On the last week of one November, I landed in Kathmandu after a six-month stay in the United States of America. The very next day, I took a flight to Bhadrapur, from where I drove down to Kakarvita on the Indo-Nepal border, and then to Siliguri on the other side. I was impatient to reach Darjeeling. A niece was getting married the week after, and this gave me a good excuse to go visiting. In fact, it was an added incentive since I had a deep hankering to go there, having grown up in this town once known as the ‘Queen of Hill Stations.’ It had been a pretty long time, decades in fact, since I had visited the town. But, on reaching there, I had to admit that it is no more the Darjeeling of my childhood days.
However, meeting long lost relatives and acquaintances was a pleasure, and I stayed in Darjeeling for almost a month, after which, I journeyed back to Siliguri, where I stayed with a friend for a couple of weeks. Siliguri is a large city full of hustle and bustle, and the heat is quite suffocating. Nevertheless, it does have its charms too, not the least being that it serves as a hub for people travelling all over India, and more to my interest, lovely places like Kalimpong, Mirik, and Gangtok are but a few hours’ drive away. A week here, and I am again yearning for the cool climes of the hills. So, I decide to ride a bus for the two-and-a-half hour drive to Kalimpong, just 70 km away.
The bus makes its way through the dark forest of the Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary, then along the Teesta River. There are troops of small moneys all along the roadsides, sunning themselves in the early morning sun. We reach Teesta bazaar, a relatively quiet place, before crossing a pretty big bridge. From then onwards, the bus climbs steadily up to Kalimpong 16 km away. Kalimpong, famous for its orchids and schools, has a curious system of distance marking. Teesta bazaar is ‘Zero Mile’ as a distance marker for the town; the road, as it winds up, marks the 1st Mile, then the 2nd Mile, and so on, relative to the town, with the town center being the 10th Mile. However, all this becomes secondary as the magic of the surroundings begin to make itself felt right from the 1st Mile itself. Small-sized, colorful wooden cottages are nestled on hillocks and hills adjoining the road, surrounded by lush foliage and tall trees. Near the 8th Mile, some of the world famous nurseries Kalimpong is renowned for come into view.
The small town has quite a number of nurseries and their produce is much in demand the world over. Kalimpong is to flowers what Kathmandu is to temples, and the major reason for it being so is the excellent weather all year round, because of which the town is ensconced within verdant green mountains and lush forests, come rain or shine. In addition, the region as a whole is blessed with lots and lots of pretty flowers. At the risk of sounding extravagant, let me say that you are treated to a riot of colors everywhere you look. And then, there are the colorful orchids that are the treasures of Kalimpong.
My bus stops at the stop on 10th Mile, the town center, a veritable beehive of activity. Around it are shops, restaurants, parking lots, and the haat (local market). There is, of course, much hustle and bustle, but at the same time, one cannot fail to notice that most folks are of a friendly nature and bright faced. I notice a preponderance of youth; this apparently due to the many well-known schools in the town—Dr. Graham’s Homes, Scottish University Missionaries’ Institution (SUMI), St. Joseph’s Convent, and St. Augustine being some among many others. I come to know that education is the number one economy of Kalimpong.
The town center is not really so big, and a short distance ahead, I am pleasantly surprised to find myself on a road that is easy to walk on in relative seclusion. The change in setting is dramatic, and this why I say that Kalimpong is a haven for those fond of walking in an unpolluted environment. My destination is the 12th Mile. My steps become sprightlier now, traffic is light. I stride forward and don’t come across many people on the road, but I do notice that there is a continuous line of houses and small shops alongside. The landscape is great, rolling green hills and sprawling tea gardens, in addition to colorful houses scattered around the hills. The weather is mild, the air refreshing, perfect for taking long walks. A thought comes to mind, “one can walk here in solitary splendor without feeling secluded.” I cross the sentry-guarded Bhutan House and stop at a bend near to which is a tea shop.
Sitting down on a moss-covered embankment, I drink cardamom-scented tea; small birds twitter away among the bamboo grove; I am in no hurry to reach anywhere. I want to imbibe the feeling of being one with nature. Eventually, I start walking again and soon enough reach 12th Mile where there’s a beautiful place called the Orchid Retreat, which is a leading orchid grower as well as a resort. Lovely little cottages are situated among the profusion of foliage and flowers. I’ll be spending a week in one of those. How lucky can you get?
Now, before concluding, let me state some smart facts: Kalimpong is located at an altitude of 1250 m and cradled between Deolo Hill (1704 m) and Durpin Dara Hill (1402 m). From Durpin Dara (‘binocular ridge’), you can get a panoramic view of Sikkim’s Chola Range including the Jelep La (pass), the Kanchenjunga range, and Tiger Hill. Similarly, Deolo Hill also offers a spectacular a view, aside from which, it boasts of a lovely park as well as a science center. Dr. Graham’s Homes, a school founded by Scots missionaries in 1900, and sprawling over 500 acres of wooded land, is situated at the base of Deolo Hill. Scottish style cottages house boarders. The school has many highlights, not least being its beautiful chapel, an architectural wonder.
-Amar B Shrestha