[Published in Metro on Sunday, The Telagraph, on 15th April 2015.]
A small village between Manebhanjan and Sandakphu in the Darjeeling district, Tonglu is the perfect retreat to unwind and/or explore the mountains.
A trek through a forest in the eastern Himalayas, a panoramic view of snow-covered peaks such as the Kanchenjungha, Pandim and the Makalu, a picturesque trekkers’ hut and solitude — Tonglu promises much and delivers for the most part.
The village is named after one of the higher peaks on the Singalila Ridge. It is located inside the Singalila National Park in the Darjeeling subdivision of the district, near the India-Nepal border.
The hamlet generally serves as a night halt for trekkers on their way to Sandakphu.
The best way to reach Tonglu is via Dhotre, the starting point of the Sandakphu trek. From here, a 5km trek route winds through the forest to Tonglu. The route remains closed from June to September.
The best time to visit is between mid-September and December and between March and early April, when the rhododendrons and magnolias bloom, turning the forest a riot of colours.
After reaching Dhotre from Siliguri, we had lunch at a quaint eatery that serves dishes made with fresh local produce. It is best to hire a guide for the four-hour trek to Tonglu.
The park is a birder’s delight. Rare and exotic species like the scarlet minivet, kalij pheasant, blood pheasant, satyr tragopan, parrotbills, and fire-tailed myzornis can be spotted here.
There are not many carnivores and snakes in the national park, making it a popular family camping destination. The mammals that can be seen are red panda, leopard cat, yellow-throated marten, barking deer, wild boar, pangolin and the pika.
Tonglu Trekkers’ Hut
Red pandas reared at the Darjeeling zoo were reintroduced into the wild at the national park. Rajesh Bedi and Naresh Bedi made a documentary on it called Cherub of the Mist that went on to win awards.
According to forest officials, there are more than 600 varieties of orchids in the forest, which explains the heady fragrance that hangs in the air.
At 3,070 metres above the sea level, the peak and the surrounding areas are tranquil. It is the perfect place to meditate in.
Sunrise on Kanchanjunga
By the time we reached Tonglu, it was dark. But the night sky dotted with thousands of stars made up for our disappointment of not being able to look around immediately.
We had Tongba, a fermented barley drink served in a bamboo container, to enjoy along with the view. Warm water is poured into the container every few minutes until the drink loses its flavour.
The next morning, we watched the sun rise behind the Kanchenjungha range. It was a magnificent sight. The play of colours on the snow-capped peaks is worth getting up at the crack of dawn.
We spent the rest of the day lazing around. Those with energy to spare can trek back to Dhotre in the afternoon, for another helping of the sights and sounds of the sub-alpine forest.
Take a train or bus from Calcutta to Siliguri. The other option is to fly to Bagdogra and then take a cab or autorickshaw to Siliguri. From there, it is a four-hour drive to Dhotre. A four-hour trek from Dhotre will take you to Tonglu.
Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council Trekkers’ Hut in Dhotre and Tonglu are the best accommodation options. The huts can be booked from the DGHC counter in Calcutta, New Delhi, Siliguri or Darjeeling. Carry photo ID proof.
(METRO ON SUNDAY THANKS READER AMLAN CHAKRABORTY FOR THIS CONTRIBUTION.
PICTURES BY AUTHOR)