The group flight will arrive into Delhi in the morning and we will transfer to our hotel. Those who have made their own flight arrangements will join us at the hotel during the day. You are free today to explore Delhi and rest after your flight; rooms may not be available until noon but it is often earlier than this.
Transfer in the early morning to the domestic airport terminal for the flight to Bagdogra. On landing at Bagdogra we join our vehicles, and take a beautiful 4-hour drive from the heat of the plains through jungle, tea estates and pleasant hillside villages to the coolness of Darjeeling. The road winds its way up into the hills through Kurseong. At 1458m it is the little sister of Darjeeling and the word Kurseong comes from the Lepcha word for a small white orchid which grows prolifically in this area. Surrounded by tea estates it is the southern terminus for the steam powered trains of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway and the last 32km follows the route of the famous Toy Train, once the normal mode of transport to the famous hill station. We should arrive by late afternoon. (Approx 3.5 hours drive).
On a clear day there are beautiful views of sunrise on Kanchenjunga from the roof of the hotel. At 2,134m and spread over a steep mountain ridge surrounded by tea plantations with a backdrop of the jagged white Himalayan peaks, Darjeeling is the archetypical hill station. Originally the site of a small monastery called Dorje Ling it was discovered by the British and established as a sanatorium for the troops in the mid 1800's. The British soon recognised the potential of the place and built their colonial bungalows and planted tea. These days people come here to escape the heat of the north Indian plains. You will find yourself surrounded by mountain people from all over the eastern Himalaya who have come to work and trade. Mother Theresa spent her early years here as a nun. We have the day here to explore the town and its surroundings. We visit the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute founded by Tenzing Norgay and where many of the famous Sherpa climbers have been trained in mountaineering skills. All around are the world famous tea estates and if it is tea plucking time we can visit a tea estate. There are several monasteries nearby, of which the most famous is at Ghoom. If the railway is working, and schedules permitting, we can take the toy train to Ghoom and return by car. The train chugs its way out of Darjeeling, stopping on the way to take on water and to allow passengers to take photos at the famous Batasia Loop. If there is time there are the local bazaars and markets, and plenty of good restaurants and little eating stalls to tempt you. To end the day a pre-dinner pink gin at the Windamere Hotel is highly recommended.
Weather permitting there is an optional trip to Tiger Hill to see the sunrise over Kanchenjunga and Everest. This requires a very early (4am) start and is only worth it if the weather is really clear. After breakfast, we drive to Pelling (2,083m). Although only 90km from Darjeeling it will take us a good six hours due to the bad road conditions. From Darjeeling we descend on a spectacular road through tea estates to the Rangit River at 518m. Just before Jorethang we enter Sikkim and our permits and passports will be checked. The road now starts to climb again and at the small town of Legship we will stop for lunch. The final hour the road winds up even more to Pemayangste monastery. This is one of the most important Nyingmapa monasteries in the area, and was first built as a small temple in 1705 by Latsun Chembo. The monastery houses numerous religious idols and on the top floor there is a wonderful seven tiered wooden structure portraying the heavenly paradise of Guru Rinpoche. Tonight we stay in Pelling, whose raison d'etre is its stride stopping sunrise and sunset views of Mount Kanchenjunga, the guardian deity of Sikkim and the world's third highest mountain. (Approx 90km/6 hours driving).
If the weather is clear we will be woken up by magnificent views of Kanchenjunga. After breakfast we drive to Gangtok (1,437m), the capital of Sikkim and the largest town in the area. Today is a long day as en route we will visit Tashiding Monastery, another important monastery belonging to the Nyingmapa order. We start our journey by retracing our route down to Legship, from where we wind high into the hills again to Tashiding monastery. Built in 1717 by Ngadak Sempa Chembo during the reign of the third Chogyal, the monastery is set in a spectacular location on the top of a hill that looms up between the Rathong and Rangit rivers and is surrounded by a profusion of prayer flags that flutter in the air. Hundreds of brightly coloured hand carved prayer (mani) stones surround the monastery, most of which have been carved by an elderly Khampa refugee who has been here since 1959.
We descend back to the main road and climb up again to Rabongla at approx 2,400m. This is our high point today and we will probably stop for lunch in a small restaurant with great views down the valley. We continue driving through lush forests of dwarf bamboo back down to the river from where we have a final climb up past a large hydro power project to Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim, set on a ridge with magnificent views across to Kanchenjunga. In Gangtok we stay at the Netuk House Hotel, a traditional Sikkimese family house, now run as a small hotel with splendid food and traditional service. Today's drive is approx 198km/6 hours.
A bustling friendly hill station, perched at between 1,400m and 1,700m on a ridge, Gangtok is the capital of Sikkim. The name means 'hilltop' and the town is steeply tiered along a precipitous mountain ridge. If clear the views are inspiring with Kanchenjunga soaring above the horizon. Now part of India, Sikkim was once an independent kingdom inhabited by Lepchas. Over the years Tibetans migrated over the border for trade but it was not until 1642 that Sikkim became an independent kingdom with its own Chogyal (King). Over the centuries Sikkim was invaded by Nepalis, Bhutanese and Tibetans but it always managed to preserve its independence. The British East India Company saw Sikkim as a gateway to trade with Tibet and in 1888 it came under British rule and the capital was shifted to Gangtok. Sovereignty was returned in 1895 and in 1947 after Indian independence the Prime Minister, Nehru agreed to a special protectorate status for Sikkim. However after Nehru's death his daughter Indira Gandhi had little patience for maintaining Sikkim and its monarchy (the Raja had married an American who was now queen of Sikkim) and in 1975 Sikkim became the 22nd state of India. Populated by Lepchas, Nepalis and Bhutias, most who follow Tibetan Buddhism the culture here is more akin to Tibet than India.
We spend today exploring Gangtok. This morning we visit Rumtek, 24km from Gangtok and the largest and most famous monastery in Sikkim. Founded in the 16th century, Rumtek served as the main seat of the Karma Kargyu lineage in Sikkim. The Karma Kargyu is one of the sects of Tibetan Buddhism and the Karmapa Lama is the head of this sect. When the 16th Karmapa arrived in Sikkim in 1959 after fleeing from Tibet, he found the monastery in ruins. As the place is auspicious he had the monastery rebuilt and it became the main seat in exile of the Karmapa Lamas. When the 16th Karmapa died a new reincarnation was found in Rumtek. However, in 1999 the Tibetan Karmapa escaped from Tsurpu in Tibet and fled over the Himalaya to Dharamsala. Since then Rumtek has become embroiled in controversy as to who is the 'real' 17th Karmapa and armed guards now patrol the monastery. It has some excellent Buddhist paintings and relics, and a good view towards Gangtok.
We return to Gangtok for lunch and the afternoon is free for individual exploration. You could visit the 200 year old Enchey Monastery, which sits above the town. From Ganesh Tok and Hanuman you get a bird's eye view of Gangtok and on a clear day we can see the Himalaya in the distance. The Flower Show (or Flower Exhibition Centre) is famous for its floral exhibitions, especially in spring. Its orchid show from mid March to April is said to be one of the finest in South Asia (please note the Flower Show is often closed in December). Also worth visiting is the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology, which specialises in research into Tibetan Buddhism and the language of Tibet. The institute houses an excellent collection of Tibetan Buddhist artefacts. There should also be time to explore the bazaars and markets and well recommended is the Cottage Industries Institute where local handicrafts are made.
(Please note that opening days and times of the various sights in Gangtok change frequently. The Cottage Industry and the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology are usually closed on Sunday's and Public Holidays and the Flower Show is often closed in winter. Your leader will have up to date opening times.
After breakfast we set off for the drive to Kalimpong. We leave Sikkim at Rangpo and drive through the wild Teesta Valley. If it is possible we leave the main road and take a quiet but spectacular side road through vast forest plantations and small villages to the ridge overlooking Kalimpong. En route to the hotel we will visit the most important Hindu temple in Kalimpong, and the Dr Graham's home and school. Dr Graham was a Scottish missionary and he founded the home in the early part of the century. We spend some time exploring the bustling bazaar before driving to the Himalayan Hotel, where we stay tonight. In the early days of the last century the hotel was the family home of David MacDonald, who was the British trade agent in Gyantse for 20 years. After he retired he turned the family home into an hotel and it has remained in the family ever since. Although a bit jaded and faded at the edges now, it still retains its charm and character. It has been home to Everest expeditions from the days of Mallory and Irvine and Hillary and Tenzing were frequent visitors. Alexander David Neel and Heinrich Harrer are just some of the famous travellers who have stayed here. Today's driving time is around 4hours.
We leave early this morning for the longish drive to Bhutan. We return to the plains, and after crossing Coronation Bridge, built originally by the British for the Coronation and since renovated and painted bright pink by the Indians!, we turn east along the main road through the extensive tea plantations of lower Assam, to reach the Bhutan frontier at Phuntsoling. Here we will leave our local guide and Indian leader as we complete Indian immigration formalities. Walking through the traditional style Bhutanese gate we will be met by our Bhutanese guide who will help us complete our Bhutanese entry formalities. Tonight we stay in Phuntsoling, a bustling border town with many traditional chortens and the Kharbandi monastery.
An early start today for the magnificent drive through forest and over the hills to Thimpu, the capital of Bhutan. Thimpu is a fairly small and fast growing town, with a population of around 30,000, and is easy to get around. There is a certain quaintness to it with no traffic lights and town clocks painted in traditional Buddhist styles. Today is a long day of driving and we will reach Thimpu in the late afternoon. We take plenty of rest stops en route to break the journey.
We spend today exploring Thimpu. We will visit the impressive golden topped Memorial Chorten, built in 1974 by the Royal Grandmother in memory of the third King, H M Jigme Dorji Wangchuk who died in 1972. The magnificent Tashichho Dzong (fort) is the main secretariat building which houses the National Assembly. There are amazing Buddhist paintings, beautiful buildings and a grand courtyard. There are plenty of shops and a government emporium to buy excellent Bhutanese souvenirs and the Post Office has collections of Bhutan's famous stamps.
We leave Thimpu and drive east to Punakha. The route climbs steeply in places to the Dochula Pass. At 3050m (10,000ft) the views over the eastern Himalaya are magnificent although the clouds may obscure this spectacle. We descend to the valley floor and continue to sub-tropical Punakha. At an altitude of 1350m the difference in temperature and flora is apparent. Punakha was the old capital of Bhutan and the dzong was the second one to be built in Bhutan. This remarkable fortress is built between two rivers and it has survived many fires, an earthquake and a glacial flood. Along the way it has been repaired and added to and it has several interesting features to protect it against invasion. En route we will also visit Chime Lhakhang, a 15th Century monastery built to honour one of the more folkloric saints of Bhutanese tradition, Lama Drukpa Kuenley. The Lama was known for his foul-mouth, alcohol-smelling breath and insatiable lust towards women. Yet he is revered as a great saint by most Bhutanese who come from all corners of the country to visit Chime Lhakhang. We continue through a rather drier landscape to Wangdue Phodrang, which is now a ruined dzong due to a fire in June 2012, situated on a ridge above the Tsang Chu and then we make our way in the late afternoon to our hotel.
An early start for the drive back to the beautiful broad, fertile Paro Valley, with its famous dzong overlooking the rice fields and scattered houses. The Paro Valley is considered to be one of the most beautiful valleys in Bhutan, with blue pine-covered hills and attractive solidly built houses among the paddy fields. If there is time this afternoon we can visit the National Museum.
The departure ex London 12th March 2013 will spend most of today at the Paro Festival. Hundreds gather to see the monks dressed in colourful brocade, silk costumes and wearing painted masks re-enact the story of the gompa's particular divinity though music and dance. For several days there are masked dances, prayer meetings and a general carnival atmosphere as many villagers arrive to meet old friends and catch up with the mountain gossip. The festival culminates with the unfurling of a giant Thangka, three stories high, which has to be carefully folded away before the rays of the morning sun catch it. The visit to the Tigers Nest Monastery will be fitted around the Paro Festival.
The departure ex London 22nd December 2013 will spend the full day sightseeing in and around Paro. We drive to the car park below Taktsang monastery, where we set off walking. It is an uphill hike taking 2 - 3 hours to the viewpoint café and is steep in places. The famous monastery, whose name means 'Tiger's Nest', is only accessible on foot but is well worth the effort. The monastery clings to a huge granite cliff 800 meters above the Paro valley. It is believed that the great saint Padmasambhava came in the 7th century on a flying tigress and meditated in a cave for 3 months. The demons who were trying to stop the spread of Buddhism were subdued and he converted the Paro valley to Buddhism. During the end of the 17th century a monastery was built on the spot where the saint mediated and it is a pilgrimage site for every Bhutanese to visit at least once in their lifetime. In Paro itself we visit the National Museum. This is housed in an ancient watchtower with a superb view over the valley, and contains many interesting historic and religious objects, as well as a fine collection of Bhutanese stamps: Bhutan is a prolific producer of special issues. A little below the museum is the Rimpung, or Paro, dzong, the political and religious centre for the Paro district, which we should be able to visit. The small town of Paro is also well worth a wander.
Morning transfer to the airport to check in for our flight to Delhi. The rest of the day is free to explore the city or stock up on Indian souvenirs.
Those on the flight inclusive package will depart for London this morning for the daytime flight back to London; Land Only arrangements will finish after check-out from the hotel.