Finding Shangri-La in Singalila – Part Five (and Last)

Read part four here.

Day 5: Sandakphu to Siliguri (140 m). Wait, where?

The road doesn’t go where man wants it to; man goes where the road takes him, and sometimes it’s not where he wishes to delve. And this is especially true in the Himalayan realms. 

Elsewhere it might be true that “man proposes; god disposes”, but here in the Himalaya it’s very much “man proposes; mountain disposes”. Gods don’t just reside in the mountains here. The gods are the mountains.

It was yet another apology for a morning when I awoke at 4:15. A roving whiteout. But when crazed with desperate hope, man thinks he can dig a pit with a spoon, if not his fingernails. After all, just the way if you go west enough you reach the east, in a circular world in which we live, surely, the extreme end of failure, hopelessness and despondency must lead to success, favour and happiness?

A turnaround is what I sought then, but a precipitate descent was what was in order, which I didn’t know yet. 

The weather that morning

With customary optimism and the blissful absence of any idea of the plan of action, I appeared outside the lodge, having got ready, at the pre-sunrise hour. The lodge staff seemed to have long forgotten the concept of sunrises, as the restaurant stayed stone-dead. And closed. I knocked once or twice, my gloves muffling the bangs. What I sought was a cup of coffee or tea to warm the cockles of my heart. I peered through the mirror-glass windows. But no soul stirred. Even Batsa had decidedly quit the idea of flying against the wind, swimming against the tide, and driving into a brick-wall repeatedly; and had taken a more rational course of action: staying in bed.

Sourabha, Archana and Pooja joined me in the portico to receive the bad news in good spirit. Except, Pooja was unamused. A bad mood first thing in the morning, no matter how dire a predicament in which one is mired, is unusual, so I looked at her. Her face was pale, and from the corner of my eye, thought I, the lips…what, bluish? But I dared not ask her about it. What if it were a lip colour? The stunning diversity of fashion and all. I kept my speculations to myself, thinking perhaps what plagued her was merely a lack of sleep. How wrong I was, was to be revealed in double-quick time.

It’s 5:23 a.m. and 3 degrees, and because we’re in the east, it’s already light. I look to my right, and what’s this? – I can see the sun – faint, orange, lukewarm. The clouds above it part, and it’s bright enough that I can see a discarded water-closet and other ‘hindware’ underneath a cluster of pine trees. Clear weather is coming. My heart leaps!

Just before the weather cleared.

I turn to the restaurant but there’s still no-one in sight, so I look to the west, where, on the crest atop the path that leads up from our lodge is another, Sunrise Hotel, aptly named. I remember the trek group telling us yesterday in Kalipokhri that this is where they’d be staying. 

Gathering the ladies, I scurry up the path to its entrance. The lobby is abuzz with activity. It’s only 6 a.m., but peppy Hindi music plays in the background on full blast, as the staff hustles to keep up with the guests’ requests. But there are only a few guests downstairs. Most of them are on the viewing deck, where right now the weather has lifted the curtains from upon the view for a few precious instants.

We’re in full flight headed for the staircase that leads up to the viewing deck, when I’m caught mid-stride by a staff member. “Where are you going? This is for guests only,” he says. “Get the manager’s permission to go up.”

I rush back to the lobby and ask for the manager. He takes a full three minutes to turn up, which feels more like three hours. I say to him, “We’re from Sherpa Chalet and want to go up to the viewing deck. May we, please?”

“Not for free,” he says. “It’ll cost you a few bucks.” 

Cash! Who has the cash? We all check our pockets. None of us has brought a dime!

“Good sir, do you accept UPI payments?”

“No, that’s a negative.”

“We haven’t any cash on us and by the time we fetch it from our lodge, the view will be gone.”

“Well, tough luck then.”

“But, sir…”

Just then a lodge guest chimes in. “What’s all this then? Do you need cash?”

I say yes. He pulls out a 200-rupee note and hands it to the manager. I can’t thank him enough. “Righto, off you go,” says the manager.

“Thank you so much! I’ll return your money pronto,” I say to the guest. He nods cordially.

We start up the stairs but Pooja isn’t up to it. I’ll stay here, she says. 

“What is it?” we ask. She can barely talk.

I ask Sourabha and Archana to go on ahead and I’ll join them soon.

We seat Pooja at a table and get her some hot water. A staff member turns up. Says garlic soup will be better and runs back to the kitchen to get some cooked.

There’s a doctor among the guests. They call for him. 

Doctor appears and asks for the symptoms. Pooja has difficulty breathing, a throbbing headache, fatigue. “By word,” he says. “Fetch the oximeter!” 

The oximeter is brought and put to use. It shows 45.

Forty-effing-five. I gulp. The garlic soup arrives.

Doctor pulls me aside. Says “She has AMS. Here, have her take these tablets,” and carries on. 

Pooja eats the soup. I give her the tablet and instruct her to take it right after eating. I tell her I’ll quickly go up for a view and return in a minute. 

I’m about to depart when a young man asks to speak to me and draws me aside. He introduces himself as an experienced trek leader, having seen numerous cases of acute mountain sickness, and volunteers his warning: “Trust me, an SPO2 reading of 45 is shocking. You ought to take her down immediately.”

“But we have another night here.”

“No way. That’ll be suicidal. Let alone a day; you don’t have an hour to waste.” 

“But the doctor said it’d be fine with these tablets…” 

“With all due respect, doctors know little about AMS,” says he. “In the mountains it’s the mountaineers you must listen to. It’d have been a different matter had she been on blood thinners in advance. It’s too late now. These tablets will do no good. You’ve got to lose altitude and lose it quickly. That’s the only way.”

“I see,” I say shell-shocked.

“Do the right thing before it’s too late,” he cautions ominously.

I walk up the stairs in a daze, forget to take even one picture of the view, and tell Sourabha and Archana we have to check out and decant forthwith to a lower elevation. Concerned over Pooja’s condition, they comply by descending betimes to ground level, where Batsa has finally appeared. We take his help to return the money we owed the samaritan immediately, and then ask the manager what we owe for the soup. To my utter amazement, he refuses to accept payment for it!

Thanking his gesture profusely, I discuss options with Batsa. Will descending to Kalipokhri be enough? No; probably not. Tumling is higher than Garibans, so that’s no good either. Garibans! We should go to Garibans (2621 m)!

This sounded like the perfect option. It would mean a loss of more than a thousand metres, which wasn’t insignificant. Remember how badly I wanted to stay a night there?

Little did I know that just when the road seemed to be going where we wanted, for once, there was to be an unseen hairpin in it to throw us off the circuit altogether.

Calls were made, and to our delight, two rooms were indeed available at the GTA Trekkers Hut! Although we wouldn’t be refunded the room charges at Sherpa Chalet, I was happy that we would be able to bird around the verdant forests of Garibans, which seemed a far better bet in the weather that would no doubt return to the unhelpful status quo very soon.

In less than half an hour, we were back out of the lodge, with our bags, and by then, Martin had been summoned. We bundled ourselves into the Bolero and commenced our descent forthwith.

A panorama I snapped up quickly with my phone from the balcony of Sherpa Chalet before we evacuated. 

The drive down was something of a revelation. It was the clearest morning we had seen yet on the trip, and no, there was no Sleeping Buddha lining the horizon, but we could see everything in our immediate vicinity we had missed last evening. As we passed by one precipitous hairpin after another, and from one sheer-drop corner to the next, it was exhilaratingly terrifying to realise how close we were to the void while driving in the whiteout. 

Asking Martin to stop by one of those turns, we got out to soak in the views drenched in mountain-silence for just a minute.

It will take something more than language to describe the beauty we now witnessed, even in these conditions held back by the haze. Reminder after reminder flooded my elevated emotions of what it is about the mountains in general and the king of the mountains, the Himalaya, the third pole, in particular, that is so mesmerising.

What is it that compels us to undertake these parlous journeys to the parapetless roof of the world, putting ourselves through risk of sickness and injury? Here lay the answer, unutterable, inarticulable. A favourite word from Sanskrit came to mind: achintya (a loose translation being ‘that which cannot be contemplated’). This could only be experienced, not even recalled to the present with its memory later. Speaking of it would cause it to cease, and taking pictures and videos was far, far from an effective tactic. It was there that moment, but the moment itself was slipping away.

It’s funny: when we live intensely, time becomes compressed, and the more you enjoy time, the faster it decays, and one is left to choose between prolonged misery and fleeting bliss. And there hangs the ultimate question: is joy more important or longevity? The Himalaya doesn’t let you choose, just as an electric current doesn’t ask you if it can pass through you. It just flows and shocks. You can insulate yourself for protection from it, but what is the use of such longevity that is not truncated by the joy of burning up fast?

Somewhere before Kaiyakata an unusual bird made an appearance: a black redstart. 

We then drove ceaselessly, for our focus now wasn’t on finding birds but reaching Garibans as quickly as possible to get relief for Pooja from the depredations of altitude that had beset her. We drove past our Pandim Lodge in Kalipokhri, now bathed in sun. We drove past Habre’s Nest where just the previous day we had enjoyed the sight of a Himalayan thrush under a rhodo tree, and after 90 minutes since we left Sandakphu, pulled into Garibans. 

By now the clouds had caught up with us as the glorious sun that blessed us with his touch in the upper reaches had now gone cold with the drop in altitude. 

Having a spot of breakfast and admitting Pooja to her room for a badly-needed rest, we fell to birding. 

The whole campus resonated to the calls of spotted laughingthrushes and white-browed fulvettas from the understorey, two of my favourite birds on the trip. Occasionally, yellow-billed blue magpies called from the forest slopes. We were in avian heaven.

The first bird we found on the walk was a Whistler’s warbler, an incredibly exciting lifer. Differentiated from the grey-crowned warbler, to which it is almost identical, by its dark charcoal-grey, rather than black, head stripes and more pronounced yellow wingbar. 

Soon, another terrific catch: a lemon-rumped warbler, differentiated from the ashy-throated, which as you may recall we had seen earlier, by the white belly rather than yellow.

We then took our front seats at the feeding station and soon enough, had a spotted laughingthrush attending to the offered meal on the ready, and this time I was able to make some nice closeups.

Another individual sat evocatively on a low branch in a tree nearby, awaiting its turn.


In the depression below us, we found what looked like a female dark-breasted rosefinch, although I’m not certain on this count, decorating a pine:

Moving a little lower, we were first treated to a member of the stunning species called the red-billed leiothrix. Flitting about as it was in a mossy tangle of dense bushes, the resulting images were certainly no patch on the immaculate portraits that are possible from a hide in Uttarakhand’s Sattal, but that sort of canned photography gives me infinitely less pleasure than thus finding a bird on our own without tricking it with what is effectively a bait. 

Then, venturing to the area behind the feeding station, we walked past a cowshed to be greeted by a wonderful session watching a green-tailed sunbird, who showed off his colours from many a self-flattering angle:

Next, we espied movement in the bamboo, and upon investigation, found it to be an incredibly adorable golden-breasted fulvetta:

Then the green-tailed sunbird, yet unfinished, put in another token appearance, this time the turmeric yellow of his belly deeper with a saffron blush, and the metallic teal of the crown above the rusty mantle shimmering like the shallow sea off a Mauritian beach. 

Continuing deeper on that path, we came upon a rocky wall that was overrun with moss, leaf litter and little flowering plants, attended by a bird that enjoys looking for grub in just this habitat, a rufous-breasted accentor.  What we thought was a passing flirtation turned out to be a rendezvous several minutes long, as it went about its business unfazed by our presence, which, to be fair, we let it hardly feel, by being extremely quiet and limiting movements to very slow and gradual ones. Eventually the accentor ended up quite close to us before we decided to move on:

Walking to the end of the path, where our footsteps were ensconced by giant ferns, I spotted a male chestnut-bellied rock thrush perched fairly in the open on a dry tree surrounded by bamboo. Slow and silent walking (some would call this stalking!) allowed us to get as close as this to make a portrait of reasonable appeal:

Little did I know then that this was the last new species of which I’d get a picture on the trip.

Turning around we completed the walk back to the trekkers hut, and at once checked on Pooja. We had hoped that the rest might’ve done her some good, and even thought, in our naive optimism, that she’d rise and enjoy a spot of birding after lunch, at least on the premises of our lodgings. But what we found when we knocked on her door was that she was nearly unable to even walk up to it and let us in, which was alarming. Speaking to her, it was clear that her condition even after more than two hours of being at the lower altitude of Garibans had virtually no improvement, and having no oximeter with us, we were unable to put a number to how scarce her blood oxygen was. 

There was only one thing to it: we had to take her further down to Manebhanjan to get her oxygenated. 

When one’s destiny is staring one in one’s face, if one is the kind that does not let go of a rope for one’s own good, one hangs on to it with stupid adamance, and the result is more trouble, fuss and inconvenience to all concerned.

This is precisely what now happened, as I thought we’d come back after consulting the doctor in Manebhanjan and getting Pooja oxygenated, to spend the night in Garibans and enjoy another birding session, hopefully in clearer weather, the next morning, which would also be the last. 

Accordingly, I instructed Martin not to load any of our bags (which, by the way, still lay in a packed state since we had fallen to birding as soon as reaching Garibans). Wasting no more time, we had a quick spot of lunch and drove to Manebhanjan in good time, via Tumling, Tonglu, Meghma and Chitrey, along the way informing the guard at the Tumling checkpoint that we would return in a bit.

The doctor’s clinic in Manebhanjan was in a recess off a road choked with parked vehicles. Navigating between an Alto and a Scorpio we reached the entrance to his door, took off our shoes as indicated, and entered. The clinic had a small reception hall, and beyond it, veiled by a door curtain, an equally small consultation room with a bed that doubled up as a dentist’s chair. 

The doctor was a young chap with long hair tied into a bun. He wore casual clothes and looked like a student working out his assignment time. Stocks of medicine lay stacked in unruly heaps and bundles on one side. On the other, there was a washbasin browned from use.  

Filled in on the situation, the first thing he did was check Pooja’s SPO2, and just then, our fate was sealed. It had barely risen, up to only 55. The doctor did a double-take at this, and rather incredulously, took a second reading, which turned out to be the same. Perhaps never having seen such a low reading in his short career, he regarded Pooja with a look that betrayed a concerned amazement. 

After checking her other vitals, his instructions were succinct and clear: get her oxygenated immediately. And don’t even think about taking her back up to a higher altitude for at least a day. 

My heart sank as the full import of this pronouncement was metabolised by my system. There being no oxygen tanks here, Pooja had to be taken to a hospital in Simana, over an hour away. This meant our time in Garibans was over already, as there’d be no way we could leave Pooja to recuperate in town while we headed back to Garibans. But that’s where our luggage lay.

“I told you to take your luggage already when we descended,” said Martin in a nudgy chide. I could hardly blame him for doing an ‘I told you so’.

Samson was called to fetch his Scorpio, and after a quick consultation, we decided that the girls would take Pooja to the hospital, while I would have to go to Garibans with Martin to retrieve the luggage. After regrouping, we’d spend the night in Siliguri. 

On our way back up, the heavens, which had been threatening even as we were on our way down from Garibans, erupted fully now, so that we were climbing the twisties of Tonglu and Tumling in a torrential downpour. 

It was nearly dark when we went past the Tumling check post, and as we approached one of those bridges en route to Garibans, Martin came to a sudden stop and at the exact same moment I saw it: a male Satyr tragopan stood by the roadside on our left at the base of the hill, half a second before he was about to disappear!

Still pouring precipitately, there was no light or let to take a picture, and nor would the crimson pheasant hang out his magnificent plumes for long enough for me to suit myself getting my camera in order. Accordingly, he made for it just a second after the sight, leaving a permanent impression on my eyes of his dotted red-breast and black-and-blue face as he glared back at us nonplussed, his cover blown by the rain that had contrived to conceal the sound of our vehicle from his sensitive ears. 

I looked at Martin elatedly, and said it was too bad the ladies missed it. “At least and at last you got him; a pittance for your troubles,” said Martin.

“Too late to be disappointed,” I joked.

It was still pouring hail when we picked up the luggage from Garibans, paid the administrator a pro-rata fee for our use of the rooms, and commenced the long drive back in darkness. 

Regrouping somewhere between Manebhanjan and Simana after Pooja had been oxygenated, we bade goodbye to Martin and I tucked into the Scorpio to descend further into Siliguri, which, at a little over 100 m, would be the ideal place for Pooja to recover. 

When I put my head to the pillow that night, exhausted, I reflected on the turn of events. Had we got that which we came for? Mostly, no. The failure to spot even so much as a silver thread of the Sleeping Buddha’s magnificent form smarted like an open wound. But in the wreckage of its futile pursuit, as if carried on one of the snow plumes from the Kumbhakarna, at the head of the Buddha, I found something far more valuable: a gleaming lesson. 

That it is for us to dream, hope, ask and seek, but it’s also on us to sever ourselves from the result of it all. If we can do that, we realise something fundamental to our happiness: 

The reward is not in the result, but in the freedom from it. 

A favourite song by Sir Mark Knopfler began playing in my mind:

Tonight your beauty burns into my memory
The wheel of heaven turns above us endlessly
This is all the heaven we got, right here where we are
In our Shangri-La
In our Shangri-La

– Sir Mark Knopfler

I wondered when I’d be able to return to beautiful Singalila. But before I could venture an answer, I fell asleep right there – in our Shangri-La.

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