North Bengal & Sikkim
Trip Report

 
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Trip Report symbol © Sumit Sen                        North Bengal and Sikkim
                            by Aleksi Lehikoinen
                       08 November -26 November 2004

 


© Aleksi Lehikoinen

Trip List

Introduction

We had been planning trip to Himalaya for two year and because the political situation in Nepal had been unstable and it was not safe to travel in the country on your own we decided to do the trip to North Bengal and Sikkim. We organized the trip mainly on our own, because we wanted to keep the schedule flexible. However, we bought three days full package in Gorumara area from Help Tourism, at Siliguri. We also need to hire a guide during the Sandakphu trek, because of new rules of Singalila National Park. However, our guide was very good and definitely worth of hiring.

Participants of this trip were Aleksi Lehikoinen and Mari Pihlajaniemi from Helsinki, Finland. We both had visited India (Goa) earlier once or twice, which why some of the bird species or families were already familiar.

Itinerary (times shown are local time)

7.11. Departure from Helsinki, Finland 7:45 and flight via Heathrow, London, UK to Delhi, India, where we arrived 1:30 (8.11.). Resting the night time at the airport. Flight to Bagdogra leaves from (domestic) terminal I, which is situated 10 km from (international) terminal II. There is free bus connection between these two terminals.

8.11. Departure from Delhi airport 10:30 and arrival at Bagdogra 12:30. Arrival at Darjeeling 15:30 and lodging at Hotel Pagoda. Whole evening resting after long journey.

9.11. Birding in the morning in Tiger Hill. Organizing travelling things in Darjeeling at the day time and small birding around Darjeeling. Overnight at Hotel Pagoda.

10.11. Departure early morning from Darjeeling and arrival at Siliguri, office of Help tourism, 8:00. Birding at the daytime at Teesta-river barrage (Gazoldoba) and arrival at Garumara Jungle Camp afternoon. After lunch birding in the evening at Khunia, Gorumara. Lodging in Garumara Jungle Camp.

11.11. Early morning birding in Suntalekhola and Samsing. After breakfast birding around GJC and birding in the evening along Moorty-river. Overnight in GJC.

12.11. Early morning birding in Rhino watching-point, Gorumara National Park. After breakfast birding around GJC and birding in the evening in Chaphamari Wildlife Sanctuary, at the watching tower next to small pond. Lodging in GJC.

13.11. Early morning birding around Chukchuki Lake, Gorumara NP. After breakfast taxi-transportation to Lava, where we arrived around 13:00. Lodging in Yankee Resort. Little birding along the jeep-track to Neora-valley by foot (1km) in the evening.

14.11. Whole day birding around Lava. Walking along the roads towards Lolaygaon and old jeep track to Tiffen Dara. Overnight at Yankee’s.

15.11. Early morning birding along the track down to jeep-track. Departure from Lava 10:00 and arrival at Darjeeling via Kalimpong and Teesta-river 14:00. Whole evening resting and organizing trek to Sandakphu. Lodging in Hotel Prestige.

16.11. Departure from Darjeeling 8:00 and arrival at Manabhayang 10:00. Trekking from Manabhayang via Megma to Tonglu. Lodging in Trekker’s hut.

17.11. Early morning birding around Tonglu and after breakfast departure around 8:00. Arrival at Gairibans 12:30 and lodging Glenary’s Gateway. Birding in the evening along the abandoned jeep-track, before it started to rain slightly 16:00.

18.11. Early morning birding along the jeep-track and after breakfast departure around 8:00. Lunchbreak at Kalipokhari around 11:00 and arrival at Sandakphu 13:45. After lodging and short meal in Sherpa Chalet Lodge, birding along the road to Phalut in very thick fog.

19.11. Early morning birding around Sandakphu along the track to Gurudum and Phalut. Departure from Sandakphu 9:00 and arrival at Gurudum 13:00. Lunch in Gurudum and arrival at Siri Khola 16:00. Lodging in trekker’s hut in Siri Khola.

20.11. Early morning birding in Siri Khola and after breakfast departure around 8:00. Arrival at Rimbik 10:30, where we had lunch. While waiting for the jeep-transport we got some time to observe good migration of Steppe Eagles on the roof of restaurant. Departure from Rimbik around 12:00 with shared jeep and arrival at Darjeeling around 17:00. In the evening, organizing the transport to Sikkim. Lodging in Hotel Rinden.

21.11. Whole day transport from Darjeeling to Pelling, Sikkim via Gangtok, where we had short lunch. Lodging in Sikkim tourist centre, upper Pelling.

22.11. Birding in the morning and at the daytime in Sangachoeling. Overnight at Sikkim tourist centre.

23.11. Birding in the morning and at the forenoon around Kheckheopari Lake. Short birding along the road from Pelling to Dentam in the evening. Overnight at Sikkim tourist centre.

24.11. Birding morning and evening around Pemanyangtse and daytime in Rabdentse. Overnight at Sikkim tourist centre.

25.11. Early morning birding in Sangachoeling and after breakfast departure from Pelling and arrival at Darjeeling around 14:00. Rest of the day shopping and resting. Lodging in Bellevue Hotel.

26.11. Early morning transport from Darjeeling to Bardogra with few brief birding stops. Departure from Bagdogra around 14:20 (nearly two hours late) and arrival at Delhi around 18:20. Long dinner in restaurant of the airport.

27.11. Departure from Delhi 3:25 and flight via Heathrow, London to Helsinki, Finland.

Accommodation, travelling and food

During our trip 1 Euro was about 57 Indian Rupees (Rs) and 1 US dollar about 45 Rs. State banks of bigger cities change money as well as few hotels and shops, but in general money exchange places were quite scarce.

We used four different hotels in Darjeeling: Hotel Pagoda (double room 150 Rs/night), Prestige (c.250), Rinden (165) and Bellevue (600). None of these had warmed rooms or those were already reserved (Bellevue). Prestige and Bellevue had warm showers and Pagoda and Rinden had hot water in a bucket. In all hotels, except Rinden where service was little bit brusque, staffs were friendly. We liked Hotel Bellevue the most, for its sympathetic atmosphere. The room was also cosier than in other hotels with nice view to the streets of the town. We had some problems with timing in Pagoda (as well as in many other places; when you are in India you should prepare that locals may have quite different time concept than in western countries; if you have ordered taxi at 5:00 a.m., it usually comes little bit late or it may come even earlier, but seldom right on time; however it usually arrives sooner or later).

Garumara Jungle Camp is ruled by Help Tourism and it is quite cosy place situated about 30 minutes driving distance from Gorumara National Park and Chaphamari Wildlife Sanctuary (between of these). The food and service at the camp was excellent, but there was little bit to improve at the ecotourism and guide services. To our mind we spend too much time in the camp instead of other good birding areas. The birding periods in morning and in the evening were about two hours each and rest of the time was spent during transport and in the camp. These short periods were part because of strict rules of Gorumara NP and Chaphamari WS, where there are three visiting periods: 6:30-8:30, 8:30-10:30 and 15:00-17:00. We asked to leave earlier, but there was quite a little effect, even though some areas we visited were not inside the NP or WS. We paid 9 650 Rs for transport from Siliguri to Gorumara, three nights in Garumara, including transports, meals and transport from Garumara to Lava. The people of the camp know the area well and they know some good birding places. However, it is not the only accommodation in Gorumara area.

In Lava we stayed in Yankee Resort, which is mentioned in book of birding guide to India [5]. The hotel was very nice, service was friendly and food was excellent and we had a nice room in the topmost floor with a nice view to the village and mountain area. There was no heating in room and not hot shower (but hot water in a bucket), however we were fully satisfied. Double room cost 600 Rs/night and two dinners for two (including 2 beers) and one breakfast cost 440 Rs.

During Sandakphu trek our accommodation was arranged by our guide Deepesh Chhetri (deepeshchhetri2003@yahoo.co.in), who knows the accommodations along the route and we were fully satisfied to his choices. He is also interested in birds and knows a lot about local wildlife. We paid 300 Rs/day to him and food and lodging cost during our trek 300-700 Rs/day for two of us, so trekking was quite cheap. The accommodations along the trek were fairly modest. There were no heating in rooms and food is quite simple, but good.

Sikkim tourism centre in Pelling was a pleasant hotel situated at upper Pelling. There is a restaurant upstairs, where your can get good Indian food and Sikkim’s Hit-beer (strong and good). The hotel doesn’t arrange taxis, so we booked taxi to Kheckheopari Lake in the office of Vision Tours Travels next to the hotel. However, the taxi was half an hour late and we booked our return taxi to Darjeeling from hotel Phamrong, which was ok and right on time. The town of Pelling is mainly comprised by hotels (and new ones were built all the time), which why the competition of the customers is hard and prices are quite low. Our double room with hot shower cost 300 Rs/night.

Except two transports of shared taxis we used private taxis during our trip. It is definitely the quickest and the most pleasant way to travel. However, it is clearly the most expensive way too. About one third of our total budget (total 37 000 Rs) was spent on transports. For example taxi from Bagdogra to Darjeeling cost about 900 Rs. The traffic seems quite chaotic, especially in bigger cities and villages, where the roads are narrow and crowded by cars. The drivers are mainly professionals and they can handle the situation. In the mountains roads are really torturous and quite often in poor condition, which why the average speed is rarely over 25-30km/h. In lowlands the driving is quicker usually 40-50km/h.

We both found food good and tasty. Dinner for two cost usually around 200-300 Rs excluding drinks. There are plenty of restaurants in cities and bigger villages and few even in smaller ones. In most of the places it is possible to get beer (price usually about 50 Rs/bottle of 0.65 l). Nevertheless, in mountain area, especially during the treks, it may be difficult to find. In mountain area local take alcoholic drinks called ‘tongba’ to relax in the evening. It is made in small berries and water, and is drunk through bamboo pipe. We tasted it during the Sandakphu trek and it was good alternative for beer.

Weather, clothing and other equipments

In lowlands it was hot (over +25 °C) and sunny at daytime and warm at night time. In the mountain area the temperature declined near zero at night time above altitude 2000m and below it above 3000m. The mornings were usually clear with good visibility, which usually turned during the forenoon cloudy or even foggy/slightly rain in the afternoon. The temperature raised usually noticeable from the morning figures at daytime. However, in the mountains the weather may change very rapidly, especially in higher altitudes. It is worth to take a lot of clothes and good sleeping bag with, while it is very cold at night. It is possible also to hire or buy extra jackets or sleeping bags at Darjeeling.

We both had good binoculars, but only one telescope, with zoom 20-60x. Other handy equipments during our trip were pocket flashlight (in case of electricity breakdowns, which happens quite often), mobile telephone (e.g. if wanted to keep contact to friends back home; the mobile network is fairly good in West Bengal and Sikkim and it was possible to send text messages even in some places along the Sandakphu trek!), and forceps (in case of ticks, see Site details; Garumara Jungle Camp). Sunrise was around 6:00 and sunset around 16:30, but it is enough light to observe nearly half an hour before sunrise and after sunset.

Site details

Most of the sites are well described by Kazmierczak and Singh (1998) and in trip reports made after that, which why descriptions of the sites are quite short unless something new information (including three maps) is performed.

Tiger Hill, West Bengal
The top of the Tiger Hill (2485m) is famous tourism point, where most of the tourists of Darjeeling (probably tens of tourists every day) spend at least one morning to see the sunrise and the snow covered mountains. This place is easy to reach by taxi from Darjeeling, with price of around 60 Rs and 10 Rs way back from village of Ghoom. The top was too crowded for us and we walked along the main road and some side roads downwards. After sunrise the traffic back to

Darjeeling may be really heavy, which why it is wise to take side roads to avoid the noises of traffic. Our first day in forests of Himalaya was mainly spent in orientation to birding in forest areas.

Gazoldoba (Teesta-river barrage), West Bengal
Teesta barrage creates large wetland area with good numbers of waterfowl and some waders. Most of area is quite easy to handle both sides of barrage, which is guarded by soldiers. It is not allowed to photograph in the area. We spent quite a short time around, but managed to see many nice birds. However, the estimated sums of species were mainly smaller than reported by Mike Prince in the end of November, which indicates that many of the wintering birds of the area were not arrived yet.

Gorumara Jungle Camp, West Bengal
Garumara Jungle Camp is situated between cultivation and old, but managed forest. Forest area around the Jungle Camp is quite good for birding and there is some nice mature forest with many nice birds on the other side of road next to the gate of the camp. The undergrowth is quite thick with small paths on the other side of road. One of us got one tiny tick from the bushes of this area. We do not know, do the ticks carry some diseases in the area and it is worth to check you body in case of ticks every day if moving in bushes. Our trekking guide Deepesh told, that there are ticks also in higher altitudes.

Gorumara National Park area, West Bengal
There are several huge watching towers in Gorumara and we visited three of those: Khunia, Rhino Observation Point next to Forest Rest House and Chukchuki Lake. Gorumara is quite popular place of Indian tourists and the first two towers were quite crowded during our visits. Khunia watching tower is situated in the middle of open tall grass area (diameter 1-2 km) surrounded by mature forest. Locals have cut part of the grasses so, that it is possible to see better species among the vegetation (also mammals). Rhino Observation Point is situated on the edge of large open grassland and mature forest. The species diversity is very high and there is lot to see all the time. There is salt feeding place in the front of the point, which attracts especially doves and pigeons. We managed to see three endangered One-horned Rhinos and many fantastic birds from the point. The Rhino Point is worth to visit more than once. Chukchuki Lake tower is situated next to a small pond. The lake itself was little disappointing (only few Whistling Ducks and Moorhens), but the forest around the tower and lake were good for birding.

There are three strict visiting periods of two hours in Gorumara National Park and Chapramari Wildlife Sanctuary: 6:30-8:30, 8:30-10:30 and 15:00-17:00, which why birding is little bit hasty with only a short time available. The tickets need to be bought advantage early in the morning before entering the park. It takes about 20 minutes to drive to Khunia from Garumara JC, 30 minutes to Rhino-point and 40 minutes to Chukchuki Lake. Banks of Moorty river was nice birding area outside the national park on the way to Khunia. It is situated on the edge of forests of Gorumara and cultivation of villages (Map 1.). The river is quite large. However, there was not much water left after monsoon. Rare Long-billed Plovers were seen here and many other nice species by walking along the river banks.

© Aleksi Lehikoinen
Map. 1. Moorty-river.

Suntalekhola and Samsing, West Bengal
Suntalekhola is nice forest area in the base of Himalaya mountain area with lots of different kind of species, which are more difficult to see in lowland or high altitude forests. It is about one hour drive from Garumara JC. We made birding mainly around Forest Rest House. We had only brief stop in Samsing next to Suntalekhola at open forest area, with good view to the mountains.

Lava, West Bengal
Lava is small mountain village (around altitude 2000m), with an active Buddhist monastery. People here were really friendly and birding in the forests was also very rewarding along the roads and paths.

Sandakphu trek, West Bengal
Sandakphu trek is situated between altitudes 1900-3660m, which offers different kind of habitats and birds. We spent three whole days and two half days on this trek. The trekking route is situated along the border of Nepal and India, and because of unstable situation of Nepal, India has established small military bases along the bordered (at least in Gairibans, Kalipokhari, Sandakphu and Phalut), even though there hasn’t been any conflicts with Nepal’s maoists.

Soldiers are checking trekkers’ passports along the route and also in the beginning of trek in Manabhayanj, so it is necessary to take passport with you. According to new rules of Singalila National Park, foreigner trekkers needs local guide when entering the park. Guide’s job is to confirm safe trekking and to find cheap lodging and food. The best forest areas were around Gairibans and on the way from Sandakphu to Gurudum. In many other areas forests were fairly managed or cut down. Forest cutting for fuel is a big threat to forest in the area.

We didn’t take any porter to carry our bags even though we took the telescope with us. Some hills are quite heavy to climb, but if you go slowly they are not so bad and it is possible to watch birds along the climbing. It is possible to hire porter at Maneybhanyang. The trekking route is quite popular with lots of foreigner and Indian tourists, and they may sometimes chase birds away inadvertently along the route. However, the abandoned jeep-track from Gairibans and route from Sandakphu to Gurudum were really peaceful. In general birding here was superb with lots of highlights.

© Aleksi Lehikoinen
Picture 1. Aleksi enjoys the sunrise near Sandakphu.

Pemanyangtse, Sikkim
Pemanyangtse is monastery area too surrounded by nice forest. Some suitable birding paths are shown in Map 2.

Sangachoeling, Sikkim
The forest, which was mentioned in previous trip reports, before the monastery of Sangachoeling has nearly been cut down. Locals have started to build a road to the monastery and the mature forest between Pelling and Sangachoeling is now history. However, there was still nice forest area behind the monastery with lots of birds (Map 3.). The monastery area is good place to watch Steppe Eagle migration. In the forenoon eagles and griffons may pass the monastery with very close distance.

Rabdentse, Sikkim
The path to the ruins of ancient capital of Sikkim goes through good forest and the area was quite peaceful comparing to Kheckheopari Lake. Sangachoeling, Pemanyangtse and Rabdentse are easy to reach by foot situating only a few kilometers from upper Pelling.

© Aleksi Lehikoinen
Picture 2. Mountains of Himalaya, including Kanchenjunga (8,585 m).

Kheckheopari Lake, Sikkim
Kheckheopari Lake is sacred, quite a small lake between mountains about one hour drive from Pelling. The forests around lake are superb, but the lake itself offers seldom many waterfowls, but some nice species can be seen. It is important to be here as early as possible, because the area is crowded by noisy tourists during the forenoon. However, there are more peaceful paths on the other side of the lake. Beautiful place.

© Aleksi Lehikoinen
Map 2. Pemanyangtse monastery area.

© Aleksi Lehikoinen
Map 3. Sangachoeling monastery area.

 Systematic list

References
[1] Grimmet, R., Inskipp, C., & Inskipp, T. 1999: Pocket guide to the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent. Good and practical book, however poor discribtion about the altitudal distribution of species and voices.
[2] Grimmet, R., Inskipp, C. & Inskipp, T. 2000: Birds of Nepal. Same as previous, but only the species that have been seen in Nepal (which why it’s practical also in Sikkim and West Bengal). Altitude distribution are better discribed here than in the bigger version. Available also in book shop of Darjeeling.
[3] Jännes, H. : Calls of Eastern vagrants. CD.
[4] Kazmierczak, K. & van Perlo, B. 2000: Field Guide to the Birds of the Indian Subcontinent. I bought this in Darjeeling (900Rs), although the pictures are quite poor, the distribution maps and discribtion of voices is better than in Grimmet et al.
[5] Kazmierczak, K. & Singh, R. 1998: A Birdwatchers’ Guide to India. Good detailed site information for many places especially when supplemented with information of trip reports.
[6] Lonely Planet – Indian Himalaya. A lot of useful information for independent travellers.

Lots of information can also be found from internet by using keywords like birding, Sikkim, West Bengal, trip report etc.

Used trip reports
>
Trip report to Sikkim and West Bengal, India 28/3-15/4 2004; Rober Ahlman;
> Birding trip to North Bengal, India; November 2002; Mike Prince;
http://www.bubo.org/trips/india_2002_northbengal.pdf
> Birding trip to North Bengal and Sikkim, India; November 2003; Mike Prince;
http://www.kolkatabirds.com/netrip1.htm

 

© Aleksi Lehikoinen 2006 
email: aleksi.lehikoinen_at_helsinki.fi  

   
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