Lal Singh of Hillay, Kanchenjunga and more, in Sikkim- Pravin Gandhi’s people, places and perceptions
What a delightful and unforeseen adventure this leg of a long tour of East India proved to be. It had everything: tranquil scenary, interesting common people of the hills, an unexpected twist requiring on-the-feet thinking, and more.
Kanchenjunga sighting at Pelling, West Sikkim
We were about to leave Pelling in West Sikkim after 2 staying 2 days and nights without seeing Kanchenjunga, world’s second highest mountain. So at 5 am in the morning, I cried out in disbelief and joy when I saw the tip of the revered mountain shining like gold in the first rays of the sun, barely 40 kms away from us. Believe me, a huge mountain looks like its at hand-shaking distance even at that distance.
Our group posed for the photo op (in the picture, we could get either the people or the mountain), and bid goodbye to Pelling, a cozy hamlet in West Sikkim, and our European-style dorm (On the previous day, we had visited the Pemayangtse monastery). We travelled down to Jorthang, where my family separated to go to Hillay, a mini-flower-valley, and the others to go back to Mumbai.
Journey to Hillay, with an unexpected twist
At Jorthang, we took a bus to Sombaray to change to another bus for Hillay. But, as is typical of off-the-main routes and particularly in mountainous region, bus services are erratic. The bus departed at 2 in the afternoon, a time when we should have been at our destination. The bus journey was a cacophonic one, with everyone knowing each other and conversations going across the length and breadth of the bus, including the driver and conductor. Within the first 15 minutes, everybody in the bus knew where we were headed and were discussing our travel plan. Among the passengers was a gurkha, dressed in khakhi shirt and khakhi shorts, with a khukri (a kind of knife) in his belt. He was dumb, and I dint remember if he was deaf as well. Everyone knew him, and everybody played with him, teased him and he was quite a sport. His name was Lal Singh.
A flutter: When we reached a place called Varshay, the conductor and bus driver told us that the bus will not go to Hillay but will instead go to another place, where it will be parked for the night and return the next morning. There were serious consultations among passengers in the bus, and everybody concurred that instead of going to that destination, it was better for us to get down right there, i.e. at Varshay. I looked outside, there were a couple of houses along the bend on the road. I knew what I had to do. I took Lal Singh by the arm and got him down: “From now on you are with me“, were my exact words. He smiled cheerfully. That was so reassuring. His khukri was also very reassuring, but not necessary.
I asked Lal Singh to talk to the owner of a house and arrange for us to stay there. That was done and the owner started to prepare for our stay. The house was surprisingly clean, smelling of pine wood; nicely furnished with quilts and rugs and beautiful drapes; there was a showcase full of beautiful crockery. It would be nice to stay here, we murmured among ourselves. We began to relax and explore, as the owner prepared tea and Maggie noodles. It was such a nice, quiet beautiful place, nestled in the mountains.
While my family was reconciled to staying at Varshay (this was a deja-vu, a repeat experience, but that’s another story), a jeep came up and Lal Singh sprang to the middle of the road and stopped it. Of course the driver knew Lal Singh. After an animated conversation with gestures, it was arranged: the jeep driver would take us to Hillay. So we had our tea and Maggie noodles, thanked the house owner and piled into the jeep. It was another 11 kilometres to Hillay, at 9000 feet in the Sikkim part of the Himalayas.
It gets dark pretty early in the hills as the sun sets behind the mountains. We stopped at a gate, visible only in the light from the jeep’s headlights. What we saw next was straight from a spooky Black and White movie. The figure of an old man, holding a lantern in an unsteady hand, started to form in the light from the jeep. He came to us, opened the gate and led us to the PWD Dak Bungalow and gave us some candles or a lantern. In the candlelight there was no opportunity to assess the accommodation’s merits, but the bed was fine and the bathroom was fine, so that was adequate. Lal Singh invited us to have dinner at his place in a couple of hours, but we were unwilling to let him go. But he reassured us. A couple of hours later he came to take us to his home, where his daughter served us hot roti’s and a potato curry. Lal Singh saw us back into the Dak Bungalow.
On the Flower Trail
In the morning, I sprang up to see the place we were in, and I felt so relieved that we had not spend the night in isolation. There were quite a few families, including that of the caretaker, living behind the Dak Bungalow. If only we had reached Hillay a few hours earlier, on schedule, there wouldn’t have been any worries. We feasted on a breakfast that the caretaker prepared for us and then we set off on the 4-kilometre trek along the “flower trail“, a level path through a forest with wild flowers of all colours in bloom.
The trail ends at an unusually modern Swiss-type cottage, with solar lamps and a few trekkers camping there. A few trekkers come here for a grand view of the Kanchenjunga. It was cloudy that day, but they would wait. We boasted that we had seen the giant mountain that very morning and thereby generated much envy. There was lunch on the house, and the upper floor had a wooden floor where trekkers could open their sleeping mattresses and sleep. We rested for some time and made our way back to Hillay.
Return to Sombaray
The jeep driver was back in the afternoon to take us down right up to Sombaray, passing through Varshay on the way. We bid goodbye to Lal Singh with profuse thanks. Reaching Sombaray, a one-street town with its own bus depot, a converging point for several mountain routes, we set out to look for accommodation. We were advised to see a Ms Chhetri. She turned out to be quite an efficient, practical, but pleasant business woman who gave us a large room with a comfortable bed, bath and toilet and a balcony with a grand view of a valley. She arranged a nice dinner. I would have given her a job immediately if she were in Mumbai, but probably it would be she who would be hiring.
Looking for some medicine, I was directed to a shop which was a provision store run by a Marwari! His shop sold everything, grocery, provisions, medicines, stationary, school books… I asked him what we was doing there, in an unknown place, a thousand kilometres from his native Rajasthan and several thousand feet above sea level. He said he was 3rd generation. We walked down to the other end of Sombaray, there was a temple there, and a few regulars were assembling for the evening. We also sat there, aware of their gazes… and listened to their singing. It was an easy, peaceful feeling.
Next day, we were back at Jorthang junction and took a jeep to Darjeeling, as described in one of my previous blogs.* Thus, culminated one leg – Part 4 * – of our Sikkim tour, an eventful 2 days during which we were blessed with a viewing of the Kanchenjunga, we had a flutter and adventure at Varshay-Hillay, came across the Swiss Cottage in the middle of nowhere, and the services of the god-sent Lal Singh of Hillay, the efficient Ms Chhetri and the merchant from the ubiquitous Marwari clan at Sombaray.
* For Part-5 of five posts on an exciting and eventful journey to East India starting from Calcutta and ending in Darjeeling via Manas Tiger Park, Sikkim, Kanchenjunga, and Varshay-Hillay. see https://pravingandhino1.wordpress.com/2013/09/11/the-babu-of-darjeeling-pravin-gandhis-people-places-and-perceptions/
Pravin Gandhi, author, “One at a time – short stories to muse by”
Get it here: www.pravingandhi.com/one-at-a-time