Just a while before entering the New Jalpaiguri station, the express takes a break at a small station, Rangapani. This resting session is usually greeted with harling activities within coaches, packing the leftovers, getting everything in the right places of the bag and finally waiting for the train to move again. If your ride is especially an early one, chances are that you have just been awake when the train hits Rangapani. In any case, this is the place where it finally dawns upon you that the land faraway from home has come within the reach. For me, this desolate junction is the first greeting I get on a trip to Sikkim, every time.
Last October was the fourth time I went to Sikkim. It was planned a long ago though; the planning was the easier part but it took almost a year to come up with a unanimous choice of the venue. Finally we decided on a short trip to the southern part of Sikkim. Getting to NJP station was the first step and it felt like a war to ensure that, thanks to a huge rush of tickets during Puja holidays. Just so we do not miss the date, we sorted ourselves in two teams – an offshore and an onshore one! While the alpha team would reach the workplace early in the morning to use the trusted internet connection, the members of the beta team were ready in their individual homes as the backup. Such beautiful strategies! But every Troy has its own version of trick and we had IRCTC as the biggest Trojan horse. Although we could book the onward journey tickets successfully, four of us were placed in the waiting list in the return journey. But nothing could have dimmed our spirit as it was our first trip after joining the PhD; hence we were at the NJP station on an October morning, waiting for our hired cars to pick us up.
The journey started from Ravangla. Our stay was booked at a hotel named Buddha Retreat, far from the busy chores of the market place. Whether fueled by the spirit of adventure or just the fun of travelling the offbeat, not sure till date, we had decided to go for a short trek over the Maenam hill on the following morning. So the first night was all about getting a proper rest. The next morning presented itself with a stunning view; just outside the driveway of the hotel, the guarded road was joined by a sky so blue that your childhood drawing copy would suddenly seem so real. Anyway, after a quick morning walk we got together at the breakfast buffet. Our guide for the hike was there already, so we asked the hotel stuff to pack us some light lunch, paratha and boiled eggs. Next thing I remember, we were in front of the Maenam forest entry gate.
Maenam hilltop is on an altitude of 10,300 ft and offers a majestic view of the plains of Bengal across Kalimpong and Darjeeling at one side and the Indo-China border at the other. All we knew was that there is a small monastery at the top where it is rumoured that a monk offers his daily prayers with a vow of silence. The hike was 24 km long, up and down, and the trail goes through the wildlife sanctuary of Maenam forest. We needed to get a permission from the entry gate at first and this is the first place where we were greeted by the most dangerous inhabitant of this forest in rains – leeches! Little that we knew was that it was going to be just one of many such encounters! A few of us had prior exposure to proper trekking, so after the initial hours of the walk only they stood out tall in their resolution. Others had already started catching their breath. And as if the hike along the steep hill was not enough, every resting point was attributed to a ritual of getting ourselves free of the leeches! Somehow we managed to have our lunch within that. Finally, after successfully blocking many invasions by leeches and a few splashes of rains, we got at the top of Maenam hill. There it was. The much rumoured monastery with its silent monk inside. Or so we thought. The monastery was visibly vandalized by rain and storm. Of course there was no monk to bless us. A local guy whom we met on our way down later told us that the monastery had been out of maintenance for a while and nobody knows where the monk had gone. Unlucky us! Well, the rest of the bad luck was still due. Just the moment we completed the summit, drizzling started with a chilly wind. As we were getting down, we realized how much time we have lost in getting up. The dark descended so suddenly as if there was no daylight before and the rain continued in a steady manoeuvre. The light emanating from our mobile phone torches was our only assuring companion other than the guide. After some long hours of gripping tension and a number of tumbles over the slippery rocks, we finally got back to our hotel. And there we discovered that the leeches had taken the full advantage of our returning trek to get inside our shoes and trousers! That night went down with the tired bodies sinking into the comfort of those warm beds.
We checked out the next day after breakfast and went for a sightseeing around Ravangla, after that we set out for Pelling. Before we had the breakfast, we got the bills from the hotel to find out that each boiled egg that we packed for our lunch-on the-go cost Rs. 50/-! Obviously egg is not easily available on hills, but to charge so much was enough to bring the Lucifer out of us. The buffet had boiled eggs and fourteen of us had two eggs each. Then ten of us, who went for the trek, had two more each. Then we asked for more; the stuffs were sorry to inform us that they have run out of boiled eggs and if poached eggs would be fine or not. It was an obvious yes. The result? We stayed in a hotel of the same group in Pelling for two nights and never for a single meal they offered us anything made with egg!
The Yumthang Dzimkha Resort in Pelling was as good as its counterpart in Ravangla. The best thing was that the helipad with a view point was just 10-15 mins walk away. The very first morning began with one of our senior colleague thumping on our doors and running along the corridor shouting in excitement. When I woke up, eyes still half closed, all I could see from the balcony was a big black silhouette. It took me a while to understand this was the majestic Mt. Kanchendzonga looming large over us. A quick walk to the helipad ensured a magnificent view of the whole range. That day was set for another round of sightseeing which included the pious Khechipori lake. From there we visited the famous Pemayangtse monastery and Rabdentse ruins. The Pemayangtse is a majestic monastery built over 300 years ago. It hosts statues of many saints and rinpoches along with a magnanimous statue of the Padmasmbhava. You can not use your camera inside and the trigger-happy inside us was extremely frustrated when we entered the prayer hall where a bunch of kids with shaved heads and in monk-like attires were singing the prayer. I simply do not remember how long we were standing there; it felt like the moment had frozen there for eternity.
Well, moment could have been frozen but the stomach could not go empty for eternity! We went to a small restaurant called Kabur. Apparently it did not look any different from other food joints in hills. But once you enter the place you would know instantly why it is so popular. Decorated with a mix of Sikkimese tradition and rock music antics, the place is perfect for the gang to grab a beer and strum their favourite tunes. There were a few guitars, percussions and harmonicas; we picked up a few and lost the track of time in a jamming session. When we got out of the place the sun was already on its course toward the west.
Our final step was the Rabdentse ruins. Rabdentse was the second capital of Sikkim until 1814, established by Chogyal, the 2nd. Later in the 18th century, the Nepalese force invaded the fort and the monastery complex and turned it into ruins. A short walkway though a forest of chestnut trees and dropping mosses took us to the stone thrones or Namphogang, where the judges used to pronounce the final sentence. The ruins were stretched quite afar, with the walls creating somewhat a broken maze. While we were there, the sun settled beyond the stone walls, radiating an ethereal afterglow. When the light fell upon the bricks of the ruin, a mystic heaven landed right there. Tiny flags were flying in the backdrop of the setting sun and somewhere, far from the touristy affairs, the bustling tiny shops and the vacationer’s shenanigans, a baritone of the evening prayer made their way upon this woeful earth, stripping it off all worries and pains.
We returned to the hotel and prepared ourselves for the journey next day. We were to reach Borong by the noon and spend a night there. But before all that, a stupendous task was left for the following morning - booking a Tatkal ticket for the return journey! And this is not a joke when you are trying the internet connection in Sikkim! The war room was set again. Some friends in Kolkata backed us up. Finally, we ended up with two confirmed and two RAC tickets (Phew!).
You might ask, what about Borong? Ain't you gonna say anything about it? Well, the answer is, no. If you ever want to spend a few days amidst the raw, earthly beauty of nature, with all the necessary amenities, please do visit Borong, at least once. You will get that why it is absolutely impossible to pen that bliss of solitude in mere words.