Through the Clouds, A Glimpse of Mt. Kanchenjunga
"And from Sandakpur, you can see 4 of the world's 5 highest peaks. Mt Everest, at 8848 meters, is the world's highest, then next to it you can see Lhotse, #4, and Makalu, #5. And then on the left you can see the Kanchenjunga range - Mt. Kanchenjunga is the 3rd highest point. You can see all this standing on one rock. Yeah, it's cold, but it's worth it."
The Irish guy I was sitting next to taunted me with tales of the Singalila Ridge, a trek from Darjeeling along the India-Nepal border. After seeing his amazing photos, I planned to do one last Himalayan expedition before I dashed off to the southern beaches. It was December 2, when the weather is supposed to be freezing, but skies clear for the best views of the Everest and Kanchenjunga ranges.
As guaranteed, it was freezing...but the fog and clouds hung around every trail and every village. I couldn't see any mountain peaks, and there were no amber sunrises or sunsets. Only clusters of clouds that continuously rolled in each direction so that there was no patch of blue sky anywhere. The 4 other trekkers who were following the same route were equally disappointed - all of us had heard rave reviews of the panorama of mountains that were visible along the entire trek, but we couldn't appreciate any of it.
On the 2nd day of the trek, I reached Sandakpur, a village on the Nepal-Indian border at 3620 meters, famous for its mountain views, but the clouds still obscured Mt. Everest and Kanchenjunga. The views from this village were the only reason I had started the trek, so I decided to wait for clearer weather; I was willing to practice my patience until the clouds (hopefully) disappeared.
No trekkers stay in Sandakpur for more than one night, leaving immediately after taking photos of the Himalayan mountains. Other than its great views of the Everest range and Mt. Kanchenjunga, Sandakpur doesn't offer much. It has no electricity, no running water, 3 lodges, and a military base. When the lodge owner asked me what time I was leaving the next morning, I replied that I was going to wait an extra day, in case the skies cleared.
"But what you do?"
"I'll wait...tomorrow you think it's better weather?"
He looked out the window, stared intensely at the fog that made his neighbor's fence invisible, shrugged, and muttered, "You know?"
"Do I know if the weather will clear?"
"You don't know?"
"So how do I know?"
I didn't respond to his practical reply.
"OK, you stay...but what you do?"
"I have a book. I can read."
"What else you do?"
"I can help you cook!"
"You know Nepali food?"
"No...but I can cook rice and chop vegetables."
"OK, you learn from Mom."
"And what else do you do during the day?"
"You want to pick up trash?"
And so, instead of spending my day staring desperately at the clouds to lift, my 3rd day of the Singalila trek turned into a mini Peace Corps experience of working in an isolated village. I spent an hour picking up trash around the village, then stood with the lodge owner and some army men stationed in the village in the freezing cold, watching the collected rubbish burn. There was a fleeting thought that it might be dangerous to breathe in fumes of burning plastic and batteries, but it was quickly ignored (Hey, this is India).
Two hours later, my cooking lesson started. We prepared dal, vegetable curry, rice, vegetable pakora, chapattis, Tibetan bread, soups, and chowmein. After chowing down on our creations, I washed the dishes and asked the lodge owner what he did for the rest of the day.
"We wait to digest the lunch."
"Then we wait."
"For the tourists to come."
So for the next 4 hours, we waited. I huddled with the lodge owner and his family around the fire (which is illegal in the Singalila National Park). They introduced me to tongba, a home-brewed alcohol made from millet. It was disgusting, but they drank it like it was chai. After some Indian tourists arrived, we started to cook dinner. I must have won some trust from Mom, because she delegated me to chapattis and vegetable pakora. That night, before I went to bed, the lodge owner handed me a hot water bottle (the best thing to snuggle with in the Himalayas), graciously announcing, "This free gift for your help Mom tonight."
The next day, the weather worsened. I woke up at 5 am, hoping to see a glimpse of sunrise, but when I cleared a patch on my foggy window, I barely saw the prayer flags 100 meters from my room. I stumbled into the kitchen at 5:30 and helped Grandma prepare the fire for the stove. We both sat on the ground and sipped our morning chai in silence. Just when I was about to attempt to ask if anyone else was awake, a mass of blankets stirred, and the lodge owner poked his head out. His sleepy eyes adjusted, met mine, then looked out the window. Seeing nothing but grey, he turned back to me.
"You stay one more day?"
"OK. Cooking lesson #2 today. And you take shower. Free hot bucket."
My second day at Sandakpur, waiting for clear skies, started with the lodge owner giving me a bucket of hot water, pointing to a closet, and commanding, "Shower." I hadn't had one in 4 days, so I gladly obliged. I spent the morning in the kitchen, cooking, washing dishes, drinking tea, and squatting by the fire. In the afternoon, we restocked the firewood, petted the village puppies, and walked to the springs 1.5 km away to fetch the day's water. Huddling around the fire again, the lodge owner's son taught me to count to 10 in Nepali while I massaged Grandma's wrinkled feet. Every 30 minutes, I'd unfog the window, but the forecast stayed the same the entire day - cloudy, no visibility, and miserable. Poo. I went to bed that night, spooning my hot water bottle and praying that the next morning would bring clear skies.
At 5:28 am, I poked my head out of my sleeping bag hesitantly, fearful of the grey skies that I'd woken up to the past 4 days. But through the transparent curtains, I could see the much-anticipated sunrise. Five minutes later, I was outside, staring at glorious Mt. Kanchenjunga. The wait in Sandakpur was worth it; from a viewpoint at the head of the village, I saw the Everest Range, the Three Sisters, and the Kanchenjunga range. The lodge owner joined me as I snapped photos, patting me on the head with a "Congratulations."
That morning, after a delicious breakfast of fried Tibetan bread and leftover curry, I set off, skipping on the trail towards Phalut. My joy at seeing the panorama of Himalayan ranges from Sandakpur was soon dampened, though; at 10 am, the all-too-familiar clouds rolled in again and obscured those wonderful peaks.
The next 3 days, descending towards the finish line of the Singalila trek, were exactly like the first 4 days: clouds and fog. But the four hours of clear skies on my last day in Sandakpur were worth the 7 days of trekking through opaque clouds with no visibility. And I now know how to make the classic dal bhat, along with chapattis and Tibetan bread, when I get the craving for traditional Nepali food.