NORTH BENGAL, where the Himalayas soar from the flat alluvial plains towards Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan, holds some magnificent mountain panoramas, and also some of India’s most attractive hill stations. Most visitors pass as quickly as possible through Siliguri en route to Darjeeling, Kalimpong and the small, mountainous state of Sikkim. If you’ve time on your hands, it’s worth making a detour east of Siliguri to explore the sub-Himalayan Dooars, with its patchwork of tea gardens and forests that encompasses the Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary, home to the one-horned rhino, bison and wild boar.
The region has its fair share of political turmoil. The Gurkhaland movement, centred around Darjeeling, and the Kamtapuri Liberation Front, which purports to represent most of North Bengal south to Malda, have called for a complete break from the state of West Bengal. The strikes called by the Gurkha movement tend to paralyse the Darjeeling hills, including traffic on the very few roads in and out of the area. Tourist traffic is usually allowed to exit the district, but you may have to pay an exorbitant fee to the taxi driver. You should check the papers and with your hotel if travelling to the region; w www.darjeelingtimes.com is also a useful source of information.Read More
- Around Darjeeling
Kalimpong and around
Kalimpong and around
Though it may seem grubby at first, the quiet hill station of KALIMPONG, 50km east of Darjeeling, has much to offer, including a colourful market, an extraordinary profusion of orchids and other flowers, great views of Kanchenjunga, several monasteries and lots of potential for walks in the surrounding hills, which are still home to the tribal Lepcha community. Like Darjeeling, Kalimpong once belonged to Sikkim, and later to Bhutan. Unlike Darjeeling this was never a tea town or resort, but a trading centre on the vital route to Tibet – a location that rendered Kalimpong virtually out of bounds for tourists for a couple of decades after the Sino-Indian conflict of the early 1960s. Despite the large military presence, Kalimpong’s recent history has been one of neglect, decaying infrastructure and water. A deep-rooted dissatisfaction has simmered for several years championed by the Gurkhaland movement, but political uncertainties and wildcat strikes have not detracted from Kalimpong’s charm. Its quiet leafy avenues offer a breath of fresh air after the razzmatazz of Darjeeling.
Kalimpong spreads along a curving ridge to either side of its main market area, known as Tenth Mile. Though there are few of the curio and tourist emporia so abundant in Darjeeling, there are plenty of places selling Buddhist handicrafts and religious paraphernalia, which attract wholesale buyers from all over India. Silk brocade, Tibetan incense, made-to-order monks’ attire and silver bowls predominate. Of the tourist shops, both Kaziratna Shakya and Himalayan Handicrafts on Rishi Road have good selections and workshops; the wholesale shops are centred around RC Mintri Road. On Wednesdays and Saturdays, Tenth Mile gets very lively as villagers flock in from the surrounding areas for the principal weekly markets. The Gangjong Paper Factory welcomes visitors to their handmade paper workshop down steps off Printam Road; access to Himalayan Handmade Paper, on KD Pradhan Road near Thirpai, is easier and they also have a shop.
Rinkingpong Hill, also known as Durpin Dara, looms above Kalimpong to the southwest and, despite the army’s presence, makes a pleasant 4km hike from the centre of town. At its highest point, Zong Dog Palri Phodrang Gompa, also known as Durpin (“telescope”) Monastery, built in 1957 to house three copper statues brought from Tibet in the 1940s, was modelled on Guru Rinpoche’s mythical “pure realm” palace and consecrated by the Dalai Lama. Despite the communication masts and the army campus next door, the gompa’s roof is a great place to take in the sunrise accompanied by the chanting of the monks below; you are welcome to sit in for the prayers.
The wooded roads leading up Rinkingpong Hill hide several interesting old manor houses, of which Morgan House was built for a British jute merchant but now serves as a tourist lodge, where tea on the lawn captures the atmosphere of the period; the views are stunning. Further up the hill and some 2km above town, St Teresa’s Church was built in 1929 by a Swiss missionary and borrows heavily from vernacular Buddhist monastic architecture, mimicking a Bhutanese gompa. There’s beautiful carving inside and out; check out the doors, adorned with the eight sacred Buddhist symbols.
At the other end of town, half an hour’s walk up Deolo Hill brings you to the Thirpai Choling Gompa, a breakaway Gelugpa monastery founded in 1892 and recently renovated, which hides the controversial image of Dorje Shugden, a deity proscribed by the Dalai Lama. Below and closer to town, the meditation halls of Thongsa Gompa, a small Bhutanese monastery founded in 1692, are covered with beautiful murals. The summit of Deolo Hill (1704m) is a popular picnic spot with a DGHC tourist lodge and restaurant, and a superb vista which ranges from the steamy Teesta Valley far below to the summit of Kanchenjunga, with the frontier ridge and the passes of Nathula and Jelepla into Tibet clearly visible.
Kalimpong is renowned for its horticulture, especially its orchids, cacti, amaryllis, palms and ferns. There are round fifty nurseries, such as Sri Ganesh Mani Pradhan at Twelfth Mile, Nurseryman’s Haven (at Holumba Haven hotel) and Pineview on Atisha Road, which specializes in exotic cacti. Although Kalimpong blossoms all year long, the best time to see orchids in bloom is between mid-April and mid-May, when the flower festival is usually held.
- Moving on from Siliguri
The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway: the Toy Train
The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway: the Toy Train
Completed in 1881, the small-gauge (2ft or 610mm) Darjeeling Himalayan Railway was designed as an extension of the North Bengal State Railway, climbing from New Jalpaiguri, via Siliguri, for a tortuous 88km up to Darjeeling. Given World Heritage status by UNESCO in 1999, the Toy Train (as it’s affectionately called) follows the Hill Cart Road, crossing it at regular intervals and even sharing it with traffic. The Toy Train is no longer an essential mode of transport, and has survived due to its unique historical importance and tourist appeal. Diesel engines now pull the coaches up the full route from Siliguri; if you’re determined to experience the endearingly ancient blue steam engines, some over hundred years old, check the services starting at Kurseong.
Weather permitting, first-class coaches with large viewing windows provide magnificent views as the seven-hour journey from the plains progresses and the scenery gradually unfolds; second class can be fun but crowded. At its highest point at Jorebungalow near Ghoom (2438m), 7km short of Darjeeling, the dramatic panorama of the Kanchenjunga Range is suddenly revealed. Just beyond Ghoom, the train does a complete circle at the Batasia Loop – the most dramatic of the three loops encountered along the way; another method used to gain rapid height are the reversing stations where the track follows a “Z” shape.
Trains leave Siliguri at 9am and finally arrive in Darjeeling around 3pm (2nd class Rs42, 1st class Rs247). Some travellers find this claustrophobic and painfully slow ride a real test of endurance, especially after an overnight journey from Kolkata to Siliguri. An alternative is to take the steam train from Kurseong or take the short ride from Darjeeling to Ghoom, just 7km up the track from where you can visit a few monasteries and either walk, take a taxi, bus or the train back to Darjeeling.
For more information on the Toy Train, contact the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway Society (wwww.dhrs.org), or, in India, the Director at Elysia Building, near Himali School, Kurseong 734203 (t0354/200 5734).