Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Trek Report: Darjeeling to Nepal

The day starts early the way treks should, with a nice cold shower. Not out of choice, I have to say, but at least it wakes you up! Breakfast involved waking everyone up, but to their credit they prepared us our usual eggs and tea by 6:30am, so we were ready to leave by 7am, when Sonam was to meet us outside the hotel. He was 15 minutes late. He led us down the mall to where he had a jeep waiting. This was to take us to Maneybhanjyang, an hour or so drive. I thought we had the jeep to ourselves, but we started picking up others – Sonam had just commandeered the front and middle. It is pouring with rain.

We drove along to Ghoom, then took the road to Sukhia, which follows the ridges round towards Nepal, staying high above the valleys that we had occasional views of as the clouds and rain roll back and forth.

Rain and clouds

From Sukhia we drop down to Maneybhanjyang, where we have to register with the Indian army.

They copy out details from our passports into a big book, and only after they’ve done do I point out that Thuzar’s name is not “Mandalay” (her town of birth). Oh well, I guess they don’t see many Burmese passports this way.

Next we drive a few yards further into the town, and get out with all gear for breakfast (but we’ve already eaten) so just tea.


Sonam asks if we want to try Tibetan tea? Sure!! Now I was expecting something interesting, having read so much about this tea containing yak butter and salt. Well they don’t use yak butter here, just regular, but it pretty much tastes exactly how you imagine it. Butter and salt. In tea.

The thing about the taste of butter, like mayonnaise, is that it is wonderful with practically everything, yet horrible on its own. Butter in tea tastes like butter on its own. An acquired taste, as they say.

Happy smiles at the start of the trek

We set off walking up steps behind the restaurant, and quickly climb out of the village, passing a small gompa on the way, where I tell Thuzar to pray for a good trek (no need for me to, I don’t believe in all that stuff anyway).

Rising up above the town

It’s raining. Not hard at the moment. I’d describe it as light to middling. The path is quite good – well marked, and mostly steps at this stage. The trail we are following has a road running all the way along it, which we follow, sometimes using the road, sometimes short-cutting, but never veering too far away.

We stop for tea at Chatray, in a Tibetan place with a naughty only-son careering about the place.

Back to regular tea this time, you’ll be interested to note. We sit under the window on two chairs, which Sonam explains sit on either side of the Indian Nepali border – apparently it runs right through this lodge – it’s like standing on the Greenwich Meridien!

Tea in different countries

They also give us some simple chapati bread with spicy sauce, which is delicious. Sonam warns us about the spice but soon realises that we love it!

Onwards through the rain.


We pass a couple of Buddhist sites – one a monastery which we will visit on the way down, before arriving at Megma (2900m) for lunch.

We’re in luck, as the boss-man is in town, so they’ve prepared a special dal to go with the dal bhat that is the staple of diet of every Nepali. Ah yes, did I say, we’re in Nepal! Hurrah!

Whilst we wait for lunch, we visit the tea factory. This is a lovely stone building which wouldn’t look out of place in the Lake District.

Inside, the owner shows us around.

It’s quite warm, and the latest picking of tea leaves are laid out to dry along one side of the building.

Underneath, a couple of workers are sieving leaves.

Lots more to go

The type of tea they produce here is oolong tea, because it can cope with the higher altitude. The owner thinks this is the highest tea plantation in the world. Any challengers? Anyway, the profits from the tea sold are ploughed back into improving the area, so I buy a box, which is going to Supi with her sealing wax!

The finished product


Pots, pans and dal bhat trays

A fine dal bhat

Straight after lunch we crack on, and the rain is getting really quite heavy.

We’re rather wet by the time we reach our destination, Shikhar Lodge in the little village of Tumling, at 3000m. Population? 14.

I should point out at this stage that we have seen absolutely nothing all day – we have been smothered in rain or mist all day, I’d say we’ve never seen more than about 30m away from the path. If it’s like this tomorrow I will not be impressed! The nearest Nepali town is Ilam, which reminds me of the tea Adrian and I bought in Pokhara!

The lodge is great – the roofs are all new, and everything is clean. We drop our bags in our room (en-suite!), then head to the main building for tea.

It’s cool outside in the rain, but not cold. We’re all quite wet but have spare clothes, which we change into. We then wander up the road to the Nepali police office so that Thuzar can get a Nepali stamp in her passport. On the way we pass the “viewpoint”:

Still in Nepal

Unfortunately half way there the rain starts again, and our dry clothes are wet, and worse, when we get to the office, instead of the friendly head of police we spoke to earlier, there’s only a drunk low-life who doesn’t understand the request, and asks for money, so we trudge back in the pouring rain to our lodge.

The place is run by a Gurung lady, but there’s a little girl helping out who is a Sherpa. They’re all very friendly. They also have a family of kittens who have lost their mother. Though I’m not generally a fan of cats, they are very cute. They doze off in the corner next to me and the fire. With nothing dry to wear, we sit next to the fire trying to dry what we have, with some success.

Later dinner, which is delicious, a mix of spicy potato, daals, pickles and curries, washed down with some awful Tibetan beer. I’d forgotten I’d tried this in Nepal. Yucks.

It’s like drinking corked wine mixed with mustard! Of course, after a few cups, it grows on you. You drink it out of a wooden straw, and when you run out, you pour more hot water into the cup and leave it ten minutes.

How to stay warm overnight

Knowing we have an early start the next day, we retire early and sleep well.

At 5am, with first light, we get up before we’re woken to see the view. We walk up the lane to the top of the village, where there is a bench to enjoy the view.

Yesterday this was the view:

This morning though, it’s lovely, and we can see all around the immediate area, along to Sandakphu (3636m) though sadly not to Kantenjunga or Everest.

We enjoy the experience for a while, then go back to bed for more sleep. An hour later, Sonam wakes us up – you can see Kantenjunga! We rush up, and it’s true, there it is, dominating the skyline. The view is described as a lying-down Buddha, and we can see the head and belly (the main peak), but not the toes.

The range

The peak close up


Local poultry getting in on the act

Back to the lodge for tea, and then another snooze (we tell Sonam we’re going to pack, cough). Finally it’s breakfast time, and we’re having Tibetan bread, freshly made on request.

We finally leave around 9am, and walk up past the view point to the top of this hill here, following the prayer flags up in the clouds.

This is Tonglu (3070m), as high as we get on this trek. If we had more time, the trek continues to Sandakphu and onwards, but not only do we not have time, but at this time lots of the trails are closed, as it's low season and mating time for the animals here, including bears, red pandas and big cats.

At the top, there is another lodge, what a spot – the clouds roll back revealing the view briefly. Sonam says food is terrible though. Ah well. He sets us various riddles as we walk down which I manage to solve.

Thuzar makes friends

The weather deteriorates as we head down. Cows lying down, doesn’t that mean something?

In the clouds

Sonam talks about how most Indian tourists are fairly lazy, lots of them stay at the lowest lodge on this trail, having given up going any higher. He’s had fit young men offer to pay him off so they don’t have to walk any more, which is funny as this is really quite a gentle hike.

Traffic – the only car we see in two days

We stop for tea in a place where the family herd cattle, so I buy some cheese from them, though it turns out to be a slab of rubber! Perhaps they way they like it here though – at one of the previous places, Sonam handed us a small cube of cheese each, rock solid, supposedly to chew like a boiled sweet.

With fifty cows and the incessant rain, her backyard was not pleasant

We visit a gompa of Lama Dhura on the way down, but there’s not much to see, apart from lots of construction – new stupas under construction.

For the final stretch, we use the road, as the steeper paths are really muddier (this decision was taken after two of the group, I won’t mention names, but not myself, slipped on their backsides!).

First sights of Maneybhanjyang

Reaching town, there are people about at last! The trail has been very quiet – apart from the wildlife and rain we’ve pretty much been alone.

Local footballer

We head into the same cafĂ© as the tea before starting, and order momos and tea. They’re good, but the soup that accompanied them was a bowl of water as far as I could make out.

The momo soup was not so good

End of trek shot

Heading home
We take a minibus, well like a VW campervan without the table etc, up to Sukhia, the town at the top of the ridge. Of course, negotiating the price for this is a major chore, which Sonam does for us thankfully.

Nothing is simple..

At Sukhia we climb into a shared jeep, with no spare seats. I’m in the second row with four others, and have my full pack on my lap. Not the most comfortable ride. But at least I have a seat of some description, unlike the driver, who again is wedged in against the door, reaching across the next chap to the steering wheel!

In Darjeeling, it’s back to the usual traffic chaos. We walk up to visit Sonam’s shop, where Nawang, his baby son and wife are waiting.

Yes, I picked up this model in Japan, that’s why you’ve never seen it

Dad’s wallet tasted good

Finally, we walk back in almost torrential rain to the hotel, and a nice hot shower. In the evening we go out, in the rain (getting the theme of the trek here) to Park’s restaurant for food and a celebratory beer!

Overall a worthwhile if light and accessible trek. Sonam is an excellent guide - if you want to get in touch with him, he is available via email (though I don't think he checks it too often, so plenty of warning) on sonam_bhutia9 at yahoo.com or on phone 97330 then either 68043 or 05338). Or speak to Sanrup at Bellevue Hotel.

1 comment:

pine-cones said...

"Yesterday this was the view:

I laughed