A drive through the eastern Himalayas takes you to the beautiful tea gardens of Darjeeling, the amazing Nathu La and Tsango Lake and the breathtaking views of Kalimpong and beyond.
A journey around the spectacular surroundings of the Eastern Himalayas is best taken by road as it offers you a mosaic of enlightening and highly memorable experiences amidst some of India’s most exciting natural landscapes. The mountain landscapes, the lush paddy fields and forest areas (rich in wildlife) interspersed with silvery rivers and streams, the amazing stretches of tea estates (in the Dooars Valley and above in the Darjeeling Hills), the amazing orchids around Kurseong and Kalimpong – wildlife parks and historic palaces – and the vignettes of the world’s third highest peak Mt Kanchenjunga from both the plains and the mountains – are more than enough reason to pack your bags, hop on your mountain (in this case a beefy 4X4) and set aside at least 10 days for the trip of a lifetime…
From the hill station of Siliguri to Kurseong, from orchids celebrity, you will be accompanied by the crazy track of the lovely steam train train – Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, which is on the UNESCO World Heritage List. By the time it has climbed the steep slopes to Ghoom (the world’s second-highest railway station), it has reached an altitude of 7,407 feet, having negotiated the Batasia Loop, an engineering marvel. Joyrides can be enjoyed from Darjeeling station to Ghoom Monastery.
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In Darjeeling, enjoy the fresh mountain air, enjoy the scents of the wildflowers amidst a stop at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI), established in 1954. Darjeeling is home to the Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, who is the New Zealander mountaineer Edmund Hillary, to be the first to conquer the highest mountain in the world – Mt. Everest. Tenzing was director of the institute for many years. Today, Tenzing’s son runs an adventure tour company here and organizes expeditions for the global mountaineering community. Visitors who would like to learn rock climbing can sign up for training at Tenzing Norgay Rock on the outskirts of town. The institution also offers mountaineering training. To get a glimpse into this fascinating world, come here to the Everest Museum, where several expeditions have been recorded, including the many attempts made on Everest.
A trip to the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park is a fun treat for kids. The institute also runs an invaluable conservation program for the endangered snow leopard and red panda. Awaiting the mists for sight Mt Kanchenjunga shop for souvenirs and go pony trekking Chowrasta. Don’t forget to pick up your favorite brand of Darjeeling tea from the shops in Chowrasta. It is a great gift for friends and family back home. Wake up before sunrise and head to nearby Tiger Hill for the eastern Himalaya snowy views at sunrise.
Those with a green thumb may want to explore the greenhouse varieties of more than 50 species of orchids that can be seen in the Lloyd Botanical Gardens. The beautifully maintained garden of the royal family of Cooch Behar, known as The Shrubbery, can be found behind the Raj Bhavan, offers a beautiful view of the Mt Khanchenjunga. A tea estate homestay on some of the legendary tea estates around Darjeeling is highly recommended. You must plan this in advance.
The Bhutia Basti Monastery is worth exploring. It was originally founded by Lama Dorjeringzing in 1765 on Observatory Hill. But when the monastery was sacked by the Nepalese in 1815, it became more sensitive to rebuild it at St. Andrews Church in 1861. In 1979 this was Tibeto – The Nepalese style structure was moved to Chowrasta’s Bhutia Basti. See the rare artifacts and ancient manuscripts on display. The old Tibetan refugee center, is an excellent place for souvenir hunting. You can take in carpets, thangkas, wood-carved artifacts, handmade wool, and curios. Nearby Mirik is another popular tourist spot and offers boat trips on the tranquil Samendu Lake against the backdrop of the Kanchenjunga Mountains, and walks along its scenic forest trails.
The spectacular drive from Darjeeling to Sikkim’s capital Gangtok offers many ‘wow’ moments as you pass the verdant birthplace of Darjeeling’s legendary tea industry and along the beautiful Teesta Gorge. Stop at the Triveni Viewpoint for photo shoots of the Teesta River’s confluence with the range.
At Gangtok one of the must dos is the drive to Nathu La and the beautiful His cluster. Yak riding on Tsango, and a thrilling hike to the legendary pass, are the big highlights of this tour… And be sure to keep your camera ready… because who knows when you’ll be making this trip again soon. You must leave your car at the hotel as the tours are only allowed with a government approved guide and jeep. The tours are always conducted in the early morning (because you have to return to Gangtok by noon as the fog begins to descend on the route). So plan this carefully to get the best out of the trip.
Gangtok offers a surprise for you. The atmosphere in the old town rivals the fast-growing, hip shops with global brands, interspersed with small alleys in the traditional bazaars. Bustling with the appeal of burgers and pizzas, the cafe can’t drown out the goodies of momos and traditional nettle soup to keep you full and fed. Gangtok’s annual Flower Festival, in the month of May, is a big draw as it showcases some of the most extravagant flowers to be found in the northeastern states of India.
Of Enchey Monastery, a short distance from the city, offers mesmerizing views and peaceful moments, while the amazing Namgyal Institute of Tibetology draws scholars from all over the world to enjoy the legacy of Tibet through thousands of ancient manuscripts, artifacts and the like, hundreds of years old. There are several agencies in the city that arrange tours and treks in the beautiful area of Gangtok.
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From Gangtok, return to Teesta Gorge via Rangpo and Mongsoong to maneuver the tight corkscrew ride to Kalimpong. Make sure your breaks are in good condition. Enjoy a cold beer to regain your sanity before heading out to discover orchid farms, shrines, peak times and visit Kalimpong cheese. A ‘must visit’ is the legendary Himalayan Hotel from where Tibetologists such as the German explorer Heinrich Harrer, of Seven Years in Tibet fame, and others such as Prince Peter of Greece and Rinchen Dolma Taring made expeditions to Tibet. It has host and assistant Francis Younghusband on his journey together. The hotel owner, the intrepid David Macdonald, accompanied the Younghusband’s mission to Lhasa in 1904 as an interpreter and was later posted as a British commercial agent in Yatung and Gyantse until he retired in 1924. Mountaineers such as Hillary and Mallory would relax in the atmospheric lounge with various expeditions on brandies and warmth of the old-fashioned fireplace. The Deolo Lodge is another nice place to spend some time. Just five miles from town, Deolo Lodge is a cozy little ‘hotel’ from where you enjoy those views of Teesta Gorge and the spectacular view of Mt Kanchenjunga.
Follow the fabulously green, bird-infused stretch of Kalimpong to the picturesque village of Lava. You can stay overnight here and explore this expanse bordering Neora Valley National Park with its promise of views of Jelep La and Rechi La – otherwise drive through lush forests to spend the night at the lovely Neora Jungle Lodge. Come down the hill the next day to return to the highway at Dam Dim Modh, where the Tatas have a beautiful tea plant of the same name. Dam Dim offers you a stay in a tea farm and can be used as a base for explorations of Jaldapara WLS, in Madarihaat, where you can see the endangered one-horned Indian rhino on the back of the elephant. If you want to continue driving to Bhutan’s border town of Phuntsholing, now is the time. Indians only need an ID/Voter’s Card and a driver’s license and proper vehicle documents to get in. Go back to Chilapata where you can spend the night at the Chilapata Jungle Camp, run by Help Tourism. In the morning, make your way to Alipur Duar and on to Cooch Behar, where you can explore the classic Italian Renaissance-style Cooch Behar Palace. Mamata didi has now connected the city to Kolkata with an exciting new airport.
Darjeeling: Visit the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute which was founded by Tenzing Norgay in 1954; visit Tiger Hill for a clear view of the eastern Himalayan peaks; visit Ghoom Monastery: visit Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park; go for pony trekking on Chowrasta; visit Batasia Loop
Gangtok: Drive to Natu La in Tsango lake; visit to Enchey Monastery; go shopping in town; visit the Rumtek Monastery
Kalimpong: Drive through the city and stay at the Himalayan Hotel for spectacular views
WHERE TO STAY
Windamere Hotel (0354 2254 041/42); The Elgin (0354 2257 226/27); Darjeeling Tourist Lodge (0354 2254 412)
Hotel Tashi Delek (03592 202 991); Hotel Nor-Khill (03592 205 637)
The Himalayan Hotel (03552 255 248, 258 602); Morgan House Tourist Lodge (03552 255 384); Deolo Tourist Lodge (03552 274 101)
Dam Dim Tea Bungalow (033 2455 0917)