Monday 2 March 2015

Sittong - Orange is the colour

Chatakpur was amazing. After the uplifting experience of being in the cradle of nature and sharing time with the ever welcoming locals, the holiday spirit was now winding down. We were only a couple of days away from returning home, and I was less than a week away from leaving home again. The heart was heavy.

Day 8 - Destination Sittong

Our first stop was at Mongpu, a place brought to fame by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, as one of his many residences where his creativity flowed. A short trek from Chatakpur can take you to Mongpu, but we decided to take the more conventional way. Though the first sight of the house was impressive, as the caretaker took us in, we realised the place was actually falling to pieces. For some reason Visva Bharati refused to own the property and the government isn’t keen to help either despite promises. It was a daring but futile effort on the part of the caretaker, Mr Shishir Rahut, that the place still manages to exist. It survives on donations. When we visited, electricity had been disconnected for non-payments. The priceless photographs were fading into oblivion. The lack of funds bore its sign everywhere, the place gradually withering away despite the effort of a select few. The house was in picturesque location but the story left us depressed. Here is the one of the songs that was composed here by Kabiguru, the Malatilata still hanging on to the building Oyi Malatilata dole - Sagar Sen
The oranges started to appear, first a few trees, as we reached the river Riyang. The old bridge is incapable of taking on vehicles and the new bridge is under construction. Until then, the vehicles have to drive on the rocky river bed through the gushing stream. In monsoon months, the vehicles stop on this side of the river. Tourists cross the footbridge and vehicles from the home stays wait for them on the other side for the final few kilometres on the hills. The hills rise steeply here and are prone to landslides. As we climbed on much of the roads had disappeared. It was a bumpy and dusty ride. The oranges by now were everywhere. Kids with basket full of oranges supported on their head walked past. We had arrived in orange country.

Sittong is a Lepcha village famous for its Darjeeling oranges, reportedly, the best quality. It is located in a crescent valley, the mountains towering up on one side. Chatakpur vaguely visibly on the top. From the watchtower in Chatakpur, we had seen Sittong low down in the valley and here we were. In the winter months the area literally turns orange and this is no exaggeration. When we arrived, many of the orchards had been sold and the fruits plucked, but even with what remained, we were awestruck. We were booked in at the home stay of  Titas Lepcha, quite modern by all standards. It had all the facilities that could qualify it for at least a 2 star hotel, yet the owner and his wife tried their best to add that personal touch.

All of us were tired by now, so even though after lunch we went out for a walk, we were soon back in our rooms. We made it an early night.

Day 9 - The land of oranges 

With no sunrise to wake up to, it was a much later start than usual for me. My brother, his wife and daughter were already out for bird hunting - with cameras and binoculars. I had a lazy breakfast sitting in the sun, chatting with my parents. At 1200m it was much warmer here and the sun felt glorious. A 4 wheel drive Mahindra jeep was waiting for us. We would be going for a trip around the area.

It wasn't long before we realised why we needed a 4 wheel drive. The roads, if what they could be called, were steep and rocky as they curved very quickly and sharply up on to the hills. Sometimes the sharp turns could not be made in one go and our young driver had to reverse in the steep gradient giving us some heart stopping moments.

We were soon in orange orchards and made a stop. Oranges were everywhere, not only on the trees, but on the ground, on the roads, inside and over bushes, rooftops. It was fun walking in the terraced gardens, under fruit laden trees, picking up the better looking ones from amongst the hundreds spread on the soft ground, tasting them and stocking up the rest. Maybe because he noticed we were not plucking any from the trees as instructed, the orchard owner came along and plucked a whole large bagful and gave it to us for free. We were laden with oranges as we got back in the jeep and moved on.
Our next stop was at a camping ground, which the tourists in the area said Latpanchar, but the locals had a different name which I cannot remember. It ended with a ‘dhura’. According to the locals, Latpanchar was the village on the other side of the hill. The views were fabulous as the Teesta meandered below the hills. Kanchenjungha was still glistening in the background. We had climbed up to 1800m through the steep roads and it felt like being in the mountains again, but the sun was much stronger. We met a camping group who had brought over a bunch of school kids. The kids were out trekking with their supervisors. The group leader was waiting for them at the camp. He turned out to be a common friend.
As we started back we met the large group of happy young faces walking up the road. Looked like they had a good day. Our next stop was at the Mana tea estate. My dream of clicking a photograph of the Kanchenjungha with the tea gardens in the foreground finally came true!
Sittong had a century old bamboo church which no longer exists and has now been replaced by a more modern building. We were too tired and wanted to get back to our rooms. The church visit was skipped. The evening was lazy with a lot of small talk and heated debates over cups of tea and pakoras. We were leaving for Siliguri the next day, the trip finally coming to an end.

Day 10 - On the way back

Woke up early next morning and went on a walk down to the village with my father. It was difficult to walk on the steep and rocky road waiting for tarmac. An elderly man was fumbling along and my dad picked up a conversation with him. What he said was that previously the oranges grew in large numbers in these lower grounds as well but lately they have stopped. The trees look sick and the natural fertilisers are no longer helping them. They do not use chemical fertilisers or pesticides. The nutrients from the soil have been sucked dry and the gardens are now moving higher up in the hills. In these low grounds, in the shadow of the high mountains, there was barely any sunlight for the trees either.

We left for Siliguri after a late breakfast, but not before Titas and his wife, gave us a symbolic traditional farewell. It was very touching. Unfortunately, I do not have the photographs as by now I was starting to shut down, the camera was well packed in.
It was a long drive through very busy roads, going past the once picturesque Kalijhora, now ravaged by the construction of the dam. Though we were now on proper roads, the traffic was slow moving. The windows had to be kept rolled up to stop the dust, a lot of road repairs was in progress. Eventually, we reached Siliguri just about when dusk was setting in, unwittingly booked in the pricey Mainak hotel for a night’s stay. Keeping our bags and refreshing with some good Darjeeling tea, we went out for some shopping - to buy local tea and artisan products. Alam, who is from Siliguri, had brought along his toddler daughter as well. We had our food together, before he dropped us at our hotel and went back home. He would be picking us up next morning to take us to the airport.

Day 11 - The return

It took just over half an hour to reach Bagdogra. Alam was very quiet through the drive. As we said our goodbyes, he eventually could not stop his tears. Goodbyes are always painful. It was a wonderful eleven days we spent here and he was always with us, even when he was not driving. He was not just our driver for the trip, but much more, a bond that was built six years ago and only grew stronger.

As the Jet airways flight took off, it turned south and the snow clad Himalayan range appeared. We saw Kanchenjungha in its full glory for one last time before it disappeared behind us....till the next time, hopefully not too far away.

Here is an approximate route of the trip. Google map does not have the local roads updated, so doesn't give the actual path we took, especially the ones to Chatakpur and to Sittong.

So that brings me to the end of this trip report, the previous posts in links below
Family trip to North Bengal - Part I - Forests and Mountains
Family trip to North Bengal - Part II - A tryst with Kanchenjungha
Family trip to North Bengal - Part III - Chatakpur

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