After leaving Darjeeling, we headed to Chitrey, where we changed cars to a 4WD and entered the Singalila National Park. The narrow road immediately starts to rise steeply and there are many hairpin bends one after the other, where there is not enough room for two cars to pass, so at every corner the driver toots loudly so that any oncoming vehicles know you are coming. The clouds rolled in and visibility reduced down to a few metres, which may have been just as well, given the sheer drops off the side of the road. After a couple of hours of very slow driving, the car never getting out of second gear, we stopped for lunch at a tea house in Tumling; a simple meal of rice, dahl and vegetable curry and of course, tea.
After we finished our lunch we set off for Sandakphu. The driver explained that the road gets worse from here on, as it is not concrete but mostly dirt or paved with rocks. 15 klms of this doesn’t sound like much, but at such a slow rate it took about 2 more hours. The road was so bumpy, we had to hold on in the car to stop bouncing around, and so narrow that at times the driver needed to look out the window at the wheels to make sure they were still on the road, with bottomless looking drops below. This was especially frequent at hairpin bends where the car could barely turn in the space, and these followed one another at very tight intervals. At the 10klm milestone we came across another vehicle stuck in the middle of the road, so we could not pass. There was some mechanical problem under the car that required it to be jacked up, significant head scratching and quite a bit of hammering (?). Our driver and guide got out to help, and eventually the car was declared fixed, and we all took off again. I can’t begin to describe how bumpy it was, driving over those rocks, but after 4 hours of it my neck, sides and back muscles were all aching from the constant jiggling. The road took us through a rainforest of rhododendrons and magnolias in flower; occasionally the fog would lift and we would catch a glimpse of their colours. So strange to see these plants in their natural state in a forest.
When we finally arrived at Sandakphu it was freezing. The clouds rolled in a bring a chill with them, so the coats and scarves we bought were a necessity. We were shown to our room in the place we were staying, the Sunrise Guesthouse. This is very basic accommodation, (there is little else up here) with a bed with multiple quilts to keep out the cold, no heating, an ‘ensuite bathroom’ with no functioning taps, although the drains worked thankfully. The water for washing and flushing the toilet was supplied in a bucket, but there were no towels, soap or toilet paper, (though you could buy this) and of course no hot water. As a side note, two things are in short supply in India; toilet roll and hot water. The ‘dining’ area had a makeshift wood heater that was basically a metal cylinder with a couple of holes in the top and a flue going out through the wall. Bear in mind that it was freezing up there – the wind blows the clouds in the door if left open. I know that sounds crazy but I actually saw a cloud come down the hallway into the room when someone left the back door open. Add to that the smoke belching out of the ‘heater’, which fuelled only by wood shavings, heated up about one square metre immediately around it. People kept opening the door and leaving it open, the room had minimal insulation and so those of us inside sat in a tight circle around this little heater with our coats and scarves still on. Tea was available as always and helped warm us up. These places are little old fashioned guest houses with communal facilities, some dorm rooms and only basic amenities – only solar power which is used for lights in the evening, but runs out during the night.
There was some excitement as the sun was about to set, the clouds cleared a little, so everyone rushed outside with their cameras and and when we had glimpses of snow capped mountains a cheer went up from the small crowd, then the clouds rolled back in and it was gone.
We had a simple dinner of dahl, rice and veggie curry (again) and headed to bed fully clothed with our hot water bottle, with the hope of an early start in the morning to see the mountains at dawn. If the clouds cleared our guide would wake us to catch the view. No such luck, still cloudy as ever the next day. We took a short walk up the hill, when Neil hurt his calf muscle and needed a lift back. We did see two amazing Himalayan Griffins, which look like a kind of vulture; they were absolutely huge and magnificent.
Next we headed back down the bumpy ‘road’ to Tumling. The clouds lifted a bit here and there as we came down the mountain, so we saw some nice views and also how steep the sides of the road were – sometimes not knowing is better. We also passed some loaded up ponies and saw a Hoopoe bird.
We arrived at Tumling where we were staying the night. Here a slightly better room with functioning plumbing but still no hot water, needless to say, at these low temperatures, showers were not had for two days. Pew!. We met two women from Mauritius, one of whom was Australian, the other English and sat around the small open fire chatting about our various travels. Once again a simple dinner, then off to bed for an early night, in the hope of waking early to see the view.
At around 5:30 the next morning there was a knock at the door – the sky has cleared. So we jumped out of bed, threw on some clothes and headed up the road to the viewing point. As the sun was beginning to rise, the mountains appeared before us. Kanchenjunga and the group which forms what is called the ‘sleeping Buddha’. Everyone was outside, with coats over their pyjamas, checking out the view. Hard to get a good photo, it was still very hazy, so have tried to correct this a bit. To the naked eye it was a beautiful sight.
After breakfast, I went for a walk with our guide across the hills to the next village, where we had more tea, then headed back to Tumling. After a quick lunch of Maggi noodles (a staple around here), we said goodbye to Tumling and our new friends, and headed down to Siliguri, where we spent the night before catching our flight from Bagdogra to Delhi.
Sri Lanka – on a sad note
It was at this point in our journey where we would have been flying out to Colombo. It was with heavy hearts that we decided to cancel the Sri Lanka leg of our journey due to the ongoing security risk and terror threat. Having spent many days deliberating over this, we felt this was the most sensible course, despite being bitterly disappointed. For us, however, this was merely holiday plans disrupted, and some inconvenience and cost to change all of our flights, but for the people of Sri Lanka this event is devastating in every way and our thoughts and love go out to them.