Travelling to Darjeeling, Gangtok, and Kalimpong
So near, yet so far. This is how I would like to sum up our recent visit to Darjeeling, Gangtok, and Kalimpong. We flew from Kolkata to Bagdogra — the gateway to the North East located in Siliguri, in northern West Bengal. We hired a vehicle for Darjeeling, popularly known as the 'Queen of the Hills.' Darjeeling is a favoured tourist destination, noted for its scenic beauty, quaint houses, and mountain clad forest panorama.
The hilly landscape enveloped in green tea gardens is simply mesmerising. Our vehicle meandered through the winding roads along steep mountains under the able guidance of our driver. Dense evergreens and a wide variety of rare orchids and exotic flowers escorted us all the way.
The picturesque landscape has been aptly portrayed in Satyajit Ray's Kanchenjungha. We passed through Kurseong and finally reached our hotel near the Mall in the evening. The drive took around two-and-a-half hours.
We immediately dashed to Chowrasta Square and The Mall. It was very cold and we covered ourselves in all the warm clothes we possibly could but nothing could dampen our spirits and we joined people strolling, engaged in idle gossip over tea and coffee until late hours. For dinner, we relished hot, steamy momos, and spaghetti.
In the morning, we drove to Peace Pagoda. On the way, we came across the house where Tenzing Norgay (Sherpa Tenzing) spent his last years, one of the first two individuals known to reach the summit of Mount Everest, on 29 May, 1953.
Our next destination was Tiger Hill, highly acclaimed for providing an enthralling view of a stunning sunrise over Kanchenjunga and other important peaks of the Himalayas. Kanchenjunga is a Tibetan name that means 'The Five Treasures of the High Snow.' We reached the summit meandering through serpentine roads along the steep mountainside. The summit and the winding roads were enveloped in thick clouds all the way. Unfortunately, we could not spot Kanchenjunga or any other mountain peaks and had to be content relishing hot Darjeeling tea. Few vendors were found making a brisk business selling woollen garments and topi, tea, and crispy food items.
Later, we savoured lunch at the Batashi Loop overlooking the mountains dotted with colourful dwellings and prayer flags. The Batashi Loop remains the terminus of the narrow-gauge Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, or "Toy Train," completed in 1881. As our car was driving past the toy train, we found ourselves humming a famous song from the film, Aradhana which was filmed here.
In the evening, we enjoyed the 45-minute Darjeeling Ropeway ride over dense forests, mountain ridges, waterfalls, flowing rivers, green valleys, and tea gardens.
The following day, we were on our way to Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim by road. The winding roads through dense evergreen forests with wild exotic flowers and orchids were indeed captivating.
We took a break at Lover's Meet View Point for light refreshment with momo and of course Darjeeling tea, as we took in the amazing view of the Teesta River meandering through the region.
Entering Sikkim involved all immigration formalities necessary to enter a country. An entry form had to be completed and submitted along with passport-size photograph and NID at the Darjeeling-Sikkim border. It is like a state within a state. However, visitors are allowed to enter and visit Sikkim which was not the case a few years ago.
We were thrilled to finally enter Gangtok, known as the land of monasteries. The drive from the Sikkim border to our hotel was another 30 minutes. We were lodged close to MG Marg — the main hub of Gangtok. In addition to the number of cafes, restaurants, bars, and discos there are souvenir and gift stores, clothing stores, and local handicraft items.
We started with a visit to the Bakthang Waterfalls and were overcome by the scintillating and awe-inspiring view of the place. Our next stop was at the Tashi Point — which offers an amazing view of Mount Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain peak in the world, and other peaks of the Himalayas. Next in our itinerary was the Hanuman Tok, a Hindu temple complex dedicated to Lord Hanuman.
From there, we went to Do Drul Chorten, one of the most magnificent and one of the most important Buddhist stupas of Sikkim.
Our next stop was at the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology. Unfortunately, the Museum was closed and we could only admire the magnificent work of art and architecture of the institute in a beautiful manicured garden.
While having lunch at MG Marg, we spotted a nearby mosque, the Baitul Falah Jama Masjid and offered prayers. The mosque is still under construction and it was great to find a mosque in a relatively small Muslim community. For lunch, we relished mouth-watering Thukpa and South Indian Thali. Thukpa is one of the most popular foods in Gangtok. This is a noodle soup loaded with lots of seasonal vegetables and is highly nutritious. In the evening, it was time to browse and grab at the busy Lal Bazaar.
After a few memorable days at Gangtok, one fine morning, we drove to Kalimpong. Unlike Darjeeling, the city is calm and tranquil with less traffic. The roads have not been maintained for several years and in many places are devoid of street lights.
Kalimpong is renowned for its panoramic valley views, Buddhist monasteries, temples, and Tibetan handicrafts. We were overcome with mind-blowing panoramic evergreen mountainous landscape with wildflowers and orchids, and the River Teesta flowing all along the winding roads. The temperate deciduous forests include Acacia, oak, maple, bamboo, cinnamon, and cardamom. The forests found at higher altitudes around Kalimpong are made up of pine trees and other evergreen alpine vegetation.
We were lodged at a hilltop heritage hotel with a stunning view of the countryside and Kalimpong City. In the afternoon after a lavish lunch with chicken, mutton, and fish we were on our way to Deolo Hill — the highest point of Kalimpong.
We found time to visit the Hanuman Temple, dedicated to Lord Hanuman. Nearby is the Durpin Buddhist Monastery - one of the largest monasteries in Kalimpong. After a very hectic and memorable visit, we were on our way to Bagdogra by road to avail of the flight to Kolkata.
Photo: Dr Shamim Ahmed