Why is it that so many treks start with an incredibly steep gradient? I know that the only way into the mountains is up, but the initial part of the Singalila trek follows a curving road which climbs very quickly and with the altitude I was struggling. I had hired a porter at the trail head to carry my main rucksack and I was convinced he thought I wouldn't make it as I was stopping every 100 metres to catch my breath. But I soon got into my stride.
We stopped for lunch at a darkened inn where I had a delicious warming noodle soup, just the ticket as the sun had disappeared and fog had descended. I chatted to some guys who were road surveyors. I assumed they were Indian, but they told me they were working on a project to link these mountain villages with Kathmandu, and so I realised I was now in Nepal. The trek weaves its way along the border between Nepal and India and there are frequent check points.
When we arrived in Tumling, our first stop for the night, it had turned very cold and I was glad when the lodge owners invited me into the kitchen to warm myself by the wood-burning stove. The power was erratic and so dinner was prepared by candlelight. The whole family and my porter, Nima, pitched in with making momos, a kind of Tibetan dumpling.
After dinner it was too cold and dark to do much so I went to bed. It was fascinating to be in a part of the world where the weather and the light affect the rhythm of life.
I woke up before dawn and struggled out of my sleeping bag hoping to get a clear view of the mountains and there they were. A guide pointed out Kanchenjunga, the world's third highest mountain, but all I could see was a dark blob with no snow. Surely that couldn't be it? Then the sun rose and the first warm light hit the mountain revealing the snow and all the colours slowly changed. Not long after breakfast the clouds rolled in and the mountains were hidden from view once again.
As I prepared to start walking, I met some fellow trekkers, from India and also an Anglo/Swedish couple. I picked up the pace surprising myself and even Nima who seemed less anxious about my progress now. We had a gentle descent to Gairibas and another great noodle soup. We passed a chorten, a small Buddhist shrine and saw a funeral rite being performed.
In the afternoon the clouds rolled in again and the temperature dropped dramatically. We overnighted in Kalpokhari only 7 kms short of Sandakphu (which has superb Himalayan views), but it was a steep climb best left for the following day. Two days in and I still hadn't seen much of the mountains, but the swirling clouds around the forested hills were atmospheric.
Our lodgings were basic, but adequate considering the difficulty of getting all supplies up there. We were at an altitude of over 3000 metres and our climb the next day to Sandakphu would take us to the highest point at 3636m. Primitive squat loos take some getting used to, especially in freezing temperatures and darkness. Retaining your balance while also holding a torch is a skill you have to master quickly.
I requested some hot water, but there was not enough to rinse off the soap as the water is very soft, so I broke the ice on the bucket and gritted my teeth. We gathered for dinner in the common area which is heated by a coal burner. It really did feel like I had stepped back in time, but eventually you get used to sipping tea while chickens peck at your feet and goats roam freely.
There was no view to be had from Kalpokhari so we had a lie in. While we waited for breakfast, we tried to warm ourselves in the weak morning sun and watched the yaks being fed. It was only 6 kms to Sandakphu, but the trek climbed steeply. However, we did it in 2 hours and during the walk we had magnificent sightings of Kanchenjunga.
Sandakphu is divided by the border, so we had to show our passports. Like all the villages on the trail, it consists of little more than a few huts. I spent the afternoon trying to keep warm and chatting to Klas and Ruth. As usual the clouds were obscuring the scenery. It was tantalising to know that Everest can be seen from there along with a panorama of other ranges. We went for a brief walk along a path where snow and ice still lay. A guide encouraged us to add a stone to a pile in order to ask the mountain gods for good weather. I went to bed, hoping to sleep despite the cold, but also that the morning would bring clear weather and a sighting of the highest mountain in the world.
To be continued.....