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Himalayan view from Sandakphu


“You have itinerary?”

When I realize that this is a question rather than a declaration, my heart sinks.

My husband and I are in Darjeeling, India, and it is ten o’clock at night on the eve of a fresh adventure: a five-day trek through the Himalayan foothills of Singalila. We have spent the last several hours trying to get in touch with our local trekking company, Gurudongma, in hopes of solidifying our arrangements for the following morning. A dozen phone calls later, we finally have our guide sitting in front of us, but he seems to know nothing about our trip, and the only nugget of information that we can understand from him is that he knows Jamling Tenzing Norgay, son of famed Everest mountaineer Tenzing Norgay. While this will be interesting to recount later, it does not help our present situation.

After a few more anxious phone calls, Hiren and I are lying on our stiff mattress at the Main Olde Bellevue Hotel, falling asleep to a chorus of howling dogs and hoping that everything will work itself out in the morning. Like many things in India, it does, sometimes against all logic and expectation.

Celebrating Buddha Purnima

By nine the next morning, we have our duffels and gear loaded into a jeep and are winding through the mountains, sliding through misty villages and picking our way around land rovers, all of which are packed to the windows with passengers and sport a variety of names and religious slogans across the tops of their windshields (from the ubiquitous “Om Sai Ram” to “Praise Jesus,” often in a drippy, Halloween-ish font). Our guide informs us that today is known as “Buddha’s Birthday” (also called Buddha Purnima or Vaisakha, the holiday also celebrates Buddha’s enlightenment and passing), and we see the festivities manifest in two of the villages through which we pass. On both occasions, we pull over to the side of the road to watch as a diverse procession of townsfolk, from gleeful children and maroon- and saffron-clad Buddhist monks to elderly Hindu women bearing the scarlet streak of sindoor powder at the hairline. Anyone not marching in the parade waits to the side for the children to pass with wood-bound prayer books. Participants touch their foreheads to each of the books in passing.

We arrive in Dhotrey around noon and huddle in a roadside dhaba over bowls of noodle and potato soup while our guide locates porters. We gulp down the last of our oily broth as quickly as we can, eager to venture into the mist-shrouded landscape and uncertain of when our next meal will appear.

For the first couple of hours of our gentle ascent, leafy bamboo poles and canopies of trees rise out of the cool mist with us. We pass pilgrims returning from their Buddha Purnima celebrations, the occasional instant noodle wrapper, and, of course, a few cattle. Not long after climbing from the verdant forest to the grassy, windswept hilltops, our guide points to a cobblestone road, informs us that it is the border between India and Nepal, and further explains that we are crossing it. We ask some vague question about India’s two-month reentry restriction, and our guide laughs in response, reminding us that he knows Jamling Tenzing Norgay. Hiren and I shrug, certain that we won’t be the first trekkers in this situation, and continue through a light sheet of rain to Tumling and its delightfully eclectic trekker’s lodge, more a stack of cobbled-on rooms than a unitary building. Low, blanket-draped couches and a pot of hot momos await us. The fog has stuck with us throughout the day, and aside from a brief stroll around the village, we are content to rest and warm up in the lodge.

Breakfast at Tumling Lodge

After our breakfast of fried eggs and fried Tibetan bread the next morning, the weather has cleared enough for us to glimpse some of the scenery beyond our hilltop. The slopes below Tumling appear to sigh with steam from yesterday’s rain as they roll away before us. We have the good fortune to enjoy clear views for the rest of the day as we embark on one of our longer days of hiking, first descending to a checkpoint at Garibas and then climbing up to our day’s stop at Kala Pokhri. Along the way, we pass what our guide identifies as a Maoist village, and I receive my first omen of the sunburn to come.

We break for lunch and tea around eleven, stopping in one of the smallest settlements that we’ve seen yet and ducking into a low-roofed hut with walls blackened on one end by the cooking fire and papered on the other with broadsheet. Lunch is another simple but satisfying meal of instant noodles, served this time with a garnish of chopped red onions. Our hosts produce a bottle of locally-made hot pepper sauce, which Hiren and I add to our noodles. It packs a punch, and as I cool my tongue with a gulp of water, our guide attributes the bloom of color on my face and neck to the spice (he would later attribute the redness to the presumed strain from my backpack, but to his credit, he probably doesn’t meet many sunburn-prone travelers who are as foolish about sunscreen application as I was that day). Crossing my eyes for a quick glimpse of the end of my nose, I can guess that he is, unfortunately, incorrect on that count.

We finish lunch and pass another checkpoint as we zigzag between India and Nepal on our way to Kala Pokhri, a village that is home to more goats than people. By the time we reach Kala Pokhri and the black pond for which it is named, it is mid-afternoon. Hiren and I explore the outskirts of the town, looking for a place to sit and read, but as we are unable to find a place that is not either (a) infested with bugs, (b) scattered with goat droppings, or (c) rocky and uncomfortable, we seek refuge from the sun and the elements in the lodge.

The view from Sandakphu

With hours of heat left in the day and future prospects for a reasonably warm shower dubious, I decide that it is as good a time as any to wash off my belatedly-applied sunscreen with a bucket bath. Crouching in a twenty-five square foot room outfitted with a faucet, bucket, and ladle (the purpose of these shall be explained below); a broom handle (the purpose of which was unclear); and a rickety table with the dimensions of a barstool, I manage to balance my toiletries and clothes in various dry locations while remaining (mostly) below the room’s one conspicuous window. Squatting in a position that will become more familiar to me with the growing scarcity of Western toilets further along the trek, I draw a breath for my first scoop of cold water.

For the uninitiated, a bucket bath involves filling a five-gallon bucket with cold water from a tap and ladling said water over one’s huddled, shivering body. It is surprisingly effective, but in the brisk mountain air, it is unsurprisingly bracing. I hold my breath before each fresh dousing, feeling every time like I am about to rip off a new Band-Aid.

After slipping into a change of clean, dry clothes, I scurry back up to the room, where Hiren and I huddle under piles of blankets with our books and enjoy the early evening breeze until dinner. Unfortunately, a rainstorm the next day delays our hike, and we spend the entire morning and the early afternoon reading and watching the windows for a break in the storm clouds. We set out after lunch when the downpour has abated to a drizzle and slog up the path to Sandakphu. While the trail climbs steeply the rest of the way, it isn’t terribly long, and we are able to reach Sandakphu in a couple of hours with plenty of daylight to spare. We visit a tiny temple near our lodge, crowded with Hindu icons and festooned with Buddhist prayer flags. After the obligatory cup of tea at the lodge, we wiggle into our extra layers and join the rest of the trekkers at the edge of the summit to enjoy the view of the Himalayas before us.

While the peaks themselves are colossal, they are hidden behind a cloud wall that is just as massive. Every once in a while, the breeze will tear a rift in the cloud bank, exposing some of the jagged, snow-crusted peaks. The mountains are difficult to recognize at first, not only because they blend in with the crests and ridges of the grayish clouds, but because, even from a vantage point at 11,900 feet, they are still so high above us. We get only a momentary peek at Mount Kangchenjunga, the third-highest mountain in the world, but it sets our gazes soaring and our hearts racing.

By the time the clouds seal up the view of Kangchenjunga, their mass has obscured most of the rest of the view, as well. We spend the remaining half-hour before dinner huddled in the woodshed, reading our books and sharing a toasty fire with a boiling cauldron of water. We retreat inside after dinner, hoping to see Everest in the morning. The night proves to be the coldest yet, and I pass on the tea in anticipation of the inevitable midnight bathroom breaks huddled over the squat toilet (despite my best efforts, they will come anyway). After dinner, we bury ourselves beneath our blankets and wrap our toes around insulated hot water bags. They don’t so much keep our feet warm as prevent them from becoming cold, but in that weather, it makes a difference.

The light that peeps through the tissue-thin curtains at five in the morning is gray and wan, a hint at the conditions outside. Our guide does not rouse us for a morning mountain view, and when we cross to the lodge’s kitchen, we can see why; the haze has obscured the rest of the hilltop, to say nothing of the mountains beyond. While we’re disappointed to miss a view of Everest, knowing that would-be climbers often wait weeks for clear weather, we can’t say that we’re surprised. Full with another breakfast of fried eggs and fried bread, we start what we think will be the easiest portion of our journey: the descent.

We are mistaken. While we don’t find ourselves stopping with fatigue the way we did during the uphill portions of our trek, this is partly because we realize that each stop requires an inevitable start, a painful process that plunges our legs into joint-grinding, cartilage-eroding agony. We break for tea in yet another hamlet just in time to get out of the late-morning drizzle. After that, our descent takes us to the river, which we follow to Srikhola and a lunch stop overlooking the forested valley. We are grateful for the rest until we try to move again and realize that our joints have started to set during our break. Slowly easing our legs back into a walking stride, we toddle along the trail, which has started to level out. Each step is painful, but I console myself with the knowledge that, once my ligaments reattach, I will probably be able to crack walnuts with my calves.

Srikhola is the last bastion of the true wilderness, and as the road flattens, it also broadens under our feet. We pass villages that look more and more like the towns we drove through on our way to Dhotrey: larger, browner, and with a lower goat to human ratio. The stiffness has traveled from my legs to my back and neck, and by the time we reach the beautifully-landscaped Sherpa Lodge in Rimbik, I am as grateful for the chance to drop my bag as I am for the hot shower and Western-style toilet.

The Sherpa Lodge is the perfect end to our trek: clean, tranquil, and overlooking the green, rolling hillsides that we had just traversed. We cap off our evening with a dinner of egg curry and a double-pint of “Hit,” a locally brewed beer known for its high alcohol content. Bedtime brings the welcome opportunity to lie still, remember our adventures, and forget our joint pain.

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