The plan is to get to Barsey, a place famed for its collection of wild rhododendrons, although I am not sure if I am going to see any. The season of bloom is over but I might still do a nice walk to Hilley from Barsey. My map shows a road connecting Pelling and Barsey but there is no common transport on this route. I am unlikely to reserve a vehicle and fork out a fortune. What is to be done?
I think I’ll head out of Sikkim, perhaps spend the night at Kalimpong. I get a shared vehicle to Geyzing. I meet an Assistant Professor who teaches at Jorethang.
‘I used to teach Political Science. Now I teach Limbu,’ he says. ‘Limbu is a local minority language of the Limbu tribes.’
‘How do you happen to know Limbu?’ I ask. Frankly I’ve never heard of such a language. It is just one among hundreds of India’s unknown languages and dialects.
‘I’m a Limbu. We are descendants of the Chongs, the original inhabitants of Sikkim. Limbus consider their greatest contribution in the origin of the word “Sikkim”‘.
He goes on to explain this origin. It’s all too much detailed for me. I feel reluctant to fish out my notebook and pen to take hasty notes. My student days are long over. I change at Geyzing and arrive at Jorethang. I look for transport to Kalimpong.
‘The strike is till Sunday. Only on Monday, you can get out of Sikkim,’ tells me a man at the ticket counter. On Wednesday, government offices in Darjeeling had been closed. Those fighting for Gorkhaland have called a complete bandh over the weekend. Sikkim tourism suffers silently.
I don’t want to spend two nights at Jorethang. It’s hot and humid here. I think I’ll head back to the cool hills of Sikkim. I get a vehicle bound for Ribdi. It appears that I can get off at Okhrey and hike 11 kms to Hilley.
It takes half an hour for the vehicle to fill up. More than a dozen cans are tied up on top of the jeep. A sign on the windshield says, ‘On Govt. Milk Duty.’ Dairy farming is practised on the hills. The milk is brought down in the morning and empty cans make their way back up in the afternoon.
I share the ride with a group of four Bengalis. They have come to Sikkim for trekking. It is a mixed group – a cinematographer, a teacher, a businessman and a car driver. They are going to do a 10-day treck from Ribdi, passing the high route of Sandakphu and Phalut.
‘Will you be taking a guide?’ I enquire.
‘Nah. Government rules are there but they are for locals to stop poaching,’ replies Prasanth, the cinematographer. Meanwhile, the teacher, a lean and gaunt bearded man, is reading out loud about the trek from photocopied pages of some Bengali magazine.
‘You have done is before I guess?’ I ask.
‘I’m here for the third time but for shorter treks. It’s the first time for the everyone else.’
There is a lama from Ribdi travelling with us. He shares some of the pictures of rhododendrons he has taken in these parts. He confirms that the season is indeed past although some flowers can still be seen. He then shows me an identity card. It says, ‘Namdroling Monastery, Bylakuppe, Karnataka.’
Empty cans are unloaded at Sombaria, Daramdin and Okhrey. I am advised to get off at RCC, just a couple of kilometers short of Ribdi. I take the advice, get off at a little bridge and look around. A cluster of houses are to my right and a stone paved path climbs steeply up the hillside. I start climbling.
I climb past the houses and terraced fields on the slopes. Quickly I am out of the valley and reaching for the hilly heights. Clouds float around against a backdrop of forests, hills and dull open skies. It then starts to rain.
I put on my rain gear and keep climbing. Hills lose themselves into the character of mountains. Open cultivated fields give way to thick forests. I know I have to head right but inside the forest the paths are many. The going gets tough although I am enjoying the complete isolation within the dark shades of the forest, the mystic air and the moistened undergrowth. The sound of the forest is a beautiful cacophony but I cannot stop for long to enjoy it. It is getting dark and I have to find my way out.
I decide to climb up all the way to the open ridge. Perhaps I will spot Hilley from the ridge. I pass a little cave. I take note of it in case I need emergency shelter for the night. Soon I am on the ridge. The rain has quietened to a drizzle. Through a thin mist I can see Hilley barely half a mile uphill. The tarmac road leading to it is just meters away.
The road ends at Hilley. It goes no further. There is a police check post and only one place to stay for the night. There is only one room and it is thankfully empty. I am in no position to bargain but the hospitable guy agrees for Rs. 500 for the room with dinner and breakfast. There is no tap water, no electricity and no place to charge my phone. There is however a warm bed for the night and that is all I need.
It is a leisurely start this morning. I leave my things at Hilley and proceed to Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary. As far as I know there are three famous mammals in these forests – the Himalayan Blackbear, the Snow Leopard, the Red Panda. It is a tough chance spotting any of them. Being alone, I am not all that enthusiastic to spot them anyway. The walk to Barsey is by a clear broad path winding around the hill’s forested slopes. The walk is beautiful. It is mostly under forest canopy but occasionally opening out to reveal the skies above and deep valleys below. Moss drip from tree trunks and branches. The path is covered with fallen leaves. A furry squirrel scampers away into the undergrowth. Rare birds come and go as if meaning to give the visitor only a glimpse of nature’s wonders. A little bird with its flashes of yellow and golden hues darts through the trees. A blue bird wings through bamboo groves. A little stream trickles down and over moss covered rocks.
Rhododendrons are many though only a few are in bloom. Some are short and others tall. Most grow on the ground but some are clingers blooming on tall trees. Some are tiny and grow amidst the grass on the ground. The landscape is green and beautiful. I can imagine the colours during the season, March to April. Such a concentration of rhododendrons is rate. I’m sure the painters would have loved it had they discovered it. Monet would have made Barsey his Giverny; Van Gogh would have painted rhododendrons in place of olive trees.
Another hour’s walk, I am back at Hilley for a nice breakfast. I pack up my things and take the long road to Okhrey. The forest road is silent. The walk is downhill and enjoyable. The moss decorated trees seem to speak to me. Okhrey is 11 kms away. With the road leading the way, I even forget distance and destination. The world seems to have dissolved. I feel one with the forests that surround me.