Sunday, April 3, 2016

Kolkata: With Joy to Adobe of Peace

Taking leave from my routine job and Mentor India work, I was in West Bengal for close to 9 days and got a chance to experience bong life a bit. It took no time for me to take note of ambassador times here. Hindustan Motors may have shut down, but the legacy of their yellow taxis don’t seem to die. I guess, it’s the same with colonial British establishments. Where in earth can you take a tram to handpulled auto to shared auto to ferry to yellow ambassador taxi to 1980’s Tata bus to anywhere you want to reach! Here goes my travelogue:

Kolkata or Calcutta is surely city of joy. I had boarded flight to Kolkata from Bangalore with a disappointment that I missed being at India Pakistan world T20 match happening at Eden Gardens & my hotel, Eagle Palace, being in Esplanade {took some time to digest that central Kolkata had a unique name christened by British}, was at walkable distance from the stadium! But a friend can turn disappointment into excitement. That is what exactly happened after I made friends with my co-passenger Nabarun! He was shifting his base back to his hometown and we had long conversation on socio-political-historical-cultural aspects of Calcutta. Such a delight! And the best part came when he dropped me off to my hotel in his ambassador. Thank you Nabarun!
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Post checking in, I took a walk to Eden Gardens to meet my friends, Supraj & Aditi, who were there in attendance. I could spot numerous hawkers, roadside eateries, those selling milk & dhoiyi (curd or dahi), and ofcouse sweets- rosgullas to sondesh! It was evident that city had many in below poverty line. But I could find the old charm and happiness here.

Next morning, we took a 2.5 hrs train to Bolpur from Sealdah. We took an auto to place which I always wanted to be- Shantineketan, the university town established by Gurudev, 1st Indian to win Nobel, Rabindranath Tagore. Shantineketan is as beautiful as Tagore’s speeches or poems or thoughts. First we had breakfast in a hut where they served luchi, gugni, bread, butter and chai- amazing! Before taking a walk in spacious plush green beautiful Viswa-Bharathi University campus (that is post 12.30 pm, entrance only in afternoon for public), we explored very knowledgeable museum and Uttarayan complex-which had combined entry fees. Tagore’s letters, his awards, his article snippets and his poems played in background- make the museum special. Uttarayan complex has a garage and residence of Tagore- Udayan, Konark, Punascha and Udichi. These houses are marvelous with big windows, spacious rooms, ventilation, red oxide floors and beautiful gardens- a poet’s retreat!

Post lunch, we explored Bhubandanga bazaar which sold handicrafts to artworks and post that boarded train back to Kolkata. Same night, I had an overnight train to NJP, aka, New Jalpaiguri station, which is 3 hour away from Darjeeling. Road to Darjeeling and things I did in Darjeeling is in a separate blog post here.

Primary reason for this trip was Sandakhpu trek, which is oldest trek in India and highest peak in West Bengal. Trek is a journey in itself and surely deserves an exclusive blog post!

After I returned from NJP to Kolkata, I had 3 hours before I caught my flight to Bangalore. Making most of it, we took a bus to Dalhousie from Sealdah railway station. Dalhousie is close to Esplanade and it has trams running on the road which is quite a sight. We enjoyed walking from Dalhousie to Fairy jetty across colonial Writer’s block. We took a 5 INR ticket “Launch” or boat to Howrah railway station overseeing marvelous century old Howrah Bridge built across Hooghly river, distributary of River Ganga! It was lovely to see so many passengers use the waterway to reach their destination. From Howrah railway station, I headed towards airport dropping in Haldirams on the way. Despite hot & humid weather of Kolkata, I enjoyed being and travelling here & will look forward to come back to explore more!

{Thanks to Team for allowing to go on a vacation. Special Thanks to Supraj for making this happen. Thanks to Akash Chopra, Saikat Pal, Manthan Shah, Rakesh & Sujay da, Pranjal Parashar, Shishir Sachdev, Vamsi Krishna Manchi and  Malav Shah for making Sandakphu special. Thanks to Sabry Ali for that lovely evening conversation}

Darjeeling: Colorful Calmness for Chai with Queen

Darjeeling is famously known as “Queen of Hills” and I could easily feel the way air changed as we crossed Sukhna military base & climbed up to Kurseong from NJP railway station in our private vehicle. On road it is 3 hour distance, but if you do have sufficient time- close to 7 hours, do take toy train from NJP to Darjeeling, aka, Darjeeling Himalayan Railways (DHR), which is indeed breath taking. Remarkably, DHR is world heritage site and established in 1881 by British. The toy train track runs along the road and I was delighted to spot the smoke omitting locomotive pass by twice! Names of station are quite interesting- Tung, Sonada, Ghum and tells you that you are entering Gorkhaland, on which culture stands out with Tibetan colors, Nepali language, monasteries, generosity, happiness and amazing food!
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We stopped at Batasia loop, which is just after Ghum station. Ghum station is in the highest altitude & on a clear day you should be able to spot Sleeping Buddha or Kanchanjunga from there. When I crossed Ghum, clouds had started forming and has less than 10m visibility. Temperature had dropped from 30 c to 6/8 c. Oh, coming back, Batasia loop is a 5km long spiral engineering marvel made to help the train climb up from low altitude to height of Ghum railway station. Batasia loop also has a memorial garden to the Gorkha soldiers of the Indian Army who sacrificed their lives after the Indian Independence in 1947. Batasia loop is surely a must visit!

I stayed in couple of hotels in Darjeeling- Hotel Seven Seventeen and Sonar Bangla- both had courteous staff and very well maintained space. I recommend both of them. Seven Seventeen have their own restaurant which served amazing Tibetan food and Sonar Bangla is right behind Glenary’s, which is must visit place for bakery junk food & Darjeeling tea. Next to it is Emami Frank Ross cafĂ© that interestingly serves some amazing south Indian food! Both Glenary’s & Frank Ross have amazing ambience and are in Mall road that ends in Chowrastha, which reminded me of Shimla! I did some accessory shopping for the Sandakphu trek from Mall market and when I returned, did some for my home!

Prime attraction of Darjeeling is undoubtedly Padmaja Naidu Zoological Park and Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI). Don’t miss out on animals which are only found in Himalayan ranges at the zoo. Red pandas, Himalayan black bear and snow leopards are the show stoppers. I was really impressed with the zoo & would rate up above any zoo which I have visited.

I can vouch on HMI museum that it won’t let you exit without the wow feeling. HMI was established in 1954 by PM Nehru and had Tenzing Norgay, first person to ascent Mt. Everest with Edmund Hillary, as it’s first director. HMI museum has very inspiring collection of accessories used by summiteer’s, their lives, what it means to scale peak on peak, Himalayan culture and has put in place the perspective of joy of mountaineering. HMI also has Samadhi & giant statue of Tenzing Norgay. We spent close to 2 hours to cover both in detail- this pace is truly astonishing!

Last place I visited in Darjeeling was Japanese Temple and Peace Pagoda, which is 4kms away from Chowrastha. Peace Pagoda is very beautiful with Buddha’s life depicted in the parikrama (means when you take a round). Four statues of Buddha emit peace radiance here. Japanese temple, established by Fujii Guruji, is a lovely place and for me it was lot of learning going through life & thoughts of Fujii Guruji, a Buddhist monk who lived 100 years!

Darjeeling is indeed a lovely place with friendly people. I would cherish taking shared taxi to eating momo & thukpa to walking & climbing up/down to navigate between places. Queen, always be the best!

Sandakhpu trek: Sleeping Buddha with Silver Blanket Ramro Che

It had rained in Darjeeling the day before we started Sandakhpu trek. We didn’t know whether it was a good omen or the indication of disastrous trek ahead. Luckily, it turned out to be good for us as it didn’t rain for next 5 days when we were on road and skies only got clearer each passing day! This is my travelogue of climbing highest peak in West Bengal at 12000 feet and walking through India Nepal border on the oldest trek trail of India which is in Singalila National Park, part of the Eastern Himalayas.

Day 1: Manebhanjan to Tumling via Meghma

We left Darjeeling around 6.30am to reach Manebhanjan by 8.30am, place where we met our guides- Rakesh and Sujay. I could spot Indo-Nepal border with Indian SSB camp and 1950's made Land Rovers which climbs up to Sandakphu and Phalut on rent! We started off by scaling 3km steep hill to reach Chittrey – which had a beautiful monastery with stupa’s. This was our first foot in Nepal, my international debut! There were some small Tibetan villages along the trail throughout and on the entire trek, India was on our right and Nepal on our left. And we ended up sleeping in Nepal on Day 1, 2 and 3! {International Trekker swag!}
Later in the day, we passed Lamayadhura to reach Meghma, 7km easy trek. From Meghma we set foot towards Tumling and reached Siddharth lodge {which had amazing valley view} around 4pm, but it felt like it was already 7pm and visibility of 10m. Temperature had dropped close to 5c and we got our hands on delicious dal roti chaawal dinner at 7.30pm to end our day! Meanwhile, I put down some lines my mind had accumulated when I walked overhearing classic Tibetan instruments and here it goes:
The last mile is when clouds
Came together to bling my eyes
The warm clothes and gloves could not stop me shiver
My sweat merges with the cloud
When white and red rhodendrons smile
Along a way that is barely visible
Though it feels like a drea,
And you try to enjoy and catch breath
Last mile haunts me and reminds me
That loneliness is a famous myth
As clouds with my thoughts are on a fly
With Buddha, Nepal and Sleeping Shiva- Peace!

Day 2: Tumling to Kala Pokhri via Gairibans

It was a heartbreak to wake up at 5am in the morning for sunrise and not seeing Kanchanjunga due to heavy fog. Putting disappointment behind, we started trek at 8am which had in store a 7km stroll through dense jungle and steep ascents with descents, we reached Garibans to find Jawans of Indian Army celebrating holi with colors, pakoras and sweets! This is the best holi I have celebrated and made it more special when a Jawan quipped- “Neither I nor you are at our homes, we are family now and let’s celebrate”. I guess, life is all about friendships!

After sharing momo’s and cup of chai with all, we started again and took a soupy noodles break at Kaiyakatta, at around 1pm. These houses use firewood for cooking and run on solar lights. Different life indeed. Gariribans to Kala Pokhri is around 5 kms and we reached the black lake (Kala Pokhri) where super chill winds were blowing & ensuring that the beautiful Tibetan flags all over the lake kept fluttering. Quite a sight! It was easily around 3c here! With pasta for evening snack & dal chaawal for dinner, we retired for the day at Pandim lodge.

Day 3: Kala Pokhri to Sandakhpu

Surprisingly, sky looked clear and we could also spot Sherpa Chalet lodge, our house in Sandakhpu from Pandim lodge. With renewed hope of catching a glimpse of Kanchanjunga, we started 1 hour before schedule after lovely Choley roti breakfast. After a quick 1 hour ascent we heard the voices of joy and knew magic had happened-
Then I finally see you
As expected you were magnificent
Breathtaking, heap of happiness, picture perfect
And of course, you were elusive!
I had woken up before sun rose yesterday
Just to catch first glimpse of you
But then, you were cozying with clouds…
I sighed and went back to my daily chores
But today, you made up for everything
You glowed and shined under the morning sun
Majestically sleeping with cakmess and peace
Which I pray that never eludes me from now!
You, sleeping Buddha, with silver blanket!
Sleeping Buddha, with Mt. Kumbakarna as face, Mt. Kanchanjunga as tummy and Mt. Pandim as toes- is treat to watch and we spent quite enough time just watching it! After good amount of pics, we walked to stop at Bhaneybunjan from where Sandakphu looked the closest. We knew this was the last ascent and very challenging. With close to 70 degree steep ascents and constant climbing we could do this stretch in 3 hours and finally we had reached our summit! Time for celebration with kichdi and awesome sunset where you are standing on a hill to see red sun romance clouds which are below you!

Day 4: Sandakhpu to Sephi via Sirikhola and Gurdum

On a shivering 5am morning, we woke up to see the best part of the trek- Sunrise at Sandakphu. Full moon setting on my left and new sun rising on my right, sleeping Buddha was shining red and slowly turned white. This is just wow! Icing on the cake- Vaguely visible 3 sisters- Mt.Makalu, Mt.Lhotse & Mt.Everest. I knew my trip was complete and with satisfied heart, we started to descent! After a while, I took off 3 layer of clothes on me as temperatures started to soar to 10c as I reached Gurdum, 9km trek down. River on the sides, Sikkim villages in front and constant descents of another 5kms trek along Timburey & Sirikhola, we reached Sephi. I enjoyed Sujay’s heartful singing on the banks of Srikhola. River, music, happiness of successful trek- what more to ask! We were served typical Gorkhaland food with homegrown spinach and potatoes-I had best food and stay at Lippohochha.

Day 5: Sephi to Darjeeling via Rimbick and Manebhanjan

After a quick lemon tea, we started off from Sephi at 6.30am on a shared taxi to Darjeeling which costed me 220rs! Passing through scenic landscapes, we reached Darjeeling at around 12pm and we finally had access to hotwater to bath! I have separately blogged on what I did in Darjeeling here.

Ofcourse, there were great lessons for me in this trek. Noting down a few:
  1. Smile like the people from hill. Ear to ear!
  2. Inner peace- go completely offline, look at landscapes and monasteries, appreciate smaller aspects and things which we take for granted
  3. Build friendships- from sushi cook of Munich to retail banker from Bombay to trekmates from IIT KGP to reigniting friendship with Bachhubhai (Rakesh Da, our guide, fondly called Supraj like this)!
  4. Work- You know that you have to scale up and you are catching for the breath- put your head down and do one step at a time. Manthan, I am going to remember you for long!
Like everyone, while I write this I am experiencing Post trek symptoms, which were/are:
  1. Must have thigh pains (due to descent) which makes climbing down stares a nightmare for couple of days!
  2. When you see beautiful girl and you think- “KT Dami Ramro Che!” (Nepali style!)
  3. Looking up at the sky and giving white clouds the shape of sleeping Buddha- Kanchanjunga!