Once again up at 5:30 and once again a clear view of the mountains, maybe this time I could get the trek started. As I reached the taxi station normal service was resumed, the taxi found me rather than the other way around. Two hours later I was dispatched outside the Police Foreigners Registration office in Manibanjang. After a few minutes wait a policeman decided to turn up and register me, we had a brief chat about the trek and he was impressed that this was my third time; he didn't charge me the Rs100 entrance fee, result. As we left the office he called across the street to the "Tourist Booth" and my Hindi is good enough to realise that he told that it was my third time, they went back inside without trying to convince me that a guide was needed.
I negotiated my way through the town guessing correctly at the couple of junctions until I spotted the sign pointing off to the left - Sandakphu 31km. I remember the first part of the trek well, in Trekking circles this kind of assent has a technical name, a bastard! 700 meters of pure Up, the jeep road going up must average greater than 1 in 4 and at times the walking trail is a 45° staircase, the views however are stupendous and rapidly change with the altitude attained. I was surprised to see so many army personnel dotted along the route, I guessed there must have been some military exercise going on; they were certainly perfecting their lounging around doing nothing techniques. At the top of 'the bastard' the route levels off to a grassy plateau replete with gompa and a well needed tea house. This small shack must be the most popular on the whole route. It's an idyllic spot for a cuppa. I must have been the first person there for the day, the father running it with his young daughter quickly put the parasol over the table and started moving what looked like two enormous dogs out from underneath. It was only when they moved with a few pushes and a bit of carrying from the daughter that I realised that they were in fact calves, apparently one week old. Old MacDonald's farm was completed with a big fluffy dog and a dozen kingsize chickens. The dog had just been fed and the chickens were determined to get in on the act, brave or stupid chickens, the boss told me that the dog killed and ate one of them last week.
Chai drunk I was off and walking again, a much more gentle stroll for the next couple of hours but still essentially up, to the first settlement of the trek at Megma. The first thing to greet me a Megma was a hideous prefab army barracks and a border checkpost where my passport was demanded. Around about the time that I last did this trek in 2001 the Indian and Nepalese governments had just declared this whole area a Trans-Border Free-Trekking area, clearly there was some Indian skulduggery afoot now. I asked if this was the border and the youth in uniform told me that the left hand side of the road was Nepal and his side was India, I resisted the temptation to tell him that I was therefore in Nepal and he had no right to demand my passport. Once I'd deciphered the troublesome details like 'name' and 'nationality' for him from my passport I was freely off into Nepal. Megma is the traditional lunch spot on day one but everything (both lodges) looked deserted. I was sure that I should be going left at the fork in the centre of things but all signs pointed right. Despite my urge to go left I couldn't ignore the weight of signage and headed right. There was a new looking rock road winding it's way up the hill and a path heading directly up and I don't need to remind you what they are called. I headed straight up passing three groups of highly trained loungers, I think a couple of them were awake. After about half an hour and 300 vertical meters mist rolled over the ridge and it started raining. I carried on and the rain got heavier, then the thunder and lightning started above and ahead of me. Now, I do some stupid things but walking up an exposed hillside in a thunderstorm isn't one of them. Ever the braveheart, I thought that lunch in Megma was a good idea after all and did a u-turn. I didn't want to let the army guys think I was giving up or wake them up so I returned via the shallower gradient of the road. In Megma I walked into one of the deserted lodges and woke a slumbering girl up, she made me a very nice veg noodle soup with egg.
After I'd finished lunch the rain had reduced to a drizzle so I started off along the other trail to the left of town. This was more like it, I immediately recognised the old extremely rutted road with frequent stupas, mani walls and prayer flags every where. The mani walls brought back memories of shouting "Left Roger!" last time I did the trek as he never remembered to go the correct way around them. The rain gradually picked up and I was getting increasingly drenched but managed to get to my intended destination of Jau Bari before the torrential stuff came along. The Everest Lodge that I'd been looking forward to staying in was all locked up, the next lodge tried to send me back to the Everest where they sent me back to them. They really don't like to make money sometimes, I think they see one person as too much effort for the money even though I would eat the same as them and the room would stand empty otherwise. Eventually the second lodge gave me a room and made me a cup of tea. They even lit a fire in the restaurant area, I would rather he hadn't as the fumes without any chimney nearly suffocated me.
The owner managed to inform me that it was 'only 15 minutes to Garibas' and 'it is all downhill' plus the fact that 'it's easier in the morning from there'. I was starting to get the impression that he would rather that I went to Garibas instead of staying there. When the rain stopped and the sky was seeming to clear I asked him outright of he preferred that I went to Garibas. He said no, it was my choice but I decided I wasn't wanted so paid for the tea and set off again. Of course I knew it was more than half an hour not 15 minutes but it is all downhill or in the present case downstream as the path was a washout. Predictably the rain started up 10 minutes in and surpassed it's former glory, I was close to drowning, I tried to put my camera and money in dry places but I didn't really have any. I arrived in Garibas the proverbial drowned rat. Garibas too has received a new and just as hideous military camp, I was really impressed that the guard insisted that I register my passport details with him before I even dropped my pack off in the lodge. The only retribution I could get was to make sure that I got him when I shook my sleeves of excess rain before getting the passport out of my pack. I was even more impressed that he managed to take my Visa Number off my Belorussian visa, it's written in Cyrillic!
With a room procured in Garibas' only lodge I stripped out of my wet clothes and put on whatever dry ones I found in my bag, this was no fashion parade. The owner had looked like she was waiting for an argument over the price, I would have paid whatever she asked to get warm and dry. She brought me a delicious tea and I buried myself under a mountain of quilts and blankets from both the beds in my room. Unfortunately the building was a very loosely constructed wooden affair and my room was directly above the kitchen fire, I got my second attempted asphyxiation of the day and had to keep the window open. I was just about to raid my trail food supply when a knock on the door heralded a huge Dhal Bhatt waiting on the table for me, a vat full of rice, buckets of dhal and vegetables, a couple of papads, a plate of pickles and a couple of fried eggs. I managed to eat about half of it and left enough to feed the rest of the village. With the sun set that was the end of the days entertainment so I retired back to bed and unfortunately finished the book that I'd brought to last the trek.
I declined breakfast in the morning except for the essential mug of chai. The morning was bright and sunny ans I had another long climb ahead of me. Immediately at the start of the hill on the edge of the village there was a gate and a ticket office - they got the Rs100 entry fee off me in the end. I refused to pay a 'camera fee' though, he asked if I had 'A camera' and if you include my mobile phone I had 3 so I said no. My only memory of this days climb was the big climb to the summit of Sandakphu. I guessed it was going to take me three of four hours to get there. After just under two hours I seemed to be approaching the top and couldn't believe I'd got there so quickly. Then I rounded a bend and remembered it, the road dropped all the way back into a valley and back up the other side I could see the whole of the monumental climb ahead of me. At the bottom of the valley I stopped at a small shack with a Tibetan family for another tea before I faced the road up.
The road split just in front of the shack and I asked which one to take, the father told me to take the lower one but it was at this point that the obvious dawned on me.
As this trek used to go freely in and out of Nepal (or in and out of India depending on your point of reference) parts of the road are in India and parts in Nepal. The Maoists have recently gained power in Nepal, India is obviously a lot more concerned about communists than they were about a psychopathic Royal Family. Hence a fully manned border, barracks, checkpoints AND new roads. Everywhere that the road officially goes into Nepal they have had to build one on the Indian side to prevent their troop movements being a potential international incident. With this realisation I can see that the future of this trek may be limited, all of the towns are Nepali or claim to be Nepali and now they all have Indian army camps facing them.
Before the climb began I had to register with yet another check point, I'd stayed on the road instead of going through the centre of the village, if I'd gone through the village they wouldn't have been able to stop me, I pointed this out but then again the army isn't renowned for it's sense of humour. In the end the climb didn't take that long, just a long steep but steady incline, I was in Sandakphu before midday. Before I reached the top I could see a new two story building overlooking the edge of the summit and there were lots of groups of young Indians trekking down, maybe the days of this trek aren't as numbered as I predicted. Once on the summit plateau I went to go to the guesthouse I've stayed at on both previous visits but the guy outside told me to go to the new building I'd seen on the way up. Here we go again I thought, I'm going to be bounced around lodges like an unwanted puppy but it turns out that the new building has been built by the owner of my old place which they only use for porters now. It's actually very nice, to get an en-suite (bucket shower) room with a double bed and windows overlooking the valley for Rs3oo at this elevation can't be sniffed at. They have a proper restaurant now too as opposed to the old style everyone camped around the house fire.
It was cloudy all around when I got there but that is quite usual, the best views of the mountains are usually just before sunset when the clouds drop and around sunrise before they rise up again. The views are still impressive with deep, green valleys swirling with mist and vague images of the surrounding smaller peaks. With quite a few hours to wait until the hoped for appearance of Kanchenjunga I had a bowl of noodle soup and retired for a siesta. I got back out of bed at about 4pm and went for a small walk around the ridge. It was still ominously cloudy in all directions but I was optimistic. On the top of a small peak I bumped into an Indian trekker I'd met when arriving in Gairibas and then when I was stood outside the lodge a young French couple I'd shared the jeep from NJP to Darjeeling with came from the next door lodge going to the restaurant at mine. We had a brief chat before they went inside, the sun would almost have been down if we could have seen it but I wasn't giving up. I did have one very fleeting sighting of a smaller peak on the Kanchenjunga range as the various layers of cloud moved in random directions but that was it, it got dark and I had to concede defeat. I had my evening meal with the French couple in the nicely stove warmed restaurant, the resident dog had even warmed the seat for me. Beer here was the same price as in Darjeeling so I couldn't resist, I should have maybe stuck to one thought, at 8% and at 3600m altitude I was going to rue the second one tomorrow. Everyone retired early, alarms all set for the painfully early sunrise at 4:50.
When the alarm rang I stuck my head out of the curtains to see the place shrouded in mist so I reset the alarm for 6am. At 6 the mist had gone and Sandakphu was in bright sunshine with clear blue sky above, unfortunately the mountain ranges to the north and north west were still in heavy cloud. Everyone was naturally very disappointed. The Indian guy from Gairibas and the peak yesterday was unbelievable optimistic claiming that the cloud would lift in another half hour. It turned out he had his wife and daughter along and they'd paid Rs35,000 for the trip with jeep, driver, guide and cook all along for the ride. After half an hour he was still saying that it would clear but by now I knew there was no chance. The Frenchies paid up and left heading off for Phalut, the next peak, 20km closer to the Kanchenjunga range and a place they virtually guarantee all day views of the mountains. I had three choices and a lot of indecision, I could stay another day in Sandakphu and hope that my alternate day theory worked but with nothing to read and few views it would be a long and potentially disappointing wait for sunset. I could also make the trek to Phalut but it's a long and hard 21km march and I hadn't made it there on either previous visit, I still haven't but that's getting ahead of myself. Or I could take the same route that I took on both previous occasions and head down the valley through beautiful rhododendron and magnolia forests along the river to Sri Khola.
I can't remember why but I chose the latter, to head down to Rimbik via Sri Khola, oh I can remember, it was Sunday and the final day of the football season, if I got to Rimbik by 8:30pm I would be able to watch some football. I remembered that the trail down started a couple of km or so along the Phalut route so that was the way I went. Before I could leave Sandakphu though I was called over to the army barracks to register yet again, they had ignored me the evening before but I think they were to engrossed in the international volley ball game the Indians were playing against the Nelalese. This time I did point out that I was technically in Nepal when he called me over and that I could have refused, and again I had found someone with a sense of humour bypass, maybe the operation is administered on entry to the army. Actually he was too busy writing my Guinea Visa Number into his book to respond, he had asked me 'Is this visa?' and my response was that it certainly was a visa, I would have thought that the fact it was written in French and had Repulique du Guinee in huge letters at the top might have given the game away, the inteligence must be removed in tandem with the humour.
When I got to what I thought was the turn off I wasn't 100% sure as it starts off as a very small and indistinct trail. I sat by the side of the road until a local came past and then asked them, they said no it was further on, I wasn't convinced but I carried on along the main route. There were no more turn offs in the next half hour and I realised that that one had to have been it. I considered turning around but it had all been downhill from the turn and I didn't fancy climbing back up so I decided that fate was telling me to go to Phalut - Phalut here I come.
The little information that they give about this trek - there are no topological maps of any part of India available to non-military personnel (I've no idea why as I'm sure from their command of passports and visas most of them would probably hold it upside down) - claims that the walk from Sandakphu to Phalut is an almost flat ridge walk. This is a complete lie, the trail drops considerably from Sandakphu and beautiful as it is you know that at some point all that height has to be regained. Half way down a very long hill I surprised an Indian guide as I emerged from the bush (natural break), he told me that there hadn't been any views in Phalut that morning and the whole area was still in cloud. He also told me that the French were a little further down the hill. I caught them up at the bottom, Marrie thought that they were nearly there, I had to disappoint her and tell her that my GPS was saying that we had only covered 12 of the 21km distance. I walked with them for a little while and then took off again, when I stopped for my hourly smoke break I decided to make it a food break as well and let them catch up again. I was in a very heavy mist when I stopped but when they got to me it had cleared enough to see that we were at the start of a bastard, Marrie carried on walking and JoJo told me that she was now totally demoralised. On the bright side we should have been only a couple of km from the next village where the trail split, and indeed at the top of the climb half an hour later we reached the fork in the road. The village turned out to be a roofless shepherds hut and nothing more.
Now for another decision, from the fork Phalut was 7km to the left and on the map flattish, Molley was 2km and downhill. I did consider going to Molley for lunch and then heading for Phalut in the afternoon but chose just to head to Phalut and get it over with. They couldn't face the walk to Phalut but thought they may be able to hire a jeep in Molley, we parted. Flattish, another deception, as soon as the trail rounded the first bend it headed down, and down, and down. I checked the GPS to find that I'd lost 300m and had at least 400m to climb to Phalut. Then the heavy clouds rolled in and the rain started, I thought of going back carried on regardless. The rain got heavier, the trail continued to go downwards and the lightning started flashing over my head. A porter came the other way and indicated that the storm was worse in that direction. GPS told me that I was exactly halfway between Molley and Phalut, but I didn't know how much further it would drop and I did know that Phalut is an exposed peak. I turned back to Molley trying to keep as close to the hillside as possible and hurrying over the exposed ridges, the lightning really was flashing all around, above, below, in front and behind, I don't mind admitting I was scarred, I had visions of being blasted off the hill and not found for weeks. The re-assent back to the fork in the road was quite possibly the fastest climb I've ever made, it was definitely one of the wettest. The thunder and lightning eased off when I crossed the ridge and headed down to Molley but the rain didn't. Yet again I was stopped by the army and asked for my passport as I entered Molley. I'll give this one his due, he let me enter his hut out of the rain as he filled the book in all by himself and even found my Indian visa to record the visa number, must have been a pre-op. Molley is fully in India and not actually on the border so they have sensibly built the army base directly across the road meaning a muddy scramble round the outside of the barbed wire to get to the trekkers hut.
JoJo thought it was hilarious when I stumbled into the kitchen of the Molley Trekkers Lodge dripping like a wet blanket, they had made it before the rain had started. I sat dripping by the fire with a steaming mug of tea for a while, trying to dry some of my clothes before I took them off. Eventually I decided that I wasn't getting much drier and I wasn't getting any warmer so I discarded any idea of heading back to Phalut when the rain stopped and asked the lodge-keeper for a dorm bed. I changed into my dry thermals borrowed some quilts from JoJo's room and got into my sleeping bag under the quilts. I was still freezing cold so I put my hat and gloves on and an extra pair of trekking socks but I couldn't warm up and had a case of uncontrollable shivers. I experienced parts of my body shivering that I never knew could shiver, even my stomach. Eventually I fell asleep but I must have continued to shiver dramatically in my sleep as I was woken up by people putting more blankets over me. What a contrast, in the space of just over a month I've got from the unstoppable sweats of malaria in Togo to the unstoppable shivers of cold and damp in the Himalaya.
When I was woken up I noticed that the rain had stopped and the sun was now shining outside so I thought a bit of radiation heat would do me some good, as I got outside I found that most of the people in town, the whole of the army, the lodge owner's son and JoJo were playing cricket on the army base. A dread-locked Frenchman playing cricket with the army inside a barbed wire fence is quite a sight. Eventually the sun got so low that it wasn't giving any heat so I retired back to the fire in the kitchen where the beginnings of the evening meal preparation had begun. It was interesting to see how they manage to prepare so many dishes on an open fire, the secret is pressure cookers, first the dhal was rinsed in warm water and then left to soak in more warm water until it had swelled to fill the dish. He then transferred it to a pressure cooker, added various spices and put it on the fire for a while once done he took it off the heat and left it close to the fire to keep warm. I couldn't work out what our chef was drinking, I never saw him take any bottles but he always had a full mug of what looked like warm water and he was obviously getting more pissed as the cooking carried on. Eventually Marrie came in shortly followed by the new cricket hero and we sat around chatting and watching our meal being prepared. The rice preparation was very similar to the dhal, lots of rinsing and soaking followed by pressure cooking.
A couple of the higher ranking army people came in for a chat and a drink and our host asked if we wanted to try some local beer of course we did. From a plastic barrel in the corner the son took some fermented rice beer and put it into a big metal jug, he added some hot water and whisked it up before pouring us all a large cup. I tried the same concoction a few years ago in the Andaman Islands, it's quite palatable and can be fairly potent. Marrie gave up on it but JoJo and myself were virtually force fed the rest of the jug. The final part of the meal prep was the subji (vegetable dish) which was basically spiced chips, he'd peeled and cut the potatoes in the afternoon, now he heated a small amount of oil in a wok, threw in all of the potatoes and then added lots of spices and fried them for about 20 minutes at fire-mark 3. A few papads on the fire, a jar of lime pickle, a few raw chilies and dinner was served.
At some point in the evening a group of Nepalese trekkers had arrived this prompted the boss man to move me from the dorm and give me my own room and lots of blankets. There is a definite pecking order in these parts which meant that the 3 Europeans were served dinner first, once we were done we cleared off to bed and the Nepalese were served, once they were finished and not before the boss and his son would have had what was left. There's nothing like a good meal to warm you up and I managed to not only sleep well but remove a couple of layers during the night. My suspicions about the Keepers secret drinking had been confirmed when, as I was reading by torchlight in bed (I restarted "The Book Thief") he staggered in, took all of the spare blankets off the other beds, went into the en-suite to take a leak and then staggered out again.
Another bright and sunny morning but as I was now in a valley I couldn't tell if this was micro-weather or macro-weather. Did I head back towards Phalut to find out? Did I 'ek'islike, two drenchings in three days was enough for me, it was time to descend. I knew that the route map was wrong in stating that it was 29km to Rimbik from Molley but I also knew it was a long walk and warned my French friends as such. The word-guide mentioned a five hour descent to Rammam then an hours climb up to Sri Khola before the final two hour walk to Rimbik and civilisation, an eight hour day which I guessed I could manage in six or less. I set out as early as possible to try to beat the rain, I was still licking the porridge off my lips as I started to walk, the Frenchies were getting ready and a couple of the Nepalese were still in bed. The trail was steep, muddy and very slippery after all the rain. There were many porter shortcuts but these were just to treacherous to make them worth taking so as far as possible I stuck to the main track. When I had the rare opportunity to take my eyes off the next step in front of me the vistas were once again stunning with the trees and shrubs in full bloom. I was making good progress, the altitude dropping off quickly and oxygen once again filing my lungs. A few times the trail became either indistinct or had so many alternates that it was difficult to determine which was the best route, then I discovered the red arrows painted on rocks and followed these all the way down. This walk was every bit as beautiful as I remember the walk down directly from Sandakphu to Sri Khola, in fact it was almost identical. Just 2 hours in and I spotted the top of the town that had to be Ramman at the bottom of the valley. At the first few houses I stopped and smoked my last cigarette (there had been a cigarette shortage in Molley and we'd been rationing) knowing that I'd find a shop in the village. Although I was really pleased to be there so quickly it took the best part of an hour to descend the zigzag pathways through the village and I didn't see a single shop. Below the town I spotted the bridge over the river that must have been the start of the hours climb to Sri Khola. On reaching the river I could see a couple of lodges next to the bridge and decided that would be a good place to stop for a chai. I rounded a bend to the lodges and then immediately recognised the place, this was Shi Khola!
I remembered that very early in the walk there had been a definite split in the trail. My logic was that one of them had to lead to Rammam, if it was the left hand trail then the right hand track had to lead me directly to SK, if it was the right hand trail then the left one could lead anywhere and possibly into the wrong valley completely, I went right. The logic had worked and I'd accidentally found a route directly to SK and bypassed Rammam saving myself at least three hours. The cafe I'd stopped for tea at before now had a hotel attached and a new hotel and cafe had sprung up across the road but the place was unmistakable from many photographs I have of myself and various trekking partners sat outside surrounded by flowerpots. I ordered my first cup of milk tea with an onion and tomato omlette just as it started to rain. Three hours, three more cups of tea, a plate of boiled potatoes and one huge thunderstorm later the sun came out again. The Nepalese had come through an hour after I'd arrived and went straight to the trekkers hut beside the river but the French never made it, I guess that they took the long way to Rammam, got caught in the rain and stayed there.
The last leg to Rimbik was a gentle stroll as most of the route is now jeep track. I checked into the Sherpa Lodge in Rimbik, Rs300 of pure luxury, a double bed and hot shower. Typically, the mountains now decided to show themselves as they had last done on the morning I'd started. I took a 6:30am jeep back to Darjeeling deliberately ignoring the signs to check out with the poilice station in Rimbik, my passport had seen enough action for one week.