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.