Those of you who have closely followed my fascinating life will know that I have a husband who is something of a mountain junkie. You know what I mean? A vacation not spent in the midst of rolling (or towering) mountains is a vacation not worth taking. In the early years of our marriage, we always went to the seaside, because I loved it, but as our union ages, so is his enthusiasm for blue water sadly diminished!
So this is the second time this year (2006) that we vacationed in the hills. And I would never admit this to my husband, but I feel the symptoms of mountain junkieness creeping up on me as well, and there are distinct signs of a growing addiction to the heart-stopping sight of the dazzling white Kanchenjunga range etched against a clear blue sky.
Having married a man who believes in off-season vacations, I am destined to travel to the mountains either during the monsoon, or in the biting chill of winter. So it is that on the morning of December 6, 2006, husband, five-year-old son and I get off the Kanchenjunga Express at New Jalpaiguri (NJP) and look about for transport to the West Bengal Forest Development Authority’s (WBFDA) Nature Resort at Lepchajagat, about 20 km from Darjeeling on the Ghoom-Mirik road.
Having found two pockmarked young men who bundle the three of us and our luggage into a TATA Sumo in record time, we set off in a burst of speed and screaming tyres through the barely awake streets of Siliguri. Past the Baikunthapur forest, I feel the now familiar rush of adrenaline as the first hills came into view and the road begins snaking upward.
We take the Darjeeling route till Ghoom, careening madly past road safety signs that implore drivers to ‘be gentle on my curves’. Finally, just as car-sickness threatens to triumph over my tired innards, we screech to a halt at Ghoom to stock up on mineral water. Like most other settlements in these parts, Ghoom has jumped from being a sleepy hamlet to an ever-expanding and crowded township beset by the usual problems like water and power shortage and a lack of basic infrastructure.
Leaving those depressing thoughts behind, we wind our way to Lepchajagat on the crest of a breathtaking valley, through forests of fir and eucalyptus. The chill in the air is distinct and biting as we descend a short bye-lane to the resort — having nearly missed it in our crazy haste, gone on toward Mirik, and then screeched back.
As the engine dies down and we disembark, what strikes us most is the silence — it is quiet to the point of deafening. And then our unaccustomed ears begin to pick out little sounds — birdsong here, a single rustling leaf there, a baby crying in the far distance.
The WBFDA guest house is clean and utilitarian, with somewhat lavishly (and misleadingly) named rooms like Magnolia and Camellia. Misleading because there is nothing remotely flower-like about our cavernous ‘suite’. Wood paneled walls, red jute carpet (a government guest house must have), large bathroom with leaking sink and inadequate ventilation, a fireplace that no one ever seems to have used, a dressing table and a modest cupboard, and a large bed. However, most of it is clean and dust-free, so what more can one ask for?
Well, a properly functioning room heater would be nice, now that you come to mention it. The one that we have been given would be fine in a 6×6 room, but is hopelessly inadequate for the cave that is our suite. So we pile on every scrap of warm clothing we possess and make our way to the terrace for that first, breathtaking glimpse of Mount Kanchenjunga.
And that is pretty much all that Lepchajagat offers in terms of entertainment. That, and the incredible peace of total silence. As the name suggests, Lepchajagat is a settlement of Lepchas, the aboriginal inhabitants of present day Sikkim who number a mere 50,000 (approx.) today.
Food at the guest house is strictly of the adequate variety, and the rapidity with which bowls of steaming rice and daal cool down is unbelievable. There is a lounge adjacent to our room that boasts a TV with — hold your breath — a DVD player. The shock of it leaves us speechless, but we are relieved to learn that the contraption doesn’t work and the cable connection is erratic at best, so all is as it should be.
A sound nap later, we would like to take an evening stroll, but the smiling Mr Tamang, caretaker-cum-overseer, assures us it isn’t a very good idea. “Leopard,” he says succinctly, making our son quiver with excitement at the prospect. But we admit that our leopard combat skills are thin on the ground and thus abandon the idea of a stroll.
The next day, we take a trip to Darjeeling in a car arranged, at considerable (but inevitable in the hills) expense by the resourceful Mr Tamang. The Ghoom-Mirik road is not exactly a bustling highway, but it does offer public transport to Darjeeling, if you are prepared to brave the wait and the uncertainty. As we wait for our car to arrive, we stroll along the highway under an eye-wateringly blue sky. The boy who acts as gofer at the guest house sits by the roadside softly strumming his battered guitar and humming very tunefully.
Darjeeling is crowded and bustling as ever. Our trip coincides with preparations for the Darjeeling Festival, and the Mall is a hideous jumble of bamboo stalls and a large stage being set up right in the center complete with gigantic sound boxes for a rock concert. Our son renews his acquaintance with Tashi, a sturdy white pony who had given him a patient ride around the Mall when we were last in Darjeeling.
We lunch at an excellent Chinese restaurant (forget the name), shop for woolens, browse around inside Oxford Bookstore, buy confectionery from Glenary’s, and return to Lepchajagat.
Our next stop: Samsing wildlife reserve, but we never make it. With a day-and-a-half in hand, we will spend all our time traveling backward for about four hours to Samsing and then forward to NJP.
So we do the next best thing and descend upon Kalimpong, which is en route to NJP anyway. A mistake, really, because Kalimpong is the kind of soulless, crowded hill town that exemplifies the worst of tourism in the hills. The WBFDA guest house is a drastic improvement on its Lepchajgat counterpart, but that’s about it.
As we make our way to NJP the next day, I reflect that Lepchajagat will probably not appeal to conventional tourists, but I wouldn’t mind going back for a second helping. So watch this space.