I hated the back seat I got in the 10-seater. All the other passengers were locals and I got the extra edge of being young, alone and "FOREIGNER". So I hoped that it would be easy for me to bargain my seat with a front-window one. But that was not to be. When I went back in disappointment to my original seat I found it covered with crates of beer. Even the leg-space was full with crates & nobody was objecting. So I chose a big crate to seat on. And it was a real bumpy ride. At first I had a bit of communication problem with my co-passengers. They could speak Hindi as good I spoke Nepali. After a while, sign language punched with proper nouns became our official mode of communication. Things eased up a bit. They asked me where I was headed, and were surprised when I told them that I was to stay at Ribdi for the night. They told me that it would be a better option for me to stay at Okhrey, because Ribdi was, as they said, a bit off the route. And from Okhrey I could just follow the metal road to Hilley. The simple thumb-rule is that you know it's Hilley when the metal road ends.
Now things were getting more exciting. Okhrey was one more new name for me, & I cannot even verify its location or distance from Hilley. But the driver and an elderly lady (She was looking wonderful in a velvet blue traditional Sikimeese outfit.) was very persuasive. They literally forced me to get down at Okhrey saying that I will find better places here to stay at night.
I got down with my sack as the jeep whooshed away. As the rumbling sound of the jeep faded away I was left numb by the quietness of the place. I was standing in the middle of the main road with my sack on. The only pair of eyes I met were those of a big black curious shepherd dog, which made me uncomfortable.
On my left was a grocery shop, on my right was a small yellow campus of a school, a few tin shaded buildings could be seen here & there, the rest is jungle or farmland - that's all about Okhrey. Not a single person could be seen anywhere. I went in the grocery and woke the fat shopkeeper up. His sleepy eyes startled as I said I need to stay here for the night. He (popularly known as D.T.) took some time to compose himself and arranged some coffee which I badly needed. I kept my sack in his shop and went out for a walk.
The mystery of the uncanny absence of the complete population was solved as I reached a football ground nearby. Okhrey was having a match with its arch rival Ribdi. The size of the field was one tenth of a regular one and on one side there was a solid rock wall which you can use for great "wall-passes". On the other side there was a huge drop which was heavily protected by a wall of spectators to prevent the ball from rolling down. I saw people betting heavily on their favorites. On the little rocky field the bare feet players showed exemplary dribbling skills. The Okhrey goalie was a special treat. He was very young & had a prominent wound on his right toe which he kept totally unprotected. His name was Sonam (!) and later I found him to be D.T.'s elder son. I was stunned by the fearlessness of this boy as he went for a strong challenge with his wounded feet or as he dived full length to make a save. He even went on to score a solo goal himself, dribbling all the opponent players with ease. He was a very good forward player and was clearly unhappy with his position which he was forced to take up because of his wound. Okhrey eventually won the match, courtesy to some great saves by Sonam.
The celebration wasn't exactly as colorful as I expected. Immediately after the final whistle, everybody became terribly busy with the calculations of their shares.
I came back to D.T.'s shop where D.T. arranged my accommodation in some horticulture office. It was a huge room, simply but wonderfully furnished with delicately carved wooden furniture. The floor, walls even the ceiling was covered with newly polished pinewood panels. There was a wonderful Kashmiri woolen carpet on the floor. I chose the bed at the extreme end of the room. It had a wonderful view through a big glass window by it. Darjeeling could be seen there in far like a white scar on the hazy blue mountain. I shut the door behind and felt like a king. The room was filled with a wonderful resinous fragrance of wood. It was getting dark and Darjeeling slowly transformed in front of my eyes into a cluster of stars.
Suddenly a knock on the door woke me up. Sonam was calling me for dinner. The dinner was served on a wonderful "guest special" dragon painted blue Chinese saucer with numerous small bowls containing Sabjis and at least three different "Achaars" carefully arranged around the periphery. Sonam's six year old brother was in charge of the decoration and serving.
And the smart little kid did a very good job. The menu was very simple, homely and very very tasty. Sonam's elder sister was the cook. She stood behind me with a shy smile as I praised the "Aloo- Marich" or asked for some more "Daal". Their wonderful hospitality made me feel even more at home. It was a "starry starry night".
Later the moon came up and I went for a walk. After a lazy quarter mile stroll I found a clear ledge overlooking the vast jungle on my left. A little streamlet flowing from the slopes on my right across the road and into the depths on my left. I could not see it in the dark. But I could listen to the music it created.
I sat on the ledge facing the jungle that started just below my feet. All I could see was a vast continuous canopy of trees flooded with moonlight. A horned owl hooting somewhere in the dark. The sound was getting echoed from the distant mountains. The atmosphere was quite electric . (You had to be there to feel the magic of it.) Suddenly a few birds flew inches past my ear..maybe thrushes. I could literally feel their flutter in my ears and was scared to death !.
Slowly I got back to my room. I needed a sound sleep and that's not exactly what I had. First of all the big glass window had no curtains and the moon was too bright and secondly there were uncanny sounds of all sorts in the room, possibly due to the contractions of wood.
When I got up it was almost dawn. I woke D.T. up, had some light breakfast, left a bagful of "unnecessary" accessories with him and quickly set off for my long awaited trek.
The air was moist and fresh. Wind wasn't blowing and it was a bit chilly in the shade. On my way I stopped by the ledge where I sat last night. It looked so different in the daylight!
I crossed the little streamlet by it. It was hardly heel deep. And here suddenly I found myself in a jungle of birds. All of a sudden there were just too many of them - of all colours and all sizes, whistling, chatting, cooing, flying around, jumping from one branch to another. I failed to recognize many (most !) of them. I was amazed by this sudden activity which continued for the next couple of hours all along my way.
The metal road was more or less even. It was thick jungle all around, mostly evergreen. At places the trees were so huge that standing at the base you needed a pair of binoculars to see the top. It was awesome. Simply their silent presence commands respect (Reminded me of Phantom's "Whispering Groves.").
The birds stopped as suddenly as they started. It was complete silence thereafter. The only man made sound was coming from my boots striking the road and it was becoming so disturbing that I chose to walk along the grass.
The best thing about travelling alone is that you don't have to wait for anyone, and you can sit wherever you like for as long as you want. I reached Hilley in time and was greeted by a group of trekkers from Liluah. They were just coming down from Varsey. These were the first human beings I met since I left Okhrey. They were surprised to see me alone. We shared breakfast near a hut. They warned me of frosting at Varsey and gave me the real bad news!
"Guras Kunj" (Sikimeese for "Grove of Rhododendron"), the only "Trekker's Hut" at Varsey, was locked and the caretaker was missing for three days. People having valid bookings were forced to return to Hilley to spend the night.Though these trekkers had their own tents they described how they shivered inside their sleeping bags.
The only good news was there were two more trekkers at the top carrying an oversize "4 men ridge type tent" in which I can easily slip in. I cursed myself for not carrying my sleeping bag. Without it I stood no chance against the cold or the wind. I was mentally prepared to come down to Hilley and was quite upset about it. I was surely going to miss the sunrise from Varsey.
After the brief rest the trekkers from Liluah left for Dentum and I took the narrow winding foot trail to Varsey.
Now the real adventure began. The path was steep. The jungle was closing in. Every now and then there were streamlets on the trail making the boulders slippery and unstable. Near every stream there were Primulas, Aconytes, Foxgloves & Bluebells. At some places the canopy was so thick that it denied sun in the mid noon. It seemed like a tunnel. The dramatic appearance of fog made the atmosphere more eerie.
I reached Varsey and was stunned by the awesome view it presented. I was standing at the top of a hill which was clear, surrounded by a huge barrier of thick rhododendron forest in every direction I could see. In the front stood the majestic Mt. Kanchenjungha-partly covered with clouds, with Mt. Pandim, Kimbhkarna, Simvo, the beautiful Mt. Sinolchu and numerous other peaks covering more than 150 degrees of the horizon.
I met the two trekkers as expected. They had their tent pitched on the open ground in front of "Guras Kunj". The compound had waist high rock walls and no gates. The wooden building was keeping with the surroundings but had doors locked. I shared lunch with the two trekkers.
It was an extraordinary menu. Rice with chicken fried in mustard oil of amla pickle and salt, no haldi, no chilli, no onion, no other spices. (Try it, goes pretty well in an open air barbecue party, specially when you are at 10,000 ft. sitting in front of Mt. Kanchenjungha, terribly hungry and have nothing else to eat.)How we scraped the oil out of "amloki'r aachaar" is altogether a different story.
After the lunch, as I was preparing to come down, an old man with startled eyes appeared from nowhere. "Aap log kahan se ayye?" -he was utterly amazed. Now this was the care-taker after three days and the poor guy was immediately in for plenty of thrashing. Anyway, he opened us the door and we were very happy to prepare our beds on the warm wooden floor with two sets of mattresses, blankets and quilts each.
It became very cloudy in the evening, and everybody except me was sure that we would be missing the sunrise next morning. By this time we managed all the essentials for cooking and the dinner was 5-star grade. The two trekkers were drunk and had to be helped to their beds.
At the midnight I was the only one awake outside. It was an absolute clear sky dotted with stars. In front it was a clear Mt. Kanchenjungha dazzling in bright moonlight. It was a sight simply unbelievable. The chilly wind forced me to bed.
The next morning I was absolutely surprised to see the two trekkers up even before me. We sat outside on garden chairs with all the warm clothing on and then covered with blankets-and were trembling. The care-taker served us tea (!). The colour was definitely similar, but not the taste. It was like nothing I've ever taken (I have even had tea with salt & Yak butter in a Monastery). It was local hand-ground tea made with "Yermong" (Something like black pepper but smaller and much more pungent - a local substitute for chili.) and salt. This tea(!) was badly needed in the cold, and my sore throat problem was gone like magic.
Then it was the sunrise time on Kanchenjungha. Never ever failed to amaze me. First it was pink, then red, golden, silver, white and over. Nobody could speak, just the sounds of shutters clicking.
After a while we got the sun & had our breakfast out in the open. I can't remember what we had, we were too occupied with the magnificent view. Then the clouds began to rise and the show was over for the day. For me it was a different "Bijoya Dashami" away from the Pandals, "Dhaks" & "Mishtis".
I left Varsey with some of the most fascinating memories I would like to share with everybody. But for the real experience, you have to be there. The total package (home to home) costed me about Rs. 1800/-.(Yes!) Affordable!
what do you say?
Will you be my partner in my next trek? don't ask the destination....I don't know myself?
Love and take care....
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