Saturday, October 30, 2010

9600 Feet Above The Sea...And Counting

Also posted on The Weed Joint

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

Friday, October 22, 2010

The sky is pale pink and white. Greenish in another part of the city. The moon peeps out from within its layered quilt of grey and white, cocking its head at the sleepless gaiety of people reluctant to go to bed this Friday evening. There is a nip in the air, winter is sending out its feelers. Flimsy curtains billow in the wind, the sails of the adventure-packed dreams of armchair travellers and keyboard traversers.

Here, I have neither mountain nor sea. What I do have is an imagination. And that bright star in the sky agrees with me.

PS: Can you even imagine a world without Ruskin Bond? I greeted the Himalayas like old friends during my first ever trip to them, and I owe it all to him.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

To Gangtok

Also posted at The Weed Joint.

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.

A Vacation Well Earned

I'm back from my delicious, but extremely short, vacation. Ten days passed by in a whirlwind, and all I'm left with now is a store of memories, but oh, what a treasure chest it is! And so it is bound to be, if you get your first glimpse of the mightiest mountains on the earth, put yourself in the midst of a festival which is an exhibition of grandeur and crazy creativity, and walk down the aisles of the school your father passed out of over forty years ago.

I have my hurriedly scribbled notes beside me, whatever caught my fancy written down on three small squares of paper in a jeep jolting over uneven terrain. Some of the stories are in my head- conversations with the locals, ready smiles, lights and colours that no camera could ever capture. So I'll begin from the beginning, and describe my vacation right till the end.

May patience be your cherished virtue.

Here are a few road signs from the unforgiving mountain roads of Sikkim to kindle your curiosity, reproduced more or less as they were printed on the boards:

On my curve/Check your nerve
Reach home in peace, not in pieces
Safety on road is safe tea at home
It is not ralley/Enjoy the valley

And on I shall go to my Sikkim story, setting my mind in rewind mode and reliving those fantastic few days in the mountains.