Friday, February 8, 2008

Darjeeling - The Himalayan Queen

After Gangtok, our next destination was Darjeeling in West Bengal. We started driving around noon and it took 6 hours to reach another beautiful city on the hills. The hilly terrain up to the city was, needless to say, another enthralling drive among ridges and woods drenched in the monsoon rains. It was almost a roller coaster ride with lot of hair pin bends and steep curves on the way. The chill increased with the elevation and our frequent stops to enjoy special Darjeeling tea in local tea stalls on the way made it a perfect rainy day.

Darjeeling lies in the Shivalik Hills (the lower Himalayan range). This hill station boasts of its expansive tea gardens and one of the best and uninterrupted views of Kanchenjunga - world's third highest peak. It also occupies a distinct place in Indian history.

We reached our hotel by late evening and had some difficulty in finding the hotel which was a little distant from the town. Our booking was in the Sterling Resort but due to some event going on there we were shifted to Gymkhana Resort. I would not say it is an amazing place to stay in but a decent one. After the long drive we needed a good night's sleep to gear up for the next day sight seeing.

We awoke to the sight of silvery clouds of mist shimmering on the tall pine trees lining the narrow road adjacent to our ground floor room. One cannot rise to a more beautiful morning.

Our sight seeing started with a walk towards the famous Mall Road where on the way we stopped at Chowrasta (a place where four roads meet). This is the intersection point of Nehru Road and Mall Road and is an ideal location for enjoying an uninterrupted view of the snow capped peaks of Kanchenjunga. There are benches laid down where one can sit for a romantic chit chat watching the crowd of tourists and also get pictures clicked. There are many Hindu and Buddhist temples near the Chowrasta.

We hop stopped at the following places on our sight seeing tour:

Tenzing and Gombu Rock: Named after rock climbers Tenzing Sherpa and Nawang Gombu, this is a masterpiece of nature's oddity for the rock climbers. This is where Tenzing Sherpa climbed the Tenzing rock in the presence of Late Prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. You could try rock climbing on this.

Lover's Road: This road is somewhat hidden from the view of most tourists but we were lucky enough to have a driver cum travel guide who knew the nooks of the city. This is one of the most beautiful roads of Darjeeling especially meant for lovers. Lovers can enjoy the seclusion of the place here and catch a splendid view of the valley beneath. It is worth a visit for lovers as well as nature lovers.

Happy Valley Tea garden: About 1 km from the town, the tea garden is vastly spread out and offers tourist a chance to experience the manufacturing process of Darjeeling tea which is world famous.

Rock Garden: Situated about 10 kms from the town this is a picnic ground, a rocky garden with an abundance of trees, shrubs and fountains. It starts at the ground level and then slopes down to multiple levels in a circular fashion with flower gardens and benches at different levels. One can spend an entire day here with family and friends and enjoy the proximity with nature. It is so nicely built that it is a marvel of present day architecture.There are also several tea shops to enjoy tea and snacks. At the very depth of the garden towards the last edge, there is a small temple of Lord Shiva in front of a beautiful natural waterfall. In order to reach it you nearly have to walk through the entire park. But it is worth the effort.

Ganga Maya Park: Ganga Maya park situated 2 kilometers away from rock garden further down the road has a small lake at its helm, with boating facilities where one can enjoy the serene cool atmosphere of the place.

One of the main attractions in Darjeeling is the sunrise view on Tiger Hill. It is famous for one of the best views of the world's third highest peak. It is ideal to visit early morning around 3 a.m. That was way too early for us, also we would not have been able to catch a glimpse of sun rays kissing the peaks because of the cloudy weather, so we did not make an attempt.

There are several other places of interest in Darjeeling like Lloyd's Botanical Garden, Zoological park, Batasia loop, Darjeeling-Rangeet Valley Passenger Ropeway, Natural History Museum, Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, but due to lack of time we missed visiting all these attractions.

While coming back to the hotel at the end of the day we enjoyed shopping at the Mall Road that had some cool winter stuff and relaxed in the happening yet cool ambience of a nice restaurant where we also enjoyed a live band performance.

Early next morning we headed towards Kalimpong, another hill station in West Bengal. Will get back with the details in my next post.

Check out the official website for complete information on Darjeeling tourism:

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Enchanting Sikkim

Sikkim is a state in East India in the Himalayan foot hills. We started our journey from Delhi on July 14, 2005, where we took a flight to Bagdogra, which is the nearest airport to Gangtok and is around 4 hours drive. Indian Airlines, Jet Airways, Deccan Air, etc. fly to Bagdogra linking it with Kolkata, Guwahati and New Delhi. At the airport, we took a local cab service (that we had booked in advance), the driver was waiting for us at the airport and thus began our tour of the exasperating Himalayan abode. It was monsoon time and the rain started leashing as the car waded its way through the wet hilly roads, lush green trees lining the path overlooking the valley beneath. We reached Gangtok in about 4 hours. The guest house we had booked, Mintokling, is a very snug and comfortable place and you have to go down the hill where it resides in the comfort of the mountains and trees around. The room was quite spacious and nicely done. Night had already fallen, we had a quiet dinner in the guest house and retired early.

We woke up early next morning to catch a breathtaking view of the mountains from our room's window. The clouds of fog set in the backdrop of the larger than life Himalayan ranges quietly told us what was in store. We set out after a quick breakfast for some sightseeing. Most travel in Sikkim is done by bus, car or jeep. We had booked the cab for our entire stay in Gangtok and the driver took us around.
The following places are worth a visit,

Rumtek Monastery - This is the largest monastery in Sikkim and is the main seat of the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism in Sikkim. Originally built by the 9th Karmapa Wangchuk Dorje in 1740, but fell into disrepair. When the 16th Karmapa came to Sikkim, Rumtek Monastery, then Dharma Chakra Centre, was in ruins. He got the monastery rebuilt and it got completed after four years, in 1966.
Perched on a hilltop facing the city, the monastery is home to the monks community, the place where they perform the sacred rituals and practices of the Karma Kagyu lineage.
Many sacred objects are housed within the complex, and one of the most magnificent is the Golden Stupa, which contains the precious relics of His Holiness the Sixteenth Karmapa. Opposite that building is the shedra, or college, Karma Shri Nalanda Institute for Higher Buddhist Studies.
Surrounding Rumtek Dharma Chakra Centre is the stupa walkway, where monks, pilgrims and visitors perform kora (kora is a Buddhist religious practice of circling a holy site on foot, this is believed to wash away the sins).

Phodong Monastery - This is one of the most beautiful monasteries in Sikkim. It posseses the old mural paintings and has around 260 monks. Like the Rumtek, the main annual Puja is performed on the 28th day and 29th day of the tenth month of the Tibetan calendar when a dance festival is held.
The walls lining the monastery have prayer wheels which the devout Buddhist spin while chanting "Hail to the jewel in the Lotus", to invoke Buddhisattva.

Enchey Monastery - Enchey Monastery is built on the site blessed by Lama Druptob Karpo, a tantric master known for his power of flying. This 200 year old monastery has in its premises images of Gods, Goddesses and other religious objects. Every year around January "Chaam" or religious masked dance is performed. It is located on a hilltop and is built in the shape of a Chinese Pagoda.

Flower Exhibition - There is a flower exhibition held in one of the exotic orchids of Sikkim throughout the year that displays seasonal flowers.

Cottage Industry - Here you can buy locally made handicrafts and handloom stuff.

Ropeway Ride - The rope way is a mode of transport for commuters in Gangtok. It is a fun ride for tourists and you cannot miss this.

Besides these there are several view points that give a picturesque view of the Himalayas. Also there are some water falls that are worth a click.

In the evening we enjoyed maggi and hot tea in a local cafe served by a very cheerful small boy. Thus the day passed. We enjoyed the peace and tranquility of the place with the drizzling and the fog giving a real romantic treat to the nerves.

The next day schedule was a visit to the Tsomgo lake, also called Changu lake.It is situated 35 km from Gangtok on the Gangtok - Nathula highway which forms a part of the old trade route from India to China. The drive uphill to this lake is a very interesting one with steep curvy roads and lots of sharp cliffs. You have to hire a jeep for the drive. It is a four hour 'sending shivers down the spine' drive through the mountain roads. It was very cold so we had to buy shawl and socks from a roadside vendor. When the journey ended we found ourselves at an altitude of 13,000 ft. The view of the lake in the lap of the hills is one of the best I have seen so far. The beauty and the serenity of the lake leave an indelible mark on the mind. We took a yak ride around the lake which was a scary one for me at least as the yak rides very close to the edge of the lake but he is an expert in doing that and takes care that you will not fall off. Our sherpa was a very friendly one and had a cute smile. We had to also rent umbrellas and jackets before the ride as it was rainy and chilly. In the winters, the lake actually freezes and attracts more tourists and travelers. There is also a small temple of Lord Shiva on the lakeside.

20 kms away from the Tsomgo lake is the famous Nathu La pass to Tibet, a part of the historic Silk Road. It opened again in July 2006 after 44 years of closure. We could not make a visit there as it was closed for the season.

In the evening we visited the local markets for some shopping and dinner. We bought some Chinese bells, a pair of dragons and a laughing Buddha that are the souvenirs of our wonderful trip. Sikkim is a plastic free zone so you wouldn't find any plastic bags to carry stuff. The shopkeepers generally wrap the items in newspapers tied with strings.

Sikkimese relish Tibetan food. We had delicious momos. Noodles, locally called Thupkas, are also good.

This marked the culmination of our trip to the heavenly abode. Sikkim is a sure stop for travel enthusiasts. Trekking is also a very popular option there although we did not have enough time for that.

For more information on Sikkim tourism, this is the official website:-