The plan is to reach the remote settlement of Sandakphu today. This is a place in West Bengal on the border with Nepal. At an altitude of above 3000 m, it is the start of a spectacular hike to Phalut. Many people do a 3-day hike leading to Rimbik in the Sikkim side of these mountainous tops. Some people talk of 10-day hikes that will test your strength and stamina.
I was planning to do a 2 or 3 -day hike but half the challenge is getting to Sandakphu. I get a shared jeep to the little town of Manebanjang. Even the name of this town is rhythmic and romantic. It is situated on the crest of a high hill. A narrow valley opens out below. From town the view of the valley is stunning. Steep slopes descend from both sides into the valley floor. The slopes fold into one another and join in a hurry as if trying to scoop out something from the bottom of earth. Forests cover the slopes. Terraced fields talk of cultivated slopes beside dotted villages.
It turns out that Sandakphu is inside forest territory. One cannot enter it without a guide. I meet the local forest officer. He can arrange a guide at Rs. 250 per day. The real problem now is transportation. Shared jeeps don’t go up to Sandakphu. I have to hire a Land Rover to take me there. It will cost me Rs. 3800. It is not something I am prepared to pay. While I am having this chat with the forest officer, a group of visitors leave Manebanjang for Sandakphu. Had I not stopped at the forest check post to enquire about procedures, I might have hitchhiked to Sandakphu. Just my luck!
But the valley is staring at me invitingly. I check into a hotel in Manebanjang. The dormitory room is spin and span. The toilets are clean. No one else is staying here tonight. I have the entire dormitory of 8 beds to myself. I freshen up and head into the valley by a long winding path. Clouds weave in and out of the valley casting their drifting shadows on the green cover. In an another valleys branching off to my left, dark clouds gather to sounds of thunder.
The school at Rangit Mazuwa has just rung the bell and students are on their way home. Some of them join me as we walk downhill.
‘What’s the name of your village?’ I ask them.
‘Batasay. It’s some distance away across the bridge,’ one boy tells me.
We walk to the bridge. The kids are keen to have their picture taken. I oblige.
‘I have been to Bangalore last year… to visit Sai Baba’s ashram, Prasanti,’ tells me a boy in the tenth standard. I have found in these parts many devotees of Sai Baba. Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity are the common religions in these parts.
The children head home while I linger at the bridge a while longer. I then start to return to Manebanjang. The wind has picked up. The trees are shaking. A little drizzle follows. I pass fields of cabbage. A crowd has gathered at a shelter. A large meal is being cooked and served.
‘A 12-year old boy recently died of blood cancer. This gathering is for him,’ one may tells me as he puffs on a cigarette.
‘Where do you go for medical help?’ I ask.
‘We have to go to Darjeeling or Gangtok. There is a dispensary here but otherwise no other help is nearby,’ he tells me. We chat for a while. It is getting dark now but the wind has quietened. The rain has held back. I head back to town for a cold bath, a warm bed and hopefully a nice dinner later.
The trek from Sandakphu is regrettably missed but this little hike in the valley is something to remember.