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Tchang in Choka

The days of traveling like in the 17th and the 18th century are over and the adventure of finding something that is new to you is greatly reduced because of the media and the fact that world has become such a small place. The explorations and the discovery of new cultures and new ways of living is just a button away.

A holiday at a hotel with continental meals, cable TV, and orchestrated cultural capsules containing music, costumes and dances of the locals is all you get these days. The really exciting areas are closed to tourists and travelers; and you can only gain access if you are a researcher or are with a really big foundation which has enough strings to pull.

This was the idea that I had before I set out for a journey which changed the way I perceived modern day travel and after which there was no more bitterness for not being an explorer in the early 19th century, when adventure actually meant adventure. Take my word for it, even if you are exposed to millions of images from across the globe and nothing seems to be new anymore there is still something out there which you have not yet seen.

This journey was the first in many and I hope the story will make you readers want to go out than just watch or read about travel.

My destination was India and I won't go on and on about the beggars, the explosion of senses, the colours and the smells. While on the train going to Howra, in West Bengal, I met a north-east-Indian guy who told me about tchang, a beer made out of fermented millet and also gave me the directions to Choka the small village which he claimed had the best tchang in the world.

I altered my entire itinerary and decided to try tchang at Choka. I did not have trouble getting a seat on a train to New Jalpaiguri from where it was a four day journey (with night halts) first by road, because there are no trains to this part of the country and then on foot for a day.

I hired a jeep after reaching the station at 2 am. That was a mistake which could have cost me my life. The driver was drunk and he almost drove into the Teesta River but we were saved by a tree trunk which came in-between the tire and the river. He continued to drive dangerously and when I could not take it anymore I begged him to stop and was ready to walk till dawn but he wanted the money and that too double the amount we had decided on because I had broken the contract and when I started to argue he got out a dangerous looking screw driver and threatened to kill me if I did not give him the money. I gave him the money and hoped he would plunge into one of the deep gorges while driving recklessly.

I walked for a while and found a kind truck driver, who was very unkind to his son and hit him repeatedly on his head for reasons I could not quite understand, and was ready to drive me to Jorthang which was not where I was headed and would delay me by a day. I was exhausted and was in no mood to think about time frames and went into a deep sleep.

When I reached the place, the policemen there went wild. They searched my bags, my identification. They had a ball at my cost and detained me for no apparent reason. This was probably their only source of entertainment. When I was released after paying them all a "baksheesh" I took a bus to a small outpost and was delayed for another day because of a landslide in the mountains.

I survived on chips and cola which were being peddled by these opportunists who wait for landslides. I really had a doubt that it was man-made after seeing the hordes of hawkers going from vehicle to vehicle selling their stuff. When I finally reached the outpost, it started raining heavily and I had no strength to go further. The rain lashed out for two more days and I was cooped up in a dorm looking at a wall painting done by the previous occupant of the room - apparently a pot head.

It stopped raining the third day and I set out against the better advice of the hotel owner who incidentally cooked me a nice meal of fried chicken and rice before I set out. The walk was excruciating and I felt like the air was being pumped out of my lungs, and my limbs became as heavy as lead. I went on very slowly with the images of cool beer in my mind.

The mountain path went on and on and it seemed like I would keep going till the end of my life without ever reaching anywhere and the birds and the insects made the place very eerie. And to top it was getting dark and I was not ready to spend a night in the jungles with nothing but a backpack which had nothing to protect me. I increased my speed and my heart jumped when I saw at a distance a donkey moving languidly and it was the first time in my life when I wanted to kiss a donkey.

Choka, the village was not what I expected it to be. There were about a dozen huts and the place had no electricity. I enquired about the inn which served tchang and found the place to be a house of this very beautiful Himalayan couple and found out from them that there was only one radio in the entire village and about 20 odd people. The tchang which was like nothing I tasted before is served in a bamboo mug filled with fermented millet with that a flask of really hot water which I had to pour into the mug and a bamboo straw to suck out the incredibly tasty beer.

After about six mugs of tchang, I sat there feeling like Christopher Columbus, lost in my thoughts; and the mountain was soon engulfed in a mist.

* * * * *

Published on 3/3/05

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