We arrived from Hyderabad to Darjeeling expecting two things – some good tea and a good first trek into the Himalayas. We arrived in Darjeeling to freezing weather, at least it was to us, it was a max of 50 degrees during the day – about 50 degrees colder than our last stop… plus you have to consider that most of the budget hotels don’t have heat or double paned windows so the rooms are cold!!! All I can say is BRRRRR
I had chosen our hotel, The Golden Orchid, based on the reviews which said they had electric blankets – ok if there is no heat the least we could do is huddle in bed and be warmed by the electric blankets, the only problem? – there was a lot of construction going on and the power seemed to be out daily from 9am-7pm. Can I say it again BRRRR.
On our 2nd day in Darjeeling we decided to splurge and go for high tea at a fancy resort, The Elgin, for about $10 each we got a great high tea and sat in their restaurant (which had both a fire and portable heaters) which was heaven seeing that it was pouring rain outside and yes! Our hotel had no power. We sat in there for 4 hours and milked every second of it, we considered squatting in there for the night on their comfy sofas. We had 4-5 pots of Darjeeling tea ranging from white tea to green and black tea. It was a real treat although we both thought the tea was actually much better at a little bakery called Glenary’s but then again Glenary’s didn’t have any heat… If you are ever in Darjeeling and don’t know what to do or want to go somewhere warm, I highly recommend this! Plus they take credit cards, a rarity in India, at least budget India.
We had considered doing the Singalila trail – one of the oldest treks in India that bridges the ridge of the Himalayas between Nepal and India – with a tour guide but when we checked into the hotel the owner told us it was easy enough to do the Singalila trek on our own, so that’s what we did. On our own actually means that you hire the mandatory guide at the beginning of the trek – at Mane Bhajang which is a small, dirty little town about 1 ½ hours from Darjeeling. Once you have the guide who costs about $20 per day (which includes his food and lodging) you only pay for the park entry ($3.50 each) and then your own food and lodging along the way (which for the both of us came to about $$25-$30 per day in a private double room … I am way too old for dorms). This is kinda pricey considering the state of the lodging (pics to come) but it is the age old problem of supply and demand so there isn’t much to be done about that.
Once we left Mane Bhanjang (6300 feet) we immediately started climbing (pretty much vertically) for 2km. Our guide brought us through some random forest path – ok it wasn’t really a path – we bushwhacked for 2 km straight up to the village of Chitre (8340 feet). It took us 1 hour to do this which our guide seemed to think was satisfactory since he told us our time and smiled and nodded. Personally I was just happy I didn’t die on the way up (or turn back). Once we got to this “village” which is actually just 2 homes, one of which serves tea and offers some beds for the already weary travelers, we had some chai here and talked to some fellow hikers and recovered our lungs before we continued on our way.
In the morning as we left Darjeeling we had beautiful weather with a clear view of the mountains but as we continued on our hike upwards the weather got increasingly foggy – a cold, dreary fog that would remain with us for almost the entire trek. After Chitre the path was much easier (a gentler incline) and we continued on for another 5km to Meghma, our stop for lunch, we were pretty excited about our noodle soup on the first day but I can tell you that after 5 more days of noodle soup (ramen really) we were less and less excited about it. After 2 more km we made it to our destination for the night, Tumling at an elevation of about 10,000 feet. It was COLD up here and there was still snow on the ground – and no, there are no heaters in the rooms. Kevin and I layered about 4 duvets on top of us (plus most of our clothes) to stay warm.
I have to say that the guest house we were in served up a great dinner though – 3 course dinner – soup, dal and rice and dessert AND they lit a fire in the dining room that everyone tried to gather around to. Some of the hikers decided to indulge in tongba (a local millet beer) and later added a rice wine (local brew) to the mix…. Though they had fun that night they didn’t look well the next morning and didn’t make it on to the next stop on the trek. Kevin had some millet beer which I tried and it was pretty rank if you ask me but I am not opposed to trying it again somewhere else. Never say never, right?!
The next morning our guide woke us up at 5:15am as the view of the mountains was clearing of clouds. We had a nice view and some sunshine which was a good way to start again but the ubiquitous fog soon returned. Day 2 was to be our toughest day of the trip. 13+ miles to cover starting with a descent to 8600 feet before heading back up to Sandakphu at around 12,000 feet. We also knew that the last 2-3 km are notoriously hard as they are the steepest part of the entire trek, oh boy! Let’s just say it was a really long day. We struggled up the last 2-3km and walked like the dead as we tried to make it to the summit of Sandakphu – we had seen nothing but fog all day when suddenly when we were about 40 feet from the top we saw blue sky.
OMG I couldn’t believe it – the clouds cleared just as we reached the top and the view was spectacular! From up there you can see 180 degrees of mountains – from the Everest range to the left, Kanchenjunga in front of you and the highest peaks in Bhutan to the right. It was a sight to see … and it truly made me forget the pain and suffering of the ascent. I found a perch on a rock covered with prayer flags and sat there for over an hour admiring the view. With 4 out of 5 of the highest mountains in sight (all except K2) it was a once-in-a-lifetime view that I will not soon forget.
This was another 13+ mile day with some ups and downs as we headed to Phalut (just shy of 12,000 feet.) When you read about this hike in books/web this is the day that you are supposed to see the Everest range on one side of the ridge and Kanchenjunga on the other … unfortunately all we saw was fog and I mean really dense fog. We made it to Phalut pretty early and I must say this was the grungiest and saddest accommodation of the lot – there are only 2 choices and they are both pretty dismal. Add to this that it was freakin’ freezing – I am talking we walked through snow to get here and we were tired and stinky at this point so it was kind of a glum night. We had been meeting up with a Kiwi guy also doing the trek along the way and that night we all sat in the guest house’s kitchen (they cook over fire) and must have looked so gloomy that the owners served up our dinner at 530pm (it was scheduled for 7pm) and we were all in bed by 630pm with the hopes the weather would clear the next day.
Day 4 (9 miles)
No luck on the weather front – more fog…. But we were descending today – the altitude headache would disappear and so would the snow. We descended through a beautiful forest that day with blooming Rhododendron trees to a cute little town called Gorkey (pronounced Gor-Kay). It looked like a little Colorado mountain town with farmers and 2 rivers converging around the town right on the border of West Sikkim. We even had some sun come out and we were able to take off a few layers of clothing which was heavenly. We enjoyed some beer and took off our stinky shoes and socks and reveled in the beautiful scenery.
Day 5 (9 miles)
The last day of our trek. We trekked down the mountain through the forest and beautiful hill towns to the tiny village of Srikhola. This is a cute enough town but it seems all of the guest houses were somehow full and we ended up staying at the trekkers lodge in town. I believe this guest house must have been condemned as we were a) the only guests in the hotel b) there was no running water in our room and the only place you could fill a bucket from had a big NO ENTRY on the door c) there was a star shaped opening on the ceiling of our room that led directly to the attic – we are pretty sure some sort of monster lived there and d) the windows were cracked and/or missing…. It was a pretty sad end to our trek but the town and river were cute and even better the sun came out! We tried to drown our accommodation sorrows with a beer and finally found a place that served beer about 15 minutes down the road. We weren’t allowed to drink the beer outside (for some reason) so we sat all alone in their tiny dining room and looked at this photo while we drank our beer. Yes – you can imagine that a giggle or 2 were had.
The day we had been looking forward to! A hot shower back in our hotel in Darjeeling! We got up at 530am to catch the early jeep so we could enjoy our day of sloth and luxury. We arrived in Darjeeling at around 1030am and got to our hotel and were hoping our room would be ready. We were in luck! It was ready!!! I literally said to the hotel manager – WOW! I have been looking forward to a hot shower and the electric blanket for 5 days and WHAM the power went out. We could have cried. We sat there tired, stinky and cold for the next 6 hours until the power finally came on again. All I can say is a shower never felt so good.