While most of us complete a traditional trip to North Bengal and Sikkim by visiting places such as Gangtok and Darjeeling, here is a glimpse of some pristine places that nature lovers may like to try out .......
It has been a while since we ( our family includes my wife and our 6 yr old son) were planning to visit the hills of North Bengal, but seriously wanted to avoid the hustle-bustle of the busy hill stations, gain some fresh clean air to fill up our lungs, and also save some precious money by avoiding these costly places....
So after some deliberations, we finally zeroed in on 3 places - Loleygaon, Reshyap and Kurseong, and decided to make this trip during the Christmas holidays in 2006.
We arrived at New Jalpaiguri Rly Stn early in the morning on Dec 22nd and hired a vehicle to drop us at Loleygaon - a distance of 136 kms. There is a prepaid taxi booth at the railway station which offers all sorts of vehicles as per your team size and budget ( Tata Sumos, Indica, Maruti van, Bolero, Toyota Qualis etc) at reasonable rates. We decided to take the more picturesque route thru Damdim and Gorubathan that runs thru several tea estates. Luckily, we had confirmed booking at the cottages run by the West Bengal Forest Development Corporation - which is by far the best place to stay at Loleygaon ( room rates ranging from Rs 770/- to Rs 990/- per dbl bedroom).
Loleygaon ( in local dialect, this means a happy village) is a small little village, housing quite a few hotels and a few tiny shops and hamlets. One can cover this place on foot in barely 10 minutes !!! As we enterered Loleygaon, we were greeted by the giant statue of Lord Buddha in the Eco Tourism Park. It was chilly cold and we could see tufts of clouds and fog fleeting by -- it was an experience to savor !!! As the clouds approached us, it suddenly became pitch dark and visibility was reduced to a bare 10 ft -- the clouds had our dress all wet -- we spread out in the park and shouted each other names and tried to locate one another in the park -- and lo !!! The fog had disappeared and out came the bright sunshine !!!
Early next morning, we hired a vehicle to take us to the sunrise point at Jhandidara. This was about 4 kms from out hotel and the road was atrocious. However, we were high in spirits and reached the desired spot well ahead of the scheduled sunrise time of 6.17am. There was a healthy crowd of visitors all waiting eagerly for the sunrise -- almost everyone had their own versions of stories about the sunrise -- and someone even suggested that Everest would be visible from this point !!!! However all the chirping soon died away as we were greeted with the majestic view of the sunrise -- from a tiny little diamond into a majestic red ball of fire all in a matter of minutes !!! And we soon turned our heads 180 degrees to witness the first sunrays on Mt. Kanchendzonga. At first the tip of the mountain turned golden -- and soon the hue spread out and engulfed the entire mountain range covering peaks such as Kabru North, Kabru South, Kabru Dome, Mt. Pandim, Mt. Narsingh, Nathula etc.
On our way back, we visited the canopy walk -- it a a dense forest with a walking trail and part of the trees have been joined together to form a 750 mtr long canopy. It was a lovely walk through the forests - the chirping birds, buzzing insects and fleeting butterflies, the shades of dark and light as the sun barely made its way thru the dense forests and above all the smell of the jungle -- all added an aroma to the situation.
The next day, i.e. Dec 24th, we left Loleygaon for Reshyap. The road leads us thru Lava ( at a distance of 24 kms from Loleygaon) , where we spent a couple of hours and visited the lovely Lava Monastery and the Neora Valley Nature Interpretation Centre. Lava also has beautiful cottages run by the Forest Development Corporation, but the small town was too clumsy and densely populated - so we decided to travel to Reshyap, a further 11kms ahead. One more point to note is that the last 4 kms of the road to Reshyap is still unmetalled and full of boulders -- so you definitely need a strong 4 wheel drive vehicle to enter Rishyap.
Reshyap is a pristine little village of about 100 to 150 huts and about 15 hotels ( most of which are little huts modified into hotels). All the hotels are pretty basic and the best place to stay is undoubtedly Hotel Sonar Bangla, which has 8 well furnished rooms priced at Rs 1000/- and Rs 1200/-. Electricity has made its way into this village less than 2 years ago, and this place still owns her virgin charm. There is nothing much to do, but play with the clouds all the time, and watch the majestic Kanchendzonga ranges on a clear day. Don't expect to find grocery and medicine shops and restaurants -- however expect yourself to be kissed by the clouds and inhale tons of fresh unadulterated air !!!
Christmas Day saw us getting some magnificent views of the sunrise on the mighty Kanchendzonga mountain ranges -- and no !!! this time we didn’t have to travel to any sunrise point -- it was from the comfort of our hotel rooms. After a quick breakfast, we decided to undertake a small trek upto TiffinDara mountain top, which is approx 3 kms from our hotel. Our guide was a small kid studying in class 5, who was back home on Christmas leave. On further interrogation, we were informed that the kid's father was a local hotel owner and his mother a doctor in Singapore. And he was carrying a giant kukri ( the local name for a dagger) presumably as a security - should we ever encounter a wild bear !!!
This was a fascinating trek through the dense forests, as we trudged our way up towards the mountain top, deftly negotiating the bushes and boulders and fallen trees enroute. We stopped at times gasping for breath, only to be mesmerized by the enchanting beauty of the woods. We could feel the silence and taste the freshness, as we heard the wind blow. It took us about an hour and 15 mins to reach Tiffindara, from where we could get a 360 degrees view all around. However, just as we approached Tiffindara, there were thousands of trees that were felled ( not sure if this was done legally or illegally) - however since no aforestation was in sight, it appeared to be the job of the land sharks, who, with their unholy nexus with the local headmen have done even more damage to the ecology in such small places, than what they have done in the larger cities !!! After a brief halt at Tiffindara, we retraced our steps back to the hotel - all that we carried back was the sight of the giant pine trees against the backdrop of the magnificent snow capped mountain ranges - sights that were firmly etched in our memories.
We spent a couple of days in Reshyap, lazing around the villages, meeting the villagers and getting a feel of their lifestyle. On Dec 27th, we hired a vehicle to drop us to Lava bus stand , and from there we boarded another vehicle to travel upto Kurseong.
Kurseong, once again is a slightly offbeat place, which is enroute to Darjeeling, and most tourists stop by for a cup of tea before proceeding to Darjeeling. It is also a place that houses some of the most famous Christian Missionary schools of Eastern India. Being on the lookout for some unconventional place to stay in, we luckily came across Makaibari Tea Estate, one of the most respected names worldwide for Darjeeling tea. ( infact Makaibari tea holds the world record for the costliest tea @ Rs 22,000/- per kg in 2005). Makaibari is one of the three tea estates to introduce tea tourism and they have at present, three cottages with 6 double rooms that are being offered on rent. Normally the cottages are occupied mostly by foreigners who stay here on a longterm basis with some research work etc. Luckily all of them had gone home on Christmas and hence I could get the necessary bookings done in advance, after interacting with Mrs Srirupa Banerjee, the owners wife.
Dec 28th was a memorable day for us as the manager of the tea estate, Mr. Ghosh took us around the tea garden plantations in his own vehicle, stopping by at various places to share the vast wealth of his experience. We also visited the Makaibari factory, and were explained about the tea manufacturing process. Makaibari is one of the first bio organic tea gardens of the country - which means that no chemical fertilizers are used. Out of the total area of approx 1000 acres, approx 650 acres are kept as forests. Wildlife is encouraged, and the tea estate even employs 12 forest rangers to monitor the progress of its wildlife !!! Incidentally the plucking season is set to begin in April, and during this time all visitors are welcome to visit the Makaibari factory. This visit is free of charge and you do not need to stay in their guest house to avail of this once in a lifetime opportunity. We also had the rare honour of attending a tea tasting session which was specially organised for us. And on our way back, we did buy plenty of boxes of Makaibari tea from the factory outlet, just outside the main gate.
As we are all aware, the Darjeeling Himalayan railway is now a UN Heritage property - but almost all the trains ( from Siliguri to Darjeeling ) are hauled by diesel engines -- and therefore they have lost some of the charm. The only train that is still hugged by a steam loco is that toy train that departs from Kurseong at 6am to arrive at darjeeling at 8.45 am. At my son's insistence, we took this joyride for a paltry ticket of Rs 10/- ( can you believe it). It was a tiny little 3 bogied train that huffed and puffed its way by the side of the Hill Cart Road, gaining maximum speeds of 15 km per hour. As the train whistled away, school going kids came right out of their houses and hopped onto the running train, took a joyride and hopped down once their school approached !!! As the train reached Ghoom railway station we alighted and reached the famous Batasia loop, just in time to catch this train make two picturesque 360 degree turns and chug on towards Darjeeling.
For travellers wishing to make this trip from Darjeeling, there is a diesel engine hauled toy train that runs upto Ghoom station and returns to Darjeeling, covering a total distance of 18 kms in two and a half hours. Tickets are priced at Rs 260/- each.
We proceeded to Darjeeling and spent the entire day at the Mall, chatting with friends whom we met for the first time there and thronging the numerous curio shops all around. We returned to Makaibari by road in the evening ( distance of 36 kms) and the next day we were back in the pile of concrete named Kolkata.
All that we have with us now is fond memories of those 10 days !!!!!