Friday, 3 November 2017

Sandakphu trek- My life changing experience


I'm standing half in Nepal and half in India..
At the 'Bikeybhanjyang' check post! 3.5 kms to 'Sandakphu'.

I have done a lot of casual jungle outings and wanting to do a proper trek was too exciting, specially in the hills of North-East. I had just recovered from a back spasm but it didn't stop me from doing the trek. I had planned and dreamed too much of it. I started mild exercises and regular walking. I invested in proper trek shoes and clothing and now there was no looking back. 
 

The place was SANDAKPHU.


It was an organized trek by YHAI, thats an Indian youth hostel association. Sandakphu had been one of my most awaited trips. It's the highest peak in West Bengal (3636 m; 11,941 ft), extremely beautiful and raw. I was excited as well as scared because of my fitness level. But I did it. I completed the full trek with hell lot of crazy experiences. I don't have enough words and I don't know from where to start.
Carrying a 5-6 Kg rucksack and walking mountains through the forest in rains, sun and stony paths. From body pain and breathlessness in higher altitude to soothing stream baths. The evening gatherings, little ceremonies, water shortage problems, cranky wooden houses, the cold, the clouds, the moon and the mist, the many sunrises and sunsets, all were a part of my amazing trek experience. Do read for all further details.

Travel
I had to take two overnight connecting trains, one auto and one three hour SUV ride to reach Darjeeling, from Bhubaneswar; where the base camp was settled. The route to Darjeeling was beautiful, foggy and serene but the place wasn't great. At-least the city part was very crowded and filthy. Probably the posh areas and outskirts must be nice. I roamed around the Darjeeling station where the Toy trains function. It was nice to see these World Heritage trains. While the plains where burning in May, the weather here was pleasant.

Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. A World Heritage Site!

Darjeeling streets

City sight


Day 1 & 2: Darjeeling (6,700 ft)

I reached YHAI base camp which was very nearby, registered myself and took the available room no '116'. Later other ladies joined up; some married, one engaged and one single solo traveler like me. :) Slowly we got along with other participants and at evening one Ravinder sir took our orientation class and we all had our introduction session.


We were up by 5.45 am in the morning, had tea and biscuits and were off for our acclimatization process through some jogging and exercises, which was very important for the trek ahead. We started sweating in this cold region. As we were the last batch, we cheered the previous batch which was going to start the trek today. After that we had to take our backpacks which we would carry in the trek further and had a walk to a nearby Monastery. The walk would make us acquainted for next uphill journeys. As there were a lot of 1st timers like me, this was required. Today's walk helped us mingle up with other participants. I found most of the folks quite friendly. After lunch me and my two friends planned and went ahead to see a Botanical garden and a Tea Estate. Later that night after some hot dinner there was music and dancing and lots of fun! After that we deposited our extra luggage and travel stuffs at the counter and finally packed our trek bags for tomorrow. 



See offing the previous batch ~



Day 3: Dhotrey - Tonglu - Tumling (9570 ft)

As per our schedule we got up early, packed our bags and queued up after tea and breakfast. Even before the trek started I had mild headache and my calf muscles pained. We all got loaded into two Tata sumos for our next location. After an approx two and half hour ride we reached Dhotrey (a small Himalayan village located within the buffer zone of Singalila National Park), where our trek properly starts. Two guys introduced themselves as our guides. Swastick Chamling and Lakpa Sherpa, both were trained from ATREE. Under their guidances we started our walk towards Singhalila National Park. The feeling of the forest was extremely beautiful. It was cold, foggy and dripping wet. We could hardly see the folks ahead. And my chances of bird watching went to zero. As a first time trekker me and few others got slow and Swastik helped us completely. We crossed some deadly dense forest. It was scary. As much as I enjoyed the experience of the forest, I started getting exhausted. The more I moved ahead the more my bag felt heavy on my shoulders. I was in great pain. I thought my bag was light but no! It had to be more lighter. It was a uphill walk and it was difficult for few of us. It even rained in between. I was exhausted and almost thought of giving up. But then you can't even go anywhere except moving forward. So slowly and steadily we tried that. Swastik supported and encouraged us in all his ways. We had crossed more than 3 mountains. This route was only around 5-6 kms but because of the tricky route and our low energy we took a long time. Finally we reached our mid-way lunch destination by around 3 pm. That was Tonglu, a small settlement en-route. Everybody else had reached way ahead and patiently waited for us. With a lost appetite and almost dead body I had my lunch with others and we all again started walking towards Tumling, our base camp for the night. It was a bit easy as it was downhill. In the next 45 mins we were there. Tumling was unbelievingly beautiful. We got our rooms which were very cute, warm and well maintained.



You know what! we were in fact in Nepal, just at the border. How cool is that! We freshened up with some tea and fritters and roamed around the place. We got our energy back. The evening went in YHAI briefings and later some fun dances and songs. I had a pain-killer and went off to sleep.


The wet forest

Tumling - just look at that!

With the heritage land rover



Day 4- Tumling to Kalapokhri (10452 ft)



By 7.30 we started off to our next uphill journey. I saw many birds in the region for which I was very delighted. Today we had to walk 14 kms. Gosh! Today either the route was less difficult or I had got my energy back and got accustomed. This whole trek went in good positive spirits. My walking technique became, slow but continuous. Everybody had different walking pace, so what happened was, we walk and meet other team mates crossing us or we cross them. In between a lot of gossips happen or we form a group. It was a great feeling to make new friends and to know different people. Various people have different reasons for coming to the trek. We had people from the age group of 14 to 70 + and all were in super good mood for the trek. In between it started raining heavily. Thankful for my poncho and waterproof shoes I was mostly dry but lot of team mates got wet and were troubled. This route was half of Nepal and half India at many places. The experience was awesome. We paused for lunch at a place and started again in the heavy downpour. We had no option than to walk ahead before getting dark. We throughly enjoyed this route. The rains, friends and gossip was fun! We reached Kalapokhri. It was a secluded place and the environment was very damp and foggy. Rain stopped and we warmed ourselves with some soup, hot tea and fritters.



The specialty of Kalapokhri was that it was again in India-Nepal border and there was a pond nearby which is religiously famous. It was in the shape of a giant foot said to be off Lord Shiva. Shiva while going to Himalayas had stopped here and hence the depression and then water filled in. It never dries up and is always clear of dirt. Our gossip continued even after dinner. The rooms again were nice and cozy with sufficient blankets as it was very cold even in the summer time.

Kalapokhri

Some team mates 

Our Homestay

The beautiful morning 

The Shiva pond



Day 4. Kalapokhri to Sandakphu (11,929 ft)



We woke up in wee hours to see sunrise but found only clouds. I heard that the sunrises are beautiful in the winter time. Some went back to sleep while few including me roamed around. I did birding and clicked some pictures near the pond. Finally all were out of there beds for the day ahead. Luckily it was sunny outside and folks kept their wet things out to dry.



We had this idea that this was the most tough route. So anyways we started up. Up up up the hill. Through the mountains. Though the forests. With the bird calls and few Rhododendrons flowers left. Step by step. Stone by stone we went ahead, meeting locals in between and crossing our friends. We kept going. Tiny homes and shops and humble people smiling. A stop with friends for tea and lots of pictures taken. This is how the day was going.



In between it really got tough. Few team mates got behind and so did Swastik. I had the energy so I slowly went ahead. The front team was no where to be seen so I was almost alone in the dense forest stony route for a long time. I kept walking hoping to see someone but there was none. I got little scared. But then I saw some pretty birds to click and my mind diverted to that. Some Himalayan beauties they were. There was only one route so all I had to do was keep walking. I wanted to see a red-panda which was famous in these regions but no luck. A little sad I kept walking amidst magnificent trees. With no sound around than my own heart beat and gushy mushy tree sound. I don't know if fogs have sound but I heard it too. The weather was pleasant and so was my mood. As I was already going slow in search of birds, I saw something in white, red and black, Before I could realize what I saw and click it, my hands shivered and it vanished. I was like shit! It was an amazingly beautiful Himalayan bird called 'blood pheasant'. I still wanted one click to confirm. This was one of my dream birds that I fancied. Then suddenly I saw more birds walking just besides me in a lower jungle land. Two males and one female foraging around. For more than half and hour we kept walking parallel and I took as many as pictures in the forests as I could. Aha... I loved Sandakphu even before I reached the destination. I wanted to scream to my birder friends for what I saw. This route was indeed very difficult. Beautiful but difficult. The road was so inclined and steep and on the top, there was no stones but big boulders to walk on. Which made walking very difficult. And I forgot to mention the increasing altitude. My breathing was getting heavy. Last 2 kms, I walked few steps, took a pause and again walked. Super slow. I knew I wasn't last so I was relaxed. I just had to reach the base camp. It wasn't really easy for me. Breathing difficulty. High hill and big stones. Pause and walk. Pause and walk. In between I had my own mini-picnics with chocolates and eateries. I finally saw Sandakphu - 0 kms. Even that didn't end soon. I was still walking. I finally saw local people ahead who's land rover was struck in the boulders. After long I saw more human habitation and I finally reached Sandakphu base camp. Ahhhh All were happy that I reached and so was I. The trek which they completed in 3 hours, I took 5. But I did it. I was so darn happy... yeaahhh... I was finally in Sandakphu.



After lunch we went to nearby hill to watch Kanchenjunga hill from far and clicked lots of pictures. It was 'Buddha Purnima' (festival that marks Gautama Buddha's birth, enlightenment and death) that night and we were going to see an awesome full moon from that altitude. But our camp leader turned out to be arrogant one and he didn't allow us to be out at night.



One of my friend and me were in a single room down in the cranky wooden house and the noise of pigeons and random stray sounds worried us. Don't know for what reason we got so shit scared and we had a hard time imaging all sort of scary stories where a leopard could come and grab us. Later we laughed so much over this. Also we got out in the excitement and enjoyed the full moon. 



Tomorrow we go down hill.
Sun-drying

Only these beast land rovers can drive on this bumpy road

My lone time

White-browed fulvetta

Blood pheasant

The evening at Sandakphu

Phenomenal mountains and clouds


Day 5. Sandakphu to Gurdum (7545 ft)

Ready by 6 am Swastik hurried us to a famous hill in Sandakphu that was a must visit. Few of us followed him up on a nearby hill without informing our camp leader and had a gorgeous look of the mountains around. WOW.

While leaving we had a little gathering and ceremony as we were the last batch of the summer trek this year. We were just leaving when it turned foggy to sunny and we saw the glorious Kanchenjunga  mountain range in full view. What a panorama view we had. This it what everybody was waiting for. At last the nature favored us and showed us this mighty mountain. Our previous batch had nothing but rain and we got lucky with this... Woahoo!

After taking tones of pictures we started our journey downhill. It started getting warm and we started removing our jackets. The Kanchenjunga was still in view as if it was following us. Never did I imagine that a downhill is going to be more difficult than uphill. The knees were taking a troll. The pressure was coming on it. I diverted my mind with birds and butterflies on the way. It was a meadow kinda place where we took our break and again went into dense jungle.

Swastik came up a lot of distance to show me few birds in nest. That was very kind of him. Lakpa and Swastik both showed a lot of patience in supporting us to complete this trek. Dead tired we finally reached Gurdum by 4 pm. Me and girls had our soups and lunch and slept of like dead bodies. Somebody woke us up for tea and aloo pakore (Potato fritters) and we had that in sleep too. Much later in drowsiness had had dinner and again slept off.

On top of Sandakphu! We completed our 3636m Summit (11,941 ft)

'Mt. Kanchenjunga' the great

It's third highest mountain in the world (28,169 ft)

Got an amazing view to Mt. Kanchenjunga!

The farewell


Windy at Sandakphu

Little foggy, little sunny
In the wilderness. 

The houses here are wooden, neat. Mostly had solar lights with sufficient blankets. A luxury I must say.

Day 6: Gurdum to Rimbik (7500 ft):

Refreshed in the morning I woke up early and went for birding. After having some yum aloo parathas we all started our journey. Forests, friends, gossip continued. We came closer to our lunch point 'Shrikhola'. There was a stream nearby and we were actually allowed to go in and most of us truly got in. The water was super cold. We went till waist length and I also did a bit of scary swimming as I was only a pool swimmer. It was super fun. We dried ourselves, changed and started our trek again after lunch. The next 4 hours was in concrete road and we absolutely hated it, After taking the challenges of forest ground, boulders, stones, mountains, muddy slushy roads, concrete was bad. Around 4.30 pm we reached our final base camp called 'Rimbik'. We came to civilization. A small town with shops and ATMs. We roamed around and shopped ourselves with some beautiful cups and souvenirs. Some typical mugs and prayer flags and stuff.

It was time for bada khana (big feast) and ceremonies for it was our last day of trek. We all gathered and gave speeches and were given our trek completion certificates. We all had a singing and dancing session. There was full enjoyment. Swastik and Lakpa gifted all of us beautiful white scarfs called ‘Khata’. A traditional ceremonial scarf symbolizing purity of heart and compassion in Buddhism. We all were touched with the gesture. We all gathered for a little farewell to our superb guides. It was time for goodbyes.

Forests and streams

Over Shrikhola bridge

A bath after 5-6 days!
Rimbick

Our last farewell day. What fun!

Getting trek certificate and gift :)

Day 7: Rimbick to Darjeeling to home

We woke up to heavy rains and got ready to leave. We were packed up in sumos with our luggages on top of vehicles and in next two hours we were in Dhotrey, were Swastik and Lakpa dropped off and we continued our journey towards Darjeeling. By 10 am we were in proper congested polluted city. After that we all got dispersed and me and some friends decided to have some local lunch and gulped down some authentic Tibetian food. We went back to our base camp, took our remaining luggage and got ourselves a vehicle going to New Jalpaiguri. The more we got down the hotter it got suffocated. We started suffering from low altitude sickness. Finally taking out respective trains, we headed back home with innumerable memories.

some amazing veg thukpa and momos & spring rolls!


In ways this trek had been a life changing experience for me. The Trek I felt was more of a mental challenge than physical. It challenges you in some way to move forward, stay positive and never give up. You need to take off your burden and relax your mind to walk forward. Trek isn't a race. It's you own pace with which you conquer and reach places. If you think you can do it you will do it. It's always good to come prepared for a trek. A healthy body and mind gives you ease to complete distances with peace and not strain. 

After this my respect for the nature has increased like anything. We are nothing in front of nature, the sun, the rain or anything that comes on us. All you can do is to face it with all might. Love nature, observe nature and respect nature. The trees, the rivers, the mountains, the wind, the fog, the leaves, the flowers, the birds, insects, animals... just everything. We are nothing in front of mighty nature. 

Something about the trek taught me to be in peace with self. I had a lot of time to myself and it made me ponder about everything and nothing. It made me open up to people as well as take challenges in life. 

That's all from this trek. 

Will put up a separate post for trek dos and donts. 

Cheers!

Love
Tanuja

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Lava - Neora Valley (Birding Trip)



I added another birding place in my list with Lava & Neora Valley. It's in Kalimpong districtWest Bengal (India). I went there in April 2016 and I was very excited for a new place to experience and lots of Himalayan birds to see.

I made this trip with the GoingWild group. I have earlier done a wildlife photography trip with them to Sikkim (Read here) and completely trusted them for this one too. 

It was hot in my city 'Bhubaneswar' and what a relief that I was off to a colder place. As there are hardly any direct trains, I had to take two connecting trains to reach NewJalpaiguri via Kolkata. I reached and met Dibyendu, our tour guide and an excellent birder and photographer himself. We waited for two more companions to join. Mr. Sarbjit ji an Ex. army man and his wife Meena ji joined us. They were an extremely sweet couple. We started off to our destination. I kept dozing off in between and then finally after an 3 hour ride we reached Pedong. We were to stay there and visit out birding destinations and trails of Lava-Neora Valley.

It was a nice staying place called 'Neel Pahari'. Neat and full of flowering plants around. It was partly a primary school and home-stay. So we were surrounded by super cute school children. After some tea we went around for a walk in search of birds. Quite a good birding habitat. It was getting dark and we returned back hoping for good sightings tomorrow.

The overall location was beautiful; like a small town in a far away land. Little houses here and there, furry dogs, flowers everywhere and smiling people. There was also an Army base.

Next day early morning, we started our bird hunt in the vicinity and after some good sightings like leiothrix, thrushes, shrikes, bulbuls, minivets.. we took off in Sumo towards Lava. We did birding all along the way and trails. The roads weren't great but the surrounding region, the trees and the habitat were pleasant. After lunch we were off to a village called Sillery Gaon. The four km stretch was a terrible one. Full of stones and bumps. It was little far but worth it. On the way we got some special birds sighted by Dibyendu, called 'Himalayan Cutia.' The place was so pretty with bright colored houses and flowers all over. It was typically made as a touristy site. As it started getting cloudy, we turned back and it rained heavily. We enjoyed some tea and pakoras and had dinner around 8 over a good chat with my fellow birders, discussing places and birds and own experiences. I had a good time with them.

Following days too went birding from early morning on the trails of Lava and Neora valley till dawn. The places were ultimate. We used to roam in the Sumo and then get around and walk with lots of patience to hear the bird calls and spot them hoping for a good picture too. While birding Sir ji and Meena ji would be talking a lot of things about forest life. About various flowers and trees. I took some interest in various flora too.

We stopped at Lava town and shopped some cute mugs and wind-chimes as souvenirs. Evenings went in making bird listings and searching their names.

One time we spotted a 'Red-headed Trogon'. A rare species which are usually hard to find. It just flew in front of us and sat somewhere in bushes. Luckily  I too got a record shot. I was damn happy.

That night it rained again with hailstorm. There was no electricity and we enjoyed it like that and on top of it we even got Momos (Dumplings) as a treat. Yummy! 

Last day, early morning we again went to that Trogon place and roamed around in search of it. No luck for that but we saw 'Khalij Pheasant' on the way. It was awesome. I didn't get a picture. But loved that I sighted it. It was one of my dream birds.

After rain and hailstorm, the Jungle looked terrible. As if someone knowingly chopped of the trees and shrubs. It looked depressing. I didn't wanted to imagine the condition of birds and animals yesterday night. We did birding around and came back with no Trogon luck. Meena ji had packed and Sir ji and Dibyendu all bid goodbye for they were going to their next trip to Zuluk (Sikkim). I had been to Zuluk last year so I only opted for Lava birding trip this time.

This was a nice tour with everyone. I met amazing people and learned a great deal from them.

After they were off, I had some time in hand before my arranged driver came to pick me up. I roamed around the village area and did some birding there. I unknowingly took some long route and got back to hotel after a long 4-5 km tiring walk. After lunch I met the drive Bhaiya and off we were to New Jalpaiguri. He was a good company, telling me about Pedong, his village Algarah which was on the way and Kalimpong which was another popular tourist hill station. We kept moving towards city and it kept getting hotter. The weather change was so unwelcoming. After hill stations, plains are difficult to take all of a sudden. Literally like low altitude sickness. I was dropped off at Railway Station and after sometime took my train to Kolkata. And from there to Bhubaneswar; my Home!

I overall had an amazing trip with awesome people, birds and location. Traveling to North-eastern India had will always be a pleasure.

Sharing some pictures from the trip. Enjoy :) 


View from our home-stay
The birding group




After the rains

The beautiful green chirpy place

Me :)

A little girl in Lava


Somewhere towards our destination


Sleepy dog




 ~ Birds ~


















You can check out GoingWild guys here: http://goingwild.in


Pedong is 4070 feet, 3 hours (100 km drive) from New Jalpaiguri. Lava-Neora valley is around 24 km (1 hr) from Pedong.


Love 

Tanuja