The town of Maneybhajhang had not yet awaken but the door to the police office was ajar. The official who was supposed to be behind the desk spotted us from around the corner. Our short 3-day trek began in his bureau and would bring us to Sandakphu, a peak 3660m above sea level. On a great day, you get grand views of Everest and Kanchenjunga—the first and third highest mountains in the world. On a not-so-bad day, you can seen villages dotted on gently sloping hills that drop into deep valleys. On a bad day, you can see the stones under your feet that make up the trekking path. We arrived on a bad day.
The official was friendly enough. After entering us into the foreigners registration book, he directed us to his map on the wall. "You are here... Sandakphu is here. You will need to stop this night along the way. We are very close to the Nepal border, you see, but try not to go to Nepal because you don't have the visa," he advised, then proceeded to show Gregg the best walking routes within Nepal. As tempting as it was, especially since we'd axed Nepal from our itinerary, we promised to stick to the main path and went on our way.
We'd already picked a stopping place for the first night upon a recommendation from another traveller. Shikhar Lodge, 11km away in a tiny village called Tumling, awaited our arrival. After the first 3km of grueling steep snake-turns on big slippery rocks, I'd prematurely decided that trekking was not for me—I was already wondering How much further and Will it flatten out? Eventually the path levelled off for a bit, but we were to be trekking stones the whole way up. 5km. 8km. 10km. My feet hurt. I was wet from sweat and the cold moisture of the air. And there was nothing gratifying in seeing a solid white wall of fog. Waah, waah, waah. Gregg peed in the bushes; I ate another raisin.
So the sign marked 'Tumling' that suddenly appearing five feet in front of us came as a welcome surprise. Shikhar Lodge was the first building and Nila, the proprietor, came out shortly to greet us. She showed us a private room with attached bath—amazingly well-outfitted with running water and a flushing toilet—for a village of eight houses. We gladly dropped our packs and followed her into the main house, passing through a dining room adjacent to a large room filled with beds. At the back was the kitchen, a square room sparsely but neatly furnished, with a wall lined with stainless steel pots. This is where the family spends most their time—where the home to the house lay. A few women sat on low wooden benches chopping vegetables. Another stoked the fire, boiling a pot of water on the stove; beside her sat the matron of the house, Nila's mother, and a cat curled up next to her feet. Stools were placed next to her around the fire for us to sit and warm up. We were soon brought steaming mugs of chai and began to get to know Nila and her family.
Nila Gurung is, as her name implies, Gurung, one of 36 sub-groups of the Gorkhas from Nepal. Nila is about my age and unmarried. Her tall and strong build accords her a commanding presence. Nila's native tongue is Nepali but she speaks perfect English, which she learned at school in Darjeeling, along with the Hindi she picked up. She told us that Tumling (which means 'top of the hill') is actually in Nepal, but there was no problem with her going to school in Darjeeling; it is as though there was no border for the locals of the area. Apparently, we'd just inadvertently crossed the invisible border without even straying from the main path.
Three young girls, presumably the grandchildren, flitted about, bursting through the wooden swinging door from the cold to crouch down by the fire, their blackened hands unafraid of the dancing flames. Then suddenly as quick as they came in, they were off again to play ball or help with chores.