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North Bengal Travelogue

Posted on Monday, Jan 16th

Hollong, 28 December, 2005 : We drove 130 km from Bagdogra to arrive at the Hollong Bungalow last night through beautiful scenery – forests, tea-gardens, sometimes monkeys sitting by the roadside. About 20 km before Jaldapara, the highway was blocked due to a collapsed bridge, so we had to take an alternate route – a dirt road – and also cross a river by driving through it. It was now almost dark. We said to each other, as we drove ever so slowly through the pristine and very poor villages: If we have to be poor, we prefer being poor in a place like this. Poverty here is both poetic and picturesque, not heart-breaking, nor revolting as in the slums of Bombay or Calcutta.

We arrived at the Bungalow around six-thirty, accompanied by an elephant driver (Mahoot), his wife and child, who hitched a ride with us from Madarihat, at the mouth of the forest. Dinner was a delicious chicken curry and rice, served lovingly by the Bungalow bearers. From the Bungalow window, we could see Bison herds in the light of the spot. The salt marshes and streams right in front attract wild life in abundance. It was here, 25 years back, I had witnessed the courtship scene of a gigantic male wild elephant and two females.

This morning, the first surprise was a huge one-horned rhino at 5AM, literally 10 ft from where we stood, right before setting off on our elephant safari into the heart of the forest. The forest itself is magical, mysterious and beautiful. As day broke this morning, and as day drew to a close this evening – the calls of the peacocks, the crickets, the silhouettes of the trees, the mist that envelopes them – all of it cast spells that effortlessly switched off our life in California.

Hollong, 29 December, 2005 : One of the Bungalow boys wakes us up at 5:30AM. We sit by the window with tea and watch. Dominique says: Hunting is not about killing. It is about waiting. We are waiting, watching, listening.

We are craving a tiger, I must say. One of the Bungalow boys told us a story yesterday. In his 18 years here, he has seen a tiger twice. We know the probability of our seeing a tiger is miniscule.

He said, he once went on an elephant in the afternoon, and suddenly saw paw marks of a tiger. And blood.

They followed the marks, which led to a deer freshly killed – bleeding, his life still slightly beating, his legs twitching, the prey convulsing. The tiger, meanwhile, swiftly disappeared behind the tall grasses.

The two men cleared the grass around the deer, then moved back and waited. After a while, the tiger came back and sat next to his victim, expressing displeasure, tail lashing on the ground.

We won’t see a tiger, although we did briefly see a leopard. There are tigers, though, and once or twice a year, still, cows get taken from the village.

Lava, 31 December, 2005 : We have covered two other forests in the last two days – Gorumara and Chapramari – with our base at the Sinclairs in Chalsa. Gorumara is spectacular. At Chapramari, however, we saw a wild elephant and a sprinting bison at close range. To see that elephant, I had to sweet-talk our guide and have him take us on a rather dangerous (and forbidden) dirt-road. Samrat, our driver, was worried about what we would do if the elephant charged us. The guide says: A forest guard has been killed 2 days back by an elephant.

When does an elephant kill? we ask. When he becomes isolated from the herd. No female would touch him anymore. Plight of an outcast!

We have now seen great forests waking up and falling asleep. We have touched the brink of the life of the jungle. Not much is different here than primordial times. A forest guard lives in a small shack at the mouth of a leopard and elephant infested forest. If he dies, another takes his place. Man here survives according to his fate, taking none of survival’s myriad options in his own hands. At best, during harvest season, they keep better vigil to scare away approaching elephants with firecracker. Elephants here kill, destroy crops, ravage through the forests. Marks of elephants-driven destruction are everywhere.

We drive through beautiful landscapes. The scenery of tea-gardens, betelnut woods, bayleaf plants, and cardamom bushes slowly change to rolling hills, then mountains, as we climb up towards Lava, at 7000 ft.

Samrat, our driver and companion for this one week, provides great and ample commentary. A bright young man of twenty-five, Samrat knows these roads intimately. He has navigated us through the logistical chaos that is inevitable in India – getting permits for the forests being one example. Traveling in remote parts of India is not for shi shi tourists. It is for travelers. This afternoon, we met a Canadian couple – one of those rare western tourists in these parts of India. The lady said, “This is horrible! There is nothing to do …”

What’s horrible is a splendid little Himalayan village far out by the Bhutan border : Lava. This is where we are right now. Sarrounded by layers and layers of Himalayan panorama, sitting in a small cottage facing the hue of the setting sun, our sentiments are far from her’s.

Our cottage is a West Bengal Forest Department property, and hence at one of the prettiest spots in the village. It has nominal amenities. We were offered an electric heater for rent at 50 Rupees. Imagine, in the Himalayan winter, heating is optional!

There is a small Tibetan Buddhist monastery. Examples of entrepreneurial initiatives abound in the village, as it is becoming popular amongst Bengali tourists. The story of Hotel Orchid going from a shack selling momos to a 3-story hotel + multi-cuisine restaurant travel far as a legend. Further development will come soon, and destroy the pristine beauty of the place. For now, night falls around 6PM, after which there really is nothing to do. Men get drunk, and people fall asleep by 8PM. We are enjoying the last bit of light now, at 5PM. Soon, the low lights inside the cottage will make reading or writing impossible. A Nepalese woman will bring us chicken curry and rice at 7:30.

We will welcome the new year tonight in silence, with the Himalayas as our witness.

Kalimpong, 1 January, 2006 : The new year begins with a cup of tea and a book, in front of our cottage in Lava. The air is cold, but the strong sun makes it crisp and pleasant.

Binu, our attendant, is a pretty, young Nepalese woman. Her 5-year old daughter comes by to play with us. Around 8:30, Samrat shows up, and we start our descent towards Kalimpong. Soon, the glorious, snow-capped Kanchendzonga is visible from the road.

Our base in Kalimpong is Morgan House, now owned by the WB Tourist Department. It is terribly maintained, but bears all the marks of a splendid past during the Raj. The location is superb, with the Kanchendzonga (28,169 ft; third highest peak in the world) watching over its grounds. Some say, this is a haunted house. We haven’t seen Mrs. Morgan, though.

Basant, our bearer, is making a fire in our room, which is humongous. Who knows who Mr. and Mrs. Morgan were, and how they acquired this property! But as the Indian Nationalists drove the British out, it is indeed a pity that no subsequent owner of properties such as these knew how to care for them.

Nonetheless, the Himalayan presence is enough. I have always loved the Himalayas. When I was a child, Dia, my grandmother, used to tell me the story of Lord Shiva’s wedding to Uma, Himalaya’s daughter. Himalaya is the king of the mountains, and on New Years Day, 2006, we are indeed on top of the world, enjoying his charming hospitality.

Kalimpong, 2 January, 2006 : It is very early in the morning. I sit on the staircase of Morgan House, looking at the soft morning sun touching the mountains. The snow-peaks switch colours from silver to orange to pink to purple.

This morning, however, my thoughts are neither spiritual nor romantic. I think about the untapped business and development potential of North Bengal. The Government has no clue on how to do justice to this opportunity. They own spectacular properties that could be converted into world class tourist destinations. The forest bungalows at Gorumara, Chapramari, Hollong, Lava and this Morgan House – all need to be restored and maintained. In the hands of someone with taste and imagination, both of which the Government sorely lacks, the magic could be incredible. The forests are teeming with wild life. Jungle safaris could be breathtaking. The 10km Chapramari has some 130 leopards, 80 elephants, and innumerable bisons and boars.

In Lava, the charming little Himalayan village is on its way to being destroyed with random construction. This is where the Government should intervene.

Our next destination is a tea-estate called Glenburn. This is the luxury portion of our trip. Having seen many vineyards and wineries in Napa, Sonoma, and Bordeaux, I am curious to see how Tea Estates in India are run and marketed. In the back of my mind is the question, can these Tea Estates be developed into tourist destinations as well, a la Napa Valley?

We finish our trip at the Windamere in Darjeeling, one of the jewels of the British Raj.

Glenburn, 2 January, 2006 : Glenburn is splendid. Nestled in layers and layers of grand mountains, with abundant rolling hills of lush tea gardens, Glenburn is situated at an idyllic spot. We arrived yesterday afternoon, and were greeted by Mrs. Neena Pradhan, our hostess.

The bungalow is a beautifully restored English house with four suites. We have the Rose Suite. We have gone back a hundred years, to the times of the Raj. We are pampered thoroughly.

After a lavish lunch, we walk down to a village about an hour away. Prakash, one of the Bungalow bearers, is our guide. At the end of the walk, he pours us fresh lemonade in real glasses, on a tray with a tray-cloth. We sit at the edge of a mountain, sipping the drink, as Prakash smilingly asks us to guess “what else” has he put in the drink! We fail, of course. “An ever so slight touch of mint and ginger”, laughs our friend. Completely personalized touches such as this are sprinkled all over the experience. It is elegantly rendered, and delivered with warmth and sincerity by the Glenburn staff.

Upon return to the Bungalow, Neena has her afternoon tea ready … delicious tea-cakes and an outstanding Autumn Flush tea, freshly created from the latest harvest!

Tea grows 9 months of the year, with the First Flush harvested in February, followed by the Second Flush (stronger), the Monsoon Flush (lesser of the four flushes), and the Autumn Flush (a delightful mellow but fragrant bouquet).

My question has been answered. Glenburn is the model of what the entire Darjeeling region needs to create: magical Tea Destinations amidst heavenly scenic beauty. Where are the entrepreneurs, though?

Glenburn, 3 January, 2006 : Today we went for another walk in the mountains. From the Bungalow at 3,300 ft down to their campsite at 800ft by the river Rungeet – is a long 8km downhill walk. It was gorgeous. We have seen a lot of the world already, so it takes something truly unique to take our breath away. Glenburn is special.

All along Prakash introduces us to local vegetation, especially medicinal plants. At the lodge by the river, another lavish arrangement awaits us, deftly administered by four bearers. Drinks, barbecued appetizers, followed by a ten-course lunch at an elegantly set table by the river.

We spend the afternoon reading. A car waits to bring us back up to the Bungalow at the end of the day. While driving up, we realize, how far we had walked. At the Bungalow, again, Neena’s afternoon tea is ready, complete with a rich fruit cake and nasturtium fritters.

Glenburn is a completely personalized experience, and shamelessly decadent and luxurious. We love it here, and hope more of the Darjeeling estates will build up similar destinations, and the world will discover this Himalayan jewel in all its splendour and charm. Meanwhile, we are amongst the privileged few who know of it.

Darjeeling, 5 January, 2006 : After Glenburn, Windamere seems disappointing. It used to be one of the best hotels, and Darjeeling itself used to be the Queen of the Himalayas. Neither glory remains. Darjeeling has become dirty and crowded. Windamere’s best days are gone.

The one worthwhile piece of the visit is the sunrise from Tiger Hill (8,515 ft). It is clear and crisp, as oceans of mountains start coming into view. The Kanchendzonga range, Makalu (27,799 ft), Lhotse (27,940 ft) and finally Mt. Everest (29,002 ft) – all come into view, gradually. The display of colours is magnificent. The 270 degree panorama is spellbinding, providing a fitting end to our North Bengal sojourn.

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