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Travel & Holiday

Paradise after the pain

Trekking in the foothills of the Himalayas is no walk in the park, but the breathtaking views from the summit make it worthwhile
The Straits Times - June 28, 2011
By: Jessica Cheam
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Paradise after the pain The view from Tumling, a hamlet in Nepal: On one side, majestic views of Darjeeling spread over the mountain ridges, and on the other, stunning views of the Himalayan foothills (above). -- ST PHOTOS: JESSICA CHEAM

What was I thinking?

A mere hour into my six-day trek in the foothills of the Himalayas, I realised with a sinking feeling that this may not have been the post-General Election holiday that I'd desired after all.

My legs were burning, my back was aching and I could barely breathe as my lungs fought to take in the thin oxygen available at 2,500m above sea level. I had just begun a steep uphill climb from the town of Maneybhanjang, which lies on the India-Nepal border.

My travelling companions and I were trekking towards the Singalila Ridge, a north-south running mountain ridge in north-western India, which is a popular route among trekkers for its stunning views of the world's tallest mountains.

It had a romantic sound to it when the idea was sold to me by my friends. I had been working solidly without a break covering the elections and needed a change of surroundings and some time out.

The Himalayas beckoned with seductive images of snow-capped mountains and Lonely Planet's assuring advice that the trek was 'moderately easy'.

It was not. Even though we had a guide, and between my friend and I, we shared a porter, so I was carrying only a daypack, the trek could not have been further from a 'walk in the park', even though literally speaking, we were walking through India's famed Singalila National Park.

I'll be honest: Besides being physically demanding, the trek reached high altitudes - the highest being 3,600m - which meant breathing was difficult and temperatures hovered around zero.

You would work up a sweat and feel hot underneath the layers but this would be instantly counteracted by the chill winds blowing.

But this was partly my fault. Ever the optimistic urbanite Singaporean, I underestimated the amount of warm clothes needed. I had also fallen behind on my regular exercise routine, which meant the trek was harder work.

Hours passed and when we reached our first town, Tumling, a small hamlet in Nepal, I knew in an instant why I had made the right decision.

On one side, we took in majestic, macro views of Darjeeling spread over the mountain ridges, and directly opposite, stunning views of the entire Kangchenjunga range.

At 8,586m, Kangchenjunga is the third-highest mountain in the world after Mount Everest and K2.

It was raining when we started the trek but the sun shone brilliantly on us as it set on that first day.

I was rewarded for lugging my heavy DSLR around as the beautiful sunset on Kangchenjunga provided great picture opportunities.

Around us, farm animals such as cows, sheep, dogs and cats moo-ed and meh-ed.

It was strangely quiet - a lovely reprieve from noisy, busy Singapore - and we felt on top of the world. The rest of the trek was characterised by these alternating feelings of hardship and suffering, and awe, wonder and pride.

Day Two en route to the next town, Sandakphu (3,636m) - along a ridge trail that runs north to the junction of Sikkim, Nepal and India - was the toughest of the entire trek. It is forever seared in our memory as The Day of Pain. If we were better prepared, it would have been much easier.

Our travel guides had suggested splitting the day's trek into two days as it was 'quite tough' but we stubbornly insisted that we could deal with it.

I was underdressed and did not put on my waterproof gear in time before the rain (and hailstorm, for a brief moment) pelted us - this made taking each step all that much harder.

But when dawn broke the next morning, our efforts again paid off as we were rewarded by grand views of the vast mountains and its surrounding valleys - this time, of the peaks of Kangchenjunga and Mount Everest. As we stood at the summit gazing at the mountains, we felt as though we could reach out and touch them. The view left us speechless for a long time.

Things got easier from this point on as we began our descent into the valleys. The trek took us into the forest, which is particularly interesting for bird enthusiasts as you can spot many varieties on this trail. We also saw flowers such as rhododendrons in bloom. Spring in April and May is the best time to go, although in May, your views may get ruined by rain and mist, which we encountered frequently.

Wherever we stopped, we were greeted by the kind hospitality of the north Indian and Nepalese communities. The locals always had a smile for us. Their children, unconstrained by the hilly landscapes and so accustomed to the high altitude air, often ran excitedly around us and even ahead of us.

Their world is a colourful one with Tibetan flags flapping in the wind, wooden houses on stilts built into the cliffs, accompanied by the constant sound of water running abundantly off the hillsides from the mountain top.

Hot milky tea brewed from Darjeeling tea leaves is the favourite beverage served to trekkers. For lunch, we had Tibetan dumplings or noodles. For dinner, we had rice and vegetable curry.

There was rarely electricity at the lodges we stayed in, and when night fell around six or seven in the evening, we were enveloped in darkness, making torchlights a necessity.

While beds with thin mattresses were provided, a snug sleeping bag to keep warm was also essential.

On the last day of our trek, we stayed at a lodge in Srikhola, nestled in a valley as part of a beautiful village. We let out a 'whoop' when, for the first time in six days, we saw a Western-style sit-down toilet at the lodge. And the lodge served beer too.

That last night was spent chatting with our guide, the locals and other trekkers at the lodge, getting warm from the alcohol while sharing laughs as we looked back on the trek and how long ago it seemed that we first set out on our adventure.

We slept like babies to the sound of the running river in the valley, and when we woke up the next day to return to civilisation, we knew we would have to come back again someday.

GETTING THERE

There are several carriers such as Singapore Airlines and Jet Airways that fly from here to New Delhi. The flight takes almost six hours and a return ticket can cost $500 or more.

From New Delhi, take a domestic flight (two hours, return ticket from $150) to Bagdogra, a small town in the Darjeeling district. Once at Bagdogra airport, you can hire a taxi for about 1,500 rupees (S$42), which will take you to the centre of Darjeeling. The journey takes about three hours.

There are tourist booths and trekking specialists in Darjeeling which offer trekking tours catered to one's needs and include a guide, porter, lodging and food. Costs are 1,300 to 1,800 rupees a person a day.

jcheam@sph.com.sg

 

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