A Journey through Kalimpong, West Bengal

A narrative of my trip to Kalimpong, this travelogue provides an insight into the Kalimpong that only the locals know. Shying away from the busy tourist spots, I try to get a firsthand feel of the town.
"The grass is always greener on the other side," said John, "but tomorrow you'll see the greenest grass, I kid you not."

We are on the highway to Siliguri, the small Indian city, 671 kilometers from Kolkata, West Bengal. Myself and John.

Our destination is not Siliguri, though. We plan to move higher up, through the mountainous stretch that meanders beside the Teesta and into Kalimpong. I have been reading since childhood about this town that is hidden deep in the lap of the Himalayas; finally, the time has come to visit. It was, of course, John who insisted on the trip. Myself, I am a lazy bag-o-bones, the quiet, serious, nerdish type; John, on the other hand, is the boisterous, ebullient character who is the soul of the party ... not always, though. Mostly he remains subdued by my stern attitude to life.

We had the usual three modes of travel open to us for the journey from Kolkata - rail, road, or air. John insisted on hitting the road and I agreed. For one thing, it is rather cheap - at INR 265 (USD 5) a head for luxury video coaches and INR 650 (USD 13) for the more comfortable Volvo air-conditioned ones, the price is a steal. Also, traveling by air would mean landing at the Bagdogra Airport, which means one has to cover another 80 km or so by road to reach Siliguri. We opted for the video coach; while both John and I would have preferred the Volvo, one needs to book the tickets for the Volvo at least four days in advance - ours is a spur-of-the-moment tour.

On the bus, John is quick to spot a chatterbox as himself - a young man fresh out of high school by the name of Ranjan Dangal. A resident of Kalimpong, Ranjan is on his way home from Kolkata where he had come down for further studies. The two become staunch friends by the time we halt for a quick supper at a roadside inn. So, after supper is over, I leave the two to discuss politics and soccer, and turn myself off for the night, the last thing to reach my ears being John's impromptu hum of "Graceland".

The bus halts at Siliguri sometime around ten in the morning; as we disembark and try to stretch our stiffened limbs a bit we are surrounded by locals yelling "Gangtok, Darjeeling" at the top of their voices, trying to attract fares for the jeeps that are lined up. But our destination lies elsewhere. Ranjan has suggested that we check out the Hong Kong market, an idea that has immediately piqued John's interest.

After a 15-minute walk from the Tenzing Norgay Bus Stand (named after the Sherpa who, along with Sir Edmund Hillary, was one of the first two people to climb Mount Everest), we come to the Hong Kong market, which is a crowded, narrow maze of shops selling wares ranging from spurious electronic goods to cheap clothes, from pirated CDs to export reject shoes. A bargainer's paradise, the formula for shopping here is simple - divide the price first quoted by two, and then take it up from there depending on your budget. The idea is not to back down - the shopkeeper would try everything from tearjerkers to a severe no-can-do attitude, but if one can hold his own, then a profitable deal is quietly sealed. We manage to grab a good pair of trekking shoes for INR 700 (USD 14), the quoted price being INR 1100.

Shopping over, we walk through the streets of the Siliguri heartland, Ranjan guiding us expertly, to reach Sevoke Road from where we board a Jeep bound for Kalimpong.

The road to Kalimpong goes through the Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary. The ride is a pleasure with the thick, lush carpets and canopies of the forest that alone are enough to fill the heart with joy, and as Ranjan tells us, this is just the beginning of paradise. We might even spot a few elephants or wildcats if we are lucky, he says. But as we cross the bridge that marks the beginning of the hills we realize that it is not our day, after all. The only things wild that catch our attention are a few monkeys tittering about.

A steady uphill climb begins as soon as the forest ends. Flanked by the gorgeous, serpentine river Teesta that meanders down the hilly terrain, the path uphill is any traveler's delight. While on one side there is the massive, cliff-like expanse of green foliage, on the other side flow the silver gurgles of the magic river - at the end of each bend you feel the overwhelming sorrow of losing sight of her, but there she floats up again as you traverse the turn and you relax, resting the tired eyes that have spent years glaring back at neon lights and concrete walls. For there is nothing to disturb the peace here; even the low, guttural hum of the trekker's engine rhymes in sync with the bird chirps and the chitter-chatter of the occasional simian family. Nothing to disturb the peace, except for the smashed pieces of rocks and scattered, uprooted trees that suddenly loom up in front you, that is; a gentle reminder that nature still holds sway over the earth, the numerous roads and bridges notwithstanding. Yes, landslides are a frequent occurrence here, especially during the rainy season. But the army is very proactive in clearing up the roads, so you can feel free to enjoy the bounties of nature unless you are unfortunate enough to get caught right in the middle of a rock avalanche.

The first sight of Kalimpong comes as something of an anticlimax. Traversing those roads for over an hour, gazing at the small rivulets that pass you by, and the distant waterfalls that do not cascade but spiral downwards in narrow streams, you cannot help but lose touch with reality. And then suddenly she springs into view, the town of Kalimpong, jarring and jolting you out of the trance. All at once you find before you streets that are abuzz with activity, schoolchildren chatting animatedly, people buying and selling stuff in the marketplace. With a dull sorrow you realize that civilization has caught up with you yet again.

John is dismayed. He had hoped for and was looking forward to a place that is bereft of people, where science has not yet stepped in. But Ranjan consoles him, explaining that the buzz of the marketplace is restricted to only that - the market. The rest of Kalimpong, he says, is where nature fell in love with man.

Cheered up, John suggests that we hunt for a place to stay. Ranjan insists that we put up at his place. We politely refuse. There are too many restrictions in staying with a family, we tell him. Besides, there are hotels aplenty in Kalimpong. That is pretty logical, of course, for a place that survives on tourism. After a considerable debate as to whether we should put up at Silver Oaks or at Sood's Resort, we finally decided on Hotel Garden Reach which is situated just on the outskirts of the town. Not a very good choice as we later found out - the room service is terrible and one has to order for dinner by 8:00 p.m., or go hungry. But it is reasonably cheap, and the rooms provide a good view of Kanchenjunga.

Once checked in, we scurried downhill to the market to check out the local environment while it was still daylight; Kalimpong sleeps early, and there are few lamps on the streets.

"Haatbazaar" - the marketplace in Kalimpong, is pretty much the same as what one can expect to see in any town - shops, shops, and more shops. While John goes on a hunting spree, looking for souvenirs to carry back home, I content myself with just browsing through the shops. Quite a few items do catch my attention, but one of the things about the modern age is that almost anything can be found anywhere - souvenirs no longer carry the air of novelty around them. Take the curio shops, for instance. There was nothing there that I would not find in Kolkata, except for the wall hangers, perhaps. These, of course, are exquisite - hand-painted in the bright hues that are so natural to these parts; one can find beautiful motifs of folklore and myth, with an occasional portrait staring back at you. John was particularly fascinated by a picture of a soldier on a horseback, his eyes dulled as they stare straight back at you, his sword a blunt white as if tired of the years of brutality. Another thing that caught the eye was the Jhola - shoulder bags made of coarse cloth with long straps to carry them, what fires the imagination immediately is the vividness of the colors. Spun in all shades of green, red, and yellow, these Jholas are ideal for informal use.

The next morning Ranjan is at our hotel as had been decided between us the previous evening, and after a quick breakfast we push off for a trek through the town. We were expecting to head straight for the Deolo Hill which houses the huge reservoir that supplies water to the town and which is the highest point in Kalimpong, altitude-wise. But on Ranjan's insistence, we decide to do a quick tour of the town itself. En route, Ranjan gives us a low-down on the town.

The origin of the name of Kalimpong can be traced to several sources. While some argue that it is a derivation of "Kalibong" meaning Black Spur, others speak in favor of the Lepcha meaning of "the ridge where we play". Originally the terrain of the Kings of Sikkim, it was taken over by the Bhutanese from where it passed into British hands after the Anglo-Bhutanese war of 1865. As a result, some of the major tourist attractions in Kalimpong are pro-English; Dr. Graham's Homes or McFarlane's Church, for instance.

Religion has always played in major role in the development of Kalimpong. A center for Scottish Missionary activity in the 1900s, the town plays host to a multitude of cultures that have integrated into the mainstream and yet have managed to retain their individuality. The principal religions here are Hinduism and Christianity, with Buddhism coming a close third. Here, it is not uncommon to see "Dhwajas" (Tibetan Flags) floating in the breeze on housetops and gardens; likewise the town boasts of churches of both orthodox and unorthodox designs.

As we walk, Ranjan keeps nodding and saying hello to people; a real indicator as to the small size of the town. He takes us to a small eatery to give us a taste of the authentic local dishes - here too he meets a friend. A young collegiate, Nirman is a local musician, a lead vocalist with one of the many music bands that adorn the town. As we discuss our plans for the day, Nirman listens in eagerly and requests to join us. We are only too happy. To express his delight, Nirman offers to treat us to 'Laefing' - a local dish. While I feel squeamish, John is ready and raring to have a go, so Ranjan gets the shopkeeper to fetch us the homemade cuisine. While she is gone, Nirman explains to us that the main ingredient of 'Laefing' is a noodle like thing scraped out of a colloidal mass of crushed pulses, seasoned in soybean sauce, 'timbur', chilies, and a dash of lime. As my mouth begins to water at the mention of chilies, I even manage to smile at the hostess as she offers us bowls of 'Laefing'. Ranjan explains to me that it must only be had with chopsticks - not for superstitious reasons but to enjoy the real flavor of the goodies, he says. Never having handled chopsticks before, I am clumsy at first, but soon my fingers adapt to the gentle rhythm of scoop-gulp-chew, scoop-gulp-chew, and I realize that Ranjan is right - I have never enjoyed the novelty of eating so much before.

Eating over, we go 'below' to the Pudung, a small village on the outskirts of Kalimpong. We meet a few of Ranjan's relatives who run a small nursery and a grocery shop, and are charmed by the hospitality of the people. We are immediately invited inside, and offered fresh cucumbers with Dalli Khorsani and salt. As I raise an eyebrow at the mention of Dalli Khorsani, both Ranjan and Nirman exchange mischievous smiles and tell me that I shall know when I eat one. When the cucumbers are served, I realize that it is nothing but a small, round, red chili preserved in oil and salt. As I mash some of it onto the salted cucumber I think to myself as to how a single chili would suffice for the three of us. Ranjan and Nirman take turns at mashing the chili onto the cucumbers, and we take our first bites.

It seems that this Dalli Khorsani is a chili handcrafted by the Gods themselves. While the first few bites fail to stir the imagination, a few seconds thereafter the whole world seems to explode. With a burning sensation spreading from the tongue to the entire body, with sweatbeads gathering on the forehead, I have no thought in mind but to quickly bite into the cucumber, without the dalli this time. Another bite, and then another. Slowly, as the mist before my eyes clears, I realize that Ranjan and Nirman are having the laugh of their lives. Not for long though. Nirman, who seems to be a particular dalli enthusiast, soon breaks into what I would rather call a "Dalli Dance" - he jumps up and down and jigs all around the room, taking deep breaths with his mouth open, desperately trying to douse the fire in his mouth with the air. As he dances, Ranjan, who had very little of the chili, explains to me that "Dalli" in Nepalese means small, and "Khorsani" is the Nepalese for chili. At that point, I could not have cared less. All that mattered was the taste, that irresistible, incomprehensibly overpowering flavor of the red bits. I made a mental note to carry some Dalli back home.

A while later, we say goodbyes to our hosts, who hand us some roasted corn-on-the-cobs, freshly plucked from their gardens, with some more of the Dalli.

With the sun already overhead, we take a jeep ride to the marketplace of Kalimpong, and begin our trek towards the leprosy center.

The leprosy center was established during the British period, with some cottages still bearing Anglo-Saxon names engraved on the doorway. Developed as a leper colony, the center provides housing and rehabilitation to scores of leprosy afflicted persons and is replete with a church of its own. The structure of the church is unlike any I have seen before - it has a dome on top, something that is more common in mosques, and on that dome a cross is perched. Just behind the church flows a quiet river and that is where the state of West Bengal ends - on the other side of the river lie the misty, mountainous lands of Sikkim.

We move on from the leprosy center, headed towards Deolo. Ranjan suggests that we move off the roads and take a shortcut through the hills. We agree, and march into the bushes and trees that paint the general scenery of the place.

About five minutes of walking later, we come across a small patch of land which has obviously been burnt up by the locals for some reason. I make a mental note of the fact and say to myself "at least here I don't need to worry about snakes". Ranjan walks ahead, leading the way. The sharp uphill climb is tiring, especially so, as one has to be always on the lookout for slippery patches of land in the rainy season. As I look at the earth ahead, slowly rolling uphill, I notice a long, thin, green colored band lying on our path. It takes a moment to register in my brain, and by the time I yell "snake!", Ranjan has already stepped on it. With a loud yelp, he jumps, turns back and in his hurry, topples over; the obviously irritated reptile crawls straight towards me. It is scared, and so am I. Rooted to the spot, I watch in fascination and fear as it crawls by me and into the nearby bushes. Only then do I realize that I had been holding my breath.

Ranjan calls out from below. He has fallen quite a bit, rolling downhill, but luckily he is unhurt. A bit shaken, he nonetheless manages a grin and says "Do we take a different route now?" I nod my assent, especially since he, unlike myself, is not wearing shoes but a pair of slippers.

After trekking for an hour or so we reach the foot of the Deolo hills. The climb gets steeper from here, and the mist is slowly rolling in. In a trice, it becomes difficult to see a few feet ahead, the thick mist curling around in all its hazy glory. And the silence. The place suddenly grows devoid of sound, with only the few and far between bird calls cutting in. As I gulp in the mist and the silence, I ask Nirman in a hushed tone if this silence and the mist are somehow correlated. He shakes his head and says that the place is generally silent, being on the outskirts of the town.

We walk a little further, and the huge bell of Dr. Graham's Homes looms into view. Ranjan guides us into the compound itself, and the serene, sprawling campus with its majestic school buildings reminds one instantly of another similar institution by the name of Shantiniketan, established by the Late Nobel laureate poet Rabindranath Tagore. Founded in 1900 by the Scottish missionary Rev. Dr. John Anderson Graham to educate children of tea garden workers, Dr. Graham's Homes are now open to all with a special quota for economically deprived children. With a campus of over 500 acres, this institution is self-contained in the sense that it has its own farm, bakery, dairy, poultry, clothing department, hospital, and chapel.

After a short break at the Homes, we move on in the mist going further upwards. En route we come across a small graveyard, housing no more than five graves. On my inquiry Ranjan informs me that these are probably the graves of people from the Tamang tribe, a Nepalese sect. He points to the largest gravestone which is in the shape of a miniature temple, and shows me the yawning gap on one side. That, he explains, is the handiwork of grave robbers - seemingly, the Tamang tribe has a custom of burying the valuables of the dead with their bodies.

Another hour of trekking later, we are finally at the top of Deolo Hills. The long, winding road has finally ended, and at 1914 meters above sea level we are on top of the town, getting a bird's-eye view of the scattered buildings below and of the hills on all sides. Ranjan leads us inside, to the reservoir aptly termed Deolo Lake. As we stare into the huge basin that holds water for the entire town round the year, I come to realize that while man may never beat nature, he can surely give her a run for her money. For standing there at the top, we can see the wood-and-concrete blocks teeming with life below, and the gigantic basin beside us, and we are hit by the certainty of the knowledge that man can, and will, befriend nature and coax and cajole her into creating Gracelands just like this one.

We start on the downhill trek. Tomorrow, Graceland gives way once again to the fury and the fumes of the city life. I make a mental promise to myself and to John to come back here again - to John, yes, for he is my alter ego.

For those who are less keen on walking, the more popular sightseeing spots in Kalimpong are:

Durpin Dara - About 2 km to the southwest of the town, this place used to be a survey point and hence named Durpin Dara (Binocular Ridge). The hill offers a fascinating view of the Himalayan ranges.

Flower Nurseries - Kalimpong is well-known for its nurseries, the more reputed ones being the Sri Ganesh Moni Pradhan and the Udai Mani Pradhan nurseries.

Gompas (Monasteries) - Some of better known monasteries of the region are the Tongsa Gompa (the oldest monastery in the region), Tharpa Choling Monastery (houses a library of Tibetan Manuscripts and cloth), and the Zong Dog Palri Fo-Brang Gompa at Durpin Dara Hill which was consecrated by the Dalai Lama.
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