Post 7 a.m. you spend the day wandering up and down the one road that leads from Upper Pelling, through Middle Pelling and on to Lower Pelling. The total walk from end to end and back might take and hour if you make an effort to stroll very, very slowly. Apart from petty travel agents and snack shops, there’s not much to see on the way.
We spent two nights in Pelling, which meant about one-and-a-half day. We had driven up from New Jalpaiguri, familiarly known as NJP. If our cab driver had known the way, we might have reached in less than five hours. As it was, we reached around 2.15, after spending a good six hours on the road. It really was quite a good six hours, with green hills on all sides, and the lusty Teestha rushing along below us. The heat, dust, and crowds of West Bengal fell away as we climbed into the serene, green hills of West Sikkim.
The next day, we opted for one of the whole-day taxi tours of surrounding areas. The excursion to Yuksam had been highly recommended, and as it took in several minor sights along the way, we settled for this. After catching our first good views of Kanchanjunga early morning, we grabbed a hasty breakfast and set off around 8 a.m.
Yuksam, it turned out, was a bone-rattling drive over untarred roads, making the journey far longer and much more uncomfortable than it need have been. We took the diversion to Khechupalri Lake first. On this track the road was bad only in patches, and the lake was quite pretty and extremely unusual with hundreds of prayer flags surrounding it, so the long drive was quite worth it. When we reached, there were no other tourists around and the quiet serenity of the still green water surrounded by the still green hills and the fluttering, multi-coloured prayer flags was a peaceful way to start the day. After half an hour, a large group of tourists started trickling down the path to the lake, talking loudly, and we quickly made our exit.
We retraced our path partially and took the road to Yuksam, stopping at Kanchanjunga Falls along the way. These falls were really not worth stopping at, except that they happened to be right on the way. The cascade was pretty, but very far short of impressive. There was the inevitable row of snack stalls at the foot of the falls, ruining any impression of natural beauty that might otherwise have been.
We reached Yuksam around lunchtime and stopped for food before going sightseeing. Yuksam is on the tourist map as the first capital of Sikkim. We went and saw the few remnants of four hundred years ago, but were largely unimpressed. There was a stone throne, a huge, ancient pine tree, a foot print, a monastery, a lake. In an hour, we were through and ready to get back to Pelling.
The next day, we left for Darjeeling. Though we had had quite enough sight-seeing the previous day, we were prevailed upon to take in the Pemayangtse Monastery and Rabdentse Ruins on our way out. These two stops we thoroughly enjoyed. The monastery was grand, colourful, quiet – its ambience matched that of Khechupalri Lake early in the morning. The ruins were secluded, romantic, forlorn. They were set deep inside a sort of miniature natural park, and you had to walk about a km to reach them. Since this was evidently considered an extremely long walk, ASI had put up encouraging signboards every few hundred metres, exhorting you to persevere and informing you that the ruins were now quite near. Rabdentse was the second capital of Sikkim and the ruins were about 250 years old.
We finished our sight-seeing and resumed our journey to Darjeeling around 11 a.m. To our astonishment, we were at Darjeeling by about 1.30. We had taken a route that led straight through tea gardens for about an hour-and-a-half and emerged just outside the city. The road surface was unbelievably bad, and, as I was extremely sleepy, it’s a surprise that my head didn’t jump off my neck with all the jolting around.
Darjeeling is by no means a sleepy little hill station. It is a huge, sprawling city with all the paraphernalia of traffic, cows, and fashionable young women crowding the streets. Since we really did not want to be in a big city, we selected one little corner of the big city to call our own, and pretended as if the rest of it did not exist. Our little corner consisted of the mall, bandstand, and a short section of the road to Lebong.
Our physical exertion in Darjeeling consisted of trying to walk to Ghoom through the Cantonment area, trying to locate the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, and trying to gain access to the inner mechanism of the clock tower. All of these were subject to varying degrees of doom. Our walk to Ghoom was marked by way too much uphill walking on a tarred road, when we had been promised a delightful downhill walk through a forest. Having lost our way several times, we finally reached the Cantonment, where they refused to allow us passage and sent us off instead to trek down the hillside to the lower main road. From there, they said, a 40-minute brisk walk (by army standards!) would take us to Ghoom. But, on reaching the main road, we found that a 15-minute stroll would take us back to Darjeeling, and that’s what we did.
The walk to HMI was even less enchanting. We started out at 5 p.m. and in no time, it was dark. Then, there was a power cut, so that the road was plunged into total darkness. We stumbled along, trying to find a safe path between careening vehicles on one side and the deep, dank drain on the other side. At long last we found HMI, which, naturally, was closed. The guards advised us to take the lower road back to the bandstand, mentioning that the upper road that we had come by was not so safe. The lower road, Lebong Cart Road, when we ventured upon it, seemed much longer and a lot more uncertain. This, doubtless, was mainly due to the darkness and the nagging feeling of insecurity induced by the guards’ warning and by not really knowing our way back on this path. After a long, long walk to the bus stand, I spotted the moon face of the clock tower hanging above us, then navigated expertly through a crowded bazaar to emerge finally on our own stretch of the mall, much to Amit’s amazement.
As for trying to gain access to the inner mechanism of the clock tower, this attempt called for much bravery. The clock tower, which boomed forth a robust and melodious tune every hour on the hour, stood not far from our hotel. When we entered the building, there was a flower show in progress. The steps to the upper storey were stinking and had plenty of little puddles to explain why. I braved both to climb to the top floor, but everything was filthy and the door to the inner chamber was locked.
Despite these minor misadventures, there was much to enjoy in Darjeeling. There was the unique agony of waking at 3 a.m. to catch a cab to Tiger Hill and watch the sunrise cast its red rays on the massive Kanchanjunga. In the distance, Makalu, Lhotse and Everest were faintly visible, Everest looking the smallest of the three.
Then there was the charm of the toy train – a genuine steam locomotive, much to my delight – which chugged its way to Ghoom and back, stopping along the way to have its internals cleaned out. The train had three tiny coaches, with about 15 seats each. Each coach had a brake, which had to be operated manually on downhill stretches. The track zig-zagged across the road, intersecting it innumerable times. There were no tunnels in this journey, but there was a loop, where the train circled around and passed under its own track.
Another quaint pleasure in Darjeeling was our hotel, the Olde Main Bellevue, which stood just off Bandstand. It was an Imperial-style building, and our room had a sloping ceiling of polished wooden beams. It faced west, and there was a large skylight to let in the morning light, which gave a wonderful effect. Outside our room on the top floor was a common sitting area, a vast drawing room with windows, tables and chairs, a little terrace looking out on the mall, and a vast expanse of sloping wooden ceiling. It was fabulous.
But the best part of our stay in Darjeeling was undoubtedly Glenary’s. This – which you’d have easily guessed if you know me – is a foodie place. But the thing is, it is not just one foodie place, it’s three or four put together.
On the ground floor is a sort of café, with a counter full of cakes and bakes, similar in range to Sweet Chariot here. The far wall is a long row of windows, adorned with lace curtains (!) and offering clear views of Kanchanjunga. While the bakery items are self-service, tea and coffee are served in silver pots, with milk and sugar separate, cups and saucers with paper doilies and whatnot. There’s also a menu card, listing breakfast and associated items, which are served at the table.
On the first floor is the posh, classy, pseudo-imperial restaurant. It is clear that it used to have a sort of club-type ambience where only the snobbish upper-class folks would dare to venture, but today it is getting a little Indianised. The menu has Indian and Continental fare, and the wine list looks impressive but stoops to Grovers Vineyards by the glass. We had lunch there the day we arrived, and, starved as we were, the food was excellent, and the service was unexceptionable.
And then, hidden away in the basement, was the pub. Just like any Bangalore pub, it had its own identity, its own ambience, good music, interesting seating and décor, and the standard fare in terms of alcohol.
Though we enjoyed every aspect of this multifaceted institution, we spent most of our time in the café and breakfast room on the ground floor. We breakfasted there for a good two hours, starting with croissants and muffins, and progressing in slow and easy stages to porridge, bacon-sausages-and-eggs, toast, tea, coffee, and hot chocolate. Then, we usually picked up some chicken rolls or meat pie for lunch or dinner and waddled off. In the early evening, we’d drop in for a pot of tea and a slice of cake.
One day we made the mistake of going to Keventer’s for lunch. This was a mistake not because the food wasn’t good but because it was not only scrumptious but it was extremely extremely too much. I mean, after finishing several courses of breakfast at eleven, if you arrive at the lunch table at 2.30, you only want a light sandwich or somesuch. So Amit ordered a platter of chicken salami, ham, and sausages with eggs, and I went for a plate of pork sausages. The amount of meat that was placed in front of us 45 minutes later would have made a hungry lion blanch. We almost fainted at the sight of it. Sitting on the rooftop, with warm sunshine on our backs, we slowly slogged our way through the best part of it, and at 4.30 we admitted defeat when the bottom of the plate was in sight.
We had planned a fancy dinner at the most expensive hotel on our beat, Windamere, where the seven-course dinner would set us back Rs 1200 for two. But, after that lunch, the last thing we wanted was more food at 8 p.m., so we panted up the slope to Windamere and cancelled our dinner reservation and demanded our advance back. Then we spent the evening laughing wildly at Lage Raho Munna Bhai, and followed it up with a quite boring Big B movie on the telly.
All in all, it was a thoroughly relaxing, self-indulgent holiday. But at the end we were forced to the conclusion: trekking had spoiled us. We could no longer enjoy sanitized holidays to hill-stations accessible by road, where every meal was a feast and hot water came streaming out of a shower on demand. If there was no dusty trail, no pack animals, no kerosense stove to generate homely, vegetarian food, no silvery stream or babbling brook filled with natural pollutants, no silence, stillness, cold, no pristine natural beauty virtually untouched by human presence – if there was none of this, and no physical exhaustion to heighten the appreciation of it all, could it even be considered a holiday?