You won’t find Kalimpong in any up-market tourist brochures. This pretty hill station of the Eastern Himalayas located at an altitude of 1,600 meters above sea level with a population of around 50,000 has always lived under the shadow of its big brother – Darjeeling.
Even though the star attractions of the Eastern Himalayas are the hill stations of Darjeeling and Gangtok, Kalimpong is less commercialized and has maintained much of its sanity in spite of the onslaught of modernity.
Nestled in the lap of the impressive Shiwalik hills in the lower tracts of the Eastern Himalayas, this nondescript hill resort is a strategic base of the Indian Army. In fact, Kalimpong is a “Forward Post” of the Indian Army.
Of late, Kalimpong has come into the forefront of tourism in the Eastern Himalayas primarily due to the heavy tourist traffic to Darjeeling, which has makes this popular hill station rather overcrowded and in the peak season is faced with the paucity of hotel rooms.
Thus, it is largely due to the “Trickle-Down” syndrome that many discerning mountain tourists prefer to tuck themselves up at Kalimpong and breathe the cool mountain air, far removed from the din and bustle of Darjeeling. The easy accessibility to remote Himalayan hamlets, enchanting Himalayan treks, ethnic tours along with tours to the Buddhist monasteries makes Kalimpong a much-preferred mountain tourist destination.
By interacting with a group of tourists who came all the way from Buenos Aries in Argentina, I figured out that not only do the Western tourists prefer the quietness of Kalimpong, they fall in love with the temperate climate, never given to extremes, which makes Kalimpong a year-round destination.
When it comes to Orchids in the Himalayas, Kalimpong rules the roost. A visit to the exclusive Flower Market in Kalimpong town was kind of an eye-opener to me in terms of the sheer quality of the Orchids that are produced in the Eastern Himalayas. There are innumerable flower shops, all decked up with the choicest of Orchids ready to be exported abroad.
The experience of seeing flower bulbs and tubers being offered for sale and the haggling that takes place between the buyer and the seller is analogous to being introduced into the practice of Zen art.
I had a chance to visit Kalimpong in the year 2003 when my uncle who was a Colonel of the Indian Army was posted there. I spent a week there and though there is nothing much in terms of monuments and landmarks, the sheer beauty of the Himalayan vistas is enough to lift the spirits of the most jaded traveller.
Kalimpong is an educational hub of North East India and there are many good convent schools that attract students not only from India but also from neighboring countries like Thailand, Bhutan, Nepal, and Bangladesh. Any mention of Kalimpong immediately brings to mind that famous educational institute – Dr Graham’s Home which has been providing high-quality convent education for the past century.
Having heard so much about this top-notch institute, I visited the school along with my cousin’s brother. The school’s curriculum is very well planned and there is a lot of stress on personality development. According to the Principal – “Dr Graham’s Home not only strives for excellence in education but we also take utmost care to develop the overall personality of every student.
Discipline is the watchword of this institute and the students are also initiated in conducting themselves with dignity, which is expected from them in today’s globalized scenario”.
A word of caution to the first-time visitor to Kalimpong – ‘Beware of Lanslides’!!! Since Kalimpong is located in the lower end of the Shiwalik Hills the mountain slopes are pretty steep and the topsoil isn’t all that tight, which leads to frequent landslides. I was stuck up at least thrice during my mountain rendezvous in and around Kalimpong.
In order to explore the hidden cultural treasures of Kalimpong and its surroundings, we decided to visit a neighboring mountain hamlet where the weekly bazaar was. The locals can speak in Hindi with ease and out of my curiosity, I happened to ask a village elder whether there is any special significance in naming the places surrounding the River Teesta in terms of distances in miles and not otherwise.
To which he replied back in chaste Hindi – “ The average man on the street in this part of the world like to keep things simple. We do not believe in glorification. We are simple mountain folks and can there be a better way of showcasing our simplicity to the outside world than naming the places in terms of distance from the swift-flowing Teesta River?” I did not have an answer to that and marveled at the wisdom of the old man.
A visit to any village hamlet in close proximity to Kalimpong reveals acres of cultivated land on undulating terraced slopes. Out here, farming is the principal occupation of the vast majority of the indigenous people. However, the locals are hoping to cash in on the recent decision of the Government of India to reopen the Nathula and Jelepla pass on the “Silk Route” to engage profitably in trade with China.
I can speak the Nepali language, but it is not that polished. However, it is enough to strike up a conversation with a native of the land. When I asked a village youth – Raju Gurung, armed with a Degree in Agriculture and cherishing dreams of landing up with a cushy job in the Department of Agriculture as to where his ancestors came from?
I was astounded to learn from Mr. Gurung that the British East India Company brought a large majority of the population to Kalimpong mostly in search of work.
The demographic profile of Kalimpong hills and their surroundings is a cultural mosaic consisting of not only Nepalis but also ethnic communities like the Newars, the Lepchas, the Bhutias, the Sherpas, the Rais, Tamangs, and Gurungs, etc…
Initially, these ethnic communities began coming in droves to Kalimpong and its surroundings primarily to escape the oppression of the rulers of Nepal as well as the Chinese army. After settling down, they came in contact with Buddhism and embraced the religion. However, a vast majority of the population in the towns are Hindus.
Kalimpong and its surroundings being the cauldron of ethnicity in the Eastern Himalayas, visitors can rest assured of savoring their fascinating lifestyle. Try to coincide your visit to Kalimpong when there is a festival. Check out with the Department of Tourism for the exact dates of the festivals and plan you’re itinerary accordingly.
Of special significance is the Loshar festival of the Buddhist community. From enchanting masked dances to community feasting, the Loshar festival is a joy to behold.
The Lepcha community is very conspicuous by their presence in Kalimpong and the best way of exploring their native lifestyle and centuries-old traditions is by paying a visit to the Lepcha Museum which offers a fascinating insight into the rich culture and heritage of the Lepcha people.
Since I have always been fascinated by Buddhism, I was advised to visit the elegant Zang Dhok Palri Phodong monastery. I was amazed by the sheer quality of manuscripts that are stocked inside the monastery.
A huge repository of approximately 108 volumes of the Kangyur, which is regarded as the holiest ancient manuscripts of the Buddhists is well preserved at the Zang Dhok Palri Phodong monastery. By the way, this monastery is the exclusive domain of the Yellow Hat sect of Buddhism.
Apart from ethnicity, Kalimpong’s favorite sons of the soil, musicians like Sonam Sherpa and Adrin Pradhan have their roots in Kalimpong. Renowned movie Directors like Ramesh Sharma and Cinematographer Binod Pradhan too were born and brought up in Kalimpong.
The age-old craving for the quality Oriental delicacy – “Momo” on the part of the urban city folks has always been there. Rest assured, in Kalimpong you can savor the best Momos in the whole of India. The steamed dumplings come in a range of diverse makes – Pork based, Beef based, Chicken based, Mutton based as well as vegetarian.
Almost all the eating joints in Kalimpong and its neighborhood are well stocked with Momos. The best Momos in town is available at Gompu’s. Shikhar and Mohan Daju too offer delectable Momos but they aren’t in the class of the Gompu’s.
While in Kalimpong, try out the indigenously prepared “Churpees” made of Yak’s milk. I particularly liked the “Thukpa” noodle, which was immersed in a soup and made for a mouthwatering fare.
As far as Chinese cuisine is concerned China Garden is way above the rest and it has carved a niche for itself for its signature Mei Foon. I have seen people lining up in long queues just to grab their exclusive Chicken Drumsticks that are a rage with both the locals and the visitors.
The best way to explore the town is on foot. The Raja Dorji Market is always buzzing with activity and numerous shops do brisk business. It was fascinating to see how the folks from the neighboring villages set up the quintessential ‘Haat Bazaar’, which is nothing but a traditional open-air market, where villagers are permitted to set up temporary stalls to conduct trading on locally produced goods.
For the avid trekkers, there are endless enchanting trekking trails in the forests of the region. Apart from breathtaking Himalayan vistas, the sheer diversity of flora and fauna will mesmerize the first-time trekker. We meet a group of six trekkers who came all the way from Oslo (Norway) to indulge in exclusive treks in and around Kalimpong at the A la Carte restaurant of the Kalimpong Park Hotel.
In between our luncheon meal, the leader of the expedition – Stefan Bjorg had this to say – “ Every year we visit Kalimpong so as to indulge in treks that take us through some of the most fascinating low altitude treks that the world has to offer. The forests consisting of a profusion of Rhododendrons, Birch, Oak, Maple, and Alder are great for rejuvenating our stressed-out body and soul.
We are planning to open a specialized Trekking Office in downtown Oslo to facilitate hassle-free movement of travelers from Norway to Kalimpong for the purpose of low altitude treks, which are much sought after by the Norweigan people in the age group of 50 plus”. No wonder, Kalimpong and its outskirts have been categorized as a Bio-Diversity hotspot by UNESCO.
Even though there isn’t much by way of touristy jaunts like the privileged promenades of Darjeeling, the Rock Concerts of Shillong, the lush green tea garden landscapes of Dooars, and Darjeeling, Kalimpong has a mystical mountain charm that lures the quintessential mountain tourist into its bosom.
I drove my uncle’s 4 Wheel Drive Tata Safari all the way to Durbin Dara meandering through Rinkingpong Road and was amazed to find out that the Raj hangover was still very much alive, albeit the quaint picture-perfect houses with sprawling gardens that seemed straight out of a typical rural English hamlet.
I couldn’t stop my instincts and leave behind my 4 Wheel Drive in a wooded area, I ventured into the rather elegantly maintained Morgan House, which is conspicuous by its quintessential stony architecture and elongated windows.
Further ahead on the trail of the ‘Raj’ are the impeccably designed British houses that are mostly scattered in the upper stretches of Kalimpong town. A visit to the old colonial-style architectural marvels like the Surya Sadan, Galingka, Crockery, Tashiding, and Ringking Farm can be a very rewarding experience.
It was a marvelous feeling to be a witness to these elegant Victorian-style facades, most of them centuries old that has successfully withstood the vagaries of the Himalayan weather down the ages and still reflecting with the distinguished aura surrounding these stately British bungalows.
My impromptu visits to Morgan House and Tashiding rekindled my obsession with British Colonial tea garden bungalows that my late grandfather used to take me during my annual school holidays in the secluded tea garden estates of Upper Assam.
Ever seen a church that is designed much like a typical Buddhist “Gompa” (monastery)? Hold your breath! The biggest surprise of Kalimpong is the unconventional St. Theresa’s Church that has been designed to look like a Buddhist monastery and once you step inside this hallowed church, which is also the principal place of the Christian congregation in Kalimpong, the sight of typical wooden engravings depicting Biblical episodes in the guise of a Buddhist clergyman is baffling, to say the least.
Perhaps, the church’s architectural design is more appropriate in that it sends an excellent message of “Harmony of Religion” and the peaceful co-existence of diverse religions that is in short supply in our strife-torn world.
Time permitting, you would do well to visit Lava and Loleygaon. As you leave behind the meandering alleyways of Kalimpong, the scene of nature at its pristine best attracts your attention. The forests are virgin and in the 35 Kms. drive to Lava, you witness the dramatic topographical change as you gain altitude with each mountainous curve until you reach a height, which is all of 7,160 feet above sea level.
At Lava, there are many vantage points where you can commune with nature and maybe indulge in some light treks and have a boisterous picnic with friends and folks.
I was personally very much in awe of Loleygaon, which is a further 20 Kms. drive from Lava. It is not as high as Lava but nonetheless offers awesome views of Mt. Kanchenjunga. There was no stopping me as I made my way through the dangerously dangling wooden walkway on my “Canopy Walk”. By the time you get to the other end, a feeling of ‘Deja Vu’ enamors you.
Traveler’s Fact File
The nearest airport to Kalimpong is at Bagdogra, which is located at a distance of 80 Kms. Hired taxis and Land Rovers ply regularly between Bagdogra and Kalimpong. The Bagdogra airport is well connected to other Indian cities like Delhi and Calcutta and there are regular flights to Bagdogra operated by Indian Airlines, Spice Jet, Jet Airways, Jet Lite, and Kingfisher.
By rail, the nearest railway station is New Jalpaiguri. Trains like Darjeeling Mail, Kanchanjunga Express, Rajdhani Express, Dadar-Guwahati Express, Guwahati – Bangalore Express, etc halt at New Jalpaiguri railway station.
Surprisingly, in spite of not being a commercialized hill station like Darjeeling or Simla, Kalimpong has a number of high-end hotels. Hotel Silver Oaks, Park Hotel, Tashiding, Morgan House are up-market hotel entities. They have jealously preserved the old world charm of the British Raj and much of the architecture is still unaltered.
The rooms are spacious and are conspicuous by their predominantly Victorian style grandeur with matching décor and furnishings.
For the budget and backpacker tourists, a popular resting place is the J.P.Lodge at R.C. Mintri Road. Parijat, Dafey Mumal Tourist Lodge, Mountain Hut, and Chetry Wayside Inn are perennial favorites with visitors to Kalimpong.