Winner of the Wild Escape Competition
Gorkhaland’s Wild West
The freshly brushed floor of compacted cow dung was smooth and cool under foot. I crossed the room, climbed into the heavy wooden bed next to Jamie and blew out the candle. Night crept in through the open window bringing with it the intoxicating scent of gardenias, and quietening the moths and insects that had been dive-bombing the candle’s flame. Curling up under the blanket, my body relaxed on to the hard mattress, while outside pale moonlight whispered through the forest on the other side of the valley. Somewhere on the horizon Kanchenjunga’s five tiger-toothed caps glinted silver against the black sky.
Kalimpong, on the border of West Bengal and Sikkim, sits along a ridge at an altitude of 1,200–1,700 metres (4,000–6,000 feet). We met Jiwan Rai there through our connection with an NGO which provides aid to local schools in the area. When he invited us to stay in his nearby family village, we eagerly packed our rucksacks.
Twelve kilometres (seven miles) to the east of Kalimpong lies the Neora Valley National Park, a biodiversity hotspot, home to red pandas, the staggeringly beautiful clouded leopard, Asiatic black bears and the occasional tiger. But we went the opposite way, following the ridge to Pedong before heading north and ducking into the forest, then down into the Rangpo River valley. This is the wild west of Gorkhaland, free from tourist eco-lodges and jungle safaris.
Earlier in the week our Gorkha friends, with a twinkle in their collective eye, had suggested we take an easy two-day hike in Singalila National Park. After eight hours of seemingly vertical climbing in driving rain we realized their idea of easy was quite different from our own. The colourful wild rhododendron bushes and temperate broadleaf trees, dripping with wild orchids, didn’t take away the pain and cold at 3,000 metres (10,000 feet). This time we equipped ourselves with dry walking boots, sensible trousers and waterproofs.
Like most settlements in the region, Barranumber village clings to the mountain miles from any passable road. You get there by trekking by the side of quinine plantations, and through forest. Early in the day, as the sun struggled to reach into the deep valley, we crossed a stream via a narrow mossy log. With nothing but our wits to cling to, Jamie and I cautiously edged our way across the three-metre (ten-foot) drop. Before we had finished congratulating ourselves for not slipping, a local woman, in Lepcha traditional dress (including a long skirt and flip flops), pranced across the same bridge with a bundle of fire-wood on her head.
We broke out of the forest into steep, open land from where we began our traverse along a narrow track. Small cultivated terraces, dotted with wild shrubs and flowers, dropped sharply beneath us. This far away from the bubbling stew of India’s overcrowded cities, we had imagined we would find silence. There were no human voices, but the noise was relentless: insects, birds and other nameless creatures clicked, trilled, chirped, stridulated, buzzed, fluttered, hissed and rustled.
Now and then we stopped on the narrow trail to gaze down at the shimmering Rangpo River beneath us. On the opposite side of the valley, Sikkim beckoned.
‘Tomorrow we will make a camp, catch fish and have a picnic on the riverbank,’ said Jiwan.
We identified birch, oak, maple and alder as we dipped in and out of the forest, but many of the trees were unfamiliar.
‘That is okhar,’ said Jiwan, pointing at a large tree with thin yellow racemes hanging from its branches. Jamie recognized it as walnut.
Passing above a small patch of land thick with cardamoms, we entered Barranunber village. There is no road or shop or restaurant here, just a few small houses huddled together under the shade of enormous trees. The inhabitants’ homes are interlinked by paths that run through each other’s gardens. When I was stopped in my tracks by the extravagant scent of a gardenia bush, Jiwan picked a single bloom for each of us while the owner nodded his welcome.
Houses in this part of the eastern Himalaya are constructed from timber frames cut from local trees. Panels of latticed bamboo are fixed between each wooden post, then filled and set with cow dung. At first glance they are indistinguishable from the wattle and daub buildings of home. Roses, geraniums and other English country garden flowers, arranged outside in pots, only add to the feeling of familiarity. Exteriors are usually painted in pastel hues of blue and green, and inside a kind of slip, like whitewash, is painstakingly smoothed over the walls. The corrugated tin roofs, often painted in shades of terracotta, are the most obvious difference between our Tudor houses and these Himalayan counterparts.
At the Rai family bungalow we drank tea and talked about the village. Most people from the 90 households work in the quinine and tea plantations. With wages of around 2,500 Rs per month (£32), villagers supplement their income by growing crops. But, as elsewhere, changes in the world’s climate have reached this small mountain enclave.
‘One year recently we had hail stones for two hours,’ said Premika, Jiwan’s sister, ‘and we lost all our crops.’
The Rai’s kitchen is in a separate out-house, and contains a low double range that grows out of the burnished cow-dung floor. There is no electricity. In the evening we sat on the floor sipping a fermented maize called tiger’s milk, while Kabita, Jiwan’s sister-in-law, stoked the double hearth. Sumnima, her fifteen month-old-daughter, played in the ashes and guzzled along with us. When the range was ready, Kabita cooked the food directly in the flames. We moved on to tongba, millet beer served in a bamboo tube, and all patiently waited for the momos, noodles and tender pork to cook. Smoke billowed around us as the drink took its effect in the darkness.
Our bellies full, we rounded off the day enjoying the warm hug of raksi, a hot Himalayan moonshine made from rhododendrons.