India From the Top

No view can compare with the one from the rooftop of the world. I’m completely certain that for as long as I live, I’ll see few sights to rival a sunrise over Sandakphu. It’s difficult to describe the extent of

its impact – its unfolding was so spectacular and its searing magnificence so pronounced that the spirituality of the experience will remain with me forever.

If you’re lucky, a trip anywhere will be defined by a single staggering moment which more than justifies the time, expense and effort you’ve invested in the journey. Standing on that mountain, amidst a jumble of emotions, that’s my sense of things. I felt completely fulfilled. Sated. And I had the powerful realisation that I really don’t require anything more than this.

The journey to Sandakphu, on the Singalila Ridge in the Darjeeling district of West Bengal on the Indian border with Nepal, is lengthy and progressively arduous. It starts with a long-haul flight to Delhi, then takes you through the lottery of Indian air travel with a domestic leg to Bagdogra, followed by an initially

chaotic and later winding and precipitous road transfer to Mirik (in my case), then on to Mane Bhanjang, and ends with a bone-jarring and hair- raising ride to the 3 700m summit in ancient, bald-tyred Land Rovers. The final stage is hiked over a few days by many visitors to the area. For those as audacious as my companions (participants in the Himalayan 100 Mile Stage Race), it can also be run.

No matter – the result is the same, give or take a bit of exhaustion. You find yourself off the grid: no running water, no plumbing, no mobile phone signal. If that’s off-putting, then it’s your loss – especially in this rustic place, which it would be trite to describe as beautiful. It was overcast when I arrived: grey velvet draped over a dramatic landscape, primed for a grand revelation. We were up at 4.30am the next morning, ready for the celestial show, anticipation heightened. And there it was. The sun had risen, gradually illuminating four of the world’s highest peaks: iconic Everest, of course, clustered with Lhotse and Makalu, but at a distance. The most impressive one is the Kangchenjunga massif, the world’s third- highest mountain, which dwarfs the others from our perspective. Its presence was so imposing that I didn’t so much see it as felt it. I had no doubt I was witnessing something profound.

This experience of the Himalayas was central to my enjoyment of India. The objective of travelling is to encounter new places and cultures, but the real reward comes from stepping outside yourself and your fixed views and habits, and experiencing their reality through the eyes of the locals, or even those of your fellow travellers. I had this insight a while ago, while visiting the fascinating Himalayan Mountain Institute in Darjeeling early in the trip. Mt Everest was first summited by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay
in 1953. When I was a schoolboy studying history, Hillary was the central figure in the accomplishment, while Norway was a footnote. However, in India, as I observed at the institute, it’s the other way round. Like everything else, it’s a matter of perspective, which prompted me to review my own assumptions, especially in the Himalayas (translated literally as “house of snow”).

One of the features of the Darjeeling district, of course, is its tea – the mountainsides are dotted with plantations, so in an appropriate “when-in-Rome” spirit, I drank the beverage until it was coming out
of my ears. We were afforded the opportunity to sample a variety of the Darjeeling styles, but the one I found most interesting is a brew that we were served in the town of Rimbik. It’s a smoky tea, the leaves clearly dried over a fire, reminiscent of lapsang souchong. My one regret, since I’m pressed for time if I’m going to catch the Toy Train (officially the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway), is missing the chance to visit the Glenary Bakery, a highly acclaimed colonial establishment which I’m told is the perfect place to enjoy these famous teas, accompanied by quality cakes and pastries.

With the race to Sandakphu over – five days of torturous running and trekking for the runners, and of immersion in the stupendous scenery for me – we returned to Delhi, and to India proper. We swapped the teetering, but relatively vacant roads, posted with signs that implored us to “enjoy the beauty of the hills”, for an urban tumult of epic proportions. A Delhi traffic jam is bewildering. Every spare inch of road – the shoulders, pavements and any other space available – is utilised to bursting point, with the only rules seemingly being those that govern the game of chicken.

Useful information

DELHI

HOTEL THE ASHOK, Chanakyapuri, New Delhi. Tel: +91 11 2611 0101. Visit: www.theashok.com

MIRIK

MIRIK TOURIST LODGE, SH12. Tel: +91 354 224 3371/72. Email Himalayan Run & Trek

SANDAKPHU (INDIAN SIDE)

HUTS A & B, Forest & DM Rest Houses. Tel (Himalayan Run & Trek): +91 11 2277 2700 or send an email.

SANDAKPHU (NEPALESE SIDE)

HOTEL SHERPA CHALET. Tel: +91 93 3259 9261, +91 97 4262 1760 or +977 2769 1127.

RIMBIK

SHERPA TENZING LODGE.

Tel (Himalayan Run & Trek): +91 11 2277 2700 or send an email.

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