Welcome to Bagdogra—the gateway to the beautiful north Bengal and Sikkim. You may have had a sneak peek of the mighty Himalayas on your way here. Now prepare to treat yourself to everything that they offer: from the misty forests of the Dooars to the lush tea slopes of Darjeeling to the mountain lakes of Sikkim. The best time to be in Bagdogra, Darjeeling or Sikkim are the summer months of March-June and later, from September to early December. Connectivity is not a hassle as there are frequent flights to Bagdogra. The Bagdogra railway station is also accessible to tourists.
Which way should you go? You are spoilt for choice. From Bagdogra airport, head east, past Siliguri and you will arrive at The Dooars, the floodplains of the Bramhaputra where you either take in a safari or two, or just relax at one of the verdant forest resorts. Or, head north, like most tourists do and drive from Bagdogra to Darjeeling—by road, it is a 3-hour uphill journey. En route, make time for a stopover at Kurseong to sample one of the world’s most expensive teas at Makaibari Tea Estate which is one of the best places to visit in Bagdogra. (Or, if you really love your tea, you can bed down at their simple but charming homestay.) You can also visit the Glenburn Tea Estate, approximately two hours from Darjeeling. But if you have time on hand, skip the road and take the Darjeeling Himalayan Mountain Railway from New Jalpaiguri. The narrow-gauge train service has been in operation for over 120 years, and is easily among the most charming train journeys in India and has earned the UNESCO World Heritage status. [Tip: You can also hop on for a simple joyride. Take the three-hour jungle safari train from Siliguri to Rangtong and back, which cuts through the Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary. Alternatively, it is a two-hour, 14km roundtrip from Darjeeling to Ghum, which covers some rather beautiful sights and stops.]
Barely an hour from Darjeeling is Kalimpong, another north Bengal hill station, where you can get your first real taste of Buddhist culture, through its monasteries and food. Tourists particularly enjoy the Kalimpong Cactus Nursery, with a mindboggling variety of cacti. Nearby, Mirik is an even more beautiful hill station, which is (thankfully) not big on the tourist map yet. Drive further east and you will arrive in Sikkim—that “valley of rice”, orchids and the omnipresent Kanchenjunga. Arrive in Gangtok, which will serve as the base for a few days of adventure. From here, you can drive up to the surreal Tsomgo lake and continue up to the Indo-Tibetan border (permits required). If you’re physically fit and the weather’s good, head to the Yumthang Valley, a high-altitude Himalayan meadow.
From Bagdogra to Gangtok, there are many itsy-bitsy markets that will tempt you. In Makaibari, you must return with a box of tea—it makes for an excellent gift. Darjeeling’s street markets around Chowrasta can bedazzle you with their knick-knacks. If you want authentic Tibetan artefacts (and want to aid a good cause), try the Tibetan Refugee Self-help Centre, where you can pick bags, clothes and home décor pieces. Further up in Gangtok, while the New Market on MG Road has your regular touristy fare, it is the Sunday fair at Lal Bazaar that you should aim for. Offering everything from cheese to handcrafted chessboards, it is a shopper’s delight.
If you’re headed towards the Dooars, Kalimpong or Sikkim, you will likely see the brilliant blue Teesta river. Head to Teesta Bazaar (1.5 hours from Darjeeling) from where you can go white-water rafting down the Teesta river. If you want to waste no time getting to Gangtok, hop into a heli-taxi from Bagdogra airport. The helicopter will get you to Gangtok in 35 minutes flat! Services (and seats) are limited, so do plan ahead. But the views from the chopper are worth all the effort. Feeling lucky? Sikkim is among the few states in India where gambling is legal. Head to one of the casinos in Gangtok and test your skills. Feelling even more adventurous? Darjeeling has a range of tattoo parlours you can pick from to give yourself a permanent travel souvenir.
|Bagdogra, Darjeeling District, Siliguri, West Bengal 734421||IXB|