Gangtok, Sikkim – 2 nights Darjeeling, West Bengal – 1 night Goomtee Estate, Kurseong, West Bengal – 1 night
About this itinerary
This trip was an add-on to a visit home to Alok’s hometown of Bokaro, a regional city in the Indian State of Jharkhand, where we had spent a couple of days during the Holi festival.
We travelled by overnight train to New Jalpaiguri station in Siliguri, West Bengal, from where it is necessary to arrange a car and driver to reach both Gangtok and Darjeeling.
We spent two nights in Gangtok, the main city in the State of Sikkim. Regarded as a ‘frontier’ State on the border with China, Sikkim has a distinct local culture, with mountains and hiking trails a plenty to tempt the nature lover.
We followed this up with a night in Darjeeling, in the State of West Bengal. Famous for producing the finest tea in the world, it is a long schlep for a cuppa, but we also discovered Tibetan monasteries, Himalayan vistas and the famous Darjeeling ‘toy train’.
Our final night what felt like a time-forgotten tea estate in the Darjeeling Hills, before driving to the nearest airport, Bagdogra airport, for our flight to Delhi.
On the road
This itinerary and our timeframe looked reasonable on a map. Gangtok and Darjeeling are about 100km apart, forming a sort of triangle with the transport hub of Siliguri. It doesn’t look like a ‘roadtrip’ as such…alas this is the way I remember it.
Throw in the worst possible mountain roads you could imagine, and what should be two and a half hour journeys according to Google Maps become more like 6 or 8 hours. And forget about sleeping in the car – these are hair-pin bending, bone juddering trails such that you will need to prize your fingernails from the upholstery when you reach your destination.
'Even in a dark room, you can still find a match' our Darjeeling-raised driver told us with a grin as our tiny Suzuki wended through fog so woolly we heard oncoming cars before we saw them.
The fog was not the only hazard, particularly as we made our way toward Darjeeling. As we negotiated the snaking, barely-asphalted mountain road, with nought but a few pebbles serving as the barrier between us and the sheer mountain drop below, he cheerfully tells us that we are taking our ‘longer’ route ‘because the main road was taken down by a landslide two years ago and it still hasn’t been fixed’. A couple of days later – we would indeed see the side of a mountain and said road given way to the valley below and were particularly glad of the alternate route.
Tea lovers take heart – the road to tea heaven is a long, bumpy and windy one – but not without its magic. Tiny villages with poetic names and colourful wooden homes cling precariously to the hillside. The car zips across the narrow gauge railway that conveys the famous Darjeeling ‘toy train’ up the same road.
The moral of our story is thus – Darjeeling and Gangtok are not easy getaways. They demand time, rigorous journey planning and very careful driving. A local guide/driver is essential, and in Sikkim, it is required by law as vehicles plated in other States are not permitted to be used for tourists.
If you are considering such a journey – I also would recommend adding a couple of days if you plan to cover both Sikkim and Darjeeling – otherwise choose one destination to explore in greater depth. We missed a couple of sights as we had just run out of time.
Also note, as a ‘frontier’ State, it is necessary for anyone travelling on a non-Indian passport to gain an access permit to Sikkim at the border checkpoint – this can take some time but it is not unduly difficult.
Gangtok – 2 nights
This pretty city is largely considered a jumping off point for treks around Sikkim. Tiered down a mountainside, the centre of the action is a flower-filled pedestrian mall on Mahatma Gandhi (MG) Marg. Here we found restaurants and shops a plenty and explored the colourful square with other tourists – mostly Indian families and honeymooners it seemed.
We searched out some Tibetan treats – dumplings called momos and stuffed pastry called shyapale at Taste of Tibet restaurant.
The following day we made our way around a number of the city’s sights – a couple of lookout points are notable, however what would have undoubtedly been spectacular views were obscured by heavy fogs the day we visited. No matter – the Ganesh Tok lookout, festooned as it is with thousands of prayer flags was in itself a beautiful sight in the fog.
Another highlight was the Enchey Monastery. Built more than 100 years ago, we found the Buddhist monastery at the end of a long path of prayer wheels and pines, and we shared the walk with a number of young monks.
We also visited the Gangtok flower show – an indoor garden filled with mountain blooms – especially orchids and lilies, which opens in the Spring.
Worth the ride from MG Marg is the Gangtok Ropeway – a relatively short ride over the town and the State Parliament building.
Our stay while in Gangtok was the Denzong Regency. It was nice enough and has great views, but service could have been better.
Our drive from Gangtok to Darjeeling was long and eventful. Situated at over 2000 metres above sea level, it is a serious climb in a little Suzuki – so much so that we had to stop on the way up to give the car and ourselves a break. We were glad we did at a little Nepali tea house in the cute village of Lamahatta, home to an unusual landscaped park surrounded by forest and prayer flags, where we stretched our legs.
Climbing further up, we caught our first of many glimpses of the Darjeeling tea gardens. The ‘plucking season’ had begun with the famous tea ladies working the impossibly green tea estates and in the late afternoon, when we arrived, they were bringing in their harvest for the day.
Approaching Darjeeling we were in time for prayers at the Dali Gompa monastery, taking up our seats with hundreds of maroon robed young monks in the main prayer hall as their prayers are sung to rousing, almost majestic, music played on traditional Tibetan instruments . The boy sitting next to me twisted his tiny hands and clicked his fingers with the prayers in time with the chanting with the intricacy of a flamenco dancer.
Minds clear with the chanting and thinner mountain air, we climb higher still to arrive at our hotel in the early evening. Charming certainly, and with a wistful sense of history in many of its older institutions - hotels like the Windamere and restaurants like Glenarys or Hasty Tasty have little changed in decades and we become characters in dozens of books and movies that have featured Darjeeling's character-filled pedestrian malls and squares.
Darjeeling itself is something of a rich brew which has seen the overlap of Nepali, Tibetan, British and Bengali cultures. Although Darjeeling is part of the State of West Bengal - addresses here refer to 'Gorkhaland' reflecting the push for a separate State that emerged in the 1980s – and the dire condition of the roads and other neglected infrastructure is an unfortunate and deadly by-product of the stalemate.
In the evening we took in Chowrasta Square – including some of the tea shops and restaurants, before turning in with – yes, a cup of tea – as the heaters and hot water bottles were brought into our room at our historic hotel, the Ivanhoe.
The next morning, we took a constitutional wander to Observatory Hill to witness the early light on Darjeeling’s presiding peak – Kangchenjunga. It is possible and popular to get up at 4am and hit Darjeeling’s notorious roads to go for a sunrise viewing of India’s highest mountain, but we aren’t quite rock and roll enough for that. The prospect of traffic jams and potentially more fog was enough convincing that a five minute walk down the road with the locals a few hours later in the morning would be perfectly adequate.
And so it was.
In The Inheritance of Loss, which is set in this fascinating part of India, Kiran Desai describes the mighty mountain as 'solid, extraordinary, a sight that for centuries had delivered men their freedom and thinned clogged human hearts to joy'. When we climbed Observatory Hill in the pink morning, it was the very same.
We devoted the rest of our time in Darjeeling to non-tea related attractions of the city, including a ride on the Darjeeling ‘toy train’. One of the few steam driven trains left in India, most days it is now powered by diesel – but it is still an iconic journey as the narrow gauge tracks basically share the main Hill Cart Road with other users as the tourist train passes through towns – centimetres from shops and houses. The tourist run heads out from Darjeeling, makes a stop at Batasia Loop and Gorkha memorial and carries on up to Ghum – India’s highest altitude railway station, before returning to Darjeeling.
Next to the Darjeeling zoo it is also worth visiting the museum of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute which is something of a tribute to Darjeeling-born mountaineer, Tenzing Norgay who became, with Edmund Hillary, the first to conquer Mt Everest. The museum contains a range of items used in that ascent and subsequent early Everest climbs.
In the early afternoon, we began our drive to the Goomtee Tea Estate, where we were to spend our final night. On the way, we visited one of the most famous tea gardens for a taste. Makaibari Tea Estate produces nothing but straight-up organic Darjeeling Tea, of various grades or ‘flushes’. Our guide around the estate was a man of few words as he showed us the incredibly fragrant processing of the valuable leaves, but afterwards he did make a particularly good cup of tea.
Carrying on to the Goomtee estate, we felt as though we were headed to the ends of the earth on gravel – but we finally were greeted by a beautiful, rickety colonial bungalow in very English gardens, and their incredible sloping tea garden.
Arriving at Goomtee in the late afternoon the tea leaves were in for the day and the whole place seemed deserted except for us and a couple of the staff who showed us around, and we were left to ramble around the place until dinner time.
Turns out, there isn’t that much to do on a tea estate after dark except read and play backgammon or ping pong. Which was fine with us, as the next morning we had yet another long drive back to Siliguri for our flight from Bagdogra airport.