Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Jorepokhri (Darjeeling Hills)

From Lepchajagat my wife and I visited Sukhia (6 km away) and then drove up to Jorepokhri (1 km from Sukhia). Jorepokhri (meaning 'two ponds') is a lovely place and offers, like Lepchajagat, a wonderful view of the Kanchenjunga.

Jorepokhri is a picnic / holiday / religious spot. It has two temples -- apparently many pilgrims visit them during certain festivals -- I could see a large number of benches on either side of the pine-lined road leading from Sukhia to Jorepokhri -- they are probably meant for the pilgrims who climb by foot from Sukhia.

Out of the two ponds, one is meant for drinking water and is fenced off. The other one looks very pretty, has lots of ducks playing in it and is surrounded by a well-maintained garden (and the pine forests and hills beyond) -- it is a tourist spot. Overlooking this pond is a DGHC resort which is very well maintained and offers a lovely view of Kanchenjunga too. I went inside this DGHC resort to check it out and found it better maintained than the WBFDC resort at Lepchajagat. However, unlike Lepchajagat this place is somewhat noisy with music blaring from loudspeakers during the daytime -- both from the temples (religious music for devotees) and the garden (film songs for the picnickers).

Mirik lake (Darjeeling Hills)

From Lepchajagat I visited Mirik (32 km away). The road is quite good. Mirik is a small town known for its beautiful lake and Buddhist monastery. One can go for boat rides in the lake.

Mirik is situated just 43 km away from Siliguri -- very good road and the climb is gentle.

Lepchajagat (Darjeeling Hills)

My wife and I enjoyed a wonderful holiday at Lepchajagat in the Darjeeling Hills in Dec 2005. We also visited Jorepokhri and Mirik.

We holidayed at the WBFDC ( resort at Lepchajagat (8 km from Ghoom along the Mirik road). The view of Kanchenjunga from Lepchajagat and Jorepokhri is quite spectacular. Our suite at Lepchajagat had a completely unobstructed view of the Kanchenjunga massif from our bedroom window.

We travelled from Kolkata in our car (Maruti Esteem). Around 50% of the road between Kolkata and Siliguri (Kolkata to Siliguri is 600 km) is pretty bad at present -- some stretches are so badly potholed and broken that I had to drive for scores of km in first gear. The car's suspension took severe beating, but survived. The stretch between Dalkhola and Islampur is excellent. Ghat roads after Siliguri are good -- we climbed up by the Main Road (Hill Cart Road) but descended by the Mirik Road -- the latter is wider and better.

As usual, I took many photos -- have uploaded some at

I had gone thro' Arnab Chatterjee's travel blog before going to Lepchajagat and seen the pictures of Lepchajagat( ) -- I even printed out his guide Amar Rai's photo ( ) in the hope that I might locate him at Lepchajagat. As I approached the WBFDC resort in my car, Amar opened the gates -- I recognised him from his photo and asked him,"Is your name Amar Rai"? He answered in the affirmative and my wife was stunned as we had never been near Lepchajagat before. In jest I told my wife that my recognition of Amar had something to do with reincarnation!

Subsequently, I gave a printout of his photo to Amar and asked him to guide me to 'Hawa Ghar' thro' the forest, as he had guided Arnab. I got up early one morning, Amar was nowhere to be seen, and I decided to locate Hawa Ghar myself -- based on rough directions given by the caretaker the previous evening. Following the foot tracks thro' the forest and my own instinct, I climbed the nearby hills and reached the spot with the large rocks surrounded by railings (Ghoom Rock) without much difficulty. I had forgotten reading about Ghoom Rock at Arnab's blog and thought that was Hawa Ghar. After resting a bit and taking pics, I noticed another foot track leading away from this spot into dense forest. Since this was in the general direction from which I had come, I decided to be adventurous and follow it. To my amazement, after 100 metres or so down this track I came across Hawa Ghar from where I got a spectacular view of the K'junga range.

After taking many pics, I followed another foot track and started descending. After about half an hour, I found myself in a valley and then the tracks disappeared. The logical thing probably would have been simply to go back to Hawa Ghar, then to Ghoom Rock and back to Lepchajagat -- but I decided to navigate my way thro' the forest using the sun for rough directions as I was already quite tired and did not want to climb back. Eventually, I got completely lost -- got into really dense forest -- got extremely tired (I wasn't carrying any water, unfortunately) -- and almost panicked. I sat down and rested and realised that I had climbed down into a valley between two large hills and there was no choice other than climbing out of it. Again, using the sun and my instincts for direction, I started climbing a hill through dense undergrowth which was difficult to penetrate at times and took a lot of effort and energy. The forest was slushy and I slipped and fell a few times -- if I had injured myself, it would have been virtually impossible to get any help as there wasn't a soul anywhere near and nobody was likely to come that way either. My mobile phone (Hutch) was showing full signal strength, but I was not in a position to give my co-ordinates to anyone over the phone.

To cut a long story short, I did manage to cut thro' the forest and climb to the top of one hill from where I could roughly determine my position and identify some foot tracks again. Subsequently, I could hear the faint sounds of passing vehicles and descended towards the road. I managed to reach the same foot track which I had used for ascending and thereafter reaching Lepchajagat was no problem.

I must place on record the fact that if I had not seen Arnab's blog and his account of going to Hawa Ghar thro' the forests I would not have attempted this trek. The trek turned out (luckily) most fulfilling and memorable in the end -- it would have been just a routine trek if I had taken a guide!

Another amazing coincidence was that Arnab's colleague and friend Indranil Sarkar was holidaying at the same resort along with his wife Shrabana -- when I narrated the story of my trek to him and told him about Arnab's travel blog, he told me that Arnab is his colleague at the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics at Kolkata.

Driving in India

I have many grouses about my day-to-day life in India -- and the way Indians drive is pretty much near the top of the heap. It so happens that I love my car and like to drive it myself -- the price I pay is having to contend with the most insensitive and unruly drivers on a daily basis. And it is not just the paid chauffeurs and taxi / bus / autorikshaw drivers who flout traffic rules with impunity -- a majority of the so-called 'bhadralok' are no different. In my opinion, the two main reasons for this kind of animal-like (junglee) behaviour on the road are :

a) The basic nature of the quintessential urban Indian dictates complete insensitivity towards inconveniencing a stranger -- "I must get ahead, and to hell with the other fellow in whose path I cut in or who gets elbowed off the road -- it is his problem, not mine". This same insensitivity manifests itself in many things that are quite common in India -- like tossing garbage / litter on the road, spitting on walls, playing ear-splitting music round the clock during 'festivals', blocking major thoroughfares during political / protest 'rallies', parking without bothering whether another car is getting blocked, etc., etc.

b) Grossly inadequate enforcement -- the traffic police simply turn a blind eye to most offences. This is particularly evident in Kolkata where the traffic constables usually just sit inside booths at road intersections and manually operate traffic signals. They require to meet some weekly quota of booking traffic offenders -- so they just note down the numbers of a few vehicles which are jumping the light or getting into a one-way road from the wrong side -- owners of these vehicles get a challan by post about two months later! Not surprisingly, it is mostly private cars which get 'challaned' this way -- buses, taxis and autorikshaws pay regular 'hafta'. Govt and police vehicles are a class apart -- they are officially allowed to break all rules including jumping signals in Kolkata. Sometimes I wonder why the 'babu' sitting at the back of a govt car never feels the urge to chastise his driver.

One very common technique in West Bengal to avoid getting your number noted is to write the numbers in a very small size using a flowery / thin font which cannot be read beyond a distance of a couple of metres. Almost 90% of the motorcycles and 60% of the cars are using such number plates -- very few old-timers like me are adhering to the size and font laid down in the Motor Vehicles Act. Funnily, during my 5 years in Kolkata I have never seen even one instance of a vehicle being pulled up / challaned for using illegible number plates.

When people know that they can get away with violating rules, why won't an inherently indisciplined populace violate rules? The solution lies in danda (enforcement).

One big city where I found the traffic cops to be relatively efficient is Bombay. There I found vehicles getting challaned for lane-cutting, rash driving, overspeeding, unnecessary honking, illegible number plates, head / tail lights not working, etc. -- totally inconceivable in this lawless metropolis of Kolkata where every commercial vehicle is forced to display the slogan "traffic ayeen mene cholun" (obey traffic rules)!! Interestingly, this is probably the only place in India where the police force is unionised and it is almost impossible to take departmental action against an erring constable. I find these cops most 'effective' between 8 PM to 8 AM when trucks are allowed to enter / leave the city and every 200 metres these fellows stand like beggars to extract one or two rupees from every truckwallah (otherwise they will be harassed, their papers will be scrutinised, and some flimsy fault will be found).

The 'stuff' Kolkata cops are made of was most evident during the terrorist strike on the US Consulate here a couple of years ago when a large group of armed policemen were seen cringing and hiding behind police vehicles. The terrorists merrily did whatever they wanted to and escaped coolly.

In India, no truck gets pulled up for 'usual' things like not having working head / tail lights, iron beams / bamboos sticking out several meters beyond their tail end, etc. Every commercial vehicle driver has to keep lots of small change and then anything goes.

I just returned from the Darjeeling hills -- driving 680 km each way through West Bengal -- badly broken / potholed roads (about 60% of the 600 km stretch between Kol and Siliguri) and unruly traffic -- sometimes I wonder whether it is a streak of insanity in me which makes me do such things -- but when I reach the well maintained ghat roads in the fragrant hills (or a good stretch on the highway) I forget all my travails and imagine that there is nothing like driving in my own beloved car!