Even as the train pulls into the railway station at New Jalpaiguri, I can feel the excitement building up. The dry heat of the plains has been long left behind, and though the sun is a bright circle in the sky, the weather is more forgiving than it was the previous evening at Kolkata. The humidity has been sucked out of the air, and on either side of the track as the train wends its way to this pretty little door to the Northeast, lush green fields catch the first rays of the morning light. Men are out for their ablutions, dark specks squatting amidst the waving crops. The inevitably dingy railway-side towns are passed, their soot-blackened, featureless faces staring out endlessly at the multitudes of people who pass them everyday. The walls plastered with movie posters and painted with advertisements for TMT bars, cement and footwear are a blur of colour and the angles of the Bengali script. At the railway crossings, forced into patience, people bend over their bicycles, waiting for yet another train to pass by so they can get on with their work.
At NJP, we board a jeep that will take us to Gangtok. This is a journey that, on good, flat roads, could be completed in about two hours. It takes us nearly seven, thanks to the rough terrain, a long lunch break when the driver went missing, and traffic jams on the narrow curves of the mountain roads.
But I don’t really mind it. The road first takes us through the Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary, bordered by sturdy tall trees, an indication of the Alpine vegetation that is soon to follow. I keep my eyes peeled, hoping to sight a protected animal, but the disappointment of not seeing one is overshadowed by the delight of being driven down this road so marvellously shaded by trees benevolent and imposing all at once.
The road then begins to slice through the Himalayas, hugging the hillsides closely as the Teesta begins to make an appearance, a constant companion all the way up to Gangtok. It curves sinuously over its grey-white sandy bed where trucks lie scattered, picking up quarried stone. It is a river of many colours. Muddy brown at first, it changes to a clear blue and then to green flecked with white as it gurgles and splashes through the Himalayas, appearing startlingly from narrow niches in the mountains and flowing down in transparent clarity over bubbles and rock steps carved out in the hillside.
Being in the Himalayas is like feeling a prayer. There is no other way I can describe it, the absolute bliss that descends upon you once you are wrapped almost inextricably in the folds of these mighty mountains, as old as time itself. A sense of insignificance takes hold of me, and I succumb to it willingly- it is a humbling experience to be overwhelmed by Nature, akin to being felled by the enormity of star-sprinkled skies or the endlessness of the ocean.
Higher up, a new world begins to take shape. Houses perch on ledges cut out of the hillsides, prayer flags become ubiquitous. The red temple on the lower reaches almost resembles a monastery. Up here, there is a gentle confluence of Buddhism and Hinduism, made evident by the dashboards in jeeps where an idol of Ganesha reposes by a gold-coloured prayer wheel. The plants turn distinctly alpine- taller and with differently-shaped leaves, some grey from the dust from the mud roads. The flowers are bright and fresh; from amidst the creepers, a red or a white flower makes a surprising appearance. Moss-covered benches are set out at a few places along the way, and sudden foaming streaks appear through invisible cracks, the plentiful waterfalls and springs of the Himalayas.
We stop for lunch in a little bazaar set in the lee of an almost vertical mountain wall. The Teesta is barely visible in the distance through the thick green foliage; the air is getting colder. Goods that come up from the plains are expensive- “the higher you go, the costlier it gets,” explains the girl behind the counter at one of the shops, as she reaches out to a baby girl with distinct Tibetan features.
Not everything is idyllic and peaceful as the woods up in these hills. Where the roads diverge, one to Darjeeling and the other to Gangtok, a pillar bears the words, “Welcome to Gorkhaland”. Further on, more slogans on walls, banners and address boards at shops proclaim their identification with Gorkhaland. A hoarding advertises the Gorkhaland Tourist Festival. Dissent bubbles underneath the delusional calm that lies over these mountains; a few months ago, a couple of French tourists I’d met in Pondicherry had been stranded in Darjeeling due to a curfew.
Today, though, life seems normal. Without incident, we are deposited in Gangtok- and this is a world that I’m unaccustomed to, that I look forward to exploring.