Divided by a river are two realms that are so similar and yet worlds apart. We recently disconnected from the cemented world to go on a journey energised with spiritualism to Darjeeling & Gangtok.
Serpentine roads, emerald green tea plantations, colonial-era architecture and beautiful views obstructed only by colourful Buddhist flags that hang in every lane; Darjeeling is a beauty to behold. Quirky and authentic, the hill station is arguably the best part of West Bengal.
The next best thing to do is to ride the Toy Train, a mobile UNESCO World Heritage property! Running on narrow gauge tracks that were built in the 1880s, a steam engine pulls mini coaches through breathtaking landscapes and impossible curves. Eighteen rides are scheduled through the day between 7.40 AM and 4.20 PM. While diesel engine train rides are offered at Rs. 800, choose the steam engine ride priced at Rs. 1,300 for authenticity.
(As picturised in the Feature Image)
Countering the holiday mood, do wake up at an ungodly hour in the morning, and visit Tiger Hill. This is to experience the most beautiful sunrise of a lifetime. About 11 KM away from the town, the view from this hill in the biting cold is memorable. A panoramic view of sunlight reflecting off Mt. Everest and Mt. Kangchenjunga , makes the innumerable cups of coffee you’ll have while waiting for the sun to rise, all worth it.
Advocating the importance of world peace over war is an abode of peace and tranquillity on the Jalapahar Hill. This temple was built in 1972 by Nichidatsu Fujii in traditional Japanese style. Join in the prayers and experience the peace one gets from chanting – Nam Myōhō Renge Kyō – whilst playing the Japanese hand drums.
Standing at a height of 7,000 ft and spanning across 67.5 acres of land, is the zoo that houses exotic animals and various kinds of birds, native to these high altitudes. Located right next to the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, the zoo is a cocoon of greenery with over 200 species of trees, shrubs, climbers and medicinal plants, not to mention the huge and circular Aviary right at the front. The zoo is open daily between 8:30 AM and 4:30 PM except for Thursdays.
The eco-tourist spot Lamahatta, located at 5,700 ft and 23 kms away from the town, offers a thoroughly spiritual experience. The ecological balance and biodiversity of this place remains untouched. The winds passing through the numerous Buddhist flags hanging around are believed to purify the surroundings and the minds of people who pass through here. The locals work with the tourism department to offer home-stays and more. Opposite the Lamahatta garden is a tea stall that serves the best Thupka – local pasta served with soup, and ground chicken if you want the non-vegetarian variant.
Ropeway / Cable Car Ropeways
One of the first cable car systems to be set up in India, the ropeway takes you from an altitude of 7,000 ft to 6,000 ft in 15 minutes. It soars over lush tea gardens, dense forests and mountain streams, all with snow-capped peaks in the background. It operates from 10 AM – 4 PM during winter and monsoon and from 10 AM – 2 PM during summer. A round-trip stands priced at Rs. 160 per adult and Rs. 80 for a child aged between 3 years and 8 years. The ropeway remains closed on the 19th of every month for maintenance.
Shopping and food
Many skilled artisans and sculptors ply their ware at the numerous curio shops around town. Some of the best handmade items to buy here include Tibetan masks, local jewellery, kukri/gorkha knives, and various kinds of winter wear. Do not miss out on the scroll work paintings called ‘Thankas’ that depict various Buddhist stories. And how can one leave Darjeeling without taking back the ‘Champagne of Teas’. Head to Mayukh to find some of the best teas in town.
Darjeeling is filled with various food counters, each with its own unique way of making Maggi or Wai Wai noodles. Most of these counters also sell buttery dumplings that come accompanied with spicy chilli sauce and crispy onion fritters topped with green chutney. If you’re looking for a cosily warm place to sit down and have a good meal, Kanika’s for Veggie Lovers located at HD Lama Road is the one for you. While the restaurant also serves South Indian, go for their North Indian, Chinese and Tibetan options.
The Midpoint – Triveni
The story of the confluence of the rivers Teesta and Rangeet in the median of Darjeeling and Gangtok is one for the romantics. The feminine Teesta and the masculine Rangeet travel far and long braving hurdles to meet each other, lending hope to the romantics. Accordingly, the view-point that overlooks the river’s union is called ‘Lover’s View Point’.
White Water Rafting at Teesta was introduced by the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council in 1991 and has been popular ever since. The Government of Sikkim has set up a booth at the place, offering boat rentals that start at a non-negotiable price of Rs. 3,500.
Sikkim’s modern capital is a stark contrast to everything Darjeeling stands for. Layered along a precipitous mountain ridge is a city comprising of tall buildings and stores that are a shopaholic’s delight. Gone are the eccentric local stores of Darjeeling with cosy interiors, taking its place are brands that scream of the latest comforting commercialism. Cheerful and boisterous, Gangtok is the perfect blend of tradition and modernity.
A mountain pass in the Himalayas connecting India and China, Nathu La stands at 14,140 ft above sea level and is a part of the ancient Silk Route – a trade route between India and China. Sealed in 1962, the pass only reopened in 2006 following bi-lateral agreements. The fenced Indo-China border, a few meters away from here, offers a view of Indian and Chinese soldiers guarding it diligently. It is not advised to visit Nathu La without consulting your doctor if one has breathing problems. One can also find portable oxygen cylinders in local medical shops for assistance with breathing.
Pronounced by most tourists as ‘Chongo Lake’ or ‘Changu Lake’ to the ire of locals, the panoramic view of a half-frozen serene lake surrounded by snow-capped peaks with Buddhist flags fluttering in the wind is enough to take one’s breath away, even literally, thanks to the chill in the air. One can rent winter clothes and indulge in some hot dumplings, noodles, Maggi or Wai Wai at the only store available half-way to the lake.
One of the oldest and most significant monasteries of Sikkim, surrounded by forested mountains on all sides, this has to be one of the most picture-perfect monasteries of Sikkim. A restaurant that claims patronage from Aamir Khan and a souvenir shop dot the car park. The roadway to the monastery is in shatters but the peaceful atmosphere one ends up at makes it worthwhile.
A few kilometres away from Tsomgo Lake is Baba Mandir, a memorial for Major Baba Harbhajan Singh, the ‘Hero of Nathula’ maintained by the Indian Army. This serene and picturesque spot has a clear brook flowing through, offering amazing views of the mountains and the army trucks passing by. The souvenir shop on the premises of this memorial has everything that one would want to carry back from Gangtok.
Shopping and food
After one is done soaking in all the serenity Sikkim offers, it’s time to indulge in some retail therapy at MG Marg. After walking up an unending flight of stairs, one ends up at a long boulevard of shops that will probably take up your day. Home to the annual Food and Culture Festival held here every December, this pedestrian-only zone is the main market of Gangtok. One can find everything from Asian inspired clothes, shoes and accessories to restaurants and bars down this stretch. Do not miss out on the different kinds of buttery and filling kathi rolls doled out at The Roll House, identified by a neon wall of graffiti right opposite the shop. The Baker’s Café is great for coffees, pastries, pizza by the slice and more. So, sip your coffee, sit on the benches lined in the centre of this road and soak in the electricity of the place.
How to reach Darjeeling and Gangtok?
The nearest airport is Bhagdora and the nearest railway station is NJP (New Jalpaiguri), it takes 3 hours to reach Darjeeling and 4.5 hours to reach Gangtok from both these destinations. While buses are available, it is convenient to book a private taxi and keep the driver on for later if he seems reliable.
Where to stay?
Darjeeling and Gangtok are filled with every kind of hotel that one would need – homestays, budget, mid-priced and even luxury resorts. Book a hotel that offers you a view of the city and the mountain peaks. Mid-prices and budget rooms do not come with central heating, so ask for one if you feel the biting cold at nights. What one must be prepared for though is walking a distance and up a long flight of stairs to not just reach the hotel but also your room as most hotels do not have elevators. Our reasoning? You could use the exercise, and also, it will help keep you warm.
How to go around town?
Nathu La, Tsomgo Lake and Baba Mandir will require permission from the Indian Army for access. It is better one books these trips through a reputed travel agent rather than go there and rely on local agencies. The travel agents will allocate you a designated local driver who, if he’s friendly, will map out your day for you and take you places that aren’t even on the schedule. Despite our recommendations, having a local guide will always help you make the most of your trip. It is not recommended to rent a car or bike because the narrow and steep roads can only be expertly manoeuvred by the locals.