On my first trip to Darjeeling in the first week of January 2011, while waiting at Kolkata airport to board the flight to Bagdogra, we (my traveling buddy Swarjit and me) never would have imagined what lay ahead… The original plan of spending a few days in and around Darjeeling would be modified to accommodate a new place.
Sandakphu, which was first mentioned by our taxi driver, sounded exciting. So although it did not feature on our original itinerary, we decided to visit the destination on the last day of our trip.
Sandakphu – Phalut is a winter trek which can also be covered in a 4×4 vehicle. The route starts from Maneybhanjang, passes through Meghma, Tumling, Joubari, Gairibas, Kalipokhri and finally reaches Sandakphu. Due to paucity of time, we decided to use the vehicle mode of exploration.
We realised that the journey from Maneybhanjang to Sandakphu was pretty long and this would affect our return journey from Sandakphu to Bagdogra (the nearest airport from where we had to take our pre-booked flight back). This led to the decision to stay overnight at Joubari.
Our guide on the trip suggested that we stay at a lodge which was owned and managed by the Head-master of the Primary School in Joubari (Masterji) and his wife (Bhabhiji). While our guide got busy helping Masterji and Bhabhiji with preparations of snacks and dinner, we decided to explore the village and view a beautiful sunset in the serene mountains. The weather was already cold and windy but soon after the sunset, the temperature dropped below zero.
We came back to the lodge and were surprised to see that Masterji had rigged up his stereo system and a small party set-up was in place for us. Our guide had cooked special fried local chicken while the dining hall now housed a small fire to keep us safe from the biting cold. Masterji started his musical playlist with Hotel California by The Eagles and then followed it with songs from The Beatles, Bryan Adams and some classical rock numbers. I had never imagined that I would be listening to rock music in a small village on the border of Nepal and India. This was the start of what would be a fun filled, deeply engaging and highly entertaining night. We heard a lot of stories and experiences from our driver, guide and Masterji. The staple Old Monk Rum on the table was followed by local liquor and more snacks accompanied it. As the liquor started to take its effect, we shifted from English rock to old Hindi songs and it turned out that our driver and guide were pretty good singers (Kishore Kumar was one of the favourites). The party ended with Bhabhiji informing the now tipsy lot that it was getting late and dinner was ready.
I went out of the lodge to relieve myself and the biting feel of the bitter cold reminded me of the warm fire. Back inside, the menu for dinner was aloo gobi, the local chicken curry, daal, rice and rotis. The food was very tasty and helped in providing some much needed heat to our bodies. After dinner and friendly good night greetings all around, it was time to hit the bed.
We woke up early the next morning as Masterji had promised to take us around the village. The sun was just crawling up from behind the mountains so it was still very cold and windy. I entered the washroom and discovered that the water in the drum had frozen overnight. Morning ablutions calling, I broke the top layer of ice using the metallic mug and the ice cold water almost froze my hands!
Masterji then took us for the walk and showed us the Primary School, the market and a point from where we could see Kanchenjunga and Mount Everest. In spite of the cold and strong winds, we managed to click a few photos and then came back to the lodge. Bhabhiji had prepared some rotis and sabzi for breakfast with hot tea. We had our breakfast, packed our stuff and left Joubari with a heavy heart.
Driving away from Joubari, what immediately struck me was that the hospitality of Masterji, Bhabhiji and other villagers was absolutely amazing considering we were strangers who had come in to their village just for the one night. This experience was far better compared to Darjeeling where we were staying in a suite of one of the best hotels with all worldly comforts. The time spent at Joubari gave us exposure and insight into the lives, culture, food and thoughts of the people of this region of the Himalayas. I felt really grateful to our driver, guide, Masterji, Bhabhiji and the people of Joubari for giving me one of the most memorable experiences of my life.
By the time I was at Bagdogra airport, I had already made up my mind that the next new year would be spent doing the full Sandakphu – Phalut trek.