The Road to Sandakphua Part II May 2016

A casual conversation with one of my old friends from India got the spirit of adventure flowing. In the last installment we were above the level of the clouds drinking tea in a Sherpa hut on the Road to Sandakphu…

The Road to Sandakphu is really not a road at all. The surface consists of protruding rocks that provide a bone-rattling ride at even the slowest speed. In most places it is a single track which allows only one vehicle to pass at a time. In the mountains the right of way usually belongs to the one going up, but we were not eager to contest the point.

The 41 minutes that showed as the time remaining on the GPS was fantasy. We climbed higher and the landscape changed dramatically. The track follows the ridge of the mountain chain that forms the border between Nepal and India, so there were occasional stops at Indian border patrol stations. We gained altitude rapidly. About one hour after the stop for tea we encountered a British trekker and his Sherpa guide coming down the track. The 39 minutes on the GPS was a matter of concern so we asked how far we really were from the summit? We were told that we still need at least three and half more hours! By this time we were at about 7,000 feet and the views over the edge of the track became more spectacular. There were no guardrails to obstruct the view and in many places the drop went right down to the level of the clouds which by now were a thousand feet below.

We descended down again to a lush area that was heavily forested and suddenly the road was paved! It was a shock but we breezed along for about six kilometers foolishly thinking that we were in the clear. Then the track returned to normal…

We climbed higher and higher, with the Fortuner struggling mightily up the steep grade. We were on the ridge again and at the crest of a peak there was a cluster of four or five Sherpa huts… and a fork in the road! One road was a dirt path and the other was the more familiar rock strewn track. There was no indication which road would take us to Sandakphu so we stood outside one of the huts and hollered. An elderly woman appeared and Vijay asked for directions. The woman pointed down the dirt path. Soon after putting the huts behind us the track changed entirely. We were on a ledge with a sheer wall going up a thousand feet on the right side of the vehicle and dropping straight a couple of the thousand feet on the left side. The Fortuner had right-hand drive and Vijay was hugging the wall as tightly as he could. I was on the left side passenger seat and held the grip on the forward pillar in a death clutch––with my right hand I released the seat belt. If this thing starts to go I decided, I am not going with it! But then I realized that just opening the door and getting out the car was not even an option — as I looked down to the left I could not see the edge of the road … only the clouds far below.

Vijay said, “I don’t believe that automobiles are supposed to be traveling on this path! I should never have listened to the old lady. In this part of the world, in the high Himalaya, the women never drive you know!” I grunted agreement. Then, a few minutes later we saw tire tracks in the sand and he said, “Someone else has done it!” Again I agreed, but the narrow tire tracks had certainly been made by one of the tiny 1970s Land Rovers that are ubiquitous in that part of India. I said nothing, as we continued moving ahead slowly. As we rounded a curve around the mountains edge, I could see a sheer wall in the distance straight ahead. There seemed to a horizontal line drawn on edge of that massive sheer cliff. I had a sinking feeling when I realized that it was in fact the road ahead from a different perspective. We pushed forward slowly —often scraping the edge of the cliff with the running board or the fenders. In spite of the fact that the Fortuner was being destroyed, the scraping sound of metal on rock was somehow reassuring.

Again the ledge that we were following rounded a curve and ahead was flat land and off to the right I could see another road joining our road … it was the same road on the right that we had seen at the village about one hour before when the old lady told us to take the left fork!!

We later found out that the road with the rocky bed had been constructed by the Indian Army Corps of engineers while the road that we had taken had been built by Nepalese villagers! In any case, we both heaved a huge sigh of relief as we got back on the main track to Sandakphu. The sigh of relief was way too premature…

Richard Keldsen

San Francisco
May 2016