A Mystical Venture
Allow me to use this casual circumstance to reminisce about my first adventurous trip outside the state borders, alone with a team of (initially) strangers, to a mystical mountain.
The High-Altitude trekking to Sandakphu (11,930 ft) was flagged off by the then Governor of Assam himself. In the evening of 16th March, 2014 (no, I do not possess an eidetic memory, I just happen to briefly document my journeys) we were seen off by Lt Bimal Ch. Goswami, founder of the Assam Rock and Sport Climbing Association (ARSCA), under whose banner we had undertaken this venture. The only person I knew from before was our leader, none other than Assam’s first Everester, Mr. Tarun Saikia.
We reached the New Jalpaiguri Station (NJP) early on the next morning where we freshened up. We, “freshen up” wouldn’t be the most apt of words- the flushes in the waiting room’s bathroom were not functioning and desperate times call for desperate measures. So, let’s just say I got the unfortunate opportunity to add another layer of chocolate icing. Oh, what a cursed memory!
We boarded three cars, to accommodate all 37 members of the team, for Maneybhanjyang (‘Valley of Clouds’ in Nepali), our “base camp”, you could say. On the way we halted for breakfast where, one of the trainees, Bhaskar da offered me a chewing gum and I accepted it. Why I’m mentioning this? That was my very first exchange of greetings with any of the team members. I hadn’t communicated with anyone from my berth during the entire train journey. I used to need my fair share of time to adapt around new people.
Maneybhanjyang is a small town lying on the foothills, visited by tourists throughout the year, Sandakphu being a popular trekkers’ destination. There is a small drain that passes through the town which, according to the localites, marks the Indo-Nepal border. I remember standing over it claiming, “Hey look! I’m in two countries at once!”
We reached in the early afternoon. The senior instructors took two rooms in the upper floor of Hotel Pradhan, while we trainees and the two younger instructors got two rooms in the first floor, each having around 7 beds. The boys barely managed to fit in one room, while there were only 10 girls. One of the two instructors’ name was Biswajit, a fit and funny Dimasa boy, but hardly anyone knew his actual name. I only got to know it because I made him reveal it in a game of Truth-or-Dare on a later day. Everyone used to call him Ninja!
The first notable trekking of my life started on the very next morning. The total distance from the base to the peak is exactly 31 Km. The first few kilometres were so steep that I doubted my ability to complete the trek. The destination for the day was Tumling, an 11 km climb from Maneybhyanjang. We moved steadily, halting every once in a while, thus being able to keep my exhaustion within limits. Back then I was this lazy, short, fat kid.
The route interestingly snakes around the Indo-Nepal border. We passed through Chitray, Lamaydhura and Meghma (‘Megh’ for clouds, ‘Ma’ for mother obviously: Mother of Clouds), where we stopped for tea. I just cannot describe the feeling, the blissfulness of a cup of ginger black tea while sitting amidst clouds, tired beyond words. It was extraordinarily rejuvenating as if the tea flowed through my veins and energised every tendon of my body.
The trek was not carried out in a mundane long line of 37 trekkers plus our guide from Maneybhyanjang, Bikash Thami. The difference in paces scattered us into small groups. Not to worry, no one got lost or left alone.
We reached Tumling, our stop for the day, shortly after noon. This time, we, the boys got a whole dormitory to ourselves. It was sort of an attic, and the most comfortable accommodation of the entire trip.
Before dusk fell, we carried out a tiny uphill trek to acclimatize ourselves, a mandatory procedure for mountaineers who go for expeditions or high-altitude treks to adapt themselves with the surroundings mainly to avoid the wicked Altitude sickness.
By the time we got back we were submerged in thick fog. Not your average hill station fog, mind you. Our visibility radius couldn’t exceed 3 meters. Dense fog, shivering cold, the eeriness, you get the setting, right? It was utilised judiciously by a few of the trainees, if you know what I mean. I personally rejoiced the utter silence and the darkness of the hill. Gladly, I was able to do some ‘socialising’ by that day.
The night was filled with the sounds of the howling winds striking against our window, and a few unbearable snores.
The trek next day was mostly plain with a little steepness from time to time. So, even if we had to walk 14 km, it was relatively less exhausting. We trekked through the heart of the Singalila National Park, famous for the exotic Red Panda (I don’t quite remember whether we spotted one).
We passed through Joubari (Tarun Khura had said the we could have trekked till there on the previous day as there were a few lodges in Joubari as well), Garibas and Kayakatta before reaching the destination for the day, Kal Pokhri (the Black Lake) at around the same time as yesterday.
The name comes from, as you might have already guessed, a lake with dark waters that lie on the outskirts of the small village. Fishing is prohibited there. The cornucopia of colourful Buddhist prayer flags garnishes a sacred touch to the gloomy yet tranquil surroundings of the Black Lake.
Our rooms were scattered at the same lodge this time. Don’t ask me how six of us managed to sleep on a mere double-bed. Never had I slept so straight. (Couldn’t risk tilting sideways and end up kissing a guy, right?)
The highlight of the day, however was the surprise birthday celebration of one of the trainees, Welsha in the evening, with the cutting of a salty cake having a topping of sliced boiled eggs and a ketchup icing for God’s sake! Nonetheless, it was tasteful in its own way.
We only had 6 Km left to summit. After reaching Bikhay Bhanjan on the next day, where we spotted a few yaks and dzos, a 4 Km criss-cross path (which is visible from Tumling) with an inclination of almost 60 degrees remained to conquer. We moved very slowly, having to halt often due to the sheer steepness, yet we reached Sandakphu at midday. A delicious bowl of Wai-Wai followed, another eatable which bestows a sense of utter satisfaction in the mountains, especially when hungry after a trek.
Honestly speaking though, the last day of the ascent was so short and my exhaustion was so mild that I didn’t feel the sense of achievement that one expects to feel after scaling a mountain, irrespective of its intermediate height!
I was expecting the peak to be covered with snow, but it was just plain grass everywhere with a few lodges and hotels like any of the previous stops. My hopes were shattered as it was nowhere close to that. The whole trek seemed to end up in vain for the kid who just wanted to see some snow.
Well, I had underestimated the unpredictability of mountains. Not long after, while we were resting in our dormitories (the boys and girls got one each adjacent to each other, while the instructors lodged in a cottage nearby), the delicate frozen flakes started falling. All my prior feelings of futility were wiped out in a spark of an instant. The snow fell elegantly at first, like the welcoming of angels. I just had to go outside to feel the snowflakes, but as it grew heavy, we kept in, awaiting in amazement.
Meanwhile, we played another game of truth-or-dare. Anika was dared to jump from the table. Quite a landing she made such that the wooden floor gave way. We then positioned the table so as to hide from view the pretty hole that we made. Neither the owners nor our senior instructors got to know about it, phew!
Once the snowfall stopped, all of us rushed out! I just cannot describe the excitement of the moments that followed. Snowballs flew from all directions! We literally slammed one another onto the snow. It was my first proper snowy experience. Euphoria latched on me. What an adrenaline rush in those moments, fantastically contrasting with the overwhelming serenity of innocent white galore all around.
I wanted snow? There, I got a snowfall bonus with it! And, the people were actually living those moments without caring to record them in their devices to maybe relive them later, something which isn’t minutely comparable to the actuality, thanks to the times when having smart phones with sophisticated cameras and Instagram filters wasn’t a de rigueur.
The hearth in our dormitory had to be lighted to keep our palms and feet from freezing.
Waking up at dawn with sub-zero temperatures outside is a laudable feat, I tell you. I didn’t know what the fuss was all about, unless I saw it with my own two eyes. The golden sunrise, so sacred and pure. And when the vividly hued rays of red and orange unleashed by the rising sun mirrored on the Sleeping Buddha range harbouring the mighty Kanchenjunga in the midst, I realized that that very moment was the pinnacle of our whole journey. I swear, the snow-capped peaks actually shined in the light of the breaking dawn. My limited vocabulary inhibits me to describe the exact beauty of the scene. A little left from the Sleeping Buddha range, we could even spot Mt Everest.
Having experienced a serene snowfall, getting to go crazy on the snow and then having the sheer fortune of sighting the most overwhelming sunrise of my life, I just couldn’t feel any luckier.
The following trek was the longest. A descent of 21 fricking kilometres! However, it was the most enjoyable one. We indulged in heavy snow warfare as we walked down the mountain. We just couldn’t get enough of it. A pointer- one must always carry a pair of sunglasses while going on expeditions or treks on snowy mountains- (not just to pose for your Instagram feed) the reflection of the sunlight on the snow is quite glaring.
We stopped for lunch at Gurdum which also marked half the distance to Rimbick. Oh, I’ll remember that cup of tea. Never had Parle-G biscuits tasted that good! We crossed numerous streams on the way, born out of the melting snow perhaps.
It grew dark eventually and we were required to take out our flashlights. We reached Rimbick at around 6:30 PM. Thus, ended our final day of the trek. We occupied rooms in a hotel.
A little bonfire was held out on the courtyard, where Tarun Khura mandated that everyone had to sing a song. To escape the compulsion, Upamanyu cleverly sang ‘Johny Johny, Yes Papa’, and copying his idea, I sang ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ to get away.
Two songs, however etched to my memory- Xuoroni (Paapon) and Raabta (the song from Agent Vinod), sang by Jyoti da (who sadly wasn’t loud enough to get everyone’s attention, but I was amazed his efforts and his voice) and Arunangshu Sir (who sang the whole song wonderfully), respectively. There’s a beauty about songs and travelling. When a song etches into your memory during a journey, that place will indefinitely come to your mind whenever you play that song again!
The events of that night that followed were quite disgusting and hilarious. I had accommodated in a room with Santanu Khura and Putul Sir (may he rest in peace), two senior instructors. They were both heavily drunk. The latter had even brought in a tub partially filled with water to pee in if the need came. Oh God! Those loud horrendous drunk songs that he sang and his nasty trembling farts, a night to remember indeed. Meanwhile, Santanu Khura was inspecting my tiny buttoned phone for songs. It only had one, ‘My Heart Will Go On’. He knew better and returned it to me.
The next day, we moved to a hotel in Darjeeling with a breakfast of momos on the way, (another compulsory nutriment when visiting the hills). Many bathed for the first time in this trip, excluding me though. I would bathe to my heart’s content once I got home.
In the afternoon, we were allowed to go out shopping. Another trademark of the trip- my first shopping experience alone. I roamed around Mall Road on my own. I had around Rs 1300 left from the 1500 that father had given to me as emergency money (all kinds of costs for the trip were already paid for). I bought tiny gifts for each of my family members, some keychains for my school friends, and a Nerf gun for myself (don’t ask me why).
Welsha was worried about me, a 13-year-old kid roaming the streets alone, so she told her boyfriend to keep me with them, but I escaped from the group and carried on alone! I visited Glenary’s and ate junk to my heart’s content. I remember buying 200g of chocolate cubes (ate almost all of it alone later). After everything, I had around a hundred rupees left. Huh! Ain’t I an efficient buyer? I just enjoyed it, the freedom and the materialistic chance to be a total spendthrift, for once. I didn’t have to bother about saving a single penny.
Late in the morning of the final day of this blessed trip, we walked to the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI). It’s a fantastic institute with a zoo inside the campus as well. Being the nearest one it is the commonly chosen institue by the North Eastern aspirants to undergo the Basic Mountaineering Course. I bought myself a little souvenir, my most prized possession from that trip- a unique ‘double sheet-bend knot’ keyring. And thus, started my hobby as a copoclephilist. Those who know me well are aware of my craze to collect uncommon keyrings. Yes, it all started there.
In the evening, we boarded our train from NJP, and off we set for home, thus winding up an unfathomably memorable journey.
We reached the Guwahati Railway Station at around 3:30 AM. On seeing Deta waiting for me at the station, I couldn’t help letting out a weird grin. I carried home a buckload of memories and an empty wallet.
At home, I ended up consuming 1 whole piece of soap washing the week long dirt and sweat that had accumulated on my body.
This was not my first visit to Sandakphu, nor was it my last. I had first visited the mystical mountain in April 2012 with my family, the season when the rhododendrons are at full blossom. We had booked a Land Rover then (the only alternative to trekking) to reach the top. Back then the roads weren’t completed and very rocky. So, it was 30 kilometres of heavy jerking which resulted in a full body ache. Not very pleasant, I tell you. Then again during my visit in December 2018, I was lucky to experience yet another snowfall and a magical sunrise (had to pour hot tea on my feet to keep it from freezing after viewing the first light of the day), but the 2014 trek was an out-of-the-world experience to me.
So, if you are wondering why I chose my second visit to Sandakhpu to blabber about; in a nutshell, I underwent a certain metamorphosis through that trip, both physically, turning into a leaner, taller boy (turns out extensive out-of-habit physical activity boosted by the onset of puberty procures extraordinary results); and mentally, viewing the world a bit more maturely maybe, along with a tiny development of my socializing skills. Most importantly, I learnt the importance of the art of adaptation, that one necessary skill that will take you places in life.
Moreover, how could I not mention my fellow companions of the trip who had the purest of hearts. They treated me like their own younger brother and friend (most of them were in their early twenties). From total strangers, they became like a family. And even though, I have not met them after that trip (except a few), and probably never will again, I shall always remember them.
saying, “Take nothing but memories, leave nothing but footprints.” Well, taking into account the fact that we actually trekked on snowy roads while walking down the mountain, you can say that we obeyed it perfectly.
My humble advice to the reader, thank you for being patient with me- next time, instead of going to yet another extravagant urbanised city to empty out your pockets, go visit the mountains. You will emerge a changed person (and it’s much cheaper!). Ending this with a haiku I wrote last year reminiscing about the place,
Frosty petals fall,
alabaster and serene.
Roaring winds sigh bliss.
Until next time, Sandakphu!
Saranga Mahanta, an engineering student at NIT Silchar.He has a craze for adventures and a love for the hills. He play the piano and write haiku and stuff when his creativity strikes every once in a blue moon