Countering Mr Murphy … our (mis)adventures in north Sikkim

Murphy’s Law is typically stated as: Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.

Our trip to north Sikkim was fraught with obstacles and misadventures and it is a wonder we all returned home safe and sound.  However, this trip made us look inwards and possibly, taught us a thing or two about life and ourselves. The quote below expresses our trip  quite aptly.

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The birth of an idea

Three of us, friends from college days, had this strangely compelling feeling that we had to visit North Sikkim this year. Why we felt this way, cannot be logically explained. We had been mesmerised by the photos of Gurudongmar Lake and numerous recounts by independent sources – who all felt it was something akin to heaven.

Situated at an altitude of 17,375 ft, it is one of the highest lakes in the world and equally sacred to Buddhists and Sikhs as it is supposed to have been blessed by both Guru Padmasambava/ Rinpoche and Guru Nanak. There are many stories around why even during peak winter, one spot of this sacred lake does not freeze. Only Indian citizens are permitted to visit the lake as it is just a stone’s throw away from the Indo-Tibetan border. The closest village is Thangu (15,000 ft approx) where there is an army check-post. Foreigners are allowed only up to this point unless they get a special permit from MEA.

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The picture of the lake which stirred our fantasies (PC: Siddhartha Roy, 2007)

Apart from this much-talked-about paradise on earth, we also planned to visit Yumthang Valley (where people go to feast their eyes on the Valley of Flowers in March-April) and Zero Point or Yumesamdong.

Another place of interest was Katao  – known as the Switzerland of Sikkim. It is blocked now due to heavy troop movement by ITBP (Indo Tibetan Border Police) and is officially not open for tourists. However, drivers in Lachen (the remote hilly town from where all northern Sikkim tours start) frequently bribe the guards to enter this place if senior officers are not present. We refused to take this route although travel agents openly encourage you to do it this way. Thankfully, our agent (Alpine Nature Beyond Ltd) did not fall into this rule-bending category.

Gangtok served only as a night halt for our journey to/fro north Sikkim as we were more keen to explore the virgin beauty of the north. One of our friends who had visited west Sikkim a few years back (and fell in love with this part of the country), told us that the northern part was supposed to be even more stunning. We locked the dates and finalised our itinerary by May. All we had to do now was count the days to 7th October.

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Day 1: The journey starts with a major hiccup…

We reached Calcutta airport well ahead of our reporting time but our smiles froze soon after, when I nervously announced that I had left my leather bag containing my purse, passport, credit cards, money and all essential medicines, at home! How on earth was I going to enter the airport without a photo ID? Just as I was about to dejectedly accept that my carefully planned holiday was about to crash even before taking off, I remembered I had kept my Adhar card in my backpack for some odd reason. First hurdle cleared. Whew!

Our travel agent had clearly told us that only a passport/voter’s ID/driving license was considered as a valid ID for getting a permit to certain border areas in Sikkim. So there was no reason whatsoever why I brought along this card –  which eventually bailed me out. A frantic call to Siliguri followed, with our agent assuring me that she will try to fix this problem. This is the beauty of India, where rules are not cast in iron – sometimes it comes to the aid of forgetful travellers like me.

On reaching Bagdogra airport (in Siliguri), we were escorted to our car by a sidekick of the original meet & greet guy Amit (as he was stuck in a jam somewhere) and introduced to Dipen, our driver for the trip. First we stopped for lunch at Marina’s and by the time we finished, Amit had arrived and handed over the necessary papers for the trip. We also bought some pastries and cream rolls from Glenary’s for the road.

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Stuck in the serpentine jam, all I could do was to admire the river in the dark

A little later, as I was buying my medicines, I overheard Dipen asking the chemist for fever medication as he had been sick for the past 3 days! Scary to think that we were to be driven on treacherous hilly roads by a febrile driver. Thankfully, the medicines worked wonders and made him very cheerful in a couple of hours. We were also relieved to observe that he was a very good and safe driver. The 4-hr drive to Gangtok took 7 hours as we got stuck in a terrible jam. The diesel fumes from other vehicles did not make things any easier.

It was drizzling by the time we reached our destination in Gangtok: Mintokling Guest House. A nice, cosy and homely place with friendly staff but a bit lacking in the food department. One of my friends was feeling very sick by then and was seriously worrying if she would be fit enough next morning to accompany us on the 7-hr journey to Lachen – our night halt at 9175 ft, for a bit of acclimatisation before the arduous drive up to the famous lake. One of the staff members, Montu, very kindly made a special meal of rice, mashed potatoes and dal (lentil soup) for her. The situation seemed to be slowly getting under control again. Later, we figured out that the culprit was the almost-gone-bad cream on one of the pastries that caused the scary indigestion problem and not her chronic acidity.

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Mintokling Guest House (Gangtok)

Day 2: Gangtok to Lachen

I woke up early to explore the grounds and met a lady from Chennai who was there with 2 of her friends. They had come back from Gurudongmar a few days back – s0 I was keen to learn about their experience. The Lachen road had been closed due to a landslide just after their visit but it had again reopened. Landslides are very common in this part of the world and you have to be mentally ready to alter your trip at the last moment. They didn’t seem particularly impressed by the lake (as they had been to Ladakh) and said that she would rather use the term no roads instead of bad roads to describe the way from Lachen to the lake. But I was too excited to hear a warning bell.

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Early morning birdwatching at the guest house

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Drongo/Phingey

We started for Lachen 2 hours behind schedule and were a bit worried as we had been advised to reach there while there is still light. We had also been told that it is a remote town in a very high altitude with very basic facilities. Food would be sufficient but simple. Being a newer destination, tourism infrastructure was still in its elementary stages. We would find out exactly how basic it was, after 10 long and adventurous hours.

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Welcome to North Sikkim, says the sign

The road to Lachen was expectedly picturesque and interspersed with waterfalls. The lush green foliage was particularly appealing. The first waterfalls we saw was the Seven Sisters Falls. We decided to stop at Chungthang Confluence later on our way to Lachung (from Lachen) as we were very short on time.

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Engrossed in my favourite hobby

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We stopped for a quick lunch somewhere near Singhik and were soon back on the road. The toilet stops were very basic but more or less clean, up to this lunch stop. There are many other scenic points where you may stop on the way, like Tashi View Point (a typically crowded touristy place), Phodong, Mangan etc but do remember that every additional stop will delay you further and prevent you from reaching Lachen safely while there is still light. However, do try to make a stop at Singhik.

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Road to Lachen

We had been forewarned about possible altitude sickness as well as various dos and don’ts and were well armed with homeopathic Coca 30 globules and Diamox tablets (later we learnt about its scary but possible side effects). Drinking lots of water was also recommended but with paucity of public toilets, it wasn’t a viable option for women. Even after carefully monitoring our water intake, circumstances forced us to take a very daring chance out in the open under a mild drizzle. Thankfully, the light was fading rapidly…. but we were still quite some distance from Lachen. Soon it was pitch dark and all we could see were the red tail lights of the few cars ahead of us. The rain was beating down more heavily now and the roads were not smooth or comfortable. The mercury was also dipping rapidly.

At 7.30pm, about 25 mins from Lachen, all the cars came to a halt – a car had got stuck badly in the slushy ‘road’ and could not get itself out. The road was not wide enough for other cars to go past it either. In the meantime, a call came from the hotel, wondering if we were coming at all. For one and a half hours, all the drivers ignored the cold and rain and managed to extricate the car and finally, we were on our way. Our driver Dipen came back drenched and took over the wheels of our Xylo happily. The danger was not over yet as no one knew if the same fate was awaiting another car.

“Dipen, what car was it that got stuck in the mud?”

“Xylo, madam!”

Stunned silence followed.

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Our Xylo

When we reached our hotel, it was close to 9.30pm. We were greeted by a young and keen Pramod who asked us what we would like for dinner! Obviously our request to keep dinner ready did not register or maybe they thought we would not be able to make it that night. We were also informed that our chosen hotel Snow Retreat was under renovation and so we were being put up in their ‘better’ property – Hill Retreat.

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Our colour un-coordinated basic room in Lachen

There were 3 fancy motor bikes parked outside and as we were being escorted to our room, we heard boisterous male voices from the adjacent room – obvious signs of drunken revelry. We also found that only 2 rooms were occupied – ours and theirs. We had recently watched the movie Pink and got quite scared. We immediately decided to talk in whispers and told Pramod and his assistant that they have to sleep in the opposite rooms. Pramod assured us that the boys were harmless and showed us a bell that could be used to call him, any time. We were freezing by then and asked for a room heater which got fixed after some juggling with the plug. Dinner was served in our room and as we got ready to go off to sleep, the power went off! So much for the calling bell. We got some candles and retired for the night feeling strangely safe, guarded by 3 male strangers from 3 (or more) supposed predators.

Day 3: Trip to Gurudongmar Lake

When we woke up, there was still no power and we had to get ready in candle light. One friend slept through her 2 am alarm and was woken up by the 2.30 am alarm person. My alarm was set at 2.45 am but I woke up earlier in this confusion. Anyway, we got ready by 3.30 am to embark on our 7-hr journey. Minutes after starting off, I realised I had left my phone behind. I was okay about it as we were unlikely to get mobile signals at that altitude. My friends felt otherwise. In his rush to reverse at the bend, our car fell into a ditch and got badly stuck! Dipen tried to get it out and after a while, told us glumly that it was an impossible situation. He still tried one more time to rev the car out of trouble, but the tyre started to burn and then had a puncture! It was 3.40 am. We got out of the car and called Pramod. He came out running and immediately went down to get 6 guys from the village at that hour in the morning! These simple hill people amaze me. They live in such diverse conditions and yet are always so helpful and smiling. We met so many of them during this trip and all of them were such wonderfully uncomplicated and generous people.

Thanks to these amazingly efficient guys, the car was rescued, the tyre changed and at 4 am, we resumed our journey to the sacred lake. We also discovered the reason for Dipen’s hurry. This was his first trip too and he wanted to be with the convoy of cars. Ten minutes into the journey, I realised that I had forgotten my camera in the hotel but I kept this embarrassing fact to myself. The journey was very scenic but not comfortable at all. And the sky being overcast, we missed out on what might have been a stunning sunrise. How I missed my camera!

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Road to Gurudongmar
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Rocky terrain
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Sudden bursts of colour
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Rivers galore

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As you gain altitude, you will find the green forests of lower altitude gives way to smaller trees and bushes. Beyond Thangu is the second phase of your travel. The road towards the lake from Thangu passes through the high alpine pastures carpeted with occasional rhododendron bushes. One can get a prized view of rare Sikkim rhubarb peeping through the bushes in inaccessible terrain or of a herd of mountain sheep grazing in the distant valley. In this area you will find little vegetation or people. Apart from Indian Army, there is no human habitation here. The gravel road through the valley gives you a unique view of a barren land.     (Nature Beyond website)

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My first sighting of yaks
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Mountain Horses
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Closer to the lake, snow caps started getting visible

The road was patchy and bumpy and filled with rocks and potholes. Evidence of a recent landslide was visible everywhere. There was no tarmac and in some places there was continuous water flow over the road. I was very surprised that the government allows vehicles to ply on such a risky road. Who do we call for help if we skid off the road or if there is a breakdown? How can you simply expect the army to bail you out in the direst of situations? Is that fair?

Altitude sickness was also an issue. I saw some people taking their sick companions up to the army tent marked with a red cross. There is an army check-post at Thangu, but contrary to what we had read on TA – that army personnel come and scan every passenger for signs of sickness before allowing them to proceed – we were neither stopped nor checked by anyone. In fact, a friend had suggested that we carry some sweets for these jawans posted in such godforsaken places. She said that they feel very happy and grateful to get such gifts from the plains, especially around Dussera time. My packet of kaju barfi returned with me as I met no one. Maybe they were busy patrolling the Indo-Tibetan border after the intrusions by Pakistan on the western side.

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The breathstopping Chopta Valley

whatsapp-image-2016-10-24-at-20-14-58-3All of a sudden, the cloudy sky magically transformed into a sunny blue one and we realised we were in the very barren Chopta Valley! And equally mysteriously, a stretch of silk smooth road appeared out of nowhere. Maybe this was the road to heaven? The topography changed to that of the Tibetan plateau with no vegetation. The landscape was stark but stunning. The road then turned right towards Gurudongmar Lake. We were hoping to see paradise….but were very sorely disappointed.

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The very disappointing Gurudongmar Lake under a cloudy sky

We were greeted by the ugly sight of about 50-60 tourist jeeps parked around the rim, polluting the place with a powerful smell of diesel fumes. We parked in the second row. As we walked towards the rim, we saw the famous lake beneath us. The sun had disappeared and the sky was overcast, ruling out any possibility of a reflection of the mountains across it. Nor was there much snow on the peaks. There was no vision of aquamarine water or of the silvery peaks as the various photoshopped pictures on the internet had led us to believe. There was a long flight of steps leading to the lake (which was lined with Buddhist prayer flags) but we were too disappointed to even think of attempting that climb. It was just a peaceful little lake at a very high altitude. Under a clear blue sky, with the reflection of the mountains on the waters, it would surely look beautiful, but we still felt that the lake did not have the dimension or ambience to enthral us. Maybe our expectations of paradise were different.

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How my phone camera captured a hint of blue is beyond my understanding

We returned to Lachen exhausted, and extremely disappointed. After such an arduous journey, we were expecting to see something much more spectacular. Strangely, I was feeling the effects of altitude sickness on my way back – a mild headache with a strange kind of numbness around my cheeks. We were contemplating if we should stay back in Lachen instead of driving down to Lachung, where we were to spend 3 nights. However, another day in Lachen seemed very unappealing and we decided to travel to Lachung (8075 ft) as per our original itinerary. My friends went down for lunch while I lay down in bed nursing my headache and steeling myself for another arduous road trip.

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En route to Lachung

img_2141The 2.5 hr drive to Lachung however was much better and the roads were quite good. As usual, there were waterfalls galore and lush green mountains. We reached our hotel in Lachung – Norling Zymkhang – on time. It was a small property and we liked our room a lot. Biggish with very clean beds. The windows also opened out to a great view, although there was some ugly extension work going on below.

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Our humble sanctuary in Lachung
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The view from the window
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View from the bed when the mist cleared

Almost everyone spends 2 nights in this pretty town but we agreed to add an extra day to relax and enjoy the surroundings. And what a good decision that was. We checked in and immediately crashed out for 2-3 hours to recharge our batteries.

For the first time on the trip, we had a tasty meal during dinner. Over the next 3 days, the cook Kusal turned out simple but delicious meals which we gobbled to our heart’s content. One must also mention Madan, the quiet, young and helpful staff member who served us very sweetly.

Day 4: Free and easy in Lachung

The next day was meant to be free and easy but one of my friends went down with hill diarrhoea. After a frantic call to her GP in Calcutta, 2 courses of antibiotics were prescribed. Thankfully, she was carrying those tablets with her and got started on them immediately. The medicines proved quite effective but she decided to stick to a no-risk diet of rice, dal, boiled potatoes and eggs. Post lunch, we went out to explore the town.

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Wild berries
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Beautiful Lachung
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Remnants of Fall colours maybe
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Fauna
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Ferns
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The moody mist was too magical
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Random composition
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Alpine vegetation
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Moss, glorious moss
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Quite a pose

While finalising our Lachung hotel, we all loved Season House (awesome TA reviews) but it did not provide room heaters. And being true blue, cold-fearing Bengalis (ore baba, thanda lege jabey), we had thumbed it down. Better warm than sorry is what we believe in. That afternoon, we wanted to check it out for future reference. It truly was a mind blowing property with jaw-dropping views. It also had the cutest possible dining hall. The rooms were smaller but who cares about that when the setting is so spectacular? The manager also assured us that very soon, they will be able to provide room heaters. If we come here in April some day, we will definitely stay here, room heater or not. Food served here is vegetarian, although non-veg momos are available at the junction below. The climb is quite steep though.

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Season House
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The view – the powerful presence of nature

We retired early as we had to leave at 5.30am next morning for Yumthang Valley and Zero Point. My friend decided to give it a skip as she needed more rest and wanted to play it safe with her under-control diarrhoea. We were to soon discover how mindblowing that trip was going to be. The rhododendron flowers bloom in summer but even without them, this journey was one of the most picturesque ones we had ever taken. We had to pass through an army camp to reach the valley and nature started to reveal its gorgeousness right from the very start of our journey.

Day 5: Trip to Yumthang Valley and Zero Point

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First sight of the snow caps at dawn

img_2228Feast your eyes now on some of the breath-catching views we were exposed to, en route to Yumthang Valley. I do not possess a wide angle lens and my camera could not do justice to what our eyes saw. A totally unforgettable experience. The acute disappointment over the sacred lake faded away very quickly.

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The first rays of the sun hit the peaks
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Yaks graze in the beautiful Alpine valley

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Wish I could capture a quarter of its true beauty
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King of the valley

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A picture in contrast

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It had obviously snowed more in this region

We decided to go to Yumesamdong (15,750 ft) first as it tends to get more crowded later in the day. It is popularly known as Zero Point because there is no road after that point. We were lucky that for the past 2 nights, there had been heavy and unexpected snowfall. This place too is open only to Indians because of its proximity to the border. We saw a huge military presence in this area. Finally I found my soldiers! I called out to one of them, wished him for Dussera and gave him my box of kaju barfi.

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Approaching Zero Point

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Land of snow
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Life exists though

We could not go up to the post which says ZERO POINT as the road was too sleety and slippery, thus missing out on a great photo op. We also discovered that our car (or any car for that matter) did not have a 4 wheel drive. We were so grateful for our blissful ignorance about this fact on our roller coaster journey to Gurudongmar Lake. But what we greedily recorded in our visual memory here, will last us for our lifetime.

I forgot to mention one small detail. We had stopped once in the snowy terrain before trying to reach that post announcing Zero Point. Our jeep stopped just before a culvert to give us our first experience of walking in the land of snow. I realised immediately that the snow had turned into treacherous sleet by then, as I lost my grip a few times. I warned my friend about the dangers and carefully trotted along. We also asked a fellow adventurer to click us. Then Dipen rushed us, urging us to get in the car so that we could reach ZP ahead of the rush traffic. I got in and waited for my friend. A few minutes passed. Maybe she is making snowballs, I thought. Five minutes later, she got in a bit dishevelled and disturbed. She told me that she had slipped and fallen flat on the snow. Trying to break the fall with her hands, she broke her fingernails, but was kindly assisted up by a fellow Bengali with a sympathetic chot laageni toh beshi apnar (hope you didn’t hurt yourself too much)? And didn’t even hear a thud. Documented below is her last vertical picture (with me) at Yumesamdong. Jokes aside, we were worried if the fall would aggravate her recently acquired lower back problems. As we found out later, it didn’t.

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The picture after which my pal took a tumble in the snow and broke her nails
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Little fellow, what do you get to eat here?
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Some food resides in this freezing water obviously
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One of these is inhabited by P P Ghosh
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When you witness these hostile environment, you cannot but salute the Army men
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Frozen

We saw many tourists lose themselves in uncontrollable delight on seeing so much snow. Living in the hot and humid Gangetic plains below, this was enough to drive them crazy, literally. There were people engaged in various activities – having mock snowball fights, clicking themselves in Titanic poses, rolling in the snow, balancing with 2 huge snow footballs in their hands and of course, taking selfies galore. I even saw a guy lying on the snow bare-bodied and getting photographed for posterity! Utter lunacy.

However, what surprised me most was to see so many terribly under-dressed in this extreme climate. Quite a few were wearing open slippers without any socks while some were in shawls or very light jackets but all of them were frolicking in the snow! Snow boots and warm jackets are easily available on hire on the valley roads. One local driver openly expressed alarm at seeing such under-dressed people, saying baad mein bhari parega (it will cost them dearly later).

I wasn’t sure if it was ignorance or sheer bravado. We also encountered one very distressed young dad seeking water for his daughter who had fainted due to altitude sickness. We were more than happy to oblige. It  may be worthwhile for the govt/media to keep a track of the health of people returning from north Sikkim. Judging by the brave display of naivete, I would not be surprised if there were quite a few serious casualties.

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Stark beauty
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Cruel terrain
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img_2326On our way back, we got stuck in a bad jam. There were hundreds of jeeps, blocking our way – some of them double parked. These latecomers were trudging their way up (not at all advisable at this altitude) as cars could not progress further. Somehow we managed to get out of this and happily headed for the multi-hued Yumthang Valley (11,925 ft).

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The brave girl did get down again to pose with me at an even higher altitude

img_2333img_2335We had passed by Yumthang Valley on our way to Zero Point but we fell in love once again with the stunning scenery – we were lucky to be witnessing nature at its grandest best.

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Traces of snowfall from the previous nights

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Rapidly changing landscapes

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The winding mountain roads

We got off the car to take a walk in the valley. This was not the flower season but even without them, its natural beauty took our breath away. We were trying to imagine how it would look in April, filled with 32 shades of rhododendrons! Although it was sunny, it was windy as well and hence very chilly. A tributary of river Teesta with crystal clear water flows through ththis beautiful valley. We just looked on…

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Stunning colours

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The tributary
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Variable scenery

img_2368img_2367img_2364img_2361img_2359Our senses satiated, we dragged ourselves away from here and into the car. We were on a temporary high. Speechless, we headed back to Lachung.  I wished our third friend could have joined us for this visual treat. But I believe what is meant to be, is meant to be.

I have to mention a funny thing here. Our sick friend had requested the cook to religiously serve her rice, boiled potatoes (aloo), boiled eggs and moong dal every day to recover asap. The moong dal became a permanent fixture in the regular dinner menu and they lovingly served her quota of boiled eggs and aloo everyday. On the day we were leaving Lachung, she had recovered well enough to try normal food but before she could even order her meal, out came Kusal armed with 3 boiled eggs and aloos! We couldn’t refuse such a gift of love and affectionately carried them all the way to Gangtok. We had a good laugh about it later and she remarked that she would have to abstain from aloo and eggs for a while. They are really such sweet and simple people!

Day 6: Lachung to Gangtok

Next morning, we left for Gangtok after a very tasty breakfast. The ride was uneventful except for maneuvering our car to go past the countless army trucks coming from the other direction. When we reached Gangtok, it was raining. We checked in to the same guest house and went out in search for lunch. Our wish for having a good Chinese meal at the highly recommended Chopsticks remained unfulfilled as there was a 1.5 hour wait. So we had to make do with grilled fish at a nice coffee shop. A quick round of shopping for teas, cardamoms and woolies followed.

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Ferns at the guesthouse

Day 7: Supposedly back to Calcutta via Bagdogra

I woke up early to try and catch a glimpse of Kanchenjunga peak from our balcony. I’m not sure if I managed to but I did get some interesting shots.

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Pigeons
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The glimpse of a snowy range but where is Kanchenjunga?

During breakfast, we found out that due to a landslide, the road from Gangtok to Siliguri was closed but work was on to restore the link. We left for the airport and luckily the road was open but the police were letting only one vehicle at a time. We heaved a sigh of relief, thinking that this would be the last of our obstacles, but little did we know.

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Landslide on the way to Siliguri

We reached the airport, had a big lunch and checked in our luggage. As we had lots of time to kill, one pal even decided to shop! Just as she was happily strolling out with her new purchase, it was announced that our Indigo flight (along with some others) had got cancelled.  The earliest available flight was 2 days later, on Sunday. As I had an international flight to catch on Sunday morning, we quickly cancelled our tickets, got the refund slip and requested our agent to help us with bus tickets. She acted quite promptly and instructed us go and collect the tickets from town. A car was also arranged but we got stuck in the infamous Siliguri evening traffic jam. The bus was supposed to leave at 6.30 pm.

Around 6.15 pm, when we realised it was a hopeless situation, we got off on the road and lugged our suitcases in the rain to the ticket counter, some 50m away. Thankfully, our tickets were waiting there. It was 6.25pm. Initially, we were told to take an auto from there to the main bus terminus but there was no time for that. Thankfully, that road was on the bus route. After a call to the driver, we were asked to wait at the counter with our luggage. The rain was falling more heavily now. Around 7pm, we saw the bus approaching and we ran across the road over the divider and on to the other side. Our suitcases were loaded quickly – we got up and filled up the last 3 seats. The seats were comfortable and we watched the movie M.S.Dhoni on board. Dinner stop was at a roadside dhaba and the less said about the public toilet there, the better. In the age of Swachh Bharat (clean India), it is unfathomable how no tourism minister is yet to do something about providing clean public toilets for road travellers. Maybe it is time we had a female tourism minister who will understand how especially difficult it is for women.

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Our bus sometimes also plies between Bengal and Bangladesh

Sleep wasn’t peaceful. The guy next to me liked to sleep diagonally, almost pushing me out of my seat. I had to nudge/shake him constantly to reclaim my paid square of space.

Day 8: Not part of the original plan, but in Calcutta at long last

Just as I was enjoying a beautiful sunrise, the bus had a puncture close to a small town called Bethuadohori. And there was no spare tyre! These unfortunately are not fine-able offences. A few passengers hired a van and dashed off to the station to catch a train to Calcutta. For 3 hours, the rest of us waited for the tyre to get fixed from the nearest town, Krishna Nagar, without any access to breakfast or toilet facilities. The men of course were shamelessly spraying the countryside.

Thankfully, the bus gave us water. We also had some left-over snacks from the trip. After some enquiries, we walked up to a library with pay-and-use toilets. Needless to say it was not clean. At times like this, however you are grateful that there is a toilet at all. The pee-fee collector asked us if we were from Delhi. And on our return, when we were standing outside to get some fresh air and stretching our legs, a curious passerby stopped his cycle and asked us if we were from Bangladesh! Obviously we were looking like aliens.

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Our breakfast with flattened rice (chire/poha)

Finally, the bus took off and the expected TOA at Esplanade was announced to be around 2-3 pm. Then we learnt that Red Road was being readied for the Durga Puja immersion carnival that very afternoon. That meant major trouble for commuters. Mr Murphy was having a field day! Unanimously we decided to get off at the airport and take the bypass to go home. My friend informed her driver about our change of plans as well as the new pick-up point. Finally, after a 19-hour journey, we got off the bus. We have never been happier to set our feet in Calcutta. Soon after, we were picked up and were on our home.

In a nutshell, I left Gangtok on 13th Oct at 8.30 am to reach my home in Calcutta on the 14th at 3pm. Definitely, my longest road journey ever.

Looking back…

It’s quite interesting how time changes ones perspective. When I returned from the trip, I was frustrated and totally drained by the number of obstacles we had to overcome. Interestingly, we overcame each and every one although we didn’t see it that way then. It was not a fun trip for us and we didn’t want to ever go for a holiday in the hills again.

But now, when I look back, I see things in a different light. Yumthang blew me away and I won’t mind visiting again some time in April to see the flower show. I’m also “mildly” curious to see Gurudongmar on a clear sunny day. I really need to know why people rave about it so. Did I miss anything? But it will happen only after Gangtok airport gets functioning. That will reduce my road travel to a great extent.

I also know myself a bit better now. For one, I do not enjoy traveling at a frantic pace. My kind of vacation has to be relaxed. I am not a hill person either despite the breathtaking vistas it has to offer. If I have to go on a long road journey, I must have access to hygienic toilets. I discovere I have a much higher tolerance for cold weather now, although I still prefer a warmer climate any day. It is also not a good idea to see too many photos of the place you plan to visit – it raises your expectations and you will be, more often than not, disappointed.

Post Gurudongmar experience, I am convinced I do not get an extra “high” by overcoming the odds and fighting adversities to reach a difficult destination. Many people do not even get to reach the lake because of bad weather and unforeseen landslides. So, getting to the lake adds to the adventure and charm for many. Unfortunately, it did not, for me or my friends.

I enjoy a sight that is tranquil and quiet. The sight of a place teeming with hundreds of noisy tourists is a BIG deterrent. The reason why despite living in Kenya for over 2 years, I haven’t yet been to watch the great migration. I have been to endless safaris though, but only during off season. However, that is entirely my personal opinion. To each his or her own.

Getting to experience the hill people was a big gain. Their simple attitude towards life makes you realise how urbanised, self-centred and disconnected we have become. There was no impatience, annoyance or frustration despite the hardships they face daily. What warmed me most was their feeling of brotherhood as was evident in the joint effort of the drivers in Lachen to get that hapless car out. Despite rain, cold and darkness, I neither saw any signs of frayed nerves nor heard any verbal abuse. I witnessed that even more when 6 people who were woken up at 3.30 am, came up with a smile to help us get our car out of that ditch. They didn’t even linger on for tips, although we did leave some money for them. Contrast that to what we observe during traffic jams in the city. Horns, screams and rudeness. Hill travel is risky and so road courtesy is a must to survive. And how beautifully they all observe it. Our driver for the whole trip, Dipen, seemed a bit surprised when we tipped him at the end. Whereas in Siliguri, Amit’s stand-in, blatantly asked us for money simply to guide our trolleys to our Xylo.

We met this family from Calcutta whose holiday in Darjeeling got ruined  as they were hotel-bound for 3 days due to the rains. They were in the same night bus, going through similar travails. We got chatting while waiting for the puncture to be repaired and while they were also worried, the lady said with a big smile, that they love the hills and would again travel north next year. So what if this trip was a washout?

I realised that we have changed a lot since our carefree college days. For example, this aversion to crowds is a newly acquired bourgeois attitude. Ordinary people will vacation during holiday season (when they get leave) and will travel in jeeps that are filled to capacity, to save money. Holidays probably offer them an escape from their routine drudgery and they express that joy without any inhibition. ‘Civilised’ society teaches us to do everything in moderation – speak softly, eat quietly, munch silently, ….. Money and material comfort have indeed made us more impatient, intolerant, hypocritical, self centred and over-critical of the hoi polloi.

Even as a teenager, I had an aversion to the “Rocket Bus” which was the cheapest way to travel up north. I also used to wonder how people use stinky public toilets and had made many imaginary vows regarding what I will never do in life. Although, I escaped from the Rocket Bus, this Volvo bus ride taught me a few valuable lessons. Prime among them was: necessity forces you to do things, whether you like it or not. I remember reading recently how a foreigner understood why taxi drivers in India spit outside while driving. He drove a car without an AC (can’t recall why though) for a few days and realised after continuously inhaling the dust, grime and diesel fumes of our polluted capital, that it is necessary to spit it out. Else you fall sick.

Another big gain from this trip was the strength of our friendship. We shared one room throughout the trip and were never once inconvenienced. When someone fell ill or got hurt or … the other two mothered her. I was financially supported throughout the trip by the other 2 with an indulgent smile. I’m sure we had to compromise at times but that sentiment was never voiced. One of our friends discovered the magic of Eno fruit salt on this trip. Another one had a forced facial done by a total amateur simply because she thought that would give her relief from her traumatic fall. My forgetful nature was a major reason for that post-midnight roll in the ditch. But I never felt any negativity from my dear friends. And most importantly, we laughed outrageously (ottohashyo) throughout our various misadventures and not – except for that single night in Lachen, where we chose to do phish phish (whisper) out of sheer fright! We still managed to cover our mouths and roll in the bed with silent hysterical laughter. And we threw caution into the wind by giggling and guffawing anywhere and everywhere, despite being advised by my friend’s mom to laugh only inside the protected walls of our hotel rooms. Honestly, we tried to follow that dictum.

Some tour details we got from our operator

  • Bagdogra – Gangtok: 130 kms in 4 hrs (5550 ft)
  • Gangtok – Lachen: 130 kms in 7 hrs with some stops and lunch (9175 ft)
  • Lachen – Gurudongmar Lake: to and fro 120 kms in 6 hrs via Thangu Village (13,625 ft) and Chopta Valley (13,325 ft)  to the lake (17,375 ft) – Indians only
  • Lachen – Lachung: 50 kms in 2 hrs (8075 ft)
  • Lachung – Yumthang Valley: 25 kms in 1.5 hrs (11,925 ft)
  • Yumthang – Yumesamdong (Zero Pt): 30 kms in 1.5 hrs (15,750 ft) – Indians only
  • Lachung – Gangtok: 125 kms in 5 hrs

Clothing: Heavy to very heavy woolens from Oct-March and light woolens for the remaining months

Permits: Needed for Changu/Tsongo Lake, Nathu La and North Sikkim (Lachen-Lachung). Valid forms of ID are PP/Voter’s ID/Driving License and 5 copies of PP size pics needed

Altitude sickness: Can be expected especially for people with high BP, asthma, heart problems — please talk to your doctor before venturing

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Tadoba Trip: Jungle experience (part 2)

DAY 3: We passed by the beautiful Telia lake on our way to Choti Tara territory but she was not there. It was a lovely morning and we got some new bird sightings.

I saw a magnificent plum headed parakeet, a green bee eater and an evil looking crocodile.

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Plum headed parakeet
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Green bee eater
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Crocodile

I missed the chance to click a lovely frame of a golden backed woodpecker but could capture a yellow crowned one. They too have an amazing camouflage and I could not see it first against the bark of the tree.

I finally managed to get a clear shot of the resplendent jungle fowl as well. It was again in a mad rush but thankfully it stopped just long enough for me to photograph it. And there were quite a few treepies which gave us hope of a Sonam spotting.

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Jungle Fowl

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Show for the female
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Rufus Treepie – always around tigers to clean their teeth

We almost failed to notice the bamboo plant next to which our jeep was parked. It was flowering, which is a once-in-40 years phenomenon, after which it dies. It also gave me time to admire the light and shade play on the leaves.

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The captivating bamboo flowers
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Isn’t the canopy awesome?

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We waited patiently for Sonam to make another appearance but while she disappointed us, we saw an array of animals coming for a drink of water, one after another, despite the lurking threat. It was so much fun watching this free animal show.

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Wary male sambar walking towards the water

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First arrivals

The sambars were there first to give relief to their parched throats but there were on high alert. Next to come was the majestic white-socked gaur.

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The don’t-mess-with-me look

IMG_9928A pair of shy charsingha were next in line. Only a video can show the trepidation with which they approached their drinking site.

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A pair of charsingha

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Oh for a gulp of water

A pair of barking deer joined them soon after.

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Barking deer

A bunch of langurs were also hydrating their bodies and soon, a wild boar joined them.

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Thirsty langurs
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The boar could not resist taking a roll

Then came the peacock, very nervy and jumpy. Could not drink peacefully at all.

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Our majestic national bird

IMG_9883IMG_9875A white eyed buzzard was the last one to come for a drink that evening. The sun was beginning to set and it was time for us to leave.

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White eyed buzzard
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End of the day

DAY 4: It was our last safari in Tadoba and we wanted a real close encounter with the tiger. Today we visited the buffer zone. All our sightings had been across a waterbody. The first 2 hours were quite unproductive except for learning about the crocodile bark tree.

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Crocodile bark tree

There was a watering hole which was been frequented by the Wagdeo, the oldest and biggest tiger in Tadoba and his cubs. We were told that he had a new young romantic interest called Aishwarya who was the sister of his former mate. But there were conflicting reports about whether the cubs were Aishwarya’s or her sister’s.

After spotting nothing for over an hour, we went to explore the right side of the buffer zone, while my brother and his group who were in another gypsy stayed behind. Barely a minute after we left, their wish was fulfilled as Wagdeo along with his cubs and Aishwarya made an appearance at that concrete watering hole. After frolicking for a while, they disappeared as the tourists were making too much noise. Here is what my brother saw. He did add that the experience felt very artificial – almost like a zoo.

Later we got to know that as we were leaving that side of the buffer zone, some drivers tried to call us as the tigers were spotted. Meanwhile, we went exploring on the other side where there was the vast Irai Lake. We found a purple swamp hen, a lesser adjutant stork and some whistling ducks. I also saw a beautiful flower whose name I still do not know.

We saw some fresh pug marks but failed to see any tiger. Just as we thought our luck had run out, we found a jeep full of photographers beckoning us wildly. Across  an expanse of water, was one of Sharmilee’s cubs peacefully dozing in the water. We missed our much desired “close” encounter by a few minutes as the tiger was just in front before she wanted privacy from the photographers. But we could clearly see the cub with our naked eyes.

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Our first glimpse
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Dozing
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Eyes open
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Who disturbs my slumber?
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You guys again!

We went inside the forest to try and find Sharmilee and her second cub but could not. The bamboo grove was fabulous though. But when we came out, we found another cub in the water! The mother must have been somewhere close.

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Appearance of the second cub

IMG_0082On our way back, the jeep stalled. Thankfully, the driver knew what to do and we came back safely without becoming fodder for the tiger.

Tadoba Trip: Jungle experience (part 1)

“Eki drishshyo dekhi onnyo,  ey je bonnyo ey oronyo” 

(This is a different kind of scenery, this is a wild wild forest) 

DAY 1: Our first safari was in the afternoon of April Fool’s Day. The only thing that made us forget the blazing sun was our excitement of anticipation. I have already written about the general information about visiting this park in Tadoba Trip: A curtain raiser.

The first thing that struck me about the park was how beautiful and green it was. I live in Kenya now and just as my safaris there are never only about lions, I did not come to Tadoba just to see tigers. Of course, I was desperately hoping to see one, for the first time ever, but that did not make me oblivious to the birds and other animals of this place. And the amazing diversity of the flora and habitats in this small area.

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Gaur (Indian bison)
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Dhole (Indian wild dog)
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Lovely snoozing place of the dholes to escape the scorching heat
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Open billed stork
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Honey buzzard
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Chital (Spotted deer)
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Sambars taking refuge in Tadoba Lake

We were lucky to see the famous tigress Maya (P2) with her cubs at Pandharpauni within an hour of our first safari. The amazing camouflage provided by the dry long grass has to be seen to be believed. How beautifully the stripes merge with the golden colour of the reeds and grass. Keep looking and you suddenly get to spot this magnificent animal.

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The Queen of Tadoba – Maya or T2
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See the camouflage I was talking about: Now you see them, now you don’t

She had 3 boys and a little girl who came out to pose for us in the open. But the mother and her sons continued feasting on the sambar they had killed the previous night. Watch the slideshow below. The female cub was so much smaller.

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The little sister
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I am a tiger too!
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But awww, I am still a kid

Suddenly , we saw a wild boar come to drink water near them and I was sure that he would be killed but thankfully, the tigers were not interested. There were some thirsty birds around too, all flocking around the waterhole.

A herd of chitals (spotted deer) also drank water quite cautiously and went on their way. On our way back, we passed by Lake Tadoba and saw quite a few aquatic birds, langurs and sambars.

We were also lucky to sight a serpent eagle on our way. As the weather was getting cooler, the dholes were coming out of their slumber and becoming active. We also spotted a Rufus Treepie which is known as the tiger’s dentist. Unlike the fearless ones in Ranthambore, they shied away from human contact.

A male sambar was grazing by the roadside. A magpie robin was about to call it a day. We also spotted the very shy barking deer. A pair of golden orioles playing in the bush looked a very pretty sight. The sun was beginning to set and in the dusk light I saw a green pigeon for the first time. I could not make out the colours well but I saw their unique colouring in the morning light the next day. We saw quite a few peafowls scurrying around but they were so frisky that I could just about get a bad shot.

But the day belonged to the magnificent setting sun!

DAY 2: The next day turned out to be a day of of mostly birds and an interesting dhole sighting. But we had to get out when the moon was still in the sky at 4am (because we could only get an entry through Zhari gate which was quite far away) but were rewarded with a mesmerising egg-yolk sunrise.

We saw many rollers as usual and a pond kingfisher patiently waiting for its breakfast and a langur sitting near it. We also spotted a jungle fowl scurrying away to god knows where. While we waited by a watering hole where leopard sighting was “guaranteed”, I had a chance to observe quite a few interesting birds around me. Especially my favourite ones – the gorgeous green pigeons.

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The leopard never came despite an hour-long wait – instead chitals came in great numbers, drank water and left. However, I had a great sighting of a Changeable Hawk Eagle who was probably trying to steal a crow’s eggs/chicks and was challenged bravely the much smaller bird.

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The dauntless challenger
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Changeable Hawk Eagle

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Kingfisher and the green pigeons

I also got some interesting shots of langurs. And a very unique ant nest made up of leaves. Never seen something like this before.

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Monkeying around
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The beautiful forest
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Drongo

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Ant nest – you can see the big red ants all over

IMG_9552In the afternoon our entry was through Mohurli gate, we had a glimpse of one of Sonam’s cubs at Jamunjhora. Later in the afternoon, Sonam and the other 2 cubs had also emerged, we were told by another guest at our lodge.

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Sonam’s cub approaching the watering hole

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First full view

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On our way back, we passed by Tadoba Lake which always is a treat for sore eyes.

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Black headed Ibis and little egret
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Croc
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Sambars

Our driver then dashed towards Pandharpauni again to check on Maya. We didn’t have much of a say though. We had a good sighting the previous day and the waiting place is infested with flies who don’t give you a respite. So remember to carry insect repellants if you want to wait here. We did sight Maya in the long grass and she seemed to be initially interested in a kill but then the sambars got a wind of her presence and scampered away, alerting all and sundry. The chitals followed suit quickly.

On our way back, we saw the ghost tree (that changes colour every season; white in winter, pink in spring and brown in summer) and some more birds. When it is white, its silvery bark glistens in the dark, especially on a moonlit night. We were there in April and a few of them quite ghostly white, although it was beginning to change colour.

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Reminded me of Harry Potter’s Whomping Willow

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The we saw a pack of dholes on a hunt. They seemed to have some kind of plan as they disappeared up on a hillock after coming close to the group of sambar. We could not wait long as it was getting dark.

I spotted a ruddy mongoose with some kind of berry in its mouth. Also, a Brahminy starling, treepie, peacock and barking deer.

And then we got back to the lodge for the night. The sunset was nothing spectacular like the other day. We saw a peacock engaged in a mating dance but promptly showed us his back as we came closer. In any case, the object of his attention had moved away.

 

 

Tadoba Trip: A curtain raiser

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  • Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve (TATR) is Maharashtra’s oldest and largest National Park. The current TATR (625.4 sq km) was established after Tadoba National Park merged with Andhari Wildlife Sanctuary
  • TATR is divided into 3 forest ranges – Tadoba, Kolsa, and Mohurli (sandwiched between the first two)
  • The rain-fed Tadoba and Kolsa lakes together with the Tadoba river sustain the park’s diverse eco-system.
  • It is open from 15th October to 30th June
  • Closed every Tuesday (and on Holi) but the buffer zone is open
  • Book your safari online before you look around for any accommodation or transport
  • It helps if you can arrange for a good guide and driver but they are readily available at the gate on a rotational basis but a good one may not be guaranteed

The first time I had heard of Tadoba was around 2012, when my friends had gone there and come back with a lifetime experience of tiger sightings. I also learnt that in Tadoba, the question to be asked was “how many?” and not “did you?”.

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Our final group of 9

My experience in the Sunderbans was very disappointing and although Kaziranga rewarded us generously with wildlife and otherwise, we did not see the elusive Royal Bengal tiger. So, a Tadoba plan had already started germinating in my head but our sudden transfer out of India put a big spoke in my planning wheel. I was planning to go last year during my daughter’s school break but came to know that the park closes for 3 months after June. This year, I was determined to go. My brother was also game for a tiger safari in April. Our initial tour group of 3 ultimately trebled in size to a very nice mix of 9 with the members’ ages ranging from 11 to 83!

We booked our plane tickets to Nagpur in January as Indigo was giving an amazing round trip offer of around INR 5,800. After intensive googling, I zeroed in on Serai Tiger for our lodging. However I learnt later that we should have started the process by first booking our safaris. The booking system here is totally different from the African safaris! Thankfully, by various permutations and combinations of entries through different gates, the camp manager Mr Dev booked us 6 safaris.

We flew to Nagpur on April 1st and spent that night at the house of my old school mate Swagatika, who I was meeting after December 1977!! She was incredibly and unbelievably gracious not only to house all NINE of us but also serve a delicious spread of palak paneer, Kolhapuri chicken, prawn malaikari and doi maachh (fish in yoghurt sauce). This informal gathering at her house proved to be a good icebreaker (while snacking on authentic Bengali vegetable cutlets) as most of the group members hadn’t met each other before. The manager at Serai Tiger even asked me once, if we were all very old friends, such was the visible camaraderie amongst us.

After dinner, my friend told us that many beautiful birds visited the garden in front of her balcony early in the morning. We made a mental note of it but did not take her so seriously as we probably thought how many birds can visit this concrete jungle?

I woke up early to give her company in the kitchen and had more or less forgotten about the birds. Suddenly, the oldest (and the most experienced wild lifer) member of our group urgently called me to the balcony. What a sight greeted my sleepy eyes! Birds of all hues and sizes were very busy with their morning chores around the verdant patch in front of us. Parakeets flew around in gay abandon. And bird calls greeted us from all corners. I will let the photos do the talking but I rued the fact that I had not gone out earlier to see a few more. Birds don’t enjoy the heat of the summer and are usually around in the early hours of the morning and again around sunset time.

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After a sumptuous home-made dosa breakfast, we left for Tadoba in the big van sent to us by the lodge. The roads were smooth and we reached in time for lunch (very good taxi driver Prakash Dungre +91 9423404693) and soon got ready for our first safari. We had been warned about the deadly heat in that part of the country but had also been assured that in early April, the heat will be bearable. However, while driving to Mohurli gate in an open Gypsy, we felt we were passing through a furnace. Our hats and sunglasses hardly provided any relief. The jungle did not provide a canopy either and we got roasted almost until sunset. Looking at the headgears of the other tourists, who were all dressed up as the infamous bandits of the Chambal Valley, we all realised that we had made a BIG mistake in our estimation of heat. But our excitement and very good sightings made us forget the heat for a while. More about the beautiful forest and its flora and fauna in my next post.

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The beautiful Tadoba
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A must, if you are going in summer

IMPORTANT INFORMATION FOR FIRST-TIMERS

Safaris can be booked by you online at this site. Bookings are open 120 days in advance but they go away very quickly. However, some resorts do it for you at a nominal charge. A safari costs about Rs 3500 per jeep. Not person. Keep some cash with you.

  • Forest entry fee – Rs 1000
  • Gypsy charges – Rs 2000 (IN CASH) unless the resort arranges one for you before
  • Every camera over 250mm lens – Rs 200 (in CASH)
  • Compulsory Guide – Rs 300 (in CASH)

The group leader’s name along with his/her ID details are required during the booking. He/she MUST be present while entering the park; else the permit will be canceled. It is better to enter more names, as cancellation is not an issue (a jeep can carry a maximum of 6 people plus driver & guide). Add-ons are allowed but I am not too clear about how it is done — all I can say is that it can be done at the gate for an additional fee. According to rules, the names cannot be altered after the safari booking but some do it illegally. Usually, only the group leader’s ID is checked but a random check may happen any time. So it is better to keep your IDs with you. Remember to carry a printout of the online receipt with you at all times.

A much cheaper canter bus safari has now been introduced but you must reach the gate very early and wait for the bus to be filled up to a required minimum number of tourists.

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Tadoba map

There are SIX gates or points of entry at Tadoba National Park:

  • Moharli/Mohurli (approx 180 km from Nagpur): NINE vehicles allowed every morning and evening (total of 18 a day) for a tiger safari from this gate.
  • Kuswanda Gate (approx 140 km from Nagpur): FOUR vehicles allowed every morning and evening.
  • Kolara Gate (approx 120 km from Nagpur): NINE vehicles allowed every morning and evening.
  • Navegaon Gate (approx 140 km from Nagpur): SIX vehicles allowed every morning and evening.
  • Pangdi Gate (approx 250 km): TWO vehicles allowed every morning and evening.
  • Zari Gate (approx 190 km): SIX vehicles allowed every morning and evening.

Accommodation facilities are best found near Mohurli and Kolara gates.

MTDC and FDCM guest houses are the best located and cheapest places to stay with all basic amenities. However, food options are very limited. They only have online booking facilities. Do not try to call them.

Royal Tiger Resort is another very affordable place right next to Mohurli gate. It is a favourite haunt for photographers. There are other resorts too to suit your budget needs. Check this site for very comprehensive information on TATR.

We were very happy with our stay at Serai Tiger Camp. The “tents” were very spacious and comfortable and the food very wholesome. The staff was also very helpful and polite.

At the Kolara gate, the most famous high end resort is Svasara but Chava is much more reasonable and very good, according to my friends who have stayed there. Their food is very good too but 100% vegetarian. The biggest plus of this gate is that it is much much quieter than the very touristy and noisy Mohurli.