Notes from a Mountain Hamlet Part 1

23 February 2013
“We are building a Church.” Joseph Lepcha said and shook my hand. “Sorry I hope you didn’t have to wait for too long!” he continued. I dismissed his apprehension. I stood in the small living room and was trying to make sense of the place which was going to be my home for the next five days. I saw circumspection and curiosity on the flawless faces of the my hosts: the Lepchas.

Joesph Lepcha
Joesph Lepcha and Kaaley

Joseph ushered me to my room. It was on the mezzanine floor. The wooden stairs moaned as I hauled my Lowepro and the duffel bag that carried my clothes.

It was a wooden house, best suited for the cold weather. And, of course earthquakes; the Himalayas are prone to them I was told.

Joseph was a little shocked when I told him “I am a vegetarian.”

“What will you eat for lunch?” He said. It was more of an expression of shock than a question.

“Nothing Joseph. I was up all night on the train. I think I will crash for a little while.”

He processed that statement for a bit and said, “You speak in English. I speak Hindi. Okay?”

I nodded my approval of that idea but I was not too sure, for my Hindi too, is pretty basic.

“You can go back to building your church Joseph. We can go birding tomorrow.” I said. Joseph seemed happy at that suggestion.

View from the Lepcha’s balcony

After he left, I stepped into the balcony. The wooden planks creaked under my weight. I stared into the mountains and at the Neora Valley national park. The air was thin, and cold. It was around two in the afternoon but it was cold. Cold for me at least. The Yellow and Green Gorkhaland flag on Joseph’s balcony fluttered as a mountain breeze gushed in to welcome me. Down on the corner, a poster on the wall petitioned the government for a separate state.

Lava, a mountain hamlet, is situated 34 km from Darjeeling. At 7000 plus feet, the place is cold. And, it is one of the few places in West Bengal that gets snowfall. I don’t know why that is significant, but yes, that’s what I have been told.

View of Lava

Unlike Darjeeling or even Kalimpong, Lava has yet to be invaded by the tourist. It is only a matter of time before that happens anyway. I digress. The reason why I chose Lava as my base was because it is the gateway to Neora Valley National Park, a key hot-spot for avifauna and also for the endangered Red Panda and the Himalayan Black Bear. I could have stayed in Kalimpong which has many hotels and homestays. I chose Lava as I was on a budget; commuting between Kalimpong and the Park meant a lot of money spent on cabs. As an unemployed man who claims to chase a dream, I could ill-afford to burn money on cabs and other such luxuries. So here I was, with Joesph Lepcha who graciously agreed to host me and be my guide for the trip.

NOTE: Some landscape & people pictures were shot with my mobile phone. Please bear with the quality.

When I woke up I was a little disoriented. It was very cold. I climbed down. It was seven in the evening, which meant that I had slept for more than four hours.

“Would you like some hot water to wash your face?” Joseph said.
I laughed it off. We all try to be to be macho men, in the wrong contexts. When I splashed the water on my face it was like crashing into a thick wall of ice. I recoiled and groaned. I heard Joseph chuckle outside.

I walked out into the village square. A clock-tower stood in the middle, surrounded by a few restaurants and a couple of lodges. Most of them were shut. The tourist season started only in March. I walked into a restaurant. A massive, panoramic photograph of Lhasa stared at me from a wall. I had a couple of Vodkas and went back to the Lepcha home. By eight, Lava shut down. It made sense in the cold weather.

Dal, Potato fry, and steamed rice greeted me at the dining table. Mrs. Lepcha was anxious I think. I complimented her for the food. Ashis, Joseph’s 19 year old son went and sat on a separate table. I waved him to my table.

“I am eating mutton Suman sir!” He said.
“I don’t eat meat but I don’t mind looking at it.” I said.

After listening to Ashis play some Nepali tunes on the guitar, I retired for the day, again.

I wasn’t sure what Neora Valley had in store for me, but going by what I’d seen in Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary in the morning, I knew that most of the birds were going to be lifers for me.

I had reached New Jalpaiguri (NJP) at an ungodly hour. At around three in the morning. And my cab was scheduled to pick me up at only five. I’d spent the whole night on the train, writing a story idea and I was struggling to send it to the director, for the phone refused to connect to the inter-webs. Somehow in NJP, the phone-gods decided to take it easy. All of this meant I couldn’t sneak a power-nap in. And that’s how I hit Mahananda WLS. Sleep-deprived, bleary eyed, and tired. But, the excitement of a new jungle kept me up. I have traveled in the jungles of southern India, especially in the Western Ghats, but the Eastern Himalayan subalpine conifer forests were vastly different. In terms of habitat and as I had hinted elsewhere, also in terms of fauna.

As Deb, my guide, and I started birding in the foothills, I realised that I was in a very special place. Maroon Oriole, Green-billed Malkoha, Black-hooded Oriole, Necklaced Laughingthrush, Lesser Racket-tailed Drongo were some of the highlights of the morning. It was a breath-taking couple of hours. Going by it, Neora Valley sure looked like it had lots in store.

Here are some pictures from Mahananda WLS:

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I drifted off to sleep after setting the alarm for five in the morning. I dreamt of being chased by a Himalayan Black Bear, while a Red Panda laughed at me from the canopy.


24 Feb 2013, Reshet
Even domestic animals look very special in the mountains. I don’t know if it is the weather, fur, or friendly demeanour, but they all– dogs, goats, and cows– looked distinct and a little removed from their respective cousins in the plains. An old woodcutter paused in his stride and smiled. He was hauling wood and I was concerned that his neck was going to snap any moment by the sheer weight of his produce.
The day had started at six for me. I forgot about the cold as soon as we spotted a Darjeeling woodpecker and a Golden fronted Barbet. The plan was to hike up to a shepherd’s house, where Jospeh was planning to cook Maggi.

The bird life was stunning. Yuhinas, Fulvettas, Redstarts, Barwings, Sibias, Finches, Sunbirds…. all unique to this ecosystem, made it a surreal morning for me. Almost all of them were lifers for me. But my target species remained elusive. Satyr Tragopan and Ward’s Trogon.

We hiked through the winding path and by the time we reached the Goatherd’s hut, I had managed to sweat despite the chilly weather.

The lady of the house, Mrs. Goatherd welcomed Joseph. They spoke in Nepali for a while and she left.
“She is going to her mother’s place. Just around the bend.” Joseph said.

The Goatherd’s dog demanded that I pet her. While the dog and I struck up a conversation, Joseph disappeared into the hut to make Maggi.

That was probably the best Maggi I have ever tasted.

Half way through the meal I paused to admire the hut and the minimalist life they lead.
“Goats, dogs… I am sure there are Leopards around here?” I asked Joseph.

He laughed.

“This morning, around three, a Leopard tried to steal a goat from her mother’s place but people woke up and chased the cat away. They’ll eat mutton today.” The wind picked up and rattled the hut’s thatched walls.

“You mean today?” I said, dumbstruck.

“Do you want another Maggi?” Joseph said.


25 Feb 2013, Rishap

There a few things that will make even an arrogant, ignorant fool like me, feel very small. Very few things. The ocean for one does that to me. I have stood in Elliot’s beach in Chennai and gazed into the sea, as waves crashed and stole the sand from under my feet. And every time I thought the same thing: we are so inconsequential! I was aware of how nature can humble us, but nothing prepared me for what was in store in Rishap.

As the Marutiy Gypsy swerved into a bend, Joseph said “You can get good views of Kanchenjunga in this trail.”

And, I looked to my left. And there it was, the Kanchenjunga massif. That was like finding Batman at your door. Nothing prepares you for it. I started getting animated and Jospeh said “Wait wait! Where we are headed, it is Ekdum aamne saamne!” My heart was racing.
It was the Chennai boy in me. Snow for me was proof that world can be wonderful. When I was a boy, I used to wait for the winter months in Chittoor (A.P.) Sometime in November the Coconut oil would freeze and that was such an amazing thing for me. That and fog. Years later, as an adult in Chennai, I used to go walking early in the morning, on the day after Diwali. The smog from all the crackers made Chennai look so beautiful. That was the closest I had gotten to cold weather situations. A few years later, I was traveling in the USA. We were on a road trip to DC and NYC. We reached DC on the X-mas eve of 2002. It snowed a little. Nothing great but it did snow. Somehow, I wasn’t thrilled. I just stood outside the closed Pakistani store and watched the snow fall, eating my Chinese take-away fried-rice. “USA, India, Pakistan, and China! Lennon stirred in his grave.” I thought. Snowfall in a city can never be overwhelming. At best, it can be irritating.

Coming back, here I was staring at one of the best spectacles in the world. On my right, a few hops away, was the Nathula pass. China. A little more to the right was Bhutan. The fact that I was on the very edge of India was lost on me , for facing me was the Kanchenjunga massif. It was a scarily clear morning. There were no clouds (except for one puff that hugged Kanchenjunga’s summit.) I stood there transfixed. She was majestic, sacred, and calm. She wore a resplendent light-orange sheen that morning. And it slowly started to make sense: why men risked life and limb and went to the mountains. The Britishers who stole Darjeeling from the king of Sikkim, I gather, started exploring these mountains from 1848. The people here revere Kanchenjunga. So I think ‘conquering’ her was out of the question. It is such a Western thing: to think that you set foot on a mountain peak to ‘conquer’ it.

Here are some pictures from RIshap:

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“Blue-fronted Red Start, male.” Joseph whispered and I came back.

A few tourists gathered to enjoy the magnificent view of Kanchenjunga. Sensing that the crowds meant no birding, Joseph said “Let us go to Tiffindara.” I asked him if it was far away and a steep climb. He paused just for a moment and said, “Don’t worry, it is easy.”
‘Piece of cake’ I thought.

I started panting and gasping for breath exactly five minutes later. Joseph laughed and said, “Why do you hurry all the time! Walk slow.”
It was a loaded statement. I don’t know why we rush. We are always on the run. Chasing silly goals to conform to social demands. We run from ourselves. This simple man, who can walk 50 km without taking a break, opened my eyes in a way.

We were about five hundred meters away from the Tiffindara summit, when something bolted in the woods. We froze. The hair on my neck stood erect. What if it were a Bear? My heart raced. And, a Muntjac popped out of the woods. It paused to look at us and jumped across into the other side. The Dhole, which were chasing it didn’t bother popping out.

We spent some time on the Tiffindara summit and called it a day.

That night I ate some curry made from homegrown spinach and shoots, with rice. Mrs. Lepcha is a fabulous cook. When you’re there, do eat at Joseph’s. They run a restaurant in the season.

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Reaching Lava

Nearest railhead: New Jalpaiguri (NJP)

Nearest airport: Bagdogra

From NJP or Bagdogra you get cabs. You need to negotiate. The price is usually around 2k for a vehicle like Sumo, but play it by the ear. If I were you I’d plan to reach NJP very early (before dawn), and do some birding in Mahananda WLS and then go to Lava. So convince the cab guy and work the cost out. It’s worth the trouble. Or you can contact Deb who lives in Siliguri. He is an eminent birder himself and he will help you with the details. You can write to him at sahadebapratim at gmail.

If you’re visiting Lava for birding, please hire Joesph Lepcha as your guide. He knows the forests like the back of his hand and is a keen birder himself. More than that, he is a wonderful human being: kind, considerate, and fun. Before you land in Lava, do speak to him (Nine Nine Three Two Zero 95242 is his number. I also created a mail id for him, try your luck with josephlepcha49/yahoo dot com). He charges a very nominal fee for being your guide. He will also help you with stay arrangements. Remember that Lava is a remote place so carry all essentials like first aid, cash (no ATMs there) etc. Also, carry warm clothing if you are visiting in winter or spring.

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