Monday, May 14, 2007

Himalayan Holiday - Tinchulay

The next morning it was time to leave Gangtok and Sikkim. Our next night halt would be in the Gorkha village of Tinchulay in northern West Bengal. We left in the morning, so we could see the road we had arrived by in daylight. As we descended the valley more tropical plants such as bananas began to appear, and with the bananas came road side monkeys lounging on the stone walls that attempt to prevent vehicles from plummeting into the river below. A couple of hours later we were at the border post in Rangpo once more. We pulled over to hand in my pass to confirm that I was leaving Sikkim. That formality complete it was time to press on. However, the road had become jammed as a collection of 4x4s, trucks and buses were trying to squeeze through too small a road. To free the traffic, our driver had to jump down and start directing the battling drivers. Soon we were moving again; now in West Bengal with southern Sikkim on the opposite bank of the Teesta.

Our driver pointed out a large building across the river; it was a major Sikkim brewery. There were a few houses nearby, and we were informed that the village was called Malli. The village on our bank was also Malli; it is split by the state line and river. We stopped in the West Bengal Malli for a spot of river rafting. Although billed as white water, it was mostly a gentle affair with a manageable amount of splashes. Apparently it is much more exciting when the river is high after the monsoon.

We were introduced to our two river guides who gave us a brief lesson in paddling, and some life jackets. Then we entered the raft and pushed off. Our driver headed off downstream to pick us up once we were done. As I said, the water level was low, so we had a very pleasant drift downstream between the jungle clad hills. At one point one of the guides jumped in for a swim. Then the other motioned as if he was going to do the same and leave us. Fortunately he remained at his post. Once the other crew-member was back aboard he suggested that we too go for a swim. San went first with a rope tied to her life jacket. I followed, holding the same rope with my hand. Unsurprisingly the water was cold, and it took a few seconds to get my breath back. Once accustomed to the temperature, it was a pleasant cooling off. We were now not much higher than the plains, and the heat reflected the geography. We were called back on board for the final rough stretch. Then, after an hour on the river we pulled into the bank. The guides put the raft onto their jeep, and gave us a lift to our waiting driver. We changed out of our wet clothes in a room provided in a nearby shop, and then we headed off to Tinchulay.

Tinchulay is a small village high up on the hillside. The road was single track, and the jeep's harsh suspension made it hard going. As we headed up the plants changed once more; bananas giving way to bamboo, then ferns and pine forest. The local farmers take advantage of the situation and grow a wide variety of crops at the different altitudes: bananas, strawberries, tea, bamboo, potatoes, cardamom and much more. All this land was farmed by the Tinchulay inhabitants, and as we would learn later, it is completely organic, and all the food provided, including honey, is grown on the land.

Eventually we arrived, and our driver pointed out the honeymoon building with much nudge-nudge-say-no-more type chat. 'Not for you, just for newlyweds!' - he was suitably embarassed when we checked in to the very same place! We had arrived in time for lunch, and had the first of the hearty that the Gorkhas would serve. All local produce, and apparently their religion requires them to give guests two of everything. It makes for very generous hospitality, but also very full stomachs. Our hosts hoped that we would soon look as robust as themselves. I suspect that the daily working on the mountainside has as much, if not more, to do with their physique than the food. I can recommend pickled bamboo shoots: I had never eaten panda food before; it was very tasty.

We made an attempt to walk off the lunch and had a walk around the village. First we headed off towards some caves. We never found them, but noticed that there were two schools serving the population. Green and blue uniformed children were marching up and down the hill in opposite directions. The scenery was in some ways reminiscent of a forest walk in Scotland, with lots of ferns and conifers. Later we were informed that there were also leopards and bears, but not to worry as they only come for the goats and dogs. On our return to the village a young boy was appointed as our mini guide and he led us up the hill, past chickens and goats, and through the rest of the village. We returned past the playing field where a game of cricket was in progress.

We had a rest after our walk, and were woken up in the evening for some entertainment. One of the locals was singing songs with his guitar. The tunes ranged from local folk-songs, to Bollywood classics, to some very mangled Bob Dylan. We were served some of the local brew to see us through the cool night. It was a fermented millet based drink. Not the best, but as with most things alcoholic it slips down easily enough after the first few sips. Occasionally the clouds would part revealing a very starry sky, and at one point a fire-fly provided some extra illumination. Once the singing was over it was time for dinner, and our hosts made sure that we were as well fed as we were at lunch.



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