We landed in Bagdogra, collected our baggage and started off on our road journey to Pelling at noon. The first half an hour was spent negotiating traffic through the town of Siliguri. Then we crossed the tiny stream that the Mahananda has become today. After a short drive through a forest, we had our first view of the Teesta at Sevoke. A wide bridge spans the bed of what was once the wide river of songs (see above). A shallow stream flows through a narrow channel in this bed. There cannot be any fish left in the muddy water of this stream.
As we drove along the river, we wondered whether the sources of the Teesta had dried up. Within half an hour we had our answer. The river widened to fill its banks. The river had water, but there was a dam between Sevoke and this quiet lake which the Teesta now was (see below). We saw stands of trees drowning in the water. So there was some damage to the river environment here; though not as much as downriver of the dam. Since we were still in the plains, the riverbed slopes little; so we wondered whether this dam would generate electricity, perform flood control, or just store water for rationed use.
We drove on along the left bank of the Teesta and crossed bridges across tributaries every so often. The topography of northern Bengal becomes very convoluted as you rise towards the hills. This means that there are many small drainage basins which create smaller rivers which then feed into the Teesta. We crossed the main river a little before Teesta Bazar, then drove along the right bank until Melli. At Melli the road crossed into Sikkim. We stopped at a checkpost to prove our identity and to show a paper which gave our address. Fortunately, The Family was filling out her passport form, so she was carrying copies of multiple documents. This is something for us to remember when we come this way next.
After Melli the road doubled back along the Teesta until we came to the confluence of the Rangit and the Teesta from upstream. We were now high above a sandy beach where tents were laid out. There were people camping below. A few of them seemed to be fishing. This spot on the road gave us a lovely last glimpse of the Teesta just after the confluence (below). A large part of the rest of our road would lie along the Rangit.
Road conditions in West Bengal are not great, but there’s always a tarred surface. Soon after we entered Sikkim, the road became much worse. In the 26 kilometers from Melli Bazaar to Jorethang, seat belts were not enough to anchor us in our seats. Interestingly there was a big political rally in progress in Jorethang, celebrating the foundation day of the political party which has been in power in Sikkim for 25 years. Supporters had driven in along non-existent roads from most of south and west Sikkim. We passed this and embarked on another 25 kilometers of bad roads up to Legship. At places there was only a mud track indicating where the highway should be. This has been the state of the road for the last eight years!
The Rangit river was disappointing in the way we had come to expect. The river is dammed at various spots along its flow. As a result there are long stretches where it is just a narrow nullah flowing through a rocky bed. Trucks are busy carrying away stones which the river had brought down (see above). It was a desolation. In this stretch of the river there are power plants: with capacities of anything between 60 MegaWatts to about 200 MegaWatts.
However, life has not disappeared entirely from the Rangit. Just before Legship we saw a tree full of great cormorants (above). So many of them here meant that fish was plentiful in this stretch between two power plants!
At Legship we left the river and started on a climb to the district town of Geyzing and then to Pelling, our destination. The sun had set, and we drove this stretch in the dark. But this last 24 Kms was easier. There was a road most of the way, although the surface was full of holes. There were small stretches where the black top had been washed away to expose the grading stones. We reached Pelling at about 7 in the evening.
We covered 140 Kms in about 6 hours. The first 65 kilometers, through West Bengal, took about two and a half hours. This included about half an hour of driving through the city traffic of Siliguri from the airport to the Sevoke highway. Maybe some day the government of Sikkim will realize that there can be no development without constantly maintained roads. No matter how many dams you build, you must also build roads.
The bird list for the day was small. We were driving pretty fast through busy roads most of the time.
- Small blue kingfisher
- Great cormorants
- Spotted dove
- Jungle babbler