Feeling less than inspired by the guidebook description of Kalimpong as ‘grubby’, with ‘a recent history of neglect, decaying infrastructure and water shortage,’ and ‘not much to do in the town’, I’d left it out of the itinerary. I was on my way to Sikkim in the northernmost tip of India with my Bhutanese driver, Karma. I noticed that almost as soon as we’d met at the airport, Kalimpong got a mention in conversation along the lines of “so when do we go to Kalimpong?”. I explained that it wasn’t one of our destinations and noticed an uneasy look on Karma’s face. “What’s in Kalimpong?” I asked, and Karma seemed stuck for a reply.
I went over the itinerary again, hoping to clarify things and we set off for Sikkim, on the route I’d planned.
Every few days though, the conversation was punctuated by the refrain “so you don’t want to go to Kalimpong?” accompanied by an increasingly troubled looking Karma.
There’s a half – endearing, half – frustrating habit in that part of the world of being so polite and eager to please that communication can be less than straightforward and you have to try and guess what’s really going on rather than always taking words at face value, which can get tricky. After some judicious probing it transpired that Karma had some increasingly urgent business problems which needed his attention in Kalimpong and so it was that I found myself going there after all.
Admittedly the guidebook did say it could be quite interesting on market days. This wasn’t a market day.
Karma needed the morning to meet his business partner so I started to mooch around Tenth Mile. Kalimpong is a Himalayan hill station in the Indian state of West Bengal which curves along a saddle shaped ridge to either side of its main market area, known as Tenth Mile. Unlike neighbouring Darjeeling, it is not swamped by tourists, so the locals were very welcoming and happy to talk.
Sandwiched between Nepal and Bhutan, near the border with Sikkim, the population is made of a diverse ethnic mix including Indians, Nepalese, Bengalis, indigenous Lepchas, Bhutanese and Tibetans. Historically the town was an important trading centre between Tibet and India on the old Silk route and there is still a strong Tibetan presence in the town.
Many small businesses and workshops opened onto the street where people worked at their crafts so it was easy to meet people and explore the bazaar. Not surprisingly I became increasingly laden with small items I’d bought to help support the businesses of the locals who were being so friendly and generous in allowing me to photograph them.
The time soon passed as I wandered along the street watching life go by or stopping to chat to people.
I didn’t see another tourist the whole time I was there, which was great for taking photos.
All these images were taken just wandering down the main bazaar street in Tenth Mile.
I was loving it. Kalimpong might not have made it onto the tourist ‘must do’ list but for me it was perfect – I’d chanced upon a place teeming with life yet quiet and calm with a fascinating ethnic mix of Himalayan people, gentle and friendly and happy to have me around, and I’d got it all to myself!
At the far end of Tenth Mile, I came across a great little newly opened coffee shop which made their own chocolates so I gratefully sat down and ordered a large coffee and a home made chocolate (‘Sugar Rush’ run by Sunita Gurung on Rishi Rd of you’re ever passing). They even gave me a free slice of cake as their first ever tourist to visit. I’d just started my coffee and cake when the phone rang. It was Karma – he’d finished his meeting, so I gave him directions and ordered him another slice of cake and a coffee. The phone rang again – he couldn’t find it, so I went to meet him. Returning down Tenth Mile with him, he wondered how I seemed to know everyone and was greeting them all as old friends, even introducing him to a Bhutanese man I’d met!
We finished our coffee and I heard about his business dealings which thankfully had gone well and he seemed to relax.
Kalimpong is a centre for Buddhist religion and Tenth Mile has several shops and wholesalers selling all sorts of religious paraphernalia, silk brocades. thankas, silver bowls, incense, monks’ robes, and all sorts of objects for Buddhist ceremonies. Karma’s brother is a monk so we went on a little shopping spree which was intriguing for me, if slightly bizarre.
Getting a bit weighed down with all our purchases, we jumped in a taxi and headed out to visit some of Kalimpong’s Buddhist temples.
The small Bhutanese Thongsa Gompa, was founded in 1692 and was covered in beautiful murals.
The wonderfully named Zong Dog Palri Phodrang Gompa was a little way out of town, up on a hill, where the views are supposed to be great, but all we could see was a cloudy haze.
Karma, being Buddhist, disappeared to spin some prayer wheels and pray in peace so I wandered around by myself for a while.
It wasn’t the most picturesque of temples, so after I while I drifted round the back to see who I could meet.
I got talking to one of the nuns who was Tibetan.
I mentioned that I’d worked as a doctor in a Tibetan hospital many years ago and her face lit up: “ah could you take a look at one of our nuns – we’re very worried about her?”. She lead me to the poorly looking nun and digging into the memory banks from way back I started to ask her about her symptoms in my best Tibetan. She didn’t answer and had a puzzled look on her face. Embarrassed that my history taking had fallen so far behind I looked to the other nun for a pointer as to where I was going wrong. She smiled a gentle smile and said “that’s very good but she doesn’t speak a word of Tibetan, she’s Bhutanese!”. “Ah” I smiled “no problem, I happen to have a Bhutanese doctor with me!”.
Karma was a fully qualified doctor of traditional medicine in Bhutan and so I called him. He arrived to find me by now surrounded by nuns and with a look on his face that said “now what’s she got us into?”. I explained the situation and before long we had been ushered into the living quarters of the temple and between us we got to the bottom of what was wrong with the nun.
Before long, we had a queue of nuns and monks wanting to be seen and were holding an impromptu mini surgery. I had one of those “just how did I land in this bizarre scene?” moments.
We were treated to tea and biscuits, thanked profusely and headed on our way.
Sometimes it’s just best to go with the flow when you’re travelling and see where it leads. If I’d known beforehand what my day in Kalimpong was going to be like, it would definitely have made it onto my itinerary. On a trip, as in life itself, it so often turns out that the unplanned and unexpected parts of an adventure are the memorable ones, and you just have to be open to letting them happen.