Several pockets in North Bengal are dotted with pine forests and while the woods are absurdly photogenic, they offer a natural cover to animals such as leopards and jaguars and although I am adventurous, I would never want to be confronted by any of them!
Kolkata: I am infamous for waking up early and a brisk walk in the morning, whether in the city or in the hills, is something that I really enjoy. So, I was out, walking amid the cinchona plantation, soaking in the atmosphere even before the hills could wake up. My feet fell on soggy twigs and each time I took a step, they creaked and whispered a sweet story, a lore from the last night on how the dew embraced them in a lovelock. I was listening to them and did not realise that my feet had carried me towards the Neora Valley National Park. The saga, the air around, the chirping birds and the freedom from the city life had cast a spell on me and it was not until I had walked a little deep into the forest did I realise that everything around me had changed.
Here, in this part of the pine forest, it was dank, darker than outside, the birds were not chirping anymore and the air was filled with an unknown musk. But the explorer within me kept me going. I even found a rock, lying by itself, solitary, like me, and thought of giving it some company so I went and sat on it for a while. After about an hour, when the silence of the woods shrieked out a desperate desolation, I started finding my way back, this time, my feet carried me faster than before. While walking back, I checked the time on my watch and wondered how even at 7 am there was not a soul to be seen.
In some time, I finally reached the homestay I had booked for the trip and was glad to be met by the owner, a smiling D K Khawas. His affable nature made me forget about the discomfiture I faced inside the woods and for a Bengali, there’s no better experience than to be treated with ek cup gorom cha (hot cup of tea) in the morning. Pouring out the sunset-coloured liquid love called Darjeeling tea into a transparent cup, he asked me where I am coming from. I told him about my visit to the woods in the morning and that very moment, his expression changed.
The ever-smiling face stopped beaming with a glow. His hands stopped pouring out the tea and his voice grew heavier. “Galti meri hai, mujhe aapko pehle batana chahiye tha! (It’s my mistake. I should have warned you before),” he said in a voice overflowing with mystery and filled with repentance. But what to be warned about wandering into the woods? I wondered and next when he opened his mouth, all my discomfiture and the deadly silence inside the woods started making sense. “Four days back, a leopard was sighted in the woods!”
Several pockets in North Bengal are dotted with pine forests and while the woods are absurdly photogenic, they offer a natural cover to animals such as leopards and black panthers and although I am adventurous, I would never want to be confronted by any of them! But the sheer thrill I was feeling after hearing about it from Mr Khawas that I was all alone and a possibility of a leopard attack was lurking in the air inside the woods just notched up my adrenaline rush in my trip to Icche Gaon.
Icche Gaon — The perfect getaway
At an elevation of around 5,800 feet, Icche Gaon is located in West Bengal’s Kalimpong district and was among the first destinations of my first-ever solo trip. While the first day after reaching Kalimpong and spending the day at Delo for paragliding, the next day was kept mostly for sightseeing. Although Icche Gaon itself doesn’t have much to offer, one can go to some of the tourist spots around the place.
In a car arranged by the homestay I started off for some beautiful places which included a handful of monasteries, the Jalsha Bungalow and the haunted Morgan House. And no matter where I went, I met warm, welcoming locals but most of them had one common question for me — “Why are you alone?” Honestly, I did not have an answer to this back then but now, after having gone to several places all by myself, I can say that it is only solitary moments that can make one realise absolute peace.
Coming back to Icche Gaon, it is important to note that just like any other hilly village, the best way to know about the place is to walk around and only by mixing with the locals will one be able to lay his or her hands on the most exquisite things. In Icche Gaon, my habit to get close to the local residents not only got me some of the most delectable momos that I’ve had in my life but also helped me taste some local wine.
After a day’s going around and getting to know people, when I returned to the homestay, I found a group of young boys who had come all the way from Mumbai. We eventually ended up gelling up around a bonfire along with some mouth-watering barbequed chicken.
The next day I was to leave for my city, Kolkata. My first-ever solo trip, although a very short one, had taught me a lot of important life lessons and most importantly, instilled in me a different kind of confidence. In fact, one big lesson I learnt after coming here was that life is possible without being online. Yes, for two days I had not switched on my phone’s internet connection and probably these two days were the most beautiful ones in my life.
(Victor Das is a businessman and a passionate solo traveller, in his words peshe se baniya, dilse banjara!)