Finding Shangri-La in Singalila – Part Four

Read part three here.

Day 4: Kalipokhri to Sandakphu (3636 m)

As per the plan, we embarked the Bolero a few minutes after the appointed time (for Pooja reported being slightly under the weather) and began our descent back towards Kaiyakata to reach the said haunt.

It was still dark when we set sail. A few miles into the valley, it lightened up by degrees, revealing at first a white-browed rosefinch, and soon after, a warbler of some spec gracing a rhodo tree. Farther in the cleft of the valley, a magnolia stood in suspended animation in peak blossom, frozen, as it were, at the moment of explosion into full bloom. It was now bright enough to see that it was yet another morning of unclear weather. In the backdrop the hills were not black but white in silhouette, and the greens were a faded wash. It was like we were viewing the whole landscape through a layer of frosted glass.

There is consensus among travellers that travel makes them more knowledgeable, empathetic, tolerant and richer for experience and memories. I will add a fifth benefit when you undertake a trip through Nature: humility.

While on one hand the myriad life forms, with the diversity of their existence and behaviour, illustrate the magnitude of the unknown, the peripherals, like the weather, hold a mirror to your insignificance in the scheme of things until you realise that while you may be peripheral to the universe, you’re dang central to the lesson in progress: we may have succeeded in manipulating Nature to render our surroundings more suited to our habitation and the pursuit of our chosen vocations, we may have neutralised cold with centralised heating, heat with air-conditioning, and storms with robust shelters, but manifesting what we want in Nature without manipulating it remains beyond our ability. 

These thoughts were interrupted with a jolt as Batsa shouted ‘Tragopan!’ The remotest parts of my brain, including the contemplative part as well as the various levels of my conscious mind, were all on like a light as Martin braked to stop dead in our tracks. A female Satyr tragopan darted across the road into the forested hill on the right, leaving me with eight blurry frames. 

The least blurry of the eight frames I managed of the female Satyr tragopan before she disappeared.

Exchanging triumphant looks and exclamations of glee in hushed voices, we rolled down the slope without rousing the engine to see if the male would appear in tow, for it is him we wanted to see with the most ardour, his wild colouration being the motivator of such apparently brazen sexism. It wasn’t to be.

April was when female Satyrs, having mated already, attended to their nesting needs, so males didn’t have an incentive to throw caution to the wind and suffer that horror of horrors for them – a public appearance – in the pursuit of passing on their genes.

Deciding to drive on a bit further before tracing our way back up by foot, we resumed to find a stripe-throated yuhina and then a fire-tailed sunbird. And then the bird I had been dreaming of. 

Having spotted the white-browed fulvetta on a bush to our left, we got off the car to get close to it, and it stayed, and stayed, giving us ample opportunity to partake of that which we sought to savour: adorable looks packed in a bundle of explosive energy. 

Matching the spring colour of the leaves of its substrate, its orange, brown and white feathers made merry tandav over our visual receptors. 

This sensory overload was to be closely followed by an encounter with a particularly cooperative bar-throated siva (chestnut-tailed minla), replete with an immaculate coiffure and hoary throat.

More of a diva than a siva, it showed itself off in no fewer than three angles and moved on only after being convinced that we did solemnly acknowledge that it looked dapper in all of them.

It was about now that all heaven broke loose, and a flurry of avian activity was unleashed in our immediate neighbourhood.

The first to appear on this episode of ‘Good morning, Singalila’ was a rufous-gorgeted flycatcher. This was followed close on its metatarsus by a certain rufous-winged fulvetta:

A rufous-vented tit then crowned the apex of a rhodo bush, while a green-tailed sunbird enlivened a dead tree. Then, a white-browed fulvetta with its lips sealed, for in its beak was contained the precious courier of nest material. 

The gentle family and romantic comedy sections having been completed, the drama segment rolled, as a Darjeeling woodpecker landed on a tall dry tree and pecked away with winsome vigour but a rival soon arrived. After a sortie in a flash, one of them prevailed while the other retreated to unseen skies. 

Soon after, a hoary-throated barwing answered its roll call. Striking some handsome poses as a part of its first act, feigning innocence of its charm as it perched disingenuously. And as if to oversee all the fair conduct of all these proceedings and to call time on them with a sprinkling of invisible flowers from high up the air was a Himalayan griffon. 

With more than half the distance back to Kalipokhri already traversed, we decided to continue walking the rest of the way. By and by we reached the crest of the road that overlooked the valley from which we had seen the female Satyr surprise our bleary eyes earlier in the morning. Moved by the beauty of the place, we sat down, our legs dangling over the cuboid rocks of the cliff. 

Within seconds, we heard it: the unmistakable childlike wail of the male Satyr, issuing from the navel of the forest, relayed through its network of branches into the theatre of time. 

When one hears the presence of that for which one yearns, the intensification of the desire to meet it with the eyes is matched with the satisfaction of gaining cognisance of its presence. It is more than a solace; a sort of surrogate fulfilment; a teasing assurance.

Now, you can cry and bemoan the distance that separates you from the object of your pursuit, or exult at the bridging of it through the cord of sound. All physical contact, at the end, is sensory, and isn’t there as deep a contact when the air, disturbed by the vibrations of a bird’s vocals, conducts the waves to your ears, as when the photons that were incident on your object slam your pupils?

In that moment I realised that understanding this – not as a consolatory apologetic trope and a ‘loser’s excuse’, but as an existential truth – was at the centre of contentment beyond petty gratification.

When after breakfast later that morning, our driver was late, we asked this part-time pigeon if he’d take up a flash assignment on a fiver, and he agreed on the condition that he’d drive facing backwards, for that’s how he was comfortable and even obtained his licence. We were at first apprehensive, but having no choice, consented, but a few seconds into the agreement we ran into a hitch: no matter which way he sat on the steering, he couldn’t get it to turn, because he was used to a set of automated instruments and this vehicle was too retro, or so he said, and eventually we figured out that at this rate the vehicle wouldn’t take off, but after a brief while the freelance driver sure did, leaving us to walk all the way!

At the distinctly Wuthering Heights-esque cottage, we hung around until an ‘England Rover’ completed the Gothic scene, moments after meeting ‘Sandakphu Sherpa’. 

Reaching the Kalipokhri lake we found the conditions less forbidding than the previous afternoon, but still there was only precious little time to record another Padayaatre video before the prowling wind came round to conceal the colourful flags fluttering under its charge with shrouds of white over the ripples in the water that touched the eyes like wrinkles on the face of an old person touch the lips. 

But soon after, with the mist thickening to theatrical levels, we found ourselves in a bowl of not soup but yoghurt, and with the danger of not being able to see our own palm held to our face, we slowly retraced our steps to retreat to the relatively warm confines of Pandim Lodge to pack our bags for our final ascent to peak Singalila.

At checkout we were seen off by the kitten from the previous day being very toasty, and the canine letting his fur flag in the breeze.

Hurtling up towards Sandakphu was like flying through a thick mass of clouds after landing. The marginal visibility of the road ahead was terrifying in its seductive peril, fully benefactorous of the feeling of not knowing where we’re going. 

When after the ascent we reached the premises of Sherpa Chalet, enthusiastically described by S as “[the] best possible accommodation in Sandakphu with attached toilet and mountain view,” orientation was absent.

We were in a desert of mist.

Sherpa Chalet. Picture by Sourabha.

Thoughts of the Sleeping Buddha had themselves fallen asleep, long since buried under several sheets of deviant destiny – a phenomenon that nary a human can escape despite their most earnest pinings. Desolation haunted the mind. The spring of the step was frozen by the peak winter of circumstance. Hope as a string stood frayed by the weight of the dead stones it pieced together, the resulting jigsaw cutting through the dreams into shards of disappointment which now stabbed the heart with their biting edge.

Alas, philosophy and foresight are luxuries of the successful. The purveyors of loss are condemned to sweeping their feelings off the floor to pick up the pieces of their dreams, and glue them back with the adhesive of retrospect. Shouldhaves and couldhaves add the requisite salt, but the dish is cold and bitter. Hindsight is an uncomfortable chair in which to sit. 

To face the internal rant and rhetoric of a smarter course of action is to no avail. If only I knew then what I do now – not to visit the Eastern Himalaya in April expectant of mountain views! The naivete of which such an undertaking smacked smote my face through the woollen buff. The follies of ignorance are hard to bear when a waft of knowledge illuminates its stench. 

But if it’s true that anything of value is to be earned, earning implies a price in the way of effort, of travail, of overcoming, of penance. This was the penance the Sleeping Buddha demanded of us now. If desire cannot be dropped altogether, as the Buddha would espouse, its object at the very least must be dangled at a height that asks of the pursuer a rigorous pursuit in the process of which he is transformed. 

A dog may not be transformed so when a bone is dangled out of reach, but a man can change and tire of his troubles, and ergo, begin to look at it as inconsequential to his happiness. What is spirituality if not the alchemy of adversity into freedom?

Pooja looked foul with the times. Moods swung. Eyes escaped contact. Outside, the wind howled with pain as we set out for a short walk after lunch. I aimlessly made for a footpath to look for birds, meeting at its end instead the futility of litter and human refuse. I stood in the direction of the Kanchenjunga from the entrance of Sherpa Chalet, and drew its silhouette in the air. Its shape became a rock in the heart chafing its walls, lending it heavy. 

We tried valiantly to be game, but were trounced by the rules of the sport.

It’s just that success is intolerant of effort in isolation. Mere desire is no move for the pagan god of success. To only try, with no matter how pure a will, is ill-enough. One must do what works instead. It is a concerted, visionary, planned and consequential effort success demands, and even then she may elude devotion unless it is married with its fair beau, dumb luck.

All sorts of pictures of Sandakphu graced the walls of the dining hall of the Sherpa Chalet as we sat down to get through the evening, ensheathed from head to toe. There was a picture of a group of cyclists with the Kanchenjunga in the background; an annotated infographic detailing all the peaks in the range; a stunning picture of a Land Rover parked in picturesque elegance before the great mountain. All around, reminders of what we were missing ricocheted off our minds like visual echoes. 

When the means at our regular disposal exhaust their utility or produce the sour fruit of failure, we seek the deployment of a miracle in the dispatch of our grants, and it is this which we now sought to dispel the gloom in that little restaurant as, too full from the evening snacks, we skipped supper. With Pooja having retired an hour before citing indisposition, and Archana and Sourabha absorbed in a cerebral intercourse, I found my state of consciousness entirely superfluous, and accordingly retreated to the room endeavouring to extinguish it for the day.

There, under several layers of blankets hugging the hot-water pack while still in the outdoor down jacket, the vigorous activity of shivering to the one-degree cold ensured I was out like a light.

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