Sandakphu is famous for two things as I understand - the sunrise and the view of the ranges. Thanks to yet another cloudy day, we couldn't see the ranges but I woke up with a beautiful sunrise! As the weather became clear, we could see that horrible uphill path that we took yesterday and I couldn't help feeling proud of myself and my dad for having actually made it across that!
As I was enjoying the wonderful view around, the 50 other tourists around me were all cribbing their hearts out about not being able to see the ranges. Most of them had taken jeeps to get to Sandakphu with the main objective of seeing the ranges and now they were all very disappointed. It was a bit sad that they failed to appreciate what we did see - the wonderful hills and valleys and clouds and sun that was just beautiful beyond description!
After basking in that beauty, it was time for a quick breakfast before we set off on one of our longest days of trek - the destination was Phalut, 21 kms away. The path was supposed to be relatively easy with a mix of donwhill, flat and uphill routes.
And what we saw on the way was just so...so breathtaking! The path was mainly through slopes and slopes of beautiful meadows and am not quite sure I can do justice to it in words. I just kept stopping at every other turn, sometimes taking a picture, sometimes just staring open mouthed. Needless to say we went hopelessly behind schedule and covered only 8kms in 3 hours. But those 3 hours were one of the best on the trek!
So enchanted were we by the beauty around that soon we were all walking at our own pace and no longer together. I had my music on and was quite enjoying the walk alone when I turned a corner and found myself bang in front of a wild yak! The creature was gigantic and was staring right at me! It obviously had heard me coming and was ready for attack if necessary. Ashish our guide had earlier educated us that the yaks can be dangerous, especially the bulls and it is best to avoid them. And here was a huge, healthy, bull of a wild yak just a few feet away from me!
I looked around for help. There was no sign of my dad or Ashish or Vikas, the porter. Where were all the men when one needed them?! I stepped back a few feet until I turned the corner and hid behind a bush. Ok I probably didn't hide well because the yak was still staring in my direction. Since there was no sign of the men still, I tried to do the only possible thing under such circumstances - take a picture!
I had happily passed on the SLR camera to Ashish and made it his problem to carry that burden too, so was left with only the iPhone which I was using to listen to music. Just as I clicked one pic from it, my dad came over. I am happy to note that he too was equally freaked out by the yak. He suggested we wait for the other boys to come before we proceed any further. But since we didn't know how far off they were or which route they would be taking, we decided that we have to figure this out oursleves.
We came up with a plan. The good thing was that even though the yak had chosen a very strategic position on the centre of the path to drink water from the puddle there, the path had some space on one side. A grassy slope ran down to the path and if we could climb that slope up and down, we could overcome the obstacle that was in front of us.
We executed the above plan to perfection. Not only did we overcome the obstacle, I also managed to take another picture of the yak enroute. And on his part, the yak simply tilted his head in recognition that we are simply just harmless passerbys.
The Wild Yak
By now the fog started to move in again. The vegetation too started to change. As we were quite at the highest points of this trek, the vegetation was sparse. Whatever effort a tree might have made in growing here doesn't really succeed because it gets the strongest winds, strongest rains, strongest snowfall etc. The result was that the landscape was covered with dry and damaged tree trunks. They almost look like the lean figure of a malnourishred man - a headless torso. With so many headless torsos floating around in that rising fog, the atmosphere turned rather spooky and I was quite glad when we finally stopped at Molley for lunch.
After having a bowl of noodle soup each, we set off once again in the fog. Since we were running late, Ashish went ahead of us to ensure that the room booked for us at the Phalut forest department's rest house doesn't get taken up by anybody else. So with Vikas as company and temporary guide, we walked on.
Then came yet another interesting sight. I was just turning around a hairpin curve uphill when I noticed a movement about 10 feet ahead of me. Upon taking a closer look I realised that it was a clouded leopard trying to cross the path! I froze in my track and held up my hand to ensure that my dad who was right behind me, doesn't make any noise. He too had seen the clouded leopard and was still. But the animal sensed us and turned around. Seeing us so close by, it completely panicked and raced back into the bushes with as much speed as it could muster! I was super excited and disappointed at the same time! Excited at having had what's considered a rare opportunity of spotting a clouded leopard in the wild and disappointed at not getting a chance of taking a picture because it all happened so fast!
But the sighting got us energized enough to walk on for a few more hours!
Soon we began to lose light and could see only a couple of feet ahead. We tried to keep as close to Vikas as possible who was leading the way. By 5pm it got really dark and we had to rely on torches. I was exhausted by now and was finding it harder and harder to control my breath in the thin air. The last 1 km was a steep uphill climb and only God knows how I made that!
I could almost cry with joy when suddenly the rest house appeared out of the fog right in front of me! I barged into the room that was shown to us and literally collapsed onto the bed, much to amusement of the caretakers! Ashish, the saviour, immediately brought two bowls of hot garlic soup which we gulped down in gratitude!
After resting for a while, we joined Ashish, Vikas and two of the staff members of the rest house in their tiny kitchen. And under the warmth of the fire in that kitchen, I had one of the most delicious meals ever! Starting with soup, rotis and dishes made of radish and lettuce, it ended with gulab jamuns that Ashish had carried all the way from Darjeeling! And it was topped with the best cup of coffee ever!
As I slipped into my sleeping bag soon after, the wind was howling outside, the temperature touching a zero degrees. I believe the last three things I thought of just before I drifted off to sleep, were the yak, the clouded leopard and the fact that we actually managed to make it through those 21kms. What a day!
638 more to go.