But that didn't happen. No where in Arunachal we could manage to find accommodations, and had to scupper the plan. I thought of Bhutan, but that seemed to be too costly. And then I started thinking about Sikkim, especially North Sikkim, where I wanted to go since I saw some photos of the Gurudongmar Lake. So the final plan was to visit Gurudongmar via Gangtok, and then the Yumthang Valley and then Pelling (in West Sikkim) on our way back. I started searching for travel operators in that area - mainly for North Sikkim - because you cannot drive up there in normal cars, and managed to find one operator, Tibet Tours & Travels, who run their own chain for Fortuna Hotels at Lachen and Lachung. They have a 2night/3days tour of North Sikkim, covering Gurudongmar, Yumthang, Katao and Zero Point, starting from Gangtok and coming back to Gangtok at the end. You just have to reach Gangtok and they will (or are supposed to) take care of the rest. Damayanti, a friend of mine, was planning the same trip too, and we thought of sharing the vehicle cost. We started sending all the necessary documents (required for the permit to enter North Sikkim), and the holidays came up - our train tickets still on the waiting list.
I had a booking on Jaidada (the AC Volvo service to Siliguri), but took a chance on the Indian Railways Tatkal booking - and luckily was able to get confirmed berths on Kanchankanya express on 15th October - leaving Kolkata at night, and reaching New Jalpaiguri in the morning next day.
15th was the Ashtami. For the past three days, the electronic media had been screaming about the unimaginable festive crowd - millions out on the street - causing gridlocks for vehicles. There were news about people not being able to catch flights or trains because of huge traffic congestion on the streets of Kolkata. A bit scared and tensed, we started off from out place at around five in the evening, although the scheduled departure time (for the train) was half-eight. Did someone say "huge traffic congestion"? Well, normally it takes an hour to reach the station from my place, and on that day, we made it in 35 minutes. And found a fully crowded waiting lounge - because it seems all the other travellers were as careful as me. So we sat there - trying to kill the remaining three hours somehow - in that crowded waiting lounge, with two unstoppable kids, who seem to have roller-skates fitted on their feet...Why isn't there a Noble Prize for being patient?
The first living thing we met on the train was a rat - even before any other co-passenger. As soon as I dumped my rucksack on the side-berth, it ran out from beneath the seat, dodged between our feet and soon vanished. I wasn't that suprised - because only a few days back my parents went to the Valley of Flowers, and had an encounter with a similar species on the Hemkund express. But that one was probably a bit lazy one as my mother smashed it with her sandal (my dad actually took a snap of it, and keeps it as a part of his screensaver). The bottomline was - I had to change my plan of storing the rucksack beneath the seats, and with the risk of breaking my neck, I had to lift them up on the upper bunk.
There's no dining car on Kanchanjungha express, and we had our dinner with the homemade "puri and sabzi" and fell asleep. The train reached New Jalpaiguri on 16th morning, delayed by around half-an-hour.
(to be continued...)