There are times when one finds it difficult to accept the human existence or human company. The feeling of cramping on the inside...every morning seems a repetitive intro to a meaningless day. And for the one who has been touched once by the bliss of the mountains, all the above are symptoms that one needs a dose of the dope...the beauty of nature beckons. You can listen to the cry of the cicadas in your stupor and feel the mountain wind ruffling your hair !!!
The area around Tenzing Norgay Bus stand is the point where the journey truly commences. You can feel the coolness even though you sweat outside, the boards inside the viewing glass of the boleros read names of Utopic villages and towns -----Kalimpong, Darjeeling, Gangtok, Namchi, Rabangla, Jorethang, Sukhia, Mirik, Rongli, PaniTanki...!!! A lively crowd always throngs this place....taxi drivers, agents of travel services, helpers for the luggage, hordes of tourists of all kinds. Beautiful mongoloid faces shine through the crowd !!! This place is a juxtaposed contrast to the green serenity one is going to be taken to in a matter of hours !!! I have few good memories of this place, especially Sher - e- Punjab bar !! sshhh !!!
The road leaves the busy city and rolls into the forests of the Mahananda WLS and then through interspersed tea plantations, into the hills. A cold, primitive aroma strikes you nostrils and before one realizes, Teesta has become one's travel partner. There is the quintessential prayer-offering break at Sevokeswari Maa Temple , and the relaxing tea break by the river at Rambi or Teesta Bazaar. The forested hills lure at the end of the road. This journey through the forests and hills....known as the Dooars region of Bengal, is an essential part of the trip. As they say...Travel is about travelling, the journey as much the destinations.
This time my plan was to visit the Singalila NP in a leisurely manner !! Two or three nights at a serene place exploring and a little birding. I was going to a tiny hamlet, Gairibas,enroute Sandakphu.
The share jeeps for Sukhiapokhri and even for Mirik, leave from the smaller jeep stand by the Siliguri junction - just on the backside of the bus stand. The rucksacks and bags settle above, while 11-12 fit into a 7+ 1 seater Bolero, and the journey begins. There is intermittent chatting in Nepalese (!) and all you can do is give a meek smile and adjust your elbow or a knee !!! Scenes and vistas open up in front of you as the tattooed age less guy keeps deftly manoeuvring the vehicle at bends, with an angle in the range of 10-20 degrees !! ( hahahaha !!!)
The unassuming kiosk named Sunshine at Sukhia disappoints with bland and little undercooked momos . I hated them for ruining my appetite and for serving a disgrace to the reputation of momos !! The weather was cold and half-hungry. The short ride to Maneybhanjan about 30 -40 mins) in a super-filled Omni comes next.
Maneybhanjan is the entry point to the Singalila NP, the starting point for the trekkers to Sandakphu and the place of the nowhere-else -to-be - found Land Rovers !! Ah !! it also lies at the Indo-Nepal Border, such that you cross a culvert over a 1ft. wide drain and you are in a Nepalese market, buying squash !!! The narrow sloping street that is Maneybhanjang, serves as the parking lot for about half a hundred refurbished Land Rovers.
The region is under supervision of SSB and mother Nature. The road till Phalut from Maneybhanjang, is someplace concrete, bitumen in patches and a layer of uneven stones, mostly. And the jungle thrives all around, the nature of the vegetation keeps changing with height. 180 degree views of the great Himalayan peaks accompany one through an extended section of the route. I could spot the static form of an eagle floating in the void against the backdrop of the white mountains. The Rovers stop at regular intervals enroute and the drivers keep popping the bonnet to check the i-don't-know-what. They splash in/pour in a few mugs of water, and the beast is ready to rumble again. In the meantime, you get to soak in the rusticity of the place, sipping some 'liquor tea' and a Shikhar cigarette. Every now then, a group of trekkers shall pass by, enquiring about the distance left. While on the Land Rover , you may alarmingly notice an occasional metallic clank from below.....not to worry, its the knocking of the engine....something so alien to modern day city folks.
Gairibas is located about 20 kms from Maneybhanjang, It is a thickly forested little valley, with a few trekkers' accomodation, a few homes and a small SSB checkpost. Though seemingly innocuous, the place may mesmerize someone who looks to notice. The climate was cooler than usual, this October. I would brave the chill to venture out to the balcony early in the morning to find the shrubs, bushes and grass white with thaw. The whole phenomenon of the forest awakening as light increases is a worthy experience....a half of the valley gets the first rays of the Sun, while the other still stays dark and cold.....the light seems golden...the pines and the oaks sparkle....a myriad whistles and caws erupt from the bushes and the branches. During my recent visit to Lava, early mornings would be spent gazing out of my window at the forests below. The rolling in and out of the clouds....the cry of the hill francolins from the fields below, even before sunrise....the periodic protests of the cicadas like a rising revolution.....the monk on his way to the monastery. At Gairibas, however, I had a couple of Yellow billed blue Magpies to celebrate the day break. They would emerge out of their hidings, just behind the GTA Trekkers' Lodge and bring the whole valley alive with their antics and hulla-ballo.
I spent a good part of a day at Gairibas, sitting at Magnolia Hotel. All the Land Rovers take a stop here. I sat with a serving of Chhang, called Tongba and observed daily life. The host family kept busy, preparing momos, chicken and veg curry...cutting vegetables and serving tea to tourists. On the other side of the road, a couple of SSB jawans played carrom...while a group of visitors tasted Rhodendron wine. It is said that Chhang and Rhododendron wine from these parts are values all across the Eastern Himalayas !!! The acerbic taste of the beverage made me high and kept me hot !!
A note : You can easily try Chhang without a worry, if you have tried Beer and not freaked out !!! Its actually good for health. Make sure you are having one at a place where others too have it.
Apart from the famous Sandakphu trek and the legendary Land Rovers, these places are also known for gifting lookers with sights of the rare Red Panda. Many people earn a living here by its name. Wildlife enthusiasts spend thousands to phtograph a shy red panda hanging on to the slender bamboo stick.
The decor of little shacks by the trails seem pretty. Their humble attempt at prettiness, no matter how low budget, seem to fit in the place. The Union Jack...a guitarist...a tiger....the Barcelona club logo..a landscape reproduction..a few lines of wisdom...you can find so may unconnected things painted on the wooden planks !!! The same art in an urban setting would not seem appreciable. But here in the high mountains, sitting in a little wooden shack , eating and "drinking" Maggi off a bowl (they serve their maggi in a thukpa fashion !!!), while a saintly serene dog dozes off at your feet....all seems romantic and beautiful.
While I did not get too many birds (allegedly due to the climate, Mar April is best they say), I got a taste of the life inside Singalila NP. I got to taste Chhang, which had been a long standing wish.
This trip ended with a tiny visit to Darjeeling, where I got to know about the classifications of Darjeeling Tea. The flavour of the black, the orange color of the Oolong, the benefits of the Green and the White....!!! Darjeeling Tea is for serving without milk, and Assam Tea is best with milk - an info not known to many.
My haphazard tour to the North Bengal mountains was thus fulfilled. With my share of experiences, I have realized that it is so much about the little things....not necessarily about the grand panorama or the perfect sunset shot. The aroma of tea as you move through the plantations....the wood fire in the kitchens....the resilient and smiling hill folks....the spectacle of a winding road covered in haze..the distant contour of the conifers against the dusk sky. All so addictive..that's why lovers keep coming back.