Magic of the Eastern Himalayas
It was a freezing cold evening when we arrived at Bagdogra airport (the only airport servicing northern West Bengal, India) on New Year’s Day. The private car we had booked in advance through our travel agent was waiting for us at the airport when we disembarked. The driver assured us it would be a 2-3 hour ride to Kalimpong in moderate traffic. However, due to the end of the year Puja festival, traffic was heavy and it took us 5 hours to reach our hotel in Kalimpong.
A word of caution for anyone travelling up the hill on these roads: they are narrow and winding and possibly not for the faint of heart. Traffic moves in both directions and is usually fast. However, these drivers are skilled and know the roads like the back of their hands! The sharp turns and bends, the slowing down and speeding up every time a big truck or bus comes from the opposite direction, the confident driving in the sometimes pitch dark and foggy roads- they have done it all!. There’s a good reason why they advise against hiring a car or taking a self-driven tour on these hills. No matter how good a driver you are, if you haven’t driven on these roads before, this is probably not the best time to start! We arrived in Kalimpong late at night.
Enjoying the Great Outdoors in Kalimpong
The next day we set off early to enjoy the sights in Kalimpong. The best thing about this beautiful little town is that everything is in proximity to each other. A private hire car or taxi would be the best way to travel on these roads and are quite reasonably priced. You can walk or hike, but public transport in these areas aren’t easy to find. Self-drive options are not available unless you are a local.
There is a lot of things to do in this area if you like the outdoors. With the mountainous terrain and the vast expanse of forrest. All the places are natural heaven of flora and fauna, with the nearby Mt. Kanchenjunga and beautiful Teest river (pictured below).
Walking and hiking for all different levels taking in the views along the river or even a Canopy Walk (pictured above) over the valleys through suspension bridges along a beautiful train concealed by nature. Alternatively Take to the skies and enjoying paragliding which I saw during my visit.
First up, we visited the Hanuman Tok to revel in the 30 feet tall statue of the Hanuman, the largest of its kind in North East India. A few meters away lay the Buddha Statue and Park (below). The colourful statue of the Buddha is impressive! It was interesting to find that the various offerings to the Buddha included soft drinks, chips and chocolates! Next up was a stroll at Delo Park to take in the beautiful views of the scenic River Teesta. Along the way, we stopped for coffee served by Army personnel at the in house café at the Army Golf Course, considered one of the most scenic golf courses in India.
Next, we visited the Kalimpong Science Centre which is a great place for children of all ages (including your inner child!). Lots of cool scientific creations in the Fun Science Gallery including a dome shaped planetarium and an outdoor Science Park including life sized dinosaurs!
On our way to Darjeeling, we paid a visit to the Durpin Monastery, perhaps the most beautiful location in all of Kalimpong. Prayer wheels and serenity throughout with beautiful views of the surrounding mountains. A dream location for avid photographers. Our first day in Darjeeling began by rising at 4 am to arrive at Tiger Hill to enjoy the spectacular sunrise over Mt Khangchendzongha at an elevation of 28,208 feet.
The crowds got heavier as the time neared to the break of dawn and therefore finding a great spot was essential. The car dropped us at the bottom of the hills and from there it was an easy 5 minute uphill climb to the top of the hills. In the afternoon we explored P.N Zoological Park, home to a great variety of flora and fauna found in high altitude Himalayan mountains, including the Himalayan black bear, red panda, yaks and musk deer. Not your average zoo, it spans across 67.5 acres of area at an average altitude of 7,000 feet.
You can also find the impressive Royal Bengal Tiger which is native to India and Bangladesh. It started drizzling and we didn’t have the patience to ride the Ropeway, however it is a great way to take in the panoramic views of Darjeeling from an altitude of 7000 feet in the air with a downward descent of 800 feet.
A fun activity at the Tea gardens is dressing up in traditional costumes for a fee of Rs 50 per costume (male and female). You can also enjoy a hot cup of Darjeeling tea from a roadside tea stall. The tea is made fresh in front of you and served in disposable paper cups. Not to be missed! You can’t visit Darjeeling and not have tea!
The next day was spent within the inner city of Darjeeling, spending the morning exploring the various shops at Mall Road (vehicle free zone). Then a stop at popular Glenary’s with its old English vintage feel for a scrumptious lunch. We got a table on the roof to enjoy the beautiful views of the mountains beyond. Touted as the best bakery in Darjeeling and I wholeheartedly agree!
In the afternoon, we visited Rock Garden and on the way visited the various tea estates and stopped at the little tea cafes to taste the tea from the tea gardens. You can also buy different tea leaves from these cafes. In the late afternoon, we enjoyed frothy coffee at historic Keventer’s, a café that opened in the early 1900s and soon became a popular shooting location for many iconic Indian films; the walls around the café proudly display black and white photos of Academy award winning filmmaker Satyajit Ray. We got a table on the rooftop balcony opposite the clock tower to enjoy the panoramic city views.
As always, we kept the best for the last! A ride on the UNESCO World Heritage Toy Train and later the Train Museum. You can purchase tickets at the ticket counter or online. Make sure to book early as the tickets sell out fast at peak season. The train stops for around 10 mins at Batasia Loop. Photo opportunities galore!
In the afternoon, we departed Darjeeling for Siliguri (3-4 hours depending on traffic). Our last evening in the Eastern Himalayas was spent exploring bustling, metropolitan Siliguri before catching a flight back home the next day. If you are considering a trip to the Himalayas and want to get the most out of your trip here are a few options for package tours.