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Friday, Jun 25, 2004

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Misty and mystical...

S. Anantharaman

... just about sums up a trip on the eastern trail. A journey from Darjeeling, through Kalimpong, to Gangtok with mist and the snow-clad mountains of the Himalayas for company.

It was mist, mist and more mist that greeted us in Darjeeling, at a time the hill station was supposed to be at its seasonal best. As if that was not enough, we had rain for company too — lots of it all through the day, actually! Well, the weather forecasts on various national and international Web sites had warned us of rain but we still decided to make the trip. One just cannot allow rain to wash away a holiday, and getting your clothes soaking wet is fun, isn't it?

So, we decided to enjoy Darjeeling, rain or not and we had a `soaking' fun time.

The resort where we were accommodated was situated at the end of an impossible gradient that was beyond most tourist cars. Each time, it required a combination of optimism and courage to reach the portico. Beneath lay the famous Ghoom monastery, and one wondered if the prayers offered there had anything to do with the cars making it up the punishing slope. The staff at the resort cursed the weather for playing spoilsport but added, in the same breath, that Darjeeling needed rains to overcome water scarcity.

The first afternoon was spent identifying the locations from where the majestic Kanchenjunga could be seen. The resort, at 7,600 ft, promised an unparalleled view of the "Hanuman Langur". All of a sudden there was a lot of shouting and there it was... the majestic peak, high in the regions more of the heaven than earth, clad in a suit of white, more white than the whitest cloud, the Kanchenjunga. The visually acute were going wild, while the visually disoriented were trying to fix the mount in mental picture frames. "Look above the corner of that red-roofed building. Then look at the patch of the blue above that. Then look at the white mountain above that". Even as my wife screamed in agony, "Which corner of the roof?" Darjeeling is synonymous with world famous tea. A walk up the mall brings one to a natural portmanteau with a breathtaking view of verdant mountains (it's a crime to call them "hills"). Here all one can get is Nestea, out of a vending machine. The restaurant with a South Indian name insists on serving only coffee! Even the instant tea feels good on the Darjeeling Mall so beautifully bereft of vehicles. Not only at this restaurant, but all over the hills of Eastern India too, we find a conscious effort to cater to the South Indian vegetarian tourist — idlis, dosas and vadas too are available at many places. Back to tea — the packaged version sells from Rs 150 to Rs 2,400 per kg. The friendly shopkeeper sugggested that Darjeeling tea should be drunk black and without sugar. We picked up some tea, attractively packed in wooden boxes covered with a polythene shield.

The handicrafts on sale are mostly Tibetan in origin and attractive to anyone with a taste for Oriental designs. The prices are more or less uniform in the numerous shops. The ubiquitous Tamilian was at his loquacious best here too and one could hear groups bargaining at souvenir shops or milling around famous tourist spots.

The next day was the wettest yet. We walked up the slopes of the Padmaja Naidu Zoological Park, which is home to the Red Panda, the huge Himalayan Black Bear, the clouded leopard and the Siberian Tiger. The Himalayan Wolf looked the picture of majesty as it emerged regally out of its den, looking much like a CEO striding into a boardroom.

Just beyond is the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, famous for its association with Tenzing Norgay. It is the place for mountaineering buffs and tourists, with its enviable collection of mountaineering memorabilia.

Tiger Hill, at a height of 8,400 ft, promises an excellent view of Kanchenjunga. But it comes with a price, in fact, two. One has to wake up at 4 a.m. and it becomes a no show if the mist doesn't have the night off. We skipped Tiger Hill and were vindicated when groups that made the trip came back disappointed. So we decided to ring the prayer bells at Ghoom. The Ghoom Monastery is worth visiting for its antiquity and quaint beauty. It is somewhat like a slice of the past wrapped in prayer and its silence soars above the rhythmic chants of the Buddhist monks. The enigmatic visage of the Maitree Buddha looms in front of you. The monastery's interior is replete with colourful paintings depicting Buddhist lore. There is a beautiful image of a crystal Buddha that catches the eye.

Our next destination was Kalimpong. Incidentally, the Lonely Planet has said Kalimpong is overrated as a tourist destination. After a journey through cardamom plantations and tea gardens, we reached the spot from where the view of the Rangeet and Tista rivers is breathtaking. Our host in Kalimpongsaid this was not a tourist town. With such an encouraging welcome, he took us to a cottage that, though attractively named, left a lot to desire where its interiors were concerned. The cottages are styled like Swiss chalets but built to pygmy dimensions. The owner's sales pitch: "On the hot plains, you need to move around, otherwise it gets intolerable. In cold climate, only a small place will give you warmth".

Kalimpong has a history. It was the headquarters of the Governor of Bhutan and was the trading post of the Tibetans. Milestones, such as "seventh mile Kalimpong", notify addresses. The local Government has developed Deolo, a highland, into a tourist complex with a hotel and restaurant. Dhupri is a monastery where the second Buddha is worshipped. Kalimpong has a number of nurseries with an unbelievable collection of cacti and orchids. Owing to the rains, we could not go to a well-known tourist place called "Lava", which our savvy tourist car driver described in English as "an extraordinary place in the middle of the forests". On the whole, Kalimpong is a nice destination for a relaxing time.

After three nights at Kalimpong, we were headed towards Gangtok, our last stop on the Eastern trail. The drive was beautiful and the mountain air bracing. The Tista flowed faithfully by our side and we entered Sikkim without much ado. Once a protectorate of India, Sikkim joined the Indian union in 1974. Gangtok is reached through NH 31A, which is literally the lifeline of the State. It is maintained very well by the Border Roads Organisation (BRO). We stayed at the BRO Guest House though it took some effort to find the place. Located at a place known as Burtok, it is literally the last post. A couple of thousand feet above Gangtok, it commands an arresting view.

The caretaker Manoj is an expert at churning out steaming cups of tea in a matter of seconds to ward off the biting cold. The officer's mess serves delicious food and we were in the company of people who guard the borders and build roads in places where goats slip. Unfortunately, the premature rains had wiped out the natural orchids and other flowers that we expected to see in Sikkim. Fortunately for us, there was an indoor flower show going on, where we had our fill of beautiful orchids. We did not go to Nathulla pass for two reasons — for one thing, the pass is opened to tourists only on certain days of the week and our pre-tour research had missed this point. Unfortunately, the pass was not open on any of the days that we spent in Gangtok. Second, an army officer and his family who visited Nathulla a day ago had an unhappy experience, with the officer's wife fainting in the rarefied heights and having to be given oxygen. People who want to go to Nathulla should be physically fit. We decided to leave Sikkim a day early and it proved the best decision in retrospect.

Opening the door at 4 a.m. to call the caretaker, one noticed it was not raining and the mist was missing. As I looked up at the clear skies, a phalanx of snow-clad mountains stared back. Some were far, others looming and close. To the extreme right lay Kanchanjanga. As the sun climbed higher, more and more peaks rose from the horizon. We truly felt that we had been given more than we deserved. It was a humbling... and yet an elevating experience.

Picture by Parth Sanyal

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