‘Get up it’s time to go, get ready’. I was already in a half-awake state & my wife’s voice brought me back to full consciousness. My first day in the lap of the Himalayas after 6 years. Nestled in the shadow of the greatest mountain range is the old town of Kalimpong, once a centerpiece in the Indo-Tibet trade route. It also happens to be the home town of my wife & today was the start of my 9-day holiday here. I had arrived a night before from the scorching May heat of Mumbai & the 100km drive from Bagdogra airport to Kallimpong town was like driving into a fantasy land. Stars became brighter, the breeze was getting cooler & the heavy to breathe city air gradually turned light for my lungs. I reached my destination late in the evening & was fed an early dinner (they eat dinner at 8pm in the hills). The chill in the mountain was new to ‘mi Mumbaikar’ hence after dinner I decided to snuggle up under the heavy quilt & sleep, too tired after the cross-country journey and in anticipation of an early next morning.
We had decided on a two-day trip to a beautiful place called Sandakphu, the highest peak in West Bengal. At nearly 12000 feet this place offers a pristine view of four out of the five tallest peaks in the world Everest, Kanchanjanga, Lhotse and Makalu but it’s the Kanchanjanga that dominates the landscape luring trekkers from around the country and beyond. It was to be my first to do in my itinerary on this trip. Sadly, the trip to Sandakphu did not work out & my wife changed it last minute for a trip to Lava Monastery with a night stay at Kafer. I had never been to either of the two places although I had heard good things about the Lava Monastery from friends who had visited the place. The change of plans was disappointing but I decided to live with it.
Next day, post breakfast with the family, we were ready around 10 am to leave. The family Maruti Omni & it’s driver Bhushan was supposed to take us to Lava (around 35kms from Kalimpong) & then to Kafer (50kms from Lava). One thing worth mentioning here is the awesomeness of the drivers up in the hills. While most of us would struggle with a 4*4 on the narrow & potholed ridden hill roads these guys drive a fully loaded (up to six people) badly balanced Maruti Omni with ease. Accidents are very few when you compare the kind of cars these people drive & the load they take with them. It is their calmness & ease that rubs off on the tourists to trust these roads on these vehicles. Hats off to the drivers of the Himalayas.
Destination locked & the van loaded we set off on a foggy may morning to Lava Monastery. At little over 7000 feet this small town of Lava is one of the very few places in West Bengal to receive snowfall in the winter. It is also the entry point to the Neora Valley National park from Kalimpong. A few kilometers into the trip we crossed the town of Kalimpong & the van started its accent towards Lava. Our driver Bhushan turned out to be a very chatty guy eager to tell me about the surroundings & it’s history. My wife had already briefed me about this trip but getting to know about places as we pass them has a different charm & a better imprint on one’s memory. It was quiet fascinating to be in the middle of Indian summer yet be amongst the fog up in the hills & though not bone chilling it was cold enough for a light jacket. The vegetation slowly started changing from normal everyday trees & bushes to fir, pine & birch. The change in scenery & vegetation was captivating enough in itself for me to be paying attention to anything else. It was as if even the trees in the forest wanted to look grand for those travelling up to touch the heavens. The smooth roads posed no distraction to this mesmerizing feeling, but even this appealing landscape was not perfect. Man had left his footprint of modernization even on these hills.
A big thud & a jerk brought me back to the present. We were quiet some way out of Kalimpong town & the population was getting scantier. The hills were greener with the exotic forests & of course, the roads got worse. “Bhenaju (means brother in law in Nepalese) the roads have a few potholes here be careful”, Bhushan told me. So, I had to hang on to the handle on top of the passenger seat window. As long as I was not driving I could be little bothered about the few potholes that came across in an otherwise gorgeous landscape. The beauty of nature had overcome man’s shortcomings.
An hour and 20 mins of driving over potholes interspersed with flat smooth road patches we reached Lava. Potholes are an understatement cause in most patches there was no road for 20-30 meters. There were just rocks & in some of these the road was steep with wet slippery rocks. At these times, a humble Maruti Omni with 5 people found it impossible to climb so we had to get down & push the van over the slippery rocks. Once on the tar road we sat & resumed our journey. Bad as it may sound it was actually good fun. Anyway, getting back to LAVA. A small quaint town with less residents & more tourists. The livelihood of the people was the tourism industry. We got dropped at the entrance of the monastery & Bhushan went to park the car. A big closed iron gate guarded the entrance. Tourists would enter & exit through a small gate cut into the big one. Being the peak of the tourist season there were quite a few people around & although I would’ve wished this temple of worship was quieter I understood the need for this crowd to be there. It was the source of livelihood for the locals. Well, what the hell just think they are not there, I told myself as we walked on the stoned pathway to the monastery. A few meters up the path & the city noises disappeared. The noise of the vehicles gave way to the excited chirps of the tourists.
On my right was the wall of the cliff on which the monastery was built & on my left was the fog covered pine tree valley. Today the fog seemed to cover everything, not a ray of sunlight could pass through. The entire monastery was very well organized. As we walked up, on my left we passed the living quarters of the monks and an institute Buddhist learning laid out simply but elegantly. The official name of the monastery is Kagyu Thenkchen Ling Monastery and the institute is named as The Ringpe Dorje Institute. Few meters above the quarters to my right was the main temple complex. A flight of 20-30 steps brought us to the main courtyard of the monastery. It was bare, stark & clean. 2 prayer halls faced each other at the ends of this courtyard. We decided to go into the one on our right first. One thing that make buddhist monasteries unique from other temples of worship is the use of colours. Vibrant, bright reds yellows & oranges are used in all decorations. Be it the colours on the cloth Thankas or the paint on the walls, everything is colourful & vibrant but despite an overdose of colours none of it was jarring to the eyes. Every shade & tone blended with each other seamlessly. Upon entry, we noticed two rows of colourful concrete rectangular pillars holding up the roof. They had beautiful shades of Red & Yellow painted on them. The pillars were covered halfway from the top from all sides with Thankas that hung from the roof. The roof was itself was covered with several big square hanging Thankas. The floor was wooden & at the end of the room was the alter. In typical buddhist style seated figures of the Buddha with 2 disciples in an enclosed glass & wooden box. Even in this hall of peace few fellow tourists could not hide their excitement with loud talks & photo ops. We decided to move on to the opposite hall where there was less crowd. ‘let’s finish that before this noise arrives there’ I said. This hall was bigger & grander than the previous one. big bronze statues of the Buddha with 4 disciples sat on the alter. Unlike the previous hall the figures here were not enclosed in any box, they were left open. The interiors were similar to the earlier hall. The simple design & vibrant colours left me in awe of the place. Simplicity has its own charm. We gave our prayers to the enlightened one & got up to leave.
Coming out of this room we proceeded down a staircase to another hall which had the Tibetan prayer wheels along it’s outer wall. Scores of prayer wheels covered all the 4 outer walls & people chanting prayers would rotate each of these prayer wheels as they walked around outside of the hall. After doing 3 complete rounds we went inside this smallish room, compared to the previous 2. Inside along with paintings & decorations was a giant prayer wheel. Made fully of bronze its height must have been between 15-18 feet. One of the many captivating sight in a buddhist monastery.
After spending a few more minutes in the calm of the place we felt the hunger. It’s time for lunch & we sat down in one of the regular Tibetan restaurants that dotted the little town. If you are looking for an expensive fine dine eating place here please do not visit the town or remember to carry your own food. Mostly all eating places are small family run businesses which are humble yet clean. Apart from the regular Tibetan & Chinese there was an extensive menu to please the Bengali tourist. Home like food away from home. We settled for momos veg & chicken, noodles pork & chicken all of which were quite tasty (while paying the bill we realized how cheap the place was too). Stomachs full we left for the onward journey to Kafer.
On this leg Bhushan warned us about the bad roads. He had said nothing about bad roads the previous time & this time if he is mentioning it specifically how bad must they be, I wondered & braced myself to hold on. Soon leaving civilization we entered the land of Pine trees. It was a road cut through hillsides of pine forest & today the presence of the fog made it look magical. It was truly an experience of driving through the clouds at 6500 feet. Of course, I cannot skip mentioning the roads on the way. If the last leg was bad this one was horrific & to top it was an extreme solitude as we travelled. We passed a vehicle in like 15-20 mins. Having a breakdown here would mean a long wait for help & in that fog even at 2 pm the place was pretty dark. Once again the natural beauty made me forget the hazards as we trudged along to Kafer. They say the journey is more important than the goal & I truly whished right now the journey wouldn’t end. It was awe inspiring beauty of mother nature. I really at that moment did not get a single reason why humans would want to dilute such creation.
Another 2 hours of this unforgettable (will never forget the beauty & the bad roads) drive we finally reached Kafer & drove straight to our resort, Tree-Fern. We parked the car in front of the reception cum restaurant & checked for our bookings. In front of the reception overlooking the driveway were the cottages of the resort. About 10 small one room wooden cottages overlooked the entire valley from the hillside. On a clear day it would have been an awe-inspiring sight but today we would have to wait & pray it clears for the sunrise tomorrow cause that’s what we had come here for. The cottages we small one room fully wooden, from inside & outside, residences. It had a small balcony for sit outs & every cottage had a 180-degree uninterrupted view of the valley in front & although we had hoped for a clear day the fog around us made the entire experience really romantic. The only vegetation in the resort were ferns & I would say it gave the place quiet a unique look. The entire evening was on a relaxation plan, early dinner & night. Next morning was a 5am wake up call for the sunrise post which all sightseeing was planned. It was about 4pm when we settled in the rooms and opened the vodka bottles. What followed was one of the best relaxing evenings for us in a long time. There, in the fog & the clouds with vodka & great company time slipped by unnoticed. A knock on the door by the waiter announcing dinner. Oh it’s 9 let’s go n eat for if the restaurant shuts, which it does by 9:30, we won’t get food tonight. Such was the life of this quaint little town of Kafer. The restaurant food of this place definitely needs improvement (we had Chinese) but we didn’t complain & ate up. Post dinner it was time to call it a night. No luck the fog still cloaks us from the sun, my wife informed a half awake me at 4am the next morning & as the minutes passed by in the fog we lost hope. We never did see the sunrise that day but the fog that morning painted a different scene & although quiet contrary to our expectation we all quiet enjoyed that misty foggy morning. We lazed around after our morning tea till it was checkout time at 10 am. My wife had her breakfast at the resort but I said no remembering last night’s dinner. Our breakfast was to be in town post which a trip to the famous ‘hanging bridge’ was on the cards. Our rooms were @2k per night inclusive of all taxes which I thought was reasonable considering it was the peak of the tourist season. Tree-Fern is a 10-year-old resort run by an old Nepalese lady, who is very warm & courteous. Last min photos & goodbyes done we headed into town for breakfast. On the way, the real town was laid out to me. A single road with few houses & govt offices. Couple of hotels & restaurants. I could walk end to end of this town in under half hour. Breakfast was aloo paratha which took an hour to make, they start all preparations from scratch, but totally worth the wait. Satiated with a hearty dose of delicious aloo paratha & hot tea we set out for our last part of the trip. A short 10 min drive got us to the park which had the hanging bridge. It was about a 15 to 18 meter high bridge constructed through the trees in the forest.at little more than half a kilometer the rickety bridge was fun to walk. After one climbs the entry stairs the bridge elevates to about 20-22 meters at the exit. It’s a fun experience if you are in Kafer.