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Trip Report Sikkim, Darjeeling and Kolkata: an Unusual First Trip to India

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I remember reading about Sikkim as a child. There was a time back in the early 1960s when the majority of American school children knew where Sikkim was. An American woman, Hope Cook, married the Choygal of Sikkim, and press loved the story. Of course, I’d read James Hilton’s book, Lost Horizons, and Sikkim sounded like Shangri-La to me. This tiny country fascinated me and I put it on the list of places I wanted to go someday.
As I began to consider where to go this year, Sikkim came up as a possibility. As I looked into a visit to Sikkim, Darjeeling came up as a logical extension, and since we’d have to fly through Kolkata, that was added to our itinerary. I couldn’t imagine going to India without visiting a major city.

We usually use Bangkok as our point of entry to Asia, and did so on this trip. My trip report will cover our trip Bangkok to Bangkok.

While there are several carriers that fly between Bangkok and Kolkata, only two also had flights between Kolkata and Bagdogra (the nearest airport to Sikkim and Darjeeling). Of those two, Kingfisher and Jet, only Jet had a good connection in Kolkata.

Jet airways from Bangkok to Kolkata – Premier class: Boy was I glad we were in biz – this was one of the most chaotic flights I’ve ever taken. While there were clear and seemingly rigid rules on the Jet Air site about luggage, especially carry-ons, it turns out none of that was enforced. Most people boarding in coach were carrying 3-5 carry-ons, all of non-standard sizes and shapes. While things were “stowed” that often meant the passenger’s lap as well as the entire space between the passenger’s legs and the seat in front was filled with carry-ons, and all overhead space and under seat space was packed. Fortunately, only a few of the biz class passengers were carrying excessive carry-ons.

Every request by the flight attendants appeared to be roundly ignored by the passengers, so some continued to talk on their cell phones as we took off and flew, others had their entertainment systems up during take-off and landing and few heeded the warning to turn off electronics. When we landed, the flight attendants had to repeatedly exhort people to sit down before we got to the gate. Their requests were heeded only briefly before again people would get up and start dragging their carry-ons into the aisle.

Pushing and shoving as people tried to get off the plane was remarkable. There was no thought of allowing someone in front of you to get out of their row. Even the elderly and disabled were ignored. Cheryl stopped to allow two elderly women out and the people behind continued to push impatiently. We noticed this impatience and disregard of other people anytime there was a line in the Kolkata airport. Rather than standing in line to put their things through the security x-ray, some Indian men would rush to the head of the line and push themselves in front of you and even pull back your luggage from the x-ray machine to put theirs in first.

Once we had de-planed and gotten to immigration, there was an immigration officer who directed us to a fast track line for diplomatic and first class passengers. Arrival formalities went quickly.

When I had booked these tickets on Jet Airways for Bangkok to Kolkata and Kolkata to Bagdogra, I assumed that as in other places, our luggage would be transferred and there would be no need for us to check in a second time for our flight to Bagdogra. But when we checked in at Bangkok and received our boarding passes, the agent explained that we would need to pick up our baggage and clear customs and take our baggage and ourselves to the domestic terminal to check in at the counter there.

Cheryl got through immigration first and was approached by an airport employee to help with getting our baggage to the domestic terminal, which she gladly accepted. The airport was packed with people and there was little signage. Even though in theory the time between the two flights was 1 hour 50 minutes, this was just enough time to make our next flight. While I’m sure we could have managed alone by stopping and asking people, it sure was nice to have someone lead us through the teaming hordes, outside and to the domestic terminal, about a 10-minute walk away. There were no signs anywhere indicating the walk to the domestic terminal, nor did we see any other passengers along the way.

Checking in at the domestic terminal was equally chaotic. Our checked luggage had to go through security x-rays and we had to check in at the ticket counter. Our guide left us at security line for our hand baggage and ourselves before proceeding to the gates. While everyone lines up together, as you approach to the head of the line, the security officer pulled out the women passengers to go to a separate line for women’s security. There were two lines for men and one for women. The women’s line was short and moved rapidly. People are individually escorted into curtained booths individually and wanded.

From there, finding our gate was easy and we boarded about 10 minutes after arriving at the gate.

The Jet Airways booking site stated that there was no premier class on Jet Connect flights and gave us no option for booking a premier seat. But it turned out the 737 we were on had 8 premier seats. It looked like only 2 of them were taken. I asked the flight attendant if it was possible to purchase an upgrade, but it would have required going back through security to the ticketing desk and there was no time for that.

Remarkably, this flight was much less chaotic than the Bangkok to Kolkata flight. People adhered to the carry-on baggage limits and generally heeded the requests of the flight attendants. When we de-planed after the 1 hour flight, there was not the same pushing and shoving there had been on the previous flight.

We had an aisle and middle seat and hoped the window seat would not get filled. However at the very last minute before the doors were closed a gentleman came and said he had that seat. We got up and let him in. He struck up a conversation with Cheryl, asking if we were coming to visit Sikkim. When we said yes, he said it was his home. He chatted with us about Sikkim and then asked how were getting to Gangtok. We told him we had a car and driver meeting us at the airport. He indicated he needed a ride and we invited him to join us.

He told us he was a government employee, a vice principal in a school in his village and hour and a half from Gangtok. He was coming from a meeting in Kolkata and was attending another meeting in Gangktok the next day. In his early 50’s, he had just completed his Ph.D. last year.

The tiny Bagdogra airport was again crowded and had little signage. We found the conveyor belt for our luggage. Cheryl’s bag was the first off and mine soon followed. Our traveling companion, however, had to wait until nearly the last bag came off before getting his.

I went out to find the driver sent by our hotel. I couldn’t find a sign with my name on it in the crowd. I did see another sign for someone going to Nor Khill, said that is what I was looking for. The others holding signs helped and eventually we found a boy holding a sign that said Mr. Kathie Nor Khill. Once Cheryl and our new friend arrived, the boy put our luggage on a cart and wheeled it to the very end of the parking lot, where there was a hotel vehicle waiting for us.

We set out on our long drive. The books say the drive is 4 hours, it took us 5 and a half, with a half an hour stop to get our Sikkim permits in Rangpo. It took the first half hour just to get out of Bagdogra, the traffic was so bad. Roads were terrible, and many of the traffic jams were caused by vehicles needing to proceed one at time over broken pavement.

Once we began to ascend slightly, traffic thinned out, but the roads continued to be unpredictable. There might be a mile of lovely pavement, followed by several miles of pavement so broken and rutted that the vehicle had to slow to a crawl. Add to that the increasing number of hairpin turns, and the going was very, very slow. Many places the road had been washed out by monsoon rains, or swept away by rock or mud slides. There is perpetual road re-construction and repair going on.

This is not a trip for someone prone to motion sickness. The roads are very rough, and the route in the mountains consists of one hairpin turn after another.

As we moved higher into the mountains, I was surprised at how densely populated Sikkim is. I had pictured it as more sparsely populated. It was especially apparent once it was dark, as we could see the lights scattered across the mountainsides.

It was deep dusk at 5:00 and totally dark by 6:00 when we stopped to get our Sikkim permit at Rangpo.

We arrived Nor Khill at 7:30, to the sound of a rock concert at the stadium next to the hotel. The music is what is often referred to as “head banger” rock. Thankfully it ended before we went to bed.

We were shown to our room, unpacked a bit and went down for dinner at 8:00 – exhausted and hungry. We were glad to get to bed that night. The beds were rather hard, but we slept ok.

Comments on Nor Khill: Nor Khill was originally built in the 1920s as a royal guest house. Official visitors of the Chogyal were accommodated here. It has a notable roster of past occupants, including the Dalai Lama. Oozing with atmosphere, there are many touches of traditional architecture, including the stunning Dragon Bar with its elaborately carved and painted columns. There is a lovely lobby, a beautiful dining room and pretty gardens. The rooms are upstairs, and each room is different. The first room we had is supposed to have a beautiful view, though it was too dark the first night and too misty in the morning to tell. We requested to move to a larger room with a writing table or desk so I could start my trip report and Cheryl start her photo editing. We were moved across the hall to a beautiful room twice the size of the first, but with no view of the mountains. This room has a sitting area as well as a desk area.

There is no central heating, though small space heaters are supplied. With the upper windows always cracked open for ventilation, the rooms are always cool and a bit damp.

The room rate includes all meals. Breakfast offers your choice of juice, fresh fruit, cereal, eggs cooked to order, and breakfast breads. I chuckled to see that the eggs are always served with a grilled tomato half (the British influence) and potatoes – in the form of potato chips. Lunches are huge, starting with soup, then a variety of Indian dishes followed by dessert. Dinners are similar to lunches, starting with soup and going on to numerous Indian dishes. Whenever possible food is sourced locally.

The staff is very helpful and accommodating. We highly recommend Nor Khill.

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