Darjeeling and Gangtok – Backpack Trip

It all started with my memory  knocking on the closed door of my childhood dreams, while watching Barf!. I remembered that after reading the description of ‘Queen of Hill stations’ Darjeeling, I added it to my naïve wish list of ‘Places to visit’. I was basically enthralled by its beauty, snow clad mountains and most prominently ‘eye-catching photographs’ of Tea estates, almost imagining myself among these long lawns. I discussed the idea of exploring Darjeeling along with Gangtok with my friends. Initially to start with, we  asked some of our friends, who cited some or other problems to join. Finally, Swapna, who was also bored of these repeated treks and routine was about to call me to plan out for some ‘big’ trip along with one more friend. We had few common things that would bind us  i.e. Trust, Helpfulness, Adjustment and most importantly – a quest to explore on our own.

After a month long of planning with Divya and zeroing down on points and places to cover, we finally booked our train tickets i.e. 3-tier AC while going which was on waitlist and confirmed Sleeper tickets for returning (the twist for this one is at end). Divya’s mom helped us in getting the tickets confirmed while going, through quota and we were smiling like cats thereafter. It seemed like luck was on our side throughout journey because things went smoothly as planned of course after some minor hiccups too small to be noticed.

We started on our historic, memorable trip on 24th November, 2012, Saturday at 8.00 a.m. from LTT (Lokmanya Tilak Terminus) in Guwahati Express which was supposed to reach NJP (New Jalpaiguri  Junction) by Monday morning at 1.10 a.m. We were on time, which actually made us believe and praise the North Eastern Railway and affirm our belief that we may reach Mumbai on time while returning from trip. So, from here on there was long wait till 5.30 a.m. Since, we couldn’t risk going out of station during that time, we waited at the railway waiting room for dawn. Divya who was already suffering from recurrent cough slipped into her sleeping bag and slept. Me, Swapna & Sonali played Snake and ladder ending it with a game of Ludo. Time moved fast, since we were so engrossed in the game. After a cup of tea, we went out and shared a Tata Sumo for Rs. 200 per head. After filling up the seats, the driver sat in and we were on the way to Darjeeling. Initially, we passed through military establishment; we saw four batches of military men at different intervals jogging on the road and tea gardens on both sides. It was a splendid view. Later on, the road became smaller, thinner, bumpier, winding uphill with treacherous turns. It was almost 3 ½ hours journey through which we almost dozed off, since watching the sharp turn uphill road was nauseating to our nerves. When we landed safely at Darjeeling railway station, we were assured of driver’s capabilities on such roads which reminded us of ST drivers from Maharashtra. We had our booking at Railway guest house which was further 2 kms above (since the city is set on the slope of a mountain).

There were two guest houses and we had a booking at the other one. Again, we hired a taxi and reached our destination and we were already freezing. After two days of train journey it was a bliss to actually drop on bed. But then, since the schedule was tight and no further time to waste, we freshened up fast to warmers and left by 9.30 a.m. to tour Darjeeling. First, we went to Rock garden, it was a beautiful place with natural waterfall. Man-made bridges and good landscaping has made it a tourist spot. The road to this place was downhill and pot-holed. After some photo shoot and watching the different types of Asters and Poinsettias in awe, we recoiled back in the car and headed to Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park.

I have always hated the zoos because of the way people treat the animals and the way they are kept enclosed in a small cage. But this park was an eye-opener. It had large, wide enclosures and natural habitat for animals. Cutest was the Red panda, very shy indeed because it kept evading from getting photographed. Other than that there were many Himalayan animals throughout, including majestic Bengal tiger.

We then proceeded to Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, it’s like a temple to every trekker, a dream to visit and feel the moments, that stalwarts, who have climbed peaks including recent expedition to Mt. Everest went through. We actually stayed back long enough, along with shopping on the way for our loved ones.  The driver initially who seemed aloof and unfriendly was so angry and worried, he assumed that we were lost. We realized our folly and explained to him that we were mesmerized by HMI. He thawed a bit and took us to Tea garden. On the way, we saw the Gombu rock and Tenzing Rock, where people were practicing rappelling. At tea garden, we had the opportunity to adorn the traditional Darjeeling garb. We all took photographs before the lights dimmed.

One thing I hated most was, sun goes down by 4.30 p.m. leaving less time to go around. We shopped for Darjeeling tea, stopped to check out the Japanese Pagoda and came back. We had our dinner by 6.30 p.m, which actually seemed like 10.00 p.m and walked back to the guest house.

Second day was again an hectic one, since we had to get up early by 2.00 a.m. for tiger hill visit. Since, the sun rises by 5.30 a.m. the place gets crowded by 4.30 a.m. and becomes a problem for vehicle parking. Our driver warned us to be ready by 3.00 a.m. we reached Tiger hill by 3.30 a.m. sipped coffee to keep us warm and headed straight to the gallery to watch the sunrise falling over Kanchenjunga peak which is located on opposite side. We waited till 5.30 a.m. but were disappointed as  we couldn’t get a  clear view because of fog.

Instead of wasting more time, we left from there and while driving down the hill at one particular spot we stopped and saw the golden peak of Kanchenjunga. So the trip was fruitful till now.

We headed first to Batasia Loop, a memorial structure for the Soldiers, also a magnificent view of Kanchenjunga peak can be seen from here.

Then, we proceeded to Ghoom Monastery.

It was worth our visit. After capturing its every architectural detail in our camera, we left for Ghoom Railway station, where the iconic train was waiting, we photographed ourselves with the train.

In midst, myself and swapna went to check out the Dhirdham temple.

It was a Shiv temple with the characteristic monastery kind-off look. Since, we had missed out Darjeeling Ropeway from 1st day’s schedule, we adjusted it for second day. We stopped for breakfast before heading for Ropeway. It was scheduled to start around 10.30 a.m.

We saw the initial test run that they conduct before starting the ropeway.

The ropeway goes above the beautiful Rangeet valley tea estate. Being longest ropeway in Asia, it was one of the must-do on our list.

We were gleefully smiling all along the way. There was option of getting down at the end of our to-journey. We got down for 10 minutes and enjoyed the beautiful warm sunny weather, sipping hot tea. It was the first time in 2 days when we actually took out our one layer of warm clothes,  before donning it over again while climbing in the Ropeway to get back.

It was almost 12.30 p.m. when we decided to shop around before heading to Gangtok. We headed to Gangtok by 2.30 p.m. On the way, through Kalimpong, River Teestha flowed and the mighty Pine forest kept us company. Our driver was kind enough to stop at one viewpoint, called Lovers meet, where one can see the confluence of the main tributary Rangeet and   River Teestha. By the time, we reached Gangtok it was dark by 6.30 p.m. We were given some do’s and don’t’s in Sikkim by the driver. Smoking and littering was prohibited.

Although, alcohol was tax-free. It was like you can pollute yourself but not nature. That was indeed very good move by the Sikkim Government. We found a good bargain on hotel accommodation, being off-season and found pleasant stay at Samrat Residency.

As per the original plan, we had planned to stay for two days with main and important visit to Nathu-la Pass. First day was to cover important points at Gangtok and second day was dedicated to Nathula pass, Tsomgo lake and Baba Harbhajan Mandir.

We were prepared with set of photographs and id proofs, that’s when the bomb was dropped by the hotel manager that Id proof won’t do and required address proofs of each one of us. We were almost disappointed that we will miss the Nathula pass. With changed plan of first day Gangtok and second day of relaxing and shopping around, we slept. Next day morning, a ray of hope punctured our adjusted plan. I had a YHAI card with address and Swapna had made her brother send the scanned copy of her passport in her email. Both of our documents was enough for the permits, for four of us. Thankfully, the cyber café nearby came in handy. We were relieved, finally the dream of visiting Nathu la pass was about to come true.

We left hotel by 11.00 a.m. to go around in Gangtok. First we went to visit Chhoedten Monastery along with Museum of Tibetology. I found the Museum interesting because of ancient relics and scrolls, which were safely kept and displayed.

Thereafter, we went to Flower exhibition center, where the most beautiful flowers were kept on display. Various forms, colors and shapes of Asters & Orchids were the main attraction. Hanuman Tok & Ganesh Tok followed thereafter.

Both this places, located on top, had well constructed temple and beautiful sight to watch down the valley. We spent maximum 10 minutes at both the places, the cold weather was actually making us stay in the car itself. Later on, on the way, we paid a short visit to Enchey monastery. It was partly under renovation. Soon, we were on the way back to the city, the driver dropped us at M.G. Road, it was supposed to be one of the costliest, well maintained & posh market, looked almost at par with any international city.

We went further down for shopping at well known Lal market. Since, next day was supposed to be hectic, we walked down to hotel, although the localites tried to persuade us to hire a taxi. We preferred to walk down since the distance was short & downhill road.

Next morning, we got up excitedly for our dream destination  Nathula Pass. We hovered at the hotel reception for our transport. Finally, we reached the Changu Taxi stand, from where we were supposed to get in the already booked 4-wheeler on sharing basis. The driver was supposed to carry the permit for all of us.

We waited for long till 9.30 a.m. and got in the vehicle and four of us comfortably adjusted in last seats, our hotel manager had warned us to avoid seating in last row, but by the end of the trip it was blessing in disguise because of large leg space for all of us to seat comfortably which would have made the four and half hours bumpy, twist and turn, one way journey miserable for us.

First stop was Tsomgo lake which was on the way to Nathula pass. We also saw many small frozen waterfalls. The waterfall on one corner of the lake was already frozen, we could feel the chill down to bone marrow. Some of the occupants of the other vehicles were feeling dizzy because of height & we feared the same for us.

But eventually, I and Swapna came out to capture the beautiful lake in our camera. Shivering from head to toe I posed. And dashed back to the warmth of the vehicle.

Nathula pass was at height of 14,150 feet. The great height & freezing air was making it difficult for our lungs to breathe & we all were literally gasping for air. There were steps to climb to the top, we could hardly move our limbs, when suddenly a soldier appeared and advised to go in the military canteen that was on one side. The warmth of the canteen & re-fuelling our engine with hot coffee and some snacks, we gained our momentum to climb the remaining stairs which initially proved to be impossible to achieve.

After reaching the border, we posed for some photographs along with our Soldiers and with  the Chinese soldiers who were too eager to shake hands & pose. Our soldiers explained to us the importance of this strategic pass. Nathula pass means Pass of listening ears. We too tossed some questions regarding their families & their survival in such harsh climate. They were too happy to respond. After spending some time at this historic place, we headed back to our vehicle.

We went to Baba Harbhajan Temple, which had its own significance. Most importantly, soldiers who were stationed there informed us that people who suffer from disease for  years should keep a bottle of water and take it back & drink it for 21 days without consuming  non-vegetarian items or smoke, after which they will be magically cured.

Well, that’s what the saying goes & soldiers believe it religiously

We returned back to hotel by 5.00 p.m. as supposed to, by 3.30 p.m.

We hurriedly packed our remaining belongings and dashed back to previously booked vehicle for NJP. The route to NJP from Gangtok was through dense forest & along River teestha, and as per Sonali & Swapna’s observation, since, I was nauseated completely & Divya was already dozing after bouts of vomiting because of cough, which she was suffering from start of trip. So back to their observation, there was something mysterious about the road as no one dares to go out after 7.00 p.m. & driver had lowered both the side & rear mirrors for ‘God knows why’ reasons.

And our navigator Swapna was more than curious to know but preferred to let the driver drive without disturbing his peace & we too were too spooked by the happenings around.

 We reached NJP by 10.30 p.m. & thanked our luck for lovely trip without any misfortunes as by then we had also received the news that our much feared second class tickets now could be tossed away as we had confirmed 2nd AC tickets of the same train handy, thanks to Divya’s mom. So finally, while we were waiting at the station for our 3.00 am train journey back to our home sweet home, reminiscing about our wholesome trip, suddenly a missile fell out of nowhere in the form of an railway announcement.

It said that our train was 5 hours late. We were so tired and sleepy that we just looked at each other in shock, whispered a few sentences and dozed of in our seats in the waiting hall. Come morning, I went out to check out if there is any breakfast available when I came to know that the train was rescheduled to arrive at 8. 30 am instead of 7.00 am. We went back, had our breakfast and waited eternally. This wait got stretched till 11.00 am when the train finally entered the NJP station without much of an announcement. We were so tired of waiting, that instead of complaining, we were simply relieved to board the train.

After settling down we eagerly waited for the TC to ask him,”What our hopes of reaching Mumbai on time were?”. The TC came and informed us about the biggest blunder of our journey. He told us that our train was a holiday special and that there is no certainty of how late it could be. Of course we were devastated to hear this, but we were so tired that we spent the better part of the day sleeping.  Between the bouts of sleep, some cribbing, some senseless laughing and again reliving the memories through photos, we discovered that our train was about 22 hours late! We somehow managed to spend 3 long days in that never ending khamakha ‘Khamakhya Express’ and almost kissed the platform of LTT junction when we arrived on Sunday at 3.00 pm instead of reaching on Saturday at 5 pm. Thankfully, we had a Sunday to spare!

So, that’s my bitter-sweet and a bit longish travelogue of our historic visit to Darjeeling –Gangtok, which was not only memorable  but also cherishable in so many ways.

It was a first humble step towards many of the odyssey, that will be planned & conquered by us!

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