Sandakphu-Phalut via Sanglila Park was on the travel itinerary from Darjeeling. Hence I woke up at 5 am, took my toothbrush & walked up to the porch, it was still dark. But fresh windy, cool, and crisp air started whistling like an invisible ghost. I felt the mountains in Darjeeling had kept the soul of this Land safe. And for a time unmeasured that tells of it in words unspoken. I wished to sit for a while & absorb the coldness of the weather, but the time was running out. I quickly had a shower & got dressed. Hari, the cab driver, arrived at 6.30 am, and we left for Manebhajan.
Manebhanjan is a small town from where the trekking or car journey begins. From here, you move towards Sandakphu through Sanglila National Park. The drive till Manebhanjhyang was scenic, and the soft morning breeze blew over the peaks and through the tall fragrant evergreen forest. I felt the cool, damp air on my skin, ran like a shiver down my spine. But the car moved ahead on the empty road, leaving the morning sun behind. The drive till Manebhanjhyang was of an hour (24kms); the last 4km roads were bumpy.
Manebhanjan is located at the border of Indo-Nepal. And upon reaching, I could see a queue of Land Rover standing on the road. These vehicles are ideal for climbing steep gravel road. I walked up to the booth of the Land Rovers Owner’s Welfare Association for booking. I had to wait since many Land Rovers have not returned from the last trip. And there are 40 odd land Rovers only. Since I booked an overnight stay at Sandakphu, I did mind waiting for a while. The cost of the LandRover to & from Sandakpu, including night stay, is 7000 INR, & travel time is 5hrs one side.
Meanwhile, I collected my permits to enter Sanglila Park from the forest department. Finally, I got my Land Rover at 8.30 am, old yet solid that initially belong to the British era that operates on these roads. Though the streets have been now concertized, it’s still boulder road from Gairibas. And only land rover vehicle can negotiate this stretch. We collected our baggage, permit & started our Jeep Safari to one of the most exotic Himalayan forests in India.
It is said there is no specific season or time to trek your way towards Sandakphu, as each season has its own magic. The riot of colours can be seen in spring when Rhododendron blooms, & the path is blasting with red, white & pink. On the other hand, the trek routes bear a dreamy look in monsoon covered with clouds & mist. But advisable to avoid monsoon as the area is prone to landslides. Hence, the most suggestive month in October, when the sky is blue & clear, gives Kanchenjunga’s glorified view. And the bloom of Orchid fills the route with varied colours. But if you are a snow lover, you can try December & January month too.
Talking about Sanglila National Park, it was declared a Wildlife Sanctuary in 1986 and later made an Indian National Park in 1992. This region is the trekking route from Manebhanjhyang to Sandakphu and Phalut. The amazing fact is it is a high altitude park spanning between 7900 feet to about 12000 feet. And covers 78.6km, which is part of the reserved forest. We drove along the Sanglila ridge, which was coved with thick Bamboo, Oak & Rhododendron forest. Since it was the start of the blooming month of Rhododendron, I could only see a few along the way.
There are two ranges in Sanglila National park- Southern & Northern. Northern Range is the trekking trail, one of the routes used by the first documented mountaineering team. It was an unsuccessful attempt to climb Kanchenjunga in 1905. This team was led by Jules Jacot-Guillarmod and the famous occultist Aleister Crowley. However, the southern range is most popular among tourists. It has small settlements named Tonglu, Tumling, Gairibas, Kalipokhari, Bikheybhajan & up to Sankadkphu and Phalut, the two highest peaks Sanglila range.
As we drove through the way after 20 mins, we reached a tiny hamlet, Chitrey- famous for its Monastery & Gompa. We stopped for 10min to visit the Old Buddhist Monastery and walked around it to take few pictures. I walked past the Monastery when I noticed a small restaurant in the open field, where we had tea & momos.
We Drove further ahead of Chitrey; and reached the tiniest village on the route Lamaydhura. The roads or the trek route passes along the Indo-Nepal border. The side where the tea stall in Lamaydhura was located is part of Nepal. And most booth has boards proudly displaying “Welcome to Nepal”. Also, few shacks offer low budget bed & breakfast to trekkers here. We did not stop here & drove ahead—the bank of clouds was on either side along the way.
We entered the third village on the route called Meghma- meaning always covered with clouds. It’s a small mystic mountain village located precisely on the Indo-Nepal border. I saw the check post with the security guards. And the thing that caught my attention was the small Monastary at the entrance of the village. It has a strange & difficult name to pronounce- Sangchen Ugagyur Hosahal Dechen Choling Monastery. I stopped in the town for a while, taking a walk in the clouds. Talking about the Monastery, it was built in the early 1950s & features 108 forms of Buddhas.
Interestingly, the check post doesn’t ask for Visa & seldom check your identity. While strolling around the village is observed the roads bifurcates from Meghma. The one on the right goes to Tonglu(2km) through Indian territory, while the left goes to Tumling(4km) through Nepal. However, the Tonglu route is being a detour & rough gravel road. But if you are trekking & wish to spend a night, take Tonglu road since it has a friendly GTA operated lodge. Here also I saw a few stall serving tea, snacks, water & other essential food items.
Finally, we reached Tumling at around 10 am, & I noticed small huts & cottages as we approached the village. Tumling nestled on the river bank is part of Nepal; however, there is no visa needed for Indian. This place is the main halt for trekkers before moving up to Sandakphu. As we entered the town, I got to see the Signboard pointing towards the Sanglila national park ahead. It was another 1km from Tumling.
The first unobstructed view of Sleeping Buddha simply took my breath away. Lhotse, Makalu, Everest & Chomo Lonzo are famously called The Sleeping Buddha, thanks to their appearance. It is the most spectacular moments so far of the trip. I sat for a while sipping coffee & soaking the mesmerizing beauty of the Himalayas.
We hopped back in our Land Rover & drove towards the entry gate of the park. At the park’s entry gate, our entry permits & ID cards were checked. And then we were allowed to enter the park. We went through the core forest full of Oaks, Ferns, Silver Firs, Bamboos. And one of the most admirable rhododendron excursions.
The whole trail is dotted with various flowers—the bright white Magnolias shining through the mist, while Red, pink Rhododendrons (March-April bloom) made the landscape prettier. The park was also a lovely valley full of pink Daphne’s. I learnt that they are used to make paper in Nepal. However, if you visit the park during Oct-Nov large varied of Orchid could be seen. There are over 600 varieties of Orchid bloom in Sanglila. You may see the ornamental primulas having formed carpet of flowers in the lower forest during this period. The entire trail was surreal, as I could see the bloom of Rhododendrons.
Sanglila Park also has some of the rarest and exotic wildlife. Fortunately, I could encounter a Red Panda sleeping on a tree, but no martens or wild boars. But I could hear birds chirping continuously, as there are over 350 species of birds in the park. Luckily, I managed to see Longtail Minivet & fire-tiled Myzorins; I could not take pictures, though.
Driving through the core forest of Sanglila national Park, we finally reached Gairibas. We took a break here, for a cup of tea & some snack. Looking around the place, I could see few huts & a GTA lodge where most trekkers stay. After Gairibas, we passed through another tiny village known as Kaiyakatta. Route bifurcates; one moves up to Nepal & the other into Indian territory; however, both meet at Kalipokhri.
While driving through Kaiyakatta, our driver narrated a story behind the name of the village. Marwaris here are locally known as Kaiya,& one Marwari used to have a flourishing business in this village. But he deprived the villager of earning. Hence one day, a furious villager killed him, & this act locally called Katta. Since then, the village is called Kaiyakatta. Quite Interesting!
The following village we passed by is Kalipokhri, where pokhri means lake in Nepali & Kali means black. The village is named after the sacred lake, which is located in a scenic setting. The lake is considered sacred as it never freezes; I could see prayer flags tied around the lake. And the colour of the water has turned black due to mud deposition. Along the entire drive Sleeping Buddha was with us, as times hiding behind the clouds.
From here, the drive to Sandakphu is steep. As we proceed towards BikeyBhanjan, I passed few huts in an unknown settlement called Chowri chowk. This place is not located on google map or in the route map till Sandakphu. Our driver explained that few trekkers but mostly driver stay here on their trips to Sandakphu. The Sandakphu drive offers an exquisite experience of walking in and out of India and Nepal. This constant flitting in and out of the Indo-Nepal border was a unique cultural experience.
At last, we reached BikeyBhanjan, a non-descriptive & tiny village. From here, three routes bifurcate & end ups meeting at Sandakhpu. One of them is a stairway for trekkers & the other two are steep gravel roads. This journey from BikeyBhanjan to Sandhakpu was the longest because of bad road condition.
By the time we reached our lodges, it was 3.30 pm. We had booked Sherpa Chalet for an overnight stay. The hotel is prominent & arguably a good hotel, because of its location & structure. Sherpa Chalet is located on a hilltop in Nepal, where a road right next to it leads to Phalut. And the view from the hotel window is pristine of the sleeping Buddha. We took the room upstairs, which was four bedded, but the bathroom was damn small. But still, decided to take a tour of the area, and I could see a couple of hotels and a few stalls around.
Interestingly, the mode of electricity here was either solar panel or generators. Also, the shortage of water was acute. We have to order in advance for lunch, dinner or breakfast, & basic food is served. Overall a decent place to stay, and luckily I got a steaming cup of tea to sip on while sitting at the window & gazing at the Kanchenjunga.
Sandakphu is one of the few treks or motor roads that gives long-distance views far away from Everest. Along with stunning sunsets wherein clouds speckle the ground, not the sky—the sun sets below you. Unfortunately, the mist started to cover the view and did not allow us to see the sunset. I slept early in the hope of sunrise, & the weather was chilly at night.
The next day I woke up around 4.30 am; it was freezing cold. I covered myself with all woollen available & walked out of the hotel. Far away, I could see clouds floating and shining like sliver droplets from heaven. Above those tangerine mountains were clouds that moved in shoals. I saw a chorus of greys streaked with silvers and golds. The sun blossoms not too far off, brilliant petals extending ever outwards into the rich blue sky. Bright light spilt over the Land like syrup on oats. The beauty was mesmerising; I could not take my eyes off. Don’t how long I stood looking at the sunrise & then the enticing sleeping Buddha; I still could not get enough of it.
Later I had a quick bath, breakfast and left for Phalut. It is the second-highest peak in the Sanglila range. Phalut means Barren mountain, derived from the Lepcha word Fak-Luk. And when we drove towards Phalut, I can resonate with the name since the area till the last stretch was barren, compared to the dense forest at the lower level.
Phalut offered me the majestic beauty of snow-peaked Everest and an army bunker near the peak of Phalut. From here, I could feel Kanchenjunga at a stone’s throw distance as it appears gigantic. If you wish to stay in Phalut, the GTA trekker hut is the only accommodation. But I must warn you, the road up till Phalut is horrible, so eat less. The driver updated me with an added information that the native who resides here considers Phalut peak to be God who knows everything and call it “Omna Re Ay”. That’s Interesting!
We planned our return after spending some time, as the weather was getting cloudy. The weather here is very unpredictable, at times clear sky, another moment full of mist. Well, if you wish to go beyond Phalut, you need to trek down as the Land Rover operates till Phalut. It’s a trekker paradise to explore the picture-perfect villages of Samanden and Gorkhey. Surrounded by a thick pine forest with a beautiful river cutting through it is Gorkhey village. One hour beyond Gorkhey is Samanden, a hidden gem untouched by the modern world. Samanden village has Sherpa families residing, mainly depended on agriculture or the trekker as they provide basic homestay facilities.
We drove back through the unabated beauty of nature, forest of Oak, chestnuts, magnolia, silver firs and Rhododendrons. The sleeping Buddha accompanied us till Tumling, along with the cloud which kept floating in & out of my car window. We had stopped at Tumling for lunch before descending down to Manebhajan. Here we met Hari, our driver, & drove back to the hotel. It was a dream so unreal that reminded me of lines said by Tom Hiddleston-” I belong where there are mountains and snow, and clear, crisp blue sky.”
How to Reach
The nearest airport is Bagdogra, approximately 115 km away from the Sandakphu. From the airport, hire taxis to reach the Sandakphu trekking base. From here, you need to book Land Rover for further journey.
New Jalpaiguri is the nearest railway station to Sandakphu. New Jalpaiguri connects to many cities in India. You need to hire private cabs from the station to reach the Sandakphu trekking base. From here, you need to book Land Rover for further journey.
Darjeeling is well-connected via road with Kolkata city & other closeby cities such as Gangtok and Kalimpong. You can drive to Manebhanjan & book a cab. Or cover the distance of 646 km to reach Sandakphu by your own vehicle. Many Private as well Govt buses ply from Siliguri to Manebhanjan Via Sukhaipokhri. Buses are even available from Kolkata & Siliguri to Manebhanjans. But suggested avoiding bus journey as its tiresome & exhausting because of the long journey.