Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Darjeeling and the Singalila Ridge Trek

“You should make sure that place is open before you go” and “that place is always on strike” or “nothing but trouble” is what we heard when we told people we are heading up north to the capital of tea and the former British hill station, Darjeeling. The plan was to enjoy the views of the Himalayas and to make it our base-camp to trek in the northern Buddhist state of Sikkim, which sits just north of Darjeeling and was annexed by India in 1973 to create a buffer zone between itself and China and is now a happy and peaceful Indian state that appears to have given China the middle finger.

Darjeeling and the surrounding are of the north of West Bengal is made up of mostly Nepali people, or Gorkha, as they call themselves. They look and act different from the Indians of the lowlands, they have Asain features, they are quieter, mellower and many are Buddhist. They want their own state, with the unfortunate name of Gorkhaland. Signs and propaganda for the proposed state are everywhere, on storefronts that have changed their address from “West Bengal” to “Gorkhaland” and all awnings and signs. It’s not exactly clear to us whose side is right. Some Gorkha say that it is their right to self determination, and since they (being Nepali) are so different from the rest of the state they belong to (West Bengal- the very Indian state whose capital is Kolkata.) Other’s say that its all bullshit, with politicians inciting uneducated masses to nationalism when all they really want is the power and wealth that would come when they rule their own state. Whatever the answer or reason, everyday people and internal, as well as foreign tourists who escape the summer heat and flock to the coolness and views of Darjeeling pay the price with power outages, constant strikes of stores, restaurants, supply vehicles and transport jeeps and general pain-in-the-asseness.

To get to Darjeeling we climbed from the plains of Siliguri, where we got off the train, northward, up the twisting and steep mountainside of the Himalayan foothills, to an elevation of 2200 meters. On the way we passed endless tea estates where women carrying baskets on their backs and heads collected the golden and precious leaf tips which make this region world famous. Our road closely followed the twisting miniature track of the “toy train” or the Darjeeling express, the small gauge railroad operating since 1881, famously shuttling tourists to their summer retreats. We were lucky: a planned strike had just ended and transportation was working again. We met several folks who had gotten stuck in Siliguri for a few days waiting out the strike before they could get a jeep to take them to Darjeeling.

Darjeeling is a nice town, almost a city. It cascades down a high ridgeline that, with good views showcases the not-so-far-away high peaks of the Himalayas and in particular the Kanchenjunga massif, the 3rd highest mountain in the world. It has a bustling market hawking all the usuals and a transport hub, above which lies the city, where mostly Indian tourists escaping Kolkata’s heat gather in the Chowrastra (square) while their chubby little kids ride ponies around or feed the cheeky rhesus monkeys. In all reality, there isn’t much to do in Darjeeling but enjoy the views, which are rare in this cloud shrouded town, unless one wakes up at dawn. Otherwise, you can shop for Pashmina and other Nepali or Tibetan crafts, enjoy the national food: momo’s – vegetable stuffed dumplings – with a side of hot chilli sauce, and relax in the cool atmosphere, taking in the subtleties of Nepali and Buddhist culture and the holy atmosphere of some of the monasteries and gompas. Darjeeling’s population is completely different from the India we have known until now. Consisting of 85% Nepalese, and the rest Sikkimese tribes such as Lepcha, Tibetan, and other Indians, the place feels more like Nepal or even China than it does India. People are calmer, quieter, and courteous. Men don’t stare in the ogling way that they do in India. Women dress more modernly. Men and women interact with each other, the language sounds more asian, and overall the place has a welcoming aura of peace. Hindusism is less apparent and Buddhism more, though the two appear to interact and blend more fluidly then we thought they would.

Our plan was to trek a nearby circuit called the Singalila trek that passes through inaccessible villages and high pasturelands on the ridgeline which separates India from Nepal. In reality, we would be sleeping in Nepal for 2 of the nights. If we were lucky, the trek was to afford spectacular views of both Kanchenjunga and the Everest massif and acclimatize us for our more ambitious trek in Sikkim that would bring us to over 16,000 feet at the base of Kanchenjunga itself.

We hired a guide through a somewhat high-strung, fast talking outfitter (as always, one must take a guide for these treks…despite the path being a wide road) and set off for the trailhead from which we climbed steeply in a dense fog to Tumling on the Nepalese side of the ridge. We brought camping gear, despite being able to stay at lodges along the way, but we ate dinner at the lodge, a warm meal of what was to become the staple food of the trek, veg-dal-rice, a dish consisting of exactly what it sounds like: fairly bland vegetables, dal, and of course, rice.

The next morning we awoke at dawn to clouds and no views of the mountains, and continued onwards to Sandakhpu, the highest point of the trek at 3636 meters. We met some other trekkers in Tumling whose company we enjoyed along the way including a pair of French grad students from Chennai and other European travelers whose conversation helped pass the time on the foggy hike through rural outposts and military checkpoints, past green meadows grazed by yak and clearcut for firewood used long ago for country stoves.

We camped again on the Nepali side of the trail, waking the next morning to hazy, moderately satisfying views of Kanchenjunga, but more pressing matters were at hand. Through some half –assed hand signals and minimal English, we understood that there had been a political murder in Darjeeling that morning. A highly respected political party leader, who has been fighting for Ghorkaland for 20 years had been stabbed to death on his way to a rally. Our guide didn’t know what to do: would Darjeeling strike? Would we find transport back from the trek in 3 days? Should we turn around or walk out now? While his decision and communication skills were below par, we decided to keep on trekking, cutting our trip short by one day by combinging legs, but continuing onwards to the best viewpoint of the trip: Phalut, a more remote outpost at 3600 meters where we could spend the night at a trekkers hut. The day was beautiful, walking through dense fog, and dense forests of rhododendrons, irises and the occasional wild orchid. We were still in search of the elusive view of Mt. Everest, or any mountain view for that matter.

Phalut was a mediocre hut, run down and under construction, and next to it a small caretaking family cooked the usual veg-dal-rice in a smoky kitchen. We shared the hut with 4 Czechs who also risked getting stuck by the strike for the hope of views. Fortunately, we were rewarded. We woke the next morning at 5 am to mostly clear blue skies. We scrambled a kilometer up the nearby hill and stood before 2 of the world’s highest mountain ranges: Everest, Lohtse and Makala to the northwest and Kanchenjunga directly in front, enjoying the views in the company of waving prayer flags. Our gamble paid off, we set on the long 32 km march to the end of the trek, the small village of Rimbik. We spent the night there and got on a shared jeep to Darjeeling the next morning. The jeep, as with all public transport in India, was stuffed to the hilt. At some point we counted 23 people in and on top and hanging off the back of a car meant to hold 8 traveling on treacherous and narrow roads that crawl along precipitously over precipitous 3000 foot drops.

We arrived in back in Darjeeling to complaints by foreigners and locals alike that the town had been shut down for 3 days since the murder, with shops and restaurants closed, and the Indian army gathering forces to put the city under martial law. The rumor was that things were to open the next day, lucky us, but in the meantime, finding a place to eat was like looking for liquor during prohibition, and the celebratory meal we were imaging ended up being, you guessed it, veg-dal-rice in some hole in the wall rebel eatery.

We walked by the place where the politician was murdered, now a makeshift memorial, past military checkpoints and soldiers in riot gear making their presence known. The next day the city did open, but only for the morning as new rumors of a march and the possibility of further violence forced the city to shut down and there was a mad scramble to the market to get whatever supplies we could find for our next planned trek in Sikkim. The day passed without much ado, at least, and the military presence and cool heads were able to maintain control and peace in the town. We spent some time in a beautiful hilltop monastery, watching monkeys and gods, and took in the Darjeeling zoo and the mountaineering institute started by Tenzing Norgay, the first man to reach the top of Everest in 1953. The next morning, armed with food and all the necessary permits and assurances we set off for Sikkim, and the next leg of our journey.

For more pictures, click here for the picasa web album.


  1. Fascinating report. Beautiful pictures. Love to read your blog

  2. Incredible! You never cease to amaze!! Lots of love from SoCal!! We miss you!

  3. I'm glad you made it up to northern India. Wish the weather was better for you though. I see from your pictures you got to try tongba. How'd you like it? Have fun in Sikkim.

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    That is really good view..