The northern part of West Bengal is renowned for its high-quality teas, be it from the tea estates carpeting Darjeeling’s hills or from the plantations in the Dooars, the flood plains and the foothills of the Eastern Himalaya. These tea plantations offer some of the most picturesque vistas, tinged with a Colonial flavour that has an alluring charm of its own. Crowned by the Himalayas and criss-crossed by rivers, this beautiful part of the state also provides access to Sikkim, best known for its unparalleled views of the Khangchendzonga (also known as Kanchenjunga) which at 8,586 m is the third-highest peak in the world. The roads leading to Sikkim’s jewels–Gangtok, Pelling and Yuksom–are not in the best condition, but the feeling of exhilaration one experiences these destinations makes the bumpy ride worth the while.
Route: Siliguri-Kurseong-Selim Hill Tea Estate
Distance: 38 Km, 26 Km
Time: 1.5 hours, 45 mins
Over the years, Siliguri has become one of the largest trading hubs in eastern India. Those using the tiny city as a base to discover northeastern Bengal and Sikkim will need to negotiate through heavy traffic. There are mostly two-lane roads in this part of the state, except the six-lane road between Siliguri to Guwahati that is still under construction. Once out of Siliguri, traffic is sparse and road conditions, though rough in places, are decent overall.
Needless to say, leave Siliguri early in the morning to avoid heavy traffic. Follow the road that leads from Siliguri town to the airport (NH31) past Uttarayan Township and City Centre Mall to Matigara. Here, turn northwest onto the NH55, and about 12 km down this road, once you’ve crossed Simulbari Tea Estate, continue onto the Rohini Road towards Kurseong town. The uphill climb begins almost as soon as you hit Rohini Tea Garden. Continue on this road for almost 18 km to get to Kurseong.
Known as kurson-rip (meaning land of the white orchid) in Lepcha language, Kurseong is spread along a forested ridge and surrounded by tea gardens. The small hill station was ceded to the British Empire by the king of Sikkim in 1835. Later, in 1880, the British used the hamlet as a sanatorium. More than a century later, the town continues to rejuvenate all who knock on its door.
Kurseong is easily navigable on foot. A bustling marketplace forms the local nerve centre, and the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, a Unesco World Heritage Site, famous for its toy train, chugs right through the town. An archive on the railway can be seen at the station. Eagle’s Craig, perched on a cliff a kilometre from the railway station, offers sweeping views of the surrounding mountains, picturesque hamlets and lush green slopes around Kurseong. Come here in the evening to enjoy a panoramic view of Siliguri, twinkling with bright lights. A 4-km walk through the woods leads you to St John’s Church on the forested St Mary’s Hill. The grotto houses a statue of Virgin Mary, and has beautiful environs that also serve as a viewpoint. Located along the Hill Cart Road, Giddhapahar hill holds the Seti Mata Temple where crowds descend for a big fair around Ram Navami. Also in the vicinity is Netaji Museum, where Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose was interred. Ambotia Shiv Mandir is situated amid orange orchards near the Ambotia Tea Estate. Bagora, also known as Zero Point, is the highest point in Kurseong and offers fabulous views.
After you have had your fill of sightseeing in Kurseong, follow the Hill Cart Road towards Siliguri to reach the Selim Hill Tea Estate. The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway runs parallel to this route, and to make the most of the views here, try to leave Kurseong town by 3.00 pm. Follow the road to Gayabari station, and about half-a-kilometre after the station, lookout for a sign that says ‘Selim Hill Retreat’. The retreat is 1.5 km down the road from here.
One of Darjeeling’s oldest tea gardens, Selim Hill Tea Estate was founded in 1870. The tea plantation spreads 700 ft down the hillside, bounded by looming peaks. Visitors who come here to enjoy this glorious tapestry of nature are also treated to some of the world’s finest Darjeeling teas: Selim Hill is one of the pioneers in organic tea farming techniques. Sip a delicious cup of Darjeeling black, and take a tour to see how the world’s finest tea is made. Although the 160-year old estate bungalow was renovated recently, it retains its original character. Spend a night here, and go for a tour of the garden and the factory early the next morning, before heading to Darjeeling.
Things to See & Do
Located at a height of 3,500 ft, Selim Tea Estate was started in 1870 by a British tea planter. The estate is renowned for its orthodox variety of Darjeeling tea. Visitors can explore the tea gardens and learn about the process of tea-making, right from the tea bushes to the factory. Pony rides and walking trails make these explorations delightful. Come here at sunrise to soak in the superb vistas of Kurseong and the Himalayan peaks. After an early morning cuppa, set off for the 20th Mile Loop, locally known as Smritiban. Another trail takes you to the boundaries of Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary. Several trekking routes lead out from the estate to the nearby villages. The estate management can arrange for a guide to take you across the hill trails. Within the estate boundary lies Mother Teresa’s Santa Bhawan orphanage.
Route: Selim Hill Tea Estate-Darjeeling
Distance: 54 km
Time: 2 Hours
From Selim Hill, follow the Hill Cart Road back to Kurseong and then take the NH55 past Ghoom to Darjeeling town. The route winds through tea plantations for most part of the journey, and there are several spots on the road that afford great vistas of the Khangchendzonga.
During its early years, Darjeeling was a village peppered with English cottages. A former Gorkha station, the hill town was ceded to the British in 1835 by the Raja of Sikkim. Struck by the town’s location and natural beauty, the British decided to develop a sanatorium here. In addition, a bazaar and a jail were also established. Tea was not cultivated in Darjeeling until the 1840s, when Dr Arthur Campbell, a member of the Indian Medical Service, brought Chinese tea seeds from the Kumaon region to grow near his house at Beechwood, in Darjeeling. Following the success of this experimental cultivation, several tea estates were set up around the town for commercial purposes.
Spend a night in Darjeeling — walk down the busy Mall Road in the evening, and the next morning, head out to Tiger Hill to take in sweeping views of the surrounding mountains as the sun rises.
Things to See & Do
Situated over a ridge and spreading down the hillside in a series of interconnecting roads, Darjeeling is a town ideal for long walks. There is plenty of Colonial architecture to marvel at in your walks: English cottages with antiquated windows and smoking chimneys, magnificent school buildings and majestic churches. Chowrasta, or the Mall, forms the heart of Darjeeling with shops and restaurants lining the streets, and hawkers selling a variety of services. The Khangchendzonga almost seems omnipresent, with hotel rooms, cafeteria seating, look-outs on the Chowrasta, all positioned to offer stunning views of this beautiful mountain peak. Head to Tiger Hill to take in spectacular views of the Khangchendzonga, which was reckoned by many to be, at least from 1838 to 1849, the highest mountain in the world. Then, in 1856, the Survey of India confirmed the suspicion that Nepal’s Sagarmatha, named Everest by the British, was actually the highest; the difference in their height is a mere 252 m.
Near Tiger Hill is the Yiga Choeling Tibetan Monastery of the Gelugpa (Yellow Hat) sect, also called the Ghoom Monastery. It is believed the monastery was set up in 1850, but the foundation date is commonly stated as 1875. Inside, there is a 5-m high Maitreya Buddha, surrounded by beautiful thangkas of Buddhist deities on the walls. Ghoom Monastery is also a storehouse of Tibetan translations of famous Sanskrit works, such as Meghadootam by Kalidasa, Nagamandala by Sriharsa and Nyaya Krit by Dharmakriti. The Bhutia Basti is the oldest monastery in Darjeeling. It is an unusual blend of Tibeto-Nepalese architecture and a treasure-trove of rare artefacts, including ancient Buddhist texts.
The Himalayan Mountaineering Institute was established in 1954, a year after Mount Everest was scaled. It was headed for many years by Tenzing Norgay, who climbed Everest with Edmund Hillary in 1953. The Mountaineering Museum here has interesting displays and records of some major expeditions. The Everest Museum next door traces the history of different attempts to climb Everest. The institute also organises mountaineering courses. One-off rock climbing lessons can be taken at the Tenzing Norgay Rock, on the northern fringes of Darjeeling.
The Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park, next to the institute, is internationally renowned for its successful captive breeding programmes of the endangered snow leopard and the red panda. The zoo is also home to Tibetan wolves and the rare Siberian tiger.
Darjeeling has some lovely gardens and parks. Located behind the Raj Bhavan, Shrubbery Park was once the summer home of the Maharaja of Cooch Behar. Today, it is a lovely public park with a view of Khangchendzonga and the Singalila Valley. Spread over an area of 40 acres, the Lloyd Botanical Gardens contains an impressive variety of Himalayan and alpine plants. The hothouse here has over 50 species of orchids and 150 varieties of cactus.
Declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1999, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway was something of a technological marvel when it was built in the late 19th century. Its tracks rose from sea level to an altitude of 7,545 ft within a span of just 70 km. The engineers devised many zigzags, reverses and loops to overcome these gradients, but the most famous one is the Batasia Loop, where the train does a complete figure-of-eight along the track. If you haven’t taken this train up to Darjeeling, you can always take a short ride from Darjeeling Station to Ghoom Monastery.
It was, however, tea that put Darjeeling on the world map. The Chinese hybrid variety that Dr Arthur Campbell brought from the Kumaon Hills gradually metamorphosed into what is now known as ‘Darjeeling Tea’. Today, there are some 87 tea estates in and around Darjeeling, employing over 50,000 people. Among the finest of teas is ‘first flush superfine tippy golden flowery orange Pekoe’. First flush refers to the youngest leaves, growing just below the bud. Prices for this variety range from â‚¹500 to 10,000 per kg. Nathmull’s, on The Mall, sells a wide range of teas.
The Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Centre (Tel: 0354-2252552) is worth a visit. It was established in 1959, when the Dalai Lama sought refuge in India. The centre sells carpets, carvings, thangkas and an assortment of Tibetan curios.
Distance: 70 km
Time: 4 hours
After eating a quick breakfast, head out towards Pelling. Follow the road past North Point and North Tukvar and Singla Tea Estates to Jorethang. This transport hub is best known for the Akar Suspension Bridge across the Rangeet river, which provides access to western Sikkim. Cross the bridge and take the Nayabazaar- Legship-Reshi Road, which runs up and down the hillsides along the Rangeet river all the way to Legship. This small town, better known as the gateway to west Sikkim, is a great stopover for lunch. Eat at one of the tiny restaurants along the road — you'll be sure to find enough chowmein, momos and soup to keep you filled up for the rest of the drive.
From Legship, take the Legship-Geyzing Road to Geyzing. Upon reaching Geyzing, get directions to Pelling town. Drive carefully in these stretches; the roads are not in the best condition, and are reduced to a single lane at several points. Army trucks take up most of the area on the road, so on several occasions, your vehicle may lose momentum while climbing the steep stretches.
A Town with a View
Pelling was just a small village in West Sikkim until a few decades ago, but with its gorgeous mountain views, it is fast developing into a popular hill station. Come here for lovely mountain walks and stupendous views of the Khangchendzonga right from your hotel terrace. Visit the famous Pemayangtse Monastery, which was built in 1705. Sanga Choeling, the second-oldest gompa in Sikkim, is perched on a ridge above the town. A 10-minute drive from Pelling, the ruins of the erstwhile capital of Sikkim at Rabdentse, excavated and restored by the ASI, are a must-visit.
After spending a restful night, set out early morning to catch excellent views of the Khangchendzonga (provided it is a clear day). This is one of the few places in Sikkim from where you can see almost the entire peak, from base to summit.
Things to See & Do
A small village till a few decades back, Pelling is fast developing into a popular hill station due to the steady influx of tourists. Half a kilometre from town lies the Pemayangtse Monastery that was built in 1705. Its name derives from padma yang tse, which literally means ‘the sublime perfect lotus’. The monastery was built after Lamaism had been introduced into Sikkim by the legendary Lhatsun Chenpo in the 17th century. Legend has it that Lhatsun flew over the 24,000-ft high Mount Kabru when he could find no overland route from Tibet to Sikkim. Upon reaching Yuksom, he helped in the coronation of the first king of Sikkim and founded the first-ever monastery in Sikkim at Dubdi. Pemayangtse is said to have been designed by Lhatsun for the use of the ta-sang, or pure monks, of Tibetan origin. But what really links the monastery to the lama is the extraordinary Sangtok-Palri, a three-dimensional wooden painted model of the vision of a celestial city seen by Lhatsun himself. The size of a large doll house, containing no nails and put together only with wooden joints, the model represents a beautifully burnished and lacquered celestial city, teeming with palaces and pleasure domes, gardens and pavilions. It was carved single handedly by the great artist Lingpyo Rimpoche.
Thought to be one of the oldest monasteries in Sikkim, Sanga-Choling (the place of secret spells) can only be accessed by foot. A 45-minute trek leads to this sturdy little monastery, perched on a ridge above town. Step into the narrow vestibule in the front and admire the colossal figures painted on the walls. In Buddhist faith, there are usually four ‘Kings of the Quarters’, each of whom guards one of the four cardinal directions of the world against the asuras (demons). Clad in armour and wearing ferocious expressions, the figures are painted in white, yellow, red and green. The first floor houses manuscripts in their individual cubbyholes, storerooms and a tiny retiring room.
Around 3 km away from Pelling lie the evocative ruins of Rabdentse, the second capital of Sikkim founded by King Tensung Namgyal in 1670. Over the years the archaeological site had fallen into neglect, until the ASI stepped up efforts to excavate and restore it. The ruins, perched on top of a hill, are divided into two distinct sections. The larger one is almost certainly the palace complex and the other probably a public place — a paved courtyard meant for the subjects, which offers a panoramic view of the surrounding mountains. The way back from Rabdentse to Pelling is uphill and laborious; consider taking a taxi for the trip.
Distance: 40 km
Time: 1.5 hours
Although the views only get better after Pelling, the roads grow tougher to negotiate. Leave after a morning of sightseeing and an early lunch for Yuksom via the Pelling-Rimbi Road. Stop for a hot cup of tea at Rimbi bazaar, before continuing on the winding road to Yuksom. On the way, look out for the Khangchendzonga Falls.
The first capital of Sikkim, Yuksom was where the Namgyal dynasty’s rule began when Phuntsog Namgyal was consecrated as the first Chogyal in 1642. About half a kilometre away lies the site of the coronation throne at Norbugang. The throne is made of stone, and is set under a huge cryptomeria pine tree.
Besides a few swanky hotels, Yuksom is still a village. The oldest monastery in Sikkim, Dubdi, is situated on a hillock above the village. Built in 1701 by the followers of the Nyingmapa sect of Buddhism, it’s also known as the Hermit’s Cell after its reclusive founder, the monk Lhatsun Namkha Jigme. A 45-minute uphill walk through dense forests leads to the monastery. A resting shed next to the path offers a picturesque view of Yuksom.