Before heading north to Sikkim for a clearer look at Kanchenjunga, we took a little detour in the most northern part of West Bengal.
Jamie: We passed through the small town of Kalimpong, a curious place perched in the clouds. We stopped at a cafe for tea and cake, whilst I took some quirky shots of the locals.
After an hour we moved on towards Baranumber, but not before Jiwan took us to Munsong. Greeted by headmaster Surin Rai, who is overseeing the development of another Mondo Challenge school, we were shown around this utterly delightful village.
Our trip coincided with the Prayer for World Peace festival. A marquee had been erected in the central green where a high priest was blessing the locals. We shyly avoided jumping the long queue to receive a personal blessing but happily took the scarves, as is tradition here.
What a shame we only stayed a few hours. The scenery was breathtaking, looking north across a huge valley to Sikkim, whilst the locals were typically friendly and accommodating.
It was encouraging to see the school building work coming along nicely, a vast improvement on the previous wonky timber-framed building next door.
I got the impression Surin was rather disappointed that we were not able to stay longer as Jiwan ushered us back to the car, where we continued a rather bumpy yet exhilarating journey into the valley and up the other side towards Baranumber.
Barranumber village, like so many in this region, lies perched on a hillside miles away from the road. So here we were, trekking again, this time alongside the quinine plantations surrounding Kalimpong. Jiwan invited us to his brother’s house for the night, and instead of hurtling round the mountain roads in his car took us on an afternoon’s traverse across the mountains to his family’s village of ‘Barranumber’. Having learned our lesson at Singalila we were prepared for vertical climbs, knee jarring drops, and driving rain. But the walk turned out to be gentle and dry.
Barranumber village is only accessible by foot, so with no roads or tourists the hills were quiet. We stopped on a path with views down into the Rangpo Valley. Way beneath us we could just make out a river and on the opposite side of the valley we could see Sikkim. It looked just like West Bengal to me. With nothing but quinine plantations and Himalayan animals and plants around us I felt as though I were walking in Arcadia. A trickle of clear, icy water ran off a higher peak across our path, and — bringing me back to the prosaic with a bump — Jiwan declared it the perfect place to chill a beer.
I wasn’t in the mood for alcohol, so instead of drinking the water Jiwan pulled out some roots for me to suck, saying that as a boy he used to eat them all the time when the weather was too hot (I can’t remember what they were called, it wasn’t a Latin name, so I don’t suppose it would help identify them). I bit into the first one and a slightly tough balloon burst onto my tongue. It tasted of the mountain. Jamie, not one to shirk a new gourmet experience spat his out, declaring it disgustingly bitter. Jiwan laughed, explaining that “yes, sometimes they are a bit too sour”. They downed a couple of tinnies and we carried on.
We arrived at the home of Santa Rai, Jiwan’s brother, in the late afternoon, having first passed an intoxicatingly gorgeous gardenia which lingered in the air; all the cleverest noses in Paris would never be able to come up with a scent to match it.
We drank tea and talked about the village of Barranumber. Containing some 90 households, most of its inhabitants work in the quinine plantations for about 2500INR per month (around £35) but also grow many kinds of crops on the terraced hillside to supplement their income. They have recently been able to open their own school, with the aid of the Mondo Challenge Foundation, which means the local children no longer have to walk for one and a half hours to school.
In the evening we watched Santa’s wife, Kabita, stoke the hearth in preparation for dinner, while their fifteen month old daughter, Sumnima, played in the ashes.
Houses of the Lepcha, Nepali and Limboo tribes are constructed out of wooden frames, using local trees. Slatted bamboo is then fixed between the frames and filled with cow dung. At first glance they are indistinguishable from our wattle and daub Medieval buildings at home, which are made along similar lines. It is disorientating to see what appear to be Elizabethan houses lining the roads in the Himalaya. The roses, geraniums and other English country garden flowers lined up outside in pots only add to the effect. Sometimes the exteriors are painted in vibrant blues, greens and pinks, but inside there’s no wallpaper or paint, they are left natural. A kind of ‘slip’ is painstakingly smoothed over the walls to create an even finish. The corrugated iron roofs, often painted a terracotta colour, are the most obvious difference between our Tudor houses and these Himalayan chalets.
Santa’s kitchen was also coated entirely in smooth odourless cow dung, and the low double range appeared to grow out of the floor. Its two open fires gave off plenty of smoke as the food was cooked directly on the flames. In the semi darkness we sat on ankle-high stools to eat fresh momos, noodles and pork. Santa plied us with ‘Tiger’s Milk’, a gently fermented maize left to work its magic in a bucket, the baby greedily sucking the opaque liquid from her cup. We moved on to Tongba (millet beer) then a much stronger Himalayan hooch called Rakshi (pronounced ‘roxy’), a hot version of schnapps, which comes in a variety of flavours from apple or maize to rhododendron (or anything else the maker chooses to add).
We were given our own comfortable room to sleep in, which had a hard but welcoming bed opposite a window that looked directly on to the mountain. Not that we spent much time looking out the window. As soon as our heads hit the fresh-smelling pillows we fell into deep Arcadian dreams.
A slide show below shows Kalimpong town, Baranumber village, Munsong and the Prayer For World Peace Festival.