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Far from the swirling cities, a trek in high tea and peak country

Email|Print| Text size + By Suzanne McDonald and Bob Roklan
Globe Correspondent / January 9, 2005

DARJEELING -- This small, dense, lush Himalayan town is most famous for its tea, but it is the region's lesser-known allure that continues to seep into our memories.

Narrow switchback roads climb the smog-draped hillsides, and taxis packed with people negotiate the sharp turns. Others of the city's nearly 100,000 residents hike up the long stairways that shortcut the roads.

Multistory buildings slung along the 7,000-foot mountains look a bit shabby, but life seems more relaxed here than in many parts of this teeming country. The British established a ''hill station" here in 1835 to escape the heat of the plains, and the famous tea still thrives in many of the manicured estates they started. It is sold, too, from roadside stands or shops along sloped pedestrian malls.

Tourist attractions here include the zoo (with a small selection of endangered species such as a red panda and snow leopard) and the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute and its Everest Museum. The museum was established under Tenzing Norgay, who, with Edmund Hillary, was the first to reach the summit of Mount Everest, in 1953. Skip Tenzing Rock and the Ropeway, however; just days after we bypassed the ski-lift ride overlooking tea fields, four tourists were killed when the cable snapped.

In addition to tea estates, Darjeeling is dotted with well-kept Tibetan refugee centers. The best to visit can be reached on a hiking trail. Four Tibetans fleeing the Chinese invasion started the Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Centre on Gandhi Road in 1959. Today, it supports 750 people, mainly by producing handicrafts. Most famous of these are wool rugs colored with vegetable dyes. Visitors can wander through the workshops and chat with young adults and elderly people at their vigorous work.

Our mission, however, is to trek in the Himalaya (which is the more correct name for the mountain system). The Maoist insurgency in Nepal has pushed many trekkers to India, although the infrastructure for teahouse, or hut-to-hut, trekking that Nepal is famous for is virtually nonexistent in India. Of the 32 trips described in Lonely Planet's ''Trekking in the Indian Himalaya," only five can be done without a tent. Although porters are available, we want to minimize the load and are carrying our gear. Only one trek seemed to provide both food and lodging each night.

Following the Singalila ridge, which separates eastern Nepal from India, this trek is blessed with fabulous views of Mount Kangchenjunga and more distant but equally heady views of Everest, the world's third-highest and highest peaks, respectively. Lonely Planet considers this an easy trek. Inside the Singalila National Park are small villages that cater to trekkers with platefuls of rice and dal (lentils) and Tibetan bread.

At the bus station in Darjeeling, shared taxis filled with more people than seemed possible for the three-hour drive to the start of the trek. Being the first to arrive, we requested the front seat, with the driver and a teenage monk. In the back seat sat another four people, and two benches running along the sides in the far back each seated four more. Our packs, produce, grains (which the monk delivered along the way), and a couple more people clung to the top. A few more hung off the back, standing on the bumper.

At the bus stand, we met Eric, 45, a Frenchman who had been traveling for five years nonstop, bringing his lifetime country count to 35. Eric was game for our attempt to cut a day off the trek by climbing up one of the shortcuts that hikers usually take down. Starting in Rimbik, where most finish, we found a guide and fueled up on an excellent lunch of momos, steamed wontons stuffed with meat and vegetables.

An easy 90-minute walk to Sri Khola and we were in a deep, forested valley where two small rivers converge. The Goparma lodge was across a wide suspension bridge with some rotting boards. The clean, basic room -- with two beds, thick cotton quilts (used to augment the thin mattress), flat pillows, and a shared bath with a clean Eastern toilet (a hole in the cement floor, flushed with a bucket of water) -- cost $8 a night, including dinner and breakfast

At Sandakphu, a village set up at almost 12,000 feet as a waypoint on the trek, the views were reported to be phenomenal. This promise ran through my head like a news-channel ticker, alternating with the ''Scooby-Doo" theme song and triggered by the foggy walk through the clouds and -- perhaps -- the lower oxygen level in the thinning air. When our guide, Meema, would mention our destination to his colleagues coming off the trail, they would laugh incredulously. The eight-hour hike was arduous; over 9 miles we gained about 5,000 feet in elevation. Turns out, we should have stuck with the standard route starting in Mana Bhanjang.

Winded and exhausted, we stumbled up the last steps of the trail. Encasing tired limbs in our sleeping bags and downing sugary tea, we rallied to soak up the most spectacular sunset we had seen -- ever -- and that went for Bob, too, who in a 15-month stretch once had traveled to 24 countries.

Kanchenjunga, all five peaks and 28,169 feet, lay about 20 miles ahead of us. There seemed to be nothing between where we stood and this mass of snow with the sunset burning it into a phenomenal chromatic display. At this time the next day, we hoped, we would saturate ourselves in nature's loveliness at Everest.

Sunrise lodge lived up to its name. We watched an alluring dawn spread from India into Nepal from snug inside our sleeping bags in our ideal corner room. Breakfast, however (porridge and toast), always took longer than it should; even ordering early and setting a time didn't help. Soon after we set out, the bright morning faded, and clouds obscured Lhotse, Makalu (No. 4 and No. 5 on the worldwide peak-meter), and surrounding summits.

Four hours later, we entered a shepherd's hut. Several yak-herders stirred soup and made tea around an open fire. As we sat on an inch-high wooden platform on a dirt floor, light from the fire highlighted the thick sticks of yak's cheese dangling overhead. Our guide was friendly with the herders, but language was a barrier, so we soaked up the smoke from the fire, the light scent of being close to the animals, and the herders' tea, which was thick, a little oily, and tangy from yak's milk.

As we left the hut, clouds rose up, twisting and spinning over the ridgeline and eventually engulfing the trail. Fogged in for the last two hours, we eventually completed the day's 13-mile distance. At one time, the government trekker's hut at Phalut (elevation 11,800 feet) must have been quite nice with its large-stone exterior. Years of neglect, however, showed in the missing windowpanes, boarded-up doors, and empty whiskey bottles.

Phalut was chilly. With nearly everything wearable on, I zipped into my sleeping bag -- good to near freezing -- and hoped I wouldn't have to use the bathroom. Phalut was all afog, so we waited for night to fall and for dinner to be offered: another selection of rice and dal. In the middle of the vast main room, lined with dozens of empty twin beds, another trio told tales, one of being English and studying to become a monk in Tibet, and two of being medical students in Sweden and volunteering in Mother Teresa's hospices.

Just before dawn, a small, bouncy ''guide dog" raced us up the short, brisk climb to a precipice with uninterrupted views. Sunrise at Phalut was majestic: Kangchenjunga, about 12 miles ahead, absorbed most of the skyline. But Everest, to the left, nestled with its lofty mates, was 74 miles northwest. Of the world's five highest peaks, all but K2 (not quite 50 feet higher than Kangchenjunga) were within sight. Prayer flags and prayer-inscribed mani stones were testament to the spirituality of this place.

Through dense pine forests and rhododendron groves, the two-day descent to Rimbik was normally broken up by an overnight in Gorkhey. But we had a train reservation and much more of India to see. After lunch in Gorkhey -- a large, plot-farming village -- we bid adieu to Eric and the ''guide dog" among fields of marigolds. We spent the night in Raman (elevation 8,400 feet), where our guide Meema's wife ran a trekker's hut. Special treatment included a giant room to ourselves and dinner in the small, smoky kitchen hut with eight guides and Meema, while his wife and her younger sister worked over a hand-shaped, hardened mud stove.

The night sky here, with no city lights diluting it, was unlike anything at home. Our necks became tired from gazing at the countless stars just as a makeshift jam session started in the main lodge. Accompanying a dozen Dutch trekkers, a boisterous handful of guides, porters, and cooks chanted and drummed on pots and pans, which still didn't interrupt our early sleep habit.

On our last day of trekking, we made the easy three-hour descent to Rimbik, where a four-hour taxi ride back to Darjeeling cost $3 each.

Fifty miles trekked and five days since a shower, we checked into the fancy New Elgin Hotel. The white, lacy-edged Victorian bungalow beauty showed her 130 years, and the lack of cleanliness (mold in the bathroom) didn't justify the $77 price tag for the room and breakfast. But the soft beds were downright dreamy; Bob wouldn't have to sleep with his feet hanging off. Dinner at the Park restaurant was just what the protein-deprived craved: chicken tikka masala with excellent stuffed nan. At the local bakery, Glenary's, some tea and tasty Black Forest cake sealed our Darjeeling infusion.

Suzanne McDonald can be reached at smcdonald@globe.com. Bob Roklan can be reached at broklan@lycos.com.

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