Saturday 28 February 2015

Chatakpur - living life in simplicity

Our cousin, who runs his own fleet of vehicles and is well aware of upcoming tourist destinations, had suggested we include Chatakpur in our itinerary. He had seen the name come up in a few travel brochures. We had tried looking up the place on the map. There were a few mentions here and there on the net, but nothing substantial. It showed up as an eco-village, a weekend getaway and a place to experience nature unbound. It is in the Darjeeling district about 10 Kms from Jorebunglow. There was no mention of how to get to this place though. Looking up for a route on Google map will show up Chatakpur as a short drive north east of Sonada. Though true, we were told that this route is better suited for 4-wheel drives due to the steepness and rocky outcrops. The alternate route is through the village of 3-Mile, however, the name of the village varied from person to person. This is followed by about a 10 Km drive through unpaved forest road. Alam mentioned that he had visited this place a couple of years back during the monsoon when WindOz were setting up their eco-cottages. The road was practically undriveable then and he ended up with a car load of leeches which had made their way in through the open windows.

I am always a bit sceptical of terms like eco-tourism because it inevitably ends up being a lot of hot air. Though, on this occasion, the lack of mention on the internet and its remoteness did appeal.

Day 5 - Destination Chatakpur

So, on the morning after Christmas, after breakfast, we were back on the road.
Find the previous days here:
Family trip to North Bengal - Part I - Forests and Mountains
Family trip to North Bengal - Part II - A tryst with Kanchenjungha

We made a short stop in Kalimpong, about 25 kms on, for a few emergency purchases. Another 30 kms later we passed Lamahatta. We had our initial plans to stay here but were unable to find bookings. The location was right on the road facing the mighty Kanchenjungha. It was a glorious view of the mountains and the forests rose on the hills behind. By now we had reached a considerable altitude. Chatakpur was at 24,000 m.

Reaching 3-Mile, we made a stop for a few phone calls and confirm direction with the locals. The road from here turned into a forest path. Knowing we won’t get any signal once we were in the forest, we called up Vinod, the contact person at Chatakpur. We were asked if we were booked in the cottages or the homestay. It was homestay, so he gave us the number of Mr P Sherpa, whom we called up and warned of our late arrival. We were soon on our way through the seemingly unending forest path. 

The Senchal forests are home to the Himalayan black bear. We drove through the dense bamboo, hoping to catch an unlikely glimpse of the animal. Any chance of seeing one was anyway nullified by the rattling of the crude diesel engine. Even though hopeful, we did not expect to spot any wildlife and neither did we. A couple of kilometres before the village a steep road went down to Sonada.
As we approached the village, we found a small man waiting quietly by the road, definitely looked like a local. As we pulled over, he came up to the window and asked if we were booked in at the home stay – affirmative. He introduced himself as P Sherpa and informed us that we would be staying at his place and we would have to walk up the rest of the way. Apparently, if we stayed in the eco-cottages, we just needed to drive on a few more metres. But the home stays meant we had to leave the vehicle there and walk up the hilly path to the top. Unfortunately my mother had strained a muscle in her leg and we got apprehensive. It was a steep climb for her, and she could barely walk on plain land. We were having second thoughts but her indomitable spirit got the better of her pain and she was on her way, slowly. Even though the people in the hills are used to carrying heavy loads balanced on their back and heads, it did not feel right that someone else would be carrying our luggage, so we decided to help. The young daughters of our host joined in.

We had never been in a home stay before this trip. Even staying at one in Rikkisum, Sana was just like a hotel and we did not have a very positive experience staying there either. Apparently home stays are supposed to function like a guest house, where locals rent out their own rooms. They cook for their guests and make them comfortable. This inevitably brings along the expectation that they will be more personal, something we were yet to experience and the reason I decided to dedicate this whole post to Chatakpur.

The short walk to Sherpa’s house seemed unending as we climbed up the stairs through the village, especially seeing my mother struggle. The cloud was closing in as well and it had started to get windy and very chilly. As the stairs winded through the village, we passed cluster of houses, but we kept on walking, until we reached the very top. A single house block stood here, set apart from the rest in the village, standing in isolation. It was beautiful. It was cold. We were showed into a single room, very cosy with three beds crammed in and they could barely qualify as double beds. Once we put in our luggage, it was not possible to even move in there. The bathroom was unattached, a few feet away from the house. Though it was covered, it was still open to the elements and would require a very urgent need to motivate anyone to visit at night. The urban attitude took over. We were paying for two rooms, that is what our booking said. This did not look right. And it was impossible for my elderly parents, especially in the freezing temperature, and one of them was struggling to walk. We demanded that we be provided rooms according to what our booking said. Phone calls were made to WindOz who said they will see what could be done. Vinod said he will find an alternative but all designated home stays were booked. It wasn’t a kind of arrival we were hoping for. 

In all the commotion, Sherpa came over to me and quietly said in broken Hindi
“If you leave at least have the food here. We have cooked for you”
Was a bit taken aback - “You don’t have a common kitchen?”
“No, we cook for our own guests. You are staying with us.”
“So every homestay here is like an independent house?”
“Yes. I have taken the next two days off from work because you will be here. If you leave, it will be a huge loss for us. We won’t get the money either”

Being a novice in this form of travel, it was only then we realised what a homestay was about. Sana had not even scraped the surface. This was about staying with the locals, where you get to see their life up close and all that in picturesque surroundings. We decided to stay. A look around the place again, with a new perspective - the best location in the village, the room, cosy, but means it will be warm and we can all stay together. Moreover, we had plenty of blankets to take us through the freezing nights the location was exposed to. Once the initial shock of the intense cold was over, the journey to the bathroom did not seem too daunting. We would have to find that out once the sun sets. But it had a water heater which none of the previous places had - running hot water and the place was spotless clean. That’s pure luxury!

It was going to be a very simple life here, indeed with the exception of the running hot water. It’s just that we were paying a ridiculous amount to experience the simplicity of life, but then that's what we city people seem to do.
Hot lunch was waiting for us as our host’s wife, Menuka, brought out the hotpots from the kitchen. Sherpa got busy setting up the tables. They looked relieved. The food was simple yet delicious. All vegetables were from their own fields, fresh and organic. Rai saag was inevitably on the menu.

Lunch over, we decided to look around.

Sherpa pointed where the Kanchenjungha would be, now under clouds. It was visible through the morning he said. We could see it from our window or while lazing in the verandah. Their small house was set up in three blocks. The main building, opening to the north with an open verandah, had two rooms separated by a tiny square passage. As we entered, the room on the left was ours. The room on the right was split into two much smaller sections by wooden boards, one taken up by the two daughters both in their teens and the other by Sherpa and his wife. A large portion of the parents’ bedroom was taken up by the prayer alter. They were Buddhists. The kitchen was a separate block located to the east of the house with its small attached dining room. This is where we had our lunch. The guest bathroom was on the west, a few feet away from the main house and a cattle-shed behind it. Behind that, on terraced fields, were the farms which supplied their food and our lunch as well. It was simple living, their little possession neatly arranged in the small space. The girls had even set up a music system in the tiny passage between the rooms. The younger daughter wanted to be an athlete, her awards from school and district levels proudly displayed in the guest room alongside their school photographs. The elder would be finishing school soon. School was in Sonada where they walked, a daily commute of 7 Kms down and back. It was now closed for winter for two months.

Chatakpur once used to be a den of timber-smugglers during the British rule. With time the forest department decided to transform this into an eco-friendly and conservation tourist destination. Tiger Hill, the forever popular sunrise point in Darjeeling and a must do in every tourists’ itinerary is just across. Chatakpur provides a stupendous location for viewing a sunrise as well as sunset over the Kanchenjungha, the view slightly obscured by Tiger Hill, but that adds to the character of the place. It is a village perched on the top of the hill with about 25 houses built around it. A few of the home owners, I think maybe six, serve as homestays for tourists. The eco-cottages are lower down below the village.

Kanchenjungha opened up again in the late afternoon and indeed it was a glorious view from our place itself. We walked up to the watch tower just behind the house. People from the other homestays and cottages had started to gather. They gave us envious looks as they passed our cottage, their city lungs and legs protesting in the hilly terrain. The watchtower gave a more open viewing area. Behind us were the towers of the Bagora military airbase and also another tourist spot. These all form part of a trekking route. The valley in between was misty, reflecting the gold of the last light of the day.
Night arrives early in the mountains. However, the locals have tuned themselves to the timings of the city life as they have to keep up with the guests. As soon as the sun disappeared, the temperature plummeted. We were safely snuggled under the blankets in the comfort of our room, trying to snatch as much warmth as possible from the weak induction heater provided. Thankfully there were enough blankets. It was the first night in this temperature for us and we still were getting accustomed to it. Food was served in our rooms. The night was freezing but comfortable.

Day 6 - Staying with the locals

It was still dark when we woke up. Our hosts were already up, day starts early here he said. As I headed for the watchtower he asked me to be careful. The subzero temperature had brought in the hard frost and puddles had now turned to ice sheets. As I trotted along slipping and sliding I realised he had sent his wife after me to ensure I had reached safely. She returned as quietly as she had followed me once she was satisfied I had gone over the tricky parts. The watchtower was empty as my brother joined me, but not for long. Soon we were followed by a few photography enthusiasts who ensured that anyone till the bottom of the village could have a free lesson in white balancing and aperture settings. After the ordeal at Rikkisum my niece refused to leave her bed, but then the first lights reflecting from the Kanchenjungha could be seen from the room. Needless to say, it was a glorious sunrise.
As the gold turned to white we returned to our cottage. Tea was being served and my mother was in the kitchen talking to Menuka. It was the warmest place, the simmering wood fire keeping it very comfortable through the night. The family cat lay lazily by the earthen oven. Menuka mentioned in broken Hindi that it's mother had been hunted by the owl the year before and it was left alone since then.
My father was going down to the eco-cottages for a walk and I joined in. The village was awake and busy. With huge baskets behind their back, many had started their first trip to the forest below. They had to collect the fodder for the cattle. They needed three trips through the day to keep the cattle full and happy, and they divided the trip amongst their family members. Sherpa had already left to bring in the first load. Menuka was milking the cow, the milk was to be taken to Sonada market. The girls were cleaning up the house. One of them turned on the radio and tuned it to the local radio station. It was just about seven in the morning and everyone was already busy.
This time we took the stairs on the east, opposite side of the hill to the one we came up on. They were slippery at places with the frost and needed care but we reached the eco-cottages without any accident. The eco-cottages are supposedly more comfortable than the homestays in terms of facilities provided. However, they lost out on the main points to the homestays - view and the personal touch. All the cottages were served by a common canteen. The village girls took turns to cook here.

We met Vinod at the canteen, looking very cheerful. I asked him what a small building beside the cottage was for. He said that was the village school. It had three students and two teachers! He asked us to go over to the pokhri or the pond, but asked us to be careful since the wild animals came over for a drink in the early hours. A village boy came trotting along with his basket. Vinod asked him to accompany us. The boy, Pawan, was not going the whole way so he just showed us the way and went down to the forest. We walked through the pine trees and came up to a rock face that is used for rock climbing for the adventure tourists. The forest was quiet and the birds chirping. As directed by Pawan, we turned right at the fork just after the rock and the tiny pond came into view. It was serene. Either, we were the first people to be around that day or no one was around for a while. Either way, the birds chirped along carefree. We walked round the pokhri, stayed for a while taking in the atmosphere and then reluctantly decided to return as we started to feel hungry. Not far from the pokhri we bumped into my brother and his family. As they went over to the pokhri, we returned to the eco-cottages, niece tagging along with us.
Vinod, like always was all smiling when he saw us again and requested we have tea at the canteen. Even though we already had one in the morning earlier, he was very insisting, so we gave in. We chatted over tea. He said it was his grandfather who came and settled down here. I was tempted to ask if his grandfather was a timber smuggler, but simply asked him if this place really was a den. He smiled and nodded. I was curious as to what happens when anyone gets sick and it’s an emergency, given the remoteness of the place. He laughed and said we don’t get sick here. My father is over 80 years old and he is fitter than me. You should drink the water here. It will cure you of all ailments.
I asked him if I could get pork momos in the canteen, someone had advised me that I should try them at least once. We could not get them with our hosts as they being Buddhist did not cook pork, but had offered to make them for me. But I had declined. He said it could be arranged if I gave the numbers just now. I just wanted a taster. He said he will have it ready in the afternoon.

Even though we were served by the canteen, he refused to take any money for the tea. We returned back to our cottage.
The sun was out and the women in the village were already taking their morning break in the sun. The forest department had really put their effort in turning this tiny village into a tourist haven. They have arranged for electricity for the remote village and running water. Every house is fitted with its own water pipes that bring the spring water from the mountain beyond it and stores them in water tanks. Menuka had mentioned that once in a month she goes up to clean the tanks, removing leaves an unclogging the pipes. The village is strictly organic, no pesticides or chemical fertilisers are allowed to be used. The cow dung is the only fertiliser and is good enough to give a good crop in these unpolluted lands. The local produce is sold in the market in Sonada from where they also purchase their food grains and other essentials. The whole village lives like a community which we would be observing through our stay.

When we returned Sherpa was busy in the fields. Menuka had prepared our breakfast and was now going down to the forest to collect the second fodder of the day. We tucked in as Sherpa came along to have a chat with us. He explained how the homestay worked. When there was a booking one of the available houses would be given the responsibility. WindOz took a small percentage of the payments, but the rest were enough for them. Feedback and complaints from customers are taken very seriously and they have community meetings at Vinod’s place. Everyone was keen to get a good feedback and when we asked them about the large quantity of food they offered (we barely could finish them), he said it was because someone had left a comment on what they saw was meagre portions and the poor Sherpas had been reprimanded. We asked him to stick to normal portions. He mentioned how badly some guests treat them as if they were there servants. His daughters barely came out when the guests were around and never talked to them. He actually works with the police and takes days off when he has guest bookings. He will get back to work the next day.

After breakfast we decided to go on a walk in the forest. We were told we would be given a guide, but to tell the truth, later we realised we did not need one. Either that or the guide did not take us the whole way. The forest path we would go on would take us all the way to Mongpu, a 2 hour trek downhill. In the hills, all distances are in time. We would return much before that though. Our guide was the same boy from the morning, Pawan. So we followed him, myself along with my brother, sis-in-law and niece. Our parents decided to stay back. There were birds all around us, well hidden in the leave though, but their distinct calls loud and sharp. Sunrays filtered through the tree branches and forest fragrant with wild flowers. It was so peaceful.
We could hear the villagers down in the forest chopping off branches for the fodder. A man was coming on with a basket load of leaves and branches. I wondered aloud how heavy that was - “60 kilos!” He shouted back. Spent a while in the forest, hopefully my sis-in-law got some nice pictures of the Himalayan birds. I am no good at bird watching, so just enjoyed the peace.

When we returned Menuka was finishing off cooking for lunch, Sherpa had returned from the fields. Mom and dad were busy talking with them and the locals. People in the village would come along just for a chat. They would leave their kids with their neighbours as they went out to the forest. It is a very well-knitted hard-working community.
Needless to say lunch was delicious, this time it was spinach instead of Rai saag. The sun was very bright even though it was cold and we took the chairs out. Kanchenjungha was basking in the sun as well as we sat in the sun and chatted. The girls joined us as well talking about their school and education. The elder one wanted to go into nursing and the younger one really wanted to pursue her sports interest. They had their difficulties living in the remoteness, but they had a different way of life than what we perceive as normal. They were planning to extend their house and planning for a proper kitchen, with a proper stove replacing the earthen one. I wished they didn't, but then, I was a visitor. I asked Menuka if they go on family outings. For us Chatakpur was a place to visit, was curious what else could interest them away from this beauty. Well, they have a day out in Darjeeling or visit her parents in Kalimpong.
Menuka was making vegetable momos for the evening and she got busy in the kitchen. My mother was in the kitchen as well, trying to keep conversation going despite their language barrier. Menuka could only speak Nepalese with a few words of Hindi. I could not resist the warmth of the kitchen and joined in, but was not allowed to sit idle for long. As Menuka was making the fillings, she passed me the dough and showed me how to make the dumpling casings. Her elder daughter needed some practice as well to learn the art properly, so it was both of us working to her mother's instructions. She showed the different folds - the elliptical vegetable momo, the circular beef and pork, the original Tibetan folds. They ended up laughing as I tried to re-engineer my damaged dumplings to make them look like the skillfully made ones - a patch up work. It was difficult job but we laughed a lot, it was fun. I asked if momo was a staple food for them or is it just for the tourists. The daughter replied that they had them for lunch or dinner, especially during the monsoon months when the vegetable from the fields are to be used up quick. Also since the forest closes for the breeding season, so do the homestays. It is more community time for the village. We chatted along while the variously shaped dumplings went on the steamer. The cat purred away.

Soon Vinod’s invite came along for the pork momos and this time the younger daughter said she will take me there. My niece was not to be left behind. I just wanted a taster but was served with a plate full. As I vigorously protested they laughed at me and said they have them in twenties or thirties, and I was complaining for eight? It was true, given the numbers in the steamer, there was a lot of appetite around. Vinod was away and I was introduced to his father. Tucked under the blankets, his eyes twinkling and a smile on his face, he spoke in Nepalese, asking me to sit. Apart from the younger girls in the family, no one else could speak Hindi. Nepalese was the language, but the language barrier does not matter when there is so much warmth in the people around you.

We thanked them for having us before returning and joining the rest in the kitchen. Alam had come around as well and there was a lot of tea and talks in progress. It was a beautiful day and it was sad to see it end. We were to leave Chatakpur the next day but the heart refused to. I could stay on there for days. It was not only a beautiful place but we had met some of the most amazing people, people who do not hesitate to welcome you into their homes, into their lives and fill you with the warmth. I felt privileged.

Day 7 - time to leave and the journey onward

Woke up early the next day, not only for the sunrise, but for experiencing the place a bit more before we left. Even though we had to get back on the road for our next destination, we wanted to delay the inevitable and were in no rush. I followed my father who was going up on the hills behind the watchtower. As we climbed above the village, the views opened up. The leaves and grass were white with frost and crunched under our feet. We turned back when the rough trail we were following entered the dense pine forests. There were still a few people on the watchtower taking in the views as we came down.
Instead of going back to the house I walked down to the village. People I had met yesterday smiled and greeted. I bumped into Vinod as he was chatting with Alam. His father was out basking in the sun. I took a photograph which I promised to send over to them (thanks to my father’s persuasion, have actually done that). He asked me to visit them again, and this time he said, just call him and he will make all arrangements to travel and stay. I really wanted to as there were quite a few forest trails that we could do from there. One went to Tiger Hill and supposedly took a couple of hours to and back. He was quite impressed that I could walk on the hills so easily - like a local - he said. We see you at one place and next moment you are somewhere else. Well, all the walking in the Scottish hills has indeed helped then.
I eventually returned to the kitchen for breakfast. Sherpa had uprooted some fresh carrots and wanted us to take them with us. It was a very kind gesture. They, including the daughters genuinely looked sad that we were leaving. We already had Sherpa’s phone number, but the daughters gave me their mother’s as well and asked me to call her if we planned to come over again. This time their father won’t have to take days off work. They trusted us.

A photo-session of the families together was followed by a lot of hugs and kisses before the goodbyes. It was hard to leave the place and the people behind. Sherpa was going back to work and we were giving him a lift as well to the road to Sonada.  As we walked down the stairs we had arrived by, we were told that plans are up to build a road to get vehicles to the village.
We were soon back again on the forest path. This time it was bright and sunny and the feelings much different from what we had a couple of days ago. The apprehension was gone and had left a tinge of sadness instead. It was difficult to tear away from the place and the people we left behind, maybe that’s why  the 10kms just disappeared in no time.

We were on to our next destination, Sittong - down to the lower slopes.

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Monday 23 February 2015

Rikisum - A tryst with Kanchenjungha

We had reached Rikkisum, the third stop in our trip and had settled in at the Sana home stay for the night - Family trip to North Bengal - Part I - Forest and Mountains

This was the first time we were staying at a home stay, a concept rapidly developing in these areas and promoted by the tourist department. Locals are provided funds for development, to host tourists at their own homes. Though at Sana, the personal touch was lacking. It was far more commercialised and it just felt like another stay in a hotel. The prices for home stay are on the higher side. Unfortunately at Sana, the services and facilities were more on the lowest end, very basic at the best. There wasn't any attempt to counter the cold, I am talking about temperatures hovering around freezing. The bathrooms had openings to keep them well aired and at the same time freezing. They were without any hot water though supposedly the water heaters had been provisioned for. The voltage in the rooms weren't high enough to support heating and we were out of electricity for a considerable duration, the reason being cited were the roadworks and the back up generator failing. It is one thing to being close to nature. But when you are being asked to pay for the facilities, in an area with limited accommodation - this feels like being cheated. We attributed all these to the remoteness of the location and did not want to spoil our holiday fretting about it either. A couple of our exasperated fellow lodgers even cut short their stay.

However, what the place lacked in facilities, it made it up in its natural beauty and peacefulness.

Day 4 - It's Christmas

No one apparently knew the timing of the sunrise and without internet neither did we. The locals convincingly told us we should reach the spot by five in the morning. So, we were up by half four and were perched on the ruins of the haunted bungalow by five, in pitch darkness and glad it was winter - time for our cold blooded reptile friends to hibernate. The lights from distant villages flickered along with the stars. It was a clear night. The sun wasn't to be out till quarter past six, so the one hour till the sky became lighter was spent with some quality star gazing. A few more people from the home stay joined us a while later, but it was still a few of us and we had the whole place to ourselves. The new arrivals decided to light up a fire. Though very smoky at first, it actually turned out to be a good idea as the wait in the cold took its toll on my niece.
And then the magic begins, one you never tire of watching again and again.

The sky becomes lighter and the first faint white outline of the range appears from the dark - as if proclaiming it was always there covered under the blanket of a moonless night. As the sun makes its grand entry, the dark blue sky above the range starts to dissolve into a golden hue. The gold descends, graciously as we wait for the breathtaking moment. The first ray touches the tip of the cold white peak, its warm glow transforming into pink and then into the golden crown. The crown then softens and melts over the whole range enveloping it in gold satin. This is a view worth waking up for, waiting for, braving the cold and never gets old.
Still intoxicated by the experience, we were the last to leave the viewing point. We made a tea stop to warm up before we returned to our home stay for breakfast. The plan was to go out for some sight seeing around Rikkisum.
The sun was out and bright as we packed into the vehicle, setting off for Pedong. Though, we left the road leading to Pedong on the right and made our way towards Algarah. We would be coming back the other way, the road we left behind. A glorious Kanchenjungha kept us company through the journey of about 30 minutes, whenever the view opened up between the trees. We went past Ramdhura, another popular home stay location. The view of Kanchenjungha is unrestricted from here, the range rising majestically over the vast Teesta river valley. These places are located on the same hills which appear in the photographs taken from Rikkisum, on the distinctive double humps - definitely the place to stay on the next trip.
We stopped at Jhalsa bungalow for some photographs, though very restricted by the trees and hills.
The caretaker asked us to go down the path for a better view point couple of bends later. The detour was worth it. Perhaps this is one of the best views of the Teesta river valley along with Kanchenjungha.
Our next stop was at Pedong to visit the monastery, the oldest in the region, Over 300 years old the frescoes are an interesting visit. As it turned out, there are three monasteries on three levels. The oldest one at the bottom, a much newer one built a few decades ago at the top and the newest one currently under construction in the middle level. Unfortunately, the oldest monastery was closed and there wasn't a soul around to let us in.
Our next stop was Cross hill. This is what Wikipedia says about it 'Another highlight of the town is the Cross Hill, placed by priest Fr. Augustine Desgodins in 1882 AD on his way toTibet. In the Tibet Mission a lot of Evangelists lost their lives or never came back from Tibet. Fr. Augustine Desgodins in due memory of them erected a cross at a vantage point facing Tibet directly with a hope that someday the evangelists may return. It is considered to have miraculous powers and is a pilgrimage site for the local Christians. The Cross Hill is located at such a point wherein the view of the facing mountains is magnificent. From here one can get a glimpse of Tibet or now the The peoples Republic of Chinese border. It is a perfect sunset point.'

We did have a good view of the mountains but did not wait to see the sunset. Though we left intrigued about the sunset point since the sun appeared to be setting behind the hills. Maybe it is better during summer months when the sun takes a more northerly path.
What followed after was a desperate search for the ruins of the Damsang fort. This is the only fort in Darjeeling area built by the Lepcha kings over 300 years ago. The locals seemed oblivious to its existence. After a lot of questioning around, we eventually managed to find an approximate location, but it needed a bit of trekking through forest land. So we dropped the idea of visiting it.

As we got back on our way to Rikkisum, we passed a rocky path going up that leads to Sillery gaon, another upcoming tourist destination.
We returned just in time for lunch.

The afternoon was spent in the balcony soaking up the weak sun. The wind chill was severe and as soon as the sun moved towards the horizon, we huddled back into the room.
We were surprised by a knock on the door in the evening. The home stay had arranged for a small Christmas celebration and had come over to invite the guests as well. It was a pleasant evening with some beautiful singing by the locals. A short clip from the evening

Next day, we would be starting for Chatakpur - a place that would be the best experience of our trip. Keep tuned...

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Sunday 22 February 2015

Dooars - From the forests to the mountains

It is good to spend the Christmas holidays with family and last year, it was actually possible. This post is about our holiday travel to some parts of North Bengal. Very unusual for us, it was not a well researched or well planned holiday, but something we came up with after speaking to the travel agents. All our booking were done by Wind Oz, a travel agency based in Siliguri who specialise in eco and adventure tourism -
We put our faith in them as we embarked on our trip. 

The Journey begins

It was a Sunday evening in December we found ourselves rocking on the sleeper berths of the overnight Darjeeling mail - destination New Jalpaiguri. It could be categorised as an unplanned trip. None of us had bothered to look up the places booked by our travel agent and the plan was based on availability - there wasn't much during the holiday season anyway, so we thought it was going to be a compromise. All we wanted to do was spend some quality time, away from it all, the location did not matter as long as it was quiet and peaceful. The forest or the mountains never disappointed anyway.

Our driver for the trip was going to be Alam whom we came to know on one of our previous trips to the Dooars 6 years ago, one of the most adventurous trips - but that deserves a post of its own. He was waiting for us outside the station. A huge grin crossed his face as he recognised my niece. She was a toddler when he had last seen her. We got our luggage on the rooftop, 6 people travelling through various degrees of temperature for 11 days - we had packed conservatively. Everything stowed away and tied up, we settled down and were off on our journey.

Day 1 - entering Dooars

Our first stop was at the famous Sevoke Kalibari, offering our prayers to the much venerable Goddess. After the Puja and a breakfast of Momos (dumplings) and very sweet tea, we were on our way to our first overnight stop - Paren.
Enroute, we made a stop at the Murti river lodge to have a glimpse of the river, running almost dry during the winter months.
Driving through non-existent roads for 30 kms through the Chapramari forest area, we made our late lunch stop at Jhalong river camp. About 10 kms from Paren, this is a forestry department camping ground where more permanent accommodation is provided in tents which have to be pre-booked. We had to call them up earlier in the day to order our lunch.
It was dusk when we reached the West Bengal Forest Department cottages in Paren. Four cottages all single roomed en-suites were laid around the well maintained ground along with the main building that housed the kitchen and restaurant and also served as the reception area. Behind the cottages rose the forests and the hills. Even though we were still on lower grounds of the Dooars, the temperature had started to drop. In the absence of any running hot water, the caretaker and soon after my father got busy getting us hot water from wood fire.
The caretaker shot off to the village to buy food and getting help for the cooking and soon the kitchen was bustling with activity. After an early dinner, we were glad to get under the blankets.

Day 2 - continuing on the foothills of the Himalayas

Paren is a good location for bird-watching and not without reason. We woke up to the chirping of the birds early dawn. Though I do not consider myself as a bird-watcher was drawn into the game by my sister in law and brother. We walked down to the village just as the sun appeared with its first golden rays melting into the mist. Dew drops sparkled everywhere.
We walked up the forest path behind the cottages. The forest was the livelihood of the locals providing them with fire wood and fodder for the cattle. A young boy from the village hopped and skipped up the path and gave us curious glances. We didn't look like a group of trekkers, still in our bed clothes, with a kid and a couple of septuagenarians. The undergrowth was dense at places, and as the path started to grow rockier and steeper, we decided to return.
Breakfast of aloo-paratha was waiting for us. We started off for Suntaleykhola after breakfast.
The first stop came quick after only 10 kms from Paren - Bindu dam on the river Jaldhaka. The river serves as the border between India and Bhutan. Locals from both countries walk across the border without resistance, but the military outposts keep a sharp eye on visitors and unfamiliar faces.
After a short stopover in which I also realised that the river water can numb the feet within seconds, we were on our way to Suntaleykhola.

Suntaleykhola, near Samsing is about 30 kms from Paren. We traced back our route from the day before, passing through Jhalong and crossing the Murti river farther up till we were driving through acres of lowland tea gardens.
We made another stop just before Suntaleykhola at a popular picnic spot called the Rocky Island. It was indeed very popular on the day with at least three different picnics in progress, each accompanied with their own music, blaring on loudspeakers, the smell of food and alcohol in the air, the trash already being dumped in and around the river bed. Somehow I managed to steal this photograph, it could indeed be a nice place. I was glad to escape.
On the bridge over the picnic spot my father purchased some oranges and they were the sweetest I have ever tasted. The region is famous for the Darjeeling oranges and the word Suntaleykhola literally translates to Orange Stream in Nepalese, the later for the water body that trickles through it.

We reached the WBFDC tourist lodge just in time for another late lunch. WBFDC provides room and cottage accommodation as well as a river camp for a more close to nature experience, all within half a kilometre and almost equidistant from each other. We were booked in the rooms. A little further down is the river camp and then the independent cottages by the stream.
After another late lunch we walked down to the bridge on the stream. This too was a rocky river bed, dried out during the winter months, but the locals said it barely had any more water rest of the year. The best part of the walk was to jump on the suspension foot bridge making it sway and getting dizzy in the way.
We walked around and chatted with the locals. The caretaker at the river camp asked us in and brewed some Darjeeling green tea for us.

As dusk descended, so did the temperature. Dinner was prepared by the young wife of the caretaker's son. She had met her future husband in school, fell in love and got married. While helping at the lodge, the couple were also continuing with their studies. Dinner was followed by a session of star gazing - perfect conditions with clear moonless sky and no light pollution to distract.

Day 3 - starting for the mountains

Woke up to a racket - thrashing around in the trees and barking dogs. It turned out to be a troop of monkeys who were the cause of distress for the dogs.
I went out on a walk, first to the river camp, the sun was just breaking through the trees and bird watchers were already perched on the rocks.
My niece was arriving with her parents, armed with cameras as I started back for the lodge but decided to continue walking up to the village. The evening before, during tea at the river camp, the caretaker had told us about a sunrise viewing point from the roof of a local house. I went on to check the viewpoint and found my father and Alam already there, socialising with the locals.
Suntaleykhola has quite a few trekking routes through the Neora Valley National Park including a three day trek to Lava. However, we were making a short overnight stay and did not have much time to look around the place either. So after breakfast we started on the longest journey of our trip till now. We were to leave the Dooars and go up into the mountains. The next stop would be 90 kilometres away at Rikkisum. Located near Pedong between Lava and Kalimpong, Rikkisum is considered to be providing the widest uninterrupted view of the Kanchenjungha range.

The roads were steep as Alam drove us up the winding mountain roads.
We made a stop to rest our queasy stomachs as the Chel river tumbled through. But it was a stop with a view and some local delicacy. The journey was interrupted by a number of temporary road closures. The road was being widened and this required felling of trees and blasting away the mountains. Huge earth moving machinery had been moved up to these steep slopes. The roads were buzzing with workers, chopping off the branches of the felled trees while trying to control traffic on these busy roads. We made a short stop in Lava to buy some necessities.
Eventually reached Rikkisum in the late afternoon. We were booked in at the Sana home stay right on the edge of the road and facing a glorious open valley. A few steep stairs took us up to the cottages set up at three levels. The topmost also housing the kitchen and restaurant. We were booked in the middle set of cottages. There were a handful of other home stays around apart from which the place was empty. The village was way down in the valley. At 1800 metres above sea level and in the late afternoon sun on the open face of the mountain, it was time to pull out all our woolens.
A quick lunch was followed by a mad rush to get to the top of the hill for the sunset. An unpaved narrow road branching off about 50 metres from the home stay to reach the top of the hill. At the top are the remnants of a British age bungalow, which supposedly is haunted, but provides an interesting background to the spectacular view of the grand Kanchejungha. It is also possible to zig zag up from the home stay itself and get on to the unpaved road and then walk about the couple of kilometres to the top. The locals said that it is actually the top of the hill, the place of the old bungalow, that is called Rikkisum.

The view, though a bit hazy was still beautiful as we saw the white mountain range turn golden as the sun set behind the clouds. It was time to get back to some hot tea.
We had two rooms booked for us. But since one room had three good sized double beds, and the other one was dark and damp, we decided to snuggle in together - giving us the opportunity for some family time together but also a medley of snores at varied frequencies and pitch. We had an early start the next day for the sunrise.

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