Exploring India’s mountain towns
INDIA is a land of varied culture, languages and even the weather. Asian travellers are attracted to Delhi and Mumbai, where urban culture offers touches of the modern day world, but traditional values are never far away.
East India is another area that is emerging as an important destination for Asian travellers using the gateway Kolkata.
Invited by the SS Travel Service TTR Weekly recently joined a media and travel agents trip to Gangtok and Darjeeling starting with a flight from Bangkok to Kolkata Airport, where the overland trip got underway in earnest.
The tour’s first destination was Gangtok, the capital city of Sikkim state in East India. The state is sandwiched between Nepal in the west and Bhutan in the east with West Bengal state to the south. Gangtok shares many of the qualities and scenes experienced when travelling to Bhutan, but it also has its own distinct character.
We took a domestic flight from Kolkata Airport to Bagdora Airport, where a taxi service transfers visitors from Bagdora town to Gangtok. A jeep taxi can be shared by five to six people but the lack of space might be challenging once the taxi hits rough roads.
Entering Gangtok in Sikkim, requires permission, although the permit process is not difficult. But it s a little annoying mostly due to the delay at the checkpoint as the officers disappear for frequent snacks or a snooze out of sight. To get the permit you need a valid Indian visa, two passport photos and you must complete the form. Yes it will ask you to indentify grandparents names and whether they lived in India, but once you satisfy Indian bureaucracy, you will get a 15 day permit to visit this enchanting getaway destination.
Sikkim is renowned for its diversity in culture, but Buddhism flourishes here and there are monasteries along the banks of the Teesta River.
On the way to Gangtok town, the road climbs along ridges and cliffs overlooking the river flowing through a valley 1,000 metres deep. The view is amazing and can teach you the lesson that even when admiring extreme beauty you might face some risks. In this instance they are hairpin bends and the lack of barriers to keep the vehicle on the right side. Best to avoid travel from May until August or September, during the monsoon season, when the going is really tough on these mountain roads.
Attractions in Gangtok
Once in Gangtok the must-see attraction is the monasteries.
The Rumtek Monastery is the most important representing the head of Tibetan Buddhism (Karma Kagyu school) from its vantage point on the edge of a a mountain ridge overlooking valleys, river and and tiy villages.
Other Buddhist spots are the Enchey Monastery, the oldest monastery in Sikkim and the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology, which is the last one to be built to promote Mahayana Buddhism and Tibetan culture. It contains one of the largest collections of Buddhist books and manuscripts as well as rare sacred objects.
Local handicrafts in Sikkim can be seen at Do Drul Chorten and the Directorate of Handloom and Handicraft Centre, where there are demonstrations of how to make hand-woven carpets along with others handmade local products. Visitors can also buy handicrafts at the centre.
Thai visitors will love the shopping arcade called M.G. Marg Gangtok, which is a walking street packed with shopping bargains.
Gangtok is also a great base to start a trek, or visit the Himalayan Zoological Park to see the symbol of the state, a red panda. There are also whitewater rafting trips on the Teesta River, but not recommended for novice rafters.
From Gangtok to Darjeeling in West Bengal state, involves a stop at the hill station, Kalimpong, where you can enjoy a great climate and beautiful scenery. There are many Thai students here because the regulations for students are easier than in Sikkim and also it has a stronger reputation in higher education.
Tourism in Darjeeling has flourished for over 100 years since British colonials came here to nurture a cup of tea and experience cooler weather or even rain. So, today this place is now famous for its own branded Darjeeling tea that grows on the emerald green hillsides that are washed almost daily by rain showers.
To get there from Kolkata you need to take a flight to Bagdora Airport and then hire a taxi to transfer you to Darjeeling. There are no proper rest stops on the way so make sure you have visited the airport bathroom first as you will not see a “little room” anywhere until you reach your hotel in Darjeeling.
The road climbs through the mountains to 2,000 metres high where the views are stunning. But try to avoid the monsoon season July to August as all you will see are the storm clouds and mist.
On the way, you should catch glimpses of Kanchenjunga Mountain,the third highest mountain in the world after Mount Everest in Nepal and K2 in Pakistan. You will enjoy the best view of the peak from Tiger Hill, around 10 km from Darjeeling town. For the most stunning vistas of Mt Kanchenjunga get there before sunrise as so you can photograph the first touches of light on the peak that gives it a pink aura. Mt. Everest can also be seen in the distance from this spot when the sky is clear.
Once you are on Tiger Hill, you will need your warm clothes even if you travelled in the shelter of a chartered jeep instead of trekking to this point. The walk takes two hours with a local guide to show you the way.
It is recommended that you stay the second night at a tea estate to gain an authentic experience and the one I recommend is Glenburn Tea Estate located 60 km from Darjeeling town.
It takes about two hours to get there on a hillside road. The climate is a little warmer than in Darjeeling town as the location is way lower than the hill town.
Glenburn Tea Estate sits among lush greenery hills with tea plantations surrounding the estate. The place offers accommodation decorated in rich colonial style, which made it feel like we were walking into a classic British novel scene. The estate teaches you the tricks of tea planting and of course how to drink it properly.
The scenic train known as Toy Train or the official name, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, is another famous attraction. Built during 1879 to 1881, the 86 km-long train journey was listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1999. Operated by the Indian Railway, Toy Train runs on demand, which means it moves when it has enough passengers and not before. Book in advance directly.
Hotels in Gangtok in Sikkim and Darjeeling are plentiful so rates are relatively stable and there is always the guest house option to really save on costs. No one travels all the way to Darjeeling to stay in a hotel, but when you arrive it is good to know you can enjoy a comfortable rest at the end of an amazing day in the tea country.