The alarm rang at 4:30am and in another 15 minutes we were out, armed with torches and photography gear. Our aim was to capture the sunrise on the Khangchendzonga Range from Sandakphu at the west-central edge of Singalila National Park. The sky overhead was clear and, with a little help from the moon, we could make out the shapes of the peaks, appearing grey against the dark horizon. While we kept our lenses focused on the Khangchendzonga massif, our ears were occupied with picking up and identifying various birdcalls. Soon, the tip of the peak turned light orange and then golden and, as our cameras got busy, a sound similar to a child’s wail came from the slope below. With our attention now shifting from the peak in front of us to the slope behind, we waited with bated breath. And as the first light appeared on the eastern horizon, the sound came again. This time we heard it clearly – it was the call of a male satyr tragopan (Trago-pan satyra), known as munal (not to be confused with the Himalayan Monal, which is known as danphe). We decided to walk a bit on the Sandakphu-Gurdung (to the east) trail to try and catch a glimpse of this gorgeous pheasant.

We’d walked some 15 minutes when the tragopan called once more. This time it sounded quite close. Moving towards the sound, we left the trail and took cover behind the bushes. For several minutes there was silence. And then the bird called again, and as we collectively held our breath, out sauntered a male satyr trago-pan in all its bright crimson glory into the meadow on our right. I’ve read somewhere that tragopans are somewhat stupid birds, and are easily caught in traps laid by miscreants and poachers in parts of Northeast India. There seemed to be some truth in it for our tragopan came right towards us and while I was focusing my 300mm lens to get a decent photo of the bird, it came so close that it was at a distance less than the closest focusing distance of my lens. I had no desire to disturb this handsome specimen of Himalayan birdlife and make it move away for the sake of a picture, and occupied myself by carefully observing its actions. The tragopan did not pay any attention to us, but kept on foraging. It dug out the roots of a bush and moved slightly as it picked up some worms. Although the light was quite low and I couldn’t use a flash for fear of disturbing it, I finally managed to capture the bird on film.

Our passage to Singalila National Park had been subjected to frequent birding halts. Reaching Darjeeling two days back, we’d boarded a vintage Land Rover for Gairibas via Maneybhanjang, a journey that took six hours, far more than the normal three hours, on account of our making the acquaintance of several interesting inhabitants such as fire-tailed myzornis, green-tailed sun-birds, tits and yuhinas.

The striking colours of a male fire-tailed sunbird
The striking colours of a male fire-tailed sunbird
Dhritiman Mukherjee

Just before we reached Gairibas, a Himalayan yellow-throated marten crossed our track. We spent the night in the Trekkers’ Hut at Gairibas. Next morning, we trekked up to Sandakphu through Kalpokhari and Bikebhanjang. Again, the trek route of five hours took us an additional three hours as we could not resist stopping for more birdwatching. Our bounty that day included a Darjeeling woodpecker, a soaring Himalayan griffon, a magnificent golden eagle, kestrels, yellow-billed blue magpie flocks, a long-tailed minivet, numerous laughing thrushes and fly-catchers, a white-tailed nuthatch, tits, fulvettas, yuhinas, sunbirds, great barbets and a rufous-breasted accentor.

The third day, after our rendez-vous with the tragopan, we walked on the trail towards Phalut, stopping just short of Sabarkum. Phalut was a good destination for trekkers, but not as good for birding. We added a few high-altitude species such as rosefinches and grosbeaks to our list on that trail.

The fourth morning we left Sandakphu early, setting off on the arduous trek through Gairibas to Tonglu amidst calls of an oriental cuckoo and an Indian cuckoo. Our idea was to catch an early glimpse of the birds at Tonglu the next morning. One highlight of the day was a second meeting with a satyr tragopan, this time a female, near Kalpokhari. But the star of the day was a Himalayan palm civet. It was dusk when one of us noticed some movement on the slope above the trail. A careful look through the binoculars revealed the civet, on an overhanging branch, looking at us. It seemed unperturbed by our presence and gave us ample time to get a picture of this otherwise elusive animal. The next morning we were rewarded with calls of rufous-throated partridges and again of the satyr tragopan. A lone white-throa-ted fantail kept us company near the hut at Tonglu. A pair of white-tailed nuthatches also kept us busy with binoculars. And as we were leaving for Darjeeling, a hill barbet started calling from the slope downhill, as if singing a valedictory song announcing the end of our trip in this birders’ paradise.


Covering an area of 78.60sq km, Singalila is one of India’s small national parks, and one of only seven that border another country – in this case, Nepal. With alti-tudes ranging between 1,900m and 3,600m, Singalila is also West Bengal’s highest national park. Declared a national reserve in 1992, the park derives its name from the Singalila spur, which runs through the park, descending from Mt Khangchendzonga (8,586m) in the north and running south for 100km to the northern fringe of the Gangetic Plains. The ridge forms a border between Sikkim and Nepal, and at certain points within Singalila National Park, affords some of the best views of a few of the world’s highest peaks. The varied vegetation harbours a correspondingly diverse range of fauna, especially avifauna.

One of Singalila’s claims to fame is the fact that it was the first site in India where the reintroduction of the red panda was attempted. In 2004, the Wildlife Wing of the Government of West Bengal’s Directorate of Forests obtained two female red pandas from the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park, Darjeeling, and released them in Singalila National Park.

Singalila shares the problems of most of India’s national reserves – unregulated tourism, collection of forest produce and grazing. The popularity of the park as a trekking area, with around 10,000 trekkers visiting Sandakphu every year, is a major threat to the habitat and fauna. Several NGOs came together in 2002 to initiate steps to deal with this pressure, involving mainly the problems of garbage disposal and cutting of trees for fuel and building of food shacks. The West Bengal Forest Department has also initiated clean-up campaigns. But a lot more needs to be done.


There is no official entrance gate into the park and no clear-cut boundary demarcations, barring a few signposts. Most visitors are trekkers who approach Singalila through the small town of Maney-bhanjang, entering the park from Tumling, a small village on the south-west outskirts of the park. The preferred trekking route through and beyond the park is from Maney-bhanjang to Sandakphu via Chitrey, Meghma, Tumling, Joubari(on the Indo-Nepal border), Gairibas, Kaya-kata, Kalpokhari and Bikebhanjang.

Inviting façade of the Mayfair Hill Resorts
Inviting façade of the Mayfair Hill Resorts
Courtesy May Fair Hill Resorts

Trekkers usually make a change in the return leg, opting to walk from Gairibas back to Meghma via Tonglu. This route passes through pristine forests of rhododendrons and oak and offers far more bird-spotting opportunities than the deforested Tumling-Jaubari stretch.

The jeep track to Singalila is also through Tonglu. Those travelling in a vehicle usually enter the park just before Gairibas, on the park’s west-central border. Jeep-borne visitors who want to try out a spot of trekking, as also those who have trekked up to Sandakphu, can walk from there to Phalut, close to the park’s northernmost tip. This one-day trek allows opportunities to catch a glimpse of four of the highest peaks on earth.

The best course would be to spend a day in Darjeeling and get a permit to visit the park from the office of the DFO, Wildlife Division I. This is located above the Bengal Natural History Museum on the path that goes behind Hotel New Elgin, below the Mall Road.

An overnight stay in Darjeeling would also serve the purpose of acclimatisation. The next morning, one could start early, take a vehicle to Maneybhanjang and start the trek from there through Meghma-Tumling or directly drive up to the park via Tonglu. Reasonably good accommodation is available at Maneybhanjang, Gairibas, Tonglu and Sandakphu.


This is mountain country, covered with a range of vegetation and laced with innumerable streams. Walk through unspoilt forests of tall oaks, bamboo thickets and rhododendrons in bloom. Feast your eyes on snow-covered peaks ablaze with myriad colours at sunrise or sunset, and on birds rarely spotted anywhere else in the country. And have a ride of a lifetime in a Land Rover harking back to the Second World War.


The area’s unique combination of high altitude and a subtropical climate has resulted in a distinctive ecosystem of trees growing beyond the snowline and some very rare fauna. Avifauna is especially exotic, with satyr tragopans, blood phea-sants, Himalayan griffons, fire-tailed myzornis and many others. No special permit is required from the Forest Department to enter the park; however, for extensive birdwatching, it is worth getting permission to walk the trails inside the park, other than the designated trekking routes.


Many trekking options are available within and around the park. As with birdwatching, it is advisable to obtain permission from the Forest Department if you plan to step off the marked trek routes.

Jeep Safaris

A thrill of a different sort can be experienced in traversing the hilly terrain on a mighty Land Rover of 1950s vintage. The exhilaration of navigating sharp turns and steep slopes on mostly broken roads is somehow enhanced by the fact that you are sitting in a vehicle that has character by the truckloads.

Land Rover rental 5,500 a day


Accommodation in and around the park comes in the form of Trekkers’ Huts, forest rest houses and largely mediocre private lodges.

Along the main trek route

Trekkers’ Huts (Tariff: 100 per bed) offer adequate accommoda-tion and food at reasonable prices all along the trail at Gairibas, Rambi and Tonglu. The Trekkers’ Hut at Tonglu has six dorms with 31 beds, attached baths, kitchen and hot water facilities. The one at Rambi has the same facilities, but only one 21-bedded dorm. The trekkers’ hut at Gairibas has four rooms and three dorms with the same facilities as above. Type A cottages at Sandakphu offer all the above facilities, but for 300. The Type B and C cottages have a 20-bedded dorm each (Tariff: 100 per bed). Bookings for any of these can be made with the Gorkhaland Terri-torial Administration in Kolkata (Cell: 09903174047; W

In Maneybhanjang, Tumling and Sandakphu

The main gateway to Singalila offers several lodging options, although none that would qualify as luxury accommodation. Help Tourism can arrange owner-run tea houses on the Sandakphu trail in select areas. Cost per day per person is 600.

In Darjeeling

For anything approaching a luxurious stay, your only bet is Darjeeling. The wonderfully located Tourist Lodge (Tel: 0354-2254412; Tariff: 1,400–3,800) is recommended. Amongst the private hotels try the Hotel New Elgin (Tel: 2257226; Tariff: 9,050–10,650) and Mayfair Hill Resorts (Tel: 2256476; Tariff: 12,000–20,000).


While at Darjeeling start the day with a delicious Continental breakfast at Keventers on Nehru Road, followed by a sumptuous Tibetan lunch at either Penang Restaurant or Dikibas Restaurant and dinner at the Park Restaurant or Glenary’s. Within Singalila National Park, basic food is available at the Trekkers’ Huts. It is also worth carrying along a small LPG cylinder, a stove, food and other provisions.


Darjeeling (25km)

In spite of the tourist glut and the accompanying problems that are the bane of all Indian hill stations, Darjeeling still retains its charm. The Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park here, located just before the cable car station and near the Government College, gives you the opportunity to see rare Himalayan creatures such as red pandas, bears and clouded leopards. The zoo is considered one of India’s best.

Senchal Wildlife

Sanctuary (25km)

This is the nearest sanctuary from Darjeeling, located about 10 km to the southeast and reached via Jor Bungalow above Ghoom. One needs to procure permission from the DFO Office, Wildlife Division I in order to visit Senchal Wildlife Sanctuary. Hire a vehicle in Darjeeling to enjoy the park. A day trip could yield sightings of barking deer, monkeys and a variety of birdlife, including eagles, yuhinas and laughing thrushes.

Jeep rental for a day trip 1,200 for a drop/ pick-up

Trekkers’ Delight

The easy trek from Maneybhanjang to Sandakphu-Phalut is one of the most popular in the Eastern Himalayas. Big plus points include strategically-placed accommodation and eating joints all along the route, which literally reduces one’s burden by rendering unnecessary the lugging of sleeping bags, tents and sacks of food and utensils. The tourist-friendly villagers and administration are another advantage.

A view of Khangchendzonga
A view of Khangchendzonga
Archyushman Dubey

Singalila’s USP is that it’s one of the few places on earth from where one can see the world’s tallest, and the third to fifth-tallest mountains – Everest, Khangchendzonga, Makalu and Lhotse. The peaks are practically a stone’s throw away from Phalut. And in spring, of course, there are beautiful blooming rhododendrons and primulas that greet trekkers.

Other equally rewarding and stunning treks in the area include those from Phalut to Rimbik via Rammam; or Phalut-Sabarkum-Molley-Rimbik; or the longish, more difficult one from Phalut via Toyephulebhanjang, Singalila Pass and Chiyabhanjang, to Uttarey in Sikkim.


When to go The park is open through­out the year, with March–May and October–November being the best seasons. The area experiences heavy rainfall during the monsoons. More adventurous trekkers can go during December–February, when the views of peaks are crystal clear, although most of the trails are covered with snow

Best sightings March–May

Go there for Flowering rhododendron, satyr tragopan

Wildlife/ Forest Dept offices

Divisional Forest Officer (Wildlife Division I), Darjeeling

Tel: 0354-2254308

Chief Wildlife Warden

Wildlife Wing, Directorate of Forests

Government of West Bengal, Bikash Bhavan, North Block, Salt Lake City, Kolkata. Tel: 033-23346900

STD code 0354

State West Bengal

Location Within Darjeeling District, in the northwestern tip of West Bengal; the park borders Sikkim and Nepal

Distance 700km N of Kolkata, 100km N of New Jalpaiguri, 25km W of Darjeeling, 21km SW of Gangtok

Route from Kolkata NH31 to Siliguri; NH55 to Sukna; state road to Maneybhanjang via Mirik, Pokhrebong and Sukhia Pokhri Route from Darjeeling NH55 to Ghoom; Ghoom-Sukhia Road to Maneybhanjang


Air Nearest airport: Bagdogra (94km/ 3hrs). Daily flights from New Delhi, Kolkata and Guwahati. Taxi fare to Maneybhanjang: 3,800–4,500

Rail Nearest railhead: New Jalpaiguri (90km/ 3hrs). Train connections are available from New Delhi and Sealdah (Kolkata). New Jalpaiguri to Manebhanjang is about 4hrs via Siliguri and Kurseong. Taxi 3,800–4,500. Via Mirik, it costs the same

Road Maneybhanjang is connected by metalled road to Siliguri (90km) via Mirik. Taxis are available from Siliguri, Bagdogra and New Jalpaiguri to Maneybhanjang for 3,800–4,500. Siliguri buses operating from the Tenz­ing Norgay Central Bus Terminus halt at Ghoom. From here, take a taxi to Maneybhanjang (15km); costs about 1,000–1,200