The best things about Sandakhpu, the highest point in Ilam are the journey and the people you meet on the way.
Pemba is a young man of about thirty but he hardly looks it. He drives his own fleet of three, old Land Rovers up and down the terrible monsoon-infected roads of Ilam, Nepal’s picturesque tea district that borders India to its east. The affable local smiles easily, his eyes more off the road than on it. His crass jokes make up for the blanket of fog that is our view from our seats. He is an excellent driver though; nothing he comes across on the road seems to bother him. We are in excellent hands we nod to each other as we near our destination.
We did not always like Pemba though. Two days ago, in Kalo Pokhari, the last stop before climbing up to Sandakphu, the highest point in Ilam at 3636 meters, he had made us wait for two days straight. Not that we had minded, Kalo Pokhari was scenic and the hosts at Chhewang Lodge were the epitome of Nepali hospitality. The afternoon Pemba gets back we discover that he likes to drink before he drives! We end up hiking to Sandakphu, something that would have been fun had it not been dark already and raining.
At the Sherpa Chalet in Sandakphu, we dig into a scrumptious dinner of daal, bhaat and chicken curry before retiring our tired selves to bed. We are rewarded handsomely for our troubles the next morning; stretching before us into the horizon is an epic panorama of snowcapped mountain peaks. Recuperating from the surreal view and failing to capture its grandeur on my camera, we have some breakfast and head out for a morning stroll.
As amazing as the panorama, is the view of the snaking trail up to the place, roads built on ridges with India and Nepal on opposite sides. Soon a mist rolls up over the hillside, obscuring the views and guiding us behind the chalet, to a quaint little temple and the bubbling point of origin of the rivers that run down to the plains, from over, under and around the hills. A cheese making initiative down the hill, where locals bring all their milk for collective boiling and processing impresses all, for its sheer ingenuity of reducing individual firewood expenditure. We spend the rest of the morning chatting to a real cowboy.
The reason I talk about the driver, the roads and the hike is that Sandakphu and other locations in remote Nepal are as much about the journey as the place itself. Access by vehicles is a luxury only a thin slice of the population can afford. Eventually the place becomes about the kind of terrain to navigate, the view on the way and about the people who will help you get there. If you ask me, that’s what all great trips should be about.