Updated: March 24, 2021 5:41:09 pm
While having yearned to travel to several exotic destinations, not for once have places in my home state West Bengal made it to my travel bucket list; not in the nearly three decades of my existence. Until COVID-19 happened.
After an exhausting year of being stuck at home, the very opportunity to escape to the hills, even if only for a few days, was extremely tempting. With most states mandating a COVID-19 test, and limited time in our hands, it was our chance to look inwards for our post-pandemic trip. Our itinerary comprised some beautiful tourist locations in the Darjeeling district in West Bengal.
Veterans often say we tend to take for granted that which is easily available. As a child, places in West Bengal, from Dooars to Shantiniketan, became part of my annual family vacations without me really learning to value the sheer beauty of the terrain. Besides, a traveller’s perceptions evolve as they grow up, and I can say, during my recent trip, it helped me view my near-familiar surroundings in a new light.
Our first stop was at the Chamong tea estate near Mirik. Finally, I was able to relish the tranquility of the vast tea gardens in the backdrop of the mountains, while sipping hot Darjeeling tea, after what seemed like a long spell. The Chamong Chiabari luxury resort, located right in the middle of the tea estate, offered just the desired view of the landscape, representative of a perfect exotic, luxury stay without being distanced from nature.
Another picturesque location worthy of special mention is Kolakham, a lesser-known serene village that is a few kilometres drive from Lava. The drive (you may prefer trekking) takes you on a patchy road through an eerily silent, dense green forest alongside Neora Valley National Park, and the experience is surreal, to say the least.
The tourist hotspots of Bengal, namely the towns of Darjeeling and Kalimpong, seemed to have succumbed to excessive tourist inflow over the years. Dotted with hotels and homestays, with many more under construction, the places do not really offer much to satiate a traveller’s heart with its eroded beauty. Even the much-famed Darjeeling Himalayan Railway or the toy train ride only takes one through roadside stores and debris.
Much to our disappointment, most of the mountains were shrouded by fog and clouds — locals attributed it to the lack of rainfall last winter. While complaining of the lack of rainfall impacting the tea production this season, the staff at the resort, for instance, stated that it was the return of tourists to their place post-pandemic that kept them going.
Across the destinations we traversed, from Mirik, Darjeeling to Kalimpong and Lava, the universal consensus was that the influx of tourists was quite less due to COVID-19 compared to previous years. The travel and hospitality industry is still recovering from the onslaught of the pandemic — some hotels said they were finding it challenging to cater to guests with limited staff, among whom some worked double shifts. All monasteries in Darjeeling and Kalimpong are also yet to open their doors to tourists.
Despite tourists frequenting the places, locals seem to have overcome the fear of contracting the virus. One would hardly see a person wearing a mask, locals and tourists alike, follow social distancing or any take other protection for that matter. While hotels had the provision for temperature check, it was rarely put to use. “Yaha COVID nahi hai ab (there’s no COVID here now),” our cab driver had said on being asked about the situation.
Some of the tourist spots, meanwhile, have been lined with party flags and campaign hoardings, as locals wait with bated breath for the upcoming state elections.