Seeing the Kanchenjunga is a chance affair. Such is the mountain’s command over the local ecosystem and weather that locals believe that the Kanchenjunga God has to permit you to see it, by providing clear skies. Many travellers, including the British explorers, have experienced immense frustration in the failure to view the mountain due to bad weather. On most days of the year, the mountain plays hide and seek with the viewer — there one minute, gone the next. This was the third time I was visiting Darjeeling with the explicit intent to see the colossal Kanchenjunga massif. The first two trips were in the summer months of April-May and comprised futile attempts at trying to catch a glimpse of Mt Kanchenjunga. I woke up each morning at 4 am and got myself to a viewing point, only for my attempts to be thwarted by fog, mist and clouds.
But as they say, the third time’s the charm, and so it was. On a chilly October morning, I found myself in Tiger Hill, Darjeeling, at 4 am again, with the hope of seeing the grand Kanchenjunga mountain range. Keeping these past failed attempts in mind, I was nervously waiting for the sunrise. At about quarter past five, the first golden rays of the sun cast their light on the grandiose mountains and what an incredible sight it was!
Watching the sun rise over the Himalayan mountains has an intoxicating effect, which renders you inebriated with its beauty. Once you see the Kanchenjunga in the morning, everything else pales in comparison and nothing is meaningful anymore, except that great geological form, that majestic mountain, that ethereal beauty, that abode of eternal snow and truth.
Kanchenjunga is the third highest peak in the world and highest in India, standing at a height of 8,586 metres above sea level. The locals believe that the name Kanchenjunga (sometimes written as Kangchendzonga) literally translates into “the five treasures of the snow”, which could point to the five peaks in the range, each of which is believed to be a divine repository of gold, silver, gems, grain and holy books.
In a brief period during the months of October-November, the clear skies afford the chance to see the big K from most parts of the Darjeeling area, without having to go to a special view point such as Tiger Hill, which can get crowded at times. In these months, one can just walk up to the TV tower just a few minutes from town centre and let the mountains awe you. Other hill stations near Darjeeling like Kurseong, which are cleaner and more peaceful, also provide great viewing opportunities.
When the crowded streets and bustle of Darjeeling saturate you, I would suggest heading to Kalimpong, a quaint little hill station, surrounded by verdant, lush green mountains, where you can walk around the entire town in less than a day. From there, one can head to Gangtok in Sikkim, a unique place which is a juxtaposition of modernity in facilities and the timelessness of the mountains. Gangtok is quite easily the cleanest capital city of India. Walk up to Ganesh Mandir or Tashi view point to experience soul-fulfilling views of the Kanchenjunga massif. Pelling, in East Sikkim, is another great hill station known for its untouched natural beauty and proximity to the Kanchenjunga range.
Seeing the Kanchenjunga can be an ordeal; it sometimes would require you to climb steep hills to catch a glimpse and it requires immense patience — you may have to wait hours or sometimes days for clear skies. Sometimes, despite all the effort and patience, you will be disappointed if the mountain decides not to show itself. However, when it is in a gentler disposition and offers you a sighting, it will be an enriching, invigorating and life changing experience.
A lasting image of the experience for me was when after a clear day, the clouds suddenly covered most of the mountain, except the very tip. That was the most surreal experience, where you believe that the peak is touching the sky and the entire mountain is suspended above the ground and hanging motionless.
The writer is a policy analyst at Takshashila Institution on weekdays and a mountain man on weekends, with an obsession with the Kanchenjunga