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My Adventures in Darjeeling, Sikkim & Kalimpong – Part 6 of 7

Here’s the continuing story… Happy reading 🙂

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 raining. I see thick clouds in place of the distant mountains. Half an hour later, the scene remains unchanged. Climbing into bed, I turn on the TV for the morning news but the only available English news channel, India Today is blaring out Christian preachings. I don’t believe my eyes. Perhaps I have tuned in to GOD channel or something. But no, the news channel logo at the upper right hand corner of the screen says otherwise.

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. During 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 budget 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 if the guy at the Lachung hotel had given me a good discount on the American plan rate.

I could spend one more night in Gangtok. It’s a five-hour drive to Bagdogra airport and my flight departure time is 4:15 PM. But the road from Gangtok to Siliguri is in a bad condition and a landslide would delay the journey. Kalimpong, on the other hand, is just 2.5 hours’ away from Bagdogra airport. I have had an amazing time in Sikkim, but Kalimpong could be a good hilly destination too.

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 from 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 he also carries my bag up to the ticket counter. The man at the counter tells me that both the two front seats in the next taxi are booked. After the uncomfortable taxi journey from Pelling to Gangtok, I’m not interested in taking the middle row seat but taxis for Kalimpong leave after every 30 minutes. Another man tells me that there are buses for Kalimpong too. The bus ticket counter is just 100 feet away. But 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 that tomorrow as I have to start early for the airport. Taking my ticket, I proceed towards the taxi parked in a dark corner. Two men are standing next to 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 rushing towards the driver to hand his bags 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, a sudden wave of nausea sweeps over me. Someone is smoking! I turn around to see the culprit…it’s the two tourists! I complain to the man seated behind who immediately reprimands them. Smoking in public places is banned in Sikkim and is punishable with a fine of 500 rupees. When I see the two men receiving a scolding, it fills me with childish glee. 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 among these lousy people. I hop out of the taxi and march straight towards 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, hence the taxi is waiting. Now why didn’t they tell me this before! I quickly 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’s 11:30 AM. So by the time we reach our destination it would probably be around 2:30 PM. That’s okay. I’m happy now that I have got exactly what 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 proceed 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 a 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. Deolo Hill and Durpin Hill are popular places for tourist sightseeing with plenty of vantage points offering magnificent views of Kalimpong with Kanchenjunga 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? All of a sudden, I feel very tired. I check my list of hotels in Kalimpong and select the budget hotel topping the list. It is popular with backpackers and is located in the town centre. The driver says it’s a short distance away, but charges eighty rupees for the ride. Like Gangtok, here too the taxi drivers charge a lot even for short distances. The road is too mucky for my bag so I hop into his taxi. Hardly three minutes must have passed when he stops and points out a building. THIS is the hotel? How can I stay here? I want to scream aloud and stamp my feet in anger. It’s 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 check out two more hotels but they too fail to impress me. The driver suggests a nice hotel with mountain views, so I decide to take a look. It’s away from the market area. I dislike the place at first sight but walk in anyway. It’s a small family-owned place and the scruffy-looking man to whom I make the room enquiry turns out to be the owner. His bike is parked right next to the reception desk. He opens a room door which is right next to the desk. It’s 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 for the location of Deolo Hotel, said to be one of the good hotels in town. He says it’s about 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.

The driver tells me that there’s 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’s 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 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’s mould on the wall! Ugh… 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 that feature in my sightseeing list. One is a hilltop temple dedicated to Lord Hanuman. After climbing several stairs, I reach the temple with the huge 30-ft tall statue of Lord Hanuman looming above.

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From here, I get this lovely view of the small temple of Goddess Durga, located along the road.

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There’s a lovely garden and some vantage points to enjoy the fantastic views.

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Thankfully, the fog clears away from one side for me to enjoy this beautiful view.

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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 good heritage hotels, Himalayan Hotel and Morgan House. Both are located in a secluded area, away from the town centre. Moreover, 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’s located close to the town centre and yet offers a beautiful landscape with lovely gardens and a view of the valley.

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The hotel offers an American plan room tariff of 6500 rupees after discount. 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 single beds.

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The only good thing about the upper floor room is that it has a queen-size bed. I take the ground floor room before another guest checking the rooms, grabs it.

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After completing the check-in formalities, the manager drapes a white silken khada (scarf) around my neck, which reminds me of a similar traditional Himalayan welcome at my hotel in Pelling. I mention this to him and he tells me that 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’s 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. Meanwhile, the manager books a taxi for tomorrow to take me to the airport. The fare is 2300 rupees. Booking it at a travel agency or at the taxi stand would have saved a hundred bucks or two but it’s already 4:45 PM and I have yet to complete my sightseeing tour 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, the closing time. But 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.

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And some more beautiful flora…

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A banana tree from Australia…

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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.

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The back lawn offers a captivating view of Kalimpong town and its beautiful surroundings.

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There are couple of seating areas in the lawn to relax and enjoy the view.

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I have a short chat with the warm and friendly owner of the place before leaving. It’s 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. As you can see, the monastery is shrouded in fog.

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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’s 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. By 6:00 PM, it’s 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 alongside the road.

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Returning to hotel, I pay the driver the amount agreed upon for the tour. He expects 2200 rupees which is too much. We finally settle at 1800 rupees which is also quite a lot for just 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 walk into a horticulture shop selling a wide variety of agricultural stuff. It’s nearing their closing time so I quickly look around and buy a few packets of flower and vegetable seeds and a garden cutter.

It’s 7:15 PM when I return to my hotel. There’s still time for dinner service to begin. So the friendly hotel manager gives me a tour of the place. 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.

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I take in each detail of the interiors of this heritage building. The cushioned wicker sofas and delicate wooden furniture in the lounge, the bar and…even the kitchen! It isn’t a modern kitchen but it’s large and clean.

Dinner is a set menu with vegetarian dishes as well as non-vegetarian food including fish and lamb meat. After dinner, I take a short stroll in the garden. The hotel has an in-house library of books and movies.

Back in my room, I wonder if I made a mistake in coming to Kalimpong. If I had stayed back for one more night in Gangtok, I would have saved 9500 bucks on my hotel stay and taxi hire here. Except for the cactus nursery visit, I haven’t been able to see much thanks to bad weather. Till evening, I was looking forward to visiting the town’s Haat Bazaar, a unique and colourful market held on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The market opens early in the morning. Started around 80 years ago, it’s supposed to be a great place to buy local products and taste local food. But even if I were to reach the place at 8:00 AM, I would get to spend just an hour looking around. And knowing my tendency to lose track of time while exploring such places, I would get delayed in leaving for the airport at 10:00 AM. So I drop the plan of making the market trip.

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! Due to thick fog, I’m unable to see anything beyond the garden. Ten minutes later, it’s the same scene.

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I pack my bags before leaving for breakfast at 7:30 AM.

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Breakfast is a set menu of Indian as well as Continental food. After a filling meal, I spend some time in the beautiful lawn. It’s well-maintained and offers lovely views.

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When the taxi arrives, I’m ready to leave. The middle-aged driver is a good source of information on the region. He tells me that the Himalayan Hotel located uphill is a wonderful heritage hotel with beautiful flowering gardens and its rooms are priced more than 50% lower than that of Hotel Elgin Silver Oaks. But being a small place, it would most 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. 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. Next, we talk about Sikkim. He says that 30% of all the birds found in the Indian sub-continent are found in this beautiful small state. It’s 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. The herb 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’s available in the traditional markets of Gangtok for about 100 rupees or more per piece, I feel like kicking myself. Damn, I missed this! Besides Sikkim, it’s found in other Himalayan regions too. In Nepal, it’s 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 drive past 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 it’s down to the heat and dust of the plains. Soon I’m in Siliguri, which is the major transit point for air, road and rail traffic to the neighbouring countries of Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh. Siliguri is famous for four Ts: tea, transport, tourism and timber. I reach Bagdogra airport at 12:30 PM. It’s way too early for my flight departure, a little more than three and a half hours away.

The airport terminal is flooded with tourists so I have to wait for a vacant seat. Two hours later, I have chicken patties and French fries. After the long wait, I feel 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 Kanchenjunga for a long time.

Forty minutes later, the flight makes a stopover in Guwahati. Before landing, I get an aerial view of the flood-hit areas around this capital city of Assam. It’s a tragic sight…muddy water everywhere for miles and miles. Half an hour later, the flight is ready to take-off for Mumbai. Tired, I’m eagerly looking forward to the 9:20 PM landing in Mumbai. To my delight, the IndiGo flight makes an early landing at 9:00 PM!

With this final post, my seven-part series on Darjeeling, Sikkim & Kalimpong comes to an end. I’m sure that by now you all may 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’s one of the best places in India to rejuvenate yourself spiritually or to relax your mind amidst natural beauty. Unfortunately, I was unable to visit some of the picturesque places in and around the world-famous hill towns of Darjeeling and Kalimpong. Around Kalimpong, I recommend visiting the picturesque small villages of Lava and Lolegaon (or Kaffer). Bear 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! It sounds strange but it’s 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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