It’s not on the map, not in the Lonely Planet guide, not in the list of places that an average tourist in the Eastern Himalayas would rattle off if you asked him. It’s too far out of the way, and if you are too much of a casual tourist and too little of a footloose traveller, Tumbling (also spelt sometimes as Tumling) is a place that is not even supposed to be.
Not just a pitstop
When you begin the trek up from Maneybhanjan, an hour’s drive from Darjeeling, to the famous trekking haunt of Phalut, which is a good four days’ worth of walking from there, it’s necessary to fall in love with the loneliness. The sprawling Singalila National Park will be your only company for as long as you’re going to walk in this part of the country, and so it helps to make a friend of the silence. And when it rains, as it does most of the time, you’ll be forced to seek shelter in places like Tumbling for longer than planned.
You always sort of stumble into Tumbling; you can never really plan on getting there. It’s as small as a mountain village can get: just a few houses, a couple of shops that sell Red Bull amongst other things, and the Shikhar Lodge, a heaven for the ubiquitous, amateur trekker. The Red Bull, and, for that matter, Tumbling, survives because it’s the preferred watering hole of enthusiastic trekkers who labour up the slopes onto the more famous destinations beyond. Tumbling is a waypoint in the trekker’s journey to the more promising treasures of the Eastern Himalayas, but, if you happen to pause just enough to soak in the silence of the place, you will always remember Tumbling for what it made you forget — which is time.
Almost always, it’s the hand of the rain that makes you stop there. Though summer is preferred for trekking, rain can be unrelenting here, forcing the trekker to hole up. And wait. The rain is of a different kind. It’s rain on a mountain all right, but this rain seems to belong more to the hills than to the sky; a kind of giant, soupy curtain shrouding the mountains and the meadows in a cloak of conspiratorial secrecy. The rain is never really heavy or blinding; just a light and insistent spray, like a presence that doesn’t go away.
There’s nothing to do then but make your peace with nature and surrender to the power of the mist. You sit at the window and ponder over the absolute silence. Tumbling hides everything from you, as if telling you that there is nothing beyond, that the trudge up these unforgiving slopes is labour without fruit, and that the mountain gods will never part with their secret to show themselves. The best thing that a man can do is to just pack up and go home. But the Gods who are so pitiless with the rain can also be generous. A heavy shower at night washes the air clean and empties the anger out of the sky. The next morning, something divine parts the curtains, and Tumbling claims its place as one of the greatest spots to get stunning views of Mt. Kangchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world. The Shy Mountain they call it, and not without reason.
While you wait out the rain, Miss Teacher at Shikhar Lodge, as everyone calls her, provides you with endless cups of steaming tea to keep your spirits up. Her enthusiasm, apart from the consummate skill with which she runs the lodge, is commendable and brings a smile to your face. Perhaps it’s the thin air and the cold, but the simple food is as wholesome as you can imagine it to be. The rooms are neat, the dorm tastefully arranged, and it’s easy to understand that it is the economics of the combination of the Indian traveller and the weaker Nepali rupee that drives business so smoothly.
Herein comes the Nepal part. The Himalayas are a nightmare for the topographer. Tumbling is mostly in Nepal but some of it trickles over into India. To be sure, there is a borderstone. But the people are indifferent about their sense of belonging and the dogs habitually relieve themselves on and around the stone, as if to typify the disdain that the man-made border evokes among people who truly belong only to the mountains. But in a village where nothing really happened, wouldn’t people go mad if they got stuck here for good? When I talked around, I was not so sure. Miss Teacher was thirtyish and lived with her rather assorted family — two sisters, two brothers, and an old mother, all of whom seemed to spend most of the time watching Hindi movies on TV. The children were shy but curious, and, naturally, didn’t think much of the sound of the rain. The songs on screen were better.
For Miss Teacher, the travellers were interesting and good money. But what she loved most was her school down the hill in an even smaller village, teaching English and Mathematics. Every day, she made the two-km trek up and down the mountain. She loved the independence. Once, in a conversation, as we talked about the passing of time, life and family, she said simply that she wouldn’t ever marry. Most of the men beat up their wives and she wasn’t going to take any of that. Especially after all the back-breaking trouble she had to face daily to fetch water up the slopes for the entire family!
Sound logic, and I was touched by her candour with a stranger. But that’s Tumbling for you. Like the place, its people are simple. They can surprise you though. Like the sun, when it broke through the clouds, and provided us with a breathtaking view of Kangchenjunga straddling the clear, blue sky. And a tiny speck in the distance, also known as Mount Everest!