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Walking with Giants: Trekking in India

16 June 2015

The Singalila Ridge in west Bengal is known for its stunning views, wandering bears, and the occasional burly border guard. Naturally, we sent a writer there to go trekking

I t was the penultimate day. That morning, with heavy feet and tight knees, we walked a steep 14km downhill; downhill in the driving rain, downhill through the thick forest, downhill with boots wrapped to backpack in a plastic sheet.

When the forest finally opened up it revealed a valley walled with pines trees tall, green, and arrow-straight. The stream that split it rushed through huge boulders in its bed while along its banks were huts’ 30 or more, each surrounded by fields full of crops.

We began the final few hundred metres down to Gorkhey (8,200ft). The rain relented. Through the clouds the sun started to shine. The village looked, at that moment, not like a rugged farming community found where northeast India meets southeast Nepal, but rather an Alpine retreat in France or Switzerland.

The Singalila Ridge runs north to south through West Bengal. To the east is the Indian state Sikkim and west lies the district of Ilam in Nepal. The ridge, and its capricious weather, rises all the way to the summit of the world’s third-highest mountain, Kangchenjunga (28,169ft). It begins a couple of hours’ drive from Darjeeling (7,099ft), an Indian hill station whose population is largely descended from Nepalis. Everyone still speaks Nepali. The people, like their counterparts out in the wilds along the Singalila Ridge, have distinctively Himalayan faces: bright eyes, beaming smiles and high cheekbones.

We travelled from Darjeeling to Manebhanjan (7,054ft), where we met our guide, Ajay, and began the five-day, 100km journey along the ridge. Manebhanjan is a little transit town; the houses on one side of the street are in India and those on the other in Nepal. Ajay talks quickly, quietly, and not always comprehensibly’ listing the names of the places we’ll visit and their altitudes. In his black fleece, black combat pants and black military boots, he looks more mercenary than highlander guide. I ask him how many times he’s completed the trek. “Around 340,” his casual reply.

To enter the Singalila National Park, which makes up a large part of the trek, it’s compulsory to be accompanied by a guide. “Zoom zoom,” Ajay said, so on we walked. On we walked through misty country known as Mother Of Cloud, where water vapour clung to Ajay’s eyelashes and past prayer flags left behind by Buddhist pilgrims was strewn over the huts they use to cremate their dead.

Ajay went missing among some trees and returned with a fistful of pine needles. He took off his boots and began stuffing them with the needles. “Good for smell. OK? For sweat.” And then he unleashed, for the first time, his loud, maniacal laugh, “Haaa-yaaa-yaaa.”

Ajay’s people are from Nepal, but he and his father were born in India. His father was also a guide and worked until he was 55. Even now, Ajay tells us, his father, well into his 60s, is still more than capable of completing the Singalila Ridge trek.

For the people who live along the border between India and Nepal, religion and national identity are not always clearly defined concepts. Among some living in the Darjeeling hills and northern West Bengal, there’s a movement calling for a new state, Gorkhaland. These people call themselves Indian gorkhas. But Ajay didn’t want to get into that or religion: “I’m a cocktail. Haaa-yaaa-yaaa.”

Each night we stayed in modest trekkers’ lodges. When we arrived at the first, Shikhar Lodge in Tumbling (10,000ft), Ajay showed us to a room consisting of a firm cot, five blankets to keep out the cold, one working light and hot water heated in the kitchen and brought to us in a bucket.

That night we drank tongba, a hot beer made with fermented millet and served in front of open fire that Ajay had lit with petrol. At 5am he woke us for a short walk to a viewpoint. Here we saw clearly the snowcapped peak of Kangchenjunga. Off to the left, just visible on the horizon, Makalu (27,824ft), Lhotse (27,939ft) and, in between, Mount Everest (29,028ft).

Back at the lodge, some of the men who lived in the village were sat outside with guitars and began to play and sing. With the singers’ breath visible in the sun, everyone came outside to watch and dance. Ajay clapped and clicked his tongue while dancing, all arms and knees. Then it was time to move, so on we walked.

On we walked past the national flower of Nepal, rhododendrons bright red in bloom; deep into the Singalila National Park, where 5ft, 400lb Himalayan black bears have been known to walk great distances completely upright; through military checkpoints, stern-faced soldiers, assault rifles slung over their shoulders, inspecting our papers and passports and asking for our signatures.

The toughest stretch of the whole trek was on the second day. Once away from the forests of Singalila National Park, the final sweep of a 21km trek is uphill on roads recently built for jeep tours. They’re made of large rocks that lie loose and uneven and they shifted underfoot as we walked. The road twisted and turned all the way up to to Sandakphu (11,929ft), the highest point in West Bengal.

Every so often as we walked Ajay looked back from beneath his black umbrella to see our faces twisted against the hail and sleet. He would shout, “Just here, OK? One kilometre, a Nepali kilometre. Haaa-yaaa-yaaa.”

A Nepali kilometre is a measurement indeterminately longer than that with which it shares its name. After countless Nepali kilometres we reached Sandakphu. The views here, after Ajay had again woken us at 5am, leading us to the top of the hill behind the lodge, were the best of the entire trip. The sun lit up the whites of Kangchenjunga, its five peaks against the blue cutting a shape deserving of its nickname, the Sleeping Buddha. We ate breakfast, then on we walked.

On we walked through rain, snow, huge hail stones; the thick fog in front of us and the rhythmic rustle of the plastic sheets around us giving the day’s walk a mesmeric quality; we passed two men, one wearing black leather loafers. Ajay looked at his watch and shook his head. Once they’d passed he said, “They’re walking to Tumbling in party shoes. Haaa-yaaa-yaaa.”

Phalut (11,811ft) has only two permanent residents, the caretakers of the lodge. The night here was the coldest of the trip and the one spent in the most austere lodge we had been in. Outside, Darjeeling twinkled in the distance, above it lightning flashed soundlessly in the sky. Inside, the wooden hut, even with a sleeping bag and several blankets pulled up over our faces, it was too cold to sleep. Ajay at our door at 5am was a rather welcomed sight.

The morning was icy and dark and although Kangchenjunga was now right in front of our face, its peak faded in the mist. A herd of yaks ambled by, bells around their necks ringing as they walked. I asked Ajay about the solitary grave on the hill, up there on the border of Nepal, Sikkim and West Bengal, where hills rolled high and green and disappeared into the clouds. “He was yak man,” Ajay said. “He rest here so he’s always looking at the view.” From here to Gorkhey it was all downhill, driving rain, thick forest, plastic sheets.

On the morning of the final day of the trek, Ajay gave us a lie in. He was grinning at our door at 7am. Outside in the thin sun, overlooking the stream, we ate a breakfast of roti and finely chopped fried potatoes.

This day was the most pleasant of all the trekking – it was flat. The sun was shining. In every direction the deep green hills of Sikkim went sprawling off into distance, propping up a cloudless sky, the houses on the hillsides just visible among the vegetation. It was here that we met the jeep taking us back to Darjeeling. In Manebhanjan our guide was teary as he said goodbye, shook our hands and got out of the jeep. We drove away looking out of the window. Ajay waved once, then on he walked.

Words: Gary Evans / Images: Carolyn Stritch

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