A trip report to Kolakham and Darjeeling
Year – 2013
It was August 2013 and the Durga Puja vacations were soon approaching and we were still thinking where to go. We wanted to go to some offbeat destination since that would be something new with our three year old daughter. A lot of research were done online but we could not finalize any destination. Darjeeling is quite near to Kolkata but for some or the other reason I could never visit that place.
Something or the other led to last minute cancellation. Since it was jinxed so I avoided it this time also. Finally after a quick discussion with my good old friend Amitabha Gupta I froze on Kolakham.Kolakham is a small village in Darjeeling district of West Bengal, it comprises for 20 – 30 families residing on hill slopes. Until a few years back this place was unknown but with the recent development of offbeat tourism this destination also is in the limelight. This is more of a rustic village where few Nepali families live.
Now we had to do the booking and Kolakham has no hotels of sort, all are home stay thus we need to get in touch with an agent in Kolkata. A quick Google search came as a shock when I realized that the nearest booking agent was barely located some 200 meters from my house.
On one rainy evening after office while returning home I paid a visit to Spring Vale Resort. The person in charge was very friendly and showed me the photographs of the six cottages that were available. Most of them had view rooms towards Kanchenjunga but we were warned that October first week was known to be rainy thus the view can be a dicey.
The package would include food thus I booked the cottage for four night. Food would include breakfast, lunch, evening snacks and dinner. Food choice would be limited and most would comprise of vegetables which are available in that village, eggs and chicken. In fact what is grown there would be served. Though the village has recently been electrified but the supply depends on the weather and other factors.
Since this is an offbeat destination thus no regular transportation will be available and we also had to book the pickup and drop by car to and from the station. This would be also done by the travel agent thus we need not worry. The charges are fixed as per the rates fixed by local taxi syndicates thus bargaining is not allowed.
The day of departure finally came and we took the evening train from Sealdah to New Jalpaiguri. We took Darjeeling mail which departs in the late evening and reached New Jalpaiguri the next day morning. The train journey was uneventful and we reached our destination next day morning on time.
The Bolero driver had called us the previous day to confirm the train arrival timing so he was waiting for us outside the station. The vehicle was a four wheel drive and in very good condition. The driver introduced himself as Jemling Bhutia and a local resident of Rishop village which is quite near to our destination Kolakham.
On our way up to the hills I purchased 12 X 1 litre bottle of packaged water since I was warned that no such facility were available in Kolakham. The journey was uneventful and with an hour we were amongst lush green tea gardens.
The road till Lava was well paved and was absolutely fine but from there the jeep took a right turn towards Kolakham. It was then a hell on earth, there were no roads as such and only boulders placed on the ground. We were rocking inside the jeep as if in a roller coaster ride. It took nearly one hour for the jeep to reach its final destination of Kolakham village.
As seen in the photographs the village was a tiny hamlet surrounding the hills. There were around four different tourist lodges managed by different agents and almost all of them had similar facilities. All the houses were wooded with tin roof. The rooms from inside were well furnished with bed a cupboard and few sofas. All the rooms had attached western toilets with running supply of water from streams but did not have a warm water geysers. We were told that warm water would be supplied on request.It was already late afternoon and after a round of quick freshen up we headed to lunch. We were served rice, daal, mixed vegetables and chicken. The taste was all right considering the remoteness and all the travel made us real hungry.
By now the temperatures had started dropping and was hovering around 4 – 5 degree Celsius. We made ourselves comfortable around the fire which was lit up in the central courtyard and enjoyed a wonderful evening. The people of the hills usually are back inside their house by seven in the evening thus very soon we were all alone around the fire. The sound of the surroundings were really breath-taking. I could hear the flow of streams at the distance and occasional crackling of the fire which was burning slowly. We were served hot cup of tea with vegetable pakoras. The warm cup of tea were a heavenly delight and sitting around the fire it was a moment worth remembering.We went back to our room and rested for some time. We were told that dinner will be served at 8 and will be served rice and egg curry along with fried potatoes. We had our dinner and went to sleep. It was cold and felt wonderful under layers of blanket. Sleep came quick and so came to an end the first day at Kolakham.
Next morning I was woken up by Smita (wife), she asked me to look out of the window and there I could see the mighty Kanchenjunga. Though it was bit cloudy but still it was worth it, for Bengalis Kanchenjunga has always been nostalgic for some reason. May be because of the many movies featuring Kanchenjunga as a main element.We were served bed tea and I was fully charged. For breakfast we were served stuffed parathas and yogurt. With a full stomach we were all set for a walk. Hill walk can be bit tricky as there can be some short climbs which do leave you huffing and puffing. With my three year old daughter I knew that we could not go much far since she will soon become tired and would want me to carry her which would be difficult in this terrain.
We were back in an hour and wanted to go for some sightseeing to Changey Falls which can be arranged with a Jeep. Then came the first shock that Darjeeling district was having a Shut Down demanding the creation of Gorkhaland so no vehicles were permitted to ply. With no other option we returned to our cabin. Smita decided to relax by sleeping and Rianna (daughter) had by now made friends with a local Nepali girl (Sonia) of her age and both were playing in the heaps of sand left for construction. I was busy by now photographing the local village life.
All of a sudden I hear a huge rumbling in the distance and slowly I could hear that the rumbling was coming towards me. And then it happened… the whole earth shook the trees around the hills started shaking violently and I knew that we were experiencing and Earth Quake. The shaking lasted for 5 – 6 seconds and felt like eternity. All of a sudden the villages were running around shouting “Bhoochal Ayo Rey” which later I learnt meant earth quake has come in Nepali.
The electricity were gone so were the mobile network. Even the water supply stopped which were derived from mountain streams from the upper region. By now Smita was up from her bed and I quickly enquired for the safety of the hills in the event aftershocks follow or a land slide follows. The villagers were also anxious and after sometime was informed that everything was all right. Even though they sounded confident but all of a sudden I wanted to run from this. I was aware that few years back there was a major earth quake in Sikkim and tourist had been stuck from days without food and water. And in a place like Kolakham I really did not want to get stuck. The road back to the nearest town Lava is a real treacherous bolder covered one and waking back is not an option.
I called up my friend Meghdoot who is a small time travel agent and specializes on limited tourist destination and to my luck he has good contacts in Darjeeling Town and asked if some rooms can be arranged. Within a minute I get a call back that there are few rooms available with the best view of Darjeeling. I asked him to go ahead and do the booking and next I called Jemling Bhutia the driver who drove us to Kolakham. I asked him if he can drop us to Darjeeling from Kolakham and he agreed. It was agreed that we will be picked up at 4 AM then next day so that we can reach Darjeeling early and enjoy there.So it was finalized that we were escaping to Darjeeling the next day cutting short our trip to Kolakham. We informed the lodge owners that we would not be staying the next day and they need to return the money as I thought it would be improper to do so since they were not at any fault and it was I who decided to move on. We had had early dinner at 7 PM and went to bed early since we had a long travel up ahead.
The alarm went off at 3.30 AM and we freshened up a bit. All the packing were done the earlier night so nothing much to do. Rianna was still sleeping and we decided not to wake her up and carried her up to the Jeep. We bid goodbye to Kolakham and were on our way to Darjeeling. Back of my mind I was more excited as after so many years I finally had the opportunity to visit Darjeeling.The journey towards Darjeeling took us through Lava, Rishiop, Riksum, lamahata & Kalingpong thus it was more of a sightseeing for us. The scenic beauty changes as we enter Darjeeling. The tea gardens are the greenest out here and feels as if we were somewhere in Europe.
We reached Darjeeling town around 10.30 AM and here I was finally in the queen of the hills. Unfortunately vehicles are not allowed in Mall area thus we has to leave the vehicle around 100 meters from the hotel. We bid goodbye to Jemling who had to return back to Lava as he did not have tourist permit for Darjeeling town.
My friend Meghdoot had told me to go to Hotel Bellvue just overlooking the Mall square. When we reached near the hotel we found that there were two hotels with the same name, Hotel Bellvue and New Bellvue Hotel. I tried calling back to Meghdoot and for some reason could not get through to him. We tried our luck at the first one, New Bellvue Hotel. The manager greeted us courteously and I gave my name so that he can search the register. The manager kept looking from page to page and could not find my name, I could see that he was getting nervous so I told him that even I was unsure if it was Hotel Bellvue or New Bellvue Hotel so I better check the other hotel. I went alone to Hotel Bellvue and the same thing happened. The Manager could also not find my booking. By now I was nervous and again tried calling Meghdoot and luckily got him this time. I was assured that the booking was there and it was at Hotel Bellvue the second hotel that I went to. The only difference was that the booking was done in his name. I felt much relived and checked in to our room.
The hotel was with the best view possible. I could see the peaks of Kanchenjunga and also see the whole Mall Square. We were served hot cups of the finest Darjeeling tea. Never in my life had I ever tasted such fine tea. It was so wonderful that I had an additional cup.
Our room had attached bath with the finest washroom. Full ceramic bath tub with warm water gave a much need refreshment. I got a call from a local Taxi driver who had been contacted by Meghdoot for our local sightseeing.
Seightseeing Around Darjeeling
HIMALAYAN MOUNTAINEERING INSTITUTE (HMI)
JAPANESE TEMPLE & PEACE PAGODA
TEA GARDEN VIEW
TIBETAN REFUGEE SELF HELP CENTER
First we were taken to Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI) and Darjeeling Zoo. Both of these two are next to each other thus they need to be visited together. We saw the remembrance statue for Tenzing Norgay at HMI as well as saw the institute in itself. You are not allowed to go inside HMI but can see the surrounding training modules.
From there we walked towards Darjeeling Zoo. This is quite a small zoo but it is maintained quite well. It was a moment to cherish when we saw Himalayan Panda and Snow Wolf. Rianna loved it and kept waving at all the animals.
By now we were quite hungry so decided to have lunch before proceeding to the next destination. Post lunch we went to Japanese Temple & Peace Pagoda.
Fortunately there were no tourist around the Japanese Temple it was silence except the sound of the Monk who was praying and beating the drum in intervals. Rianna was much amused and all of a sudden sat next to the Monk as we watched from the distance. The Monk handed a smaller drum to Rianna for her to beat and to our surprise she kept beating in sync with the Monk for nearly ten minutes.
From there we walked towards Peace Pagoda which is barely fifty meters from the Japanese Temple. By not the sunny weather has been replaced by clouds all around us and suddenly the whole scenery had drastically changed.
After that we proceed towards Rock Garden, this was bit far and took nearly 45 minutes to reach. The garden was just a small garden amongst rocky hills and a water falls in the backdrop. After spending some time we decided to return.
On our way back we stopped to get a good view of the Tea Gardens and at the Tibetan Refugee Self Help Center.
Since we are travelling since 4 in the morning from Kolakham we were really tired and headed straight back to our room. Dinner was served in our room and we went to bed by 8 PM. In the hills everything is shut by 7 PM so there is nothing much to do at night.Next morning we planned to take a ride on the Toy Train so we had an early breakfast. We went to Glenary’s Bakery near the Mall which had fantastic collection of cakes and pastries. The whole place has this old world charm and feels like we are somewhere in London.
On reaching the Darjeeling station we were told that the morning service will not be running and only the 11 AM would be running. We had to return to New Jalpaiguri in the evening so we decided to skip the toy train and called the tourist cab driver who we had hired yesterday. We decided to go to Tiger Hill and have a drive around Batasia Loop.
The cab arrived and we proceeded towards Tiger Hill. Since it was cloudy so we could not see Kanchenjunga but the drive was through some of the best pine forests which was very beautiful.
On our way back we stopped at Batasia Loop and as luck would have it the Toy Train was passing through Batasia Loop and it has a scheduled halt at Batasia Loop for 15 minutes. Rianna finally had the chance to sit on the toy train.
We headed straight back to our hotel for packing up for heading back to New Jalpaiguri. I was short of money so decided to go to the ATM. Bang there comes another surprise… due to the recent strike by Gorkhaland Activist the ATM machines could not be filled up and the only working SBI ATM had 300 + people in the cue. As luck would have it Smita was carrying some additional cash so we managed to pay the hotel and took the same car to NJP.We reached NJP at around 6 PM in the evening and checked into a small hotel for the night as our train was next day morning 3 AM. The train was delayed and started at 8 AM instead, we reached back to Kolkata late evening at around 6 PM.So the journey was finally over we had a great trip to Kolakham….eer….. I mean Darjeeling.
CONTACT DETAILS for Darjeeling
Jemling Bhutia (Kolakham / Lava / Rishop Driver) – 97330 48001
Meghdoot Sur (Travel operator specializing in Darjeeling tours) – 90510 92795 / 80135 42091 / 98043 48745
Spring Vale Resort (Kolakham tour operator) – 98301 07780 / 94329 64242 / 91430 58689 / 94772 16161 /98301 47718 / 89024 97885 / 94324 91119
Bellvue Hotel – 0354 225 4075