THE HILLS ARE ALIVE: A video-feature on Sandhak-Fu Trek
By Dr. Ratan Lal Basu
Sudurer Piyashi - A trek around Sandakpu, Falut & and Lake Mirik in West Bengal, India
Calcutta, Feb 1, 2011 (Washington Bangla Radio) I had been languishing in utter boredom and hollow feeling. Boredom vanished as soon as Dr. Mili Chakraborty of the Dept. of Botany requested me to join Sandhak-Fu trek and I readily gave assent. She led me to their departmental teachers’ room and introduced me to Avik Sen, the proprietor of Impression India, specialized in Himalayan treks and I was impressed by the reassuring smile of the thickly mustached young man around forty. Mili showed me the list of trekkers already given consent and it included Dr. Mala Basu, popular for her story telling and her amiable hubby Mr. Asoke Basu, Dr. Bani Bahttacharyya of the Sanskrit Dept., well known to me for her advise on ancient Indian culture and many other colleagues and a few of their friends who were all well known to me.
The novelty of this trek was first, this was to be my first conventional hill trek and second, my first hill trek with Bengalis. Strange it may seem. In fact I had never before undertook hill trek for its own sake although I had to wade thorough extremely difficult hilly terrains, simply to visit the houses or villages of hill boys and girls -- Nepali, Bhutia, Lepcha, Limbu, Newar, Tamang, Sherpa, Pasang etc. -- I happened to have made friendship with.
We started in the evening by Darjeeling Mail. I had been familiar with this train ever since my college life as I had to travel to Calcutta from my native house by this train. I remembered how I had to cross the Ganges by steamer before construction of the Farakka Bridge. The monotonous swaying and creaking sound of the fast moving train reminded me of my student life and the hopes, despairs, pleasures and pains of those days. I felt sort of nostalgic pain, the days I’d left would never return. In my reminiscences I felt asleep and dreamt of swimming in Tista River. We reached New Jalpaiguri Railway Station early in the morning and climbing on the over bridge I looked toward the north and the panoramic view of the Siliguri township and the rural outskirts enchanted me once again. The top of the Kanchenjunga peak-1 was visible through the lump of clouds like a silvery arrow head. We took breakfast from Sonali restaurant and started by a mini bus for the hills.
The vehicle ran fast along the Jalpaiguri Road and swerved into Burdwan Road near Jalpai mor. These two roads, spreading along on the embankment of the Mahanada River, which was no longer visible because of mushrooming of huts and buildings on the slope, went ultimately joined with the Hill Cart Road. Our bus crossed the river by the bridge near the Siliguri North Railway Station and the hilly Zone opened up with all its majesty before our eyes. Many in our company started crooning songs and hollering as a new world opened up before their eyes. The bottom hill forest of sal and teak started after Sukna. The road became curvy and the uphill climbing with jerks on the body from turns of the bus and on mind with floating imageries made everybody hilarious. On the snaky path we overtook a ‘toy train’ (in fact, narrow gauge train) and I remembered of the time when we had to travel by this train as buses and land rovers were scanty on this route. The train journey has its special charm but because of the time taken by the train I never traveled by it after regular bus and land rover services became available.
We were soon engulfed in dense fog and entered a dreamland. The journey in dim visibility created an eerie sensation. The bus jerked, jolted, negotiated blind curves and dimly visible fragments of houses, trees and hills flashed passed us in torrents, continually dissolving into one another. We had a stopover at Kurseong for tea and thereafter we proceeded for Manebhanjan via Ghum and Sukia Pokri. The permission for Nepalese land to reach Sandhak-Fu had to be obtained at this place.
Here we left the bus and got up into a land rover and proceeded for Tonglu where we would spend the night. From Meghma the fog became denser and nothing could be visible clearly. The track was now craggy and besides the usual hilly turns the vehicle occasionally jolted heavily giving us a start. The sky was clear to some extent and the light and darkness painted overlapping chiaroscuro. Our hearts were ecstatic and we felt of freedom from the drudgery of day to day life at Kolkata. The uncanny ambience took possession of our hearts and we forgot momentarily where we had come from and where we were going to as though our journey had started from eternity and would continue for eternity. Bani explained how such ambience had inspired ancient people to conceive of the beautiful gods and goddesses like Shiva, Parvati, Vishnu etc.
A bushy brown dog greeted us with wagging tail as soon as we reached the house of our night halt. Mili instantly gave it a name—Bhulu who endeared itself to all of us, especially, the little girl Ruku who did not hesitate to adore it in spite of her mother’s chagrin.
The setting sun painted imageries in orange on the western clouds and various peaks of Kanchenjunga range peeped though cloudy blankets. Next morning before the trek we had gossips over coffee and as usual. Mala told us of her experience at Kenya where a married Negro lady had told Mala that she was ready to divorce and marry Mithun Chakraborty if Mala, a Bengali, could contact and make the Bengali Bollywood star agree -- so popular are the Bollywood stars in Africa. The way Mala related the funny incident raised roars of laughter which enlivened the ambience. Tanmoy, the assistant of Avik entertained us with songs and jokes. Surojit Chakraborty, the photographer was busy taking shots with his costly movie camera.
As soon as we began our trek along the hilly track host of rhododendron, mostly fiery red, greeted us and everyone became engaged in taking snaps. The dog Bhulu accompanied us up to some distance and then returned being disheartened might be because we did not request him to be with us for ever. We traversed picturesque lands singing and gossiping and clusters of pines and blooming rhododendrons saluted us like disciplined and obedient soldiers and at last we reached the check-post gate through which we had to enter Singhalia Park within Nepalese territory.
Trees were now sparse but the random scatter of foliaged and naked trees made a piece of excellent painting illimitable by any worldly painter. There were undulating lands on both sides and groups of hill people guiding yaks and mules with heavy loads on their backs, merry making young boys and girls making curious glances at us, crossed us on the way. We had a break for tea at Tungling the place from where the view of Kanchenjunga is the best and along with the smaller peaks on both sides the range looks exactly like prostrated Lord Shiva. Shekhar Basu, a relative of one of our colleagues, picked up lycopodium shrubs from the hillside and stacked in his side back as I had told him that this was the herb from which the well known Homeopathic medicine is made. The puppies and little Nepali girls were playing merrily. The little girl Ruku joined them to play with the beautiful bushy puppies and jocose kids. She offered biscuits to puppies again and again and soon became fond of the little creatures. The atmosphere interchanged rapidly between clearness and haziness as though it was a replica of our life. The Nepali houses on both sides were of different designs from those found in West Bengal hills.
We at last reached Gauribas and entered Indian land again. We again got up into the land rover. The track in front was very steep and many in the team had no previous experience of hill trekking. Moreover with increase in altitude proportion of Oxygen in the air was continually falling creating some problems to the new comers.
The rhododendrons now became more profuse and besides the usual reddish ones, other colors like white and yellow were also visible, but not so profuse as the red. In the vale to our right series of tall Magnolia trees with thousands of while lotus like large flowers attracted the attention of everyone making then busy taking snaps by stopping the vehicle.
There were multi colored orchids on the hillside mostly hanging from the pine branches. Mili and Mala were busy collecting some varieties although uncertain if they would blossom in warm weather of Kolkata. Mili told us that innumerable herbs grow in this region and some of them are very poisonous. Even smelling of Aconite flowers for half an hour would cause death to an ordinary person.
The last part of the track to Sandhak-Fu was less steep and we trekked the part. Because of rarified air we got tired very soon and had to rest several times before we could ultimately reach our destination. The trekkers’ hut was at an isolated place on the hilltop and the scenic view around was marvelous. We hurried into the safety of the hut as relentless strong wind with hissing noise chased us all along. From inside the hut we felt as though there was a storm that would destroy the entire creation. Fu in local language means ‘wind’ and the name of the place is because of the continued Fu. In the dying dusk light a beautiful pine tree with spread out foliaged twigs swaying in the wind was visible through the window of the hut and it gave the impression of a dancing deity. After tea and snacks, we went out to have a stroll around the place disregarding the lashing of the chilly wind. We were too tired to have gossiping for a very long time and soon after early dinner we fell fast asleep. The next morning of 20th April was bright to start with and the peaks of Kanchenjunga were visible above a thick layer of nimbus, but soon the nimbus spread around and snowfall started. We all got crazy and started singing and dancing ecstatically amidst the relentless floating down of white flakes that covered our garments. We forgot about our ages and positions and started merry making like school going children.
Soon all the sides of the hills and valleys got covered with thick layers of snow and after the snowfall had subsided the majestic Everest and Kanchenjunga were clearly visible in the cloudless northern horizon. In fact this is the only spot, reachable by ordinary trekkers, from where both the two great peaks could be visible. Arindam Mukherjee, the managing director of a software company and Nachiketa Prachanda, the engineer of his company, were busy taking steel photography with the bulky SLR cameras from various angles. Surojit as usual was taking rushes in his Movie. We started throwing snow balls at each other.
Unfortunately, the extreme cold weather and paucity of Oxygen in the air made Prof. Amitava Nag, the Head of the Dept. of Physics of our college, extremely sick. He even could not recognize anybody. We took a quick decision to send him back to Mirik by one of our two land rovers and Dr. Manik Majumder and Dr. Asoke Basu accompanied him. Considering this mishap and tiredness of many of us we decided to travel to Falut by land rover as the 21 km trek could be problematic for many of us.
The path to Falut was broken and stony and our vehicle had to change gear rapidly to negotiate very steep climbs. The track was covered with snow at places and the wheels of the vehicle made distinct marks on the snow. Snow steaks were hanging like ornaments from the branches of rhododendrons and pines. As soon as we reached Falut a black heavily built dog came down from the hill just like Bhulu and soon Ruku made friendship with him.
The hut at Falut was in a bad condition and the toilet outside the hut created hardships for us in the extreme cold weather. Still we were enthusiastic to grasp the magnificent views of the hills and the Kanchenjunga peaks in the clear sky. The aerial distance of the peaks is closer here and it appeared as though we could touch them by extending our hands. Mala was taking sketches of the overlapping hills faintly visible through the translucent blankets of fof. She emphasized that in painting one could express the feelings roused by natural sights which is not possible in camera snaps. Arindam, Nachiketa and Surojit were busy taking shots from various locations and angels. Water was a problem and for cooking, toilet and drinking ice-cold water had to be carried from a distant spring which snaked down the hillside. In the evening we took shelter under heavy blankets and started gossiping ignoring all hazards and oblivious of our Kolkata life. Just like Sandhak-Fu there was no electricity here also and the mellow lantern light made the ambience eerie fit for ghost stories. We missed Amitava Nag, Manik Majumder and Asoke Basu. Arindam was jolly as usual and entertained us with popular Hindi and English songs. The women folk began chorus of Tagore songs and all of us joined them. Tanmoy entertained us with jokes and Mala kept us engaged with puzzles.
Next morning we encountered snowfall again. But we could not get out into the snow as now tiny balls replaced the flakes. The place, however, became fantastically beautiful as after snowfall the ground was covered with tiny balls of snow looking like pearls.
The next day we started for the Gorkay valley which is encircled by overlapping hills on all the sides giving the place the shape of a vast cauldron. The downhill track toward the valley was narrow and covered by forest of pine. The path was cut at places by narrow dry water courses which at times went alongside the track making it narrower and risky to walk along. The last part was a clear hillside but pine needles had made it risky. We had to walk very carefully. My shoe skidded once and I fell down. Fortunately, because of the thick cushion of leaves, I was not hurt. Our Nepali porters carrying the gas cylinder and other luggage and Tanmoy, who had training in mountaineering, climbed down like squirrels and they waited for us at the beautifully designed wooden hut. In this part of the trek we came upon large black yaks with gigantic horns. Here also we were greeted by multicolored orchids and varieties of rhododendrons.
Most of the inmates of the valley were cultivators and they grow varieties of vegetables to be sold at nearby towns. The bottom of the valley curved gently up on all sides and vegetable fields interspersed with small cottages covered the entire valley and up above there were dense pines. Our mobile phones did not work here as all towers were out of reach. A river called Rambam Khola, was flowing meanderingly down across the valley had passed by the side of the hut and the loud noise of the fast flowing water could be heard from inside the hut. The river was strewn with heavy boulders obstructing the flow of water turning it into white froths spreading out ice cold vapors. After lunch we sat on a large flat boulder inside the stream. The encircling forest, green crop plots and the dazzling sulfur yellow of the blossomed mustard fields made us hilarious and the ambience soon reverberated with songs, recitations and random talks in tune with the sound of the fast flowing water.
My mind drifted back to the long past. The river near the Darjeeling and Sikkim border was wider and deeper. I and the Lepcha girl Doma dived into the ice-cold water. Fighting with the fast current I was the first to reach the large stone in the midstream. Out of joy I hollered out ‘jai ma kali’. Doma who reached the stone right after me got horrified and became pale and dumb. She then told me why she used to be panicked to hear the name of this mother goddess. In fact it was the story of mischief of a notorious tantrik who had at first settled at Sevak kalibari but after scandal involving a local Nepali girl the shrewd criminal apprehended attack by local people and escaped to a Lepcha village near the border of Sikkim. The story was so thrilling that I could not feel while the wet clothes had dried on my body. [The novel ‘Curse of the Goddess’, I am writing now, is based on this story.]
In the evening we had to gossip in lamp light as here too, no electricity was available. Avik told that after completion of the Rambam hydroelectricity project which was now under construction, electricity would be available to all these remote places. However, the environmentalists apprehend that the project would cause serious damage to the hill ecology with grave future consequences. Local people, who were already environment conscious, had protested to the authorities but it fell on deaf ears. Plastic is strictly prohibited in all places in this region and local people take care that no tourists or trekkers drop plastic at any place.
The next day we left for Rambam along the bank of the river. At times the track moved away from the river and zigzagged through dense forest and it was risky to walk again. On our way we were greeted by a host of school children and they were very glad to receive chocolates and lozenges from Mili. The forest soon became very dense obstructing sun light and it became almost dark at midday. Now we came upon varieties of unknown plants and uncanny flowers. Mili gave a long lecture on them but it was hardly comprehensible to laymen like us. There was incessant chirping of the crickets seeming like ringing of bells. The forest was cut by clear spaces and crop fields at places and we observed poultry roaming around isolate small collages. Ruku always kept pace with me keeping herself out of the sight of her mother who did not like her handling puppies on the way and hitting the plants on both sides randomly with her stick. She was crooning a song, “Eikhanete pabe tumi khati sakchunni”. I asked her, ‘what is a shakchunni?’
‘Don’t you know, it’s a female ghost’ she replied being surprised at my ignorance.
‘What is then a petni?’
‘Oh my god, you even don’t know this! Shakchunni is the sister of the ghost and petni his wife’.
I understood that she meant to say that an unmarried female ghost is shakchunni and the married one, petni. I was amazed at the simplicity of children’s mind.
At places spores were hanging from pine branches. Some of us hit the spores with their sticks raising a smoke of pollens. Mili collected a sample of spores but unfortunately this was reported to the range office by local people and soon we were interfered by a young Lepcha forest Ranger who confiscated all Mili’s collection. He suggested her to obtain written permission from the Divisional Forest Officer at Darjeeling in case she needed samples for academic purposes.
The track again became narrow and more risky and we had to cross narrow water courses over logs laid across them. Ultimately we reached Rambam. Silhouette of the distant hills patched with pines gave an enchanting view to the place. Arindam was in ecstatic mood and started singing popular rhythmic songs. Others soon joined him creating a festive atmosphere. Here we got electricity as though after ages.
Mili was morose and criticizing the Ranger for his excesses. Arindam consoled her by saying that it was no fault of the Ranger as he could not assess whether collector of plants and herbs had some academic or other purpose.
Our next target was Srikhola on the bank of Sri River. Again our path was risky and difficult to trek. We came upon plenty of crop fields on the way. Arindam pointed out a pea field. We felt very hungry and Arindam asked the laborers on the field if they could sell some pea nuts to us. They gladly consented and in exchange for rupees thirty they plucked a basket of pea nuts weighing around five kilogram. We devoured them all in a few minutes.
Srikhola, placed beautifully amidst hills and pine groves, revealed its unique charm. The verandah of the house adjacent to our hut was decorated with multi colored season flowers in leather tubs. Mili told that she had tried some of these varieties at Kolkata but they did not bloom, might be due to warm weather.
Spending one day at Srikhola we proceeded for Rimbik which was an ordinary hill town. The minibus was waiting for us at this place and after lunch we began the last part of the tour by minibus for Mirik, the last hill station in our itinerary. We reached Mirik in the evening and the atmosphere was foggy with occasional drizzles. We were relieved to find Amitavada in good health. Mirik is a beautiful hill station, almost flat like a valley or plateau. Overpopulation in recent years had made the place congested robbing off much of the serenity of this hill resort.
Next morning we waded through dense fog to visit the flower shop and multicolored fishes in the beautiful lake in which boats with tourists were cruising majestically. Some of us bought lily bulbs from the flower shop. These lilies are suitable for warm weather also. Many of us also bought Darjeeling tea from a tea stall. In the large ground at the south east corner tourists and their children were riding horses and playing joyfully. The dense fog made the place a dreamland. But we had to get the return Darjeeling Mail from New Jalpaiguri Railway Station in the evening. So we had to bid good bye to the dreamland and ride the minibus for New Jalpaiguri.
The reminiscences of the tour, however, occasionally relieve us from boredom caused by the drudgery of the city life at Kolkata.
About the film:
Washington Bangla Radio USA Thanks Medianet and Impression India for sharing this video with our readers.
The video captures the scenic trail over the Singalila Ridge starting at Manebhanjan close to Mirik and covers Sandakphu (3636 m), Falut (3600 m), Tonglu, Gauribas, Palmazua, Kalopokhori etc. Jorepokhori, Lepchajagat and Sukhiapokhri can be visited from Mirik.
The Singalila Ridge is a North-South running mountain ridge in Northwestern West Bengal, India. The district of Ilam (Nepal) falls on the western part of this ridge and the northern ridge ends up in Sikkim(India) Part of the Himalayas, it separates other mountain ranges of West Bengal from other Himalayan ranges to its west. The two highest peaks of West bengal, Sandakphu (3636 m) and Phalut (3600 m) are located on the ridge, and the Singalila National Park encompasses the ridge.
Prof. Bani Bhattacharya
Prof. Amitava Nag
Dr. Apurba Bandopadhyay
Dr. Manik Mazumder
Dr. Mili Chakraborty
Dr. Ratan Lal Basu
Sekhar Basu Mullick
Prof Sipra Mukhopadhyay
Dr. Mala Basu
Dr. Ashoke Basu
Ratan Lal Basu, Ph.D. (Economics) is an ex-Reader in Economics and Teacher-in-Charge, Bhairab Ganguly College, Kolkata, India. Dr. Basu has written & edited several books on Economics.
Apart from his passion for the field of Economics, Dr. Basu's other interests are Boxing & Small Game Hunting (gave up the nasty games during college life); Swimming in Turbulent Rivers (physically impossible now); Himalayan Treks, Adventure in Dense Forests, Singing Tagore Songs and also writing travelogues and fiction in Bengali and English.
Dr. Ratan Lal Basu can be reached at rlbasu [at] rediffmail.com.