Going to the land of Teesta..

May 16, 2008 at 10:40 am (Travelogue)

Kaziranga National Park (This should be included in Part 2 but that would affect the chronological order of the story)

After the highs of Bomdila, I was hoping that the trip to Kaziranga would not turn out to be disappointing. We had been warned by the major at Nameri of course that we would be better off raveling to Tawang than Kaziranga. Since we had come this far, we decided that skipping Kaziranga did not really make sense and drove directly to Kaziranga from Bhalukpong. We hired the same driver Raju who drove us around in Arunachal Pradesh till Kaziranga. He was quite a bundle of energy and seemed completely fascinated by the camera. In fact, Iyer even transferred some of his pics on to a CD in a shop at Balipara for Raju’s benefit.

We passed through the long bridge over the Brahmaputra neat Tezpur and about 7 hours after leaving Bomdila, we finally reached Kaziranga around 8 PM in the evening. Having used the ATM (a special mention must be made of Vicca’s umpteenth unsuccessful attempt at withdrawing money there!), we settled into a very cheap dormitory at Kohora. Having made the arrangements for the safari early next morning, we went out to a nearby hotel for a customary round of drinks. Right from Shillong onwards, we had not left a single place dry for our part! Viggy and I stayed up a little late to settle the accounts. Viggy did the reconciliation while I gave him company finishing what was left of the drinks and of course, chipping in with some figures here and there. This was the only one occasion when Viggy had to resort to double entry book-keeping to make sure the numbers were in order.

The first person to wake up the next morning was (surprise, surprise) – Vicca! This incredible event happened courtesy a bet he had with me challenging him to wake up by 4 AM. However, while going to sleep, Vicca chickened out and withdrew from the bet. Just as well for me, because our man actually woke up at 4.01 AM and duly informed me that he was up. However, as the bet was off, it did not really matter any more! All of us were ready by 5 AM for the elephant ride. Putta, Manas and I climbed on one of the elephants and we slowly made our way through the jungle. The MDI chaps we met at Nag Mandir had told us that rhinos are present like street-dogs in Kaziranga. While that is a bit of an exaggeration, one does get to see many rhinos during the elephant ride. We even saw a baby rhino hardly 10 metres from us. We also managed to catch a glimpse of a wild buffalo and saw quite a few swamp deers and wild boars running around. We came back to Kohora for breakfast and headed back into the jungle by 8 AM for the jeep safari. The jeep trail was of course much longer but does not necessarily result in too many encounters with animals. One does get a good feel of the jungle though. The highlight of our jeep ride was when we suddenly spotted an elephant close to the road a few metres ahead. The driver panicked a little and reversed the jeep. He explained that the trail curves in the direction that the elephant seemed to be heading and he did not wish to risk crossing its path. We waited for about 10 minutes with uncertainty and finally our driver decided to go past quickly. Once we crossed that elephant, the only other animal we saw from a distance was a sambhar deer.

Rhino in Kaziranga

When we were neared the trail followed during the elephant ride, we managed to spot a few rhinos in a small clearing between the tall grasses. The grass was in fact so tall in places that even spotting huge elephants was difficult. We did manage to see one of them for the briefest moment. The only animal we did not see at Kaziranga was the tiger. However, it seemed as if even the locals there had not seen a tiger for quite some time.

After coming back to dorm, we had about an hour to kill before heading back for Guwahati. In one of the nearby tea-shops, I managed to get a good look at the map of Assam with detailed listing of the national parks, rivers, roads, etc and was able to trace out the path we had followed so far. From Kohora, we got a cheap ride on a Tata cruiser to Nagaon and were on our way in a bus to Guwahati from there. At Guwahati, we bid farewell to Vicca, Putta and Iyer and boarded the A/C compartment of Kanchenjunga Express (Thanks to Lalu Yadav) to begin the last part of our trip – the journey to Gangtok.

Gangtok

Sikkim was one place in the north-east I wanted to visit right from the first day itself. In fact, if the plan for Arunachal had not worked out, I wanted to spend that extra day in Sikkim. Having experienced some amazing places during the trip already, I did not really know how much we’d be able to appreciate Gangtok. As we got off at New Jalpaiguri at 8 AM on 13th Morning, we had a hoard of taxi-waalahs pouncing on us for “sawaari”. The route took us through Siliguri (we saw one of the largest and foulest smelling dumps I have come across in my life) and from there on, the road was pretty much along the river Teesta. We were again travelling through a hilly terrain in the northern region of West Bengal and got a good feel of the vegetation in the Darjeeling district. The road was however quite busy with lots of vehicles plying through the route and a lot of construction work happening on the riverside. Viggy was having a field day taking shots of every single thing he could click. We also got to see a huge political rally at a distance in the town of Melli.

River Teesta

After a two hour drive, we reached a huge gate greeting us – “Welcome to Sikkim”. All the vehicles entering Sikkim were being sprayed with some pesticide (presumably for the Bird Flu). Rangpo is the place which welcomes you in Sikkim with hundreds of boards giving you an idea of this and that in Gangtok. There was an international Flower Show happening about 20 km before Gangtok which seemed to have captured maximum attention everywhere. One of the places I remember on the way is the Sikkim Manipal Institute of Technology which is located with a nice view in the background. Incidentally, right next to the institute, we saw 2-3 rehabilitation centres for alcoholics including one exclusively for women. Booze is supposed to be very cheap in Sikkim and we had decided to try it out when we got the chance of course.

Sikkim Entrance

We reached Gangtok around noon and the first thing which struck me was the number of boards (sponsored by some bank or corporate) welcoming tourists to Gangtok. Within a two minute drive in Gangtok, we could make out that the place was quite trendy and the women were quite cute. At the bus stand, we were quite lucky to get hold of a very friendly driver – Arjun Sharma – who agreed to drive us around to the Rumtek monastery & Ban Jhakri falls that afternoon. So off we went to Rumtek carrying all our bags in the Omni along with us. The Rumtek monastery is about 25 kms from Gangtok and is one of the most important places for Tibetan Buddhism in that region. One of the monks there explained some of the Buddhist beliefs and we even got to see an entire lot of monks praying and chanting hymns inside the monastery. The hymns had a very deep and soothing tone to them and while the leading monks seemed completely immersed in the prayers, there were little kids sitting on the back rows who were more interested in what we were upto inside. The atmosphere inside was extremely calm and the place was well decorated with dim lighting. We also saw a Golden Stupa at the monastery where Viggy got his engineering brain to work to figure out the mechanics of one of rotating gadgets.

Rumtek also hosts the Karma Nalanda Institute alongside the monastery which houses kids from the age of 12-13 right through to college. The focus is on courses in Tibetan and the Buddhist scripture along with basic lessons in English and Sanskrit. The kids are roped in around 8th Standard and developed to become monks with continuous classes from 5 AM to 10 PM daily and the odd break here and there. We had a cup of Tibetan tea each at the canteen maintained by the institute’s Student’s Welfare Committee. We also bought a couple of souvenirs from the Tibetan cue shop on the way back from the monastery.

Rumtek Monastery

From Rumtek, we visited the Banjhakri falls – which is a fairly recently developed tourist spot. There are some interesting local stories about the “Ban-Jhakri” (something similar to Tantriks in north India) and we saw some innovative energy-conserving devices at the small playground for children there. We also saw a group of young boys trying to emulate Baichung Bhutia and playing a game of football near the entrance to the falls. On the way back to Gangtok, we gave a ride to the cute lady who was the gatekeeper at the Ban-Jhakri falls. We eventually settled into an extremely cheap lodge thanks to our driver. He also agreed to take us to Tsongo Lake the next day.

In the evening, we went to MG Marg which is the buzzing place in Gangtok, somewhat similar to Brigade Road in Bangalore. A nice and simple dinner consisting of Thak-Chuk and similar Tibetan sounding dishes along with really cheap drinks rounded off that day in Gangtok for us. We slept peacefully that night looking forward to the last and what would turn out to be one of the best drives.

Tsango Lake

The morning of 14th March in Gangtok was extremely foggy and the visibility levels were low. Our driver, Arjun Sharma arrived by 7 AM with some forms we needed to fill to get the permit for Baba Mandir. It took us about half an hour to get the paperwork done and we were then on our way to Tsango (also written as Tsomgo) Lake. The driver kept telling us that we would get to see snow at the lake and even more so at Baba Mandir. As we went higher and higher up the Himalayas, we could see snow on top of the mountains at a distance and could not wait to get there. it was increasingly getting colder and we stopped at one of the shops for refreshments as well as to buy some warm clothing. I got myself a cap, a pair of gloves and a face-cover. Viggy bought almost half the shop stating that it is better to get warm clothing for the whole family from Sikkim than Bangalore. I was sitting in front with the driver and got a good first hand experience of driving uphill maneuvering an Omni with very low Horsepower. The slopes were quite steep and we felt almost on top of the world when we hit 12000 Ft.

About a kilometer before Tsango Lake, there was snow on the sides of the road. It was an amazing experience to see snow for the first time. Viggy kept mentioning Iyer and how we shall make him regret his decision not to come to Gangtok. Iyer was the keenest amongst us all to see snow and here we were without him with snow all around us! The lake itself is at a height of 12,400 Ft and is quite something to see first hand. It was covered with snow and we could see some people riding yaks in the distance on the other side of the lake. On our way up, we drove past the lake to make our way to Baba Mandir first. The driver told us that the route to Baba Mandir would get trickier later in the day as more of the snow melts. So we went on through the extremely damp road passing through an area where silk trading happens once every week with traders coming over from the Chinese side of the border. The way to Baba Mandir has a stretch which is observed by Chinese security officials from a watchtower at a distance. We were told that Nathula Pass is 6 km from the road forking out just before we reached Baba Mandir.

Baba Mandir

Baba Mandir has been built in the memory of a soldier of the Indian Army – Harbhajan Singh – who apparently slipped and fell over those mountains during snowfall some 30 years back. One of the jawans in that area had a dream in which the late Harbhajan asked him for some sort of a memorial. Thus came about this Mandir in memory of the soldier. It is completely maintained by the Indian Army. A good indicator of the cold weather was that the water had frozen into a block of hard, solid ice in one of the tanks kept near the mandir. After a brief stay at the mandir, we made our way back to Tsango lake. When our car stopped, we were surrounded by a host of yak owners who were looking to convince us for a yak ride. After about 10 minutes of haggling over the price, we finally agreed to the ride. Changing into snow-boots, all three of us did the yak ride half way around the lake and played for some time in the snow there. Not having expected to see any snow, we had an awesome time fooling around, slipping and sliding in the snow. We let the moment sink in for some time before starting for lunch.

Tsango Lake

On the way back to Gangtok from Tsango lake, the visibility really came down thanks to some clouds hovering around the mountains. The driver once again expertly maneuvered the vehicle downhill saving as much fuel as I thought was possible. We were left with Hanuman Tok, Ganesh Tok and Tashi Viewpoint to visit in Gangtok. The Chief Justice of the Sikkim High Court seemed to have passed some time before us and we were told that no visitors would be allowed to visit Hanuman Tok for atleast 2 hours. We went straight to Ganesh Tok from there which is basically a small temple with a lovely view of Gangtok from the top. By now, there was a strong wind blowing across the city and it was extremely foggy. Near Ganesh Tok, there is a zoological park which of course we did not have time to visit.

The last stop near Gangtok was Tashi Viewpoint. On a clear and sunny day, Mount Kanchenjunga can be seen from Tashi viewpoint. With visibility limited to hardly a couple of kilometers aerially, we did not really stand any chance of spotting it whole afternoon from Tashi viewpoint. We spent some time at the art shop nearby waiting for Viggy to heed to nature’s call and finally set off to Gangtok Taxi Stand hoping to get the cheapest possible ride to Siliguri. Though we wanted to see the International Flower Show as well, it was already 4 PM by the time we reached the Taxi Stand and would have run the risk of not finding a cab in time to reach Siliguri that night. We managed to get a good deal with the Indica to drive us to New Jalpaiguri railway station and reached there around 8 PM. Needless to say, we were exhausted after the non-stop travel over the past 10 days and all we could think of was settling in for the night.

The next morning when we were just leaving the room, Viggy showed his tense self by suddenly rushing in and shouting that the train has already reached the station. We dashed our way through the small walkway to the station and on the overbridge only to find out that the train will be arriving in another 10 minutes slightly before its actual arrival time. The journey to Sealdah from New Jalpaiguri was not totally without excitement either. The plains in northern Bengal and small parts of Bihar (upto Malda Town) that we passed through were really green and a very different view from the hills and mountains we had got used to seeing in the past week or so. I had a nice long sleep that afternoon and woke up in the evening to find out that the train was an hour late and was expected to reach Sealdah somewhere between 8.30 and 9 PM. This made our situation slightly tricky since we had to board the train for Khandwa from Howrah at 10 PM. Both Viggy and Manas had worried and helpless looks on their faces. Thankfully, Viggy had a list of stations on both the routes and I could see that Barddhaman Junction seemed common to both the routes. After confirming from some co-passengers, we decided to get off the train at Barddhaman Jn. The first thing I did after getting off was to check the timings of Mumbai Mail from Howrah and was relieved only after confirming that Barddhaman was the first stop from Howrah and that the TTE would wait till Barddhaman before allocation our berths to anyone else. The rest of the train journey as well as the drive from Khandwa to Indore were quite peaceful and we finally reached our hillock home on 17th morning around 5 AM – the fourteenth day since setting off on a memorable trip to one of the most beautiful parts of our country.

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