Our recent trip to West Bengal & Sikkim was a fairly intense affair. It was also a great holiday!
Any time spent in India is likely to feel intense. Your senses get bombarded with sounds, smells and unusual images. Even crossing a road can take a lot of concentration, with cars coming and going in all directions, however the effort required to get from place to place was very much alleviated by being on an organised Exodus trip. We, the tourists, didn’t have to bother about buying tickets or catching buses. When off the ridge, our cars appeared like magic each morning, and took us on to the next destination. On the ridge, we would set off, and after a couple of hours one of the cooks would catch up with us whilst carrying the picnic lunches, which were much appreciated. When we arrived at the campsites the tents had already been erected (each day the horses with all of the camping equipment and also our bags, would pass us at some stage) and we were greeted with a hot orange or lemon drink.
The group leader, Sonan Chosphel, was fantastic, and barely rested for the two weeks of the trip. He was well supported by ‘Little Boss’, the 7 cooks and the 7 horsemen. There were 17 tourists in our group, 16 support staff for the Singalila Ridge walk section, at least 16 horses (for the ridge), plus 5 drivers for the road sections.
In the distant past, Lindsey and I carried our own kit on trips through Africa. We’re too old for that sort of thing, nowadays.
There were various elements that made the trip fairly intense, not merely the Indian experience.
We were suddenly a part of a group of, as I mentioned, 17 tourists. Strangers very quickly became temporary (at least) friends. We walked, camped, ate and drank together for two weeks. We shared ‘adversity’, and when one of the group came down with a stomach upset and took much longer to reach the end of that day’s trail, we applauded her into camp.
We experienced quite cold conditions whilst camping. People appeared in many layers of clothes for the evening meals, and one night there was a storm, with hailstones larger than marbles. We all slept in multi-layers within our sleeping bags, but even then the ‘hot water bottles’ (each evening we were given still warm boiled water to drink the next day, but if you had a metal bottle, you could nestle this within your sleeping bag) were much appreciated. It was not only cold at night on the ridge but also very windy, and for me at least, sleep didn’t come easily. This wasn’t helped one night when two of the horses had a noisy altercation outside our tent.
The group, looking at the sun rise on Kanchenjunga at 5 am
The trip included a 6 day point-to-point trek along the Singalila Ridge, at altitudes up to 3,600 metres. I think that all bar two of the group felt some effects of the altitude. And all the time there was the looming second last day, which involved a very much longer walk of 23 kilometres.
The group seemed to get on very well throughout the holiday. I never heard a single argument, though someone told me that there was one slightly heated difference of opinion during a political discussion.
These trips are great for both small groups, couples and solo travellers. There were 7 solos in our group, so 6 of them doubled up and shared a tent/room.
You might imagine that this could be difficult – someone snores, or has a cold or cough, etc. The person with the most extreme personal habits was, obviously, Fat Mac, who fortunately had a tent to himself.
At times, particularly in Gangtok and Kolkata, there was a bit of a ‘crocodile’ element to the excursions, i.e. we would all traipse off in a line to see the monastery/paper factory/school and be counted in and counted out. However all of the visits were fascinating, and I’ll post about them later.
I’m not the most verbally communicative of people, and after a log day’s walk sometimes I just wanted to eat my dinner quietly and get to bed, but I really enjoyed the numerous discussions along the trail. Questions such as “Have you been on other Exodus trips?” or “Where’s your next trip to?” could result in long, interesting discussions, and I felt that I learnt a great deal about various far-off places and people’s attitudes towards travelling.
At times, we were a fairly loud group. At one bar in Darjeeling part of the full group went for a drink. After a few minutes I had a ciggie outside, and I could quite clearly hear the group laughing and shouting (well, it was mostly Fat Mac who was doing the shouting).
There was an organised (though voluntary) group kitty for tips. This was divided up by Chosphel, the group leader, according to some agreed upon formula. Tipping is an important part of the service industries in India. The first to receive their tips were the horsemen, who left us at Samanden Forrest Village. I liked the way that the presentation of the tips was formalised, and it reminded me of aspects of life in Africa, where people’s contributions are openly recognised. We don’t have enough of this sort of thing in the UK. The horsemen lined up, Chosphel said a few words, and then handed each one an envelope containing their tip, as the rest of us applauded them, in turn. Cheeky Little Boss (in the yellow, above) tried to get in on the act.
These boots did all the walking
I could see that there would be further tip ceremonies – for the cooks, Little Boss and the group leader, who all left us at different times. I didn’t want to have to give a speech at those times, but I did want to contribute to the group in some way, so with much help from Lindsey I devised a set of awards.
There was not much of a sense of achievement when we reached the end of the trek at Rimbik – I think we were all rather more concentrating on on having a first shower for six days and getting kit sorted out. But at the group meal that evening there was a jovial atmosphere, and after a cake (no less) was delivered by the cooks to celebrate the end of the walk I tinked a glass with my knife and proceeded to present each of the group of trekkers with their ‘award’.
The whole thing was completely daft and whimsical, but here for posterity are the 2016 Singalila Ridge Awards.
Best blanket: New Zealand Katherine
Most stoic person in adverse conditions: Mary
Biggest zoom lens: UK Paul
Biggest stick: Rupert
Best stick technique: Anneke
Best alternative accommodation selector: American Paul
Best personalised T shirt: Margaret
Most appropriately dressed person in all circumstances: Penny
Best spotter of rhododendrons: Linda
Best at losing things and then finding them: Lindsey
Most physically fit person: Catherine
Fittest person for their age and also the best person to walk with in the forest because he could identify the plants but impossible to keep up with for long: Keith
Best van driver stories: Brian
Best family connection with Sikkim: Karen
Best pathfinder (i.e. the one to walk behind on the trail because he always took the best line): Bernard
Most Buddha positions during trekking: Mac
Best horseshoe thrower (and STILL the Nepal champion horseshoe thrower): Roddy
The final award, and one which caused much anticipation, was for the most interesting person to talk to whilst trekking the Singalila Ridge. This necessitated much deliberation. It went to…..
In the event, Rupert, Bernard and Paul did an excellent job of giving formal thanks to the support staff towards the end of the trip.