Hiking Kinabalu – Climbers, Keepers!

Standing tall at 13,438 ft, Mt. Kota Kinabalu, located in the Borneo Islands of East Malaysia is also the country’s highest mountain. The granite summit of Kota Kinabalu is the backbone of Borneo in the Crocker Range of mountains. It stands inside the Kota Kinabalu national park, Malaysia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Sabah state of Malaysian Borneo. The majestic mountain rises above the tropical forests that house rich plant life and wondrous bird life, few of which I was lucky to see, but could not photograph because a bulky camera dangling from your neck is the last thing you want in an arduous trek like this.

1-viewpoint-en-route-kinabalu
A viewpoint en route Kinabalu

I recently scaled the steep inclines of Mt. Kinabalu to reach the summit in the wee hours of the morning to witness what is perhaps the most feisty sunrise I have ever witnessed.

Though a demanding task, perhaps reserved for the physically fit, Kinabalu attracts hundreds of enthusiastic climbers every day. Climbers belonging to varied age groups from elderly Japanese tourists to pre-teen Malaysian school kids make an attempt to climb the steep ascend strewn with boulders. Though not all of them succeed in ascending the peak to watch the spectacular sunrise, the ones that do are rewarded with the awe-inspiring view of the sun rising over Borneo.

Tropical Borneo, home to Orangutans, stinky Rafflesia flowers, variety of Hornbills and other wildlife,  attracts a lot of tourists from all over the world – Western and Asian backpackers, Chinese, Japanese and Malaysian domestic tourists. Among them, a large part of the tourists visiting Borneo have Kinabalu on their list. In effect, you are never far from humanity on the trail, huffing and puffing their way ahead and behind you. Don’t get too competitive for this is no competition and your knee will pay the price. I took a lot of breaks, drank a lot of water (which you must carry) and took in the sights around me while inhaling fresh mountain air.

The trail is canopied by hulking tropical trees most of the way, the first day. Island thrushes croon sweetly while we climb. The views opened up briefly yet the canopy stay with coniferous trees lining the trail. Tourists – youngsters, students, elderly Japanese, populate the narrow bolder strewn trail ambling along. The trail is peppered with rhododendrons in sprightly blooms of pink and yellow, bird calls of Bornean Treepies, Bulbuls and Mountain Barbets and plants like the pitcher plant.

Though it is possible to climb the mountain in a day, it is perhaps best left to the devices of experienced climbers. For novices, like me, there is a break of the climb midway, 6km after the commencement of the trail, at Laban Rata Resthouse. This also helps you acclimatize your body because altitude sickness is common. An 8-year old boy was puking his lungs out while his mother was scrambling for medication and care for him as we arrived. Headaches induced by altitude is quite common too, keep a strip of painkillers. The evening went down as the still white high altitude clouds formed patches on the sky that changed its colors from pink to purple to orange. Kinabalu loomed large, like an erect phallus of a mountain god flashing his endowment in the waning sun.

The second day’s climb starts as early as 1.00 a.m. and takes you through the steep, bare granite rock mountain. It is perhaps better you are in the dark as you climb this part of the mountain because as the sun dawns on you, it also dawns on you that you’ve climbed an extremely steep part of the mountain. An unruly, cold breeze engulfs you as you reach the summit. Soon enough, the sun comes out and swathes everything in the glorious morning light. Selfie sticks are pulled out, flashes go off, smiles broaden despite the tedious climb as sun makes its appearance.

15-as-the-dawn-descends-on-kinabalu-the-descend-will-be-evident
The granite rock climb.

Armed with the knowledge that we have scaled Malaysia’s tallest mountain, we started our descend. By noon, we have reached the base as my knees turned liquid and every inch of my body silently screamed in pain. We also treated ourselves with hot bowls of Tom Yum soup that teared me up and opened up my sinuses.  I slept for 12 hours and whined for another two days about my aching body. Small price to pay, perhaps.

Selfie sticks come out as light comes out.
Selfie sticks come out as light comes out.

Sabah Parks, the Malaysian government body for national parks, has leased out the maintenance of the trail and operations to a private player so you are required to book a tour with an agent to climb Kinabalu. Book a trip in advance before you arrive in Borneo, plenty of options are available online!

Some amount of rope climbing is needed.
Some amount of rope climbing is needed.
A hearty bowl of Tom Yum soup.
A hearty bowl of Tom Yum soup.

Have you climbed Kinabalu? Leave a comment and let me know.

Climbing the Great Wall of China.

As far as travel lists go, I don’t usually make one (wait, have I told you otherwise elsewhere in the blog? Forgive me, for I must have been inebriated when I said that.) Also, you wouldn’t usually find me in places thronging with people, in stampede-inducing situations. But when I found myself in Beijing, finishing up my Trans Siberian train ride (Oh, I promise never to talk about that trip ever again in these pages), I couldn’t resist a trip to the Great Wall of China.

The great wall of china 1
Comrades ascending the Great Wall of China.

I had just two-days in Beijing and couldn’t do anything productive and offbeat anyway (other than hunting for cheap street food, of course.) So I embarked on a little trip to the Badaling side of the Great Wall one morning with my travel buddy Lars.

The great wall of china 2
The Chinese are a pretty obedient lot and this side of the Wall was neat and clean!

You’d assume, given that the Great Wall of China is a world wonder, it would attract international tourists by busload. On the contrary, the Badaling side of Great Wall – apparently most popular section of the Wall – was buzzing with domestic tourists on that sunny day in September when I visited.

The great wall of china 3
The Badaling side of the Great Wall attracts 180 million visitors each year!
The great wall of china 4
Railings are installed on each side to aide visitors with difficulty in walking.

Located in Yanqing, 60km from downtown Beijing, the Badaling Wall has been open to foreign tourists starting 1953. Only 3741 m of the wall is open to tourists.

The great wall of china 5
Of course, that is a mandatory pose on the wall if you are a boy of that age.
The great wall of china 6
The entire stretch takes a little more than two hours to climb.

According to the signboards, while it was included in the world cultural heritage list by UNESCO in 1987, the wall received two Guinness World Records in 2002. One for record number of visitors and the other for ‘highest reception number of head of state’ (go figure.)

The great wall of china 7
The Badaling side of the wall is called ‘scenic wall’ and for a reason!
The great wall of china 8
Scaling the Great Wall of China.

The Badaling side of the Great Wall is called the scenic side and that is not without a reason. Between being squeezed dry by the thronging mass of people and taking pictures, if you looked around you will see azure blue skies, green peaks and dense tree cover all around the wall.

The great wall of china 9
Shoot me, will you?
The great wall of china 10
It is quite a panoramic sight if you manage to look around.

At a distance, even Beijing could be seen on a clear day (which is kind of, sort of rare for a city like Beijing whose pollution levels surpass even that of Delhi’s. Or vice versa.)

The great wall of china 11
Huffing and puffing, we went.
The great wall of china 12
Clearly, not everybody is enjoying the climb.

‘It is a bridge of friendship between the international friends and the Chinese people,’ reads the signboard, along the lines of standard propaganda-speak.

The great wall of china 14
The watch towers, towering above dense vegetation, are quite a sight.
The great wall of china 13
The urge to take pictures in front of the monument is irresistible for the comrades.

The signboard further announces that this section of the wall was ‘ranked first in the selection activity of China’s Forty Best Tourist Destination in 1991.’

The great wall of china 15
As the day progresses the crowd thins out as climbing is difficult in the harsh sun.

Have you been in Beijing? Have you been to the Great Wall? Leave a comment and let me know.

Visa help for Indians for the Trans-Siberian train trip!

Travelling with an Indian passport means you obtain visas beforehand, almost always. Visa is a huge part of your travel plan if you are an Indian. ‘Visa on arrival’ is a privilege Indian passport holders can only dream of in effusive terms. An Indian passport doesn’t inspire confidence with the consulate officials and it can be truly daunting to apply for four different visas for a trip.

Visa with an Indian passport

Which is where I was when I planned my Trans-Siberian train trip. Here’s where, I think, a good visa agent comes in handy. Before I sought out an agent’s services, I read and reread the consulate websites of Russia, Mongolia, China and Japan (Japan is not technically a part of your Trans Siberian trip but I was planning to go there) and came away confused each time. The sheer number of documents (bank statements, hotel and flight bookings, a patronizing covering letter, IT filing proofs, trip schedules..phew) made me believe that I needed help.

Trans-Siberian express
Trans-Siberian express

Help arrived in the form of a good-natured visa agent called Prem, at the STIC Travels, Bangalore office. He assisted me in arranging for all travel documents, writing trip planners and cover letters for each visa and his visa wisdom was of immense help for me. Oh btw, you can use http://www.booking.com to do dummy booking to show hotel bookings while applying for your visa without losing a penny. If you have an extremely good visa agent, he/she will also help you with dummy flight tickets to help plan your visa because the consulates need your ticket proof to consider your visa application.

Here’s a short brief on the visas.

Russia

Unlike countries that have a fixed duration visa, Russia provides visa for the period you request for. My visa was valid starting the day of my trip started and ended two day after it ended. You will need a cover letter, hotel bookings, flight bookings, financial proof (attested bank statement for the past six months) to apply for the visa. You will also need an invitation letter from a Russian tour operator along with your visa application. I got this from Real Russia whose services I used for booking my train tickets. If you want to stay beyond 90 days in Russia, you will need an additional document to prove your HIV test results.

Red square - Moscow
Red square – Moscow
Russia - Urals
Russia – Urals

Mongolia

By far, I can say, the least complicated visa of the lot is the Mongolian visa. Mongolia gives you a 30-day visa. The usual documents – cover letter, hotel bookings, flight bookings, financial proof (attested bank statement for the past six months) are required to apply for the visa.

Mongolia - double humped camels
Mongolia – double humped camels

China

For an Indian, the Chinese visa can be tricky. I have had friends tell me that their visa applications are returned twice over for want of additional documents. Though you will need only the usual documents – cover letter, hotel bookings, flight bookings, trip planner and financial proof for the visa, the ease of you being granted the visa lies in how uncomplicated your trip planner is. In my case, I only visited Beijing and hence I think it was simple. I was granted a 30-day visa. Also, be prepared to go through extra scrutiny at borders if you are an Indian and be asked if you have enough cash / a visa card to survive your time in China. Humiliating yes, but hey aren’t we used to it by now?

China - climbing the great wall
China – climbing the great wall

Japan

The Japanese visa is also mostly fuss free to obtain. After submitting my application, I was called to the consulate because my signature in the cover letter did not match with my passport. Go figure! Otherwise, it took exactly three working days for the Japanese visa to be processed. All usual documents (cover letter, hotel bookings, flight bookings, trip planner and financial proof) apply. Though the Japanese visa is valid for three months, you can only stay for 15 days in the country.

Japan - a garden in Tokyo
Japan – a garden in Tokyo
Japan - Imperial Palace, Tokyo
Japan – Imperial Palace, Tokyo

Why not leave a comment and let me know if you have any visa wisdom from your travels? I would love to know. Do read this wonderfully informative post by Shivya Nath on travelling the world on an Indian passport by clicking here. Also, if you need Prem’s contacts, leave a comment and let me know.

Ps: With this, I end the series my Trans-Siberian trip. I will, however, publish stories on the places I visited during the trip. Follow the blog to read stories on the Russian / Siberian towns, Mongolia, China and Japan.

Inside the Trans-Siberian Express!

Much like journeys on any long distance train, travelling on the Trans-Siberian express also tends to get tedious and mundane. Sure you can talk to the local travellers to get to know their country and culture  better or fellow travelers from Europe and Australia (mostly the former) and swap stories. But the curiosity element soon wears off and the train journey becomes just a mode of transportation to get from one place to the next. Your time, though, will be well spent between engaging with curious trainee train conductors trying to test their English on you and looking for the empty charger outlets to recharge your phone’s dying batteries in the corridor.

Looking outside the window - Mongolia's grasslands.
Looking outside the window – Mongolia’s grasslands.
The train at a station - Russian side
The train at a station – Russian side

However, the vast expanses of Siberian Russia, the steppes of Mongolia and rustic Chinese villages will keep you company outside the train window. Just remember to load up your iPod (or whatever MP3 player it is popular in your part of the world) with your favorite music and pack your Kindle for times when you are bored chatting up and simply want some alone time. Packing a pair of earplugs and eye patches are beneficial too.

The train - Mongolian landscape
The train chugs along the Mongolian landscape
Outside the train window - China's mountain region
Outside the train window – China’s mountain region

Here are some pointers on what to expect on board and life on the train in general.

The train at a station
The train at a station

The conductors (Provodnitsa)

These are the conductors of your train. After checking your tickets before letting you inside the train, they also double up as keepers of the compartment serving you your goody bag as soon as you board. You will also see them sweeping your coupes, cleaning the toilets and helping you with anything related to your travel (if you manage to get across the language barrier that is. It’s not that bad, there is usually an English speaking Russian in your compartment invariably.).  The conductors are usually sweet, elderly babushkas (older women) or bald, ageing men with stained yellow teeth from years of smoking. But sometimes you do find young twenty something calling the shots. They are summer interns, as I understood from Alex a 19 year old who was the conductor in my compartment once, who would persistently want to have a conversation with me although we couldn’t understand a single word of what each other was saying.

The Providinsta's taking a smoke break.
The Provodnitsas taking a smoke break.
A providnsta checking tickets.
A Provodnitsa checking tickets.

The food

You are given a brown paper bag filled with plastic cutleries, bottled water, and coffee / tea sachets on Russian trains. One meal is also provided to you for free oftentimes with your train ticket and you can choose to have it according to your wish (lunch or dinner). Just let the conductor know. Food and alcohol in the restaurant cars are slightly steeply priced but not exorbitant altogether. The number of times I visited the restaurant car, I found it mostly empty with the waiters watching Hollywood movies on their mobile devices.

The brown welcome bag you get in Russian trains.
The brown welcome bag you get in Russian trains.
Your goody bag has this!
Your goody bag has this!
The restaurant car
The restaurant car

Train etiquette:

  • It is considered polite to roll up your blankets, pillow covers and towels and return it to the conductors before your stop arrives.
Mongolian women eating pine nuts in the train
Mongolian women eating pine nuts in the train
Russia - inside the train
Russia – inside the train
  • You are not expected to tip in the restaurant car. In fact, tipping anywhere in Russia is not considered mandatory. You tip if you like the services (usually 10%)
Beijing - Ulan Batar - Moscow
Beijing – Ulan Batar – Moscow
Changing of wheelbase at the China - Mongolia border
Changing of wheelbase at the China – Mongolia border
  • The train compartments are generally populated with locals. Even if they travel with their children, you can see that the Russian children are remarkably well behaved and are not annoying. On the other hand, European backpackers in their twenties (especially when they travel in groups) can be exceptionally loud. Don’t be that gang. Nothing is annoying than your loud laughter piercing above the train’s quite at 10 in the night.
A train replica
A train replica
Train at Ulan Ude
Train at Ulan Ude
  • Smoking is not allowed in the train but you are free to smoke in the platforms as soon as the train stops.
Smoke dried Omul fish for sale on the platforms
Smoke dried Omul fish for sale on the platforms
At the Russia - Siberia border.
At the Russia – Siberia border.

Are you planning to take the Trans-Siberian express? Leave a comment and let me know.

Pictures courtesy: Lars Soholm.

Easy guide to plan your Trans-Siberian trip!

Long train journeys have always lured travelers. There is something exhilarating about gazing at the changing landscapes passing by your train window aided by the conversation and companionship of strangers with whom you are thrown together in a train compartment.  If you are among those that make a bucket list, you’ve already added the trip on the Trans-Siberian express to your list. It probably ranks high up among your other trips.  No less than an epic trip, the Trans-Siberian line chugs along three countries and spans some 6000 miles cutting across the desolate landscape of Siberian Russia, the rolling meadows of Mongolia and wilderness of China before arriving in Beijing.

The train - Russian side
The train – Russian side

Recently, I took the Trans-Siberian express from Moscow all the way to Ulan Ude in Siberian Russia and then transferred on to TransMongolian express heading to Beijing.  Planning the Trans-Siberian trip can be daunting and confusing more so for an Indian because one needs visas for three countries and at least two of them can be tricky to obtain (a separate post on visas coming up soon). In this post, I break everything down for you – the route to tickets to possible stops to budgeting.

A scene outside the train window
A scene outside the train window

Read on and leave a comment to let me know if you find it useful.

Select your route and stops

The TransSiberian express offers numerous interesting destinations along its route. The hardest part always is to decide on where to make a stop and which one to avoid (and to remind yourself that it’s simply not possible to cover everything). Depending on the time you have in hand, decide on the stops. I had three weeks. Typically, travelers start their journey in St. Petersburg (which is where I started my trip). I took pit stops in Moscow, Suzdal, Perm, Omsk, Irkutsk, Ulan-Ude, Ulan Bataar, terminating the trip in Beijing China. I also flew to Japan taking advantage of the country’s proximity and spent a few days there. I did not stop at the usual suspects Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk, Yekaterinburg and Kazan.

St. Basil's cathedral, Red square
St. Basil’s cathedral, Red square

Buy / Reserve your tickets

It is crucial to buy / reserve your tickets in advance. For one, it is a necessary document to be attached with your Russian visa application. I used and liked the services of Real Russia. They offer a letter of invitation (and an itinerary) free of charge after you deposit £50.00 per person as a deposit. The letter of invitation is also a requisite document to be attached with the visa application. Real Russia also keeps tab on the booking window and books your tickets.

The Hermitage, St. Petersburg
The Hermitage, St. Petersburg

I used the second class coupe tickets all throughout. If you want to travel cheap (and not mind groggy passengers disrupting your sleep in the middle of the night to board / disembark at respective stations), you can opt for the Platzkart. Frankly, the Platzkart is not so bad if you are used to travelling in sleeper class reserved compartments in India. Do not expect to have friendly conversations, however, with locals. Russians are a closed lot and it takes some nudging for them to open up and very few speak English so even if the conversation happened it would be limited. The coupe, of course, is shared by four persons and offers you relative privacy. Keep in mind that upper berths are priced cheaper than the lower ones.

Plan your budget

I am yet to make the final tally on my expenses but it is my guess that I had spent about 2 lakhs INR (USD 3000, roughly). This is slightly on the higher side because I flew to Japan from Beijing and extended my trip for another 10 days. The train ticket starting from Moscow to Beijing in 2nd class coupe cost me Rs. 46000 (USD 698 roughly). The most expensive part of this trip is going to be your tickets (count your air tickets in and you are looking at spending at least a lakh rupees (USD 1500, roughly) on tickets alone).

If you are not planning on any side trips, the budget for your accommodation and food should not exceed 50 USD per day. You will mostly spend your nights in trains (which means you save on that day’s budget) and you can get a decent Russian meal of Pelmeni (boiled meat pies) or Posikunchiki (small fried pies with meat, mushrooms and potatoes) for 300 Rubles (about 5 USD). Sometimes I got by with cookies and stiff Russian rye bread.

Cathedral of the nativity, Suzdal
Cathedral of the nativity, Suzdal

Book accommodation / side trips

Though it is probably easy to walk around and find a hostel yourself at your destination, I prefer to book my accommodation in advance. That saves me time with which I can explore the town. Essentially, I had booked hotels before I arrived at a place on this trip (it also probably helped that I had a nervous travel partner who wanted everything in place before we started the trip). My side trips included a day hike in the Basegi National Park in the foothills of Ural Mountains, hiking the Great Baikal Trail by the Baikal Lake, the Flaming Cliffs and the sand dunes of Gobi desert in Mongolia. I also visited the Great Wall of China.

By the shores of Bikal
By the shores of Bikal
A Mongolian sunset
A Mongolian sunset

What to pack?

In the second class coupe, it didn’t seem to bother anyone that I wore a pair of boxers. In fact, the Russian men were mostly flaunting their flowing bellies, while the women were with tank tops and three-fourths. The moral? Pack a pair of train clothes for comfortable travel. If you have space, I recommend packing a simple cutlery set with your luggage (a mug, spoon and a little knife perhaps). Though the Russian trains offer you a pack of plastic cutleries every time they serve you your obligatory meal along with the goody bag (more on that later), you tend to not save them.  You will miss a plastic knife during the long duration trains when you need to apply marmalade on your rye bread or a mug for a hot cup of coffee.

Hiking the Ural
Hiking the Ural

Resources

I used the website www.rbth.com extensively for research on Russia. It is a great source of information on travels in Siberia and Russia. For more clarity on booking tickets on the TransSiberian express, do check the www.seat61.com website. I am not hesitant to admit that my travel partner bought the Lonely Planet guidebook after we planned our trip. Turns out, we have had at least 7 of the top 10 destinations covered during our trip, recommended by Lonely Planet. Long live independent research!

Bactrian Camels, Mongolia
Bactrian Camels, Mongolia
The train, Mongolian side
The train, Mongolian side

Did you find it useful? Leave a comment and let me know. Also, if you are planning your TransSiberian trip and need any help, do ask. I’d be glad to help.

Next post: Life aboard the TransSiberian express. Check back in a week.

I am going somewhere exciting (hint: it involves long train rides, dinosaur fossils and zen gardens).

At this moment, I am terribly excited, slightly apprehensive and extremely unprepared.  I am going on a six-week long trip across Russia (taking the Trans-Siberian train line), Mongolia (continuing my journey in the train in the Trans-Mongolian line now) and entering China (at this point the entire trip would be called Trans-Manchurian though of course if you are taking the Trans-Manchurian route from Moscow, the train would take a totally different route). After that I fly to Japan.

The Trans-Siberian train route near Baikal
The Trans-Siberian train route near Baikal. Image: Valery Chernodedov, Flickr

Thanks to my Indian passport, my trips have to be planned within the confines of the very short duration of the visa (for instance, the Japanese visa is valid for three months but allows you to stay only for 15 days at a stretch).  There is no opportunity to linger anywhere even if serendipity strikes. While Russia allows you to stay in the country so long as your trip duration based on the visa application, Mongolia and China graciously offer a 30-day visa (more on visas later and an amazing guy who helped me secure these visas without a glitch, in a different post). 

Summertime in Moscow
Summertime in Moscow. Image: Nikita Bukin.
A summer scene in St. Petersburg
A summer scene in St. Petersburg. Image: Alexandr Kim, http://www.sputnik8.com

So I am packing my bags and heading on a train journey that exposes me to three different cultures in the span of a month. The beautiful cathedrals and UNESCO sights of interior Russia, Ural mountains, Baikal lake, the Gobi desert, Dinosaur Fossils of Flaming Cliffs and the sights of the megalopolis of Beijing are included in the itinerary.

A pastoral scene in Mongolia
A pastoral scene in Mongolia. Image: Stefan Schinning, Flickr

I am also excited about Japan. Plans are still sketchy but I am dreaming of the country’s umami flavors, the iconic Fuji san and zen gardens. Osaka and Kyoto might figure in the list but with the available ten days I am not sure how much ground I am going to cover. And, as you might have surmised, covering ground is never in the scheme of things for me anyway.

A tri-shaw in China
A tri-shaw in China. Image: Bilwander, Flickr
A zen garden in Japan.
A zen garden in Japan. Image: Hakon Skogsrud

I am checking things off my packing list, sealing my shower gel and sunscreen bottles with sellotape so they don’t explode during transit and leak into my bag. Before, I leave, I will also go eat masala dosa at the neighborhood restaurant. Not that I will miss it during my travels, but if there is one recent food memory I want to travel with, it would be the memory of biting into a masala dosa.

So do follow me on Facebook and Instagram for constant updates during the trip. Leave a comment and let me know if you have been on the Trans-Siberian train or to any of the countries I am going to. It would be lovely to get some tips from you.

Festival of flowers – hiking Sandakphu in Rhododendron season!

I don’t know (or believe) heaven exists but if it does, I’d like the road leading to its gate be littered with flowers. And I’d like those flowers be rhododendrons. They might not stand a chance against the daffodils and lotuses of the world but I have come to like rhododendrons because they remind me of the hills. The rugged, frosty and hard to tame Himalayan peaks. In crimson red, fearless pink and pearly white they seem to challenge the mundane green of the hills when they are in bloom.

It is a fantastic sight to see hundreds of these trees in bloom.
It is a fantastic sight to see hundreds of these trees in bloom.

Before I left on the Sandakphu trek, I stayed in a Nepali border village called Jowarbhari near Sukhiapokri that overlooks pretty mountains and witnesses spectacular sunrises.

The village of Jowarbhari on the Nepal border
The village of Jowarbhari on the Nepal border
A vegetable garden and the skeletal support for climbers and twiners.
A vegetable garden and the skeletal support for climbers and twiners.

Each year, starting late January until mid June more than a hundred species of rhododendrons bloom in the eastern Himalayan region that straddles between India and Nepal. The rhododendron blooms render a feisty tone to the otherwise green forest canopy. Also found in the bloom season in this region are the stately white magnolias and the poisonous cobra lilies that strikingly resemble a cobra’s hood. Called Gurash in the local language, rhododendrons are also distilled into a local brew called rhododendron wine – a strong tasting liquor with an aftertaste of the flower.

Cobra lilly
Cobra Lilly
The white rhododendron blossoms
The white rhododendron blossoms
The crimson Rhododendrons
The crimson Rhododendrons
The pathway littered with Rhododendron flowers
The pathway littered with Rhododendron flowers
Rhododendron Dalhousie
Rhododendron Dalhousie

I went on a trek to Sandakphu in April 2015 and saw rhododendrons in bloom all along the trail. Rhododendron is also the national flower of Nepal, a country whose borders are often crossed during the course of the trail. The 50km trek, done in 3 – 4 days, culminates in a view point from where the Kanchenjunga and even the Everest would be visible on a clear day – a feat I was fortunately able to achieve. The trek also traverses through tiny mountain villages – some of them comprise of only two families (like Tonglu) and provide accommodation and food for the trekkers in this route.

Views enroute Sandakphu
Views en route Sandakphu
A house at Tonglu village
A house at Tonglu village
A bhutia puppy
A bhutia puppy

Staying in mountain villages you get to experience the fluidity of international borders (India and Nepal in this instance). The silver pine trees and the alpine meadows notwithstanding I was also tantalised by the very possibility of spotting a red panda. Only that I didn’t. We hiked through the Singalila National Park where the promise of spotting a red panda in the thick bamboo forests loomed large.

Nepali men selling piglets.
Nepali men selling piglets.

After three days of trekking in the pissing rains and dense fog, I’ve almost lost hope of seeing anything as I reached Sandakphu. But unpredictably, as is customary in the mountains, the weather cleared up on the last day of the trek despite the dismal fog and wheezing rains the previous night. And I woke up to a glorious sunrise lighting up the entire range of Kangchenjunga, Kumbakarn, Simbhu, Pandim, Norsing and Sinni Alsu. Not to mention, I also got a peek of the Everest.

A misty trail en route Sandakphu
A misty trail en route Sandakphu where the promise of spotting a red panda looms large
Sun rises above Sandakphu
Sun rises above Sandakphu
View from Sandakphu at dawn. Kanchenjunga can be seen
View from Sandakphu at dawn. Kanchenjunga can be seen.

Have you been on the Sandakphu trek? Don’t be shy. Leave a comment and start a conversation with me. We could bond over travel, you know. Follow me on Instagram and like my Facebook page for more updates and to keep in touch more often. PS: I took this trip with http://www.tripwizard.co.in. Phone: + 91 9749630978.