Category Archives: Travel
Dawn is just breaking in the eastern steel town of Durgapur on this delightful Sunday morning, different from the rest in that India has just won the Cricket World Cup and this unpretentious little town is in the grip of a pleasant hangover. The hard mud on the streets is stained with colour, and posters of various members of the Indian cricket team at different stages of their careers flutter in the balmy morning breeze.
At the small, shabby bus-stop at Benachity, there is no news-stand; or perhaps there is one whose owner is still lying in a victory-induced stupor, reluctant to be awakened from his thrilling dream-like reality into the more pragmatic demands of his work. The compact, colourful, slightly dubious-looking bus we have just boarded creaks and groans as the passengers trickle in, settling themselves on its very tiny seats. The driver and conductor linger outside in the fresh air for a last whiff of their cigarettes before shutting themselves in for the long, rather unsettling five-hour drive on not the best roads in the country.
A festive atmosphere is palpably visible even on the almost deserted streets; last night’s revelry has left clear signs of the transports of delight that this town has been sent into, thanks to the exploits of a bunch of much venerated men on the cricket field. As always, sport has proved its ability to unite and uplift, and what can be more fitting in India than securing the most prized possession in the game played in every street, nook and cranny of its tiniest village! A bus passes ours, accoutred in festal adornments, a largely blue poster of Indian cricketers pasted on a corner of its windscreen. Elsewhere, ashes lie thick on two clay lamps on a platform, in front of garlanded, tilak-adorned posters of Zaheer Khan and Sachin Tendulkar- the prowess of the cricketers on the field has indubitably been aided by plenty of prayers.
The bus sails down a section of the Grand Trunk Road, NH2, before taking a detour- which actually lasts almost the entire length of the journey- through various hamlets in West Bengal’s Burdwan district. (Burdwan was actually Bardhaman- I assume an Englishman couldn’t have cared less about the correct way to pronounce the name of an obscure Indian district during the long years of colonialism.) On the highway, this early, vehicles are few; predatory birds swoop down on carrion- probably a stray dog startled by a truck rearing down on it full throttle. Automobile repair shops begin to raise their shutters slowly and send out for their first tea trays.
The ancient springs and joints of the bus creak with the shrillness of a bird in captivity as it jolts over practically non-existent roads, stopping with a sudden jerk in the middle of nowhere to pick up a passenger. We are in the heart of rural India, which, though untouched by much progress and hard-pressed to eke out a proper living, sees tea stalls displaying bright packets of potato chips and sachets of shampoo concocted by foreign experts. A man goes out to relieve himself on a thinly wooded slope; elsewhere, women gather dung in baskets and pat it onto the mud walls of their thatched huts. The drying fuel bears imprints of the fingers of their work-calloused hands. The ’road’ presses past cowsheds where men are having their first glasses of tea, and a warm, not unpleasant dairy odour wafts in through the open window. Breakfast is being made ready in tin-roofed shanties, golden jalebis and samosas sizzling sibilantly in large, soot-blackened cauldrons. It is a hard life here, but these men and women work uncomplainingly. Their brown faces break into ready smiles, and they don’t frown or wince as they pack themselves tight, skin rubbing against sweaty skin, paunch getting in the way, in these tiny buses (or on top of them). The women wear the brightest colours imaginable, their washing fluttering in the wind or spread out to dry on grassy slopes consists of sarees in the loudest hues of yellow, purple, orange and green. They bathe in small muddy ponds and wring their clothes out in the same infested water; these are the people who will play a major part in deciding the future of the state in the forthcoming elections. Greedy vote-seeking frenzy is in evidence on the walls of low-roofed buildings in the shape of crudely-painted party symbols and slogans. Party flags, alternating with the Indian tricolour brought out for the World Cup, are stretched out between poles. What has been done or will be done to improve the lot of these villagers is an open-ended question- the most untrained eye can see the lack of basic amenities in these villages even during a fleeting trip through their roads.
The sun is beginning to rise in the sky and tinge the cool morning breeze with its warmth. The sky is a cloudless, hazy white, forming a pretty complement to the dazzling green of the paddy fields. The smooth low carpet is furrowed by brown irrigation channels, and out of the seeming smoothness startlingly rise small copses of trees- which came first, the trees or the fields? The countryside is generously dotted with ponds, their surfaces glistening and untroubled in the distance, but textured by ripples as they come closer and catch the rays of the sun.
Village follows village on this narrow trail, and occasionally the bus breaks out in relief on an almost unhindered course on a series of potholes, the only obstruction coming in the form of stray goats that wander into the path of “civilisation”, before squeezing itself into yet another hamlet and rubbing shoulders with cycles and motorised rickshaws. The bus halts for a while at Katwa and allows a number of vendors to come on board: ’Pepsi’ in orange, cola and lemon is being sold in the shape of ice candies in narrow tubular plastic covers, as are various other candies, the wares being called out in Bengali in strident, confident tones. Having disgorged most of its burden, the bus sets off again with that last, heartening burst of enthusiasm that comes from knowing that the destination is not far away. Alas, this is the worst stretch of the journey, the most nerve-wracking and joint-wringing of all, and it is with mixed feelings and slightly enervated enthusiasm that we disembark at the rickshaw-stand in the pilgrim town of Nabadwipdham.
As the plane begins its descent, objects detach themselves from the general golden haze and begin to exist again as individual entities. The undulations that ‘could have been’ hills and brown-and-green patches of earth assume their proper identities. The furrows on the broad silver river, ploughed by ferries and large boats, become visible; smoke spirals rise from the obelisk-like structures of the numerous brick kilns that dot the countryside.
Being in Eastern India is always a homecoming of sorts for me. Having grown up in industrial towns, I’m at home with massive chimneys vomiting ugly dark smoke into serene blue skies, or pink smoke into star-sprinkled black nights. Small towns delight me with their stolidity, with their propensity to be excited into a flurry of activity once or twice a year during a festival perhaps, only to retreat into their shells once the burst of energy has run its course. Neighbours hail each other in the morning across the fence and talk while they’re watering their gardens. Happiness is more about knowing that someone you know has made it to the “city” and gone to a good college, than flaunting a sedan or designer clothes- for the quintessential ambition of “small town” parents is to see their children get out of the confines of the colony they’ve grown up in.
Calcutta isn’t a small town, but despite- or because of?- its size and bursting population, there is a quality to it that makes it very warm and human. I felt at home on my first real trip to the city- maybe it helps that I am a little familiar with Bengali, having heard it quite a lot while I was growing up- and I wasn’t stuck with the unpleasant task of having to peel off a façade to expose the skeleton to my wondering eyes. Calcutta isn’t a city caught in the rabid clutches of impersonal modernity and progress, unlike a couple of others I’ve lived in.
Calcutta has a large South Indian population, particularly around Lake Market. A small shop, tucked away between stately buildings and nondescript stalls, sells everything that a homesick Tamilian population can ask for. On a nearby wall, a poster advertises the Telugu movie ‘Orange’. And for a moment, you could well imagine you were in a street down south in the peninsula, and not traipsing through the eastern parts of the country. The old juxtaposed against the new; cultures mingling and acquiring a new identity. This is what Calcutta is about.
At the Esplanade, where buses from the states around West Bengal converge (there are even buses to Bhutan here), there is a flurry of activity. The roads are packed; a few hundred metres away, red flags are being held up and men are climbing aboard a van in preparation for a rally. Some distance away, a rival party readies itself for its own rally. These converging masses of men will bring the traffic to a standstill. More traffic policemen will be pressed into service to deal with irate motorists near the New Market area.
The New Market is perhaps one of the oldest shopping areas in the country. Bustling even on a Sunday morning, it doubles up as a flea market and up-market shopping destination. Vendors quote outrageous prices for their wares, and it takes all your bargaining skills to bring them down to a reasonable level. What I’m really looking forward to on my next trip to Calcutta, though, is a visit to College Street- that haven of secondhand bookshops. On the pavements of Gariahat, a number of rickety stalls sell pirated editions of Chetan Bhagat, Sidney Sheldon and Dan Brown. People here like to read and to learn- I can barely remember an edition of the Bournvita Quiz Contest, Mastermind India or University Challenge without a contestant with Bengali affiliations (not forgetting the quizmasters, of course- Derek O’Brien and Siddharth Basu respectively).
Timeless charm, grace and tenacity- this is what Calcutta is all about. Vast tracts of slum land surround the city and the airport is in desperate need of a facelift. The government has plenty to deal with in terms of the Maoists and industrialisation glitches. It struggles its way to progress and may not strike a newcomer fresh from the glitz of swanky glass and steel as the most exciting holiday destination. If you don’t care to delve beneath artifices, though, Calcutta is the city for you, because it lays itself bare and isn‘t confused about its identity.
For a city bursting at its seams, the streets of Lake Market, Calcutta, are unusually quiet. The brilliant yellow taxis, ubiquitous in other parts of the city, make only sporadic appearances on the tree-lined roads. Green and yellow autorickshaws splutter past arrays of bouquets, funeral wreaths and dyed flowers (where else on earth could you find a parrot-green bunch of petals?). Tinny-looking buses- which seem to be gingerly held together by a handful of bolts- rumble by indolently, window-panes missing, variously-clothed elbows shoved out through the bars; the names of the origins and destinations are painted on the sides of the blue and maroon bodies in loud, curly-edged fonts.
In these quiet streets, time has come to a standstill. It is a Sunday afternoon towards the end of November, but it feels more like spring than winter- the end of March, perhaps, when the cold season departs reluctantly, lingering longingly in its favourite patches while the firm, lengthening arms of the sun nudge it away. Old-fashioned, stately bungalows cast their sleepy eye upon the loitering rickshaw-pullers who rest in the meagre shade of the slim trees that bend their supple bodies to the song of the wind. Who built these houses, and when? The slatted windows speak of a different era altogether, and the old man in a dhoti and vest, thick glasses perched on his nose, might well be a surviving relic of the days that live on only in the mottled yellow pages of old books (and on the screen of a Kindle, perhaps). An elderly lady, wearing a discoloured white saree in the traditional Bengali style, shuffles down the pavement. This street is vintage Tagore, and as I stand by a dripping hand-pump on which some homeless crows take refuge, I cannot think of a more effective way of time travel.
Calcutta, in many ways, has withstood the ravages of time. The grime of decades lies so thick on some of its buildings it can probably never be washed away. Broken balconies bend under the weight of decades of footsteps. There is a timeless grace to this city that endows it with a character of its own, unlike others that succumb to the lure of snazzy modernity, often bereft of any identity or uniqueness. I haven’t seen much of Calcutta, really- just seen a battered tram or two, caught a glimpse of the Victoria Memorial and been driven a short distance by a paan-chewing taxi driver from Bihar who spits out red squirts with clockwork-like regularity while talking politics. I’ve seen the soot-blackened facades of shops in the New Market and the relentless crush of people milling around in every inch of space available. Through the crowds and the sticky heat, though, you sense the throbbing that drives this city and puts things together in its own sometimes ramshackle way, keeping the wheels turning with the occasional glitches.
I might have stepped right into the midst of two rallies, one led by the Trinamool Congress and the other by the Communists, but we’ll leave politics to another day. Words on a screen aren’t the best way to experience it, but I’m sure that at any given moment, Calcutta will impress you as a city with a heart, amen to that.
The driver arms himself with a sackful of potatoes from Lachung and off we go, back to Gangtok. I look at the mountains, now hidden in the thick cloudy mist, that I feel like I’ve known forever. I cannot tear myself away from them, but leave I must.
Dusk falls in an hour or two after we set off, and the driver negotiates the tortuous slopes of the Himalayas in near-darkness. The Seven Sisters Waterfall, vibrant with human voices added to its relentless gush on our upward climb, now has nature’s night music for accompaniment. The tea stalls are shut, their proprietors walking about briskly in the cold air, and the prayer flags are no longer visible. For all we know, we could be driving down a road never traversed- and we still wouldn’t realise it.
The jeep halts suddenly and a torchlight is flashed through the windows. The tension inside is palpable- but then the man holding the torch grins broadly, says something in his language to his friends, and our driver steps out for a laugh with them. A collective sigh of relief is heard, confused questions are asked, and once again, a little weary, we’re on our way to the capital.
The fairy-lights of the city come into view, spread across vast Himalayan slopes. It stretches out into the distance, wide and endless, even as we dip into one trough and emerge onto another crest. Dropped off at the “bus-stop” where all the jeeps to and from major towns in the region converge, we make our way up a steep, moss-covered flight of steps- there are narrow stairways connecting one street to another all around town- to Mall Road. It is past eight o’clock and the last of the souvenir shops are preparing to wind up their business for the day. A teacher in a red cardigan over her synthetic saree shepherds her girls down a narrow lane to a hotel hidden in its recesses; a schoolmaster asks his restless students to line up so he can conduct a headcount. We find a vegetarian restaurant and finish dinner quickly. There is one dream yet to be fulfilled.
I go to the balcony in the morning to be confronted by a strikingly beautiful view- where clouds have swirled for three days now, mountain peaks now stand out in snow-covered glory, their peaks softly tinged by the first rays of the sun. The sky has been washed clean and is deliciously blue- our last day in Sikkim is one of the finest the town has seen in a while.
We take a taxi to Tashi Viewpoint, and our garrulous driver sets off at breakneck speed, anxious that we should make it there before the sun comes out or the weather stops behaving. All through his hurry, however, he talks rapidly, his left hand gesturing and waving as he frequently takes it off the wheel to establish a point. He is a practicing Hindu, he says, but was born in a Buddhist family, where the norm was to give one child away, male or female, to the monastery. His elder brother is a monk. He points to the shiny prayer wheel on his dashboard, a ubiquitous presence in cars in the region, and talks of its powers- about how it must be blown on by a monk before its effectiveness can be made visible. He shows us his house, and the school where his son studies. All along the way, we see children trudging up to school, some reluctantly, others nonchalantly; a little boy opens a bottle of mango juice and pours some into his younger sister’s mouth, giggling at a secret joke they share meanwhile.
We make our way up to Tashi Viewpoint, and from there, magnificently rising into the clear skies, I see the Kanchenjunga, the third-highest peak in the world. It is in fact a series of five peaks, and they spread out gloriously on this cool, crisp morning, unencumbered by their burden of clouds. A tour guide tells us of people who have been visiting for days for a glimpse of the mountain, but returned crestfallen each time, defeated by the weather- we should consider ourselves extremely lucky to have been blessed with such brilliant skies. And so I do- every inch of these ancient mountains teems with life, and to be able to see them in their full splendour, bathed in sunshine, is to have an imprint etched in my memory, one to pull out of the closet every time the question of the purpose of life nudges and haunts me.
Our final stop in Sikkim will be the Tibetan Buddhist monastery at Ranka, an offshoot of the one at Rumtek, the monastery at the heart of the Karmapa controversy. We are delayed by an altercation between the drivers of two vehicles which have brushed against each other, taking the entire thoroughfare ransom- our cab-driver gets out to talk to them and manages to placate them. “Men from my village,” he explains, as he gets back in and drives us up the road that sweeps into the monastery gates.
A long line of dark prayer-wheels greets us. We are told to touch them, one by one, before we go up the flight of steps to the monastery. It is a graceful, red-roofed structure with a spacious courtyard, at the end of which is a brightly-painted wall. We greet the two monks seated near the door and they invite us in. We are directed up the steps to the large hall where Buddha, serene and beautiful in His golden form, flanked by other deities, looks upon humanity benevolently. The profound silence seeps is overwhelming, and I think of this quiet temple, tucked away in picturesque pockets of the Himalayas, cut off from the bustle of the world below. The corridors are lined with closed rooms, warmed by the mild sunrays that slant into them. Young monks learn their lessons, talking to one another in hushed tones, smiling, giggling- but there is also an air of grown-up wisdom about them, perhaps endowed by the discipline and their maroon robes. We can hear lessons in English from a classroom window- a disembodied voice talks of rising early and sleeping early, and a group of boys repeats after it. Behind the monastery, the ground slopes up further to another building that we see monks walking up to, going uphill effortlessly. Tall trees canopy the sky- what a beautiful place this is in which to learn and live- it must be so much easier to be good here than in the unholy machinations of the plains! The older monks tell us the monastery is twenty years old, and follows the principles of Mahayana Buddhism- differing from the Theravada form of Buddhism that is practised widely in Singapore, where I had my first tryst with the religion. We request them to light a butter lamp for us, because the lama is not around, and they agree to do so.
We slip into the souvenir shop, where, as we look around, we have a conversation with a Tibetan man who used to be a monk, but now helps out around the monastery and teaches children. He explains some of the characters on the scrolls in the shop and asks us about our stay in Sikkim. He is genuinely pleased when we tell him how much peace we’ve found here, and shakes hands with us as we leave.
This also marks the end of a fulfilling journey, my first visit to a tiny bit of the little-explored Northeastern parts of the country- and nearly a month on, the hangover has still not subsided. The Himalayas still populate my dreams, rising grandly into the clouds and blue skies, some with sunshine and shadow chasing each other on their green slopes, others coarse from erosion and showing off snow-speckled surfaces. The river Teesta, meanwhile, flows silkily through the valleys, fed forever by the melting ice, pure and crystal-clear. This, after all, is what will remain when we have managed to self-destruct with all our callousness- rigid testimony to the history of millennia.
At half-past five in the morning, the sun is making ready to climb into the sky, and there is enough light by which to watch the mountains take on their distinctive shapes, after the single continuous blur they seemed to have been in the darkness last night.
As I stand on the narrow staircase of the guest house, I see snow for the very first time- and oh, what an exalting feeling it is. That very moment, knowing I am in a nondescript village deep in the Himalayas, eyes resting on snow-capped mountain peaks, I feel as if there is nothing more I’ll ever need to ask life for. In a while, the brilliant white snow will seem to rise from the peaks in a drift of smoke, the clouds weaving themselves gently about the mountain-tops like the train of an unusually long bridal gown. Now, though, the mountains stand proudly stark, save for their only adornment of a fine layer of snow. The sun lightens the sky gradually and casts a sheer golden web over the mountains; as we nurse our glasses of tea, we watch the spectacular play of light on the mountains, the snow now glinting with an added fire.
We are driven off to the Yumthang Valley. A lady in blue looks out from her verandah and I wave to her- she inclines her head and smiles prettily. This has to be said about the people of Sikkim- they are very warm and friendly, right from the boys working at the small hotels and tea shops to the young monks studying at the monastery- they give away their smiles and laughter readily. They are well-informed and talk without inhibition on various subjects. When asked if Sikkim had always received enough attention for development and growth, the proprietor of a tea shop tells us how the government has redoubled its efforts at building and maintaining roads and other infrastructure in Sikkim, “jabse China chhedne laga” (ever since China started messing with us). We meet a local who, when told we are from Tamil Nadu, tells us about his son who studies engineering in Chennai. Taxi drivers give us lessons in Geography, discuss religion, family and politics. The laidback pace of life sucks you in, but you know that underneath the seeming placidity, there is a great deal going on, healthy ambitions ripening.
Further up through the mountains we travel, jolting over rugged, sometimes non-existent roads, we pass signs for rhododendron trails and bump over pebbles on the beds of transparent little streams. More snow-clad peaks come into view, gleaming iridescently as the sun gets stronger, despite which, a chill lingers in the crisp, fresh air. We stop by a slope that leads down to one of the tributaries of the Teesta, quite surrounded by the rugged Himalayas. I look at the rosy-faced young Tibetan women who run the tea stalls and envy them for actually being able to live here, amidst this natural magnificence; older women in traditional clothes with leathery, wrinkled faces shuffle back and forth from the wooden tables set up in front of their charcoal-warmed wooden cabins, selling souvenirs and warm clothes. Yaks chew cud on the grassy slope, and we pick our way through yak gob down to the pale blue-white river swirling cheerfully over smooth white pebbles. I cup my hands and take a swig of the clear water- it is deliciously cold and unsullied. A little boy collects tiny stones and skips them on the water. Quiet and pure, this could almost be a place on another planet. I don’t have the heart to leave.
But move on we must, and we’re back in the jeep and climbing again, clinging closely to the narrow “road” where one misstep could hurl you to death instantly into the deep, plunging valley. You can well feel your heart in your mouth when two vehicles try to pass each other in opposite directions on one of the tight hairpin bends, and once the obstacle has been cleared, laugh shakily and throw Sebastien Loeb a challenge- with your driver at the helm, of course.
We drive past little patches of newly fallen snow that still haven’t melted. Vast expanses of snow cover the grey, rocky faces of some of the mountains we pass. Approaching a height of nearly 15000 feet, we come across army barracks- a grim reminder of the inhospitable conditions that our soldiers fight in, another reason to question the reason for war and the thirst for territory.
We are at Zero Point, the tip of North Sikkim, right at the border with China. It is extremely cold, and the strong breeze is freezing our hands and noses and lips. We can hardly talk for the cold, and our fingers tremble as we try to hold our plastic coffee cups. A couple of soldiers are getting ready to drive away, but when we request them for a picture, they readily oblige. Once more, we cannot help but marvel at their tenacity as they struggle in difficult conditions so far from home and their families, working endlessly at the borders to ensure the safety of our country.
Snow still lies in mounds or in crevices between rocks, and I finger it gingerly in my ungloved hands. A little snowball fight ensues, and soon we are packed off in the jeep again- it is just too cold up there. However, the spectacular views of snow-shrouded mountain peaks more than make up for all the discomfort.
I have seen the Himalayas and marvelled at them- but I still haven’t had a glimpse of the crown jewel- the Kanchenjunga. It will have to wait till we’re back in Gangtok, though, and then, the skies will have to be favourable and we’ll have to appease the sun. For the first time in my life, I’m wishing the rain clouds away.
The road winds up into the Shivaliks, seemingly curving into their heart- the city of Gangtok is sprawled across these lower reaches of the Himalayas. It is still only October; when the cold months arrive, a bed of snow will flake the twinkling fairy lights of this hill town.
We walk down MG Road, Gangtok. How different it is from its namesake in the cities of the plains, a colonial reminder of the years gone by, the quintessential Mall of Himalayan towns. You can almost conjure up images of British sahibs and their elegantly dressed wives trotting up and down these hill roads, looking for respite from the searing heat of the plains. (All you need, in fact, is a haunted dak bungalow to complete the story.) Today, it is a paved road only for pedestrians, lined with Bose loudspeakers on lampposts, leading past a line of restaurants and shops selling clothes, electronic items and all sorts of curious artefacts to a nondescript, dank movie theatre. It is close to eight o’clock at night, and a cloudy mist settles over the town, people reduced to blurry shapes as they walk by. The shops are winding down for the day, and some already have their shutters down. Darkness falls as early as 5 pm, and it is only natural that the owners of the establishments here would want to go home to their dinner before yet another bright and early start the next morning.
We are in bed soon, too, because we have an early start ahead of us. We are taking a jeep to Lachung, a village in North Sikkim. Most places here mention the district on signboards- everywhere in and around Gangtok, the boards tell us we’re in East Sikkim.
A punctured step-knee means we’re delayed at a repair shop for about an hour. It isn’t a traditional garage- a man carries the tyre up a few steep stone steps to the courtyard of his house and works on it. From where we are parked, there is a brilliant view of a mountain-top, diaphanous clouds crowning its crest, a few girls in blue uniforms walking up to a small building perched on it. The hillsides bathed in yellow sunshine sprawl beneath us, dotted with variously coloured houses, the Teesta flowing further down on its ancient bed. Imagine waking up to this view every morning, instead of the jagged squares of white-hot sky and concrete that most of us are accustomed to!
We set off a little while later on what is going to be the most spectacular journey I’ve ever been on. The road hugs the mountains constantly, and thanks to the numerous landslides that occur in the region, is more often than not in a state of repair. The jeep jolts over rock and stream, coming precariously close to the edge from where there is only a sheer drop into the valley. The clouds cast large swathes of shadow over the rolling dark hillsides, and the sky remains placid and blue. Thick-skinned, rather furry cows graze on the hillslopes, and I see a few birds I cannot recognise. On and off, the hills break into a riot of colour, the grasses red, brown and green, speckled with bright flowers.
We stop at a couple of waterfalls on the way, rapidly gushing foamy streams of water that will meet one of the tributaries of the Teesta- at these heights, far from the swirling madness of the plains, quite untouched by human hand, everything is clean and pure.
Darkness is falling, and the eerie atmosphere is accentuated by the relentless trilling of insects. We stop for tea- fragrant, sweet and milky, most of it comes from Darjeeling- and are soon on the last lap of our journey to Lachung. The mountains are now just large, looming shapes in the dark, shorn of friendliness or any emotion whatsoever. As we climb higher up, lights flicker on in the valley sporadically, and we marvel at the tenacity of the people who choose such distant, almost isolated places to build their homes.
Stars sprinkle the velvety darkness of the sky as we reach our guest house in Lachung. We cannot see much at this hour, but we notice quite a few houses and a splendid monastery. As we step out of the jeep, we feel the biting cold of the thin air- at an elevation of 9600 feet, you sure feel the difference. The rooms of the guest house are sparely furnished, and the few men in attendance have quite a bit of rushing around to do to accommodate this new batch of guests. A hot meal of rice, dal, potatoes in gravy and cabbage awaits us, and we turn in early- not that we need much coaxing into bed. Tired out by the long journey and eager for an early start to the Yumthang Valley, we ignore the mosquitoes and hit the sack.
Onward to Yumthang!
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.