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cinematic Dec 3rd, 2006 02:41 PM

seek itinerary advice: delhi--> kolkata/darjeeling/sikkim
PLEASE forgive the long post, but it seems that those with a lot of experience in an area generally seem to need specifics to determine what advice to give.

i have a very hopeful but tentative plan to visit india for the first time as early as february and possibly as late as may for 2-3 weeks. my primary destinations are darjeeling and sikkim (various sites yet to be determined; want to trek a bit). i would welcome some advice on accommodating the following parameters:

1) my FF miles allow me to fly only into delhi, and it looks like it's tought to get FF flights home in march for some reason (although i can get there. consequently, it's probably got to be february (too cold for the north?) or as late as may (too hot for kolkata and delhi?)

2) i sponsor a child i wish to visit in the village of ichapur, which i believe is on the hooghly river, just north of kolkata (maddeningly, i can't find it on mapquest or in my guidebook!)

3) although the organization through which i sponsor will likely provide an interpreter, might i consider hiring an interpreter for a day for an outing with him and his family? (assuming rules, protocols, etc., allow it) if so, any suggestions in that regard?

3) while the above destinations are more than ample, and my sponsee's village, darjeeling and parts of sikkim are my tentative priorities, i'd also very much like to visit varanasi if there were an expedient way to build it into the itinerary.

4) i might be talked out of ALL of the above ;) (so long as i could make it to kolkata to meet my sponsee), if there were an exedient way to get to his village and back as a quick jaunt off of a trip to another area, say classic rajasthan?

5) i loathe and despise crowds of tourists (i know, we all do), but the comparatively fewer tourists are part of the attraction of sikkim for me, plus i'm interested in the cultural links with its two adjacent countries. then again, i know i have to see the taj some day...

6) i read at this site about helicopter transport to darjeeling and would like to know more about this. also, i very much want to do the full-day ride in the darjeeling "toy train"? are these two modes of transportation at odds for reaching darjeeling? also - obtuse question here, i know - are there any environmental sensitivities of which i should be aware relating to the use in that area of helicopters?

7) my budget is preferably modest, but time is of the essence, so flying places is fine so long as i don't shoot myself in the foot spending a lot of time waiting at airports for domestic flights. if i could share a helicopter to make it affordable and save time, BIG plus!

lastly, i heard from a friend that an american woman married sikkim royalty. apparently, she lives part time in her native brooklyn (!) and also runs a trekking company in sikkim. anyone know if this odd story is true and, if so, have any more info?

thanks in advance.

Cicerone Dec 3rd, 2006 08:10 PM

I will only attempt to answer parts of this:

1. The most I can tell you about Ichapur is that I believe it is a town in the State of West Bengal, and that they have had some bird flu there. However, I think there is also a REGION of the State of Madhya Pradesh in western India also called Ichapur, so you had better confirm this with your sponsoring agency.

2. I am of two minds about the appropriateness of a visit to your sponsored family. Does your sponsoring organization recommend this? Knowing Indian hospitality as I do, the family may feel obliged to entertain YOU to a meal or the entire day out, which may be something they can ill afford. If they can’t return your hospitality, they will be embarrassed and/or unhappy, and all you will know is that they appear to be quiet or in even a sullen mood. The whole day could go over quite badly. I don’t know that they would accept your “day out” with the smiling good grace you expect. Secondly, you would also need to know their religion and their caste if they are Hindu; and if they are of a low caste you might again want to reconsider this as bringing gifts or treating them in a special way may lead them to incur the wrath of higher caste children/people in the village. You would not see this, but they would suffer it after you leave. I know nothing about their village, but caste abuse still occurs in many many villages in India. Also, in many cases if they are Hindu or Muslim it would be inappropriate for you, if you are male, to include the women of the family in your invitation; you may feel this is unfair but that is the way they would want it. Finally, and not to put too fine a point on it, but the life you lead is unimaginable to them, you might as well come from the moon for all they can understand of your life and for all you will understand of theirs in one day, esp if you have never been to India before which I assume is the case. The village may be so small as to afford nothing at all to do for a “day out” in any event.

If you do this, I would suggest you rely on your sponsoring organization to provide the interpreter, as only they would know which of the several dozen languages your family is likely to speak. It could be a sub-dialect of a sub-dialect spoken by literally a few dozen people.

3. I don’t know anything about a helicopter trip in Darjeeling, but I cannot imagine that this would fit into a “limited” budget. As for environmental sensibilities, well you are already flying long-haul aircraft to India, so IMO there goes that one... Really, the area is not that high in elevation (it looks to the Himalaya but is not IN them), and there are air force bases in the area as well, so helicopters are not that rare. You can’t fly to high elevation places anyway because helicopters can’t go that high. If this is some sort of “fly-by” the Himalaya, I am not sure how close you could get in a helicopter, you might be better off in a light aircraft.

4. May is quite hot in Delhi and Varanasi. Take a look at for temps. I find it uncomfortable to be in Delhi at that time even for business when sitting in air conditioning most of the day; as a tourist I think it would be exhausting. Same with Rajasthan. However, if you were to focus on other parts of India like Sikkim and the Darjeeling area this might be OK; this would mean you may not see the Taj but as you seem to know, India offers a myriad of cultures to explore and May in the higher elevation regions is certainly doable. (The British certainly thought so). Kolkata is almost always hot and humid so I am not sure you would notice an appreciable difference. (They have a “winter” but it is just a bit cooler than the hot summer). IMO you would have to watch the monsoon as I don’t think you really want to be along the banks of the Hoogly when monsoon has broken, you get some tremendous flooding in Calcutta and elsewhere, and it can actually be unsafe. Therefore, I would avoid the latter have of May as the actual break of the monsoon can occur then.

I don’t know about Sikkim in February, it may not be that bad; its certainly excellent weather everywhere else, so I am surprised you can get FF to Delhi then but not in March. Take a look at or if no info there, hunt around for info on the best time of year there. Darjeeling would be cool to cold, but I think fine if you have warm clothes, it’s not really that high. They can have snow but only on rare occasions from what I understand.

5. Do not try to fit in too much: with 2 weeks, try to “do” no more than 4 places, with 3 weeks, no more than 6. Even getting between Kolkata and Varansi by air will probably take the better part of a day flying as you probably have to transit through Delhi, so consider itineraries carefully. Carriers like Jet Airways and Kingfisher are excellent with good on-time records so generally in those months you won’t be sitting in airport too long. There are many places you cannot fly, like into Agra, and I am guessing your only mode of transport to Ichapur will be by train and/or possibly bus or a hired taxi. This may slow you down a bit. Trains are generally efficient and quite cheap, but distances in India are vast so train journeys can take a long time. Much as I love the Taj Mahal, I am of the opinion that there is no place one “must” go unless one “wants” to go there. I have never been to Las Vegas and I plan to keep it that way....

6. There has been no royalty in India since it declared independence in 1947. All the rulers of the former princely states surrendered their states to the democratic government and royal titles were revoked at that time. The former rulers of the princely states in India continued to receive income in the form of privy purse allowances until 1974 when Indira Gandhi revoked those. At that point, many of the former royals converted their palaces to hotels as they had to come up with a source of income. Therefore, no one in India is “royal” anymore, although out of respect and tradition, members of the families are still often erroneously referred to a Maharaja, etc. It is more correct to say someone married into the “former” royal family. I would not be at all surprised by any former royal family member marrying someone from Brooklyn and that person running a travel business in Sikkim. That would probably be a good source of travel advice. Just don’t be impressed by the title, as it does not exist except in their minds and perhaps the minds of their former subjects.

Cicerone Dec 3rd, 2006 09:10 PM

I just spoke to a friend in Delhi who says you may find the town in West Bengal spelled as Ichapore, which may explain why you can’t find it on websites as Ichapur. Based on that spelling, I did find a reference to it on Wikipedia, its a town of 100,000 near the Ganges (not the Hoogly it appears) near Kolkata. See Also spelled Ishapore. I doubt it is going to show up in ANY guidebook or on mapquest in any event. It does not appear to be a tourist town. He confirmed my understanding that there is also a region in Madhya Pradesh with the same name, so make sure you know where you need to go.

dogster Dec 3rd, 2006 10:41 PM

Great posts from Cicerone re: visiting your sponsorship child. Very perceptive, very wise. And be prepared to discover he/she doesn't exist - [I'm sorry to say that, but two of my pals have had that experience]

Try spelling it 'Hugli' and I think you'll find your missing river

FanofIndia Dec 4th, 2006 04:32 AM

Hi, what detail!.
Firstly, Kolkata (Calcutta), is an international airport. Your Miles should possibly get you there direst. As it csn cost $200 to fly frlm Delhi, that is a consideration worth pesuing.
Kolkata is in West Bengal, so you must have a Bengalese interpreter. It is wise to have a Government-approved guide, who can do both jobs. Would be best also to have a Government-approved Tourist-registered car, as local contacts may say they know where they are going,- until you convince them that they dont!. Your sponsorship people would probably give you precise details of the location, and also acompany you. Have some school-friendly items as pencils and writing books, (You can buy much more for your money in the markets of Kolkata). Western things that need batteries or replacements are only temporary. Sweets, (candy) and the like should also be local.
There is a night train from Sealdah that gets to New Jalpaiguri, to connect (Not directly, maybe a bit of a wait- this is India), and then the 8-hour journey on the Toy Train. Take water biscuits and bananas for sustenance.
The journey in that part of te country is relatively easy in a tourist car, and is most rewarding. Take the middle os your time-span, and mid-end of March would be acceptable for both areas. Kolkata is moderated by the presence of the Bay of Bengal, but gets vey muggy in May. Likewise it can be 98 degreesF in Delhi.
On from there, there is another night train to Varanasi that get you there about 10AM.
Helicopters wouls be expensive, and an imprint on your green footpath. There may be trips out of Darjeeling, but just as well, goung up to Tiger Point to see Sunrise over Kanchenjunga is a great experience. You will see plenty to fill your camera without a helicopter.
Yes, an American lady did marry the King of Sikkim, but the monarchy was abolished by India, so, officially they are ordinary citizens,- but not to the locals.
I would be happy to coordinate an itinerary, and get you in touch with a good agent, who will make all the bookings for you. Safe travels.

cinematic Dec 4th, 2006 07:20 AM

wow! thanks so much to you all! and special thanks to fanofindia for your warm tone.

since posting, i booked my flight to delhi for 2/18, returning 3/3, so i'll have two full weeks and will be in sikkim for losar. :D. continetal flies only to delhi and that's my FF program. their partners can get me to kolkata, but only with significant layovers and more mikes, so i've opted for delhi and then a domestic flight to kolkata. as for the timing, flights TO dehli are plentiful in all months. but then there's no availability coming back without using twice the miles. that was the issue with a march return, cicerone.

my sponsorship organization has confirmed the location of ichapur (ichapore), which is indeed in west bengal, just north of kolkata, part of their "sahay" project. (thanks, cicero for the alert on bird flu - yikes! and it was so kind of you to contact your friend about the location of ichapur. presumably, the organization will direct me!

as for visiting my sponsee, the organization through which i sponsor welcomes such visits and i will coordinate with and take my cues from their in-country representatives.

i teach cross-cultural communication, so i very much appreciate and agree with your comments, cicerone, in that regard. your vast knowledge and experience with indian culture specifically will enableme to fine tune my research and sensitivities. most helpful indeed. i will be guided by the organization on the propriety, timing, protocols, activities, etc., for any visit. my reference to a day outing was just sort of free associating, not a plan.

my sponsee's native language is bengali and he is hindu, but the possibility of a sub-dialect is significant. thanks for mentioning this as well, cicerone. the organization will facilitate and translate the meeting and i will defer to them on everything. i was just generally curious about having my own interpreter so as not to exhaust too many of the organization's resources. i will handle it as they deem appropriate. they have made me keenly aware of the problems that can arise from neighbors and such, and i take caution in sending only items sanctioned by the agency (school supplies, e.g.), and discuss only those aspects of my own life that do not highlight material differences, e.g., that, like my sponsee, i enjoy mountains. (btw, i am female)

as for the helicopter thing, i read in another post somewhere that a young woman opted for a jeep to darjeeling but said that given the choice again, she would split the $250 helicopter transport option with 3 others (making it reasonably priced if there's a big time pay-off) no, it would not be a fly-by or tour or any such thing. that wouldn't interest me. i'd rather be on the ground. simply a practical inquiry.

hey cicerone! no need to bite my head off on the environmental sensibilities issue just because i must fly to india! ;) yikes! actually, i work for an environmental organization. i asked about this because i thought that if someone knew what point-to-point transfer i was referring to (can't find the thread where i read about it), they might also know whether there were location-specific issues, vis-a-vis wildlife, etc. it was just a general inquiry. just looking to save some travel time. but the jeep experience may be fun too!

cicerone, based on your advice, i may defer the varansi visit and do it with a taj visit. also, GAP adventures has a bare-bones cycle rajasthan tour that sounds fun. for now, i most want to visit sikkim, so will try to keep my focus narrowly on that and, as you suggest, limit myself to no more than 4 places. good rule of thumb.

re: royalty. i just thought this was an interesting story and wondered if there was any truth to it. it's not about being impressed or not by a title...more by the fact that i may have a brooklyn connection here at home with a sikkim trek company.

fanofindia, i'll contact you via email directly. thanks for all of your detailed on-the-ground advice.

once again, fodorites have shown their generosity of time, and shared their wealth of knowledge and experience. cicerone, dogster and fanofindia, thanks so much!

if anyone has additional suggestions now that my dates are nailed down and my itinerary more narrowly drawn as: delhi, domestic flight to kolkata (for ichapore or limited kolkata sight-seeing), darjeeling, sikkim for losar, i'd welcome them.

twofortheroad Dec 4th, 2006 08:21 AM

Hope Cook, an American, was married to the twelth chogyal (king), Palden Thondup of Sikkim, who reigned as figurehead until his death in 1981. She wrote an autobiography, Time Change, published by Simon & Shuster, 1980, ISBN0671412256.

Hope Cook and her son & daughter fled Sikkim after an uprising in 1975. Her daughter, Hope Namgyal, who was raised in New York, lives in Gangtok and indeed does lead tours for Treksikkim. If you google you can find the information about this tour company.

thursdaysd Dec 4th, 2006 08:58 AM

Hi cinematic - if you're planning to go to Darjeeling, I would absolutely recommend taking the "toy" train, if it's running. (Sometimes a landslide or mechanical problems mean that it's cancelled). It can be a long day, but you could break it at Kurseong - either take a jeep or bus partway, or spend a night there. The pollution was quite bad when I was there in 2001, and the jeeps conribute to that. However, I can't really recommend the buses, as they get very crowded and the seats are small. Riding the train is a wonderful experience, especially if you get the steam engine. The tracks run alongside the road, so you ride right through the Indian towns.

In Darjeeling I stayed at the Windamere Hotel - It was a bit of a splurge for me, but I loved staying in a place with so much history. One of the places I visited was the zoo, which was running breeding programs for red pandas and snow leaopards - I'd be interested to know how they are doing.

cinematic Dec 4th, 2006 09:32 AM

thanks, twofortheroad. i'll bet it's an interesting read. i'll definitely seek it out.

thanks, too, thursdaysd. i'd been considering that very hotel. the 'toy train" is a must. but help me understand the goes TO darjeeling, but FROM where does it depart? i'm trying to get all this laid out on a map.

btw, i just spoke with "children international" and they are already making the necessary arrangements for my visit with my sponsee. they will pick me up at my hotel and take me either to his home or i can meet with him at their offices. they're trying very hard to accommodate ME, while i'm trying equally hard to accommodate THEM and the family! they said that sponsors often DO take their children out for the day, either for lunch or shopping, although that would work only if they bring him to their calcutta office, they said, because his village is so remote. also, for safety reasons, they want to transport me in both directions. they will also provide an interpreter for the day. i think it would be a great experience - for both of us.

thanks again for your kind help.

cinematic Dec 4th, 2006 10:50 AM

oh, wouldn't it be fun to spean ALL one's time planning travel itineraries?

ok, armed with more info and US/india flight plans, it now appears it might make sense to arrive delhi, fly to bagdogra for the bulk of my trip (sikkim/darjeeling), then to kolkata for the day visit with my sponsee and then back to delhi to fly home. setting aside the obvious downside of spending time in airports for domestic flights, does anyone see any major logistical problems with such an approach? i haven't got my guides in front of me, but it appears from my web research that bagdogra is the only airport choice to get me into that area. or am i mistaken? is a train train from sikkim to kolkata worth considering? more time consuming, yes, but factoring in airport waits and the option of seeing the country go by, might it be worthy of exploration?

cinematic Dec 4th, 2006 11:20 AM

i see from the india rail site that there's an overnight from new jalpaiguri to kolkata. it's the...."mail train"? this looks like a viable option, though i find the plethora of train schedules and names a bit daunting. perhaps this is the time to call in an on-the-ground pro over there?

FanofIndia Dec 4th, 2006 11:36 AM

Hi again.
New Jalpaiguri is on the main line Delhi to the Eastern States, and is where the toy train starts. That is also where the overnight mail train leaves at 2005, with 1st ac to Kolkata.
Tickets on Indian trains have to be booked well in advance, and one quirk is that you must give your age, which goes onto the ticket. This is so that adults cannot buy kids tickets and travel themselves.
My ground contacts can arrange as much or as little of the tour as you wish.

thursdaysd Dec 4th, 2006 11:40 AM

Yes, I've taken that overnight train from NJP to Kolkata. You might want to look at (I bought my Indrail pass from them, and they made all my reservations) and for info on Indian trains. This site: is about the "toy" train. It goes from NJP, which is also Siliguri. Not sure how you get there from Bagdogra (taxi?) but that is the closest airport.

So glad you're thinking about the Windamere! It's certainly not your standard hotel, but I loved it. I didn't make it to Sikkim, I'm starting to think I ned to go back!

cinematic Dec 4th, 2006 01:12 PM

thanks yet again, folks. i got my link to the india train site through seat61 - LOVE that guy!

thursdaysd, why not head to sikkim for the tibetan new year and meet up with me? ;)

thursdaysd Dec 4th, 2006 01:39 PM

cinematic - lovely thought, but I don't think I'll make it back to Asia until the fall. Aside from 4 months traveling in Europe, this year seems to have been mostly spent recovering from illnesses, and I'm not feeling very energetic right now. I had thought Central Asia for the spring, but now I'm thinking something slow in Italy! I'll look forward to some virtual travel reading your trip report (hint!).

debadatt Jan 11th, 2007 04:00 AM

It was nice to flip thru the various mail chains. Being a person who is settled in Kolkata ( earlier known as Calcutta), and having visited Sikkim and Darjeeling on innumerable occasions ( the last being on Dec 22, 2006 !!!), let me try to help you with some pertinent information :-

1) Ichapore is a small town located approx 25 kms north of Kolkata. You can reach it by a local train from Sealdah or by a taxi. Journey time is approx 40 mins by train.
2) Pls try to complete your trip latest by April 15th because it gets very warm in India after that. Only the hills of Sikkim and Darjeeling will be comfortable after that.
3) If your FF miles are part of the Star Alliance then you may try flying Singapore Airlines or Lufthansa which have direct connections to Kolkata. Other intl airlines flying to Kolkata are Emirates / Thai / British Airways etc. So kindly recheck.
4) Don’t worry about hiring a separate interpreter – most Kolkatans can follow English – infact my first language in school was English and not my mother tongue, which is Bengali !!!
5) If you are in a position to spend say about 14 days in Darjeeling and Sikkim, then you can have a wonderful tour – I have been to those places many times and may help with information regarding some pristine places, which are still not fully spoilt by the maddening crowd, and also not as expensive as the more frequented places.
6) There is no helicopter service from Siliguri to Darjeeling. The best way is to take Darjeeling Mail from Kolkata ( departs at 10.05 pm and arrives at Siliguri at 8 am). Then take a car upto Darjeeling and you shud be there by 11am. This is the cheapest, fastest and most comfortable connection – even better than air !!!
7) The Darjeeling railway is now a UN Heritage property and hence running correctly. However the trip from New Jalpaiguri to Darjeeling takes more than 9 hrs and is pretty tedious. What we did last week was to take the morning train from Kurseong and travel 3 hrs upto Darjeeling. The website for Indian Railways is
8) Iam not sure about the American woman getting married to the Sikkim royalty. However 2 yrs ago, we happened to stay in a lovely guest house in gangtok ( the capital of Sikkim) which is owned by the royal family of Sikkim. I can get those details for you if required.
9) I hope that I have been able to answer most of your queries. And Iam sure that you have plenty of other queries as well. Do let me know and I will try to help as much as possible. Contact me at [email protected]
10) And finally… don’t worry, Iam not a travel agent – Iam a software engineer working with IBM !!!

cindab Jan 25th, 2007 07:30 AM

I am also contemplating going to both Darjeeling and the Sikkim area at much the same time as you. I wondered if you had any further info. or made any decisions regarding the "toy train" and helicopter ride. I had read that you can go from Bagdogra airport to Gangtok by helicopter (for around $35) and presumably one could do it in reverse - I would like to arrive in Darjeeling on the "Toy Train" and then leave via the helicopter out of Gangtok. "Debadatt" mentions that you can drive from Bagdogra airport to Kurseong and then catch the train (I presume the "Toy Train") onward to Darjeeling which is then the most scenic last 3 hours. Do I have this right, do you know anything more about this as it sounds worthwhile?
I travel to interesting places looking for beautiful & special things to buy for my shop. While it is not my primary motivation, I wondered if anyone who has visited Darjeeling can tell me if there are any interesting shops selling anything unusual (possibly old) and not tacky or touristy?
I don't know whether you have decided to go the Taj Mahal or not? I do business in Rajasthan and am there at least twice a year. I have visited the Taj Mahal twice (and would go again). My suggestion is that on your way back to Delhi, you hire a car & driver and do a day trip by road from say Jaipur through Agra and then on to Delhi. The road is horrible & it is a long day with incessant hooting and "almost accidents", but it is seriously worthwhile and a great experience of seeing the countryside. It is also not particularly expensive, even less so if you can find someone to share the car with you. In addition to having enough time to see the Taj Mahal, it allows you to stop & see nearby Fatephur Sikhri, which is also very beautiful! The trains are inconvenient and either don't give enough or else too much time in Agra - and Agra is vile, definitely not worthwhile staying in overnight!

debadatt Jan 28th, 2007 07:39 PM

Hi Cindy,

Regarding the toy train, there are 3 options :-

1) Start from New Jalpaiguri Station around 9.00am and travel right upto Darjeeling - however this is a long journey of about 10 hours by toy train, compared to 3 hours by road.

2) Travel from New Jalpaiguri upto Kurseong by road and stay overnight at Kurseong. Catch the early morning toytrain from Kurseong that leaves at 6 am and reach Darjeeling by 8.45 am. Remember this toy train is perhaps the only one that is hauled by a steam engine ..all other ones have conventional diesel engines.

3) There is a two and a half hour joyride that originates from Darjeeling upto Ghoom station ( via Batasia Loop) and then comes back to Darjeeling. This is mainly arranged for the tourists.

Regarding your helicopter ride from Gangtok to Bagdogra, yes it is operational, but only if clear weather permits. I suggest that you take a try on the date of your departure, and in case the helicopter doesnt operate, then you can drive down. However, be sure to have sufficient time on hand.

zengeos Feb 2nd, 2007 07:01 AM

If your budget allows for it, stay at the Windemer. I was there in 2000, on a 3 week trip of Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim and Darjeeling. The food was wondrful, service impeccable and generally a terific visit. Our guide (for my mom and mysef) was terrific and took us wherever we wanted to go, changing plans on the fly without blinking. We travelled by mini van, and I must say that we actualy had to get out of the van a couple times because it didn't have the power to haul us up some of the steeper arts of the road to Darjeeling. But then, we had to do the same thing in Bhutan..go figure! ;)

urguide in Darjeeling/West bengal, Sikkim was the best of the entire trip. The Bhutanese guide was a young kid, and was half asleep much of the time :/


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