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India: The mists of West Bengal

EverestImage: Getty

Jack Southan treks through the mist-shrouded mountainous ridge of Sandakphu to see the mighty Everest

 

On chilly mornings in Darjeeling, in the northern regions of West Bengal, the mists rise from the valley and blanket the steep ridgelines, obscuring the sky and creating a closeness that’s difficult to escape.

I look out of my window and see the familiar whiteness that has covered the town for the last week. Outside my room there’s the usual steaming bucket of hot water, left for me by the hotel manager, Himadri.

I splash the water over myself in the bitterly cold washroom and rapidly get dressed again before mild hypothermia sets in. Today I’m setting out on a five-day trek heading north, so I pack up my bag and pull on all the warm clothes I own, before setting off into the mists downhill to where I’ve arranged to meet my guide.

Siddhartha is waiting in the town square in a battered 4×4. He gives an enthusiastic wave to me as I approach and shouts, “Let’s go see the mountains!”

We drive for some hours before we reach our starting point at the base of the Singalila Ridge, which runs along the border of West Bengal and Nepal, all the way to China. The trail, I’m told, leads to a tiny mountainous ridge called Sandakphu and supposedly boasts the best view in all Bengal — a prospect I can hardly turn down.

Setting off into the hills, we walk through tiny mountain villages, scattered with animals and market stalls painted blue and pink, up on to cloud-covered moorland, dotted with small hardy shrubs and tough thorny bushes, until grass turns to gravel and mud, and the hills become mountains.

Occasionally, the mists clear and I can glimpse for a moment where it is we are, thousands of feet up in the Himalayan foothills, surrounded on all sides by views stretching out for a thousand miles more.

We spend nights sleeping in wooden tea houses along the way, which fill with purple smoke in the evenings as the owners cure their hanging chunks of yak meat, which swing from the ceilings above the fire. They’re cozy and hospitable places and each night we’re served steaming thukpas (Nepalese soup) and juicy momos (steamed dumplings) to keep up our energy.

Wandering ever further uphill, to around 9,843ft, we head into the dense bamboo forests, which line the base of the higher plateaus. The way is wet and mysterious, with the towering trees swaying and creaking in the wind. The mist swirls around the ground in wisps, like lost spirits. It’s ethereal and quite beautiful, but I feel that one wrong turn could mean becoming hopelessly lost in a matter of minutes. So I keep my eyes fixed on Siddhartha up ahead and trudge on.

As the bamboo forests begin to fade behind us, we’re faced with a final steep climb up a broken rocky trail. It’s hard going and sweaty work. But as we reach the summit and the promise of this incredible view looms, the sun sets beyond the horizon and darkness covers everything in sight.

Siddhartha wakes me excitedly at first light with a rough shake. “Come and see it, Jack,” he says with a glint in his eye. The mist has cleared completely as if by magic and ahead of me is the most incredible sight imaginable. Glowing in the distance, hundreds of miles away, are four of the highest mountain peaks in the world and at the center of them all is Mt Everest, shining at us like a diamond.

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