Sunday, June 28, 2015

Mystic land of playful mists - Kurseong

One moment, sunbeams pour over the ridges, abysses and into the valleys below, warming up the air a little, and the next moment, before you know it, mist surrounds you and transports you to a mystic land, where from some faraway place, undulating melody of a folk song, makes its way over the chilling breeze, soaking all the flavors from the tea gardens on its way, and pours into your sensors. 
Kurseong town from the entry point
Mist gradually covering the Kurseong town and tea gardens

One moment, entire picturesque landscape of mountainous terrain, remote villages, serpentine roads, green canopy of tea gardens on the mountain walls, near and distant, are all crystal clear in front of your eyes, and within few minutes, you can only barely see the person near you. The landscapes are nowhere to be seen, like a white curtain falling on the nature's changing masterpieces.
Behold, Kurseong (Kharsang in Lepcha language), also called the land of white orchids beckons you! Sitting pretty on foothills of Himalayas, with clouds encircling it below in a ring formation, was the first glimpse of this beautiful place, that catches every visitor's attention.

Just before the mist
Amazing transformation at play...

After the mist arrived

Exactly the kind of place to completely unwind, get connected with oneself and one won't be blamed for thinking of leaving the maddening rat race behind forever and staying back here, while the playful mists, continuously change the painting on the canvas and presenting different perspectives, with bountiful  colors and shades of grey. Strangely though, amidst all the thick mist around, the thoughts inside oneself tend to get cleared up like never before, reason why many a people underwent renewal and found solace in the serenity of these pristine hills.

We had heard quite a lot about Cochrane Place, heritage bungalow and erstwhile stately British colonial home of Magistrate Percy John Cochrane, which had featured in Lonely Planet Guide, and were fortunate to have it as our home in Kurseong during our stay. The property had undergone restoration and was recreated few years back, but has managed to retain its past nicely, including a VW Beatle and a pianoforte which had traveled all the way from England, close to a century ago.  With a Tea bar to flaunt, serving hot cups of finest Darjeeling tea throughout the day, and not to speak of  world-famous Makaibari tea gardens and factory within walking distance which produces the best tea available to the world, it makes for an ideal stay for any tea connoisseur from all across the world. We had our fair share of sips of some of the better varieties available there, if not the best which typically comes upwards of 40k of Indian rupees for a kilogram.
Cochrane Place, Kurseong
Cochrane Place

Well-appointed room at Cochrane Place Kurseong

View from the room

Open terrace with the tea bar & restaurant behind, Cochrane Place, Kurseong

Inside the restaurant, Cochrane Place, Kurseong
Restaurant with unique tea bar

Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose's ancestral home, KurseongHow can one forget Mr Ravinder Cong and his staff? Having stayed in so many such places before, I must stay I have rarely come across a more kind, hospitable, enthusiastic and resourceful unit anywhere else, right from the time we landed there until the time we left the place, creating an extremely pleasant experience for us. We could make the most of the few days at our disposal, courtesy their proactive help with planning the daily trips and logistics to support them.

It took us a while before we climbed up the hill and reached our destination on the first day. What remained of that day was well spent going on a jeep ride around the hills, tea gardens guarded by bushes of lemon grass lying in abundance, and Netaji's family home, now a museum. The place is bound to raise the goosebumps, for this is the same place where Netaji was interned and where he envisioned the future of his mother land, including INA. The verandah overlooking the valleys was where he sat and scribbled some of his most memorable letters, and the speech which he delivered as President of Haripura congress in 1938. Many a personalities like Chittaranjan Das, Rabindranath Tagore had visited this place during early twentieth century.
Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose's ancestral home, Kurseong

A train ride to Darjeeling on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway(DHR), a UNESCO world heritage site, established in 1881, was exactly what the doctor ordered for the next day. This was an uphill ride, as train passed through densely populated areas and wilderness, criss-crossing the hill road from left-to-right and right-to-left,  through the highest station at Ghum, renowned for Ghum monastry, and through most picturesque Batasiya loop, before reaching Darjeeling. We spent the day in Darjeeling visiting the various spots, Zoological Garden which is home to some of the rare fauna found in cold climates, Himalayan Mountaineering Institute which houses the oldest museum in the country, and is a glowing tribute to Sherpa Tenzin Norgay.

Darjeeling Railway Station, Darjeeling
Ghum Railway Station

Darjeeling Himalayan Railway train through twists and turns

Darjeeling Railway Station, Darjeeling

Darjeeling is much sought-after destination during the summer times and was obviously very crowded. So, we chose to wrap up early and head back to blissful Kurseong by afternoon, for latter was the centre our trip this time.

As always, I decided to spend the rest of the day, walking up and down the narrow hill roads through wilderness, absorbing more of freshness and solitude, capturing some of the breathtaking landscapes and imprinting them in my memory forever. That is also the time when I saw most of the hide-and-seek games that nature was playing while it drizzled and people stayed indoors.

Last day was spent visiting the Makaibari tea estate garden and factory, walking through steep mountainous roads, which is a great experience and a workout at the same time, while getting to know the place, people, their livelihood, lifestyles and aspirations from a closer angle.

All good things must come to an end, and so did this trip. Travel being such a great teacher,  relentlessly feeds perspectives, gives insights, throws up life lessons, as we spend more and more time in its company. It whispers to us to live with the doors and windows of our mind wide open, while it enriches us spontaneously.
This time too, it threw up many new thoughts in my mind to return back with,  some to cherish and retain forever.  

Monday, May 26, 2014

Blissful solitude on the hills - Valparai...

Journey, we say, is more fascinating than the destination. The feeling of having arrived fills many with a sense of void and inspires them to go on and on. As I am back to my desk, writing about another of my memorable trips, or shall I say destinations, this proverbial notion appeared questionable, at least for once.

Valparai, a hamlet perched on the Western Ghats in Tamilnadu, and few kilometers away from Kerala border, amidst the magnificence of nature, was our destination.  A road less traveled by tourists, leads to this blissfully quiet land of acres of hillside tea gardens, through twists and turns, ups and downs of forty hairpin bends.

Bangalore to Valparai route map
After a hectic few months, a much needed escape was just what the doctor ordered, and with the intent, in came a multitude of getaway ideas from all directions. Among all those, Valparai emerged as a place known to few and visited by even fewer. Coincidentally, I was reading ‘Road less traveled’ during those days, and was looking forward to my moments of solitude on the hills and there couldn't have been a better place than this.

So, going with our usual preference, we started early on a chilly Bangalore morning, and were headed towards Salem and onward through Perundurai, Pollachi to Valparai. After Perundurai, we were greeted with old-world charm of two-lane state highways, dotted with trees and mostly bordered with green paddy fields. Around lunch time, we stopped by at one of the many eateries offering piping hot meals and filter coffee, served by always-friendly people in this hinterland. After a timely meal, it was time to feel drowsy. While everyone in the car as well as in the villages we passed by, were enjoying their siesta, I had no such option but to keep my eyes in front.  Once we crossed Pollachi, before we knew, we were at the foothills of gigantic hills standing tall and straight, right in front of us. Soon, we passed Sholayar Dam and thickening wilderness was beginning to surround us and populace too was starting to become a rarity.

Vast areas of tea garden
All along, one couldn't stop appreciating the consistently well-maintained roads in Tamilnadu, and this experience was no different. Although it was quite narrower all along, causing traffic to come to a halt at places, accommodating buses and other bigger vehicles, less traffic enabled us to climb faster, and I was not complaining, for I was eager to flirt with the forty hairpin bends that were still eluding us, as we crossed various sign boards indicating likely presence of tigers, elephants crossing our way. Not a single representative from those species were to be found anywhere though.
After few odd kilometers, the romance with beautiful hairpins started, with one leading to another, one outclassing the other with panoramic space on offer. We were relishing the view of forest covering the hills, decorated with serpentine roads with lake at a distance, while afternoon Sun too continued its journey slowly into dusk.   

Landscape changed further as we climbed higher, and tall eucalyptus trees were around us with still no trace of human habitation. Eventually, the hilly climate began to set in as mist greeted us after hairpin 29 and  picturesque tea gardens adorned the landscape.

Light and shadow on tea gardens, Valparai

Our stay was planned at Stanmore Bungalow, built in 1935, located outside the town, in the middle of acres of green hills. A planter's abode since British times, it is now open for tourists. On first look itself, it brought  back our vivid cherished memories of staying in such places during childhood days. A long private way leading upto it, well-appointed, furnished and spacious living, dining and bedrooms, with long verandah and huge open lawn in front, are reminiscent of illustrious lifestyle that officials in British Raj were privy to, and were all here exclusively at our disposal, for next couple of days. 

Stanmore Bungalow, Valparai

Well-appointed and spacious rooms at Stanmore Bungalow, Valparai
Early morning long walks through tea gardens, sipping hot cup of tea while seated on an armchair, playing badminton on the lawns, lying on hammock with closed eyes and being one with nature, appreciating the deeper implicit analogy between understanding of our own self through this journey of life, as presented by M. Scott Peck, towards its ultimate destination, and this journey which brought us to this tranquil abode, were all very sublime. To top it up, the in-house staff did not leave any stone unturned in extending their hospitality, pampering us with multi-course delectable cuisines and intermittent cups of fresh tea with snacks during intervals. One would be tempted to wish that ultimate destination would be as beautiful, pristine, serene and fulfilling as this one!
Stream flowing down before in the valley

As evening came down upon the hills, a strange but harmonious chorus of rare species of birds, crickets raised their pitch, together with light drizzle and made the ecosystem truly ethereal. We sat around a table on the verandah, playing audience to this performance, spellbound at nature's breathtaking light & sound event, absorbing every bit of it.

Mist making its presence felt in the aftenoon

Next day morning, we walked downhill to a stream nearby, sat beside crystal clear water, as nature's Reiki music was being played. It was all so refreshing! That was followed up with a visit to 'Monica Tea Factory', where seasoned officials  took pride in showcasing the wonderful contribution they have made over many years in producing many different flavors of this world-favorite beverage, and enlightened us with their vast knowledge and experience.

Monica Tea Factory, Valparai
By afternoon, I was back in my own world with travel companion, and you guessed it right – 'Road Less Traveled'. In the coziness of the armchair, I revisited past and present chapters of my life, counting my blessings, remembering implicit things that we receive but often forget or ignore them, the barriers that we inadvertently build around us, refuse to face up to our own inhibitions, get entangled in fears and setbacks, and become obstacles on our own path to a more wholesome, fulfilling and happier life.

So, unlike many other sojourns, this one was delightfully light on schedule and that made the stay certainly very rejuvenating, to say the least. After adding some more time to our urban-induced depleting lifespan, we drove back the next day morning. 

Even while we were on the way downhill, a strong feeling of moving away from the wonderland was surely gripping us with a touch of gloom, making us resolve to be back again, sometime in future.