Taking the High Road to Sandakphu

A thrill-packed, cross-border drive in West Bengal takes the writer to four of the world's five highest peaks.

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Travellers flock to Sandakphu to spot Everest, Makalu, Khangchendzonga and Lhotse peaks, but it is the Khangchendzonga that dominates the landscape. Known as the Sleeping Buddha (due to its silhouette), the massif looks particularly fetching in the morning light. Photo by: Pallab Seth/Moment Open/Getty Images

Boundaries are often fluid but also forbidding, whether it’s the ones we draw, or those that nations create and bicker over. But crossing them, both literally and metaphorically, can lead to unexpected, wonderful adventures. This is something I discovered on my four-day trip to Sandakphu in March 2017, a journey that put me out of my comfort zone and made me break a self-imposed rule or two.

“Sandak—who,” you might ask. And you’d be well within your rights to be bewildered. For a place that straddles two nations, it keeps a relatively low profile. Sandakphu is the highest point on the Singalila Ridge and the tallest peak in West Bengal (11,930 feet), lying on the border between Darjeeling in West Bengal and Ilam district, Nepal. The ridge lies in Singalila National Park, where magnolias and rhododendrons make mountain views doubly special. Sandakphu’s calling card, however, is the view—four out of the five tallest peaks in the world (Everest, Khangchendzonga, Lhotse, and Makalu) can be seen from the ridge, luring trekkers from around the country and beyond. I, however, decided to go to Sandakphu by road.

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British-era Land Rovers add drama to the drive up to Sandakphu, but trekking the peak is equally popular. Photo by: Dinodia Photo/Passage/Getty Images

I flew to Bagdogra airport, where a flaming orange jeep lay in wait at noon. Behind the wheel sat Hero, my companion for the next few days. I clambered in and we drove out, whizzing past lush tea gardens. As we drove to the hamlet of Tumling for the night, I had no inkling about the adventure that lay in store.

Three hours from Bagdogra airport, we stopped at Manebhanjan for some repairs. I took the opportunity to walk about the market. And there, in this modest transit town, I witnessed a prime example of jugaad.

Tourists were boarding old Land Rovers by the dozen. Brought to the country by British planters to navigate the inclines of the tea gardens, these vehicles have been in this region since the 1930s. Once the colonisers left, locals souped them up to use them as local transport to and from Sandakphu (Manebhanjan is the gateway to the ridge). It fits—not much else can take on the roads that time and tarring have forsaken. And these ancient Land Rovers make for an unforgettable drive.

Tumling is around 13 kilometres northwest of Manebhanjan, but the (lack of) road took us nearly two hours. The route runs almost completely on Nepal’s side of the border—but don’t reach for your passport just yet. This line between the two friendly neighbours sets no limits on the passage of its people. In fact, Tumling lies in Nepal, which meant I spent the night in another country without having to even show ID. That night, I pondered over this fluidity of borders at our homestay, Shikhar Lodge, over several glasses of freshly brewed tongba, an alcoholic beverage made by pouring hot water over fermented millet and served in a bamboo glass with a bamboo straw. The best part? You can repeatedly top it up with water.

The next morning, we set off for Sandakphu, backs braced for a drive that would show us how the road to hell might be paved with good intentions, while the road to heaven might not be paved at all. Yet, serendipity led us to an unplanned adventure. As the road to Singalila National Park’s gate was under construction, we took one that turned left from Tumling. An hour later, we stopped to ask for directions, only to discover we were at Jaubari, well inside Nepal! But thanks to that mistake, we ended up taking a lesser-known, stark but beautiful road down to Gairibas, from where the ascent to Sandakphu began.

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A sign en route to Tumling, Nepal, is proof that travellers indeed cross a national border on this thrill-packed trip. Photo by: Manan Dhuldhoya

It takes two breathless hours to cover the 13 kilometres between Gairibas and Sandakphu. The road seems like a path hewn from the slope and strewn with stones; its inclines mimic the peaks shimmering in the distance. It was here that Hero proved his parents’ prescience in naming him. Like the consummate cowboy, he had the measure of his steed. I’d be staring at a series of hair-raising hairpins, wondering if we’d have to walk up, but Hero would use gear, clutch, and brake like wands and coax the car uphill with a smoothness that had both me and the engine purring. He’d even nonchalantly balance the car by the edge of road so I could take photos. Later that night, as I took in the valley from my homestay in the village on Sandakphu peak, it occurred to me that I had easily entrusted a stranger with my safety, and not regretted it once.

Day three dawned like it does during the perfect test match—with an unforeseen twist that threatens to queer the pitch for the chasing side. In our case, it was the rain from the night before. The water froze overnight, sending our car’s engine into hibernation. I used this delay to walk around and find the perfect vantage point.

A few locals directed me to a path that led to the bushes across the town square. A 15-minute walk took me to a place I will never forget—four of the world’s five highest peaks, divinely arranged for viewing. The snow-clad Everest, Makalu, and Lhotse loomed in the distance. The Khangchendzonga massif, known as the Sleeping Buddha because of its shape, dominated the landscape. It takes a lot to shut me up, but there I was: silence was around and inside of me. Only after an hour did I suddenly remember Hero waiting back by the jeep. On the way back, I was struck by how easily I’d surmounted another boundary of mine—a Mumbaikar’s almost pathological need to keep moving, within and without.

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The drive to Sandakphu is the stuff of off-roaders’ dreams. With hair-raising bends and steep inclines, the journey crosses the India-Nepal border and is an adventure in itself. Photo by: Manan Dhuldhoya

Drives to Sandakphu also include Phalut, West Bengal’s second-highest peak (11,810 feet). It lies 21 kilometres from Sandakphu along a mostly flat but bone-rattling road. It had its advantages—we drove along dreamy meadows and forests of oak, fir and rhododendron. Bare branches wore beards of moss and the trees formed a guard of honour above the road. The picture was completed by the horses trotting over the knoll to consider our rumbling ride. Phalut felt more like Fangorn. We turned back so we could reach Sandakphu before nightfall (even the foolhardiest Hobbit knows better than to brave Fangorn after dark). Later that night in Sandakphu, tucked into bed with a hot water bottle, I flipped through my camera to confirm if I had indeed seen a Tolkienesque vision come alive in a way that had nothing to do with Peter Jackson.

Goodbyes are never easy. At Sandakphu, they’re tougher still. On the last morning, as I nuzzled goodbye to Dombey, the resident puppy, I finally understood why. After all, who wants to go back to navigating boundaries when you’ve spent a few days discovering that they needn’t exist at all?

Essentials

Getting there

A drive to Sandakphu from Bagdogra airport and back takes four days. The writer travelled with Blacktop and Beyond, a company specialising in off-road trips (www.facebook.com/blacktopandbeyond, 9830021275; Rs45,000 including pick-up and drop to Bagdogra/Siliguri, meals, and stay).

Stay

Shikhar Lodge provides basic rooms in Tumling. Meals are hearty and are enjoyed with other guests around the hearth in the kitchen. Don’t forget to ask Nila di for her special tongba (+977 8742655352, doubles from Rs1,000).

With its combination of comfy, wood-panelled rooms and jaw-dropping views of the valley from Sandakphu, Sherpa Chalet takes some beating (9932592516, doubles from Rs1,500).

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  • Manan Dhuldhoya was born to travel and is now forced to commute. Even Google throws up only one of him. He stays mostly silent @manandhuldhoya.

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