Tuesday, January 16, 2007

India Travels #3: Darjeeling, India: The Last Chicken of Sandakphu

January 16th
Darjeeling, India

We've recently returned from our 6-day trek through Singalilla National Park. We walked over 65 kilometers at altitudes of 7-12,000 feet during the coldest month of the year...bundled in long underwear, double layers of fleece, wool mittens, hats, and down jackets.

During the coldest night, our water bottles froze nearly solid and our guides even complained about the cold. The yaks even seemed to be shivering. Why we choose to trek in the Himalayas during the winter is something we often asked ourselves but the empty trails and magnificent clear skies during the days made our discomfort all worth it!

Following a mountain ridgeline seperating Nepal and India, we walked through small highland villages populated by a mixture of Tibetans, Nepalis, and other hill tribe people who have migrated here over the past many years. Weaving in and out of the two national territories, some nights were spent in Nepal and others were in India.

At high altitude, everyone's cold. ;)

As a special treat for ourselves, we chose to hire a guide and porters as guides are compulsory and we thought, "what the hell? Let's see what it's like!." Manish is about my age and incredibly bright, articulate, and funny. He's college educated and knew the Nepali, English, and scientific names of many of the plants and animals we came across. Lelin, the second guide, was a sweetheart, as were the other two porters, Shom and Uttam, the cook.

Over the week, we trekked across windswept hills dotted by heath-like shrubs reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands, through ancient forests of rhodendron and giant pine trees knotted and twisted from the harsh winds, across a glacier fed river, past a sacred black lake festooned with faded but brilliant prayer flags, across fields of giant grazing yaks exquisite in their long coats, and through tiny villages where the goats, chickens, and children ran freely and women with long black hair rinsed their hair beneath natural springs.

At the highest point, Sandakphu (12,000), we froze our asses off through the night....Manish brought us our dinner (noodles, mushroom soup with popcorn, chapatis, masala potatoes, and hot chai) in bed and gave us each hot water bottles to put at the bottom of our sleeping bags to clutch through the night....

Earlier in the evening, mother had been lusting after some protein and asked Manish for a roast chicken. After an hour or so, Manish returned from his search throughout the village.

"Mom," he told us looking quite devastated to bring us the bad news, "I'm sorry to tell you this but there is a problem. There are no chickens left in Sandakphu for the winter. I found only one chicken and begged the farmer for the chicken but he says he must keep the chicken for the eggs to get him through the season. Noodle soup?"

We had to have a good laugh about it. There are no groceries out there. There are only the elements and pure basic food. Her taste for meat could certainly wait.

In the morning, we awoke at sunrise and made our way through 50 mph icy winds to the hilltop to watch the sunrise over Mount Everest, Makalu, LLotse (yes, we could see all the way!) and Kanchenjunga, India's pride and joy, the third highest mountain in the world.
As we bundled ourselves up in blankets and shot away with our cameras, the sun rose over a wispy sea of clouds and it appeared as if we were in the heavens looking out across the world with these enormous masterpieces rising from the clouds.
A black raven landed in one of the juniper trees and cut a gorgeous sharp silhouette against the mist and pink snow-capped mastiffs.

On our way back to the "lodge" (which is a bit gratuitous as there is no electricity or heat or insulation), we heard a chicken crow as if it were a running on a dying golf cart battery.

The Last Chicken of Sandakphu sounded even colder than us.

Needless to say, it was a brilliant journey.

Rachel and Karen