Maneybhanjyang (2134 metres) nestles at the foot of a hill that goes on and on, so after one-and-a-half hours of exhausted climbing we were still above the town, looking down from an increasing height. Eventually the path took off at an angle, and we climbed up to Meghma (2900 metres), where we stopped for a cup of tea that turned into lunch, since we got talking to an Israeli boy who was doing the same trek and to the owner of the lodge. The weather closed in while we were talking, but the Israeli decided to press on to Jubari. By the time Geoff and I had finished eating it was hailing outside, working itself up to a tremendous electrical storm, with huge hail stones, and a blast of lightening that almost blew the front door in. We decided to stay.
Meghma is on the Indian/Nepalese border, so technically we spent the night in Nepal. The lodge has a private monastery attached; the lady's husband had died only three months before, and one of the sons was now taking on the responsibility of looking after the buildings. They were making butter candles for the temple, and when we showed interest we were shown over the monastery and chorten - it was astounding. The downstairs section of the main building had a huge prayer wheel, from floor to ceiling, but the real treasure was upstairs, where they had the only collection of Bhutanese Buddhist statues (108 of them) outside of Bhutan. They also had a large collection of manuscripts, smuggled out of Tibet. We felt very privileged to be shown over the monastery - the son told us that they rarely mention it to trekkers; it was only our obvious interest in Buddhism that decided in our favour.
Ice still lay on the ground in the morning, 16 hours after the storm, but we set out along the Nepalese side of the border to Jubari, stopping for tea, then walked on, planning to stop in Garibas. For most of the day's walk the clouds had closed in, enveloping us in a thick mist that only momentarily swirled away to give tantalizing glimpses of the hills, valley, and lush forests around us. We arrived at Garibas quite early, and not finding anyone at the trekker's hut decided to press on, heading for Kalpokhari. The mist, if anything, got even thicker, and just as rain began to fall we spotted the welcome sign of an approaching village, and walked along side the chorten that marks the start of Kalpokhari (3108m).
We stopped at the first building, which turned out to be both lodge and monastery, and we were welcomed in and given beds in a corridor just off the main temple. We had arrived on the last day of a special three-day puja, and the tiny village was crowded, with most of the crowd in our corridor, sitting on the ends of the bed, and generally making us central to the entertainment. Shortly after we settled in, the Israeli boy turned up, wet, cold and disgruntled. He had been caught in the hail storm on the first day and wasn't really enjoying his trek. His main interest was in architecture (European), he had Buddhism and Hinduism totally confused (perhaps not his fault - people in Nepal do tend to adapt!) and thought everything was very primative, superstition-bound,and couldn't see any merit anywhere. We had a bit of trouble being sympathetic; this was a lovely place to trek, the people were interesting and friendly, and we had the good fortune be in the village during a festival.
Geoff and I asked if we could join the puja in the temple. Our request was met with a courteous "Of course", and were given a place near the man organizing the ceremony. Although atheists, we are very interested in religious practices and happily joined in, guided by the organizer when the ceremony require that all participants take holy water, or perform some action.
The next day started out bleak, with the entire world wrapped in swirling clouds, and visibility down to a few metres. Undaunted, we decided to go early, hoping to avoid the afternoon rain we were predicting. It was only eight kilometres to Sandakphu, but the last part would be up a very steep path, slowing us down greatly, so we figured on taking about three hours. The first hour or so was fine, but then it started to rain, lightly at first, but getting rapidly heavier. We were near some huts, so looked around to find shelter. The hamlet was muslim, and the women we met were reluctant to take us in, but eventually one girl invited us inside, and we huddled together in the low-roofed room, ignored by the owners, who seemed more hostile than friendly. As soon as the rain slackened off a little, we decided to head on, since our presence seemed to make the village people uncomfortable.
Just as we started up the sttep part of the track the rain came down stronger, and, as we climbed slowly up, the rain turned to sleet, then hail, and, finally, snow. It took us three hours to climb up the hill, hampered by the force of the storm, our frozen extremities, and my increasing altitude sickness. Geoff found his hands freezing, whereas mine glowed rosy red, so we would stop to let me try to warm him up; my feet and legs were beyond feelling at all, and I just trudged up slower and slower, stopping to be ill every now and again. Had I been alone I could have just curled up and died.
When we finally reached the trekker's hut at Sandakphu (3636 metres) we were welcomed in by the chowkider, who hastened to take Geoff's pack off for him (Geoff couldn't move his fingers to work the buckle), and provided us with a charcoal fire in the dormitory, where we could thaw ourselves out and attempt to get some of our sodden clothes and shoes dry. It took about an hour for us to get sorted out, and, as the storm cleared away, people from the nearby village wandered over to meet us, joke about our predicament, share our biscuits, and just enjoy each other's company. We were a large group at lunch, and, despite the language barrier, we managed to exchange information about where we were from, what we did, and life in general. We exchanged photos, addresses, and had a great afternoon. Towards dusk most of the local people left the treekker's hut, just as the Israeli boy arrived. He had waited out the storm and walked up in the relative calm of the afternoon.
We spent the evening huddled around the kitchen fire with the chowkider and his off-sider, while they cooked our meal and we stayed there to eat, since it was much too cold to move to any of the other rooms in the spacious hut. The local people were full of information about the area, and we only reluctantly went off to our cold dormitory as they packed up to go home for the night.
The morning dawned cold and clear, with Kanchenjunga visible from our bedroom window. We had a quick breakfast, and set out, leaving the Israeli boy in bed, beset by stomach problems and weighed down by misery. As we climbed up to the path above the village we agreed that this is what trekking is all about. The problems of yesterday's storm disappeared as the mountain views spread out all around us, and we enjoyed the best day's walk of the entire trek. Off to the west we could see the Himalayan range stretching off into Nepal, with Everest and Lhotse quite visible; ahead of us was Kanchenjunga, its five peaks gleaming in the sun; and all along the way were more immediate visual pleasures - rhododrendrons, their petals strewn across our path in carpets of red and pink; streams rushing and tumbling down the hillsides; lush valleys, with soaks and streams reflecting silver in the sunlight, laid out below us in ever-changing patterns as we walked along the ridge.
Ironically, in the midst of all this, we experienced one of the few times we have ever been really scared. As we rounded a curve and stopped to look back at the view below us we heard a dog bark ahead - nothing unusual about that, but as we walked on the barking increased and turned to growls, and we came across two large tibetan hounds. We just kept on walking, and did actually get past the dogs. Normally, that would be that - just a couple of savage dogs - but this pair started to work together to attack us, and for the next five minutes we weren't sure that it wouldn't end with us in shreds. Eventually they withdrew, but I have never been so scared of a dog in my life - it was obvious that if they decided to really go for us we would come off second-best, and in this desolate place there was nowhere to go for help if we were mauled.
We were headed for Phalut, but as the clouds rolled in and obscured the view we were glad to see a rough sign to Molley, two kilometres down an alternative track, so we decided not to risk a repeat of yesterday's disaster and headed down. Molley has a great trekker's hut set amongst lovely forest, which we explored between showers. Here we found cobra lillies, which we had only previously seen in Sikkim. The path through Molley is used by local people bringing their livestock down to sell at Rimbik, and we sat and watched as two flocks of goats came down from the hills and narrowly avoided complete integration as they arrived at the trekker's hut simultaneously.
The morning mists were thick as we set out, unsure of where we would spend the night. The Hotel Sherpa in Ramman had been recommended by trekkers writing in the Youth Hostel book, so we decided to go there first. The path to Rammen from Molley isn't as distinct as other paths in the area, but someone has marked infrequent arrows on the trees and rocks, and we peered through the mist searching for pointers. We met a couple of people along the way, and were re-assured that we were on the right path. As we decended the hill the mist thinned, and we emerged to a blue sky. The walk down wasn't as pretty as trails further up the mountains, but we enjoyed the change from constant climbing, and, despite losing the path for a while, arrived in Rammen quite early in the day. We called into the Hotel Sherpa, decided not to stay, but ended up eating a meal there, more as a result of confusion than by design. We were told that there was a trekker's hut at Siri Khola, on the Siri Khola river, and decided to go there.
The path wound gently along the edge of the hills, offering very easy walking. The verges were covered in wild strawberries, tasteless if they were small, but the large berries carried enough taste to be worth gathering, and we stopped to enjoy the fruit whenever we came across large patches of them. We knew that eventually we would need to take a side track, to plunge down into the river valley, but no such track was marked on our map. We asked a group of giggling girls who came rushing past us from behind, and they indicated that the path down was still ahead of us, so we strolled on.
Eventually, as we were beginning to worry about missing the path, we saw an arrow scratched into the earth at the top of a very narrow track going off to the valley, and concluded that the girls had left it for us. Thankfully, we negotiated the knee-wobbling descent, and found ourselves on the bank of the river. A short distance up-stream we found the trekker's hut, still under construction, and a long way from being habitable. We were tired and dirty, and really didn't want to walk into Rimbik. At first the workmen were just dismissive of us, but eventually they told us that the house just across the creek took in trekkers, and we wandered up to be made welcome at the nicest little farm house, with neat guest bedroom, hot drinks and food available, a shower - everything a trekker could desire. Chickens wandered around the yard, and there were two pigs in the sty, blissfully finishing off the remains of last night's chang.
We had enough daylight left to explore, crossing the river at the bridge, finding paths up the far bank, and crossing back on the top of the dam wall, since the river had a small dam just below the farmhouse. As we sat on the dam with our feet in the freezing water a movement caught my eye; a water rat was swimming back and forth at the base of a submerged boulder. All around us the hillsides rose, some still timbered, but others criss-crossed with the myriad terraces that provide a living for the people from this region. It was a peaceful end to our trek.
The next day saw us with a short, easy walk into Rimbik. The bus back to Darjeeling was due a 1pm, so we left our packs at the beautiful hotel near the centre of town, and explored for a couple of hours, returning to the hotel to have lunch and admire the garden, full of orchids and bright flowers, lovingly tended by the elderly owner.
Our few days back in Darjeeling were taken up with last strolls around the town, and we managed to take the toy train down to Ghoom and back, just for the pleasure of riding on the tiny steam train. All too soon it was time to head back down to the hot plains, so we caught the bus back to New Jalpaiguri and the train to Calcutta.