[Warning- Very lengthy post. Read at leisure. Free to take breaks]
It was just past 8am. Siliguri was waking up. Through the chaos of the town,the intermittent stench, and the tea gardens,we started our drive up hill. The narrow roads to the foothills of Shivalik were intertwined all along by railway lines(Darjeeling Himalayan Railway). Roads on the rail or rails on the road? They seemed like a series of mating serpents.The roads were typical of any hilly area. Green on either sides, steep curves, uphills almost right,streams, rivulets, culverts, ravines and many gorges that seemed endless.
These narrow roads were punctuated by villages. Kids in their winter wear were on their way to school. Many had their books open, brushing up that last bit before that day’s exam. Presenting a clear picture of their want for a separate state,the Gorkhaland boards ushered us into Darjeeling. The message was loud and clear. Every single door had this board,be it a shop or a house. The writings on the walls spoke about allegiance to India but separation from West Bengal. Vehicles with GL registration surprised me initially, then I came to terms with a novel form of protest. The blue colored train just meandered past us joyfully spitting tonnes of smoke,oblivious of the Al Gores and Copenhagens of the world.
We were soon in Darjeeling.The quaint town discovered by two British agents, with its cobbled streets and bungalows lets you experience remnants of the Victorian past. The streets in the market take their own turns and go up hill at their whims. Selling mostly winter wear and memorabilia, this market closes way early that one could imagine. Just past 5 and it’s late and dark in Darjeeling. Don’t miss to walk in to to a bakery and have some out of the world pastries. The weather has made shop keepers nonchalant and disinterested in selling- I noticed this.
First a little chilly and soon it is gives you a frozen experience. At 6pm, you are left with no option but reach your hotel room and surf channels.
Early in the morning we were off to watch the sunrise at Tiger Hills. Bah! Sunrise, what’s so invigorating about a sunrise, this was my first reaction. A detour from Ghum/Ghoom railway station takes you uphill to Tiger Hills. 4:15am. It’s pitch dark. You are approached(No,leave your dirty thoughts aside) by women selling coffee/tea at this hour. They trudge all the way uphill to sell coffee /tea to tourists. Give them money for the effort,even more for the tea.
A large crowd waiting on the ground and many waiting a level above. All waiting to see a sunrise. From the enclosure(a level above),all you can hear is a crowd singing what seemed like folk songs; you are blinded by the innumerable flashes clicked. Reaching early helped us get a window for a perfect window for the sunrise. But,still I was sure of this exercise being a dull , waste of time created to fool tourists. I was wrong as usual.
On your right, the sun slowly appears above the horizon. The golden rays slyly sneaking out. The darkness was giving way to many shades of orange. Though unwillingly,the blue sky was accepting the unwelcome golden rays. Within minutes, a glow appears on a mountain range on your left. The Sun beaming in glory on your right, mercilessly outshone by the sheen of the Kanchenjunga on your left. The Kanchenjunga that appeared drab in those black and white pictures in my school Geography text book,was vivid and resplendent here, enjoying every moment of the attention she got. Unfazed by the clouds’ attempts to mask her brilliance,this white beauty’s radiant smile left us in love with her.
That was my first visit to any Buddhist Monastery,the visit to Samten Choling. Buddha inside was showing some displeasure over his photographs being clicked. Irreverence that is,right? I used the opportunity to rotate the prayer cylinders(?) assuming that would wipe out all my sins; have seen monks doing this on Discovery Channel though I don’t know the reason.
The Batasia Loop where the Darjeeling trains take a U turn and the Gurkha Memorial are situated on a hillock that promises a panoramic view of the town. Isn’t it a sacrilege to miss the visit to a tea estate when in Darjeeling? A foggy morning.A gentle breeze.The golden rays of the sun.A whole valley covered with tea plantations.The leaves are just freshening up,trying to clear the mist on them. The intoxicating aroma of a cup of tea takes your senses to a newer high. The taste is heavenly.The whole experience is suddenly a notch above bliss.
The Tibetan Refugee camp resonates the hope of an oppressed community,living away from their homeland. An old printing press which printed their voices of angst and anger,of freedom and liberation lies as a testimony to an eventful past. Many items made by these refugees were for sale at the camp.
We easily skipped the Darjeeling zoo as we did not expect much there. Trivandrum zoo is awesome,you know! The famous rope-way was in disuse after an accident some years back,we were told. The St Paul’s school,North Point where Main Hoo Na was shot looked like a picture post card silhouetted against the Kanchenjunga.
It was time to move on from Gorkhaland. Those flags in green,white and yellow had to be bade adieu.
The roads were much better. BRO’s Project Swastik was doing a great job. The life line of Sikkim,Teesta was spotted already. We were just entering Sikkim. The Teesta river was gushing at her full might on our side. The ravines were deep,scary to look into. Oblivious of her surroundings,unmitigated by the rocks,she was flowing as if she would get late for her date with the Brahmaputra. On our way,deep down under we saw her being joined by Rangeet. Two shades of green merging to form a different shade of green. The greens interrupted by the rocks and froth did not reduce her beauty even by a bit. On one side, the river deep in a gorge, taking it’s own course, on the other the rocks sniggering at the river in a show of dominance. Was she green in envy? at whom? the mighty Himalayas that fathered her?
Villages came one after the other. The terrain was slowly changing. The breathtaking views continued. Marigolds,sunflowers and many other flowers lead me through the land of Teesta.Lush green paddy fields enjoyed the beauty and adorned her banks. We were crossing Rangpo. Indian Army presence could be spotted at irregular intervals. From the foothills,we were on our way up the Himalayas. On the banks of Teesta and even little upwards, I was surprised to find Banana plants and other vegetation seen in tropics.
On the foot hills of the Shivalik ranges, Gangtok welcomes you with it’s pleasant weather,peaceful roads and drool worthy chicken momos. Like I had tweeted, chicken momos were one of the reasons why Sikkim was annexed to the Indian union. The spotless capital city wins hands down for the cleanliness. The MG Marg can easily pass off as a European street with its cobbled streets ,flowers,Victorian street lamps and those ornate benches. Most parts of this road is exclusively for pedestrians. The lights make the fountain and the Gandhiji statue look magnificent after sunset. The Lall Marg adjacent to it reminds you of the Darjeeling market, with the same ups and downs minus a little chaos. We walked into a building off MG Marg,that housed a vegetable market. The cleanliness that we saw outside was missing here. It was like any other vegetable market and the paan stains on the stairs affirmed the fact that order and chaos can exist next to each other. The buildings in Gantok were strikingly similar in shape,cuboidal. The easiest job here could be that of an architect,probably.
Nathula(14200 FT) is 52 Km from Gangtok. The earlier roads were narrow. Roads barely existed on the JN Marg that connected Nathula to Gantok. A stretch full of stones and boulders,rubble and dust, dotted with villages and Army establishments. We were on a pathway interrupted by landslides at nature’s whims and fancies. Ravines on the right were so deep that looking into it was enough for your heart to skip not one but a dozen beats. On the left, the mountain walls displayed many textures,patterns and shapes-all signs of human intervention. Work under BRO’s Swastik project was in full swing. Army convoys and JCBs appeared to create traffic jams.
Clouds had decided to shed their beauty and be shapeless. The confused clouds cozily placed themselves next to each other. These are the times when you realize that white and blue are siblings.The sky was painted with not just one,but many hues of blue. Those coniferous trees high school geography taught me were now here,or it was now easier to realize that the vegetation was coniferous. Those long white patches on the greens were streams and rivulets mellowed down by the freezing cold.
A few km up and we were at about 12600 feet above the sea level. We took a detour from what seemed like a base camp and headed to Baba Harbhajan Sigh’s bunker. The base camp had a Baba Mandir which apparently was built for the convenience of the visitors(“duplicate” as per our driver). The original one and the bunker were about 6km away from here.
We saw her again. The same Kanchenjunga that gleamed in glory two mornings before was at her stunning best. She was trying to shoo away the clouds that tried to mask her beauty. The ravishing beauty,majestic in her demeanor was standing tall to touch the skies. What? Did I just spot snow on the rocks? I grabbed a lump of snow from the rocks. The only other place I did this was from the refrigerator’s freezer.
After visiting Baba’s bunker that had his belongings and the original Baba Mandir there, we headed back to 12600 feet base camp. This place had an ATM(yes!) and a few shops. From here, we started our journey to a place that mattered much in history, a point on the Old Silk Route. Nathula.
Through the gate that said “Nathula”,we walked up the stairs. On the right side was a photography prohibited area,a few metres from there was the Indian Army post. We were at a place that looked more like the portico of one of the two buildings. Behind me was a building with the tricolor proudly fluttering,bringing out the Indian in each one of us.
I was standing in front of a building with excess of red,golden pillars and a star on its forehead,something that took my mind straight to the AKG Bhavan in Trivandrum. I walked close to it and hey! what am I seeing? There is a fence. Err, so that is C-H-I-N-A. That was China! Within minutes,three nattily dressed young Chinese soldiers came close to the fence, one of them smoking and clicking his camera nonstop. He had decided to get pictures of every single young lady on the Indian side. None of our rules apply to him, he is on the other side. Different rules,different timezones,different language,all together a different world. How much can a small fence do.
Soon,the Chinese soldiers shed their initial indifference and started posing for photos with the Indian tourists. Camaraderie was evident in the air in the way the Indian and Chinese soldiers interacted. How different was it was for them than working in two different teams? The soldiers on either side of the fence were ready to pose for photos, but refused to shake hands. A trip to Nathula was never complete without breaking a piece of rock from the memorabilia stone. And boy!, that hammer was HEAVY.
In the midst of all these photographs, I managed to sneak my hand to the other side of the fence. Yes, I did that. That was touching Chinese soil. What else can give you a high when you are on the border?
We left the BRO slogans, the Army’s Hum Hi Jitenge | Mera Bharat Mahaan lines and started our drive down hill to Gangtok. Passing many snow capped buildings behind us,we were coming down from a high point in our lives. We passed the Sherathang market, about 5 km from Nathula. I spotted Dongfeng trucks in the market;may be they came in with goods from across the border. The Tsongmo Lake (also called Changu Lake or Tsomgo Lake) was calm and beautiful. The Yak owners were shouting to strike a deal to take us for a ride on those animals. Yaks, to my surprise seemed so harmless.
Visibility was almost zilch. Sun suffered from a bout of inferiority complex and hid himself. Our driver seemed undaunted with the zero visibility. The headlights pierced through the darkness. The nonstop horn seemed to show him the road. We were soon in Gangtok for our next round of Chicken momos. It would be unfair not to mention those hundreds of smiles I got back for every eye contact that I made, irrespective of gender or age; immensely friendly and pleasant locals bring in a smile on our faces.
Photo credits- Nikhil Narayanan, Bharat Narayanan
December 13, 2009 24 Comments