Travel

Unravelling Sikkim Himalayas – The Fambong Lho Diaries

Fambong Lho Wildlife Sanctuary is situated in East Sikkim. A trekking programme through this mountainous jungle had been proposed months back, and I had jumped to the decision of going. The wildlife sanctuary is an extension of the Kanchenjunga National Park and houses a variety of species of flora and fauna. Anyway, I was looking much forward to a trek since it had been more than two years that I had set foot in the Himalayas.

I had heard that the duration of the trek would be four days, and the batch was an enthusiastic one. So I hoped for the best and started off from Kolkata with the rest on 30th of October, 2015. At New Jalpaiguri Station, we got divided into two groups, boarded two buses and headed towards a small village called Pangthang, where we were supposed to stay for the night. Our buses rounded up the hilly roads, via Gangtok, jolting us often in our seats. In the afternoon we finally halted in front of a display board which stated –‘Welcome to Fambong Lho Wildlife Sanctuary’. Someone shouted inside our bus, ‘Look look! There’s a rainbow!’

That afternoon was just perfect. Sunlight was quickly fading away, emitting a pinkish glow. As we stood mesmerized at our campsite, the sky kissed the distant blue mountains and the rainbow was still etched across the sky, glowing with all its radiance; when we turned our heads, Kanchenjunga smiled amidst a cloudy haze.DSCN0799

And that was just the beginning!

In the night, we all snuggled into one big shelter and introduced ourselves. There were so many new people, and it was difficult to remember everyone’s name in the beginning. Each had a different story to tell. However, we retired to the comfort of our sleeping bags soon, as the next day would be demanding, with loads of work and walking to do.

I woke up early in the morning as nature kept calling me, poised with all its seduction. I came out of the shelter with a torch, but soon had to switch it off. It was a moonlit night. The sky was pitch dark, studded with glittering galaxies and constellations all over, and you could clearly see the way. The borders of our camping ground were surrounded with the dark silhouettes of trees of the olden times, which looked over the vale as watchful protectors. As I turned my head around, Kanchenjunga lay quiet, glistening under the moon, sitting like a nesting dove.

It was a clear night, without a single trace of cloud. And it was a cold, cold night, sending shivering sensations down the spine every now and then. The surrounding was chaste, pure, and you could feel the fresh, cold morning air filling your lungs, purifying you in and out.

Soon the campers awoke as dawn started descending upon us. The quiet of the night broke into a clamorous day as there started a lot of hustle and bustle. And then the magic began! The first rays of the sun gradually cast its wand on the gorgeous peaks of Kanchenjunga, reddening the tips. The red soon spread all over the range like splattered vermillion. The colour gradually started transcending into a golden hue. And soon, the mountains were transformed into a land of golden sunshine. However, the mesmerizing vista did not last long. With the sunrays gradually hovering on us from the East, we saw the peaks retaining their eternal white glow. The show was finally over.DSCN0838.JPG

That morning, we were supposed to walk uphill to a place called Golitar. There was a forest bungalow, though it would not have been sufficient to accommodate all of us. Also, we were part of a course, where instructors and campers alike, all were required to stay in shelters made of plastic sheets.DSCN0876.JPG

The path was not long. We started off a little late, and reached early. The trail was through a rich natural vegetation, that Sikkim is known for, consisting of numerous orchids, bamboos, ferns, primula, coniferous trees and much more. The route was filled with the continuous chirp of crickets and occasional tweets of unfamiliar birds. The moist atmosphere allowed for the growth of gigantic ferns all over. Moss hung over the huge, ancient trunks of trees that drooped its branches down over the narrow, meandering paths, forming canopies of foliage here and there.

Golitar’s bungalow was in a pretty location. The first thing to catch my eyes was the bottle green display board with Frost’s words scribbled on it,

‘The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.’

Well, yes. We surely did have miles to go before we ultimately parted ways. But instead of thinking about what was going to be, I looked at the present. The present was exciting. The present was slipping away, second by second, even though I wished hard that there were some more to each day. I wished to live in the moment, not quite thinking about the ‘miles to go’, but the time already spent together. The seconds we were spending together were the moments when each of us was making memories.

The next morning in Golitar again greeted us with the dazzling panoramic view of Kanchenjunga. Along with it dawned a reminder – our already slow team had a long (long with a lot of ‘o’s in it) walk to undertake to reach the next halt –Siddhi Chowk. The already seven hours’ journey might just take a lot more time, as a few campers were facing difficulties while walking up or downhill. The day seemed a little long.

We had started off early, did not take much breaks. But in the few halts that we had indulged ourselves into, our local guides kept reminding us that we were not even halfway through.

The fragrance of the wild lingered throughout. The jungle increasingly unfurled its vast reservoir of splendour as we gradually exposed ourselves deeper into its tender hands. At one such point, we abruptly reached a watchtower, took a long break, hungrily gulped down whatever food was remaining, and then started off once more.DSCN0886.JPG

This next stretch of walk, all of a sudden, became more interesting. The soil abruptly became very soft. The path took a steep descent and I could hear frequent thumps and giggles as people ahead slipped and fell on the way. Then there came a vertically poised log on the way on which steps had been cut. We sort of climbed down on all fours. The path again took us a little uphill, and before I could realize I found myself on the top of a ridge.

The sky randomly became gloomy. Clouds started floating in. The trees all around us were enfolded by the haze and the weather became chilly. Then I could see a flight of rock-cut stairs; that too, really steep ones. From behind, I also saw tiny specks of pink, blue or green rucksacks, which seemed to grow two legs each (no heads could be seen as the towering rucksacks covered people’s heads), crawling steadily upwards. Gradually, the first person moved beyond the point of identification as he was completely engulfed by the clouds around. Following him, one by one, we all gradually crept into the clouds and I was rejuvenated once again.DSCN0892.JPG

It was past afternoon that we reached Siddhi Chowk, a vast meadow covered with flowing yellow grass and countless flecks of white flowers. Evening soon descended upon us as we worked upon making a common shelter – the purpose was to stay together for the night, as well as sit together to cook. In the beginning it became a chaos, with people huddling all over a tiny space. But as everyone settled in their places, it became less chaotic and more of fun. That night was also supposed to be the night of a grand feast. Every group kept utensils full of their food on the ground. There was a display of a variety of food items, ranging from parathas and dried-fish curry to desserts. That night, as per the tradition set by the previous nights, supper was amazing. Who could ever imagine in her/his wildest dreams that a few days of hardship on the mountains can produce such brilliant chefs?

The final day soon approached. We walked downhill towards Tumin. The clouds accompanied us throughout the way, drenching us a little now and then. The strong smell of the wild was roused with greater vigour. Everything around was glistening green. The soaked path emitted petrichor. Tiny droplets hung from thin, dry branches, reflecting their surroundings in their minute crystal like, vase-shaped frames…

Tumin’s forest rest house soon loomed in the distance. A tiny wooden bungalow, a broad balcony and two rooms, Tumin seemed to be a perfect weekend getaway. Our campfire happened on the scheduled time. Good food, good company, chilly weather, and a star-studded sky – the last night could not have been better. Some of us had preferred to sleep in the balcony. Till late in the night a few of us lay awake, singing spontaneously until our eyes could restrain sleep no more.DSCN0905.JPG

Next morning we walked a little more to reach the nearest road head, where our two buses were waiting. The last day it was. My mind was a little heavy. The past few days had been enthralling. And everything was coming to an imminent end. Next time, even if I come, the exact same people won’t be there. The route might change as well.

The most difficult part, now, was to return. Each hike tends to mould a person a little differently. One always learns something new. Some things within are bound to change. And ultimately, you, as if like a misfit piece in a puzzle, do not quite fit into your own world after coming back from the mountains. Even when you are finally back into reality, your mind just trails off to the serenity left behind. You cannot concentrate on the present, you keep pondering about the past. And the fun part is that it is this set of imageries that refuse to let go of your mind, which presses you to go back to the wilderness again and again; which makes you plan your next trek!

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Exotic Ajanta

Exotic is not the word which can describe the majestic charm of Ajanta. It is bound to leave a person breathless. The caves of Ajanta are like a moving canvas – holding the moments in those paintings in an eternity. The moment I entered the first cave, time seemed to stop and draw me away back to the times of Buddha – a living legend. The characters in the paintings were all so lively, the expressions so dramatic, that one cannot help but stoop in front of them with awe.

Abalokiteshwar

Abalokiteshwar

The calm, soothing eyes of Padmapani, in his firm decision to heal the pain of this world; the pleading princess Shivali so that her husband Mahajanaka does not renounce the throne; the frailty of ‘the dying princess’ (wife of Nanda) after coming to know about her husband’s decision to renounce throne; all are so drenched in pathos…

Mayadevi, after coming to know about the prophecy

Mayadevi, after coming to know about the prophecy

Mayadevi, the mother of Buddha, comes to hear about a prophecy that the son she is bearing, will either become a great warrior or a world renowned prophet. She doesn’t know how to react, and her intent happiness is revealed in the shy smile on her lips. Her eyes are downcast, and she is playing with her fingers. Her back rests on the wall as she folds one leg against it for support. Her immense surprise, contentment, glee are blended with a calm and solitude demeanor; utterly graceful she was, she is, and will be, till the time she is also eroded into oblivion like most other paintings of Ajanta.

When Eerundati meets Punyak (part of Bidhur Pandit's story)

When Eerundati meets Punyak (part of Bidhur Pandit’s story)

Krishna apsara, with her intoxicated half-closed eyes, gorgeous ornaments, and a lovely head gear, is considered to be the most beautiful woman of Ajanta.

Eerundati, with her calm and curious composure when she meets Punyak, her beloved, all are painted with so much care and delicacy. One cannot be left surprised at the skill of the artist who gave a thought to superimpose moments to create a cinematographic effect here. On the right Eerundati is seen on a swing, swaying merrily. Just to the left, a handsome Punyak halts with his horse, to have a second look at the beautiful princess, who, on seeing him approaching, descends from the swing and greets him with a graceful air.

The male figures are again drawn so delicately; the gait, the  soothing composure of Buddha in his different reincarnations, left me speechless.

I was left awestruck, thinking about the people who had carved out all the thirty caves of Ajanta, with so much patience, perseverance and care!

We went to the cave-temples of Ellora as well; but my mind is still so full of Ajanta, that I’m not being able to write anything about

A small sculpture outside Kailash temple

A small sculpture outside Kailash temple

Ellora. Again I have to go back to the depths of those caves – the elegance of Kailash temple, the marvelous sculptures of all the Hindu, Buddhist and Jain caves, in order to be able to write a few lines about them as well…

Into a land less travelled…

My friends had long been planning to go for a trek somewhere, that literally had to be ‘less travelled’, away from the routes frequented by trekkers. The choice that they made was a route, that would start from Phamtam (a small habitat in the bosom of the Sikkim Himalayas) and end in Maenam Wildlife Sanctuary, Sikkim.

The walk through this mystic trail left us all marvelling about the majestic demeanor of the mountains once again.

Thus the journey began…

Just outside Phamtam village

One cold afternoon, the bus rounded up a meandering road encircling the green mountains, and left us in the small village, Phamtam. It had a handful few houses, and a little picturesque school. The neat primary school proudly displayed the enthusiasm of the small children to learn over there. We stayed in the schoolyard for the night. Next day, our trek started along the evergreen pine-clad trail through Phamtam. Curious, smiling onlookers could be spotted along the way, in neat little houses decorated with flowerpots; in busy cowsheds; in patios, thrashing crops; or in the green meadows just outside the village, grazing sheep.

Phamtam was soon out of sight and the lush green forest loomed in the distance. The uphill walk began. The path was covered with a thick layer of dead leaves that gave way under the pressure of our footfalls. On both sides were huge trees, their origins dated back to time immemorial. Their aged trunks were all covered up with cracked bark, bearing the signs of heavy rains during the monsoon- creepers and a blanket of moss from tip to toe. Their long branches tried to reach the sky, and in the process, formed a thick canopy of foliage, making it impossible even for the delicious sun rays to penetrate…

 Siraney was the place where we took our first halt. A ‘U’ shaped green valley surrounded with hills, was the place in its totality. The source of water was a little far. We formed a queue and followed our local guide blindly to where he led us. A little far down the slope, we scrambled towards the source of water on all four. We filled our containers with water that was coming down the slope, as if from a choking pipe.

Slowly and silently, darkness crept along and covered us all. It was pitch black and creepily silent whenever I happened to be a little far from the campsite. With our stomachs happily full, we went off to sleep quickly after the tiring daylong journey, cocooned inside the warmth of our shelters made of plastic.

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Deep inside the bamboo thickets

I didn’t know what time it was, but it was in the dead of the night that I suddenly woke. My dazed eyes instantaneously started gulping down the beauty of the amazing night. The sky was black, many shades darker than ebony, studded with glittering stars, and galaxies, and meteors, and a pale crescent of a moon. It was not as silent as I had assumed it to be in the evening, when people were bustling here and there. Now, with everyone asleep, I could actually pay heed to the different sounds across the vale- some night bird calling for its mate, the continuous chorus of the crickets, and yes, the different pitches of sweet snores all around. Everything was audible near and far. It was that quiet. Suddenly I felt a freezing soft wind stroking my forehead which sent a shiver down the spine, and noticed that my head had slipped outside the flaps of the shelter. I quickly curled up back inside the warm womb of the sleeping bag.

Next day, it was Bangaley where we were headed towards. The whole trail was somewhat more densely covered with trees, with frequent patches of bamboo thickets, slippery rocks, creepers getting tangled to our feet, which kept us all quite engaged with the path.

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“Photographer’s Delight”

It was in the afternoon when we reached Bangaley. There was a small stream that swept the far end of the yellow patch of Bangaley. The banks of the stream were dotted with sparks of white flowers that grew abundantly hither and thither. We all were busy doing the necessary chores of the camp, and suddenly saw the afternoon waving its magic wand all over the place! The hills in the vicinity started acquiring a bright orange hue, which rapidly spread like a wildfire to the nearby range as well. It lasted a few seconds. It was breathtaking, but soon faded away. Someone murmured from behind – “photographers’ delight”.

Bangaley was soon left behind, as we gradually advanced towards Doledunga the following day. Doledunga was a vast, endless stretch of valley with velvety yellow grass. It was all different shades of yellow and green, stretching over farther than even the eyes could gather. Far, far away from the valley, the distant mountain ranges became more and more blue as they gradually faded with the clear, stunning blue sky.

Doledunga from a distance

Doledunga from a distance

The vast expanse of Doledunga

Still a long way to go… a walk towards Jaley

The strangest feature of Doledunga was the innumerable dead trees, which stood upright, here and there, with their bare, blackened trunks. It was as if they lay awake to keep on going with their endless watch over the valley. The night was cold, but we were warm beside our fire. We cooked, we sang, and we had a nice chat over dinner, which was fast getting cold. I slept peacefully as usual, except from the frequent fits of shiver that crept within me in the dead of the night. I realized that my sleeping bag had enough experience of camping, and needed a fast retirement.

A flock of the dead in the distance...

A flock of dead in the distance…

Next morning we descended to Jaley, where we stayed for the night. As evening descended, nature again intoxicated us with her unpredictable beauty. It became foggy around. There were LED lanterns inside each of the plastic shelters. But the fog didn’t let the light travel far. So the light remained concentrated within a small range around the bright blue shelters, illuminating them from within. The white fog outside and the smoky bluish illuminated haze from within, blended in a perfection that only a great painter could have achieved. Thus, stood all the hazy luminous blue shelters in the dark distance, in a harmony, forming a water- colour-washed masterpiece!

morning residues

morning residues

A long walk awaited us the next day. After some nine hours of descent, we reached Bhanjang. The night again surprised us! As we were busy cooking our dinner, all of a sudden a shrill note of a flute reached our ears! We wondered whether we heard it right, but the sound mesmerized us again. It came from the shelter of our local guides. Curiosity drove us towards them. We saw that these people had collected a few thin bamboo sticks while coming down the way; and now, sitting beside the cosy fire, they were busy making holes on those sticks to make their own flutes. One of them started playing a funny, shrill tune which might have sounded a bit clumsy because of its lack of craftsmanship; but under that starlit sky, beside the warmth of that crackling fire, among those like-minded people I loved, the whole environment happened to be tinged with such a happy mood which can never be expressed in words!

the shelter of our guides

the shelter of our guides

Bhanjang was the last night of the whole trek, as the next day we were supposed to reach the populated Borong village, where we would organize our campfire. So, according to the plan, we reached Borong the following day. Campfire in the evening was spent in great merriment, trying to hold those precious moments together in an eternity, trying to forget that this was the very last day together.

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Distant snow covered peaks… as seen from Bhanjang

Thus the end came soon. The next day we happened to dump ourselves in a truck that took us to a monastery, where our bus was waiting. The bus took us to the station and left us there. Unfortunately, the scheduled train also came on time, which led us back to the ever-chaotic, polluted, and yet, colourful city of Kolkata!

A walk to remember…

Walking beside ‘her’

The roaring blue sea continuously by your side, gently lapping your tired feet inside its foamy womb; the gushing wind trying to lift you off your feet; the occasional patches of coastal green bringing in some variety in the vast expanse of glittery yellow sand… What more can you expect in a weekend escapade?

Gauging the horizons

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The Chandipur-Digha coastal trek couldn’t have been more exciting, if the group was not equally enthusiastic. Starting from the plan to its execution- all were neatly done. And thus, we landed up, one cold January morning, in the ever populated beach of Chandipur, Orissa, to witness the red yolk of a sunrise. The walk started then and there…

 

 

Even boats are not meant to be harboured… Kashafal in the afternoon

There was a sudden, small stretch of river blocking our way soon after our trek had started. But behold! No need to stress! A little, overcrowded boat, with all its passengers, and bicycles, and motorbikes (heaven knows how they’d all fitted), gently ferried us to the other side of Buribalam River. We walked and walked, with the gulls cawing across our heads. The busy fishing boats could be seen dotted along the dazzling expanse of the bay. In the afternoon, we reached a small village, Kashafal. 

Early morning business

 

 

 

Some more business

The peaceful sleep at night in Kashafal’s deserted market yard didn’t last long. Early in the morning, the place became filled with fishermen shouting here and there, making hasty movements, gathering their fishing nets to head for their venture into the seas… 

In the shades of the Casuarinas, far from the beaches, a lonely fisherman was seen, bringing to shore his catch…

Well, not quite lonely… soon after we passed him, we turned back and saw a young woman scuttling down the sand slope towards him. A maiden with dreams in her eyes, I wished to think…

In which you can hear the sound of the seas…

 

 

 

Streaks painted on the glittery sand

Yes… the sound of the seas you can hear in these shells, they say… they come from the land of the mermaids I believe… 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trails that will soon be erased…

 

Along the way, we had tea in one small corner shop. The local people became pretty interested in what we all do. There, we happened to meet an old person, an ojha (a self proclaimed witch-doctor), who claimed to have a cure to almost anything, ranging from snake-bites to not getting  married!

We moved on…. 

 Once out of Kashafal, we started our bouts of walk towards Dogra.

Dogra happens to be a favourite spot among clamorous picnickers. We didn’t at all wish to encounter any, and thankfully we arrived so late in the afternoon, that these crowds had gone already.

 

The afternoon sun had cast a lovely dreamy glow around. The retreating sea made innumerable patterns in the glimmering sand. Fishing boats were coming home after their day-long quest for fish. On the beach we saw a human chain forming around a fishing net; with a rhythmic chant, the men’s bodies drew the net together with a strong pull every now and then.

At night, we went to the beach. It was pitch black around. The sky was studded with stars. The vicinity was absolutely quiet, except for the raging sea, howling into our ears about the day long ruckus created by the so-not-sensible people coming over throughout the weekend! The gleaming phosphorescence atop  the dashing waves made the sea look even more melancholy. Across the distance, near the horizon, we could see dim lights of the fishing boats that were still out there. The fast growing level of water indicated that tide was coming. We gradually retreated back to the comfort our guesthouse.

Next morning, we headed towards Digha- an over populated slice of coast. Crossing the Subarnarekha River, we reached a place to get transportation to Digha. From Digha, it was time to head back to Kolkata…

And the time to bid farewell came pretty soon!