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Tuesday, 23 September 2014
At 5:30 AM, when I look through the bedside window, I realize that the sunrise won’t be visible today. It’s drizzling outside. When I push aside the curtains of the valley-facing window, I see thick clouds in place of the distant mountains.
Half an hour passes by but the scene remains unchanged. Flopping into bed, I turn on the TV for the morning news but the only available English news channel is blaring out Christian preachings. I don’t believe my eyes. Perhaps I have tuned in to GOD channel or something similar to it. But no, the name of the TV channel is right there on the corner. Strange! Of all TV channels, this one is playing advertorials on Christianity! I feel a bit hungry but breakfast service starts at 7:30 AM. Still, I dial Reception to check whether I can order it right away. The female voice on the other end makes my day. Yes, I can! So I ask for a glass of milk and grilled chicken sandwich. It reaches my room within 30 minutes. The sandwich is delicious. I turn on the TV but the preaching is still on. Since it’s my last day in Sikkim, I sit with my list of expenditure till date. The total figures please me. In this season, most travel agents charge 60,000 rupees for 7N/8D including food, accommodation and transport for Gangtok stay & sightseeing including Nathula Pass and North Sikkim. But I have spent just 3/4 of that amount in 11N/12D including everything, plus Darjeeling and Pelling! The good hotels in Kalimpong seem to be reasonably priced at 800 rupees. So I estimate not more than 5000 rupees expenditure to cover hotel stay and private taxi hire till the end of my trip. Not bad! The expenditure would have been even less if I had taken a 2N/3D North Sikkim trip (which would have sufficed) and the guy at the Lachung hotel had given me a good discount on the American plan rate.
As much as I want to stay back a day more in Sikkim, I know it would not be such a good idea. I’m told that the road connecting Gangtok to Siliguri is not in very good shape. It is a five-hour drive to Bagdogra airport, depending upon traffic conditions. A sudden landslide on the road could result in further delay. And my flight departure time is 4:15 PM. Kalimpong, on the other hand, is just 2.5 hours’ away from Bagdogra airport. I have had an amazing time in Sikkim till now which has added beauty to the already enchanting land of the mountains. It’s now time to leave for another hilly destination.
Around 10:30 AM, I check out from the hotel. The Deorali taxi stand from where shared taxis leave for Kalimpong is about two kilometres below the city centre. Being a state capital, I wonder why the city has no metered taxis. Thankfully, the taxi driver charges me the normal fare of 100 rupees. And to my surprise, he also carries my bag till the ticket counter. There, the man behind the counter tells me that both the two front seats are booked! After the uncomfortable taxi journey from Pelling to Gangtok, I’m not interested in taking the middle row seat but the next taxi for Kalimpong is going to leave after half an hour. Another man tells me that there are buses for Kalimpong too. The bus ticket counter is just 100 feet away. Unfortunately, the bus will be leaving in an hours’ time. So I have no choice but to take the middle row seat. Kalimpong is 2.5 hours away so I need to reach there as soon as possible to do some sightseeing before it gets dark. I won’t be able to do so tomorrow as I have to start early for the airport which is near Siliguri. Taking the ticket, I proceed towards the taxi parked in a dark corner. Two men are waiting beside it with their luggage. They appear to be tourists from the neighbouring state of West Bengal. The taxi driver, who’s walking behind me, calls out to me to pass my bag to place it on the roof carrier. But my way is blocked by one of the two men hurrying to hand his bags to the driver, instead of letting me pass by. One of his bags hits my leg. His discourteous behaviour irritates me. The driver tells him to move aside and takes my bag. I climb into the vehicle and a few minutes later a local man takes a seat behind. The two tourists remain outside. Time trickles by as we wait for the passengers to fill in. And then, I get a sudden wave of nausea. Someone must be smoking! I turn around to see the culprit…it’s the two tourists! I complain about it to the man seated behind who immediately gives them a strong scolding. I’m surprised. I didn’t know that smoking in public places is banned in Sikkim and is punishable with a fine of 500 rupees. Seeing the two men getting reprimanded, I quietly smile with childish glee and thank the nice man. A short while later, another idiot comes along and tells me to shift in as the window seat is his. It turns out that the two tourists have a middle row seat too. I can’t take it anymore. I’m not going to sit between these lousy people. I hop out of the taxi and march straight for the ticket counter to seek a refund of my ticket of 130 rupees. I almost yell at the man that I’m not going to sit among discourteous people and that I would rather take a private taxi. The men around suggest me to buy tickets for the front two seats instead. The seats have been booked but not paid and the passengers have not yet arrived so the taxi is waiting. Now why didn’t they tell me this before! I pay 260 rupees for the two tickets and return to the vehicle. Within a few minutes, the taxi starts off for Kalimpong, 75 km away. It is 11:30 AM so by the time we reach our destination it will be probably around 2:30 PM. That’s okay. I’m happy now that I have got things to be exactly like I wanted…the front seats all to myself!
It’s a pleasant journey but for the hot weather and road pollution. The taxi makes a lunch halt at the border town of Rangpo. While the others climb out and walk towards the restaurants across the road, I stay put in the taxi, nibbling on a large bar of dark chocolate. The journey resumes after half an hour. As we cross the state border to enter West Bengal, I bid a silent goodbye to Sikkim. Some time later, we climb uphill and the weather becomes cool and pleasant. Further ahead, the landscape becomes foggy.
Kalimpong, which is part of Darjeeling district, is located at a height of 4,100 feet on a ridge connecting two hills, Deolo Hill (5,590 feet) and Durpin Dara Hill (4,501 feet). The Teesta River flows in the valley below and separates Kalimpong from Sikkim. This small hill town is famous for floriculture, especially its wide variety of orchids. Its numerous flower nurseries are a major tourist attraction, besides its scenic beauty, of course! Deolo Hill and Durpin Hill are popular places for tourist sightseeing with plenty of vantage points offering magnificent views of Kalimpong with Kangchenjunga in the background, nearby villages of Lava and Lolegaon, and the beautiful hills and river valleys. Darjeeling is just 50 kilometres away from here.
The uphill climb ends as we enter the town limits. Driving along a narrow bumpy road, the taxi comes to a halt and the passengers start getting off one by one. I’m taken aback by the messy surroundings. This can’t be the taxi stand. I voice my thoughts to the driver. “THIS is the Kalimpong taxi stand?” I feel like returning back to Sikkim. The driver tells one of the taxi drivers hanging around to drive me to my hotel. What hotel? I feel tired, all of a sudden. I check my list of hotels in Kalimpong and name the budget hotel topping the list. It is popular with backpackers and is located in the town centre. The driver says it is a short distance away. I ask him about the fare. He says, eighty rupees. Like Gangtok, here too the taxi drivers charge a lot even for short distance. The road is too mucky for my bag so I hop into his taxi. Hardly three minutes must have passed and he stops to point a building. THIS is the hotel? How can I stay here? I want to scream aloud and stamp my feet in anger. It is such a congested area! I can’t see any mountains around, just buildings, small shops and restaurants facing each other alongside the narrow mucky road. I name two more hotels but they too fail to impress me. The driver tells me he knows a nice hotel with a mountain view and we drive there. It is away from the market area. I don’t like the place at first sight but anyway I walk in and inquire for a room. It’s a small family-owned place and the scruffy looking man seems to the owner. His bike is parked right next to the reception desk. He opens a room door just beside the desk. It is not to my liking and absolutely not worth 1800 bucks that he is charging. I leave. It has started drizzling. I need a good hotel, I almost scream at the driver. He tells me that the hotel is popular with tourists. Yeah, whatever! I ask him about the Deolo Hotel, said to be one of the good hotels in town. He says it is 8 km from the town centre. It doesn’t matter. Deolo (or Dello) is the highest point in Kalimpong so I might as well take a look there. At least I’ll get to enjoy some fabulous views. That is what I think, but the weather is bad.
The driver tells me that there is a great place for kids as well as adults, the Kalimpong Science Centre, just one kilometre away from Deolo Hill on the opposite side. As we near the destination, my attention is drawn to some stalls promising a thrilling paragliding experience. I can’t see a thing around me in the thick fog so I wonder why the guys are hanging about the place. Right now, it is 3:00 PM. An hour later, the weather would get worse. Besides paragliding, the place offers horse riding facilities too. We enter the 8-acre park which houses the tourist lodge. From here one can enjoy fabulous views but in the foggy weather, I can see only a bit of the beautiful manicured garden as we drive past it. Only lodge guests are allowed to take their vehicles right up to the lodge. Others have to pay an entry fee of 10 rupees per person. We stop outside the castle-like lodge. The park as well as the lodge is run by the local government. The driver tells me that the state’s Chief Minister stays here when she visits the town. So I expect the place to be very well maintained. The double room tariff is more than 2500 rupees. Forget off-season discount, they don’t even offer discount for single occupancy. And no credit card payment. The room on the ground floor looks so-so but my sharp nose detects a nauseating smell. There is some moss on the wall and it stinks! The manager tells me they don’t have any other double room available right now, only suites on the upper floor. As much as I’m unhappy with the place, I’m irritated by the manager’s bad service and inefficiency. The driver tells me it’s the same at all government-run places. I tell him to drive back to the town centre. There are two temples nearby which feature in the local sightseeing list. The first is a temple of Lord Hanuman located on a hill top.
After climbing several stairs, I reach the temple with the huge 30-ft tall statue of Lord Hanuman looming above.
From here, this is the view of the small temple of Goddess Durga, located along the road.
There is a lovely garden and some vantage points to enjoy the fantastic views.
Thankfully, the fog clears away from one side for me to enjoy this beautiful view.
On the way back, we pass Dr Graham’s Home, the orphanage cum school set up in 1900 by a Scotsman and missionary, Dr John Anderson Graham. It was through Dr Graham that Kalimpong gained popularity throughout Europe. The school started in a cottage accommodating up to 35 Anglo Indian orphans, the unfortunate offspring of local women and the British men who were employed in nearby tea gardens. Today the sprawling 500 acre campus, surrounded by lush greenery and forests, houses some 50 cottages, a huge playing field, a church, bakery, poultry and dairy of its own. Over the years, the school started accommodating not only orphans, but all children, local or from outside. Today, it has become a multi-religious co-educational school with large number of boarding & day students.
The driver suggests two other good heritage hotels, Himalayan Hotel and Morgan House. Both are located away from the town centre in a secluded area. I doubt if they accept payment by credit card. So I tell him to drive to the town’s premium hotel, the luxurious Hotel Elgin Silver Oaks. It is located very close to the town centre yet in a landscape with lovely gardens and view of the valley.
The hotel offers an American plan room tariff and the double room after discount is 6500 rupees. To my utmost relief, they accept credit cards.
The ground floor room is beautiful with an impressive bathroom and a lovely valley-view. But it has two separate beds.
The only good thing about the upper floor room is that it has a queen-size bed. So I choose the ground floor room before another recent arrival checking the rooms, grabs it.
After completing the check-in formalities, the manager drapes a white silken khada (scarf) around my neck, and I remember a similar traditional Himalayan welcome at my hotel in Pelling. I mention this to him and he tells me they have a hotel in Pelling too, Mount Pandian. An attendant offers me a welcome drink served in a shot glass. I drink it down in one gulp and… wow! It tastes great! The manager tells me it is Cherry Brandy from Sikkim. I’m mighty pleased. Finally, I got to taste a local drink of Sikkim!
Like Darjeeling, there are no local buses or three-wheelers here and the only way to move around is by walking. For tourists, taxis are the only option for sight-seeing tours. So I tell the driver to wait for a while before starting out for a few sightseeing places. The manager books a taxi to take me to the airport the next morning. The fare is 2300 rupees. Booking it from outside would most probably save me a hundred or two but it is already 4:45 PM and I have to do the remaining sightseeing before it gets dark.
Jelepla View Point is one of the best viewpoints in town but the weather is foggy. So we drive to the Pineview Nursery, a well-known private commercial nursery established in 1971. When we reach the nursery located on a hill top, it is 5:00 PM, its closing time. The kind caretaker lets me in. The entry fee is 10 rupees per person. The tranquil atmosphere of the place is overwhelming. Beautiful roses of different colours greet me alongside the path.
And some more beautiful flora…
A banana tree from Australia…
This beautiful nursery, also known as the famous Cactus nursery, is home to an exotic and rare collection of cactus plants from North, South and Central America. The cacti are available for sale too, ranging from 20 rupees to 2,00,000 rupees.
The backside lawn offers a captivating view of Kalimpong town and its beautiful surroundings.
There are couple of seating areas in the lawn to relax and enjoy the view.
I have a short chat with the warm and friendly owner of the place before leaving. It is 5:30 PM when we start for the Durpin Dara Hill. The largest monastery in Kalimpong, Zang Dhok Palri Phodang (popularly called Durpin monastery), is located atop this hill. Built in 1972, this Tibetan monastery houses some rare Tibetan Buddhist scriptures and artefacts that were brought here by the Dalai Lama from Tibet in 1956. In fact, the monastery was consecrated by the Dalai Lama himself in 1976.
Unfortunately, the Durpin monastery is closed by the time we reach the place. And, as you can see, the monastery is shrouded in fog.
I drop the plan of visiting the town’s oldest monastery, Thongsa Gompa (or the Bhutan Monastery), which was built in 1692. It would be closed too at this hour. On the way back to my hotel, we pass by Morgan House, one of the oldest colonial bungalows in town, now a heritage hotel run by West Bengal Tourism Department, and renamed as Singamari Tourist Lodge. It is located amidst quiet and lovely surroundings and opposite the Army Golf Course. Also known as Lion’s Golf Course, this scenic 9-hole golf course located at 4,400 feet is laid out in a picturesque setting on Durpin Hill. Visitors are not allowed to enter the course beyond a point but they can play a round of golf in the visitors’ area. It is 6:00 PM and it is already dark. The weather is also very cold and windy as I take in the beauty of the place from Watershed View Point, a gazebo located by the roadside.
It becomes dark very soon and we return to the hotel. I pay the driver the amount agreed upon for the tour. He was hoping for 2200 rupees but I found the figure too high. We finally settled at 1800 rupees which is also quite a lot for four hours of sightseeing.
The market area is just a 3-minute walk down the road. I see shops selling a wide range of traditional handicrafts, wood-carvings, embroidered items, bags and purses with tapestry work and copper ware. I do a bit of window-shopping and then enter a horticulture shop selling a wide variety of agricultural inputs. It is nearing their closing time. I quickly look around and buy a few packets of flower and vegetable seeds and a garden cutter. It is 7:15 PM when I return to my hotel. The manager shows me around the hotel. The walls of the long, carpeted hallway are adorned with picture frames on Kalimpong town and its surroundings, the people, their culture and lifestyle in the bygone colonial era.
I take in each detail of this heritage building minutely…the cushioned wicker sofas and delicate wooden interiors of the lounge, the bar and…even the kitchen! It isn’t a modern kitchen but it is large and clean. I expected the kitchen staff to be at work as it is almost dinner-time but they are just hanging around the place. I get the feeling that food has already been prepared and is about to be reheated for serving.
Dinner is a set menu with vegetarian dishes as well as non-vegetarian food including fish and lamb meat. The food menu is good but the preparation of most of the dishes, excepting the lamb meat, fails to impress me. After dinner, I take a short stroll in the garden. The hotel has an in-house library of books and movies but I’m not interested. Instead, I use its Internet facility to do web check-in for my next day’s return flight to Mumbai.
Back in my room, I wonder if I have erred in coming to Kalimpong. One more night in Gangtok would have saved me the 9500 bucks that I have spent here on my hotel stay and taxi hire. Except for the cactus nursery visit, I haven’t been able to see much thanks to bad weather. Till this evening, I was keen on visiting the town’s Haat Bazaar, a unique and colourful market held on Wednesdays and Saturdays from early morning. Started around 80 years ago, it promises to be a great place to buy local products and taste local food. Even if I were to reach the place at 8:00 AM, I would get to spend just an hour to look around. And knowing my tendency to lose track of time when exploring new places, the chances of delay in my 10:00 AM departure for the airport are pretty high.
Somewhere around 10:00 PM, I go to bed.
Wednesday, 24 September 2014
When the alarm goes off at 5:30 AM, I rush to the window. Bad luck! I can’t see anything beyond the garden because of fog. Ten minutes later, it’s the same scene.
I can imagine how beautiful it would be to see Kanchenjunga from this same window on a clear day. I pack my bags before leaving for breakfast. It is 7:30 AM. Only one table is occupied when I walk into the room.
Breakfast is a set menu of Indian as well as Continental food. It is delightful, especially the poha (pressed rice). After a filling meal, I walk outside in the beautiful lawn. It is well-maintained and offers lovely views.
When the taxi arrives, I’m ready to leave. The middle-aged driver is a good source of information about the region. I ask him about the hotels in town. He tells me the Himalayan Hotel located uphill is a wonderful heritage hotel with beautiful flowering gardens and the rooms are priced more than 50% lower than that of Hotel Elgin Silver Oaks. But being a small place, they would probably not accept credit cards.
Kalimpong was once under the rule of the King of Bhutan before its administration was handed over to the British in 1865. The town prospered when the British brought in development. Since then it has grown in a haphazard manner, hence it is congested. But the surrounding area is full of greenery, forested land and terraced fields. Tourism and floriculture are Kalimpong’s main activities. I’m taken aback when the driver tells me that even eggs come from Andhra Pradesh. “Can’t they start poultry farms here?” I ask. People are not enterprising, he says. “Okay, but Andhra Pradesh is far. Why not West Bengal?” They get a better price from Andhra Pradesh, he replies. That’s sounds strange to me. But at least the town has good education facilities and students don’t need to move outside to get a graduation degree. We converse on Sikkim. He tells me 30% of all the birds found in the Indian sub-continent are found in this beautiful small state which is a paradise for botanists and bird watchers around the world. One can find flora and fauna of all varieties from tropical to the alpines. He talks about a rare insect herb or mushroom called Yarsagumba found in the high-altitude region of North Sikkim which abounds with medicinal and aromatic plants. It is a unique combination of a caterpillar and a fungus and has an appearance of a matchstick. Local folk healers use it for treating different kinds of health ailments. Small in size but highly priced in the international market, it enhances vigour and vitality and promotes longevity. When he says it is available in the traditional markets of Gangtok for about 100 rupees or more per piece, I feel like kicking myself. Damn, I missed this! He says that besides Sikkim, it is found in other Himalayan countries too. In Nepal, it is called Keera Jhar.
(On my return home, I discovered this on Google: Cordyceps sinensis or Yarsagumba as the people of North Sikkim call this fungus/mushroom/herb has been described as a medicine in ancient Chinese medical books and Tibetan medicine. Traditional healers in Sikkim recommend the fungus/mushroom for “all illnesses” as a tonic, because they claim that it improves energy, appetite, stamina, libido, endurance, and sleeping patterns. The mushroom is most popular in the Lachung and Lachen area of North Sikkim and has the reputation of being a precious longevity-promoting herb. The normal harvesting period stretches from April to August. Besides enhancing vigour and vitality, it has aphrodisiac effects. It is also known as the Himalayan Viagra.)
Time flies as we chat throughout the journey. We pass the Coronation Bridge also known as the Sevoke Bridge across the Teesta River. Bhutan is just 2-3 hours away from here. From the serene, green hills we are now driving through the heat and dust of the plains. Very soon, we are in Siliguri, which is the major transit point for air, road and rail traffic to the neighbouring countries of Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh. This lovely town in the foothills of the Himalayas is famous for four Ts : tea, transport, tourism and timber. We reach Bagdogra airport around 12:30 PM. It’s way too early for my flight departure, a little more than three and a half hours. The airport terminal is flooded with tourists so I have to wait for a vacant seat. Two hours later, I snack on chicken patties and French fries. After the long wait, I feel very relieved when my IndiGo flight boarding is announced. Much as I’m eager to return home and have a homemade meal, I feel a bit sentimental about my Darjeeling-Sikkim-Kalimpong trip coming to an end. It has been an amazing experience and I know that I will carry with me, in my heart and recesses of my mind, the memories of the enchanting land of Kangchenjunga for a long time. Forty minutes later, the flight makes a stopover in Guwahati. Before landing, I got an aerial view of the flood-hit areas around this capital city of Assam. It was a tragic sight…muddy water everywhere for miles and miles. Half an hour later, the flight is ready for take-off to Mumbai. Since 12:00 PM I have been sitting and waiting and I’m totally fed up of it. So I’m eagerly longing for the 9:20 PM landing in Mumbai. To my delight, the IndiGo flight makes an early landing at 9:00 PM. Such a beautiful surprise towards the end of the trip!
This is the end of my journey through Darjeeling, Sikkim and Kalimpong. And with this final post, my seven-part series on Darjeeling, Sikkim & Kalimpong comes to an end. I’m sure that by now you all must have fallen in love with the mesmerizing land of Kanchenjunga. For me, Sikkim is one of the most enthralling places that I have visited till now. It is one of the best places in India to rejuvenate yourself spiritually or to relax your mind amidst natural beauty. Unfortunately, I was not able to visit some of the picturesque places in and around the world-famous hill towns of Darjeeling and Kalimpong. Around Kalimpong, I highly recommend visiting the picturesque small villages of Lava and Lolegaon (or Kaffer). Keep this in mind when you plan your Darjeeling-Sikkim-Kalimpong trip :-)
Before I end this post I would like to share one small personal detail with you. When I started my trip, I wondered if my problematic nose would get worse in the low oxygen, high-altitude region of Sikkim. Thankfully, it didn’t. Instead, it got better! After my return, it took me a while to realize that my nose problem had disappeared. It sounds strange but it is true :-) Mighty mountains, detoxifying environment with the cleanest air, beautiful hills dotted with monasteries and fluttering prayer flags…these are a feast for the senses. So here’s wishing you all the very best on your trip!
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