For anyone who likes a bit of a ramble, sausage fingers are a perennial problem. For those unfamiliar with the condition, it’s a swelling of the digits when on a big old walk. Now chipolatas in the Quantocks I’m pretty familiar with but when faced with Mount Everest, I obviously needed to upgrade to a Cumberland sausage; after all, I was 3,636m up on the Singalila Ridge. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning.
Last Friday, I spent what seemed like hours running around from one trek company to another trying to organise my Himalayan odyssey. Take into account the fact that Darjeeling is all steep hills with the streets full of countless market and regular traders of everything from live chickens to tea (of course) and masses of people, shopping, chatting, begging, and you can imagine how exhausting the process was. At one point I was juggling five treking options but since I wanted to join other people and none of the companies had confirmed bookings, it was a waiting game. Inbetween, I took some light relief and went and sat on a bench in the main square where I got chatting to a Nepalese man who wanted to discuss, in no particular order, Iron Maiden, Chelsea Football Club and The Eagles. I felt a little out of my depth but when he said his favourite song was ‘Country Roads’ by John Denver, I felt inspired to break into song and, low and behold, my new friend joined in, and then a passing monk. Surreal doesn’t come close.
And so it came to pass that I decided to join Tim and Nina (Australian and German) for a five day trek to the stunningly beautiful, Singalila National Park, lying on the border of Nepal and India where the Himalayas in all its glory could be seen astoundingly close, stretching from Everest in the west to Kanchanjunga (3rd highest peak), and onto Panjam (might have spelt this wrong) in the east. The trek began in Manlybanjang where I thought I was going to die! It was a vertical climb up extremely steep steps that went on forever rendering me not so much out of breath but on the verge of a heart attack. I was, however, glad to hear when our group (led by Amar, an Indian guide of Nepali extraction) stopped for a short break that even my fellow foreigners were experiencing breathing difficulties (and they were 30 years younger than me).
Eventually, the gradient got less intense and we passed through a mini monastery and over some gorseland, eventually reaching, after five hours, our first homestay in the tiny settlement of Tumling. Here, we were ushered to sit by the open fire in a snug one-storey dark and dingy house and fed a three-course extravaganza, the main constituents of which were eggs, soup and custard. A group of middle-aged Bengali men joined us who were going to the highest point of the ridge: Sandakphu by jeep. They pleaded their age (only 50) as being the reason why they weren’t walking up as we were and I took much pleasure in taking the piss out of them for being wimps. However, the next morning I had to eat my words when I was forced to cadge a lift. The thing is, I spent the entire night wide awake, with, I can’t explain why, the strains of George Michael’s ‘Careless Whisper’ coursing through my wired brain. The following morning, I had words with Amar to the effect of, ‘I’m bloody knackered, haven’t slept a wink, cannot walk 21km or I will die’. The upshot was, the Bengali middle-aged spreaders offered me a place in their jeep to Sandakphu where I could rejoin my group in the late afternoon and (hopefully) continue my odyssey on foot the day after.
The Bengali eight were all old schoolfriends; no-one spoke much English, they all had congestion issues, and they were super teched up: tablets, cameras, phones – when they weren’t shouting at each other, they were tip-tapping on their equipment. In fact, the bespeckled, bobble-hatted gentlemen on the front seat next to me insisted on showing me clips of famous Bollywood movies all the way to our destination – the concentration this necessitated on an exceedingly bumpy switchback ride, unfortunately made me feel even iller.
When we reached Sandakphu, a larger settlement than the previous night, I said goodbye to my jeep companions and waited around for Tim, Nina and Amar to arrive. When they did, sometime in the mide-afternoon, they said it had been hell and yes, I would certainly have died had I attempted the slog having had a sleepless, George Michael filled night. In our homestay, we ran into three Nepali men who wooed us with yak meat and rice wine. The main man had a top knot and a thirst for alcohol while his cousin, a 20 year old student, apparently fell in love with my hair but was too embarrassed to say so! The third sold carpets and spent his spare time practising Bruce Lee moves. I had two glasses of the extremely strong rice wine and went to bed – perchance to sleep! And did!
The next day started with a bowl of stale cornflakes and hot yak milk. Umm, yummy! And we were on our way, striking out along the ridge itself from where we had the full snow-capped Himalayan range laid out in stark contrast against the cobalt blue sky. Along the way, we passed a couple of Indian army checkpoints where we had to show our passports. These barren, incongruous camps consisted of Nissan style huts surrounded by high wire fences. They were sparsely populated by bored looking soldiers who had seemingly nothing to do but lie around in the sunshine playing cards or just leaning against a post. They were a rag-tag bunch wearing dirty t-shirts, camouflage trousers and flipflops but they were scrupulously poliate and noted our details in their scruffy looking exercise books before waving us on.
Our next stop-over was a truly bleak place called Phalut comprising two corrugated iron buildings with a couple of outhouses on a bluff at the end of the ridge. There was nothing to redeem this place. Freezing cold and exposed fromm all directions, we huddled together in a small wooden outhouse with a dirt floor, no electricity and a kitchen where our hosts crouched over clay open fires cooking our meagre meal of dahl and rice. The only other visitors that night were a group of geriatric Japanese who arrived with an entourage of mules, porters and cooks. They were staying in ridge tents and had their own toilet – not for them the long-drop and freezing cold strip-wash with manky flannel – they had a chemical toilet and hairbrushes. They also had an early morning exercise class on the flat grassy area on the top of the hill. ‘And reach for the sky’ summoned their Nipon leader, at which point I was delighted to see Phalut’s pet dog launch itself at an elderly Japanese gentlemen who was valiently trying to do the bidding of his instructor and touch his toes while ignoring the erection slapping insistently against his leg.
After Phalut, it was all downhill. Through bamboo, rhodedendrum and fir forests we followed the narrow zigzag path until we reached the Shangri-La hamlet of Gorkey, deep in a wooded valley surrounded by lush terraces growing everything from potatoes to spinach and a type of pumpkin along with climbing bowers of large mauve flowers. We played a rudimentary game of cricket with a couple of local boys that ended abruptly when I wacked the tennis ball over our dormitary roof and into the raging river running below. Later that evening we had a momo making lesson (dumplings) and then Amar plied us with a local tipple made of millet, then produced an out of tune guitar while I sang snatches of ‘Hotel California’.
This morning, we completed out descent to the tiny village of Rimbik where we were picked up by a jeep and driven three and a half hours back to Darjeeling. I am tired, dirty but very satisfied. I have seen Everest and haven’t had diarrohea once.