Sunday, December 13, 2009

Unravelling the beauty of Himalayas -- A visit to Lava, Lolegaon & Rishap

Having stayed in Mumbai for most of my life, my recent visit to the Hills near Kalimpong was an enriching, enlivening and a memorable experience, enough to captivate my heart. The breathtaking view of the tea gardens, the winding mountain roads, deep valleys, towering mountains and trickling mountain streams during the journey from Bagdogra Airport to Lolegaon, a small village at the height of 5,500 ft from sea level is etched in my memory, even today.

I was on a 4 day trip with my better-half to celebrate my first marriage anniversary and the setting was perfect as it gave us ample time to be amidst nature and enjoy its pristine beauty in all its glory. The Hill stations of Lava, Lolegaon in the Darjeeling district of West Bengal are among the lesser known and least visited places on the Darjeeling circuit. We decided to visit the places as we had heard the beauty of these places is unparalleled and they are epitome of virgin beauty.We had heard those places are lined by tall pine trees, often engulfed in mist and fog, making it a perfect destination for especially for honeymooners and people seeking seclusion and solitude.

An hour's flight from Kolkata took us to Bagdogra Airport, a small airport known for its strategic importance. Our cab driver was waiting at the airport and we proceeded on our 5 hours drive via Siliguri and Garubathan. Another road leads to Lolegaon through Kalimpong, but we preferred this stretch as it offered lovely landscape dotted with tea gardens all around. We stopped at a roadside shop to relish steaming momos, a favourite with locals, along with cup of tea, to refresh us.

The Teesta played hide and seek for a while as we winded our way up the mountain road and crossed it over the Coronation bridge. The bridge is in itself a marvellous piece of engineering. As we started gaining height, the forests of pine started getting dense and it gave us an errie feeling. The distance from Bagdogra to Lolegaon is over 140 kms and by around 4:30 p.m it turned dark. We realised we still had a long way to go. The road got covered in mist and the clouds had started descending. We passed small villages on the way and our cab driver must have been an expert hand at driving to take us safely to Lolegaon as the visibility had reduced to only a few feets. It was dark all around and the gorge on the other side sent a chill through the spine once I thought what if the car skidded. At times we passed the mobile towers and small villages which gave us the feeling of inhabitants being close by. We just kept driving through the mountain roads, holding hands praying to God to reach Lolegaon in safety. The mountains looked like dark rocks jutting against the moonlight. We reached Lolegaon at around 7:00 p.m and were happy to move in to the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council Lodge, more commonly called the Dafey Munal Lodge. The temperature had dropped to a mean 7 degrees centigrade and the warm and cozy lodge gave us the much needed rest after our long drive.

Woke up early in the next morning in anticipation of viewing the sunrise over the Kanchendzonga. As I stepped out to the verandah I could only see mist all around and feel a chill in the air. I expected the golden sun piercing through the cold darkness of the silent nights to fall on the Kanchendznga. I waited a long time for the fog to clear out, but alas it was not my day. I missed the glimpse of the glorious sunrise behind the beautiful Kanchenjunga ranges. However, that filled in me the desperate desire to visit the place again. After our morning cuppa of hot tea, we took a stroll through the woods.
We could hear the sweet music of "Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells .. Jingle all the way" floating through the air. We followed the music and reached St. Stephen's Academy, a beautiful school set amidst the wonderful hills.We walked back to the market and then towards the Heritage Forest. We took the entry ticket to the park, which was Rs.10 and enjoyed the Canopy walk. This is an interesting piece of walk on a path made of logs to form a sort of hanging bridge and pulled in place by strong steel wires. and affixed to the trees. It gives one a breathtaking view of the forest and the valley below. We lazed around the forest and spent the time in solitude, disturbed only by the call of crickets and the chirping of birds hidden from our eyes. We then returned to the bus/jeep stand and moved through the small shops stored with traditional Crockery and handicrafts. In fact Lolegaon is a small place and does not have too many hotels or lodges, nor does it have many shops or establishments.

Our next destination was Rishyap at an altitude of 8500 ft above sea level.. Rishyap, in Lepcha language means “lofty cliff of forest of ancients trees”. We boarded the 12:30p.m bus from Lolegaon and covered a distance of 14 kms for tickets priced at Rs.30 per pax to reached Lava at around 1:30 p.m. Rishyap is a three and a half kilometres trek from Lava. Alternately jeeps ply on the route and charge Rs.400 It is a beautiful picturusque village with terrace farmings of potato, maize and cabbage. Over viewing the Neora Valley National Park it provides one with a spectacular 360 degree view of snow clad peaks & passes (Mt. Khangchendzonga, Nathula, Jelep La etc), Rishap is a real treat for tired eyes and souls. The journey from Lave to Rishyap is a photographer’s paradise. The trek is a nice one where we walked through the forest road ranging from dense to sparse vegetation.The sudden twist and turns of the trek route opened up scenes which could leave any visitor gasping for more. The lazy wintry sun peeped through the clouds throwing up myriads of colours in the sky. As soon as the sun hid behind the clouds it felt cold and chilly. We covered the distance of three and a half kms of trek in about 2 hrs walking at a very leisurely pace and enjoying the beauty of nature. We reached Rishyap and put up at our cottage. The full moon at night presented an awe inspiring spectacle.

Next morning at around 8:30 a.m we stared our return journey from Rishyap. We walked through dense forests of bamboo and pine to reach Lava at around 11:00 a.m. Put up at the Forest Guest house and hired a jeep for our trip to Kolakham and Chagey Falls. Chagey lake is a distance of about 18 kms from Lava and one can go there by hiring a jeep/car. We hired a car and started at around 12:30 p.m. It took us about an hour to reach the place. In fact the road is just about motorable. However the beauty of the place is worth mentioning. We passed through dense forest of bamboos, oaks, rhododendrons and wild shrubs and reached Kolakham. Kolakham is a small village of the Rai's who are followers of Lord Krishna and shun alcohol, meat as well as garlic.We passed the Neora Valley Jungle camp and reached Chagey Falls. spent time enjoying the beauty of nature.

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