Arriving in Mane Bhanjang we discovered that to reach our desired destination (Sandakphu – the highest peak in the state, 1500m higher than our current position), we would be entering a national park and thus would need a permit, a guide, a Land Rover, a driver and 4hrs of time (you can also reach by foot – which we would have preferred – but then you need several days).
The latter of these made me reluctant as we had planned to head to Lataguri (a jungle in the foothills 150km away) tomorrow. Micha however clearly had his heart set on driving in one of the vintage Land Rovers lining the streets, so I caved. They say 80% of land rovers are still driving and maybe 79% end up in these mountains.
And so we found ourselves bumping our way up a stairway to heaven in a 1954 Land Rover, climbing up through the clouds surrounded by breath taking scenery which persuaded me that Micha had been right (this doesn’t happen often).
In the dying light of the day it felt like we were entering another world, and in a way we had, since we were almost directly on the border with Nepal. Bursting through the shield of clouds we encountered tiny remote settlements built out of bricks made by the hands of hardy weathered smiling mountain men crossing our path as they herded their cattle home for the night beneath a sky of fluttering coloured flags (a Buddhism symbol for peace, believed to bless the surroundings).
As the sun dipped beneath us, our driver struggled to turn the car lights on and I kept watch for the Himalayan black bear, often sighted in these parts. With frequent stops for tea, toilet and passport checks (due to being on the Nepal border and in a national park), we bounced our way around the cliff edge until we were parallel with the stars.
The track was a “work in progress”, and was mostly rough terrain, so after 5 hours of being thrown around in our seats during some extreme off roading we were pleased to finally reach our mountain hut (limbs still attached). The building was so directly on the border between the two countries that we ate yack for dinner in India and slept in Nepal. The inside room temperature was a roaring -2 (-5 outside), and they have no heating since it is forbidden to take the wood in a national park. I only took off my shoes when getting into bed.
The blanket hat:
I barely slept that night with the freezing conditions enhancing my cold and sniffly nose, the air hitting the back of my throat felt like daggers slicing through the flesh giving me a headache with every breath. So I was still awake at 6am the next morning when it was time to climb down the wooden stairs leading from our bedroom to watch the sunrise over Mount Everest and the 3rd, 4th and 5th highest peaks of the Himalayas!!!
We had time for a short walk and several tiny cups of sugary tea and coffee before it was time to growl and jolt the 4hrs in the jeep back down to Mane Bhanjang, from where we could start our onward travel to Lataguri.
No matter where we travelled it had always been easy to find shared transport, the first car we asked was always right one. The “bus stations” we’re crawling with the local transport options, autos for towns, rickshaws for villages and jeeps for mountains. But here for the first time we ran into difficulty and despite it only being 2pm, were told we would not be able to reach Lataguri today and should stay in Darjeeling and go early tomorrow. We learnt that all the shared transport and private taxis had designated regions in which they were allowed to work, defined by the numbers found on their number plates, and were not allowed to cross borders to other regions. So even had we been willing to spend a relatively large amount of money to to take us straight to our destination, this was not a possibility (at least not without prior arrangement), so instead we had to take 4 separate cars, the last of which charged us triple because it was dark (though still only 6pm) and meant driving along a dangerous road where elephants and bison can be found.
Thus we finally collapsed into bed in our hotel in Lataguri, short tempered, joints aching from being squished into the back of jeeps all day with our heads banging against the roofs, barely still on speaking terms with one another.