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Saturday, May 31, 2014

A holiday long overdue

All through May I just slogged, slept, followed the unavoidable election mania and survived. Then on the 23rd I left for Kolkata. From Saturday the 24th to Friday the 30th my daughter and I were away, travelling in the hills of north Bengal and east Sikkim. It was an unusual trip in more ways than one.

To start with, this was the first time ever I was travelling with only my daughter for company (it turned out to be so pleasurable that I hope there will be many, many more). Secondly, the flight to Bagdogra was a repeat of the very first one in my life, 43 years ago, and nothing significant seemed to have changed, except that the aeroplanes are far more crowded these days, and full of the hoi polloi (I simply can’t help sneering, sorry. Democracy combined with rapidly spreading and increasing incomes can be an awful thing, since people tend to carry their lack of potty training everywhere). Thirdly because this was the first ever ‘package tour’ that I did in a long lifetime of travelling, and I shall pull the veil lightly over the experience with a heartfelt ‘never again’: if the poet’s lines ‘where every prospect pleases and only man is vile’ passed through my mind once during the course of the trip, it must have done so a hundred times. Thankfully my daughter, after her very first experience, is absolutely in agreement with me on this. And to think that it was only a small group, with no loud and messy children in tow, either...

Fourthly, instead of putting up in hotels as we usually do, we stayed for the most part in what they locally call ‘homestay’ facilities, cottages put up, maintained and serviced by the denizens of remote and picturesque villages. It is an idea that has caught on in various parts of India, and in Bengal and Sikkim, they get help and encouragement from the state governments’ departments of tourism. Well, things have gotten off the ground pretty recently there, and unlike their equivalents in, say, Kerala or Rajasthan, these places are definitely downmarket, with all the pros and cons that entails. They are easy on the pocket, and you can really get away from the madding crowds, for one thing. The hosts are friendly, helpful and kind. The facilities are just one step above spartan (thick blankets yes, hot water, mostly, at least once a day, but in one place they didn’t even have an  electric supply, and I for one don’t find that enjoyable or romantic, not if there’s no power supply round the clock. In most of the locations there was no internet connection, and phone services were erratic and patchy). Calling the roads ‘terrible’ in some places would be an understatement, and on our way back twice the car nearly got stuck in knee deep mud, which would have meant our missing the train. But all’s well that ends well.

Fifthly, we left Kolkata in blazing heat, and back on Friday morning it was sweltering again, yet in between the rain, sometimes squally rain, followed us all the way through, turning into a brief snowstorm when we were visiting Kupup Lake above Dzuluk at 13,000 feet, close to the border with China. The sky had grown overcast by Sunday evening, and Monday through Wednesday it just kept on raining. So it was a very, very wet mountain tour, and it didn’t help that between us my daughter and I had one umbrella and no waterproof clothing at all, but were determined to walk around as much as we could. I’ve got this nasty cold that will take some time to go away...

We followed what the tourism people call the ‘Old Silk Route’. Thrilling to think that this was the route Sir Francis Younghusband followed on his (in-)famous expedition to Lhasa back in 1903-4. So from Siliguri we drove to Kalimpong, then Pedong, and then up six km or so of what used to be a foot track until only a short while ago to Sillery Gaon for our first night’s stay. Our walk through the woods as dusk was falling, enchanting as it was, had to be cut short when we remembered that a policeman on election duty had been badly mauled by a stray bear not too far away, and that too in broad daylight!  The next morning we went on to Aritar for a view of the picturesque little lake, then put up at a hotel where the biggest attraction was a very furry and sleepy old dog that couldn’t have enough of cuddling. Off to Lingtam the next day, through driving rain and fog. They are building a road to Bhutan from there, the locals told me. Then the tough drive up to Dzuluk on the coldest day yet, and further upwards along one of the snakiest mountain roads I have ever encountered to Kupup or Elephant Lake, from where Gangtok is barely 50 km away, albeit across very rough and high-altitude terrain. The army was an unobtrusive but highly visible presence everywhere. On the last day, it was a glorious dawn with blue sky and bright sunshine again. It was a long drive via Rongli and Rangpo to New Jalpaiguri, where a clean railway retiring room gave us privacy and rest and a chance to freshen up before we took the train in the evening for a quiet and comfortable ride back home.

Our travelling companions, typical middle class Bengalis, grumbled about everything all the way, from the food to the lack of comforts to the absence of views of snow capped mountain peaks (just like those who visit some wildlife park and if they don’t manage to glimpse a tiger complain that they couldn’t see ‘anything’), but Pupu and I found the scenery wonderful, lush rainwashed greenery and wild flowers in such profusion, and the fog casting a magic spell over it all. Little roadside cascades gushing down through the dense foliage, every one of them beckoning you to stop, stand and stare. And when you were walking along the pine forests enveloped in deep shadows, you could sometimes cut the silence with a knife: I have a chance to hear water dripping in the woods and crickets chirping in the thousands in the daytime only once in a while, and can never have enough. And my God, the variety of butterflies... they even came into your room at night by the dozen if you kept the door open for a bit. What restful sleep we had those four nights, despite having to get up early every morning! To come back to the city, though only about 700 km or so away, was far more of a wrench than going from New York to Shanghai, when just about nothing changes except for the faces and the skin colour.

So now I am back in the Big Bad City once more, and by day after tomorrow I shall be back to the old grind (I hope my several hundred children will be glad to see me again). It’s been a nice break on the whole, and I am already wondering what I should do with the next one. I hope clean, quiet and green places sparsely inhabited by nice, slow, easy going people survive a while longer for those of future generations who get fed up with city life every now and then. In this I am only echoing Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay from back in the 1930s.

P.S., June 02: To see a few photos, click here

June 08: last of the photos added.


Rajdeep said...

Seems you had a wonderful trip. I'm happy to hear about it and look forward to see the photographs. I hadn't quite imagined that BBC could also stand for Big Bad City! Take care.
Pranaam, Rajdeep

Krishanu Sadhu said...

Sir ,

Enjoyed the write-up ; hope to visit these places sometime soon. Eagerly awaiting for the photographs.


Soham Mukhopadhyay said...

Your post reminded me of my tour as well. We went to Tsomgo lake and Baba Mandir- encountered snow on the way and of course one can't forget the biting cold. I still remember the breathtaking view of sunlight gleaming through the pine trees on our way to Gangtok from Darjeeling. Too bad, I couldn't take a photo of it - but each time I recollect those hairpin bends and the fresh unpolluted mountain air, I long for my next trip to the hills. It was very nice to read your post and I'm looking forward to a trip with you too. Do upload some more photographs.

with warm regards,

Suhel Banerjee said...

Hello Suvro Sir,

Typical, lovely post capturing the finer details of what most others would have called "yet another hill station summer vacation". Always enjoy your attention to detail and the joy you take in sharing your thoughts and experiences. Like the others who have commented before me, brings back memories of all the trips to Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Gangtok etc.

A pleasure seeing new posts from you.


Saikat Chakraborty said...

Dear Sir,

Thanks for this post and the wonderful photos that allow the readers a virtual visit to these places. Your picture with the umbrella shows how much you have enjoyed the trip. Although the same old daily grinding is back, I hope it won't be long before you can make another one of these trips. Take care Sir.

With regards,

Tanmoy said...

Dear Suvroda

Beautiful photos and as always good travelogue. I loved visiting Sikkim as a child. By the way, how was the food in the home-stay? Do you have to go out and eat or cook yourselves?

I have not much idea about these places to be honest. Here people don't stay in hotels, everything is serviced homes'.

Kind regards

Suvro Chatterjee said...

Thanks, all, for commenting on this post, and sorry to be late in responding. I hope all of you liked the photographs, too.

Soham, that stretch of road is one of my favourites, too. I remember, when I took a school team along back in 1990, one of our cars broke down on the way, and most of the boys and all the male teachers walked a long distance before we could get a lift: it was certainly a walk to remember.

Saikat, I am planning to make a lot more trips to way out places like these in the years to come, health and work-schedule permitting, all by myself if I can't find suitable travelling companions.

Tanmoy, the food was served at the homestays, but because of the remoteness of the locations and the pre-arranged budget, it was just passable and entirely repetitive. If you are travelling for the food, this kind of trip is definitely not recommended!

argha dutta said...

great experience Sir......now i am also in a mood to explore the beauty of the north Bengal.