Cycling to Tiger Hill: The Land of Mist

Road to Tiger Hill-cocooned in thick mist

Disappointments in life are commonplace.

So, if someone had told me “Don’t take the pains of cycling up 4000+ feet to Tiger Hill from Kurseong because you will NOT get to see the amazing Kunchendzonga, Makalu and Everest peaks among the thousands of other Himalayan mountains in the backdrop because of the omnipresent mist”, I would have been very disappointed at the outset.

But then the life is full of surprises, some of which adds the character to the otherwise monotonic predictability. So what if the mists rob you of the opportunity to see the majestic Himalayan Range, they reward you with an amazingly surreal ride.

This was just that fabulous ride which had a few enthusiastic cyclists, a few nice mountain bikes, a beautiful damsel taking the role of a cheerleader with aplomb, a dramatic hill route, a world heritage hill toy train and lots of mist. What a ride it was!

It all started when we, a few Kolkata Cycling Club folks, decided to do another ride in the beautiful Darjeeling Himalayas during the Easter weekend. A last minute plan meant very few would actually make it and finally Vinay Bhatia (Read my Mirik trip blog to know more about VB), Erik and I packed our bikes in Erik’s Xylo and set off to Kurseong on April 1st 2010. Mausmi, my wife, was accompanying us too.

The Whole Cyclist Gang-Vinay Bhatia, Erik Yeh and Manasij Ganguli (from left)

and there was Mausmi

Kurseong is a beautiful hill station in Darjeeling Himalayas, some 650 km from Kolkata at an altitude of 4800 feet. The highway drive was a mad affair and our extreme reliance on GPS made us take turns into which are now out of favor roads of NH 60 and we ended up rubbing shoulders with the mammoth mining CAT trucks. Unfortunately we could not click any pics of these humungous looking vehicles but here is a nice pic from the internet to give you an idea of their size.

Huge CAT trucks- we shared the same road space for some time thanks to getting lost with a GPS!

Anyway, we finally made our way to Kurseong and were delighted to find our hotel an incredibly interesting place.

A British barrister Sir Percy John Cochrane had created this amazing leisure home in 1855 which has now been converted into a masterpiece of colonial styled getaway accommodation. The place had a great ambience and a great tasteful décor. It even had a Volkswagen Beetle perched at the entrance! The place had a Tea-Bar instead of a liquor bar and it served over a 100 varieties of tea and we just could not resist the temptation. VB, being a crazy tea drinker went bonkers and so did the rest!

Cochrane Place- A delightful place for sure!

On April 2nd 2010, Kurseong woke up to a bright and sunny day with clear blue sky.
It looked like an excellent prospect for a great biking day ahead. A lavish breakfast and many cups of tea later, we found ourselves readying the bikes. We hired a local cab so that Mausmi could come with us and like I said before do some cheerleading!

Readying our bikes- check out the soiled hands

All set and done, we started at 10 am from Cochrane Place. Our destination was the Tiger Hill which was some 37 km away and we had to gain 4300 feet from our starting altitude.

Tiger Hill is a very popular spot near Darjeeling. On a clear day one can see Kunchendzonga, Makalu and Mount Everest from the spot and the view of the sunrise is said to be breathtaking. Tiger Hill is at an altitude of 8600 feet and the road crosses through the Senchal Wildlife Reserve.

Our ride plan was simple. We would ride some 27 km from Kuseong to Ghoom via the NH 55 and then go through the Senchal Reserve to Tiger Hill. The total distance of the climb was close to 37 km.

Soon we reached the Kurseong town and all of a sudden we were rudely jolted by the traffic and the pollution. The small town was more or less a car park with numerous vehicles jostling for space, mostly ferrying tourists. We waded through the huge traffic snarl and sighed in relief only to be caught up in another traffic pile up!

Just weaving out of Kurseong's mad traffic snarls.....

The NH 55 is an extremely busy roadway with a huge tourist movement and therefore the traffic. To add to the troubles, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (popularly known as DHR) has its rail tracks right at the edge of the highway and crisscrosses the highway many times. All of these factors, along with its recent spate of agitations and governmental apathy have turned the road conditions to absolutely shambolic. At many places, the surface is completely missing and its all gravels and dust! Traffic snarls therefore were common.

However, a few sections were really beautiful and then the nature and the surroundings would come to reward you.

Beautiful NH 55

The climb was gentle at nearly 4% gradient, the weather was cool and it was nice and sunny. I was enjoying the ride and the spectacles of the highway. Almost the entire route was dotted by tea gardens from one side. Ringtong Tea Garden is one of the largest in the area and we rode by it for a good 10 km.

Hills are beautiful and the best way to experience is on a mountain bike. On a car you just zip through without noticing the finer prints. On the bike, you work hard to ascend but what you experience is great. You would probably zip past a tea plantation without noticing the people working in the fields if you were in a car but on a bike you will take note of the sound of boiling tea while you ride past a road side eatery, the smell of steamed dimsums, the yell of the locals and of course the gradual but unmistakable change of scenery!

The route had picture postcard type villages and strangely almost all the houses had beautiful gardens where flowers bloomed showing off their brilliant colors.

enchanting houses en-route NH 55

Soon we reached Tung. It was a sleepy town with a few settlements and shops. We were watched very curiously by the locals and Erik got the maximum number of stares. Everyone who looks at him arrives at a conclusion that he is a foreigner. Little do they know that the guy is born and brought up in Kolkata and he carries the lineage of the Chinese settlers in India for nearly a century! Erik is a great biker and a guy with a killer sense of humor.

Erik biking through the Tung town.....

We stopped for a small tea break on one of the small road side eateries. While the rest munched on some snacks Mausmi and I quickly had a couple pic taken on the DHR tracks.

Yeah we found some time to get a couple pic too!

And as luck would have it, we had our first encounter with the DHR toy train. This toy train is now a UNESCO declared world heritage and still has a huge popularity with the tourists. There are not many places in the world where you go for mountain biking and end up with snap of a mountain toy train. Our good old lawyer friend VB was just lucky!

Ahoy......the DHR! VB's encounter with the Darjeeling Toy Train

We arrived at Sonada town near noon thanks to many traffic pile ups and bad surface quality of NH 55. The ride was on a very steady gradient and was fairly easy. We continuously joked around and stopped for taking photographs.

After Sonada the scenery changed pretty dramatically. Now were at 6500 feet from sea level and the coniferous forests dominated the view. Tall green trees on one side, then a neat rail track which seamlessly mingled with the picturesque mountain road which in turn kissed the huge tea plantations on the other side. The view was spectacular and we kept riding though some fantastic scenic treats.

Biking through fantastic alpine vegetation

Check out the backdrop of tall green coniferous trees...

A little further on, we stopped for a snack break when Erik and VB decided to do some stretching right on the middle of NH 55!

Stretching in the middle of a busy NH 55

30 km into the ride and after scaling to 7000 feet, we had our second encounter with the world heritage DHR. This was a steam locomotive and it looked magical with its bellowing steam in the green mountainous backdrop.

Erik and the DHR. See the look on the driver's face, the poor chap is fully amazed to see cyclists on the route

130 years back in 1880 the first DHR chugged out of Siliguri for its journey to Kurseong. Today it operates daily services from Siliguri, Kurseong and Darjeeling and ferries locals and tourists.

We reached Ghoom (7200 feet) after covering 32 km at 1:30 pm, 3:30 minutes into the ride. The Wai-Wai noodles with scrambled eggs and tea felt great. The temperature had dropped considerably and fleeting mists was all around us.

After half an hour’s break, we began our final assault on the Tiger Hill. Until now the gradients were easy but now we had to climb 1400 feet in 4.5 km on an average of 10% gradient. In no time we were out of breath. This was a steep climb on a bad surface with lots of potholes and loose gravels.

As soon as we crossed the Senchal Reserve Forest entrance gate, the scenery changed with a drop of a hat. Now there was no inhabitation, no tea stalls and no traffic. It was a great secluded mountain road with tall trees on both sides completely cocooned in mountain mist.

Road to Tiger Hill through Senchal Wildlife Reserve

and there was mist......lots of mist!

The climb was taking its toll now. I came down to 1 X 3 for the most of the climbs on the incredibly steep switchbacks. One switchback would lead to another as the road climbed continuously. It reminded me of the Gata Loops of the Manali-Leh highway which has 21 switchbacks one after another!

The temperature dropped rapidly as we kept climbing and it became intensely misty. In fact so misty it was that the visibility was down to a few hundred feet only. However, it felt surreal to be riding in the misty environs. The lonely climb, the mountain mist, the beautiful nature, my heavy breathing and the constant turn of the pedals- all seemed just amazing and I was thoroughly enjoying the climb.

A lonely cyclist and the magnificent mountains coated in heavy mist

The surreal misty route to the top and the damsel

Finally our luck hit a sharp edged rock and it gave Erik a flat, 1.5 km from the summit. The moment was captured by Mausmi and we kept wondering the reason for the wide grin on his face whilst he was really disappointed to be robbed of the opportunity to ride all the way up! But wait a second; he walked up the rest of the distance, just to ensure he completed the route. Ride if you can, walk if you need to, crawl if you have to, but complete the circuit! That is spirit for you!

Race over Erik.....that bike is not climbing any more

Just as you almost reach the top, there is a small temple with a tea stall. A real tea maniac as VB is, he went in quest of a cup of tea! Unfortunately the stall was closed and therefore he vented his anger on the clay lion of the temple’s entrance. It must have been petrifying for the poor lion!

Now you know why wildlife is disappearing fast.....insensitive treatment of animals is unacceptable

Finally, we were there. We were at the top of the Tiger Hill. The thick mountain mist meant that none of the Himalayan peaks could be seen but we were quick to don our victory poses.

Reached the the pose!

the bike salute......the customary ritual of Kolkata Cycling Club to declare the mission accomplished

The top was very cold (13 degree Celsius) and the wind and the mist was too much to wait for a clearing so we headed down. VB sat in the car with Mausmi while Erik did the downhill on VB’s bike. Here is a pic of a stone pelting VB. What caused the affable fellow to become so violent? You may think it was the missing out on a great downhill but no. Apparently he was suffering from a withdrawal attack resulting from not drinking tea for over 2 hours!

Sindhi gone berserk....So much tamasha for a cup of tea?

Overall the stats of the trip were as per the following:

Distance 37 km
Time on Saddle 3 hours 45 minute
Starting Altitude 4300 feet
Finishing Altitude 8600 feet

Route Profile

So, was it a disappointing affair? Did I really rue the missed opportunity of not seeing the snow clad peaks of Himalayas? I guess the answer is surely a NO. I enjoyed this ride thoroughly and the last part of it – which was the steepest part, which had the worst surface quality and a blinding mist coat all through, was the part which made this trip a great deal.

As I said earlier, life springs amazing surprises but then you have to go through the crest of expectation, fall through the trough of disappointment to elicit the fun factor of that surprise! Hail Tiger Hill- the land of mist because it was one hell of a ride!

thats Me of course.................

Manasij Ganguli



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25 Responses to “Cycling to Tiger Hill: The Land of Mist”

  1. Vinayak Modi Says:

    Picturesque!!….and becomes all more vivid with the detailing pen you own.

  2. Alok Bhushan Shukla Says:

    Good One…Reminded me of TVM and our trips there especially Munnar

  3. Arindam Sarkar Says:

    Loved reading ur tour !! Felt like just picking my cycle and joining u guys for the ride.

  4. Sud Says:

    nice! wanna do this sometime!

    wonder why u dint take a puncture repair kit along…. erik could’ve proudly scaled it w the bike

  5. Deepak Dahiya Says:

    While looking at the picture and description think I m able to fell the ripples of your mind during this memorable event and fell involves with u guys for few minutes while sitting in the office space. Gud job and +ive utilization of energy that the small think I say about it.

  6. Shree Kumar Says:

    Manasji: Nice writeup ! Being a tea-aholic, I completely sympathize with your tea-starved friend.

    The mist is a scenary killer – perhaps you could return there some other day to watch the sunrays kissing the mighty mountains. But that’s for the tourists. What you’ve got is a much better experience.

    I’ve been to Tiger Hill on one of my earlier journeys; but unfortunately didn’t ride to the top. That’s because I rode up from Teesta to Darjeeling – a killer ride – try that sometime too 😉

  7. Dheeraj Bansal Says:

    Good one,

    This travelogue of your’s is better than all of my travelogues combined. Keep travelling and writing. It was a nice read.

  8. Rajat Says:

    Awesome. 4,300 ft ascent in 37 km. 🙂
    Thanks for sharing.
    I need to run this.

  9. Indrasish Says:

    Good pics and great hobby….. By the way train pics remind me a song of “Parineeta”…… “Yeh hawaye gun gunay….”. Tum log khate kya hon yaar? Kaha se itna energy milta hay? Good keep it up….. Keep riding!!!!!

  10. Dibyendu Says:

    Very nice blog. I did not have exposure in biking. However I got a bike and explored lots of unknown trails. I love to do such a nice trip. Very impressive.

  11. Vaidyanath Says:

    Amazing!!! I am feeling jealous as Darjeeling/Tiger hill tugs every corner of my heart. I visited Tiger hill many times during my childhood days but I’ve never seen Tiger hill sunny.
    I must say you are living your life the way one should.
    Njoy and best of luck.

  12. Amit Jasoria Says:

    Manasij. its always a delight to read about your biking experience and see the beautiful pics !!
    Keep going …

  13. ankush Says:

    awesome dude……. lage raho!!

  14. Saibal Says:

    Manasij!!One problem with the Kurseong photo. The railway line should be on your right never on your left unless you were travelling the wrong way towards Siliguri. The other cars in the pictures give a clue that the photo may be of somewhere else not passing through Kurseong. The road through main Kurseong is a one way system. I’hav lived there some 25 years to know what I am talking about.

    • manasij Says:

      @Saibal: 1. The train lines cross the highway many times. So it runs along both the sides of the highway, no preferential left or right positioning 🙂
      2. The pic is taken when the up and the down roads merge together in Kurseong and run as NH 55

  15. Saibal Says:

    Manasij, am not trying to pull your leg, friend & my cycling buddy. I just thought I’ed point it out thats it 🙂 No pun intended may be my comments are a little too strong. I’ed rather not go into the details and stop the conversation here. Keep cycling to encourage others. Good work.

    • manasij Says:

      saibal, you are very welcome to put your comments. I am sure comments from your side would be valuable.

  16. Pallavi Says:

    Nostalgic looking at the pics.. good write up.. bring on many more rides.. 🙂

  17. Steve Hoge Says:

    Hi again –

    I read this blog a few weeks back and now it will be really useful for us as we’re going to do the ride from Siliguri to Darjeeling this next week (we’ll be on our loaded touring bikes.)

    We thought we would try riding one day Siliguri to Keursong, the following day as far as Ghoom, and finally to Darjeeling.

    Would you recommend following NH 55 straight up from Siliguri to Kurseong or should we try an alternate route? Google Maps shows me a bypass to Keursong called Rohini Rd and there’s even something farther east called Hill Cart Rd. Any info on these routes?

    If we decide to skip the downhill will they let us put our bikes on the toy train?

    Thanks in advance,

    • manasij Says:

      Hey Steve,
      I guess the best thing to do would be to avoid Hill Cart Road as much as possible. Ride upto Kurseong either via the Rohini Road or via the Pankhabadi road. The Pankhabadi is a really steep climb, but has the best views and the least traffic. From Kurseong, you will have to take the NH 55 to Ghoom and Darjeeling. You can surely stow your bikes in the toy train on you way down, but it is a really long journey of almost 8 hours. Give me a ring once you are in Kolkata and wecan meet up! It would be nice to meet up with you guys and I do no mind riding with you folks to Kuseong via the Pankhabadi route. My cell number is 09874544003. Hope to catch up with you.

  18. Adrian Says:

    Hope I’m not too late here – just found this blog and been enjoying it – it’s good to see other people cycling around Sikkim/West Bengal hills – I toured here last year.
    Anyway, the main point I wanted to say is the best route from Siliguri to Darjeeling is to take two days and cycle to Mirik the first day, then Darjeeling the second day – the traffic is much lighter on this route and I felt Mirik was a much more relaxing place to spend the night. Also the route from Mirik to Darjeeling is pretty amazing – on a clear day you get great views over to Nepal.
    Either way the first day of cycling will be pretty tough…
    I mention this route in this entry on my journal
    Though I got the route from the book ‘Himalaya by bike’ by Laura Stone.
    Good luck!

    • manasij Says:

      Hey Adrian,

      I have read your blog!
      It is really amazing!
      FYI, I have cycled to Mirik as well and the account is in my blog too.
      Siliguri-Mirik-Darjeeling would be a good route to bike on purely for the scenic beauty and less traffic.
      So where are you based right now?


      • Adrian Says:

        Thank you,
        What’s the link to your page about Mirik? I can’t find it.

        Siliguri-Mirik was a really tough ride… but the contrast between the two places is great. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so pleased to get to somewhere as when I arrived in Mirik.
        Sadly I’m in London and not getting to do any very exciting cycling at the moment – too much work. But have been thinking about my Sikkim trip a lot, as it’s exactly a year ago.
        Hope to get to cycle in India again one day – maybe Leh-Manali or the Western Ghats next time.

        • manasij Says:

          Hey Adrian,

          Have a look at this link
          It contains all my cycling blogs.
          FYI, I have done the Leh-Manali-KhardungLa on my cycle and the blog link above has a series of 10 posts with 100+ pics and the entire route details with stats.
          I hope you find it useful.
          And BTW, Siliguri-Mirik was the toughest ride I have done so far!
          I would be very eager to see your comments on all these ride stories.


  19. Adrian Says:

    Thank you – I’m going to really enjoy reading those when I finish work – some of those roads on the way to Mirik look very familiar…

    It’s good to know Siliguri – Mirik wasn’t just tough for me.
    It’s the hardest ride I’ve ever done – aside maybe from Rangpo up to Kalimpong along the old road, which nearly finished me.

    But, I caught a jeep from Siliguri to Kurseong later on and that route looked like it wouldn’t be much fun to cycle. Not with a fully loaded bike anyway.

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