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Backpacking India: Chandrashila Trek

Chandrashila Trek
After our failed Singalila trek a few weeks ago, we were a bit nervous to try another one. As we’ve discovered, there’s a lot that can go wrong on a multi-day trek when you’re not feeling 100%. Further complicating things, this time we were traveling with our friend Dan, who only had two days to acclimatize to Indian food and the time change before we launched into our 4-day Chandrashila Trek into the Himalayas of Uttarakhand. Luckily, we all made it through with only minor discomfort and the trek was amazing.

Chandrashila Trek
We hiked through blossoming Rhododendron forests, swam in a lake (well, Dan and the Norwegians swam), had epic views of the high Himalayan peaks, watched a mongoose playing in a tree, visited a Hindu temple, and capped it off with a snowy climb to the top of Chandrashila at over 3500 m.

Chandrashila Trek
Our trek was organized by Red Chilli Adventure, and they did an excellent job. The guides were knowledgeable and fun, the food was plentiful and tasty, and the tents and sleeping bags kept us warm during the frigid nights. We were lucky to have a good group of fellow trekkers, including a pair of Norwegians, two other Canadians, and three French girls. Trekking seems to be a great way to meet the most interesting people from around the world.

Birthplace of the Ganges
Even though it was a 4 day trip, we only had two long hiking days. The first and last days were mostly driving. The roads were some of the best we’ve been on in India, and the views were excellent – Lots of lush valleys and a viewpoint over the start of the Ganges River. If it wasn’t for the motion sickness,the drive would have been completely enjoyable.

Chandrashila Trek
The first day featured only a short 2 km hike to our campsite next to Deorital Lake, which only took 1 hour.

Mongoose
The second day we covered 14 km through beautiful forests with a few great viewpoints. Midday we stumbled upon a mongoose. They can be viscious animals, but this one was just playing in the flowers.

Chandrashila Trek
The third day was the most intense, as we spent 5 hours walking up to a temple, climbing to the mountain peak, and sliding back down. The route was heavily travelled until the temple, after which we had to break trail up to the peak. The views from the peak were spectacular. It was hard work walking in the snow and breathing the thin air, but sliding down was fun and fast.
Chandrashila Trek
Chandrashila Trek

Chandrashila Trek

We got really lucky with weather. We had pouring rain and whiteout conditions, but most of our hiking was in sunny, dry conditions. Our hike on the third day started with drizzle and clouds, but cleared as we neared the peak.

Chandrashila Trek

We were really happy we did the trek. When we were planning our 2 weeks with Dan, we weren’t sure that a trek was a good idea – too much time in one place and too much that could go wrong. But in ended up being a real highlight for all three of us.
Chandrashila Trek

More photos on Flickr: Chandrashila Trek

Backpacking India: Singalila Trek

Singalila Trek day 2 - return to Maney

The Singalila Range forms a ridge of hikeable mountains along the India-Nepal border that offer awesome views of the Himalayan mountains including Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world (8598 m). We set out to do a 5-day trek from Maneybhanjang (near Darjeeling) to Phalut, but unfortunately didn’t make it all the way. 

India - Singalila Ridge Trek Day 1
India - Singalila Ridge Trek Day 1

The first day I was really slow going up the 11 km with over 800 metres elevation gain. That night I was so chilled and achy I couldn’t sleep until the wee hours of the morning. All night all I could think about was the 21 kms we had to cover the next day and the ascent up to 3636 metres above sea level. I was feeling better the next morning but knew I didn’t have enough energy to complete the day. We were lucky to have views of Kanchenjunga that morning before heading back down to Maneybhanjang. We were both disappointed about not making it to Sandakphu and Phalut, the two peaks with amazing views, but knew it was the right decision.
Singalila Trek day 2 - return to Maney
Singalila Trek day 2 - return to Maney
We weren’t in the national park yet so we could do the descent without a guide, at least a human one. We had three different dogs join us for different parts of the day. They were just village dogs that seemed to want a little company and a journey. They responded better to petting than treats.
Singalila Trek day 2 - return to Maney
This one was our favourite, we named him Charzing.

Singalila Trek day 2 - return to Maney

Tour companies will arrange all-inclusive Singalila Trek expeditions for around 3000 rupees per person, but we’re cheap and resourceful so we planned our trek on our own. We wanted to create a comprehensive guide to the trek for others to follow, but since we never made it past Tumling (near Tonglu peak), our knowledge is incomplete. But here is what we figured out. 

India - Singalila Ridge Trek Day 1

There are two standard treks out of Maneybhanjang. A 3 day-trek to Sandakphu and down to Rimbik or the 5 day trek that goes to Phalut. Phalut has 360-degree views from the peak (3600 m) so that was the trek we chose.
India - Singalila Ridge Trek Day 1
We took a shared jeep from Darjeeling to Maneybhanjang in the morning. Apparently it’s not a very popular route. There were three other foreign tourists going to do the same trek and no one else. After waiting for 30 minutes we paid for the remaing five seats so we could get trekking at a reasonable time. We ended up trekking with our new friends to help share the costs.

India - Singalila Ridge Trek Day 1

Most of the hike is in the Singalila National Park, which requires visitors to be accompanied by a guide. If you’re not using a private tour operator, you can get guides through the Society for Highlander Guides and Porters Welfare (link), whose mission is to preserve the park and create employment opportunities for youth. The cost is 1200 rupees per day, including food and lodging for the guide, no matter how big your group is. 

India - Singalila Ridge Trek Day 1

There are government and private lodges along the way, as well as snack, water, and lunch huts. We only stayed in one, which was lovely. We had our own room with three beds, lots of blankets, and a washroom (cold water and squat toilet) for 800 rupees. We spent most of our time in the main house with the other guests by the fire. 

India - Singalila Ridge Trek Day 1

Lunch was either chowmein or noodle soup for 50 rupees and egg could be added for 20. Tea and water were a little more expensive than usual, 15-20 and 30 respectively. The one dinner we had was amazing (although I didn’t eat much) – dal, rice, veg curry, potatoes, fried bitter gourd, egg curry, raw veggies, and apricot dessert – for 150 rupees each. Breakfast was porridge, Tibetan bread, honey, jam, and a boiled egg for 100 rupees.

India - Singalila Ridge Trek Day 1

We didn’t hire a porter and carried our own gear. We probably brought too much stuff. I would recommend packing lite – only bringing a few days of clothing, warm hat and gloves, and a headlamp. We rented down sleeping bags in Darjeeling for 80 rupees a day from Trek Mate. We didn’t need them in Tumling as there were plenty of blankets. We also foolishly brought snacks from Darjeeling that we could have bought at any of the tea stall that dotted the trail.

India - Singalila Ridge Trek Day 1

Backpacking Vietnam – Sapa

Trekking in the Rice Paddies
Sapa is a popular tourist town in the northwest corner of Vietnam that serves as a gateway for visiting the ethnic hill tribes that live in the area. Around Sapa there are rolling hills covered in rice terraces and many small Hmong and Dzao villages, where people still follow their traditional ways of life (although western influence and tourist money is slowly changing that).

Trekkin in SapaMost tourists book a package that includes the train, accommodation, and trekking with a guide, but we contacted a guide ourselves through Sapa Sisters, a group of local guides from the Black Hmong tribe. Our guide, Mao, was excellent and we got a much more personal experience than the larger tour groups had, plus we knew the money we spent was going directly to our guide and not a travel agency in Hanoi.

Market PhoAfter a quick bowl of pho in the market, we were off hiking. I thought it was going to be an easy hike when I saw Mao in big purple boots, but I was wrong – it wasn’t easy, it was just muddy. Mao took us off the main trail and along tiny trails used by the locals. Even though we had a guide, we also had two other women follow us, helping us whenever the trail became slippery or steep. It wasn’t until we stopped for lunch, almost 3 hours later, that they tried to sell us something. Emily bought a small purse. That’s 3 hours of hard work for a $2 sale.
Muddy Trekking Off the Beaten Path Sapa Trekking
Black Hmong Tourist TrapPersistence was a common sales technique for the older Black Hmong women. The young girls relied on their excellent English and their cuteness. I don’t think they understood our responses, but they would ask “Where are you from?” “What’s your name?” and a few other stock phrases in perfect English before trying to sell you a bracelet.

I enjoyed the scenery along our hike, even though the hills were shrouded in fog. The view would be amazing in the summer when the rice is in bloom. The highlight of our hike though was talking to Mao about her life and discussing the interesting cultural differences of life among the hill tribes. Most of the tribes in the area originally migrated from China hundreds of years ago. The women seem to be the bread winners and still dress in traditional clothing, while the men are a bunch of slackers. Mao told us the guys have trouble learning English, so all the guides are women. The women also do a lot of the daily work and cooking.
Corn Mill Water Logged Rice Paddies Emily and the Water Buffalo
The most interesting thing we learned from Mao was about the marriage customs. According to her, she’s been ‘married’ to her husband for a year (she’s only 17) and they live together, but they haven’t had a wedding yet. She was hoping that during the new year celebrations, both of their families would give their blessing and then they could have a wedding.

Our night in Sapa was spent at an “intimate” homestay in a small village, or at least that’s how it was advertised. There were 12 other people and enough bed’s to sleep 30, so it was more of a rural hostel. However, the other guests were friendly and it was good to get advice on places to go on the rest of our trip. We had an excellent, candle-lit (the power went out) dinner and afterwards our hosts brought out “happy water” – home-brewed rice wine. It was served from a water bottle, and even though it was remarkably strong, it was also very smooth.
Sapa Homestay Candlelight Dinner Happy Water
MotorbikeThe next morning we got up early for a motorbike ride back to Sapa and then a bus trip to Bac Ha, home to a popular Sunday market. The hill tribes (mostly Flower Hmong) converge on the city to swap fabrics, foods, and livestock. Unlike most of the other markets we visited in Vietnam, the Bac Ha market is largely geared at locals, with only a small section selling souvenirs. While we wandered around taking pictures, Mao went off shopping for dried beans and a purse.
Bac Ha Market
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