State West Bengal
Location At a height of 6,814 ft in the Eastern Himalaya, north of the gateway town of Siliguri in West Bengal, close to Nepal and Bhutan
Distances 51 km W of Kalimpong, 81 km NW of Siliguri, 95 km SW of Gangtok, 687 km N of Kolkata
Route from Kolkata NH34 to Dalkhola via Maida; NH31 to Siliguri via Bagdogra; NH55 to Darjeeling via Kurseong
Take that last winding bend on the mountain and feel pure exhilaration fill your being. Reminds you of those two British agents who were sent off to explore the region where present- day Darjeeling is located, of how they must have cursed their superiors as the impenetrable forests on steep mountain- sides blocked their path at every step! Coming upon a spur on the ridge one day, they were greeted by a stunning view of Darjeeling and the rapturous beauty of the Kangchendzonga Range, peeping out from between the jungle of oak, pine and orchids. Alakazzam! Darjeeling became yet another Raj hill station. With all the passage of years, 'Dorje Ling' or Place of the Thunderbolt, remains just as alluring with its little villages, tiny waterfalls and an even tinier toy-train track.
THINGS TO SEE AND DO
Darjeeling is a town made for long walks, situated over a ridge and spilling down the hillside in a complicated series of interconnecting roads. You'll come across a lot of colonial architecture - English cottages with antiquated windows and smoking chimneys, graveyards cheered by mountain pansies, magnificent school buildings and churches. Chowrasta, the main town square, is lined with shops, restaurants, curio dealers and hawkers. Pony-wallahs will let you canter around for Rs 80 per hour or Rs 300-350 per day. Catch a bit of shopping or just soak in the views of Kangchendzonga.
When to go October to January, mid- March to early June. Uncomfortably crowded in October during Durga Puja
• Deputy Director of Tourism Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council Silver Fir, Bhanu Sarani Darjeeling
• Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council
Hill Cart Road
Near Darjeeling Modh, Siliguri
• Sikkim Tourism
Department of Tourism, Govt. of Sikkim
MG Marg, Gangtok
• Sikkim Tourist Info Centre 8
New Sikkim House
14, Panchsheel Marg, Chanakyapuri
Tel: 011-261153461 171
STD codes Darjeeling 0354, Kalimpong 03552, Gangtok 03592
High mountain grandeur
Kangchendzonga, the third highest peak in the world, is the reason to be here. It is called the most romantic mountain - an epithet one can understand only on seeing it. Countless poems and the movie Kanchanjunga by Satyajit Ray acknow- ledge this. Hotel rooms, cafeteria-seating, look-outs on the Chowrasta... all are positioned to get the stunning views of one of the world's most beautiful peaks. From October onwards you have unparalleled views of the entire range.
Each morning, muffler-wrapped couples and families make up a procession towards Tiger Hill (8,382 ft) to see the peak. Concentrate on the splendour when the peak shakes off the night to dress in the gold and orange hues of a fresh dawn.
Viewing Tower entry fee Standing Rs 10, seated (upper decks) Rs 30-40 Shared jeep Rs 65-70 for a return-trip ex- Darjeeling
You cannot do Darjeeling without a visit to the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI), known all over the world as India's premier mountaineering establishment. Perched atop a knoll, Birch Hill Park, HMI was founded in 1954 and headed for many years by the famous mountaineer Sherpa Tenzing Norgay who climbed Everest with Edmund Hillary in 1953. The Mountaineering Museum there has a collection of mountaineering equipment, specimens of flora and fauna, traditional dresses of Himalayan tribes, and much more. The Everest Museum records the intriguing history of all the attempts to scale the world's highest peak. Regular rock climbing sessions are arranged by the HMI.
Entry fee Rs 30 (includes entry to the Zoological Park) Timings 8.30-4.30/ 5 pm, closed on Thursdays Tel 2270158
Gelugpas in Ghoom
Near Tiger Hill is the Yiga Choeling Tibetan Monastery of the Gelugpa sect, also called the Ghoom Monastery. It came up in the 1850s and was built by a Mongolian monk, Lama Sherpa Gyaltsho, whose faith brought him to India in the 1820s. In 1918, the 15-foot clay image of the Maitreya Buddha, built at an expense of Rs 25,000, was unveiled. Painted gold, the statue is said to be encrusted with precious stones. Also check out the thangkas on the walls. Nearby, adjacent to Hill Cart Road, is another Gelugpa monastery, Samten Choeling.
Timings Open all day Photography Not allowed inside the monastery
Bhutia Basti Monastery
The Bhutia Basti is the oldest monastery in Darjeeling, originally built on Observatory Hill in 1765, sacked by the Nepalese in 1815, rebuilt in 1861 and finally moved to its present location in the Bhutia Basti in 1879. It's an unusual blend of Tibeto-Nepalese architecture and a storehouse of rare artefacts, including ancient Buddhist texts. The MahakaI Temple now stands where the original Bhutia Basti Monastery used to be. An early morning walk up to the top is quite pleasant, but do be careful of the monkeys. Monastery timings Open all day Photography Not allowed inside
If you have the time and the inclination, catch a ride on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (which UNESCO recognizes as a World Heritage Railway) from Kurseong to Ghoom. When built in the late 19th century, the toy train was something of a technological marvel. Its tracks rose from sea level to an altitude of 7,546 ft in just about 70 km, The engineers devised many zigzags, reverses and loops to overcome these gradients, but the most famous one is the Batasia Loop, where the train does a complete figure of eight along the track. If you want to see just the Batasia Loop, drive to watch the train turn from the gardens in and around the loop.
TIP Go very early or late in the day to avoid tourists returning from Tiger Hill
Samthar Farmhouse, rural Kalimpong
Lt General Jimmy Singh (retd) knew he wanted a place at Samthar when he led a trek through the area 12 years ago, and suddenly Kang- chendzonga, the reclusive god-mountain of the North-East, emerged from behind the clouds. Jimmy took over a collapsing farmhouse and has spent the intervening time turning it into a haven of peace and rustic comfort, with an exquisite garden which cascades in a riotous spray of marigolds, azaleas, morning glory, hibiscus, poinsettia and hydrangea.
My room at Samthar Farmhouse (Gurudongma Tours and Treks Tel: 03552- 255204, Mobile: 09434047372; Tariff: Rs 3,000-4,000; for details see page 424) had half- timbered walls. When I finally curled up that night to sleep, it was beneath a thangka of a blue-skinned Medicine Buddha. That was after drinks in the sitting room, where antique kerosene lamps cast a warm flickering light over the rendered stone walls. At our feet lay a luxuriant yak skin. Dinner was a hearty mix of Goan and North Indian, bracketed either side by a tangily delicious lime and coriander soup and a sumptuous creme caramel - all whipped up by Tara, a woman from the village.
Walking in the village, the landscape was iridescent millet and paddy fields, interspersed with orange trees, patches of soya beans and tapioca, and mud walled homes. The terraces shelved as gently and perfectly as ripples on a pond until the valley dropped away abruptly to the Samthar River, far below.
If you are without sin, you will be rewarded with a view of Kangchendzonga. The morning dawned with a light cloud cover, and no knock at my door to tell me to come and look at the mountain. Instead, Samthar offers the most beguiling mists you can imagine. Mists that burble up from the valley like smoke from a cauldron, tendrils that waft and drift and thicken and disperse, constantly mobile clouds that open and close to frame random pieces of idyllic landscape. When Kangchendzonga does briefly emerge, it is as if from behind an exquisitely embroidered veil.
• Getting there from Siliguri Take NH31 to Bagrakote via Sevoke. At Bagrakote, turn left and head north towards Lolegaon. About 9 km short of Lolegaon turn left for Samthar, 15 km away. Taxi from Siliguri costs Rs 3,500 approx
It's tea that put Darjeeling on the world map. Sprawling estates with bungalows as old as colonialism dot the local map. Dr Campbell, the first superintendent of Darjeeling appointed by the East India Company, planted the first tea seeds in the garden of his lodge sometime in the late 1830s or 40s. Missionaries like the Barnes brothers, who set up modest- sized plantations in the late 1880s, took up his pioneering efforts. The plantation started by them is presently the Bannockburn Tea Estate (Tel: 0354- 2276255).
Today, there are some 87 tea estates in and around Darjeeling, employing over 50,000 people. Each garden has its own history and most have their individual blends of tea, which are collectively presented to the world as 'Darjeeling tea'. The best time to visit the gardens is in summer, during the plucking period. The most convenient visit would be to the fabled Makaibari Tea Estate (Tel: 2330179/ 181), in Kurseong, in operation since 1859. Rajah Banerjee (Mobile: 09733004577), the owner, welcomes visitors to his family estate renowned for its green and oolong teas sold worldwide. Also among the best-known estates in Darjeeling are the Badamtam, Runglee Rungliot, Happy Valley, Thurbo, Margaret's Hope and Castleton.
Tucked away in Darjeeling are lovely gardens, parks and natural history museums. Behind the Raj Bhavan is the Shrubbery (which was once the summer home of the Maharaja of Cooch Behar), a garden with a lovely view of Kangchendzonga and Singalila Valley. The Lloyd Botanical Gardens harbour Himalayan and alpine plant varieties, including flowers. The hothouse has a fantastic collection of more than SO species of orchids and is open from 6 am to 5 pm (no entry fee).
Entry fee Rs 2 Timings 10 am-4 pm; Thursdays closed
Limber up to the Padmaja Naidu Zoo- logical Park (Tel: 2253709), and head down to the quiet, forested pathway leading to the Snow Leopard Breeding Centre. The person to contact is Kiran Muktan, who handles the project, if you want to visit. This is the only place in the world where breeding of snow leopards in captivity has been carried out successfully.
Entry fee Rs 15 Timings 8-4 pm
Home away from Tibet
The picturesquely situated Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Centre is a 45-min walk from Chowrasta. It was established in 1959, the year His Holiness the Dalai Lama sought refuge in India. Today, the centre is home to about 650 Tibetans and sells superb carpets, woodcarvings, woollens, thangkas and an assortment of Tibetan curios. The best way to enjoy your visit is take a tour of these various workshops, which are open to visitors.
Timings 9 am-4 pm Tel 2252552
Tea, of course. Among the best in the world is supposed to be 'first flush superfine tippy golden flowery orange Pekoe'. First flush refers to the youngest leaves, growing just below the bud. The younger the leaf, the more expensive the tea. You'll find that prices range between Rs 500 and Rs 2,000 per kg. So be discerning while making your selection. Nathmull's on The Mall, is a rather reliable outlet.
The curio shops in the bazaar are a treasure trove with offerings such as wind chimes, brass statues, leatherwork and silver jewellery. The Manjusha Emporium sells handicrafts, silk and hand- woven items. In shops on The Mall, Chowrasta and the Tibetan Refugee Centre you'll find Tibetan wool and silk, thangkas, and bronze, copper, silver and even gold artefacts. The Tibetan Refugee Centre, Hayden Hall and Third Eye offer reasonably priced Tibetan carpets.
TIP Shops are closed on Sundays
WHERE TO STAY
Once, high society in Darjeeling was exactly that. Perched on top of Observatory Hill were the residences of the Who's Who of the British. Even now, the hill retains its exclusivity and most of the expensive hotels are here. In fact, almost every other building here is a hotel.
Darjeeling has power and water shortages, so check on back-ups before you commit.
The Windamere Hotel (Tel: 0354- 2254041; Tariff: Rs 8,000-9,250), on top of Observatory Hill, is the place to stay if you can afford it. Owned for over 70 years by Ms Tenduf-la, it is as imperious a hotel as its name suggests. Originally a boarding house for English bachelors, it became a heritage hotel just before World War II and has 37 rooms (with fireplaces) that are attended by Tibetan women in aprons. It has a bar but no television. In time-honoured tradition, afternoon tea is served in the drawing room here. The full course dinner is legendary.
Air Nearest airport: Bagdogra (90 km/ 3 ½ hrs), connected to Kolkata and Delhi by daily flights. Bagdogra also receives flights from Guwahati and Patna. Pre- paid taxi costs Rs 1,200. Private taxi costs 1,200-1,500 depending on the type of vehicle
Rail Nearest railhead: New Jalpaiguri (88 Km/ 3 ½ hrs), connected to Kolkata by the Darjeeling Mail and Kamrup Express and to Delhi by Guwahati Rajdhani. Taxi fare is Rs 1,100. Toy Train runs daily from New Jalpaiguri to Darjeeling (8-9 hrs), though the service gets disrupted during the monsoons
Road ITDC deluxe and AC buses and 'Rocket' buses from Dharamtala in Kolkata, will take you as far as Siliguri (81 km). From here catch a Trekker (fare Rs 100) or a Maruti Van (Rs 1,100) to Darjeeling. For more info, contact the Tourist Office in Siliguri.
The Elgin (Tel: 2257226-27; Tariff: Rs 5,100-6,500), a 120-year-old hotel, is also among Darjeeling's oldest and finest. Its 25 rooms are furnished with Burma teak floors, antique furniture, fireplaces and marble bathrooms. The Cedar Inn (Tel: 2254446; Tariff: Rs 3,200-4,400) near St Paul's has 29 rooms, sauna, steam, billiards, health club and library. Planter's Club (Tel: 2254348; Tariff: Rs 1,500-3,000) is the old Darjeeling Club now converted into a hotel. The rooms are huge, if slightly dark - something which can be corrected by the fireplaces. The Bellevue Hotel (Tel: 2254075; Tariff: Rs 700-1,600) is a nice place overlooking the Chowrasta, again offering fireplaces. Hotel Raph Khang (Tel: 2254632; Tariff: Rs 200-700), overlooking the market, is a friendly place run by a Tibetan family. They provide excellent food.
WHERE TO EAT
Keventer's, opposite Planter's Club, is known for its breakfast spreads, especially good if you like cold cuts. Though Penang looks slightly seedy, it has some of the best Tibetan food. For steaming thukpa, mamas and unforgettable chilli chutney, try Dekevas. Glenary's home- made chocolates, éclairs, cakes, pastries and bread have earned it the reputation of being the best confectioner in the North-East down the decades. Dafey Munal, next to the jeep stand, is a good place for light meals and desserts. Hasty Tasty is a nice place for reasonably priced vegetarian meals. Taaja's at the Planter's Club has good food, served slow. Supersoft Ice-Cream Parlour has genuinely creamy handmade ice-creams and other yummy snacks. For great food combined with atmosphere, you can dine at the Darjeeling Planter's Club and the Windamere Hotel, even if you don't stay there, but with advance notice.
Dr Graham's Home, now a public school, in Kalimpong Kalimpong is off the trodden track. Being in the shadow of Darjeeling and Gangtok, most tourist traffic passes this town by. This, in some ways, is Kalimpong's USP. It's a small, relatively quiet Himalayan place whose name in Lepcha means 'the ridge where we play'. It is ideal for a relaxed getaway, the pleasant weather making it famous for orchids and gladioli. Against the backdrop of the Eastern Himalaya, Kalimpong offers panoramic views of the Kangchendzonga Range, the Teesta Valley and the town itself from the Durpin Dara and Deolo hills.
THINGS TO SEE AND DO
Amongst the monasteries dotted along its verdant confines, the Thongsha Gompa Or Bhutanese Monastery (1692) is the oldest. Zong Dog Palri Fo-Brang Gompa was consecrated personally by the Dalai Lama in 1976. Built on the Durpin Dara Hill, it contains the Kanguyar, in 108 volumes, brought by the Dalai Lama when he fled Tibet. Another excellent vantage point for the snows and valley views. Established in 1992, the Tharpa Choeling Gompa belongs to the Dalai Lama's Gelugpa sect of Tibetan Buddhism. It is a 40-min uphill walk from town.
Built by British wool traders, colonial buildings are located on Ringkingpong and Hill Top roads. These include the lovely Morgan House, Crockery, Galingka, Tashiding and Ringking Farm. You can picnic at Dr Graham's Home, now a public school. The original school building and chapel with stained glass windows are worth a visit. St Theresa Church, built by local craftsmen to resemble a gompa, has woodcarvings on the walls that depict biblical scenes, but the sculpted figures resemble Buddhist monks! Taxi costs Rs 1,000 from Darjeeling to Kalimpong. Shared taxi is about Rs 100 per person.
Rafting on the Teesta is becoming a hugely popular adventure holiday option.
Make bookings with the Darjeeling Gorkha Autonomous Hill Council (Tel: 03552-213520) located at Chitre on the way to Gangtok near Teesta Bridge, Kalimpong. Also try Gumdongma Tours & Treks India (Tel: 03552-255204; gurudongma.com) based in Kalimpong.
Air Nearest airport: Bagdogra Airport (80 km/ 3 hrs). Taxi to Kalimpong costs Rs 1 ,300 approx
Rail Nearest railhead: New Jalpaiguri Station (75 km/ 3 hrs). Taxi fare as above. A shared taxi is Rs 80 per head. Avoid the crowded local buses
Road Take NH31 from Siliguri, cross the Coronation Bridge over the Teesta River at Sevoke and continue north up the Teesta Gorge. Look out for the turn-off on your right for Kalimpong after Chitre Wayside Resort before Melli Bazaar
Shopping is great, as the Kalimpong bazaars, full of Bhutia crafts, also sell handicrafts and the renowned Gouda goat's cheese, and lollipops, both of which were originally produced here by Swiss missionaries. Another culinary speciality is [mg, or 'glass noodles'. You can choose from the Pine View Nursery's large collection of orchids.
WHERE TO STAY AND EAT
Kalimpong offers excellent hotels, including Hotel Silver Oaks (Tel: 03552- 255296; Tariff: Rs 4,500-4,800) and Kalimpong Park Hotel (Tel: 255304; Tariff: Rs 2,000-2,600). Morgan House Tourist Lodge (Tel: 255384; Tariff: Rs 400-2,000) and Tashiding Tourist Lodge (Tel: 255384; Tariff: Rs 800-1,000) are also good options. All of these are located on the central Ringkingpong Road. Himalayan Hotel (Tel: 255248; Tariff: Rs 1,650-2,600) is one of the best on offer in Kalimpong, with beautiful gardens and excellent views of the Kangchendzonga Peak. Another lovely place is the Orchid Retreat (Tel: 274517; Tariff: Rs 1,400- 2,000), which offers beautiful south- facing vistas from every cottage.
All restaurants shut by 8.30-9 pm, so plan dinner accordingly. Glenary's has two eateries on Rishi Road and Ongden Road; both have cakes, pastries, patties, coffee and tea. Mandarin Restaurant is a popular eating option famous for its fish, roast pork and chicken balls. The Gompu Hotel has a bar and is quite popular. Kalsang Restaurant on Link Road is a rustic ambient place run by Tibetans. If you ask around, you may be able to access the local millet brew served in bamboo hollows, called tongba or chhang. Annapurna Restaurant is also popular. For more elegant dining, non-guests are welcome at the Himalayan Hotel and Silver Oaks, but with advance notice.
The moment the first whiff of juniper steers its way into your near frozen nose, you know it's April in Sikkim. Sikkim in April is beautiful. It's another thing that it's beautiful in May, June, July and every subsequent month. In capital Gangtok, there are many 'sightseeing' spots like Ganesh Tok, Hanuman Tok and Tashi View Point but to truly enjoy it, stick to walking. The scene changes dramatically the moment you head out of the main town. On a good day, one can see Kang- chendzonga and the rest of the range in all its majestic glory. The Institute of Tibetology is a must visit. Home to priceless antiques, rare scriptures and gorgeous thangka paintings, the institute spearheads the study of the Tibetan language, culture and spiritual literature. Take a walk along The Ridge, visit Old Market, New Market or Lal Market for curios. Expect to pay Rs 1,300 for a full taxi from Darjeeling and about Rs 125 per person for a shared taxi.
For shopping, most people make a beeline for the Handicraft Cottage Emporium situated below Ra] Bhavan. They stock the famous hand-carved wood choktse tables, carpets, blankets, shawls and prayer rugs.
WHERE TO STAY AND EAT
The best hotels in Gangtok include the only 5-star property in the North-East, The Royal Plaza (Tel: 03592-281570-71; Tariff: Rs 4,800-9,900); and Hotel Nor- Khill (Tel: 205637, 220064; Tariff: Rs 5,600-7,300), which is in the 'super- deluxe' category. Another pocket-scorcher is Hotel Tashi-Delek (Tel: 202991; Tariff: Rs 1,300-5,625). You can also stay in Rumtek at the Shambhala Mountain Resort (Tel: 03592-252240; Mobile: 09733035089; Tariff: Rs 1,700-2,700).
Eating out at Gangtok is a breeze. Most of the smart set can be found at the three-tier Glenary's and also The Buzz, which has a deli, a coffee shop and a bar. Baker's Cafe, launched by the Hotel Tashi-Delek management, has great cakes and bread. At the Blue Sheep Restaurant the service is slow but worth waiting for. The Square's Thai cuisine is worth a try. Little Italy serves Italian food and Tibet Hotel great mamas. Other popular hang- outs are Porky's and New Castle Hotel, a favourite for sizzlers. A typical Sikkimese meal can be had at Hotel Nor-Khill. This includes dishes made from stinging nettles and Alpine fiddlehead fern. Other local specialities include the famed cherry brandy. The Sikkim Alpine Cheese Company does an excellent Gouda cheese, a must-buy for cheese aficionados.
Air Nearest airport: Bagdogra Airport (123 km/ 4 hrs). Taxi to Gangtok costs Rs 1,500 approx
Rail Nearest railhead: New Jalpaiguri Station (118 km/ 4 hrs). Taxi fare as above. It's cheaper to take a shared taxi (Rs 125 per head) from the SNT Bus Stand. Avoid the crowded local buses
Road Take NH31 from Siliguri, cross the Coronation Bridge over the Teesta River at Sevoke and continue north up the Teesta Gorge. At Melli Bazaar continue on NH31A up to Gangtok
Rumtek Monastery (24 km)
Located on a picturesque road across the Rangit River, Rumtek is Sikkim's largest monastery. It houses a school, an aviary and a special section where monks take off to meditate in isolation. Close to 300 years old, Rumtek has some truly magnificent thangka paintings and is considered the most important seat of the Kagyupa sect of Buddhism. The smaller Enchey Monastery, literally 'high strong place', does live up to its name as it is situated on the upper slopes of the town. Spend enchanting mornings here listening to the hypnotic chants of the monks during morning prayers.
Midway between Gangtok and Rumtek, just off the main highway at 6th Mile Tadong, stop by at one of Sikkim's most popular orchid centres - Wayside Gardens and Nurseries (Tel: 03592- 251250; Sailesh: 09832060555). Sign up in advance for the recently launched guided tour (Rs 400 per person) of the orchid garden. The tour includes a meal at the in-house Garden Cafe, which serves buffets and it la carte meals. This is the best place in Sikkim to buy orchids. Walk-ins can enjoy a meal and shop. Taxi costs Rs 400-500 from Gangtok to Rumtek and back (inclusive of wait).
Tsomgo Lake (40 km)
A beautiful drive out of Gangtok leads to the magical Tsomgo Lake. Surrounded by frozen hillsides, the lake looks like something out of a Japanese calendar. Over a kilometre long and around 50 ft deep, its waters are unimaginably serene. And on sunnier days, the lake catches and keeps the blue of the sky.
There's only one road forward and it takes you all the way to Nathu-la Pass, from where you get to see China. You will need a special permit (obtained from the Tourist Office on MG Road or government recognized travel agents in Gangtok) to go there. Try Sikkim Tours (Tel: 03592-202188). A trip to Tsomgo Lake will cost Rs 1,200 (full jeep) return, and to Nathu-La it's Rs 550 per person or Rs 5,500 for the full jeep return. The price includes fare, taxes and entry fee. Nathu La trips are at a premium and in the high season the fare can go up to Rs 7,500.