Kalimpong: The Road to Lhasa

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“Buddhism is very simple,” said Ola Bantha, as he stood over our table in his dimly lit Road to Lhasa restaurant. “Nothing is permanent. Materialism is only in the mind.” I dipped another of Ola’s enormous momos into a red-chili sauce and popped it into my mouth, my eyes watering as he continued.

“Buddha teaches that from the day you are born there is suffering in the world; there is no denying that there is suffering in the world. So Buddhism is simple. It is to be aware of suffering and try to overcome it; it is also to be at peace with change and death.”

A wave of rain began to fall on the narrow, steep street outside and onto the corrugated roof of Ola’s kitchen. The air that blew into the door was clean, almost cold. It was the reason we had come to Kalimpong, to escape Birpara’s heat and to see what we would find on the High Road to Tibet.

“That is called the ‘retreating monsoon’!” Ola shouted above the rain. His angulated eyes were open wide, his body taut and shifting from foot to foot.

We continued to gorge ourselves on momos, soup, and dark Sikkim rum mixed with mango juice. Ola went on with his stories, moving from Buddhist philosophy to the personal habits of Richard Gere and Stephen Segal, both of whom he had led on whitewater and trekking expeditions (Gere gets up at 3:30 a.m. to read Tibetan scripts, he said, and Segal charters his own flights to get around India). Ola was tightly wound for a Buddhist, I thought, full of talkative energy and he would have gone all night had we let him.

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Kalimpong was once a part of Bhutan, until the British grabbed it up in the Anglo-Bhutan war of 1865, and, as Ola’s restaurant’s name implied, it was an important stopover on the trade route with Tibet. The Chinese cut things off in the 1950s; after that, Ola’s parents fled Tibet and bought land in Kalimpong. Things are opening back up between China and India, finally, and as a trekking guide, Ola wants to be first in line for the new tourism opportunities. He already speaks five dialects, and is now studying Chinese.

For our part, we found Kalimpong a cluttered yet tranquilo ridgetop settlement, a welcome respite from our hot, crowded Birpara existence. It wasn’t high season yet, so there were scarcely any foreign tourists in the entire town (the three or four whiteys we saw over five days were the first we’d seen in over a month in North Bengal). There were, however, plenty of restaurants, crafts, and cloth shops which catered as much to the local Tibetan monks and exile community as they did to foreigners and Indians.

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So the shopping was good, the food different and delicious, and the mountain air which launched the prayers from so many flapping flags was cool with change. Because nothing, we reflected as we hiked the ridge-line out of town, was permanent. And Buddhism is very simple.

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