Serenading the majestic Khangchendzonga from the corridors of a mountain trail is a compulsive desire for any trekker in Sikkim. For a group of zealous boys in their 20s, that becomes the sole motivation for a visit. A senior among this group of eight, I was not an exception. But this time, I chose to stroll along this path in April—a relatively unfamiliar time—with a different purpose.
My homestay in Hilley, our last motorable point before we ventured into the Khangchendzonga Biosphere Reserve, offered a view of the horizon in misty layers. As the rain-soaked foliage became cloaked by clouds, I could see it dented the spirit of my young comrades. However, it only spurred my excitement. Out came our ponchos, and we took our first step into the Varsey Rhododendron Sanctuary, our gentle entry for the Singalila trek.
The sky was hardly visible, but a curious reddish glow surrounded us. Mammoth bamboo shoots formed an archway above, an occasional overhanging creeper breaking my trance as I gazed at the glistening vegetation. Veering into thicker pine woods ahead, we found that overnight showers had turned long stretches of the trail soggy and muddy. In the silence, I was fascinated by the squelch of shoes on wet soil, the mossy stone softening the stomp of my trek pole as unseen insects buzzed continuously.
Our camping ground for the first day—a mild ascent—was Deonangali Dhap, located beside a marsh. A sprawling heath dotted with hedges and thickets, it was enveloped in mist that wrought an ominous desolation. It reminded me of the tormenting allure of Wuthering Heights. At a distance, smoke rose beside the camp of an unknown group of vagabonds. Our support staff quickly set up a fire, and we huddled around with mugs of tea.
For the next two days, our trekking was calculatedly aimless. Our only aim was to walk through the rhododendron forests till our limbs gave way. Time and strength permitting, we would hike all the way to Kalijhar, else there would be a reassuring number of campsites en route. Bluish-grey vapour floated through the branches and settled across treetops. The tall trunks stood like spirits in the dark.
I don’t know whether it was the ethereal atmosphere, but we heard a tinkling sound that anxiously quickened our footsteps to find open land. Thankfully, it turned out to be the bells of grazing yaks! The chances of sighting the Khangchendzonga seemed remote, though. The horizon was entirely shrouded in grey, and my young trekmates sighed with resentment. But slowly and assuredly, they realised that walking on the hills could be as mesmerising.
Over the course of the day, we crossed other campsites and took wistful breaks to exchange candy and water. Drinking water sources are a tough ask in this trail. But the pains and uncertainties of trekking on the mountains while lugging 50-litre backpacks sow seeds of lifelong camaraderie.
We reached the campsite of Tulodhap after a tiring walk, and slumped down onto the wavy grass. A vast and picturesque bugyal (alpine meadow) at a foothill, it had a thin mountain stream flowing beside. The sky was now clearing and it instilled the anticipation of an open horizon on reaching Kalijhar, but a four kilometre-climb through thick forests awaited us. A buzz of dissent arose in our group. Some wanted to quit for the day. But the chances of clear skies excited us, and we pushed on. Looking ahead makes things daunting, so it’s best to focus on immediate steps.
Entering a jungle of rhododendrons, our vision became narrowed. One foot was following the other in hypnosis, unable to register the fading light and increasing gradient. To make matters worse, rain and wind lashed down like a diabolical serpent. When you see showers from a hotel window, the pitter-patter is charming, but at Tulodhap, it became the cackle of Mephistopheles. We were pushing our absolute limits to reach Kalijhar before evening, and three of us finally made it to the top.
We stood under a tree and waited for the others, the campsite still 1,500 metres away. Raindrops froze to hail and began flailing the ground, and two drooping porters from the camp appeared as silhouettes through the blinding fog.
The camp was set, but our enthusiasm for adventure was in the dregs. Khangchendzonga remained hidden in the shrine of monsoon. As the rain stopped, I tiptoed out of the camp and watched clouds criss-cross over the mountain tops, like a real-time time-lapse! Soft sunlight bathed the blue hills as layered ranges stood radiant in their eternal glory. A veritable moment of natural divinity, we pined for nothing more after that moment of celestial light. The dark clouds were torn into thousands, their edges gaining a shimmering silver lining.
The sky did clear up the next morning as we moved towards the trekkers hut in Phalut. We reached the site via Phoktedara and then the Singalila Top pass over a leisurely six hours. The evening passed exchanging stories with young adventurers we met at Phalut, who had travelled all the way from Maney Bhanjyang (a town near Darjeeling) on their bicycles.
Our last day was a delectable 18-kilometre trek to Bhareng, the nearest roadhead. A stray dog escorted us downhill as conscientious sentinel. As we left behind the meandering hilly terrain, our faithful companion disappeared into the cycle of all the seasons at Singalila— from the hail of the winter to the mists of monsoon, through the petals of rhododendron in spring—passed as the six-day adventure came to an end.
The nearest railhead is New Jalpaiguri Junction and the nearest airport Bagdogra. From either, rent a car (advance booking advised) to reach Hilley in West Sikkim in 5 to 6 hours.
From Hilley, trek to Deonangali Dhap (10,000 ft; 12 km/6 hrs) via Varsey. Secure an entry permit from the Forest Department.
>Trek to Kalijhar (11,800 ft; 14km/8 hrs) via Joributey, Acchaley, Hangepani and Thulo Dhap. Break the trail into 2 days.
>Then, head to Phalut (11,800 ft; 10km/5hrs) via Phoktedara and Singalila Top. From Phalut, go to Sandakphu (12,000 ft; 21 km/8 hrs) and then Srikhola (3 hrs) and then to NJP/Bagdogra by car (5 hrs). There are also two alternate routes. From Phalut you can trek to Bhareng (18 km/7 hrs), or take a taxi to Jorethang for a stay. Otherwise, trek from Kalijhar to Chiyabhanjan (2 hrs) and then downhill to Uttarey. This trek is through an army base, and permits from both Varsey and Uttarey must be kept on hand.
WHAT TO KEEP IN MIND
October to March offers clear skies, while April and May see rains and rhododendron blooms. Avoid trekking during the monsoons (June to September) as it brings an abundance of leeches. Singalila National Park is also closed at that time, which restricts access to the ridge.