Finding Shangri-La in Singalila – Part Three

Read part two here.

Day 3: Tumling to Kalipokhri (3186 m) via Garibans (2621 m)

From the depths of my beddings I forced away the hot-water pack that had kept me warm and cosy all night, and extricated myself out of bed. Bleary-eyed, I parted the curtains anxiously, hoping for the best but prepared for the worst. The vehicles and other inanimate objects outside the window were in clear view. Encouraged but still apprehensive, for the mists of the mind are harder to clear than those on the ground, I craned my neck and turned my attention to the sky. A faint blush of colour peeked back at me like the light at the end of a tunnel.

Nearly blinded from joy, I readied myself at a terrific pace, also awakening the ladies so we could set out together. Finally, the morning had arrived, after all, when I’d see the Kanchenjunga range! 

The whole world seemed now to hold its breath for its maiden view of the sun in several days. But first there were to be some invocative performances.

Sooner than the strike of a matchstick to light a stove burner, we were out on the ridge road, by the rhodo tree right at the junction. The sky was mostly clear, with the few fraying tufts of clouds about to dissipate as well, but in my mind it was clean as a new slate! 

View eastward on the ridge road, moments before a much-awaited sunrise 

Excitedly I walked a little further up, past the Tumling Monastery. I was quite ready to see the Sleeping Buddha, but he wasn’t ready for me. There was no sign of him anywhere on the horizon.

I cleared my eyes and pointed my binoculars. I looked left and looked right. Then I looked at Batsa. He shrugged.

I was about to be seized by despair when a persistent call issued from the rhodo tree a few yards away. Conducting ourselves to it, we found an olive-backed pipit, singing to his heart’s content, his feathers dishevelled and bristled up in the chill. Framing him through the gaps in the pre-bloom buds I managed a couple of blue-hour images that I was pleased with. Not far away, a green-backed tit sat beautifully out in the open, as though egging the sun on to come melt its egg yolk-coloured breast, amid a flourish of rhodo flowers. 

As I was espying a common stonechat skulking in the shadows, I noticed attention being lavished upon a dry tree by half-a-dozen photographers. Commuting the short distance to the spot, I found to my glee not one but two fire-tailed myzornises flexing their show muscles to one and all from their high perch. Climbing onto a propitiously placed mound of earth, I was able to neutralise the angle to some degree and obtain acceptable portraits. For a species that I wasn’t even hoping for at this altitude (2970 m), the duo gave us a full nine minutes, an event a birder is bound to consider a luxury anywhere.

Meanwhile, the event for which we were actually hoping had indeed taken place – a glorious and golden sunrise that dispelled all the murk and gloom of the previous two days. The touch of the sun’s rays on the cheek, which we had so craved, was now more soothing than a brush of silk, and the sight of their aureate threads, sweeter than that of a stack of gold bars. A fire had been lit in the heart and its light dispelled the mind of all its ills and flooded it with rushes of pleasure. There was still no sign of the highest mountain partly in India, but never mind, I thought, it’s still early, both in the day and on the trip. 

In these supersaturated environs just then we noticed, a few degrees to the right of the hill behind which the sun was mounting his advance, a bunch of yellow-billed blue magpies, perhaps the same ones I had seen under entirely different light conditions the previous morning as you might recall, on their usual morning routine, but this time, perched on open stumps of a fence before flying across our line of view towards where we had seen the myzornises. 

A couple of them took off leaving me a bystander, just like the GoAir flight in Bengaluru recently, but unlike the hapless passengers of that trigger-happy flight, I had a third and fourth chance, so that eventually I managed to get on the plane of bird-in-flight shots, make it stick and cut the mustard to produce for my posterity a quantity of welcome backlit images of the magpies on the wing:

Energised by this beatification, we carried on towards the Tumling checkpost with what felt like a new heart driving a new pair of legs. The valley to our right, studded with rhododendrons and magnolias, looked magnificent caressed by the virginal light. 

Soon we found a black-faced laughingthrush foraging in the leaf litter, but it momentarily assumed higher ground, when I snapped up this portrait:

At the next curve, a hoary-throated barwing was in a catatonic calling-frenzy. What invisible intruder he had seen we couldn’t tell, but he seemed determined to banish him to eternal exile with his vehement protestation. All this fuss was a blessing for us, though, as we watched him for several minutes on end, although pictures in the clear were hard to come by, courtesy of the nature of the substrate he had occupied.

A short distance on, beyond a pink rhodo tree in full bloom (which is an asinine marker, because that descriptor could be used for virtually every other tree in Singalila at the time), the buildings around the Tumling checkpost came into view. How I had thirsted for such visibility!

But when we reached the watchtower just shy of the checkpost and shed several layers of woollens in abeyance to the quickly-soaring sun, the dispiriting realisation, the rise of which was hitherto checked by the avian activity, returned to haunt me: there had still been no sign whatsoever of the Sleeping Buddha.

I looked at the scene, and it was quite astonishing. The weather seemed ‘clear’, I thought I could see the horizon for kilometres on end, and there was no fog, mist or cloud for now. And yet, the horizon was empty of the monolith that crowns it. 

It was like the world’s third-highest mountain had been abducted overnight.

‘Immaculately clear’ weather, but where’s Kanchenjunga?

It was then that I realised that clarity was not a binary concept. Nor was it objective. And the measurement of it wasn’t even reliable or straightforward. When our ability to see through the haze is limited, we in our infinite innocence assume the haze to be the clarity we seek. In near-sight, everything appears clear. It is only when there is a greater purpose; a more distant goal that demands a more incisive clarity, that we awake to our folly, the shortfall becomes evident, and a veil is lifted off our illusions. 

We started the walk back to Tumling as these thoughts filled my mind and I marvelled at the maya of it all. It may have been spring in Singalila, but my mind was in the height of winter.

Once again it was the birds that broke my brooding, as first a spotted nutcracker, large as a crow, flew across the field of view, refusing pictures. Then we found a verditer flycatcher perched beautifully. 

A chestnut-bellied nuthatch made an appearance. Soon, a number of red-throated thrushes came into view, and I fell to stalking them, belly-to-ground, elbowing my way closer, staying as low to the ground as possible. One allowed me as far as to get this crummy shot, but would tolerate me no closer. 

I didn’t concern myself unduly over all the dew I had soaked in in the process, for after all, the sun was high and handsome this morning so I was sure the clothes would dry soon.

Apparently I was yet to learn my lesson, for this too, turned out to be in the realms of maya, as before our very eyes, a swarm of clouds commenced its journey from an unseen source in the valley, onwards and upwards towards us. It came from the west at the rate of knots, and even as I was still hoping that it was a passing nuisance, it had enveloped us and sealed itself, addressing the package to postbox number nothing. 

The clouds building up. Moments later they enveloped us – and everything in sight – with staggering completeness.

But spoilsport clouds or not, there was no getting away from one thing: the sheer bliss of walking through the silence of the Himalayan mountains, surrounded by the fullness and balance of life and the sense of wellness brought about by the senses pampered by purity.

Then all too soon, it was time to check out of Shikhar Lodge. Finishing our breakfast, we packed our bags and were at the gate for the customary group picture by 10:10 a.m., for our transfer to Kalipokhri.

A vintage Landie at the Tumling check post en route to Kalipokhri. A relic of the British Raj, over 40 of these have survived from the 40s and 50s, when the cars the Brits had brought in for use on the Darjeeling tea plantations got sold or left behind in the area, only to be deployed for duty on these treacherous slopes. There is even a Land Rover Owners’ Welfare Association here. The government wants these senior beauties retired, likely due to emission as well as safety concerns, but the owners are steadfastly opposed, insisting that these are the most rugged time-tested vehicles for this terrain. 

Soon we had completed the entry formalities at the Tumling check post, and for some distance, we decided to get off our vehicle and walk, looking carefully for birds on a beautiful stretch of road:

This now was red panda territory.

The forests here were chiefly oak, magnolia, maple, sorbus, rhododendrons and bamboo, and as we hopped back onto the Bolero and gently descended into Garibans over seven kilometres, the mixed broadleaf and subalpine coniferous forests of Tumling gave way to the uniform magnificence of evergreen oak forests in dense cohesion, to the degree that when the GTA (Gorkhaland Territorial Administration)-operated Garibans Trekkers Hut came into view, I let out a gasp and quite swooned in delight. 

Scarcely could a better example be summoned from the powers of imagination to illustrate the idea of a ‘house in the hills’ than this piece of fairytalery. Tucked into the lap of a hill packed densely with quintessential Eastern Himalayan verdure, it stood like a giant enticing fruit in a cloud forest. 

That we’d be taking a break here was the best thing I had heard all morning and made my heart do a little jig, so we shuffled off the vehicle and walked the little path that leads up to it, flanked by firs and bamboos, looking up at the conifers arranged like spectators watching on from the tiered levels of an amphitheatre.

My heart ached from the beauty, and as the kitchen staff made tea, we had already slaked our thirst from the well of bliss. 

Meanwhile, Batsa conducted us to one side of the dining hall entrance, where leftovers are offered to attract birds, and instructed us to wedge ourselves in a natural bunker formed by the precincts of the lower cottage. 

Doing as advised, we were soon visited by a yellow-billed blue magpie, but the cream of the treat followed a few moments later, in the way of a pair of spotted laughingthrushes!

Having seen the species a couple of days before but not having been able to photograph it, I now let it rip and made a few low-angle portraits, using the foreground blur to impart abstraction.

All too soon, after sipping our tea while sheltering from the drizzle, it was time for us to depart this paradisiacal place. I dearly wished we’d had the chance to spend more time here as I reluctantly sat back in the vehicle.

Prior to our departure I made a parting panorama of the surrounding forest, which looked decidedly enchanted:

Little did I know that the wish would come true in the most unexpected of ways, but even then would slip away from our grasp before we had made so much as a fist of it.

Continuing our journey to Kalipokhri, our next stop on the way was at Kaiyakata, where a little dwelling called Habre’s Nest (Habre is red panda in Nepalese) is one of the places in which you can anchor yourself while browsing for the firefox.

Walking to the back of the lodge via a cowshed, we at once noticed a Himalayan thrush warming a log on the ground. Conveniently enough there was a flight of stairs leading down to the vicinity of it. As I slipped down with all the quiet deftness I could muster and managed a couple of mug shots of it, I noticed quite to my delight another individual, perched even more prettily, amid a litter of fallen rhododendrons making a mosaic of pink and green!

This led to Sourabha later writing this beautiful poem, the 62nd in what we call ‘101 Poems’, a poetry series on Himalayan birds by the wife:

the log pulsated with wait
and then, a thrush’s touch
its soft weight
the contained thrill of it all
if all of Earth was once nothing more than a swirl of dust
how much and how long has it awaited this stillness
speckled by rhodo 
this log, the thrush, the grass
consecrated by this one moment, scripting a story
this same mote of dust also put this heart in your ribcage
this tremble of soft meat beneath a hard shell”

– Sourabha Rao

Once the bird had flown, and I mean not just allegorically, I awoke to the realisation that the tree under which I stood was a perfect location to record our first Padayaatre video of the trip!

So I beckoned to Sourabha to hasten her transfer to my current location, and that having been done, we proceeded to record Nimma Daarige Bakulavittu by Anand Rigvedi:

We had resumed our journey for a brief while when Batsa brought us to a halt. He had seen a flock of the famously, impossibly adorable black-throated parrotbills. Fortunately, the sudden stoppage did not spook away the birds, and with a little patience and a little fieldcraft, we were able to catch up to them as they hustled through the bamboos, busying themselves with the primary task of feeding their tiny bodies.

Not far away, atop the crown of a broad-leafed tree sat an ashy-throated warbler briefly, its throat hoary with pollen, even as a fire-tailed sunbird hovered nearby. 

We didn’t stop again until we reached the rim of the Kalipokhri, a small lake strung with prayer flags, and then drove past a monastic road leading to an archway, by forbidding cottages to reach the small settlement, and pulled up in front of Pandim Lodge, a two-toned building painted cyan with brown square windows at the ground level, and indigo with white rectangular-long windows on the first floor. The most adorable pomeranian I had ever seen adorned the short trio of steps leading to the entrance.

The sacred Kalipokhri Lake

Bundling ourselves into the lodgings, we realised that the rooms were on the first floor and the ground floor was composed mostly of the kitchen adjacent, via a food-cum-bar counter, to a cosy-little restaurant furnished with wooden tables and benches, copper jugs and ashtrays, a boiler and fireplace, and a cuddly kitten – a welcome bundle of warmth in the frost.

Batsa told me that he knew of a stretch of ridge road frequented by Satyr tragopans, and the plan for the next morning would be to drive there first thing to scour for them.

By duskfall the dining hall just below our rooms became bustling with business as a large group seemed to have checked in. Repairing to it for dinner we found a band of trekkers, comprising women, men as well as folks gravitating towards elderliness, keeping the hall warm with their energy and spirits. 

Exchanging notes, experiences and pleasantries, we coalesced with the group, and spent the rest of the evening leading up to dinner karaoking and dancing to Hindi songs with them. In that little hut the bonhomie between strangers reminded us again of the commonality of our shared differences, and the simple pleasures, as Matthew McConnaughey’s son recently pointed out with such charming pithiness when he was asked what he’d like to do in life.

“Meeting new people and doing cool things,” was his response.

Read part four here.

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