The Road Less Taken – Sandakphu by Land Rover
Yes, you can visit Sandakphu without trekking. And that too on a Land Rover!!!
If there is one peak that is amazingly beautiful, its Kanchenjunga. Its magnificent beauty has never failed to fascinate me since early childhood. So without hesitation, Sandakphu was one of the few locations on my bucket list.
We booked our tickets from Sealdah station (Kolkata) to New Jalpaiguri Station ( NJP). The train journey takes about 10 hours. It takes about 4 hours to reach Mane Bhanjyang from NJP. Hiring a SUV (Tata Sumo) for a one way journey would cost INR 3200 (after much negotiation). The drivers usually take the Mirik – Pashupati Nath market – Sukhiapokhri route. The road meanders through forests and hills and the condition of the highway is more or less decent. You might also catch a glimpse of the mighty Kanchenjunga on the way.
Fly to Bagdogra on any airline. From Bagdogra, its a 45 minutes drive to Siliguri. Hire a car from Siliguri.
Mane Bhanjyang is a quaint little town on the frontier between India and Nepal at an altitude of 6,325 ft. It lies in the Singalila ridge, just outside the Singalila National Park, in the Mahabharata range, or in the Lesser Himalayas. The town itself is devoid of attractions and is popular as the starting point for the much-famous Sandakphu–Phalut trek.
Where To Stay:
We stayed at the Hotel Exotica Food & Lodging run by Masterjee. An ex-police, he is quite helpful and has a solution for all your problems. All hotels in Mane Bhanjyang has basic facilities and has no deluxe/ luxury amenities available.
Hotel Exotica has double bed, triple bed rooms with attached baths, and dorms with common bathroom. The rooms are small and clean, dont expect much in terms of bed linen. Bathrooms are small and clean. Masterjee and his wife are always willing to assist you with anything including Tumling reservation. Food is served in the common dining room. Meals consist of rice, dal, vegetable and egg curry. It is wise to make any last-minute purchases from Mane Bhanjyang as you wont find any stores beyond here.
Transport To Sandakphu:
We hired a Land Rover at INR 5500 for Sandakphu. With its 40-45 taxi fleet, Mane Bhanjyang boasts of being the biggest Land Rover taxi operator in SE Asia. These taxis are a far cry from the Land Rovers you see on the road these days. They’re fairly vintage with the back seats facing each other, but looks sturdy enough to endure the difficult uphill ride. The back seat can accommodate 6-8 people and 2 can sit in the front. As they say, the heavier the car is, the smoother the ride will be!
We started at 8:40 AM from Mane Bhanjyang. After driving for 5 minutes, we reached the entrance to the Singalila National Park. Tickets must be purchased at the check post and are priced at INR 100 for Indians and INR 200 for foreign nationals. The road is paved and narrow with occasional potholes. At approx. 9:00 AM we reached Chitrey, a small village at an altitude of 8,000 ft. There is only a small local restaurant serving food. We stopped for soupy noodles and tea. The restaurant is located in the center of an uneven clearing and you can catch a glimpse of the Kanchenjunga from here during fine weather when the sky is clear.
The road condition worsens from Chitrey. The road is gravelled and full of rocks and pebbles. Also, as we need to climb altitude rapidly, the highway is steep with frequent hairpin bends. The village of Lumeydhura is 2 km from Chitrey. The landscape is beautifully dotted with full blooming rhododendrons on both sides of the road. We missed the rhododendrons in November, but caught a glimpse of Mr. Panda en route. After Lumeydhura,the condition of the road remains the same – bumpy and steep. At one point we climbed uphill on a steep slope and suddenly on reaching the top of the slope we could not see any road beyond. It was as if the road ended there and the vast expanse of clear blue sky lay ahead. As the vehicle moved a little forward we could see the narrow stretch of road ahead again.
After crossing Meghma, we reached Tumling (9,600 ft) at 10:35 AM. Instead of spending the night at Mane Bhanjyang, a lot of people choose to stay at Tumling. A narrow stretch from Tumling goes up for 2 km to Tonglu (10,100 ft), which has a few trekkers ‘ hut. We got to see Kanchenjunga and the mighty Mt. Everest at Tumling.
About 1 km from Tumling, we reached the entrance to the Singalila National Park, renowned for Red Panda, Himalayan Black Bear, etc. Tickets for INR 100 for Indians and INR 200 for foreign citizens must be purchased here.
From here, the road is concrete and is better up to Gairibas, which is 6 km away. Gairibas (8,600 ft) has an army checkpoint. At 11:25 a.m. we stopped at a local restaurant for tea when the driver gave us bad news -the Rover is broken and would take time to repair. We decided to walk uphill and then we realized the steep gradient of the road. Our driver caught up with us after about 45 minutes later and we started our bumpy ride.
We reached Kalipokhri about 12:55 pm. Kalipokhri (10,400 ft) was named after Kali (black) and Pokhri (lake). I assume the pond’s black color is due to the muddy water. It is said that the pond’s water never freezes, and that is why the local villagers consider the pond sacred. We caught Sandakphu’s first glimpse from Kalipokhri!
We stopped at the last settlement before Sandakphu, Bikey Bhanjyang, 2 kms away. We ate lunch at a local restaurant and let me tell you they made one of the finest Egg Noodles we’ve ever had!!
Now arrives the trip’s toughest gradient -the last 1 km uphill climb to Sandakphu. The road is so narrow that you will feel like the left side tyres are just touching the edge of the road. And once you cross this few meters on the narrow road, the gut-wrenching climb comes with steep turns. The road is so steep that you have to hold onto the person sitting infront of you for dear life!
And just when you begin feeling nauseous and willing to quit the trip and go back home, you notice the sign-
Welcome to Sandakphu.
It was PM 14:25.
Sandakphu is the highest point in West Bengal and the summit of the Singalila range at an elevation of 11,929 ft. Once we jumped out of our car, all we could see was the amazing Kanchenjunga. I stood there, awe-inspired, mesmerized by its beauty. It felt as if you could stretch your arms out and touch it. It was so near that you could even see the ridges. Then I looked to the left, and it was -Everest. From Sandakphu you get a 360-degree panoramic view of the largest and most gorgeous Himalayan peaks -Everest, Lhotse, Kanchenjunga, Jomo Lhari, Makalu, Pandem, three sisters. But everything else fades away in Kanchenjunga’s presence, which stands there in abundance!! And while admiring its beauty and grandeur, it suddenly hits you that so many lives have been lost while attempting to conquer its peak. It gives you an eerie feeling!
Where To Stay:
Once we came out of the daze, we noticed that in the center of Sandakphu lies the trekkers’ huts, there is a view point beyond that and at the highest point are the 2 hotels -Sherpa Chalet Lodge (this is the largest and most preferred) and Hotel Sunshine (right next to Sherpa Chalet). There’s another hotel, Namo Buddha (although we didn’t notice it). Although the facilities at Sherpa Chalet surpass the other two, the Passang manager may seem standoffish. The trekkers’ huts does not have any furniture or furnishing and there is a shared toilet.
N.B. – Be cautious while making reservations for a double bed in Sherpa Chalet for more than one night. It happened to us that they told us that rooms were available for 2 nights, and then when we transferred the amount, they said it was only available for 1 night.
We stayed at the Sherpa Chalet and it offered great views from the double bed rooms. They have rooms with double beds in the ground floor and dorms in the basement and first floor. The rooms are the basic ones. One information is crucial here— the hotels turn off electricity at 7 p.m. and they will only provide one bucket of water for a whole day! There is no running water at any of the hotels. There’s no cistern / flush in the toilet. There is also no provision for warm water, except for a mug full in the morning for brushing teeth.
We dropped our luggage quickly and took the road that goes left from the lodge to Phalut. This stretch offers incredible views of the setting Sun. It started to get colder around 15:30/16:00. We had omelettes (priced at INR 50) and khichdi for dinner. They turned off the electricity at 7 p.m. But as I looked out of the window, I could see the Kanchenjunga glowing outside like it was lit up by a thousand bulbs. We woke up for the sunrise at 5:30 AM the next morning. What an amazing view it was!! The sky was painted orange and then turned into red as the warmth of the sun covered the surroundings like a blanket. The morning air was crisp and it soothed our mind, body and soul.
We began our trip back to Tumling after lunch. We skipped Phalut (2 hrs drive from Sandakphu – 21 kms) since we were short of time. The view from Phalut is clearer and you can even pose in front of the confluence of the 3 borders – West Bengal, Sikkim and Nepal.
We reached Tumling just before sunset and climbed to a clearing to see the sunset. Watching the sun set in the midst of the fluffy clouds was an amazing view. We stayed at the Siddharth Lodge which has cozy rooms and the host is very welcoming. It has double and triple bedrooms with attached toilets. The food here is delicious with a broad selection of rice, chapati, dal, ghee, vegetables and curry. There’s another lodge at Tumling – Shikhar Lodge that also has excellent reviews and excellent hosts.
We began with a heavy heart for NJP the next morning and arrived late in the evening. This journey has left vivid pictures of the magnificent peaks that surpass all other beauty. To me, Kanchenjunga has its own charm and its ethereal view from Sandakphu will surpass any other mountain in India.
Sandakphu – Check ✔️
Things to carry: 1) Rucksack (Wildcraft ones are light, inexpensive, comes with 5 years warranty and are colorful too)
2) Heavy woollen clothing – including woollen socks, gloves, caps
3) Sports shoes
4) Torchlight with adequate batteries
5) Medicine (For acidity, stomach problems, fever and bodyache)
6) Water bottles
8) And lots & lots of tissue paper
P.S – Don’t ignore the valuable information on High Altitude Pulmonary Oedema (HAPE – excessive fluid in lungs) and High Altitude Coronary Oedema (HACE – excessive fluid in the brain) in the dining room of Hotel Exotica. These conditions might occur when you travel at an altitude of more than 8,000 ft.