Siliguri To Sepi

(Date: 15-Oct-2023)

The Prelude

From Siliguri, I took a rickshaw to NJP railway station. The trek organisers had provided the contact number of the driver, Mr Dil who would be taking us to the base village – Sepi.  When I called Dil, he asked me to wait next to the SBI atm near gate 2. I conveyed this information to the others through a message in the whatsapp group. Apart from me, there were 6 other trekkers.

Trek the Himalayas had booked two vehicles for us. Dil met me at the atm around 10AM and guided me to the vehicle. Within few minutes Tanuja, a trekker from Bangalore arrived. She is of the same age as me and works in the IT industry. Tanuja hails from Sirsi.

Apart from us, there was a group of 5 young trekkers from Pune. They had reached the station at around 7:00AM but had not reached the meeting point. When I asked Dil if he had contacted them, he told me that he did not have the contact numbers of any of us. Saying so, he continued to clean the windshield glass of the jeep. He did not seem to be worried about anything.  So, I called Ninad, one of the trekkers, and found out that they were finishing their breakfast and would reach soon. 

Ninad, Rushikesh, Sayali and Riddhi are friends from school. Abhishek is Rushikesh’s friend from junior college. They were all in their mid 20’s. The group was therefore an interesting mix of two different generations. 

Since I knew that the drivers were in no hurry and had no worry, I requested them to begin the journey. We had to drive 120KM to reach Sepi and that would take us at least 6-7 hours. Abhishek, Tanuja and I comfortably sat in one jeep while the others boarded the second. 

Abhishek works in the IT sector and this was his first trek in the Himalayas. Tanuja and I had completed about 5 treks before. We then discussed several topics such as corporate culture, work from home, moonlighting, Bangalore traffic and treks in Maharashtra and Karnataka. 

The two drivers drove carefully so that one never lost sight of the other. They had a good coordination. If one stopped, the other did too. The two men were extremely gentle and well-behaved. We stopped for tea on the way. Ninad works for an electronic board manufacturer. Rushikesh is a software engineer. Riddhi is a Bharatanatyam dancer and Sayali is preparing for her PhD in the field of chemistry. 

The route from Siliguri to Sepi passes through Mirik. Initially, I had planned to stay there and board the taxi on the way. I had been to Mirik on a day trip last year and had loved the place. This sleepy hill town that is mostly a stopover for tourists driving around Darjeeling is not that crowded. But when I asked the trek coordinator about this stop, he wasn’t certain if the drivers would take the same route. Not wanting to take any risk, I decided against staying in Mirik. 

Anyways, the jeep did not pass through the town and instead, took a bypass. We stopped at Gopaldhara for lunch. A funny incident happened here that I think played a key role in bonding all of us as a team.

The jeeps stopped at a beautiful location by a tea plantation at Gopaldhara. By the narrow main road, there were a few family-owned restaurants. The one we stopped at was run by a bunch of women. An old lady sat by the cash counter/store by the entrance. Two of her grand-daughters took orders and served food. 

As we entered, we began discussing what to eat. Meanwhile, one of the drivers told us –“Your food will arrive.” We did not understand what he meant by that. We took a seat and began ordering food – Some wanted roti but no one wanted rice, others wanted Maggie and everyone wanted momos, but some wanted vegetarian momos and others wanted chicken momos. The girl taking the order was confused. They did not have vegetarian momos but she told us that they could order it from the house next-door. 

The main hall was divided into two zones by a wall in between. On that wall there was a photo of the old lady and her husband. They were perhaps in their mid-forties when the picture was taken. The lady occupied two-third of the frame. She also had a commanding look on her face. Next to her was a lean and docile looking man. This picture summarised the scene outside. I have often noticed that in the North-eastern states, the women run the show. Men are either not to be seen or are passive members.

The wall that divided the main hall had a big rectangular cut-out in it. The cut-out opened to a passage that led to the kitchen. From the kitchen, a lady appeared and stood by the opening. I presume her to be the daughter of the old lady and the mother of two young girls. With an impassive look on her face, she asked us – “You are the ones who had already placed an order for 7 meals didn’t you?”

We looked at each other and returned a surprised look to her that might have meant - “Did we?”. 

Meanwhile, our driver walked in and told us that he had called them up and placed an order for 7 meals. The lady confirmed that the drivers always stop at this place. She assured us that each meal would come with two rotis and some sabjis

“You will eat the meal, won’t you?” she asked, maintaining the poker-face. That sounded more like a warning than a question. 

“Oh sure! we will, we did not know that the order was already placed.”, some of us politely replied. 

When she had returned back to the kitchen, we had a good laugh about the whole thing. Our drivers were really funny. They had ordered meals for us without consulting, as if it was their treat. However, everyone still wanted the momos. The lady who runs the restaurant next-door got us some tasty hot vegetarian momos. Delighted, we ordered for another plate. 

The meal was tasty too. When we were done eating, the lady came and sat next to our table. In her attempt to get a little friendly with us, she asked – 

“Where are you all from?”. 

But her firm, expressionless face remained intact and perhaps hence the conversation failed to go anywhere beyond a response to the question asked. 

Post lunch, we continued our journey to Sepi. At Mane Bhanjang, we stopped to take a quick glimpse of the football gold cup finals. The town was packed with football lovers who had gathered to witness the final match. On each side of the narrow main road, jeeps were parked. Those crossing each other on this road had to coordinate well. This involved taking a reverse and manoeuvring the vehicle into a wider space behind so that the vehicle on the opposite side could pass. 

Our drivers who hailed from this town were excited about the match. But as they had to work, they watched the finals on Facebook live.  

The road from Mane Bhanjang to Sepi is in a pathetic condition. This route passes along the border of India and Nepal. There are a few check posts along the way. At Rimbick check post, the guards made a quick note of the visitors and let us pass. 

We reached Sepi at around 6PM. Lippohochha homestay is by the main road. Our Trek lead, Usha and our local guides, Bijoy and Tikaram welcomed us. We were allocated two rooms – One bedroom with 4 beds for the boys and another with 3 beds for the ladies. We freshen-up and gathered at the dining area. 

First, we had to produce several documents - few copies of the identity card (as there are many border check posts along the trail), declaration form, two photographs and a medical fitness certificate. After that, our blood pressure was checked. Mine was a bit higher but Usha told me that it was normal to have slightly higher pressure in the mountains. 

Usha is in her late 20’s. She hails from the state of Uttarakhand. We had a round of introduction. Among the youngsters, Rushikesh had done a few Himalayan treks before. For the others, this was their first one in the mountains. Usha asked me my favourite trek among the five done before. I did not even take a second to respond – Goechala. Tikaram was happy with my answer as he had been a guide on that trail for several years. 

Usha briefed us about the trek. She told us about the dos and don'ts. Occasionally, she would turn to Bijoy and Tikaram and ask if they had something to add. While Usha and Tikaram spoke mostly in Hindi, Bijoy preferred to speak in English. I felt that he was particularly fond of speaking in English. Even if he would start a conversation in Hindi, he would eventually switch to English. He had a good accent too.  

Soon after the briefing, the dinner was served. It was delicious. Post dinner, I headed back to the room. In the room next to ours, a man had checked in. I saw the homestay staff carry some local drinks into the room. Tired that I was by this long journey, I went to bed almost immediately.

The youngsters were awake till late night. They were chatting in the main hall, outside the bedroom. In the middle of the night there as a loud noise from the neighbouring room. When I woke up, the boys were preparing to go to bed. They told me that the noise was from the adjacent room. I nodded and went back to sleep. The reason behind that noise would be revealed to me only the next day. 

CONTINUED HERE: Sandakphu-Phalut Trek - Day 01