Mountain sights and sounds in winter will make you forget and forgo more than you wish for, says Supreeta Singh

We didn’t expect the things that happened on this trip. My two girl friends, Sammy and Debolina and I have travelled together many times before, but Lava and Rishop caught us off guard. It made us laugh, cry, fight, lose patience, forget things, meet wonderful people, spend sleepless nights and have an incredibly good time.
It was Sammy’s idea to visit a cold place during winter. We decided to spend Christmas at the small hill towns of Lava and Rishop in North Bengal. We were warned that the temperature could dip as low as zero degrees but we ignored it. Little did we know that the experience would leave us in cold sweat!
 
Day 1 – December 23

We boarded the 8 pm Kanchan Kanya Express from Sealdah on December 23 straddled with eight bags — thanks to our woolens. Our RAC tickets split the three of us. After dinner I went to stretch myself on the upper berth but got stuck midway. With one foot on the upper wrung of the ladder, one foot scrambling to touch the floor and one hand desperately clutching the seat, I hung on to the iron support with all eyes glued on me. A young man sitting on the opposite berth came to my rescue. Originally from Rajasthan, he now lives in Bhutan, he said and had come to Kolkata on a business trip. Debolina eyed him with suspicion while he chattered on about Bhutan and its beauty, showed us his shopping bonanza from Burrabazar and even handed me three one rupee notes of Bhutan as a souvenir! It was soon time to call it a night.

Day 2 – December 24

The morning began with our first disaster. In the bathroom, Debolina sent her mobile down the hole. We could not do anything but sit sadly. The mobile must have gone to the permanent lost and never found bucket of Indian Railways. Around 9 am, we reached New Mal Junction. We waved goodbye to our helpful neighbour, collected our luggage and disembarked from the train. As the train began to move, the young man called us back. Debolina had forgotten her bag that contained our money, tickets, hotel reservations, my wallet and phone among other things. Debolina ran and grabbed it. A few seconds late and we would have been stranded at New Mal forever! We could not believe our luck. That guy neither took our numbers nor asked our names, but saved us twice.
Our car was waiting outside. As we went up the hills, the tension melted away as we soaked in the natural beauty. When we reached Lava, our cabbie asked us to take another car and head to Hotel Paradise. We were perplexed. Lava was a small town. How much further are we going? Nonetheless, we followed his advice. We took a cab. Few minutes later, we saw the first cabbie following us. Why? Because we had forgotten our food bag in the cab. The third disaster.
We were already tired and famished, and there was more waiting! Half-way through the journey, we realised our fourth disaster. Paradise was cheap here, so there was a Hotel Paradise in both Lava and Rishop. Our first cabbie had thought that we were going to Paradise in Rishop. So he had put us in another cabbie for Rishop. But we were headed for Paradise Lava. As we did a U turn, we didn’t know whether to laugh or cry! As we charted our course back, the driver politely asked us to pay Rs 200 instead of the usual fair of Rs 450. He wasted his time and it was he who was sorry that he had to take money from us.
On reaching our hotel, we changed, had lunch and went out. Our first and only stop was the nearby Lava monastery. We had emptied our bags and wore everything we were carrying and yet felt bitterly cold. We were shaking, shivering and turning blue. Walking slowly and braving a biting cold wind, we went around the monastery. Not a single monk was visible. They must have attained a spiritual elevation to evade the the chill. A few tourists loitered around. As evening fell, we were engulfed by fog that drifted from the hills and in a few seconds everything was enveloped in a misty embrace.
By the time we came back to the hotel, we shivered uncontrollably. We carried three small bottles of whisky. It was Christmas Eve. Out came our candles and cakes. Sammy turned on the laptop to play music. I poured the drinks. In the next hour, we danced and made merry and at 8 pm, three pegs down I fell asleep thinking that I can pass the night oblivious of the all-pervading chill. I was wide awake at 8.45 pm, cold and trembling. At dinner, we met a couple from Kolkata who told us that only brandy can keep us alive! At midnight, two of us knocked on their doors and begged for brandy, because death, we realised, is worse than losing your dignity.
 
 Day 3 – December 25

Our first stop of the day was Rachela Peak. Together with another couple, a guide and bottles of water, we walked up the mountain. It was hard, to say the least. I gasped and panted and after twenty minutes reached the top. The view was breathtaking. It was a foggy day. I stood at more than 7,000 feet above sea-level with mountains rolling on all sides, a forest inhabited by bears behind me and the naked, azure sky above. The silence was golden.
For breakfast, we went to Orchid restaurant at the city centre. The place was crammed with Bengali tourists, even during this off-season. In contrast to the quiet nature of the hill people, the noise of the tourists from the plains, was severely disagreeable. Even in Lava, they were stuffing themselves with bread, banana and eggs! Were they at a picnic at the Victoria memorial?
Stuffed with a breakfast of momo, soup, bread and coffee, we headed off to Chhangey Falls. The guide informed us about the films that have been shot here. On the way back, our guide suggested we take a detour. It was a scary experience. A vertigo victim, I almost swooned as I trudged along the narrow and steep path holding on to Sammy.
By early afternoon, it was time to say goodbye to Lava and head to Rishop, a hamlet situated at 8,000 feet. We reached Neora Valley Resort — a beautiful property scattered with cottages amidst a sumptuous spread of greenery. We were told that this is the place where Kanchenjunga can be viewed the best. I waited for it to be morning.
 
Day 4
December 26

It was 6 am when we were woken up by tourists shouting (or may be crying) Kanchenjunga! Kanchenjunga! We gathered at a view point called Jhoola Wala and before we could rub our yes and pray ‘look at me Sir’, The Lord of Mountains was gone. Since this was our last full day at Rishop, we decided to make the most of it. Along with a local guide, a one-hour trek took us to Tiffindara, another view point. The surrounding was magnificent. We stood at one of the highest points in Rishop and all around us we could see mountains covered in thick forests. It was another cloudy day and the cold was almost intolerable. But no complaints! We walked back through a forest, just the four of us, our guide included. There was no need for small talk. We were awed by tall trees, the deep gorges and the sheer remoteness of the place.
The day drew to a close with a campfire in the evening. We were joined by a family of three – husband, wife and their daughter. Swathed in five layers of clothing, we were almost hugging the fire. The night sky was clear and glittering with millions of stars. Sight to behold, not to tell.

Day 5 – December 27

Our trip had come to a close but not without the last, grandest surprise! Very early in the morning we saw that the fog had cleared. We tiptoed to Jhoola Wala, as if our footsteps may disturb His Majesty! And there it was! It shone in the sun, a large white mass of snow, floating in the sky, a mass that grew with the Sun above. Kanchenjunga in all its glory! We had got our Christmas
present!
All was forgiven! We were game to go back and plan our next trip!

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