Nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas, Siliguri is just two hours away from Kakkarvitha, the India- Nepal border. The north – eastern countryside is reminiscent of pastoral Kerala, with vast expanses of emerald paddy fields dotted with cattle, crystal clear waters with ducks, cranes and wild geese darting in and out, cloudy skies scattered with dark cumulus clouds and in addition a persistent nip in the air.
Before you know it, the lush greenery gives way to meandering roads up and down the hills on which the city rests. Closer to the city, the temperature begins to soar and weather starts getting humid. Siliguri is one of the travel hubs to the north – eastern states, Darjeeling, perhaps Bengal’s busiest tourist destination, and Bhutan and Nepal. There isn’t much to do here other than exploring the local markets, monasteries, stupas and temples.
We were put up at my friend’s place so we were treated to sumptuous meals day in and out, and hours of deep peaceful slumber. We spent time listening to the rain pitter-patter on the windowpanes and catching up with old friends and new, chatting about everything under the sun, from the neglect of the Bengal government towards the development of Darjeeling, the Gorkha movement, to planning our itinerary, to TV shows and much more while biting into steaming hot shafalays, momos and other crispies along with tea to wash it all down.
The one place I visited in Siliguri worth mentioning was a monastery we went to, where the Dalai Lama resided whenever he was around. We got a quick sneak peek into his chamber as he had left it. It was basic, rustic and plain. Then there were other rooms with several deities encased in glass boxes, for instance the Buddha, Goddess Tara and Rinpoche. I, obviously being a Malayali, was so excited at hearing the monk utter Rinpoche and any Malayali would know why. Apparently Rinpoche is a title given to a chosen one who has been deemed worthy if he displayed certain characteristics, similar to the concept of a guru in Sikhism the way I understood it.
Siliguri is also where you can shop for the bottles of spicy bamboo and chilli pickle made at home by the locals there. These pickles are so spicy; the chillies used to prepare them are called Bhut Jolokia translated in English as Ghost Pepper. These fiery chillies can leave your insides burning if you don’t handle them with care.
After two days of just lazing around in Siliguri we made our way to Darjeeling, where the nip in the air was visible as curtains of dense white fog lifted occasionally to make way for us. Cold and freezing from the intermittent showers, Darjeeling was obviously cooler than the foothills.
If you are ready to brave the early morning chill in the air, wake up at the crack of dawn and you can see the Kanchenzonga peaks in the distance against the morning sky awash in a delicate lilac colour streaked orange.
We were residing at a dollhouse-like tiny inn. Most of these cottages function on solar power, so every morning we had to challenge ourselves to drag ourselves out of our warm snuggly quilts, strip and hope the solar powered heater would show some mercy. Every day, after this grueling task of grooming ourselves, we would set out to explore the hills.
Darjeeling is a tiny little town you can cover by foot. During one such walk around Chowrastha, the city square with its neighboring lanes packed with tiny shops abuzz with street vendors, I learnt that Darjeeling got her name from an object called ‘dorje’, an instrument used during religious rituals. I am not sure how true this is since I got to know this from a desperate vendor trying to sell his merchandise to me. There is also another version suggesting the hills were named after a monk who went by the name Dorje.
Chowrastha is perfect during the evenings when you can kick back and relax on the stone benches while enjoying the banter of children playing around, watch young couples strolling around hand in hand or just kill time in the nearby shops or enjoy a quick bite or a long drag, sometimes to the accompaniment of ambient music provided by young bands performing. This is a perfect place to get a vibe of the hill town and its people.
From Chowrastha, which serves as a junction, is a steep slope that leads to the Mahakal temple sitting atop a hill. While ascending the hill you can see a riot of colours from the fluttering and dancing prayer flags in the wind and frolicking monkeys. Dedicated to Shiva and his consort this temple is screaming for attention in bright yellows, reds, blue and green.
Built strategically along the gradient of the hill, this temple is nature friendly, and home to the flora and fauna around. The walk to this temple can be tiring given the gradient and weather, but this is a must at least for the view of the hill station from top.
We also visited the Darjeeling zoo, again a long walk from Chowrastha. Spread over acres of land the zoo has been beautifully laid out along the slopes of the hills, and the walk up these steep inclines is quite exhausting with the cold dry air biting into you. Apart from the usual animals, there were snow leopards, yaks and other endangered mountain species, not commonly found in other zoos.
From the zoo we made our way to the Himalayan Institute of Mountaineering, which houses a college for professional hiking and mountaineering, and a museum. Full of stories of attempts to conquer the Everest, some successful and some eerie, this place was quite intriguing. I remember distinctly seeing photographs of several people who froze to death and the remains of their gear on display, which led me to recollect vaguely reading somewhere how some of the spots where people froze to death were landmarks/halts for people who went on these expeditions.
After our stroll, we decided to hang out at Glenery’s, the popular restaurant-cum-pub functioning since the colonial rule, apparently. We hit the pub and rushed for a corner table cozily sitting in the corner near a huge window. The folks here put together some really delicious appetizers and bourbons for us, perfect to beat the freezing weather. Good food and drinks that were much needed to crank us up for the walk back home.
Apparently, Darjeeling is just a shadow of what it used to be before, I was told by one of my friends who visited the hills almost every year. She had seen the drastic pace at which the little town had changed and how the hills had lost their earlier shine due to impending urbanization to cater to the huge tourist influx. Being my first time here, Darjeeling didn’t fail to charm me, despite the scarcity of water, streets scattered with muck, and the visible deterioration of the natural landscape.
To beat the chill, the hills have some great street food to offer. From steaming hot momos to the piping hot dum aloo garnished with a sprinkle of sev to sizzling cups of maggi drizzled with cheese. And, if you have a sweet tooth, you can bite into warm flaky cream cones, fluffy butter buns and much more, all sold off the street.
We bought ourselves cones, macaroons and buns before we boarded the much hyped-about Darjeeling Himalayan Express, which was just a run off the mill experience to be honest. But, to come so far and not take the train would be sacrilege! A narrow gauge train, you get a spectacular view of the valley below and the spires of a few of the stupas and monasteries in the vicinity.
In about an hour or less you pull into Ghum, the world’s highest station at an altitude of approximately 7000 ft above sea level. Ghum was like a refrigerator. Our bones had gone numb and creaky. Dense white sheets of fog blurred our vision, and we literally had to cut through the fog to get past to the stupa there.
After all that effort of making it through the icy cold wind blowing at our face, the stupa was closed to our dismay. We were distraught! We had missed it by a few minutes. Oh the pain! Nevertheless, we spent some time admiring the vividly coloured façade and clicked a few pictures in front of it.
Another stopover was Llamahatta, on the way to Kalimpong. Llhamahatta is a landscaped garden set in an idyllic spot developed by the Mamata Banerjee Government, along with folks who live in the vicinity who help maintain its delicate ecosystem.
Manicured gardens and coniferous trees adorn the slopes of the hills. Atop the hills guarded by a clump of tall standing trees is a quiet still lake reflecting the myriad shades of green around, believed to be sacred. This tiny clearing with the lake seemed lost in time, a time warp zone you could enter and disappear into.
We could not really get to Kalimpong because of the dense fog making it impossible to drive along those narrow roads with the hill slope on one side and the vertical drop to the valley below on the other.
We got home by late evening just in time for another late night get together at a friend’s place. I have such wonderful memories of that night ringing with laughter, singing and dancing to Nepalese songs, an assortment of food and several shots of happiness.
What I took back from this trip was the warmth of the people, the prayers resonating through the wind and water and a hankering to visit her seven sisters.