Darjeeling Once More

By Abhik Dutta

The Commander jeep hurtled down NH 31A from Gangtok to Teesta Bazar at breakneck speed. Sitting at the back is not a comfortable way of travelling in these hills if you are in a taxi loaded with 13 passengers including the driver and the cleaner! Brief glimpses of the beautiful Teesta River from the gaps between a dozen heads kept me occupied. The constant banter of the 3 young ladies flirting with the driver in Nepali, the local language, was what really worried me. In any case he was perched precariously on the edge of the seat with part of his body hanging out and every time a bend appeared he would lean his full body on the  wheel to turn the vehicle. He either fell on the lady next to him – an action that brought peels of laughter from the 3 ladies in front – or he simply disappeared out of the jeep depending on the turn. They found this very amusing. Not me. I was praying.

By the time we reached Teesta Bazar, it was hot and sunny. The altitude not more than 2000ft. On the left, the road turned to Kalimpong, 14 kms away. A quaint hill station famous for its flower nurseries and pleasant weather throughout the year, the place makes for an excellent two-day detour in one’s itinerary. There’s a Tibetan Lama in Kalimpong whose ‘magical’ cures for arthritis and other such diseases are legendary in the area. The Churches and the Colonial buildings in town are worth a visit too.

We took the right bifurcation and crossed the Teesta River as our destination was Darjeeling, still a couple of hours drive away. Soon, the steep climb up Peshoke Road began. First and second gear stuff with sharp twists and turns. The flirting up front continued. Minutes later, we were up on the mountain once again – the Teesta, a small silver streak down below. There was a perceptible change in temperature and it much cooler as we went past a tea garden. The tea pickers, with huge baskets slung on their backs, were unmindful of the vehicles that passed as they went on with their “two buds and a leaf” routine. It was picture postcard scenery all along. Soon, we were enveloped by a thick fog as we crossed a forest of pine trees. The driver halted for lunch at a small village beside the road.

I entered a roadside stall for lunch and surveyed the scene. Three leather jacketed men, with caps worn loosely on their heads, were on the far corner drinking rum and playing cards. The cigarettes hung carelessly on their lips. The old lady who apparently owned the joint served them momos and they exchanged greetings. They seemed to know each other quite well. The pretty girl who manned the busy counter, and looked like the old lady’s daughter, took care of shop front business. It was good business too. Many of the jeeps stop here on their way up or down from Darjeeling before embarking on the steep ascent or descent depending on where they were bound. The passengers alight to walk around a bit or kick around.

I ordered pork momos with soup. It was delicious.

Ghoom came next. It’s the highest railroad station in Asia at 8,000ft. The fog was very thick here and it was drizzling. I was worried about my rucksack tied above the jeep. The ‘cleaner’, a wiry young lad of 12, was cocky to the core. “Not waterproof?” he asked grinning. “I don’t know”, I said. “ You shouldn’t buy cheap Indian stuff,” he said in mock disgust. I made a mental note not to touch his jeep with a bargepole next time.

The jeep was now moving towards Darjeeling. An old familiar smell. The smell of mist floating in the mountains and fumes from passing vehicles. The sight was familiar too – the toy train track running parallel to the road; the landrovers still chugging along quite well; pretty ladies with colourful umbrellas walking daintily around a puddle, the hand lifting the long gown a wee bit.

Then the mist parted for a moment. And through the gap I saw the town of Darjeeling -spread across the hillside. The sun shining magically on the hill, the rays reflecting off the wet tin roofs in a dazzling display of pin point light.

Over the next few days I visited  my old haunts in Darjeeling. Stayed at Dekelling on the Mall where Norbu and his wife took good care of me. Strolled down the Mall. Had breakfast at Keventers- hot dog and hot chocolate- the same stuff I had first tasted in 1979, during my first visit to Darjeeling. Bought a jacket and a ‘monkey’ cap from the stalls lined up on the Mall. Glenary’s for pastries, Das Studio for my usual replenishment of film rolls and picture postcards. Sat on the bench at the square watching three generations of people eating, chatting, laughing, reading or simply watching others the way I was.

Early one morning, I walked all the way past the Mall and down the lane past the Windamere and Loretto Convent. A clear bright day following three days of indifferent weather. The sun was up, shining coyly through the leaves of the trees that lined the road. I walked aimlessly down the road soaking in the crisp Himalayan air. The Khangchendzonga range was visible clearly. The forked peak of the third highest peak in the world towered above the rest of the peaks. Cold, distant and silent. I watched fascinated as always at the sight before me. An old ‘sweeper’ who was cleaning the road looked at me and smiled knowingly. It was clear that the magic had worked on him every moment of his life.

Time ticked and caught up with me. I hurried down the road towards the zoo. I didn’t want to be late to see the two snow leopards playing in their cage before they disappeared for their feed.

To travel with us click here

Facts for traveller in Ooty

By Abhik Dutta

“ Almost heaven, West Virginia, blue ridged mountains, Shenandoh river.”

Denver took hold of my senses halfway between Mysore and Ooty, somewhere in the middle of dense jungles of Bandipur. The forest whizzed past. It was around 3 in the afternoon but the canopy formed by the trees shut out the sunlight and allowed the passage of streaks of sunlight that formed an eerie image on the black stretch of forest road. This was a journey I was getting to love. It was a journey of the senses that had been screaming for help over the past year, wanting an out from the staid existence back home in Calcutta. The forest, the streams and the distant hills beyond, beckoned me. And sitting in the bus I allowed myself to zoom through a corridor of strained light right into the lap of nature at the other end. It was a meeting of lovers kept apart by circumstances. One, a confused youth from the city and the other a demure lass full of beauty and wisdom.

I needed this break as much as my friends. Calcutta had taken its toll. Sipping our tea in a roadside stall, we had decided to pack our rucksacks and head South. Over the last ten days the five of us had journeyed through the confusion in Chennai (then Madras), rode piggy back on my brother in law in Bangalore (till he wanted an out too), almost got crushed to death in a stampede on the parapet walls of the dam in Brindavan gardens and found relief in the green hills of Madikere in Coorg.  Fresh out of college, no job in hand and a future as dark as the forest we were passing through, the five of us had decided to stray far away from our homes in Calcutta.

The girl seated across the aisle turned and smiled at me. I smiled back. She clung on to her doll tightly. I clung on to my dreams and watched the jungle pass me by. We were passing through the Bandipur National Park on our way to Ooty. The bus rumbled through the dense jungle. The others were sleeping. Amit with his head weaving over the aisle like a pendulum; Sanjay waking up sheepishly after every bump on the window sill; Bumba resting most of his 80 kilos on the thin old man seated next to him crushing him under his weight; Ashis snoring by my side. All presenting a picture of tired minds and bodies in need of rest. But I stayed awake with Denver for company. Sleep doesn’t come to me easily on such journeys. My mind wanders.

The sight of a large herd of elephants brought out squeals of delight from the little girl. The commotion woke the others up. The giant beasts were tied in chains next to the road. Bells dangled from their colossal neck and chimed with their movements. There was a gap in the thick foliage. A lovely clearing with some huts on the other side of a small stream held our attention. Then the bus roared around a sharp bend. Both the elephants and the clearing vanished from sight. It always saddens me to see elephants in chains. Somehow, I always think of these majestic animals roaming the jungles freely without care. Not sheathed in chains as beasts of burden.

And then the climb up the Blue mountains began. We turned and twisted up the ghat roads. The scenery took our breath away. By now the others were wide-awake soaking in the splendour of  the blue ridges of the Nilgiris. The setting sun created magic on these mountains and the ranges seemed to blush in delight at we watched her unabashedly allowing our minds to wander all over her beauty, wanting her like a long lost lover. Each turn showed us a different dimension of nature – every scene casting a spell on us, vibrating within us till our minds seemed to burst. Looking at our happy faces I realised that this was the closest I would come to feel Utopia on this trip.

Over the next five days we explored the town of Ooty. The quaint market place bustling with the post Diwali holiday crowd, the numbing cold of the evenings spent at the Botanical gardens and the boating on the lake; the excursion to Coonoor and our delight at seeing the botanical gardens at Sims Park with its wide variety of roses. We visited Dodabeta peak and marvelled at the breathtaking views from the place. But most of all, I still remember the wonderful after dinner sessions of animated conversation in the dormitory beds of the Youth Hostel; the carefree laughter of five disillusioned youths from Calcutta who found temporary Nirvana in the Blue Mountains of the South. And still the haunting strains of Denver kept me company in the cold, moonlit nights after the lights in the dormitory were switched off .

dark and dusty painted on the sky, misty taste of moonshine, teardrop in my eye..

Facts on Ooty:

New name: Udhagamandalam. Also called ‘Queen of the Hill stations’.

Best season: January to March due to less rush. Otherwise, coinciding with the holidays, April-June and Sep-Oct are good too. November-Feb can get quite cold. It rains from June to Sept and greenery is at its best with a plethora of waterfalls all over.

How to reach: By road it is 165 kms approx from Mysore. By train one can take the quaint Nilgiri Blue Mountain railway from Mettupalayam in the plains to Ooty (46kms via Coonoor).

What to see: Botanical gardens, St Stephens Church, Government Museum, Fernhill Palace, Dodabetta peak. A day excursion to Coonoor and the magnificent Sims Park.

Moving on, one can visit the Mudumalai wildlife sanctuary and Bandipur National Park en route to Mysore.

A good route: Bangalore-Mysore-Madikere (Coorg)-Bandipur-Ooty-Vythri-Calicut. Can be done in 10-12 days.