India : Tribes, Tea and Trains - Traveling in the North East and West Bengal.

05 Oct, 2012



Circa 2007 : The rains arrived early in Meghalaya this year. The lush paddy fields, bamboo forests, rubber plantations,  forests of teak and Sal resplendent in innumerable shades of green were proof enough. Intermittently dotted with small villages, the four hour drive from Guwahati to Shillong was our first taste of the scenic North East. With a smattering of Banana plants, jack fruits trees and Areca, the landscape appeared  to be a seamless fusion of Kerala and Kangra. Though we were not in the thick of the tea country, here and there were glimpses of tea plantations covering gently curving slopes . Rain drummed our Innova and after Delhi's sweltering 38 degrees at the time of our 10 Am departure, every drop was welcome !

Day 01 : Delhi / Guwahati / Shillong :  Bill boards, narrow streets and honking traffic was our first impression of Shillong to be quickly replaced by a more picturesque and orderly town as we headed towards the secretariat and then subsequently to Tripura castle. Right off the main road, up thorough the winding road with houses on either side, the estate of the Tripura castle began almost a kilometre before you can sight the lichen covered circular entrance. In the evening light, in the shadow of the tall pine trees, the track sweeps up to the brief parking of the annexe, the portion of the estate where the rooms, restaurant and reception of Tripura Castle are located.  The Annexe was resurrected from sheer rubble to its present state and has been hosting tourists since 2003. Pinus khasiana, Meghalaya's indigenous pine has been used in the construction of the 10 spacious room with tiled attached bathrooms. The palace grounds encompasses an orchidrium and extensive gardens. On request the hotel organises a guided ( read silent ! ) nature walk through a picturesque flowering garden at a short distance from the castle.  
  
Day 02 : Shillong :-  An excursion braving the rains to Chirapunjee 60 kms east from Shillong to be rewarded with misty drives and  more rain drenched fields. On clear days you will be rewarded with fantastic views of Bangladesh at your feet some 4000 ft below. All we saw was fluffy clouds that seemed to be frothing out of the valley. The rain allowed nothing else on this day and we drove back just taking in the views and stopping briefly at the elephant falls.

On a clear day one would be tempted to travel to see the lakes and falls at . Also the sacred forest at Mawphlang where many orchids grow wild. Mawphlang is about 24 kms from Shillong. We however had already checked out of Tripura Castle and headed out to Rykinjai at Bararpani, Umiam Lake about 15 kms from Shillong on the route to Guwahati.

Rykinjai - Serenity by the lake is located on the edge of one of the largest landlocked lakes in north-eastern India. Rykinjai belongs to the same group of hotels that run the Tripura Castle and own the Centre Point - a business hotel in Shillong Town. The Retreat currently consists of  10 cottages modeled after the Khasi community huts that have a roof  like inverted boats.The original one uses bamboo and thatch while the Rykinjai cottages make good visual use of metal to create the same effect.

The first thing that strikes you as you enter the rather uninspiring gates of Rykinjai is the space and as you enter the building the impression is enhanced by the height of the corridors and the inclusion of light.There are rooms leading from the main block of the retreat and also individual cottages built of concrete stilts. The retreat is built into the hill along the lake in such a way that bedrooms of the cottages and  rooms are on the first floor which then affords uninterrupted views of the lakeside from the balconies as well as the rooms. The rooms are spacious with large full length glass windows bringing in the light and lake views. The large attached bathrooms and adjoining change rooms are a pleasure.

Day 03 : Shillong : From Rykinjai traveling back to Shillong is about 45 mins but it would be good to remember this is the  capital and you can be caught in a traffic situation just as you would in a Delhi or Mumbai. The Don Bosco museum in  is a treasure. With Seven floors depicting the various facets of the tribal culture,  their costume , dwellings, dances, handicrafts etc. the Museum affords a exhaustive account of the tribes of the North east. A private collection of butterflies by Mr. Sarkar is located in a residential area and is open to tourists. Mr. Sarkar had put together a sizeable collection of beetles and colourful butterflies and moths from all over the country especially the North East region. Neatly stacked against the wall in glass cases, they are surprisingly well preserved considering the collection is more than 40 yrs old. 
 
A traditional entertainment which is popular among the people of Shillong is the "Teer" which means the arrow. Archers shoot non-stop at a bulky cylindrical bale of hay and at the end of a specified time the number of arrows that have found their mark on the bale are counted. You bet money on numbers in single or double digits. The numbers that coincide with the number of arrow get the price money. Archery is not only a sport but also an essential skill for the hill folk of the region.

Day 04 : Shillong / Guwahati : - More time in Shillong would allow one to take in the many water falls in the region, the cathedrals and the parks. The town itself is a busy modern hill town a curious mixture of the local tribes, many of whom are now Christian converts. It is interesting to not that they retain  many of the tribal customs.

From Rykinjai Guwahati is closer, just over three hours. A large part of the city of Guwahati spans the southern bank of the Brahmaputra river. From a vantage point on a hill top on the way to the famous Kamakhya Temple one can see the extensive development taking place here. Residential buildings spill over the hillside and are quickly devouring more hills around.

A river cruise on the Brahmaputra in one of the private ferries which play music and serve food on board is a fun experience even as you are awestruck at the sheer expanse of the river with the city bustling along the edge. Brahmaputra originates in Tibet from the Mansarovar winds its way down to Arunachal as Tsangpo, through Arunachal as Siang and on to Assam as the Brahmaputra.

Day 05 & Day 06  : Guwahati / Bagdogra / Kurseong :- A brief flight from the Lokpriya Gopinath Bordoloi ( 25 kms from the city ) to Bagdogra brings us to the West Bengal part of the trip - Kurseong, Darjeeling and Kalimpomg, Bagdogra Airport to Kurseong is a distance of about 80 kms and takes 3 hours through yet another picturesque drive with miniature tracks of the famous DHRC criss crossing infront of us time and again. We eagerly awaited  the fairy tale " toot " of Darjeeling's famed toy train. And it is a little more than a toy and as DHRC completes 150 years since inception it is amazing to note how this train has managed to change the life and economy of the hill folk of this region, and still chugs on.

Just before Kurseong lush tropical forests gave way to the pines and large leaf ferns typical to higher altitudes of the lower Himalayas. And then began miles and miles of rolling tea gardens. Kurseong is a important junction for the hill railway. It is also an important siding and loading junction. The town is a typical hill town with double storey houses stacked up close, with little shops and pharmacies operating from the ground floor. The station which we passed by whenever we set out on our excursions or sightseeing was one of those timeless pictures you would want on your desk top to remind you of the magic of the hill railways.

Cochrane Place is out of Kurseong Town and if you were to ask for directions you will have to ask for the road to Makaibari. CP is about a kilometer above Makaibari Tea Estate whose owner Raja Banerji is as interesting as the tea that is grown there. Makaibari Tea Estate we did as a day visit on day 6, is one of the estates that takes pride in their systems and methods of make the best organic tea on these slopes. If you are guests from Cochrane Place you are shown around by their articulate manager who takes you from once process to the other - from the withering process right upto grading and packaging.
 Other places of interest in Kurseong are the Railway Station, the Forest Museum, the lake on Margaret Hope's estate which has a rare species of Salamander, Subhash Chandra Bose's Museum, the square meter organic farming run by the Octogenerian Father Abraham at Tung.

Day 06 :  Kurseong / Darjeeling :  Kurseong to Darjeeling is a short drive taking you via Ghoom and past miles and miles of tea estates to the jolly hill town made famous in the Romantic Sixties by several Bollywood Films. Darjeeling like any popular Hill Station at this time of the year is milling with tourists. Except if you are booked to stay out of the main town or if you are on the Observatory hill either at the Windermere or Elgin you have the double benefit of being in cleanest part of the town and also a whistle away from the main "chowk"of Darjeeling that leads you to the Mall road.

The British chose their hill retreats well in India, Darjeeling in May which is peak summer has an day temperature of below 20 degrees, just the kind of weather that makes you want stroll on the mall and eat corn on the cob. Darjeeling still has all the story book stores, Keventer's , Das Studio , Oxford Book Store etc. The pavement shops sell Chinese goods by the cart loads, cosmetics, umberallas, watches, bags, flip flops, you can spend days browsing that street going up and down as many times as fancy grabs you.

Day 07 : Darjeeling :- Darjeeling also has many sights ; the zoo and the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute are a favorite. The HMI has the a Museum dedicated to the memorabilia from the various Himalayan expeditions. A  memorial dedicated to the famous mountaineer Sir Tensing Norgayis located here.

In Summer Darjeeling has tourists from all over the country, mainly Gujaratis and Bengalis , both known to be avid travelers form a majority of the domestic tourists. Every hotel - big and small, low medium and high budget hotels were filled to capacity. We were told that on some of the days, tourists who came to Darjeeling without prior reservation either had to drive down to Ghoom and Kurseong looking for accommodation or had to sleep on the platform in the railway station.

Our Hotel of choice is Glenburn Tea Estate just an hour outside of Darjeeling. 
Glenburn offers stays in the beautifully restored plantation bungalows overlooking rolling hills on one side and Kanchenjunga on the other. Barra Bungalow and Water Lily Bungalow have themed suites, lounge, dining and several outdoor spaces to relax and enjoy the views. Fresh flowers everywhere four poster beds, hand embroidered linen, wicker chairs, lend a very English country ambience apt for a plantation bungalow while intimate dining, open verandas, high teas with freshly baked cakes, picnics by the river, delicious meals and inexhaustible mountain air add to the Glenburn experience.
The signature Glenburn experience also includes exploring the plantation and villages within the 1600 acre tea estate, nature and bird walks, overnights in the log cabin, picnic in the tea gardens, tea touretc. www.glenburnteaestate.com 

Day 08 : Darjeeling / Gangtok :  It was the day to travel from Darjeeling to Gangtok a distance of about 110 kms about 5 hours by road. Though we could have driven direct to Gangtok which would shorten our drive, we chose to go back to Darjeeling and then  first taking the Toy train from Darjeeling to Ghoom while our car went ahead to wait for us at Ghoom Rly station and again stopping by for a glimpse of the confluence of the rivers - Ringit and Teesta.

Traveling the short distance of 8 kms from Darjeeling's rather shabby railway station to Ghoom - a total of 8 kms take a little more than an hour. We chose the 9.30 service powered by the steam engine. the 219 D had 2 second class carriages and one first class carriage. To travel aboard the miniature train is to live a childhood fantasy. Take along a visibly excited group of tourists the 150 years old Toy train chugged along, tooting occasionally to warn pedestrians who walk and drive across the tracks unhurriedly. The train stopped briefly to replenish water for the engine and then at the war memorial which was more of a photo-op. Tourists swarmed around the steam loco as the engine driver and his assistant, tapped piped and turned circular metal valves, greased the engine many crevices.

Ghoom railway station still maintains the old structure and is a part of the restoration work following Unesco's heritage status provided to the DHRC. The railway station has a museum which chronicles the history and events that have been a part of the years of DHRC.

The drive from Ghoom to Gangtok in Sikkim is breathtaking through mist clad roads traversing miles of tea estate, merry hill towns, forests of stately Japanese pine and finally driving along the Teesta up to Gangtok. Located in eastern Sikkim,  Gangtok is the capital and also the commercial hub of this breathtakingly beautiful state. Sikkim is a destination that offers a myriad variety of options for visitors to this area - lakes, trekking routes, orchid nurseries, monasteries, peaks and mountain passes, and the lineage of the Namgyal dynasty which was show cased in a photographic exhibition at the Namgyal Institute.  

Hidden Forest is a simple accommodation located two kilometers from Gangtok's town centre , beyond the Paljor Stadium on the Indira bypass. Neatly laid out in three acres gardens that extends into a groves of Bamboo and other shady trees, the gardens are awash with colours of various flowering plants like Azaleas, lilies, hydragenies etc. The Orchid nursery housing a variety of Orchids The abode of Lachungpa, the animated Orchid expert and his wife. www.hiddenforestretreat.com

Day 09 : Gangtok :- One can spend a full day at Gangtok's Himalayan Zoological Park, the wild life here including Sikkim's state animal - the red panda are let loose in a semi-natural habitat thus giving more living space to the animals. Vantage points like the Hanuman Tok and Ganesh Tok offer sweeping views of Kanchendzonga and surrounding peaks. Enchey of the Nyingma order is 5 kms from Gangtok and Rumtek of the Kagyupa order are fine  examples the Buddhist Monastic culture with extensive areas dedicated to learning. Rumtek Monastery our Guide Tashi enthusiastically explained is the second largest in the world and is a replica of the Tsurphu monastery of Tibet. Other excursions from Gangtok include the Tsomgo Lake and Nathula pass which at 14,200 ft is one of the gateways into China.

Day 10 :  Gangtok / Kalimpong :- Gangtok to Kalimpong is a comfortable journey of about 4 hours. Enroute we had an interesting stop at Teesta and rafted on the Teesta River for about 8 kms from Malli. It was a short stretch and rafting was organised by one of the local outfits, one of the many that line the junction from whence the first stretch of rafting begins. Kalimpong is a neatly packed hill station with limited hotels. Himlayan Hotel was old world with some additions to the existing blocks. http://www.himalayanhotel.biz

Himalayan Hotel was the residence of David Macdonald who went to Lhasa along with the Young Husband Mission in the early nineteenth century. Much later it was converted to a hotel managed by his three daughters and has played host to many a distinguished guest.

Monsoons were already tailing us and we arrived to a thunderous downpour that lasted for a couple of hours. Kalimpong in West Bengal  has one main Bazaar area made up of a three narrow parallel road that are lined on either sides with shops selling Tibetan antiques and curios, clothe stores, sweet shops etc. It is the ideal base for treks to Sikkim, Nepal  and  Bhutan.

The Elgin Hotel which is just a whistle away from the Himalayan Hotel and the main market area is better maintained but does lack the atmosphere of the Himalayan Hotel that prompted the  famous travel writer James Cameroon to call it "a collectors piece among hotels".

Day 11 : Kalimpong / Bagdogra :- One can easily spend 2-3 days in Kalimpong, more if you are interested in treks . Kalimpong is one of the major producers of gladioli and also a prominent orchid growing centre. Kalimpong has a flower festival in October. Sightseeing also includes excursions to the Lava Monastery and visit to the Tharpa Chonling Gompa of the yellow hat Tibetan sect. The Sericulture institute and Dr. Grahams School for the children of the tea estate workers are other interesting places to visit.

Kalimpong to Bagdogra airport is a driving time of 3-4 hours. From Bagdogra you can connect flights to Delhi, Kolkatta and Guwahati.





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Trip to Darjeeling
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