It is always desirable to have some perspective on connectivity in a hill area prior to undertaking a journey. With this factor in mind, if one sees the concrete bridge at Teesta Bazar(55 kms from Siliguri), one gets only partial information relating to breaking of the vital links of Gangtok and Kalimpong more than once with the rest of the country. Januki Chettri, a knowledgeable, affectionate and talkative tea shop owner at the old Teesta Bazar since 1962 had some experiences to share on the region as also life per se. Before I begin gulping fresh vegetable Momos made by her followed by a cup of milkless and sugar free leaf tea, I am informed that upto 1968, an attractive concrete bridge in the genre of the present Coronation bridge at Sevoke was in existence till the devastating floods swept the same away. Some portions of same could be still seen near the beautiful river bed on the Kalimpong side of the river.
It was nice to see the black & white snaps of all the three bridges along with scenic spots of the bygone era, including of the snowfall in Kalimpong in 1920, displayed prominently in Januki’s shop. The request to be taken note of was-‘photography of the photographs was not permitted’. The Foot Suspension Bridge (FSB), according to Januki, served the purpose as late as 22nd
June, 1996.The FSB was, nevertheless, hard pressed due to its being narrow and weak. The perpetual landslides in the Lekhobir region in the late Eighties and early Nineties would add to its burden. The relocation of bridge had adversely affected the business of the petty shop keepers initially according to her but lately with the rise in tourist inflow to Kalimpong and Darjeeling, same had been compensated to a considerable extent. Left to herself, she had no desire to supplement her income as she was not only getting old day by day but was destined to leave this world some day. It was the turn of her off-springs, therefore, to further improve upon and build her business. A Sapoot (good boy/girl) would be always positive and pro-active, while a Kapoot (bad child) would prove to be a liability , she adds as I prepare to hit the road again to resume my journey up for Darjeeling through Jorebungla.
The narrow, steep road through the lush green forest reminds me of the Jorethang-Zoom road in Sikkim. One gets a panoramic view of the blue captivating colour of the Teesta river. After barely 3 kms, though we had not planned, we have a brief halt at the –“Lovers Point”. One is blessed with a ravishing view of the confluence point of Teesta and Rangeet, two major rivers figuring in the local folk-lore time and again. Though the scenario is somewhat hazy, there is no harm in capturing the beauty, as a number of soft-wares are available nowadays to edit and improve upon the snaps.
Following a steep drive of 8 kms, one sees the first Tea Garden next to a school with bright yellow sunflowers of medium size giving company. Less of constructions over here as compared to Sikkim looks more pleasing. After all, it could be good for preserving the environment in the ultimate analysis. It is a bright, sunny day and definitely less colder than my abode in Pine dominated locale of Gangtok. While the gradient rises, less of water is seen flowing on the sides. Now the attractive Marigolds are there to dominate the scenario on both the sides. A couple of small and clean hamlets appear every now and then. While the women are seen enjoying the sunshine, children are noticed rushing to schools in their clean dresses. Tiny Chortens too appear on the fringes reminding one of the Buddhist impact. Soon we notice red flowers on the highway against the backdrop of another tea garden. A photo opportunity was not to be missed here.
By the time it is 9 am and barely half of distance was found covered, we decide to hurry up or else we would be late for the 10.50 am Diamond Jubilee Function of the HMI. The milestone displays that Jorebungla was still 18 kms. Another tiny village surfaces. Nice and clean tea shops and convenient & eco friendly Ekra houses having lovely flower pots on their windows and balconies convey a different tale than what one sees in the plains. No apparent struggle for life is visible. Populace in general looks contented and satisfied.
Another halt point comes near a steep gradient. One never knew that Lopchu, famous for its Peda and tea by the same name had come. A bunch of pink flowers, may or may not be orchid, was simply stealing the show in the close vicinity of a newly constructed Nepal style temple and a carved house under construction. All said and done, very few houses were found added compared to my last visit in 2006. Appearance of tourist vehicles and way side amenities would point out that tourism was booming further.
When the watch shows 9.25 am, nice, tall pine trees together with Utish appear on both the sides of the steep and isolated highway. Sunlight in a filtered form impresses. Soon the gradient improves. Though the visibility is better on this side, in neighbouring Sikkim nothing can be seen. A big blue gate put up by GREF welcomes us to Lamahatta, a quiet but soothing tourist point having tea joints, pay toilets and home stays. A number of Ekra houses dot the line again and there is no visible or felt sign of pollution. The boys wearing maroon sweaters are seen going to their nearby schools. Two boards put up by the State PWD make a loud and wanted statement-Don’t use mobile while driving and Don’t play with the life of a passenger. Ferns and Marigolds begin appearing on the sides as we move forward. Number of vehicles coming back from Darjeeling now rises. Road too gains in width. It is nice to spot monkeys at this height, playing and running after each other.
At Tukdah (6th Mile), a Safai Abhiyan presumably initiated by the Forest Dept. is in full swing. Participation of the villagers is prominent. Soon the vegetation changes. It is a sign of getting closer to our destination. At 8 km point, a resting place for the tourists is discovered. We too halt for a while and complete the breakfast. The bottled water tastes cold due to rise in altitude. We pick up momentum and manage to reach Simkuna Bazar or the 3rd Mile. Jorbangla is now 4 kms. away. Next a sleepy hamlet and a township emerge from fog and cloud. Despite greenery all around, it is painful to see water being collected and taken to the main town in tankers. In the meanwhile, road becomes bumpy but the parapets are nicely white-washed. When we are 1 km short of Jorebangla, lovely houses appear on the other side of the hillock. There is no congestion, however.
Jorebangla town looks cramped up, does not inspire, though we did not have time to feel and roam around, either. Jalpahar Cantt. is also located here. The historic Himalayan Railway making a foray from Kurseong takes a sharp turn here to move towards Darjeeling, barely 9 kms away. My memories of the legendary movies-Jhuk Gaya Aasman, Aradhana, Parineeta etc. are refreshed when I see the toy railway criss crossing the now narrow highway.
Approaching the Ghoom Railway Station at 8000' was quite a delight. Built in 1861 it was the highest station in the World till 2006.Its heritage structure deserves better maintenance. The Batasia Loop attracts a large number of tourists. One can see the Ghoom Monastery and some places in West and South Sikkim from a viewpoint. The golden statue of Guru Padmasambhava at Namchi is also visible by a binocular in the clear weather.
While we drive down for Darjeeling, people are seen walking for work but the shops are yet to roll up their shutters. The railway line changes sides every now and then. Weather is also not very clear to pep up enthusiasm. The British era houses are seen blending well with the new constructions. The famous tea companies-Margret Hope, Goodriche, Golden Tips, Nathmulls, Orange Valley, all are seen now competing with each other through impressive hoardings. For Margret Hope of Kurseong, it is a moment of tremendous joy, as this biggest tea garden of the area is on the verge of celebrating its 150th anniversary.
Margaret Hope, once called Bara Ringtone was reported to be linked to a tragedy concerning its manager's daughter at the onset of 20th Century. Margaret, the daughter, having come from Britain, fell in love with the beauty of these slopes so much so that she decided to settle down here for good. But she had to return with her mother. Luck was not on her side when she was indisposed during her four month long journey and ultimately expired aboard. Mr. Bangdon, her father while walking through the tea estate would remember how Margaret had 'hoped', she would live, therein. It is supposed to have inspired him to rechristen the estate "Margaret's Hope". One further learns that as a polite gesture and recognition for hard work with low wages (four Annas to Rs 7/-a day), rendered by 98 year old Purney Subba, the company has decided to honour his contribution by naming a variety of tea after him. Do we say -'Slow and steady wins the race'?
Being engrossed in tea tale, we miss a part of first few significant views of the vast hill station of Darjeeling. A large Monastery complex is not to be missed, rather we pass next to it after some time on the famous Hill Cart Road. More tourist taxis are seen now. Hoardings and buses of the famous Darjeeling schools too are occupying the limited space on the highway. More and more of traffic means slow movement of vehicles. As a result, we are supposedly behind schedule. The place feels colder than Gangtok, maybe, being about 1200 feet higher. While one feels happy again on seeing the Safai Abhiyan here as well, nothing brings more joy than the sight of the Darjeeling Railway Station. Imagine hearing Chuk Chuk at this height.I am reminded of my last visit in 2006 when Ankoor was still alive and kicking.
One passes through the Planters Club roundabout, Hotel Elgin, Hotel Mayfair, Raj Bhawan and Padmaja Naidu Zoo to reach HMI 30 minutes ahead of schedule. Mountaineers, trekkers, trainers, officers, staff and the immaculately dressed Sherpa community members (reduced to 55,000 in the Dist) add another feather to the cap of the famous institution, which was a brainchild of Jawaharlal Nehru.
Delay caused in the arrival of the chief guest did not kill the bonhomie, nor it dampened the high spirits of the organisers. On my part, in addition to rubbing shoulders with old pals, it was good to see the Suite number 1 at Dzongrila, once occupied by Mrs.Indira Gandhi, as P.M. and President of the HMI.I too had used it with my family in 2006.Apart from being given the opportunity to present my books on Sikkim Tourism and the Biodiversity of Sikkim to the HMI library with a view to disseminate knowledge, I had the pleasure and privilege to be declared as the Special Guest during the impressive cultural evening. The Pre-Dinner Camp Fire too cannot be forgotten easily. The show begun on 13th November 1954 had to move ahead with more vigour and vitality and the trainees had to climb peak after peak by remembering the tough struggles of the legendary Tenzing Norgay Sherpa.