Thursday, November 4, 2010

Day 35 - Gantok to Siliguri, via Darjeeling

You never tire of watching the great mountain ranges and their range of emotions, which change rather rapidly. This morning the ritual of the previous day was repeated. I was intent on soaking in the play of colors of the rising sun on the Khangchendzonga. I was deeply absorbed in admiring the glorious sunrise when a dog came from nowhere, stood by my side for a while and left when I made no attempt to befriend it. This, to me, is the difference between man and animal – the animal cannot admire nature, probably, also the reason why it does not hurt nature; they help to maintain her balance. Man admires her and does indescribable damage to her.
I made a 7 am start for Darjeeling. While leaving Gangtok I kept on glancing at the splendid mountain range, wondering when I will see it next. The emotions were not much different from giving away your daughter in marriage and feeling a bit anxious about her, not knowing when you will meet her again. The decision to return to Siliguri via Darjeeling was taken just a couple of days back after speaking to Himakar Tata - a classmate, a former railway colleague and a wonderful friend - who suggested that I travel through Darjeeling and Kurseong. I made the right choice in accepting his suggestion. Nearing Darjeeling I had the most glorious sights of the entire Khangchendzonga range. These views were certainly more impressive than the Gangtok view since the entire range could be seen absolutely clearly without any interference of forests and other obstructions. I thanked my lucky stars for the extra camera batteries!
Driving from Gangtok to Darjeeling was a most enjoyable experience. The road was good and those who love to drive in the hills must do the Teesta to Jorbungalow (Ghum) stretch. The road is steady uphill, to be done mostly in the first two gears and just beyond the Teesta Bridge Post Office there is a fascinating stretch to be done like a spiral staircase. Both sides of the road are thick forests and tea plantations. About 8 kms short of Jorbungalow, one gets fascinating views of the Khangchendzonga range. From Ghum onwards the road to Darjeeling gets congested with the railway track crisscrossing the road regularly.
I have not been to Darjeeling since my days as a probationer in 1982. The roads have become congested with vehicles and the railway track. The leisurely walks I enjoyed in the 80s were not to be had. However, there is one overpowering reason to visit Darjeeling – the view of the mountain range. The railway station affords a magnificent view of the snow capped peaks. From the time one crosses over from Sikkim into West Bengal, the ‘We want Gorkhaland’, ‘Welcome to Gorkhaland’ signs are everywhere, except on Government buildings.  After spending some time at the railway station and the ‘loco shed’ I started my journey to Kurseong.
The road runs next to the railway track and I had a good view of a ‘toy train’ coming into Darjeeling. In fact, at the Tung railway station passengers have to cross the road to board the train! The drive from Darjeeling is tedious and tricky with the crisscrossing rail tracks and the narrow road. Any lapse in concentration can be fatal. This is the famous stretch of road on which Rajesh Khanna sang ‘Mere Sapnon Ki Rani..’ to Sharmila Tagore (Aaradhana) and waltzed into the hearts of millions of girls and women of our country; the making of the first Superstar. I stopped by at the Kurseong Tourist Lodge for momos and tea. The lodge is run by the WBTDC and has affordable accommodation.
I continued onwards for Siliguri. A few kms beyond Kurseong, I was the only traveler on the road. In retrospect, I must admit that people along the way looked at me rather strangely. Anyway, a few more kms ahead I ran into a huge collection of sand and stone. Fortunately, my reflexes helped me stop just short. An aged gentleman explained to me that the road to Siliguri is closed since the past few months due to landslides and that I would have to take another route. As luck would have it, a WB Forest guard wanted a lift and he promised to guide me on to the right road. The guard claimed that the landslide which occurred on the 14th of July at Chowdah (14) Mahal is the biggest landslide in the world. He showed me how more than half a hill ceased to exist since then. He told me that the restoration process will take more than a couple of years as further faults are discernible at the top of the hill, which will cave in with the next rains, in all probability. I retraced my route for about 8 kms before I saw the detour, and also understood why I missed it. There were no sign boards or directions indicating that the normal route is closed and the detour has to be taken to reach Siliguri. The road was good in parts, mostly quite bad. The ‘toy train’, post the landslide, only plies between Darjeeling and Kurseong.
Two things impressed me as I was driving out of Gangtok. The first is the efficient manner of garbage collection, fully supported by the citizens. The trucks were almost run down but nothing spilt on the roads as they moved along. People waited to hand over the garbage and in some places left it neatly bundled to be picked up.  The second is that work at every location en route had begun as early as 7.30 am. This is fantastic. By 9 am work was in full swing all along the way. People build infrastructure or repair them as part of the NREGS scheme – not just scratch at some non-existent vegetation and flaunt their Union membership, as is done in God’s Own Country!

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