The Mountain Trails
Part I – Embarking on an unfamiliar territory…
Adventure really did not begin at the crack of dawn. I was unsure. This would be the first time in four years I’d be on my own, taking days off; leaving my daughter home, off course under the responsible hands of her dad. Both daddy and girl had chalked out a detailed plan & “a things to do list” when Mommy would be out of town. But being a mom I was in tears as I kissed her goodbye. Amar, when saw me in tears, eyes swollen and a running nose, casually said, “Did you just marry off your girl and sent her miles away?”
The train chugged off the station right on time. As I looked into Dipanjali I knew I was not alone. She was a mom too, leaving home a son and all set to soak up some adventure in unknown territories. And with a quick prayer to God, we embarked on this wonderful journey.
Sleep never seems an easy task in a moving train. As we got ready to retire, I sensed Dipanjali talking to one of the co-passengers. I just popped my head out and looked at this stranger and saw him offering her and also to me some pork & rice. I thanked him profoundly saying I already had my fill. But then we had a friend with us who’d love to have a bite or two. Without waiting for his answer I called Amar – our main man who was taking us on this journey. He was far from us and my shout got absorbed with the train chugging at a rapid pace. I buzzed him and poor boy was getting ready to sleep. But “pork & rice” made him run to our seats in no time and soon sleep evaded as we spent a lot of time talking and sharing the stranger’s meal. I am not a pork person but as the man opened the lid of his tiffin box, the whiff of it made my tummy churn and I too had a piece of meat! By the time we retired we had just a few hours to reach our station.
The cacophony caused by the hawkers and tea/coffee vendors broke my sleep earlier than I anticipated. I looked out of my window and the sun was yet to rise. I meditated for a while and freshened up. Soon Dipanjali was wide awake as well and by 7.00 a.m. we reached our station – New Jalpaiguri.
As we got down on to the platform the other four members of the team arrived too. They were in a different compartment. Exchanging Good Mornings we walked up the stairs and proceeded towards the retiring room. Amar is a man with the right connections and network at the right places. He introduced us to Pradeep, the Station In-charge. He opened one big dormitory for us to change, freshen up and also have some teas.
The seven of us were still new to each other in one way or the other. So the ice breaking sessions were still under progress. We waited there for quite a while and seemed our ears got used to the monotony voice of the lady in the microphone announcing which train was arriving in which platform in three different dialects. Amazingly this voice has a particular uniformity across any railway stations in India and we wondered how one can have such an uninteresting job day in and day out! If we had to wait longer I knew it’d soothe me much like a lullaby does to baby.
Soon Amar walked into the dorm while being glued to his cell phone, asking someone to arrange breakfast for us and gestured with his eyes and hand to take our back packs and proceed.
Yay! The wait was finally over and we were just minutes away from this super adventure ahead of us. The adrenaline rush was immense.
Part II – The Good & Bad Ride…
I was too occupied watching my steps and not fancying being pushed around. NJP is a busy junction. My concentration was however broken when I heard Amar introducing me as “Ma’am” to someone. As I looked up I saw Tshering, our Sherpa and the man I’ve seen in so many photographs, heard a lot and also had carried an important gift for him.
I joined both my hands robotically and greeted him with a “Namaste” and also added, “I have brought your “thing” with me.” And before I could say anything more he took my smaller backpack and walked towards the parking lot, keeping a watchful eye on me while crossing the street. As we walked towards our cab I knew it’d be a wise idea to buy some fags. Just in case. I knew soon we’d be out of civilization. When the chances of finding a phone booth were one in a million, getting some good fags was an absolute zero. So when the others were scurrying for their favourite seats in the cab, I walked across the street again to buy fags. And I think it was a blessing in disguise because as I walked towards the car, the front seat was all for me! Yippie!!! Nothing could be better than this! Tshering opened the door for me and closed like a true gentleman as I hopped inside and also asked me if I was comfortable. Comfortable? I smiled! This was a treat.
As I looked to my right, I saw Shyam a.k.a. Titu, the driver. We exchanged “Hellos” and soon the engine roared and we set off. We were on the outer fringes of NJP town in no time. The four girls took the middle row and Amar, Tarun & Tshering sat behind.
We crossed Mahananda wildlife sanctuary as we slowly began our climb. The weather was bright and sunny. Within an hour and half we reached our first stopover. It was a small place, barely consisting of a few shops, a temple and a few houses. Dudhia is the name of this place. Our breakfast was ready and it consisted of rotis, alu sabjee, boiled eggs (optional) and tea. As I took my first bite I felt I was hungry for ages! But I did not gobble like a fanatic. I prefer traveling empty or at least light stomach. We took a few pictures and soon we hopped inside the car and as the engine roared yet one more time there was some music playing too. This came as a surprise. Because I did not see a music system when I first got on to the car in NJP. But there was too much to do than calculate about the music system. The road was curvy, went up and down, well maintained and with such a bright and sunny weather the view was amazing. It looked like a picture postcard. Tea plantations and pine trees together was quite a heady combo.
And our journey was definitely getting better every minute.
By two in the afternoon we were reached stopover number two. Maneybhanjan. It was a small little town, seemed busy and looked as if the number of tourists were more than the locals.
We now felt the chill. There was a drop in temperature, the winds were strong and the sun hid somewhere behind the clouds.
Our lunch was again ready for us. Amar like I said earlier has excellent networks and he had ordered our lunch prior. And believe me; we had the tastiest lunch. It was simple, very much home made consisting of rice, dal, cauliflower tossed lightly with spring onions and pepper and chicken curry.
By the time we were done with our lunch, Shyam had already unloaded our bags and it was time for us to move on to Land Rovers. We managed to jostle and bustle anywhere we saw the sun. Dipanjali and Niru were busy looking for a paan shop and their happiness was evident when they found one!
We hired two Land Rovers and moved further up. Dipanjali and I took the front seat with the driver, whereas Amar, Tshering and one of the porters sat behind. On the other were Niru, Kakoli, Jun, Tarun and two more porters.
As I looked behind and asked Amar how long it would take us to reach, he said an hour and half at the most.
And the bad road had just begun. The curves were steep, the road was rocky and it got more and more narrow. The land rover at the most moved on second gear. Midway we had to stop. The driver asked us to get down and enjoy the view while he, our Sherpa, Amar and the three porters got busy with some local people. We realized much to our surprise a man lay fast asleep in the middle of the road. On checking him, we realized he had a drink more than he could handle and had passed. It was Holi and maybe the festivity had got the better off him. With the help of a few locals we managed to take him to a small hut nearby and then hopped again inside the land rover and move further.
The road was so mad it seemed as if we were galloping on a horse that had gone absolute berserk! And we passed a few people who seemed more at ease walking.
Dipanjali and I had the same thought and the same time and in unison told Amar, “even we could have walked”.
“We start our walk from tomorrow girls”, he replied.
It was four in the evening when we reached Tumbling. By then it was already misty and very cold. Our lodge was a cute one, neat rooms with clean sheets and quilts and a clean bathroom as well.
Dipanjali and I were sharing a room. As I opened the tap to wash my face, with a good amount of face wash already applied on my face, I gave out a sharp cry! The water was freezing and it felt as if a thousand needles and pins were hitting my face. I immediately knew, the less contact with water, the better off I will be. I explained this new found theory to my roomie and we both decided that hence forth “thou shall use wet wipes and spoons only”!
Dipanjali is a red tea no sugar drinker whereas I prefer milk tea. But in such places I did not fancy having tea. I am bit fussy about how my tea is made. So I had carried small sachets of Nescafe with me. Enough to last me a week.
We put on some more warm clothes and walked towards the kitchen. The kitchen was spotless clean, warm & people gathered around the charcoal that was being burnt. I asked for a cup of hot water and my roomie wanted some red tea. After filling our system with some caffeine, we went out for a walk with Amar. It was more to acclimatize ourselves with the air pressure and temperature. We were at an altitude of 10,000 feet. The air was light and at first we had difficulty in breathing as we took the first few steps.
Tumbling is a cute little village that falls in Nepal. Mist engulfed us and literally we were walking on clouds. We could take the cold no more and so we came back inside the kitchen. But soon the lady who manages the lodge asked us to move to the dining area, as there were other people too and the kitchen could not hold so many people. In the dining area there was a big chimney, logs of wood burning and we sat cozily by the fire place and befriended a few more people. We particularly got along well with one German and an Israeli.
Soon it was dinner time. I looked into my watch and it was 7.30 p.m. That was way too early by our standards to have dinner. But in hills people wind up early. They run on generators. There is no electricity. So they shut down the lights by 9.00 p.m.
Post dinner, Dipanjali and I talked for a while and I don’t remember exactly when I dozed off.
Part III – The gift turns our Sherpa into a hero…
Nirav (the guy I’ve been married to for a decade now) is a gadget geek. Name a gadget and he has it. Two months ago the boys had trekked this place with Amar and the same Sherpa. Nirav had carried his altimeter. When Tshering saw this he wanted it then and there.
Like two kids fighting for over the same toy, Nirav did not part away with his altimeter then, but promised Tshering, “my wife will be here soon and I will buy you another one and send it with her”.
Tshering was not happy with this bargain and said he wanted this one only. But yes he was ready to wait till “Ma’am” would come in a few weeks time and hand him the altimeter.
The first time I saw Tshering, I had told him I have his “thing” with me and from then on I know he wanted to ask me,
“Where is it? Can I see it? When can I hold it? When will it be mine forever?”
His patience paid off well, because post dinner in Tumbling, I went to my room, took out the altimeter and as I came up to the dining area, Amar spotted me. He asked me, “What’s up? Who are you looking for?”
“Tshering”, I replied, showing the altimeter as I waved my left hand holding the gadget.
“It’s a bad idea”, Amar answered.
“Why?” I asked him. I mean this was his gift and that too a promised one. He was expecting it and sooner or later I had to give it to him.
Amar tried making me see things in a different way. He cheekily said, “As long as the altimeter is with you, he is going to treat you like a Goddess. He will be on his toes to look after you. But if you give this to him now, his services may dwindle”. I did not see any logic and before I could say anything, there he was, Tshering, coming towards us with a mug of hot water for me.
“Coffee, ma’am?” he asked as his eyebrows rose slightly in an involuntary motion.
I looked at Amar & then at him and said, “Tshering, this is the altimeter. I am handing it to Amar dada, and you can take it from him whenever you want.”
I took the mug from him, emptied one Nescafe sachets and told both the men “goodnight” and walked down to our room, leaving them up to their own devices.
I woke up around five in the morning, the view from the window was such a good one, that I took out my camera and rushed outside to freeze all the moments I could. I spotted my Israeli friend and we both walked around trying to take as many pictures as we could.
It was cold, very cold indeed. I felt my fingers getting numb. I rushed back to the room and saw Dipanjali still in a deep sleep. I again looked out of the window and chanted “Om Mani Padme Hum” and I tell you, it was the most refreshing feeling.
Soon we got ready. Our actual adventure would begin soon. We would trek the hills to reach out next stop Kaalpokhri, descend a thousand feet and walk for about six hours.
As I walked to the dining hall, I saw a group of men outside, soaking up some sun and all heads stooping in one direction. I walked towards the men, just out of curiosity, to see what the buzz all about was.
There he was, Tshering, our Sherpa, in the centre of all possible attention, drawing as many eye balls he could. He was surrounded by a few more Sherpas, around ten porters and all were looking at this wonder toy!
Tshering, literally with his chest inflated was showing these guys and teaching them a thing or two about the altimeter.
I smiled at him and walked straight into the dining room for breakfast.
Amar, who was already having his grub, said, “Nandini, Tshering did not let me sleep in peace. Every two minutes he kept asking about the altimeter and I was so bugged that I woke up in the middle of the night and handed him his gadget!”
I smiled again.
I already had a chance to see the boy with his toy and I knew I had done the right thing!