6 great experiences to have when you’re in Kalimpong

It was April in 2014, and my wife and I desperately needed a holiday. We were tired of the beach, though, and so we decided to head up into the mountains. After casting about a bit, we decided on Kalimpong in West Bengal, where we could stay as guests of the army, and where my wife could re-live some fond childhood memories. Here are six great experiences we discovered while we were in Kalimpong.

We flew Hyderabad-Kolkata-Bagdogra with a couple of hours’ layover in Kolkata, and got to Bagdogra around 12:00 PM. Despite being so far north, it was unexpectedly and uncomfortably hot and humid. Luckily we weren’t staying there. We found a taxi at that airport parking lot (one of the many Mahindra Boleros) willing to take us on the three-hour drive to Kalimpong at about Rs. 1,000. The route was very scenic, but with some very bad patches on the way, and we could feel the temperature drop as we climbed into the hills. We got to Kalimpong, with its congested lanes and chaotic traffic, by around 3:00 PM, and it took another half hour or so to find the army guesthouse we were staying in. The weather was cool and humid, and a great start to our holiday.

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Precarious houses along the road to Kalimpong
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The guesthouse garden seen from our room
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Flowers in the guesthouse garden
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Catnap under a parked car at the guesthouse
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Curious squirrel on the guesthouse roof

Experience #1: Take in the evening view from the helipad and its next-door monastery

That evening, we walked up to the army helipad at the top of Durpin Hill, and the monastery next to it. The view was incredible, but it took some effort to get there because we were mostly walking uphill, the helipad being pretty much the highest point on the hill. By the time we finished strolling around the field next to the helipad, it was getting dark and cold, and we didn’t have much time to see the monastery. But we did catch its magical view of the lights of Kalimpong town in the dark. Heading back, the cold breeze and unlit roads made the walk a little uncomfortable, though we did pass many a small warmly-lit shack in which locals had gathered for conversations over tea—or something stronger.

Experience #2: Stroll around on Deolo Hill in the rain

The next day, we took another taxi—driven by the brother of our previous day’s driver—up to Deolo hill, one of the two hills Kalimpong rests between (the other being Durpin). [Considering Kalimpong’s sleepy nature, we thought it might be a good idea to retain the driver’s services for the rest of the trip, rather than trying to find a new taxi every time we wanted to go somewhere. We turned out to be right; finding and hailing a passing taxi is next to impossible in Kalimpong. If you are ever there, you could get in touch with the brothers Amar (+917407257023) or Bhuvan (+919932354099) to see if they can drive you around.] On the way up to the hill, we stopped at Dr. Graham’s Homes, a sprawling colonial-era residential school campus in the forest, that also has an impressive (if slightly run-down) old church that’s worth a look.

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The church at Dr. Graham’s Homes
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Old bell in the church courtyard at Dr. Graham’s Homes

By the time we got to Deolo Hill, it was overcast, cold and drizzling, with the clouds enveloping the entire hill. The park at the top of the hill has lots of viewpoints with different views of Kalimpong and its surroundings, all of which were obscured by the low clouds. Despite this, it was still loads of fun exploring the hill’s park through the fog and drizzle with prayer flags flapping in the wind overhead, and admiring the construction of a local’s house built on the steep slope of the valley. And when we had had enough, we warmed ourselves with some tea at the Deolo Tourist Lodge on the hilltop.

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Lonely track on Deolo Hill
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Prayer flags on the hilltop, where the wind is believed to carry the prayers to the gods
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Flowers on Deolo Hill
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A house being built into the valley

Experience #3: Trek off the beaten path at Sillery

On day three, Amar drove us to Sillery, a tiny village about 25 kilometers away from Kalimpong, and popular for its trekking and modest homestays. We got there after an extremely bumpy ride, and spent the first part of the morning trekking up and along the hill, through the forest. After an hour or so of following precarious paths across the crest of the hill and feeling like we had gone back in time by a few millennia, we climbed back down to the main path and followed it to the spectacular Ramitey viewpoint. From the viewpoint, we could look straight down the valley, all the way to the Teesta river that forms the border with the neighboring state of Sikkim. The sun had come out by then, which meant that, great visibility aside, it was very hot and humid. We soon sought the shade of the path back to the village.

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A view from Sillery’s hilltop path
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Getting from hill to hill just like thousands of years ago
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Better luck next time, hungry leech!
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The Teesta seen from Ramitey

Experience #4: Gorge on hot momos while looking out over the valley at Algarah

By the time we got back to the village, we were starving. We were unpleasantly surprised, though, to learn that there was no lunch to be had, because we should have ordered it before leaving on our trek. Understandable in a place that doesn’t get too many visitors, but annoying nonetheless. Quite grumpy, we headed back down the horrible road. The lack of lunch in Sillery turned out to be a blessing in disguise, though, because once we got back down to the better roads, Amar took us to a tiny little roadside eatery in a town called Algarah that was perched on the side of the valley. There, sitting on one of the two tables and looking out over the valley, we ate plates of piping-hot momos with fiery chutney while the family that ran the place sat in the next room rolling, stuffing and steaming as many as we could eat. We got back to our guesthouse tired and happy, and spent the afternoon snoozing, and the evening lazing about. That evening, we ate dinner at the popular King Thai restaurant, with its warm and slightly kitsch interiors, and its signature rusty 1950s 500cc BMW motorcycle on a small stage at one end. We had a couple of drinks and ate some decent Indo-Chinese chow mein, and were pleasantly surprised at how low the bill was.

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The old BMW at King Thai

Experience #5: Drive down the mountain to the Teesta river and watch gravel miners at work

Next day, we headed towards the Sikkim border and the Teesta river. This was by far the best day we had had, with the road hugging the mountainside and offering incredible views, and running through little villages in which the locals have set up homestays right on the edge of the valley. After a lovely drive, including a stop at an erstwhile colonial guesthouse—a bit off the road and under renovation at the time—we reached the valley floor and the Teesta river at around lunchtime. We spent some time on the riverbank watching the gravel miners hauling away loads of smooth river pebbles washed down from the mountains, before grabbing another Bangali-style thali at a very simple roadside eatery and heading back. On the way back up, we stopped for tea at a nice homestay overlooking the valley, luxuriating in the views, the weather and the affections of a little stray puppy.

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The road down to the river
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A homestay overlooking the valley
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Bamboo gazebo on the way down
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Old guesthouse under renovation
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The Teesta, at last!

Experience #6: Discuss life with Moa over apple pie at Café Refuel

That evening, our last in Kalimpong, we decided to check out the slightly upmarket Café Refuel, despite the locals telling us they don’t serve food. It turned out that they serve European cuisine, which the locals of course don’t consider ‘food’! We were pleasantly surprised when we got there. The place has a nice, modern automotive theme, with sundry bits of cars and bikes woven into the décor—including what could have been the twin of King Thai’s BMW motorcycle, only better maintained. The apple pie and fudge brownie were very good, and we spent a pleasant half hour discussing Kalimpong and life with Moa, the café’s owner.

On our last day, we were hoping for a fog-free view of the Kanchenjunga mountain because the previous evening had been clear, and we had caught a glimpse of the setting sun glinting off it’s snow-covered peak. Come morning, though, it was raining cats and dogs and the clouds had blanketed Kalimpong. Not only did they keep us from seeing the mountain, they were also floating along at road level and obscuring everything. The drive back down towards Bagdogra was quite scary for the first hour or so. In the plains, though, it was sunny, hot and humid again. Thankfully, the airport was air-conditioned. Even more thankfully, we had stopped for lunch along the way, because the airport restaurant was packed, and no wonder, because just standing at to door and inhaling the aroma made us want to have lunch all over again! A table was not to be had, though, so we settled down to wait for our flight. We boarded pretty much on time, and after some massive turbulence flying in to Kolkata and then a pleasantly boring flight to Hyderabad, we got home around 10:00 PM.

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At Kalimpong’s cactus nursery

Top tips

  • While driving to Kalimpong from Bagdogra, stop for lunch before the road really begins to climb. There are almost no restaurants to be found after. Expect only modest Bengali-style food, though.
  • In Kalimpong, hire a taxi, preferably for the length of your stay. The roads are steep, and hailing a passing taxi is next to impossible.
  • Deolo Hill is a great place to visit in any weather, though it’s probably more crowded when it’s sunny and clear.
  • When trekking through the forest at Sillery—and probably everywhere else—wear closed shoes and trousers, and tuck your trousers into your socks to fend off the leeches. The main path to the viewpoint is leech-free, though.
  • If you want to eat in Sillery, order your meal a few hours in advance at one of the homestays.
  • The last stretch of road up to Sillery is awful, and barely a road at all. Don’t try getting there yourself, and take a taxi instead.
  • Don’t expect five-star cuisine in Kalimpong. The local Nepali-Tibetan and Indo-Chinese food is good, with other cuisines available, but not great.
  • Overall, with flights, accommodation, food and taxi fare taken into consideration, this is not the cheapest of destinations.
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