North Bengal, where the Himalayas soar from the flat alluvial plains towards Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan, holds some magnificent mountain panoramas, as well as a number 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.
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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, has called for a complete break from the state of West Bengal. Occasional strikes can paralyse the Darjeeling hills and affect traffic. 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 press and with your hotel before travelling to the region.
Part Victorian holiday resort, part major tea-growing centre, Darjeeling (from Dorje Ling, “the place of the thunderbolt”) straddles a ridge 2200m up in the Himalayas, almost 600km north of Kolkata. Over seventy years since the British departed, the town remains as popular as ever with holiday-makers from the plains, and promenades such as the Mall and the Chowrasta still burst with life. The greatest appeal for visitors has to be its stupendous mountain vistas – with Kanchenjunga (the third-highest mountain in the world) and a vast cohort of ice-capped peaks dominating the northern horizon. However, the infrastructure created under the Raj has been unable to cope with the ever-expanding population leading to acute shortages of water and electricity, and chaos on the hopelessly inadequate roads. Still, Darjeeling remains a colourful and lively, cosmopolitan place, with good shopping and dining, plenty of walks in the surrounding hills and attractions such as the Toy Train and colourful Buddhist monasteries. The best seasons to visit – and to attempt the magnificent trek to Sandakphu to see Everest – are after the monsoons and before winter (late Sept to late Nov), and spring (mid-Feb to May).
Singalila treks: the Maneybhanjang–Phalut trail
The single ridge of the Singalila Range rises near Darjeeling and extends all the way to the summit of Kanchenjunga. Unfortunately, although some longer trails have been opened in Sikkim, there is no provision yet to link them to the initial lower sections of the ridge to Sandakphu (3636m) and Phalut (3600m) in Darjeeling District.
Easily accessible from Darjeeling, the later stages of the Maneybhanjang–Phalut trail provide magnificent views of the higher ranges; lightweight expeditions are possible as there are trekking huts and lodges and simple food stalls along the way. The walking is demanding and you should bring your own sleeping bag and warm clothes as the weather can be unpredictable.
Maneybhanjang, a small town and roadhead 27km from Darjeeling, is the usual starting point for the route, with the finest views found along the Sandakphu–Phalut section of the trail while trekking north. You will need to get an entry fee from the Forestry Department to enter the Singalila National Park, and regulation states that you has to take a guide – available through the Highlander Guides and Porters Welfare Association. Take an early shared jeep to Maneybhangjang from Chowk Bazaar in Darjeeling to start the trek the same day. The best time to trek is after the monsoon (Oct & Nov), and during spring (Feb–May). It gets hot at the end of April and into May, but this is an especially beautiful season, with the rhododendrons in bloom. Several permutations are possible, including a trek to the Sikkim border at Jorethang.
Though it may seem a bit 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 original Lepcha community. Like Darjeeling, Kalimpong once belonged to Sikkim, and later to Bhutan. Unlike Darjeeling, however, this was never a tea town or resort but a trading centre on the vital route to Tibet. Despite a large military presence, Kalimpong’s recent history has been one of neglect, decaying infrastructure and water shortage. A deep-rooted dissatisfaction has simmered for several years, spearheaded by the Gurkhaland movement (something documented in Kiran Desai’s excellent Booker Prize-nominated novel The Inheritance of Loss), but political uncertainties and wildcat strikes have not detracted from Kalimpong’s charm. The 2011 earthquake devastated parts of the town, but today its quiet leafy avenues offer a breath of fresh air after the razzmatazz of Darjeeling.
Although the original appeal of Darjeeling for the British was as a hill resort with easy access from the plains, inspired by their success in Assam they soon realized its potential for growing tea. Today, the Darjeeling tea industry continues to flourish, producing China Jat, China Hybrid and Hybrid Assam. A combination of factors, including altitude and sporadic rainfall, have resulted in a relatively small yield – only three percent of India’s total – but the delicate black tea produced here is considered to be one of the finest in the world. It is also some of the most expensive with varieties fetching more than ₹18,000 a kilo at auction. Grades such as Flowery Orange Pekoe (FOP) or Broken Orange Pekoe (BOP) are determined by quality and length of leaf as it is withered, crushed, fermented and dried.
To watch the process for yourself, call in at the Happy Valley Tea Estate (80177 00700), a half-hour walk from Darjeeling off Lebong Cart Rd.
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 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 but is certainly a tourist attraction, and currently runs from Kurseong to Darjeeling. Work is continuing on repairing the landslide damaged sections and the line should reopen to Siliguri by the end of 2013. A handful of steam engines are still in use but diesel engines are now de rigueur on the long route.
Weather permitting, first-class coaches with large viewing windows provide magnificent views as the journey 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.
Some travellers may find the entire route from Siliguri painfully slow. The diesel-driven section from Kurseong is well worth the time, however or alternatively you could take the short ride from Darjeeling to Ghoom.