Welcome to the Indian Panorama Newsletter for February 2009. Our aim is to keep you up to date with news and places of interest and other information to help you when the time comes to plan your next trip to India.
In our first two instalments of 2009, we're going to be focusing on those parts of India which are best visited outside of the main tourist season. India's vast geographical size and massive climatic diversity means that it is "high season" somewhere in the country all year round. Although some parts, particularly in the southern states, are now nearing the end of the 'comfortable' months for visitors, other places in the north of the country are slowly emerging from the grip of winter and will be at their best over the next few months.
This month you'll find information and some suggested itineraries for West Bengal, Sikkim and further into the slightly mysterious north east corner of India.
Next time we'll cover Ladakh, Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. We have continued to add images to our Photo Gallery where you will find some special photos, taken during our travels around India. These now include photos of Calcutta, Sikkim and a West Bengal general album. These pages will be regularly updated from our extensive library of photographs, so keep checking back for updates.
The gateway to West Bengal, Sikkim and the north east is the city of Calcutta. Despite having something of an 'image problem', Calcutta is worthy of at least a couple of days exploration if you are visiting this part of India. Calcutta (renamed Kolkata in the mid-1990s but still referred to by its anglicized name by most residents) was the capital of British India throughout most of the Raj period. This resulted in the city becoming the most westernised of all India's major centres, and the cultural heritage of the city is inexorably linked with its British history.
Everywhere you go in Calcutta there are traces of a very English past- the leafy botanical gardens are (tropical vegetation notwithstanding) like something out of any large Victorian city, the city's buildings are stylish and elegant (although many are succumbing to decades of neglect leaving parts of the city looking more than a bit shabby).
A driving tour of Calcutta is mandatory in order to take in as many of the city's myriad faces as possible. A few of the monuments which might be covered include the edifice in marble which is the Victoria Memorial- commissioned for the English queen's 1901 diamond jubilee and completed some 20 years later, Park Street cemetery which is a warren of grand mausoleums and lush undergrowth, The Marble Palace which somehow manages to make all of Calcutta's other grand structures seem staid and under-stated, Jain Temples in North Calcutta which combine marble inlay work (a-la the Taj Mahal), mirrored hallways, statues and a constant stream of worshippers, and temples dedicated to the goddess Kali on the banks of the Hooghly River.
Within easy reach of the city (around 3 hours drive) is the Sunderbans- a vast area of mangrove swamps which stretch far across the border into Bangladesh. Although this region has a great concentration of tigers than anywhere else on Earth, they are notoriously difficult to spot. It is an area of great beauty however, and a real magnet for bird watchers.
The easiest way to access the mountainous regions in the north of West Bengal and Sikkim is to fly from Calcutta to Bagdogra (which can also be reached direct from Delhi) to drive into the hills from there. For train enthusiasts, the UNESCO World Heritage listed Himalayan Mountain Railway from New Jaipalguri (near Bagdogra) all the way up to DarjeelingDarjeeling is an unmissable experience.
Darjeeling, synonymous with tea to many aficionados, seems at first glance to be perched atop a precipice and at times walking around it feels like it would be handy to have one leg a few inches shorter than the other, such is the steepness of the hills. A compact town with a climate which is several degrees cooler than the (at times) sweltering plains below, Darjeeling has long been a magnet for people seeking to escape the heat and dust of the cities and, during the Raj era when the British ran India from Calcutta, was the retreat of choice during the summer months. Now primarily a centre for tea production, the town commands stunning views on all sides and offers a great place to relax and unwind.
Some of the sightseeing highlights are the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, the Zoological Gardens (sadly the only place where most people are likely see the beautiful snow leopard up close), and several recently built Buddhist stupas, an ever present reminder that a large part of the original Tibetan Diaspora in the 1950s and 60s passed through this region. Today there is still a Tibetan Refugee Centre near to the town, and this is a highlight, albeit a rather humbling and sobering one, of the area. The people here make a variety of crafts including handmade paper and cards, textiles, wood blocks for hand-stamping of cloth and a range of beautiful carpets, all of which raise much needed funds for the education and rehousing of the steady stream of new arrivals fleeing oppression in their homeland.
A must during any visit to Darjeeling is the early (perhaps 4am depending on the time of year) start to drive a short distance to Tiger Hill. It might seem like a crazy prospect, standing in the cold (there is a heated building as well) and the dark with no real idea of where you are, but slowly the panorama of the eastern Himalaya reveals itself and as the first rays of the rising sun touch the peak of Khanchendzonga the cold and early start will be the last things on your mind. Amongst the endless array of amazing sights in India, this is right up there.
Kalimpong is another delightful town and a lot quieter than Darjeeling and is famed for its fertile soils and resultant production of orchids and other flowers for both the domestic and export markets. Mirik, halfway up the hills from Bagdogra to Darjeeling, is often omitted from itineraries in this area, but for anyone spending an extended period in the hills will make a delightful out-of-the-way stop.
The neighbouring state of Sikkim was an independent kingdom (nearby Bhutan retains this status) until it was subsumed by India in 1975. Despite over 30 years as a part of India however, Sikkim is still a land apart, its culture, cuisine, people and language having far more in common with Tibet than the majority of India.
The appeal of Sikkim is clear from the moment you reach this small region of high mountains, plunging valleys and emerald green rice paddies - the scenery is perhaps the most beautiful in all of the sub-continent.
But there is more to the state than jaw-dropping mountain vistas - the people are humble but very friendly, and it's rather difficult to walk down the street in any town or village here without ending up in conversation with a charming local.
To enter Sikkim foreign visitors will require a special permit obtained at the state border, but this is a mere formality.
The capital, Gangtok, is the starting point for most adventures in Sikkim- easily reached by road in a few hours from Darjeeling, Kalimpong or Bagdogra airport- it is a busy town and, in common with Darjeeling, perched on the side of a steep valley. On the opposite face of the valley is the quiet town of Rumtek- best known for its monastery. This is a place of learning and contemplation, not so much a tourist attraction in the traditional sense, but a glimpse into the deeply spiritual lifestyle of the resident monks.
Another wonderful excursion from Gangtok is the trip to Tsongo Lake, high in the mountains above the town, and only 20km from the Tibet border. The journey, up a twisty mountain road maintained by the Indian military, is not for the faint-hearted but the reward of views into the mountains which defy belief make it well worth the odd white-knuckle moment.
Tsongo itself is a picturesque mountain lake, and at over 3700 metres above sea level this is truly an alpine environment. During the spring and summer months, and even into autumn, the rolling meadows on the lakeshore are covered in flowers. An unforgettable part of this trip is to ride a yak part of the way around the lake- not the most comfortable means of transport ever devised but an utterly unique one.
Gangtok is also a starting point for some of the finest trekking in India. From guided walks of a few hours to a full day, right up to multi-day hikes requiring porters, yaks to carry equipment and a high level of fitness, there is something for every level of enthusiasm and ability in the great outdoors of Sikkim. We can make full arrangements for these treks through our partners in Gangtok.
Further into the true "north-east" of India is the state of Assam. Bordering China-Tibet, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Burma, this area is little travelled by tourists. Another region renowned for its prized teas, for many visitors the real reason for visiting Assam is to see the Indian one-horned rhinoceros at Kaziranga National Park. This is one of the most rewarding wildlife experiences in India - a ride on elephant back at dawn into the expansive grasslands of Kaziranga and a very high likelihood of seeing large numbers of rhinos at close quarters. There are many other species of mammals (including tigers) and a rich and diverse birdlife to round out the picture.
Elsewhere in Assam, tea estates, fascinating tribal villages and yet more glorious scenery are among the rewards awaiting those who venture into this part of India. Visits to Tibeto-Burman tribal villages and Buddhist Gompas offer a rare glimpse into an area vastly different from what we normally expect of India - in many ways this really is a different country.
Most other states in the north-east require foreign visitors to obtain a special permit in advance of their travel - we can create incredible itineraries for this region but as they are highly specialised, this will be on a case-by-case basis.
For a totally different experience, another option is a boat cruise on the mighty Brahmaputra River- the longest river in the north-east. Cruises of various lengths from a 4 to 10 nights are available, and can be incorporated into a longer trip or taken as a stand-alone holiday.
These cruises include village visits, dance performances and also take in a visit to Kaziranga National Park - a fine and luxurious way to see this part of India.