Singalila Ridge Trek

Trip Start Mar 01, 2012
Trip End Dec 06, 2012

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Flag of India  , West Bengal,
Thursday, October 11, 2012

Our guide was a little late meeting us at the Himalayan Getaway tour office, and I hoped that was the reason for his ridiculously quick pace as we half jogged at his heels on the way to the Jeep.  Of course the Jeep wasn’t ready to go so the just eaten breakfast could have stayed a little more settled with a slower paced walk, and I hoped this wasn’t a sign of what lay ahead over the next 5 days.  Turned out, it kind of was!
After an hour in the Jeep we stopped for a passport check as we entered the Singalila National Park.  Getting out of the car in a gorgeous little village, on a quiet dirt road with not a car horn in ear shot was blissful, and thankfully another sign of things to come.  The guide said we would go to his house first, where his wife gave us a lovely glass of mango juice and he showed off his nine month old daughter.  That quiet bliss was short lived though, as soon as our glasses were emptied, it was time to go.  The first two hours would be the hardest of the day – forewarned is forearmed…or so I thought.  Regretting the mango juice as it sloshed around in my belly, I could barely catch my breath after ten minutes.  For the most part we were following the road that also acted as the boundary between India and Nepal, and wound its way steeply up the mountainside.  However, every now and again we would take a short cut across barely trodden paths through undergrowth which was even steeper and more difficult.  And barely shorter at all.  An hour of this, and I was seriously second guessing my belief that I could do this.  Eight months on the road with very little in the way of demanding exercise – thank God for those yoga sessions or I’d have never made it.  With a constant fight between lungs and legs to see which could burn the most, the two hours ticked by painfully slowly but eventually were up.  True to his word, the toughest bit was over.  In my mind I’d decided that that meant the rest of the day would be fairly steady going…which unless you had a fitness level on par with the guide was a totally wrong assumption.

It was up and down for the rest of the days walk, and the ‘shortcuts’ we kept taking looked down on the pathway which was the alternative and looked much steadier and more inviting.  While the guide never once looked out of breath, I was very grateful for the couple of minute breaks he gave us every so often.  Just as your heart stopped trying to force its way out of your chest with every breath, it was time to go again…but God, was it good to be out in the clean fresh air!  The clouds had really come in so there was no view to enjoy but it was lovely and cool, something we’d have killed for in Kolkata!
The last kilometre of the day was almost as steep as the first few but the sun was setting and we could see the lodge for the night up on the hill so that was more than enough motivation.  When we got there we were pleasantly surprised to find a lovely cosy room with comfy looking beds and warm blankets.  Our guide brought us hot water to wash with and then tea and biscuits, and we relaxed until tea time happy with the days efforts.  The lodge for the evening was in Tumling, on the Nepal side of the border, and the Nepali hospitality was wonderful, as was the food.  One last reminder that we were out in the middle of nowhere was the sky as we looked up on our way across the court yard to bed.  There were absolutely thousands of stars shining, and the longer you looked, the more you could see…breathtaking and a brilliant end to the day!
The real treat came in the morning when we were woken at 5.30 (not the treat ) and taken a mere 10 minutes up the hill from where we were staying.  The morning was perfectly clear, and without yesterday evenings cloud coverage, we were astounded by the view.  Khangchendzonga stood right in front of us, the third highest peak in the world…and it looked amazing!  Green rolling hills lay in front, and towering behind were the snowy mountain tops contrasting with the gorgeous blue sky.  Most definitely worth getting out of bed for!  
The day began with a lovely steady stroll, mostly downhill, which was great as the skies were still clear and you could relax and enjoy the views.  After a few kilometres we went steeply downhill and into a valley to a passport checkpoint…but of course that meant we had to go back up.  The following two kilometres were easily as hard as yesterdays, following the path as it wound back and forth up the side of the mountain again.  Plenty of breath-stops were the only way I could manage to keep going, but of course we made it, and the path steadied out for another few kilometres…merely to prepare us for yet another climb.  This time it was 4km and it felt never ending.  By now we’d already walked 17, and the end couldn’t come quickly enough for me.  The lactic acid was seriously burning, and the ground underfoot was so uneven with unsteady rocks that you had to concentrate hard to keep your balance…and the clouds had rolled in and it was seriously cold.  Needless to say, morale was a little low.
Of course we made it though, to another passport checkpoint before we could go and warm up in the lodge.  Or not.  The passport checkpoints are at little army-posts, and one of the guards writes down your passport details and visa details…and the length of time that takes would indicate they have never done it before, though I’m sure they must have.  So twenty minutes of standing around waiting for our three passports to be checked ensured we were frozen through, and gave the morale time to ebb a little further.
We were at Sandakphu, which was supposedly alright accommodation – it would be Phalut where we would stay the following night that would be the worst of the accommodation.  So were unprepared for this place.  It had a distinct barracks feel about it, and was somehow colder inside the room we were shown to than it was out.  And it had no light.  Sitting in the dark didn’t do much to enhance the group mood!  We were shown to another room after an hour, which was much better for being lit, and would have been more bearable if it hadn’t have been opposite the toilet.  Rather than the usual distinct Indian toilet smell, it smelt of cabbage – if you put all the world’s cabbages in one place.  Very odd!   
There was still hope for the evening though!  We nipped across to the very pleasant looking Sherpa Lodge just across the way for a hot chocolate to thaw us out, but one of the other guides came across to get us before we were finished…apparently we’d crossed the border.  In an attempt to warm everyone up, the guides poured us and another group glasses of what they were calling Roxy – home brewed rice wine.  Before even stepping into the room you could smell it – it smelled like Wrey and Nephews overproof rum, and tasted worse.  Luckily dinner warmed everyone up a little…but we still had to sleep in our coats!
Once again though, sun rise was the saving grace.  It was a steep clamber up a hill today but worth every step.  We were near the highest point of our trek, and our reward was the view over the entire Himalaya range – Khangchendzonga and its surrounding peaks on one side, the Three Sisters in between, then the highlight…the Everest range.  Still miles away from us but looking huge, Everest stood just behind Makalu and Lhotse – we were looking at the first, third, fourth and fifth highest peaks in the entire world – undisputedly the most amazing thing I have ever seen.

It was cold and it was early but everyone stayed up there for the best part of an hour before tearing themselves away from the view to have a quick breakfast before we set off again. It was another 21km we had to cover again today, but the prospect was made much more attractive by the easy winding path we could see stretched out in front of us.  Despite being one of the longest days, it would be less challenging than the two previous ones as we were walking along the ridge and keeping much the same elevation.  We all enjoyed the comparably easy walk and the immense views.  The day passed quickly and it was lunch time before we knew it – in a tiny farm cabin where they were smoking yak’s cheese in the ceiling.  They very kindly made us some tea while we sat in front of the fire; special Nepali tea apparently, that would help with dehydration.  It was the saltiest thing I’ve ever tasted, and almost enough to make me sick.  Credit to her cast iron stomach, Ciara managed to down the majority of hers, but Leanne and I fortunately found a moment alone to pour ours away without causing any offence…there was no way I could have drunk it!
Back on our feet again after far too long a break.  Our guide sets the pace, and while Ciara somehow strides along behind him keeping up, Leanne and I were left behind most of the time.  It wasn’t a problem as we rarely lost sight of them, but when all the rushing is followed by sitting for two hours and waiting for the other groups to catch up and eat as well…it seemed a little pointless!  The afternoon went smoothly though, and while we lost the view we were treated to near silence while we walked; the only sounds were barking deer and cow bells – absolute heaven.  We’d only been in India two weeks but I didn’t think the constant noise was ever something I could become accustomed to.  We arrived in Phalut to a more pleasant surprise today – it was much nicer than last night’s accommodation and we had a gorgeous dinner cooked for us again.  Somehow in the hour or so that the guides disappeared they had managed to get drunk beyond comprehension, and while hearing them attempt to outline the plan for tomorrow was great fun, having them demand we watch them singing while we were trying to eat went a bit far!  We left them to it, but with the kitchen right beside our room, were still subjected to the singing anyway!
Slightly later rise in the morning…our guide shaped alarm clocks must have slept in for some reason…
It had hammered it down with rain the previous night and the ground was frozen as a result, making the walk up the steep hill to the viewpoint a little more challenging, but of course the view was enough reward once again.  We could see the same as we could yesterday, but this time we were even closer – it was beautiful.  There was a lovely mist hanging below the mountain peaks that cleared as we stood watching, and at a mere 40km away from us, Khangchendzonga looked huge!!  Amazingly, Everest looked even clearer than it had the day before.  We met a guy in Darjeeling who told us about his trek and he had only managed to see the mountains one morning on his six day trek, so we were amazed and very thankful that we had got so lucky with the weather.

The penultimate day was supposed to be an easy one, despite being 24km as it was downhill nearly all the way.  In addition to our usual group, today we would be accompanied by a goat, walking on a lead held by our guide.  His jokes about it being for this evenings dinner were a little disconcerting, and the goat didn’t look too impressed at the situation either.  Never feared though, he was spared (at least from our plates) and handed over to someone en route.  We flew through the first 10km, through what could easily have been English woodland.  It was gorgeous packed mud paths, covered in leaves and surrounded with trees – it made me pine for my lovely dog Bobby back home!  Despite getting off to a great start, the path soon got steeper and Leanne’s knees were really playing up – how unfair that after all the tough uphill stretches, it’s the supposedly easier downhill ones that give you grief.  Needless to say, she wasn’t very happy but soldiered on through it anyway.  It was tough going though, even my knees were feeling strained, and we were delighted to finally arrive at the lunch stop.  
Stopping is a false friend though – even after just ten minutes rest you stiffen up and anything that was hurting feels worse – Leanne’s knee, Ciara had pulled her Achilles (didn’t stop her powering along though!) and my poor excuse was blisters.  So we were more than happy when the guides came to all the groups after lunch and said we would be staying there for the night!  We were in Gorkhey, a perfectly picturesque tiny village in a valley with a river rushing through it – and lovely cosy rooms as a huge bonus!!  
A fire was lit outside as a last night tradition and kerosene was used to keep the fire going which was slightly worrying as somewhere in the mix the drinking had also begun.  The guides were up singing again and determined to hear a song from each of us.   Luckily, they weren’t too insistent and seemed happier to be in the spotlight themselves – everyone seemed grateful when dinner was served, then we were shipped off to bed for the best night’s sleep on the trek so far.  It was the first night where it was warm enough to sleep without our coats on, and while their warmth was more than welcome, the rustle every time you moved was something I was glad to be without!
No view on the final morning, but a very early rise just the same.  We had 22km to cover, and we had to do it by 12.30 when our Jeep would be leaving to take us back to Darjeeling.  Challenge on, we set off and kept a good pace all morning, luckily with a steady gradient for much of the way.  There were a few challenging bits though – a particularly difficult uphill scramble which lasted only ten minutes but took about the same for me to get enough of my breath back to manage to speak.  After a brief juice break, we were on it again – with only 6km to go we were making good time.  Leanne and I were practically jogging for most of the final stretch, but when the end is in sight it’s worth doing!  As soon as we got near to Rimbick we knew – it was market day and we could hear the commotion before we could see it.
   Immediately I was willing to go back to walking if it meant enjoying the quiet solitude we’d been treated to the last few days…even in the small village it was madness!  
We had indeed made it by 12.30 though, and were in the Jeep and on our way in no time.  Our bodies clearly knew their jobs were over as during the four hour drive back to Darjeeling we all stiffened up so much we had to practically shuffle back to our guest houses.  What an experience – a definite highlight of the trip so far! 
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