the time has nearly failed to play tricks. Indeed, at 5:30, the guide told us that there was fog and that we could sleep longer. But around 6:30, the fog had fallen back into the valley so we could enjoy the view.
We take our time. The bodies are rested, the spirits are calm, and everyone is ready for the 24 km that await us today. I spend the first part of the day, alone in the back, with the pleasure of hearing songs of Frank Sinatra and Moulin Rouge. It makes me feel good, and I have a lot of energy. This part of the day, although climbing steeply between the rhododendrons, goes at a crazy speed.
Before I could realize that I'm walking, I sit in the grass at Phalut. Our guide prepares tea that we drink while looking at the sight when the sounds of bells come. From the top of the summit, yaks come down at full speed. The day before, a yak festival was there in the steppes with calcined trees, and these must be expected. This does not prevent them from taking a short break to graze the particularly tender grass of the base of Singalila Peak.
This is the moment we choose to walk the kilometer and a half that separates us from the highest peak I have ever been able to climb. The moment is still surrealism, like most moments of my life. The yaks, the friends, and 3670m of altitude. A photo, smiles, and a break where everyone is isolated. The visibility is not excellent but it is a wonderful place to be with oneself. I saw my thing. It's perfect.
For now, it's to live alone. Dozens of kilometers to get here, and know that it's not an end in itself. Only after that moment, other kilometers await us. Since this morning, I've been singing songs on my mind. I am sitting on a rock at 3670 meters above sea level. I watch attentively the path of a tiny red spider wandering on the lichen and dry moss and I try to see things with its eyes, to feel through it. That's when I understand all that, each way makes sense. Wherever it wants to go, I will know how to love it.
The descent to Gorkhey is done in joy and lightness. Small hailstones fall on us in the early afternoon and as we lose altitude, turn into rain that was first light and then heavy. We go down the mountainside on a small enchanting path surrounded by bamboo trees and the land on which we walk gradually becomes muddy. I realize that I do not have waterproof pants. Because yes, at that moment, I already know that I am addicted to this activity.
The rain finally stops as we come out of the thick fir forest to come face to face with the land. I see simple terraced crops along the valley that goes down. There is a river running in torrents amidst all this and a hallucinating greenery after the rain. Clouds descend along the trees of staggering size. Paradise is at our feet. People did not lie. Gorkhey is not a place where you can spend only one night. Small families welcome us, and we find a pearl.
We find a room and the blankets for finally warmer temperatures. We lost 1300 meters of altitude in a few hours. Our knees are heavy and our clothes are soaked. We decided that evening to pay our guide for a day extra. It is unthinkable to leave this place the next morning. It was one of the best decisions of my life. The dinner that is served to us that night is one of the best things I have ever eaten.
There is rice, potatoes and cabbage leaves picked from the family's kitchen garden, all cooked with love. There is a dal to die for and papad, the thin crispy cakes of chickpeas with spices. The beds and the blankets are soft, and there is even a small shower. I have to pinch myself to make sure I am not in a dream. Geographically, this place is accessible only by hiking, as no road comes here.
Day 6 - Gorkhey
The awakening in this place is incredible. Blue landscapes, firs, comfortable beds and the certainty that we stay in the same place from morning to evening. I already know that this day will be great. The plants are all in bloom, and the colors are hallucinating. Orange flowers grow under our window, while violets dot the path to the river. A tea is served to us in bed by our smiling guide.
I go out to take pictures of the river from the bridge. As the road does not come up to Gorkhey, the village is almost entirely independent. Each family has goats to mow the grass from time to time and cows for milk and, consequently, butter. Roosters roar at any time of the day to whoever wants to hear it. Roosters wander among the potato plants, to eat the few worms that venture on the young pea shoots.
Some semi-wild cats play hide-and-seek between the green leaves of cabbages. The peas have clad their little white flowers that compliment the green of their stems so well. The cabbage preferred the yellow chick to be well seen and tiny blue flowers spread carpet at our feet with every step. Some horses wander around mountains, on the Sikkim side of the river and nonchalantly graze the wet and still wet grass of the day before.
I do not give myself much time to think. In the river, the water is icy that comes from the glaciers of the Himalayas. It is 10am, the sun is perfect, and the cold water stings my skin. The difference between the water and the air is such that I am instantly warm. I go back to our little room through a small wobbly bridge. The sun bathes the landscape as I wait for lunch.
Cats cohabit with chickens and I'm in love with this place. After the nap after lunch, I go for a walk at sunset. We decide to go for a drink in one of the guesthouses of the village. A group of locals will have the merit to introduce us to the Tongba. It smells of alcohol. I am curious and orders one of these things. In a small barrel-shaped container fermented millet is placed and a bamboo straw comes out.
Boiling water is brought separately and we are told to pour the water on the millet, let infuse for ten minutes and consume. This alcohol intrigues me, and there are aromas of the wine. The taste is just as much, but it's pleasant. The advantage of this alcohol is that it is sufficient to add boiling water, until exhaustion of taste. So to sum it up, it's the highest value alcohol in the world.
In the evening, at the table, we have our meal with rice, Dal and Aloo fries. I almost screamed when the guide put them on the table. So it's slightly pompous that we leave to join the arms of Morpheus under our blankets fleece. Gorkhey, you've sold us a dream again! The rain has started again, and it will not really stop during the night.
Day 7 - Rimbik
When we woke up the rain subsided. A dazzling sun awakens us as if to say, hey guys, today is a perfect day to walk. We agree enough and happily pack our bags while waiting for our breakfast. We take our time to drink our digestive Darjeeling tea. Life is Sweet. We leave after a breakfast of Tibetan rolls, chapati, omelet and aloo dum.
I feel happy to put on my shoes again and walk a little. And damn, I'm right. The landscapes are just crazy with rainforest across a big river, sheltering the red panda and leopard. There are gigantic bamboo trees, and hemp growing in the wild. Well, of course, the only thing that happened to happen is a nice little black tea in the town of Ramam.
And the descent begins through terraced crops of potatoes and peas. Here the peas are almost mature so we pick a pod to taste. It is good, sweet, tasty and organic. The spectacle of the descent is magical. There are dozens of small villages spread out at different altitudes. The colors of the roofs are complimented by the sun that illuminates the valley with all its power.
It is 1:30 pm when we arrive at the edge of the river, in the village of Srikhola where a Nepalese grandma prepares us a feast in less than half an hour. We are guzzling like hungry children. After the meal, we decide to go to the last point of the trek: Rimbik. We follow the winding road and at the end of an hour and a quarter, we arrive at the lodge, a little before the town of Rimbik.
The place seems to be much more imposing than all the little cute villages we've come across so far. We are too tired to immerse ourselves in the city, so we put our bags in the small dormitory of this beautiful guesthouse again where we are alone.
It is 4:30 pm. I fall on one of the single beds whose mattress is firm. And I start to realize that I have done 90km spread over 5 days of walking. I'm going to take a hot shower. And it's complicated not to have once again tears in the eyes before so much happiness. The shower is wonderful even if the pressure of the water jet is nonexistent.
We arrive in the dining room where the Tongbas are served. I cover the millet of boiling water, and we chained the parts of gin rummy by exchanging on the beauty of our situation. The meal is fantastic and the night sky is just as much.
Day 8 - The End
It is 6.30 am sharp when the jeep driver honks in front of the guesthouse. We jump back by thanking one last time the pretty lady of the guesthouse. The journey will be exhausting. We have 5 hours of winding mountain roads behind a crowded jeep. As we enter Darjeeling, we get back to the tiring civilization! After a meal of potato pancake, we walk painfully back to our small haven of peace. Our room is still intact. From Darjeeling, we go directly to Kalimpong. The town is more typical and quiet, and our goal is to recover!
As I said above, it's complicated to compile everything I've learned about this trek. After five days of a first trek, all these answers are worth in my head. But I think the most important thing is this. The reason I like trekking is precisely because there is absolutely no reason.