Finding Shangri-La in Singalila – Part One

“There! Is that it?” I asked, craning over Sourabha’s shoulder, hoping I had just seen Mount Everest.

A nebulous snowy spike rose far over the aerial horizon, piercing the endless expanse of cloud: like an iceberg over an Arctic mirage 12 kilometres above the sea. 

“Are you sure that’s even a mountain and not just another cloud?” she replied, binoculars in hand.

I squinted out the ovoid window through the haze from the seat we had purchased for just this moment. I couldn’t tell and the captain said nothing over the in-flight announcement. I took a picture with my SLR and tele lens. The LCD was just a haze. 

Moments later, the plane dove under the layer of clouds. And the plan had just fallen off a cliff.

That plan had begun taking shape some three months earlier, when I was choosing the destination for my next spring birding trip in the Himalaya, after the eventful self-drive trip to Chopta  the previous year. 

For there’s only one thing I like more than the combination of brownie and Americano, and no, it’s not TSI and DSG.

It’s the unmatchable allure of Himalayan mountains and birds that I can never pass up – not even for a plate of neer dosé and ghee roast; or paratha and pickle, if your northern palate is the more vulnerable.

There is something unutterably exciting about setting off in pursuit of small birds in the lap of big mountains. And this time, I was looking eastward.

Initially keen to visit Arunachal’s Mishmi Hills, which had remained on my wishlist for long, I was dissuaded from the choice after a friend apprised me of some ongoing disruption in the region. And then as I was mentally thumbing through my options, it hit me all of a sudden, like dopamine hitting a sweet-tooth at the first contact with a jalebi. And my mind interjected, Sandakphew

I had fed on a regular diet of Sandakphu drive reports on an automotive forum, Phalut trek reviews on Indiahikes, sunsets over a miles-across mattress of cotton-tuft clouds, red pandas on the forests of the Singalila ridge and even Land Rover’s film on the vintage Landies of Manebhanjan. Yet, it was only now that I pieced it all together. 

To have Everest on one side, and Kanchenjunga on the other? While fondling the sights of Satyr tragopans, blooming rhododendrons and comely red pandas? What infernal force stopped this from occurring to me before?

It wasn’t just a case of having our cake and eating it too. It was bingeing concurrently on a cinnamon brûlée, a raspberry pavlova, and a chai latte honey mousse. Singalila National Park was where we ought to go.

Sourabha seated by by the airplane window all set to see Everest.

I dialled up my friend S, who runs a company that operates both group and personalised tours, predominantly in the Northeast. I had last met him in Manas in 2019. 

Having been a professional tour leader myself (for wildlife photography) and at the receiving end of some ludicrous demands, I was careful to rein in my zeal and avoid sounding like a restaurant patron placing an order for a three-course meal, and instead pitched my desires like items on a wishlist whose realisation I would dearly relish.

“You’re planning for April?” asked S. There was a discomfiting pause, during which I thought my idea had landed on the wrong side of reason. 

“Why, it’s the perfect time!” he rejoined, shattering the ice. “As you’d know, the rhodos will be flowering, the birds will be breeding…” 

“…and the mountains will be towering?” I chimed in with hopeful nervousness. 

“Of course!” he exulted fulsomely, to my relief.

I told him I wanted to see Kanchenjunga and Everest as ardently as fulvettas and laughingthrushes. I could see my vision turn pink even as I uttered those sweet words in the same breath. 

He said it wouldn’t be a problem, as one clear morning was all we needed. 

That didn’t seem unrealistic over the course of a week in spring. In fact, it sounded most sanguine. Could spotting a mountain be more difficult than prying out tiny birds from the undergrowth? I mean, rain can wash away a molehill. But a mountain…

I looked up the weather, and although rain was forecast for around then, I found a week that was pegged to be clear. In any case, I thought, being in the hills in the Northeast in spring meant some rain was almost inevitable. But S’s words were the clincher: one clear morning is all we need.

Sourabha’s friends, Archana and Pooja (names changed), said they’d join too. So payments were made and bookings secured pronto. The plan was set. Even the cloud of covid had ceased casting a shadow on sparkling travel dreams. What could possibly go wrong? 

Meanwhile, it was still February, and to grease the agonising countdown to the trip (for the weight of a wait is the heaviest for the pining heart to lift), I began looking up material on Singalila. 

The first I found was a blog by my old photography-friend V. Krishnan, in which he chronicled visiting in November or December and enjoying magnificent mountain views, but concluding that spring would be way better for bird activity. This was reassuring. 

Less assuringly, though, I found another blog by a birding enthusiast from the UK, who had documented her struggles with rain throughout the duration of her trip in April. It seems even clear mornings in Singalila were beset by terribly whimsical afternoons.

But surely, that was then and this was now. In any case, even a sustained stint of rain couldn’t obscure the mountains forever, could it?

Little did I know that it wasn’t exactly rain I had to worry about, but something rather more subtle.

And that more often than not, in the Himalaya as in life, it’s the invisible force that stands in the way of the desired object.

Day 1: Bagdogra to Tumling (2970 m) via Manebhanjan (1928 m)

Landing at Bagdogra, we were first to be ferried to Manebhanjan (Maneybhanjyang), the land of the ancient Land Rovers, the gateway to Singalila and the last town accessible by a 2WD vehicle (unless you’re Sirish Chandran), from where we were to change over to a 4WD Bolero for our ascent to our first camp, Tumling. I’d have loved to use one of those legacy Land Rovers, but S had advised that Boleros were more robust and reliable.

In sharp contrast to the truant self-drive rental vehicle in Dehradun two years before, as readers of that account will probably recall, we found our cab promptly waiting for us at the arrival gate. If we thought that was half the battle won, we didn’t know the quarter of it.

For the mists of uncertainty were replaced this time by something far less allegorical: fog. Miles of it. Portentously plentiful. 

Cleaving through it all, Samson, our chauffeur, ferried our quartet in his white Scorpio steadily towards the mountains, past paddy fields, iron bridges and tea-estates.

Soon we reached Mirik for a stop at the Golpahar Viewpoint Tea Shop. Straddling a curve in the narrow road directly overlooking a tea estate, this unremarkable building was an oasis of cosiness bustling with tourist activity. 

After a quick lunch of Chinese cuisine in the basement-level restaurant, we surfaced to the tea bar. From behind a counter swarmed by patrons, a lady dispensed mint-fresh tea brewed apparently using leaves plucked literally from their backyard, in shapely glass cups that fully flaunted its enticing hue.

But while we sipped the precious warmth from the translucent beverage, the many trinkets on sale made a vivid landing before our ‘whitewashed’ eyes. Chief of these were the prettiest teapots, kettles and cups we had seen anywhere; apart from ornate hand mirrors, quaint combs and knives, little metal prayer-wheels in gold, silver and bronze finishes, and sundry other keepsakes.

It was already well past noon, and alarmed by the languorous ardour with which we were shopping for everything we didn’t need, Samson bade us hurry, for the check-post at Manebhanjan shuts to traffic at 14:00.  

We grabbed all we could in our bags already bursting at the seams with warm clothing. Then, it was off to the races.

Some 90 minutes later, a narrow street choked with Boleros and Land Rovers abruptly took us into its midst, and we knew we were there.

It wasn’t just misty now. It was raining.

Fighting the inertia imposed by the cold weather and my cosy chair, I stepped out of our Scorpio to meet my bird guide, Batsa Sherpa and the Bolero driver, Martin (names changed).

Pleasantries exchanged, Batsa ushered me pronto to complete the entry formalities with an official who sat on a metal chair under a metal roof that muttered from the drizzle. Meanwhile, Samson and Martin transferred all our baggage to the Bolero.

All done, we tucked ourselves in. With the three ladies sitting at the back, I slotted in between the two gents, where the captain seat should be. And off we went. 

“What’s with the weather?” I asked Batsa, where normally I’d have grilled him about the birding first.

“A mystery,” he declared. “Never seen this in the beginning of April. Been like this since yesterday. Let’s hope it improves.” 

But hope needs a little sunshine and space to spring, neither of which we had.

The very road before us was barely visible from my ringside perch, as Martin wiggled our laden steed up the twisties with the fluidity of a mid-swim serpent, marshalling the brute on those precipitous slopes with the nonchalance of a town traffic amble in an Alto.

Summarily I felt my choice of seat justified, as wedged cheek-by-jowl between two men, I was at least spared the ungainly yo-yo as we ascended, circuitously, ever higher towards the heavens.

With the mist and the clouds (which were now indistinguishable) lending the road a distinct feel of the ethereal, at any moment now I fully expected to fly past a god recumbent on a throne enjoying cloud-based services.

The god I really wanted to see, though, was the Sleeping Buddha, but of that there was not a question, when a glimpse of even the road culvert was a luxury. 

Some 30 minutes later, we slowed to a crawl, took a steep hairpin to the left descending to a rocky dirt-road, and noisily squeaked to a halt outside a stately-looking building on a steeply raked slope. We had reached Nepal.

Wait, where? 

Since the Singalila ridge marks the border between India to the east and Nepal to the west (left of the ridge road, as we climb up), and most or all of the lodges are on the left, we were to stay in Nepal throughout the trip!

Satkar Lodge, neighbor of our Shikhar Lodge, in the rain and mist

This sort of freedom to sleep in one country and walk in another, and insouciantly amble across the border with the impunity of a goosander, is a rare privilege in the subcontinent, and we felt fortunate to enjoy it.

The check-in to Shikhar Lodge was swift, and within minutes we were in a first-floor wood-cabin suite of two carpet-floored rooms connected by a meeting hall that contained a couple of diwans and chairs.

A tea-table stood by the only window that opened to the dirt road, framed by a frilled curtain adorned with a floral print.  

With the weather being unyielding, Batsa suggested we just dig our heels in for a bit and we shall see how things shape up. Accordingly we requested a round of tea, and as I walked to the end of the balcony to look at a rhododendron tree just behind the building in full bloom, I spotted a lifer: a white-collared blackbird brooding in the murky whiteness, perched perfectly for a portrait. 

Gulping back my excitement, I tiptoed backwards to the room to grab my camera and lens. But as happens unfailingly in these circumstances, the bird had left the perch when I returned. 

In the wild, especially in the forests of the Northeast, opportunity is a shooting star: if you’re not ready when it appears, you’re too late. 

Some two hours later, after idle chats and lunch had exhausted their utility, the weather had improved not a little. But with our itchy feet, usually impervious to reason and external circumstance, pressing their demand for expression, we dressed ourselves up to the follicles and stepped out.

A Bolero inscribed with a curious piece of local wisdom outside our lodge.

To say it was frosty was to put it warmly. Visibility was perhaps 30 metres. On the ridge road the first of countless Land Rovers we were going to see stood desolate, its tailgate ajar and boxy body capping undersized tyres.

The birds remained quiet and aloof, as though complying with an imposed curfew. The ponies shrank from the cold dampness. 

Walking about a bit, we found another Landie, its livery unsubtly evangelising a geopolitical demand. The ponies, having tried seeking its shelter and failed, seemed to have settled for just its company instead.

By and by, over the period of 30 minutes, we had covered as many metres, when a steadying drizzle warranted a duck for cover in the friendly neighbouring tea-shop that also served as a restaurant, bar and a social square for people to collectively do nothing, but infuse liquids of choice to keep warm and watch the rain. 

Soon, we returned to our lodge and repaired to the dining hall, waiting to be served some hot soup to exorcise the cold. There was a fireplace at the end of the hall, but it was so small that only three could sit huddled around it, so while the ladies chatted away merrily at its altar, I used the wafer-thin bandwidth to familiarise myself with the calls of some of the birds I hoped to see. 

The dining hall at Shikhar Lodge.

The lifers (birds I had never seen before) on my list looked like this, the number of exclamation marks being directly proportionate to the ardour with which I wanted to see them:

  • White-browed fulvetta!!!
  • Black-faced laughing thrush
  • Red-mantled rosefinch!!!
  • White-collard blackbird!
  • Golden-breasted fulvetta!
  • Red crossbill
  • Rufous-naped tit!!!
  • Satyr tragopan!!!
  • Orange-breasted green pigeon
  • Mountain imperial pigeon!!
  • Darjeeling Woodpecker!!
  • Short-billed minivet!!
  • White-bellied erpornis!!!
  • Rufous-breasted accentor!
  • Rosy pipit
  • White-winged grosbeak!!
  • Scarlet finch!
  • Beautiful rosefinch!
  • Dark-rumped rosefinch
  • Red-headed bullfinch
  • Red crossbill
  • Chestnut-eared bunting
  • Fulvous parrotbill!!!!!!
  • Grey-headed parrotbill!
  • Black-throated parrotbill!
  • Great parrotbill!
  • Mountain bulbul!!
  • Slaty-bellied tesia!!!
  • White-naped yuhina
  • Slender-billed scimitar babbler!!
  • White-browed scimitar babbler
  • Rufous-capped babbler
  • Rufous-throated fulvetta
  • Golden babbler!!!
  • Grey-sided laughing thrush
  • Red-billed leiothrix!!!
  • Blue-winged laughing thrush!!!
  • Rufous-necked laughing thrush!!
  • Goldcrest!!!
  • Rusty-flanked treecreeper
  • Sikkim treecreeper
  • Hodgson’s treecreeper
  • Ferruginous flycatcher!!
  • Pale blue flycatcher!!
  • White-gorgeted flycatcher!!
  • Taiga flycatcher!
  • Snowy-browed flycatcher
  • Sapphire flycatcher
  • Slaty-blue flycatcher
  • Slaty-backed flycatcher
  • Rufous-bellied niltava
  • White-browed shortwing
  • Rusty-bellied shortwing
  • Gould’s shortwing
  • Indian blue robin
  • Golden bush robin!!!
  • White-browed bush robin!
  • Blue-fronted robin!
  • Rufous-breasted bush robin
  • Little forktail
  • Black-backed forktail
  • Slaty-backed forktail
  • White-tailed rubythroat
  • Blue-capped redstart!!
  • White-throated redstart
  • Himalayan thrush
  • Long-billed thrush
  • Chestnut thrush
  • Black-throated thrush
  • Red-throated thrush
  • Scaly thrush
  • Purple cochoa!!
  • Scaly-breasted wren-babbler
  • Spotted nutcracker

I had put Sourabha and her friends to much torment on many a day on our WhatsApp group, by flooding it with pictures of many of these from the interwebs. So in the mist-net of my mind, I wanted to go about plucking sights of them beauties like low-hanging flowers from plants in the backyard, but having birded in the Northeast several times before (four times each in Kaziranga and Nameri Tiger Reserves, and once apiece in Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary and Manas Tiger Reserve), I knew better than to carry a sack of expectations, which would only serve to break my back. Instead, I had whittled the absolute must-haves to just two on either side of the rarity spectrum: the common enough white-browed fulvetta, whose cuteness had caused paralysis of mental function, and in the adoration of whom many a productive workday was lost; and the utterly outrageous Satyr tragopan, whose male was born to dominate not sight but the very psyche of man and woman.

Batsa walked in, and I discussed my wishlist, and despite the weather, his voice was encouraging. Many of these are possible, he said. It’s the flowering and breeding season after all. 

Only, the weather had shrunk the forest itself into a bud, vaulting all her riches in her bosom, away from the doting eye. Season’s greetings indeed!

“Tomorrow might be a better day,” I thought, as we retired for the night, optimism, after all, being the last refuge of the hopeless.

Read part two here.

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