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Sandakphu & Singalila Trek
Sandakphu is a wonderland for the trekkers. It's located at an altitude of 11,929ft (i.e. 3,636 meters) in Darjeeling district and on the north west of Darjeeling hill town. This is the summit or the highest point in Singalila range, and is also the highest peak in the state of West Bengal, India. The trek to Sandakphu goes all along the Singalila range.
So, why do you think the trekkers from all over the world are so fanatic about Sandakphu and Singalila trek? The answer is simple.
Where else can you see four of the five highest peaks of the world including Mt. Everest, Makalu, Kanchenjunga, and Lhotse, along with many other peaks of Nepal, Sikkim, Tibet and Bhutan in one single stretch of snow? Yes, this is what you get to see when you stand on summit of Sandakphu.
Where else in the world will you be able to walk through the forests of flowering rhododendrons of numerous types, giant magnolias, spruce and wide range of amazing orchids? There are over 600 varieties of orchids in this area, the largest concentration in any single geographical area in the world. You can see them bloom in spring.
The trek route passes through the Singalila National Park all the way to the summit. So your trek journey is further complemented with the Singalila National Park that has some of the most fascinating rare animals like Red Pandas and Pangolins.
In Darjeeling district, the trek route to Sandakphu and beyond to Phalut starts from a place called Manebhanjan, a small village located at an altitude of 7,054 ft (2,150 m). This is virtually the gateway to Singalila and Sandakphu.
From Manebhanjan the distance up to Sandakphu is 32kms which is usually covered in two or three days. If you can trek for 8-9 hours a day, you can complete the one way trek in 2 days time, otherwise in 3 days. Usually trekkers do it over 3 days.
From Sandakphu, you can trek further up to Phalut which is another 21kms away. It takes an additional day of trek from Sandakphu on a relatively easy terrain.
From Sandakphu, you can either return by the same route or take one of the several alternative routes. A popular return route is via Gurdum, Srikhola and then finally to Rimbik where one takes a transport. A full circuit or round trip trek to Sandakphu takes a total of four to five days (depending on your ability). It can be undertaken by anyone who likes to walk. In trekkers world, it's considered a soft or light trek.
Visit Sandakphu & Singalila Route Map before I start the trek description. The map has both the distances and altitudes of the important places that you will be passing by. The route goes along the border of India and Nepal, and at some places even enters Nepal. But there is no need for Nepal visas along this route.
Note that you should be ready with all your trek logistics before you start ... and they include transport to Manebhanjan, guide (which is mandatory now), permit (required for all), lodgings (dormitory beds or rooms), food & water along the way, porter (if required), gears in case you are trekking in the winter which sees lots of snow & harsh weather conditions, camping equipment (if you plan to camp instead of staying at the huts), and transfers to station or airport. Carry a bottle of drinking water which you can keep refilling with spring water (quite safe) along the way.
I have discussed about permits, guide, lodging etc in the sections below. Unless you want to arrange every thing on your own, use a Trek Operator who can arrange all such logistics for you, but of course at a price.
DAY-1: MANEBHANJAN TO TONGLU (11KMS), 6-7 HOURS TREK
Many trekkers come to Manebhanjan a day before the trekking starts. This is to acclimatize themselves with the weather before starting the trek early next morning. Check out Manebhanjan: Gateway to Singalila to know about this village, how to reach the place, available accommodations there and more.
Manebhanjan. Route to Sandakphu.
As you walk from Manebhanjan Bazaar towards the trail for Sandakphu, in 15 minutes or so you will reach the Check Post. This is where you get the permit.
Earlier, the trekking route up to Sandakphu was same as the gravel road on which 4-wheel drive Jeeps and Land Rovers take tourists to Singalila National Park and Sandakphu. Since 2001, Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC, now GTA) and the park authorities have created a separate trekking route that mostly goes through the lovely forests and flowering trees, although merges with the gravel road at several places.
Chitre (3kms from Manebhanjan), 1.5 hours trek
Chitre is a small village about 3kms from Manebhanjan located at an altitude of 8,340 ft. The route up to Chitre passes through pine, fir, birch forests and bamboo glades. This part of the trek route is quite steep and really warms you up. It takes about 1.5 hours to trek up to Chitrey. You will get drinking water here.
The sharp winding gravel road at Chitre
There is an old Buddhist Monastery (Gompa) at Chitrey, a make shift lodging for trekkers, a tea stall and few village huts. You will pass by the monastery. If you want to take it easy, halt for a while, freshen up and start the next leg of the trek.
Lamaydhura (further 3kms), +1.5 hours trek
Lamaydhura is a hamlet inhabited only by five Tibetan families. This part of the trek is more comfortable than the earlier stretch up to Chitre. It's a steady but gradual incline from Chitre and takes over an hour of trek. You will get drinking water here.
This place probably won't figure on any map, but it's very dear to me. On one occasion due to heavy rains I had to stay back here for a night. One of the village families offered me a room in their hut. The candle lit night in heavy rains, chat with the family members, simple dinner with rice, dal & eggs are all part of my fond memories.
A young lady Cheki runs a small tea stall here. Other than tea and biscuits, she can also offer noodles (like Magi) just in case you like to have a simple lunch. Once I asked Cheki how such small hamlets located miles away from civilization actually survive? She mentioned that in most cases one or more family members actually go and settle down at the plains, and earn to support the families who live in the bare mountains. In fact her own younger sister who earlier assisted her in the shop, is now living in Dehradun to support the family financially.
Shortly after Lamaydhura, I had one of my best experiences of trekking. We spotted a Red Panda crossing the trek route just yards ahead. I had always longed to see this rare and beautiful animal once in its natural form & habitat. And here it was right in front of us, looking at me eye to eye.
Red Panda climbing the tree
Initially it was puzzled having seen us, wondering whether to cross the road or return. But soon it made up its mind, quickly crossed the road and started climbing a tree, and that's when I could finally capture it on my camera (see the picture above). As you walk further up, you will pass though forests full of Chimal and Magnolia trees.
Meghma or Megma (further 3kms, 9kms from Manebhanjan), +1.5 hours trek
This is another small village located at the border of India and Nepal, and about 3kms from Lamaydhura. Meghma is at an altitude of 9,514 ft. There is a small hut at the center of the village which is a tea house and serves tea & light meals. At the back side of the cottage, there are couple of rooms for trekkers. Meghma is the border area of India and Nepal, and you will see posting of Border Security Forces here. From here, the border continues for most part of the trek route and you won't know when you are stepping on the soil of which country. It's like a freeway. Visit Meghma to know about this sleepy village and the amenities you can get here.
On the way to Meghma, first sign of snow
From Lamaydhura, it takes about 1.5 hours of trek to reach Meghma. If you trek continuously from Manebhanjan, it will take about 4.5-5 hours to reach Meghma. Drinking water is available here. In fact at the corner where the trail to Tonglu branches off, there is a pipe through which spring water comes out.
From Meghma, the trekking route goes towards right for Tonglu, and that part belongs to India. And the motorable gravel road goes along the left through Nepal towards Tumling. During winter time, from Meghma onwards it can get very cold and it would be wise to carry heavy woolens, jackets, caps and hand gloves and keep them handy.
Tonglu (2kms from Meghma), +1 hour trek
Tonglu is a small hamlet located at an altitude of 10,130ft. This is where most trekkers take the first night halt. There is a GTA trekkers hut here. The lodge is about 2kms from Meghma and takes about 1 hour to reach. The last section is a bit steep. From Tonglu you can get lovely views of Darjeeling and Kurseong town areas. Down below you can see the great valleys and the plains of North Bengal with rivers like Teesta and Koshi flowing. Tonglu also offers a fine view of Kanchenjunga snow peaks.
Tonglu, GTA Trekkers Hut
DAY-2: TONGLU TO KALIPOKHRI (15KMS), 6-7 HOURS TREK
From Tonglu, you should start your trek early next morning. There are two routes from Tonglu towards Sandakphu. A shorter trek route goes through the village called Jobber and all the way up to Gairibas. The other route which is more popular, is the gravel road that goes through Jhaubari which is part of Nepal and finally meets at Gairibas. Here we will follow the second (i.e. the more popular) route.
Tumling (2kms from Tonglu), +1 hour trek
2kms trek from Tonglu will take you to another small Village called Tumling located at an altitude of 9,600 ft. Actually from Tonglu to Tumling and all the way up to Gairibas is a gradual descend and the trek is relatively easier. Tumling is a great place to stop for a while, freshen up and then get moving for the next leg of the trek. Some trekkers actually prefer to stay at Tumling for the first night instead of at Tonglu. This is due to availability of better private lodges and facilities here. If you like to do the same, then you can either come here via Tonglu or take the direct gravel road from Meghma. Distance would be more or less the same. Drinking water is available at Tumling. Check out Tumling to know what the place offers including private lodges and attractions.
Footbridge, on the way to Tumling
If you take the gravel road from Meghma towards Tumling, initially there are few village huts on both sides of the road. And soon the area becomes quite barren. Tumling is 4kms away along this road. Remember, during the winter time it becomes very cold from Meghma onwards. So take adequate measures to counter the cold (like heavy woolens, caps, gloves etc). Often snow fall takes place along this stretch.
Tumling Village & the road to Sandakphu
About 1km from Tumling you will reach the arch gateway of Singalila National Park, which is the highest altitude national park in the state of West Bengal. This park is well known for rare and fascinating high altitude animals like Red Panda, Pangolins, Himalayan black bear, Monals etc. There is a check post here at Singalila gate.
Jhaubari (6kms from Tumling), +3 hours trek
A small village further along the way to Sandakphu at an altitude of 9,186 ft. This place may not be important from trekking perspective. But I always combine trekking with exploration of life in the mountains. And if you do that too, you will like to stop here and have a cup of tea. Fudri, a young lady serves hot tea and light snacks from her home. She lives here with her husband and her daughter Yanzi.
On one occasion I had stayed back in Tumling for a night and came all the way to Jhaubari to buy chicken. There was no chicken available in Tumling that day. My good friend and Nepali guide Sanjay suggested that I taste a drink called Roxy on our way back. It's a specialty of this area, he mentioned. This local drink is prepared from some flowering plants known as Guras that grow quite abundantly in this part of the mountains. Well I won't forget that experience in my life.
He took me to a hut in Jhaubari. It was a residence of a local family. An old lady poured a colorless drink in a cup and offered it to me. Few sips and soon my whole body got warmed up in that freezing cold night. I soon felt like some hot steam coming out of my ears and my body felt real light :) While I don't advise that you should try such intoxicating drink, but just in case you do, take in small quantities and have it real slow. But never try it while on a trek. You can refill drinking water at Jhaubari.
Gairibas (1km from Jhaubari), +0.5 hour trek
From Jhaubari one has to take a right turn towards Gairibas. It is further 1km ahead and located at an altitude of 8,600 ft. From Tonglu or Tumling, up to Gairibas is a continuous descend and a relatively easy trek.
This is where you can halt for a while. If you started early in the morning, you can complete your breakfast here or have some tea, before you proceed towards Sandakphu. The trek route passes through bamboo glades. Gairibas is essentially a valley full of bamboo grooves. GTA trekkers huts/lodges are available here and located on the grassy triangular flat land. Because of the scenic beauty of this place, many prefer to stay here for a night before proceeding for Sadakphu next morning. Magnolia Lodge is also popular.
During the high season, it may not be easy to get accommodation at Gairibas, unless you have booked it in advance. Drinking water is available at Gairibas.
Kalipokhri (6kms from Gairibas) +3 hours trek
From Gairibas, you will need to trek for about three hours to reach a place called Kalipokhri (or Kalepokhri) at an altitude of 10,400 ft. Initially you will trek uphill through forests of oak, rhododendrons and bamboo and reach a place call Kaikatta in about 1.5 hours. The trail starts descending from here. In another 1.5 hours or so you will reach Kalipokhri.
The place is so named because of a pond or a water tank filled with black water. The word Kali means black and pokhri stands for water area. However the black color is not due to pollution, it's muddy and the water never freezes. Due to all-time water availability, a small village settlement has taken place in this area.
Kalipokhri Water Body
You will pass through forest of rhododendron, Singalila Sanctuary and then by the pond to reach the Kalipokhri village area. This is where most of the trekkers stay for the second night. There are several private lodges here including Pandim Lodge, Chewang Lodge, and Himchuli Lodge. There is no GTA lodge here, but the private ones also offer similar accommodations at reasonable rates. Drinking water is available at both Kaikatta and Kalipokhri villages.
DAY-3: KALIPOHKRI TO SANDAKPHU (6KMS), 3 HOURS TREK
If you are staying overnight at Kalipokhri, start very early in the morning next day. You will not like to miss out on the panoramic view of the snow peaks from Sandakphu, which is best seen early in the morning. An early start from here will give you a chance to view the snow peaks twice, once as soon as you reach Sandakphu and again next morning before you start your return or onward trek.
Bikheybhanjang (2kms from Kalipokhri), +40 minutes trek
From Kalipokhri, the trekking route gradually descends up to Bikheybhanjang which is located 2kms away. On the way you will cross a place called Bhagsa where you can take a break for couple of minutes. Then walk towards Bikheybhanjang. This is another small hamlet. The name means "Valley of Poison" because of the poisonous Aconite plants that grow in abundance around this place. Don't worry, unless you eat the leaves of the plant, it is harmless. Basic lodgings are available at Bikheybhanjang. Villagers also offer their huts as home stays.
Sandakphu (further 4kms from Bikheybhanjang)
And now the final destination and the climax. You could actually see the Sandakphu Peak from Kalipokhri itself. But like all great things in life, this won't come easy. From Bikhheybhanjang the climb up to Sandakphu is the steepest. The 4kms route can easily take about 2.5 hours. There are stretches where the gradient is so steep that you will think your nose is about to touch the ground. Actually there are two trek routes from Bikheybhanjang, one through Nepal and the other through India. One through India is shorter and more popular although the two routes do merge at places.
As always, the final rewards are awesome. All your strains will simply disappear as you see the board saying "Welcome to Sandakphu". You are at an altitude of 11,929ft, on the summit of Singalila range and at the paradise of trekking... Wow, you made it !!!
Sandakphu is the place from where you get a 180 degree panoramic vista of some of the highest and most beautiful peaks of the world, right from Nepal all the way up to Arunachal. Some of the greatest peaks include the Mt Everest, Makalu, Kanchenjunga, Lhotse, Chomolhari, Pandim, Three Sisters, Kumbhakarna etc. Visit Sandakphu to know about all my experience there and what you can expect.
There is a GTA lodge in Sandakphu and also several other private accommodations including Hotel Sherpa Chalet, Hotel Sunrise, Namo Buddha Hotel etc.
Alternative Route for Sandakphu Trek
There is another route which several trekkers prefer for Sandakphu. The route however merges with the common one I described above at Tonglu. From Siliguri you can take a car and drive all the way up to a place called Dhotrey (via Manebhanjan). It takes about 4.5 hours drive. After a night stay at Dhotrey, take the trek route (5 kms) that leads to Tonglu. It's an uphill trek route and takes about 4 hours to reach Tonglu. Note that the route remains closed during Monsoon (June to September). From Tonglu onwards, the route is the same as above. So If you are planning to take this route, a popular itinerary is:
Day 1: NJP/Siliguri to Dhotrey by car, stay overnight at Dhotrey
Day 2: Dhotrey - Gairibas Trek, stay overnight at Gairibas
Day 3: Gairibas - Sandakphu Trek, stay overnight at Sandakphu
Day 4: Sandakphu - Phalut Trek, stay overnight at Phalut
Day 5: Phalut - Gorkhey Trek, stay overnight at Gorkhey
Day 6: Gorkhay - Srikhola Trek, stay overnight at Srikhoila
Day 7: Srikhola - Rimbik Trek, then to NJP via Manebhanjan by jeep/car
Onward & Return Routes from Sandakphu
Check out the following links to know about the onward trek to Phalut which is further 21kms from Sandakphu offering breathtaking views of the snow peaks, and also about the best routes to return from Sandakphu.
Useful Information for Sandakphu Trek
1) These days it is made mandatory that you take a guide and optionally porters for treks to Sandakphu and Phalut. You can take them from Highlander Guides and Porters Welfare Association in Manebhanjan located near the check post. However a better option is to go through a Trek Operator who will have their own knowledgeable guide and can take care of all logistics including accommodations, food, permits, porters, transfers etc. They offer complete packages. A good trek operator will provide guides who can converse in English and Hindi, would be dressed appropriately, carry a Birding Field Guide & voice recordings of birds (if asked for), First Aid Kit, Tool Kit, Torches etc.
2) How to book a room/bed in GTA (formerly DGHC) lodge or trekkers hut?
You can book online through GTA website www.gtatourism.com. Alternatively visit any GTA tourism office for booking. Check out Tourist Info for location & contacts of all GTA offices. An indicative rate for a bed in a GTA hut would be about Rs. 200.
3) You will need to pay a permit fee for the trek (Rs. 100/- per person). You can pay this fee in Manebhanjan or Singalila National Park entry check post. Without paying this fee, entry through Singalia National Park will not be allowed. Keep photo identity cards (like passport/ driving license etc) handy both in original and photo copy. If you are going through a trek operator, they will take care of this.
4) Other indicative costs for Sandakphu trek (updated February 2014):
Transport from Darjeeling to Manebhanjan: Rs. 75 per person on shared Jeep (full vehicle Rs. 800). Cost of food along the trek route would be Rs. 350-400 per person per day. Rate of dormitory bed in trekkers huts = Rs. 200-250 per person per day. Rimbik to Darjeeling shared Jeep cost = Rs. 200 per person.
5) Cell phone signals for Vodafone and BSNL will work for most part of Sandakphu route.
6) Several lodges along the way use solar power and allow you to charge your mobile phone & camera battery for a small charge.
7) What is the best time to trek for Sandakphu & Singalila?
There are two great seasons: one during April to May when its comfortable (temperature varies between 6 - 12°C) and the flowers like rhododendrons are in full bloom. In May however, there are good chances of occasional showers and the sky remaining cloudy. The second season is between October to November when the temperature ranges between 1 - 6°C, visibility is excellent and there may be occasional snowfall. You can also trek in December but it gets really cold around that time. For trekking in January/February, you will need equipment like snow boots, sleeping bags etc. Identifying trails may be difficult, so take an experienced guide.
Camping along Sandakphu/Singalila Route
It is possible to camp while trekking to Sandakphu or beyond. However you must know some of the restrictions and the best way to go about it. Some areas on the way are suitable for camping and some are not. The trek operators are the best to guide you through the camping sites. Check out Camping on Sandakphu route to get information about how to about planning your camping on this trek.
Related Resources & Articles
1) Sandakphu Trek Itinerary & Day-wise Plan: This article is a collection of questions and answers to what should be the day wise night stay plans for trekking to Sandakphu and Phalut.
2) Sandakphu trek for beginners: If you have not trekked before or have little experience in trekking, but considering a trek to Sandakphu, then read this article for useful information.
3) Sandakphu & Singalila Route Map: See the trek route diagram and the distances
4) Sandakphu - Drive & Trek: Is it possible to take a jeep from Siliguri or Darjeeling, drive some part of the route to Sandakphu, then trek to the summit and get the same jeep back to Siliguri? This can help one to save lot of time while getting a good flavor of the trek.
6) Darjeeling Trekking: Know all about trekking in Darjeeling area.
By Raj Bhattacharya
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