At 11.30am precisely, Lt. General Jimmy Singh (retd) slipped his Gypsy into four-wheel drive and gunned up the steep slope of his driveway. A few minutes later, we’d cleared the concrete confines of Kalimpong and were pushing into the jungle. The slim trappings of urbanisation fell away as we began a four-hour drive through protected forest. Mist swirled across the road, and oaks and screw pines and tree ferns became faint silhouettes, like leaves embedded in handmade paper.
Jimmy revved the engine, braking hard before every hairpin bend and crumbling concrete floodway, all the while talking thirteen to the dozen. The route taken by the Younghusband expedition, the legal status of Kalimpong, birdwatching opportunities in Arunachal, local forest protection policy, the North Bengal road network — I became an instant expert on all of them, although I admit I lost track of the roads at some point.
We had lunch beside a Bhutanese style gompa, then pushed through a stretch of virgin forest, and finally ragged holes emerged in the cloud giving us glimpses of terraced fields, farmhouses and a deep valley. We had arrived at Samthar, our home for the next couple of nights.
Jimmy knew he wanted a place at Samthar when he led a trek through the area 12 years ago, and suddenly Kanchendzonga, the reclusive god-mountain of the northeast, emerged from the clouds. Jimmy took over a collapsing farmhouse from a local headmaster, and has spent the intervening time turning it into a haven of peace and rustic comfort. The name is a bit of a misnomer, unless you count the disused terraces behind the house, now converted into an exquisite garden which cascades in a riotous spray of marigolds, azaleas, morning glory, hibiscus, poinsettia and hydrangea.
To these, over the years, Jimmy and his manager, Catherine, have added self contained cabins, which when added to the two bedrooms in the house, make accommodation for 12. My room had half-timbered walls except for the one behind the bed, which was made of pine planks, matching the floor and ceiling. The rooms have been decorated by Catherine along a Tibetan theme, with mandala motif carpets and brightly striped curtains and bed covers. When I finally curled up that night to sleep the sleep of the dead, it was beneath a thangka of a blue-skinned Medicine Buddha and a pair of plaster snow lions.
That was after drinks in the sitting room of the main house, where antique kerosene lamps cast a warm flickering light over the rendered stone walls and Jimmy and Catherine wrangled over the colour of the new curtains — Catherine favoured monk maroon, Jimmy didn’t. At our feet lay a luxuriant yak skin, which got Jimmy talking about his experiences in the northeast. A specialist in high-altitude warfare, he saw action in the 1962 war with China, leading an outmanoeuvred company to refuge in Bhutan, living off leaves as they fell back. The names of other campaigns and trouble spots came and went: Sikkim, Nagaland, Mizoram, Arunachal, Gaza, Somalia, Kashmir. By the end of his career, Jimmy knew the northeast like a large-scale map, and retired to Kalimpong.
We moved into the newly completed dining room, one wall decorated with the regalia of the units Jimmy had commanded. Those are moving to an upstairs wall, explained Catherine, to be replaced by a thangka of the Buddha. Dinner was a hearty mix of Goan and North Indian, bracketed either side by a tangily delicious lime and coriander soup and a sumptuous créme caramel — all whipped up by Tara, a woman from the village.
Electricity only came to Samthar a couple of years ago, and the supply is still intermittent, supplemented by solar lighting and kerosene lamps. TV barely exists. You can still trek from Kalimpong, mostly through forests, in a day, but there is talk of building a new road. In other words, the time to do it is now.
If you are without sin, Catherine told me, you will be rewarded with a view of Kanchendzonga. The morning dawned with a light cloud cover, and no knock at my door to tell me to come and look at the mountain. Instead, Samthar offers the most beguiling mists you can imagine. Mists that burble up from the valley like smoke from a cauldron, tendrils that waft and drift and thicken and disperse, constantly mobile clouds that open and close to frame random pieces of idyllic landscape. When Kanchendzonga does briefly emerge, it is as if from behind an exquisitely embroidered veil.
I decided to have a look at the village, and was accompanied by Charles Lepcha, a charming 24-year-old with an assured future as a leader of his community. Samthar is populated by Lepchas, the indigenous people, who are mostly Buddhist or Christian, and by Nepalis who migrated a couple of generations ago, attracted by the thinly populated forests. Charles led me through a settlement that alternated between Nepali and Lepcha after every few houses, the communities separated by streams lush with primal forest. We saw a Durga temple in the lee of a vast, spreading panisas tree, which the Lepchas hold sacred, a Catholic church with a bare table for an altar, a couple of Buddhist gompas and a handful of locked Hindu shrines. The Hindus erect public benches at picturesque spots in honour of their dead; the Buddhist Lepchas put up whitewashed stupas. Lepcha-Nepali weddings are common, with teenage elopement apparently the preferred way to gain resigned parental approval.
The landscape was iridescent with millet and paddy fields, interspersed with orange trees, patches of soya beans and tapioca, and mud walled homes. The terraces shelved as gently and perfectly as ripples on a pond until the valley dropped away abruptly to the Samthar river, far below. Wandering in and out of the houses, with their aroma of wood smoke and cheap chillum tobacco and roasting corn, I caught myself thinking I was back in Nepal on some endless trek.
The Lepchas have largely adopted Nepali-style houses, with their external kitchens, and when you step into an old Lepcha home at mealtime, with smoke biting at your eyes and throat, you can understand why. In exchange, the Nepalis are fervent converts to zar, a mild beer brewed from millet served warm, which if I hadn’t seen the gompas and the churches I would have taken for the Lepcha religion. When I joined Jimmy and Catherine around the yak skin that night, it was for a stomach- warming taste of the local tipple — similar to Tibetan chang, but served in a covered wooden vessel with a wooden straw — enlivened by tales of the tribal customs of Arunachal and a particular rinpoche who exchanged third-eye visions of enemy emplacements for a much coveted ride in an Army helicopter.
That left just one more morning to see Kanchendzonga, but I awoke to a blanket of white which obscured even the farther reaches of the garden. I set out with Charles to trek down to the Siliguri-Kalimpong highway, a four-hour walk through sal and teak forest, during which the mist lifted and drifted to reveal silver streams curling through lush valleys and emerald terraces spilling down whole hillsides. When we finally reached the banks of the Teesta river, the view through the trees was of the rumbling earthworks of a giant bridge project. The dream was over.
By air: Jet Airways and Indian offer flights from Kolkata and Delhi to Bagdogra, near Siliguri. Jet also has flights from Guwahati.
By rail: The overnight Darjeeling Mail connects Kolkata to New Jalpaiguri, near Siliguri (departs Sealdah 10.05pm, arrives 8.40am; Rs 1,046 on 2A). Kalimpong is a three-hour taxi ride from Siliguri. Samthar is another 80 km/4hrs from Kalimpong.
Samthar Farmhouse is managed by Gurudongma Tours and Treks, Gurudongma House, Hilltop, Kalimpong 734301 (03552-255204, www.gurudongma.com) Tariff: Rs 10,000 for 2 nights.
There are also a variety of packages to choose from. All of these include activities. The normal package includes a day’s tour of Kalimpong, followed by a night at Gurudongma House in Kalimpong and a transfer the following day to Samthar. Guests can opt to trek the entire way, go by jeep with one or two shorter treks along the way — a popular option — or take the jeep the whole way.
Once at the farmhouse, there are enough day treks to keep you occupied for a week, including to a century-old Lepcha gompa; to the top of an escarpment where herds of wild elephants can sometimes be seen; and to a cascade which ends in a swimming hole by the Samthar River.