Daily activities described in this itinerary may be rotated and/or modified in order to accommodate changes in museum opening hours, flight schedules & road conditions. All meals are included in the tour price and are indicated in the itinerary where: B=breakfast, L=lunch and D=evening meal.
Kalimpong, West Bengal - 1 night
Day 1: Sunday 8 November, Bagdogra – Kalimpong
- Arrival at Bagdogra Airport on the ASA ‘designated’ flight 9W711 at 1240hrs
- Afternoon Tea and Introductory Talk, Kalimpong
- Orientation Walk in Kalimpong
We arrive at Bagdogra Airport and transfer to Kalimpong. Our journey takes us through teak forests and along the banks of the Teesta river before the gentle climb to Kalimpong. This small town was once the centre of the wool trade with Tibet and under the British it became a hill-station, one of the towns to which the colonial government retreated in the hot season to get away from the sweltering heat of the plains. Kalimpong is now a laid-back multi-ethnic market town, where the fertile soil encourages flourishing trees and gardens. As in most other destinations on the tour, we have selected a hotel of history and character, in this case the Himalaya, a place redolent of the days of the British Empire (the Raj). It was built in the 1920s as the family home of David Macdonald, the British Trade Agent in Tibet, and was subsequently converted into a hotel that remains in the Macdonald family.
Note: due to the arrival time of flight, bottled water and fruit will be supplied for the drive. Fruit bowls will also be available in your hotel room. (Overnight Kalimpong, West Bengal) D
Gangtok, Sikkim - 3 nights
Day 2: Monday 9 November, Kalimpong – Gangtok
- Dr. Graham’s Homes School, Kalimpong
- Namgyal Institute of Tibetology, Gangtok
- Talk on Sikkimese culture by research officer, Dr Anna Balikci-Denjongpa
- Damovar Ropeway (Optional)
- Sikh Temple – Gangtok Gudwara
- Sikkimese Cuisine
Former hill-stations retain many traces of the British era, and we begin the morning with a visit to Dr Graham’s Homes School. Established by a long-serving Scottish missionary to house Anglo-Indian orphans, it continues to be run on British public school lines. We then make the 3-hour journey north to Gangtok, the capital of the Indian state of Sikkim which until 1975 was a semi-independent Himalayan Buddhist kingdom. The road crosses the fast-flowing Teesta river before climbing steadily through thick jungle-covered hills to Gangtok, which straddles a mountain ridge offering wonderful views of the world’s third highest mountain, Mount Kanchenjunga. Gangtok, an ethnic melting pot of Sikkimese Bhutias, Lepchas, Nepalis, and Bengalis remains relatively small, rustic and gently paced, with a distinct character of its own.
Our hotel here was once the guesthouse of the Sikkimese royal family and contains many photographs and paintings of historical interest, as well as offering gracious hospitality and wonderful views.
In the afternoon we will learn more about Sikkimese culture from the leading anthropologist of the region, Research Officer Dr Balikci-Denjongpa, who will welcome us on a private tour of the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology (better known as the Tibetology Museum). The Institute is a centre for the study of Buddhism that was established in 1956 by the present Dalai Lama and the last Choygyal (Buddhist king) of Sikkim in order to preserve the Tibetan Buddhist culture that was already under threat in its homeland. Along with a library of Tibetan and European language books and manuscripts, items that were brought there from Tibet include a huge collection of masks, Buddhist scriptures, statues, and tapestries, along with over two hundred Buddhist icons. A Buddhist monk who has worked there for many years will answer any questions you might have on these items – or on Buddhism and the monastic life!
You will then have the option to take a short ropeway ride which gives a breathtaking view of the scenery around Gangtok before enjoying, in a change of cultures typical of this multi-ethnic town, the bhagans (evening song worship) at a small Sikh temple nearby. The Sikh religion is an offshoot of Hinduism that arose in the Punjab more than 500 years ago and Sikhs are very much in a minority in Sikkim, but they welcome outsiders and we will learn the basics of their faith in this remote corner of their world.
Tonight we dine with local hosts at a restaurant specialising in Sikkim’s unique cuisine, which features many local plants and flowers. (Overnight Gangtok, Sikkim) BLD
Day 3: Tuesday 10 November, Gangtok – Rumtek – Gangtok
- Rumtek Monastery, East Sikkim
- Lecture: Tibetan/Sikkimese Buddhism and its monasteries
- Jawaharlal Nehru Botanical Gardens
- Orientation walk of Gangtok
Today we drive to the spectacular and colourful Rumtek, one of Sikkim’s most sacred Buddhist monasteries. This is the seat of the Karmapa Lama, the leader of one of the four major Tibetan sects, the Kagyu. Rumtek was the focus of international media attention in 2000 after the present head of the order, the seventeenth Karmapa, fled Lhasa and sought refuge here. The monastery houses some of the world’s rarest sacred Tibetan Buddhist scriptures and religious objects in its reliquary and houses several hundred monks. Reconstructed in the 1960s, the new building is modelled on a similar monastery in Lhasa, Tibet, but much of the old monastery still remains, and we will also wander through this quiet and relaxing setting.
Sikkim is a botanist’s delight, famous for its extraordinarily rich plant life and particularly its wonderful orchids. The great plant collector J.D. Hooker, a friend of Charles Darwin, worked here in the early 19th century and thanks to men like Hooker you may recognise many plants that are now common in Australian gardens. To gain further insights into the botanical richness of Sikkim we will visit the Jawaharlal Nehru Botanical Gardens, near Rumtek, which house many species of orchid and as many as fifty different species of tree, including many oaks.
In the evening we will have time to join the local people as they promenade along the pedestrian thoroughfare in the centre of Gangtok, where traffic has been banned since 2008. We will join the many families enjoying the evening among shops full of supplies and souvenirs. (Overnight Gangtok, Sikkim) BLD
Day 4: Wednesday 11 November, Gangtok
- Deorali Orchid Sanctuary
- The Himalayan Zoological Park
- Lunch at Netuk House
- Gangtok: Handicrafts Centre and Thakurbari (Hindu) Temple
- Lecture: An introduction to Hinduism
- Diwali Festival – events to be confirmed
Gangtok’s Deorali Orchid Sanctuary is renowned for its extensive collection of orchids, including many rare types. The tropical, humid climate of the north-east region of India is ideal for them and of 454 orchid species known to exist in the world, 200 are found in this sanctuary. Many of these will be in bloom when we visit. Besides orchids, about 40 genus of rhododendron can also be seen in the sanctuary.
We also visit the Himalayan Zoological Park, an important development in local wildlife conservancy which exhibits a variety of Himalayan fauna in their natural habitats. Among the animals on display are Sikkim’s state animal – the red panda, as well as Himalayan black bear, snow leopards, barking deer, leopard cats, the Tibetan wolf, the masked palm civet, and the spotted deer.
Our lunch spot, Netuk House, is a small family-run hotel where traditional Sikkimese meals are served in the cosy dining room. There are great views from the terrace and verandahs of the city and mountains beyond.
After lunch we visit the state Handicrafts Centre to see traditional Sikkimese weavings and crafts being produced. We will then begin our encounter with Hinduism, the religion of the majority of Indians today, with a visit to the Thakurbari Temple, located in the heart of Gangtok. Established in 1935 on a prime piece of land donated by the then Maharaja of Sikkim, it is one of the oldest and best known Hindu temples in Sikkim.
Our visit to Gangtok coincides with Diwali, the colourful ‘Festival of Lights’, which is a major Hindu celebration for all the family. Following a lecture on Hinduism and its basic forms, we will view the brightly-lit displays of Hindu deities that line the streets of Gangtok before dining at our heritage hotel. (Overnight Gangtok, Sikkim) BLD
Darjeeling, West Bengal - 2 nights
Day 5: Thursday 12 November, Gangtok – Darjeeling
- Darjeeling: Tour of the Happy Valley Tea Estate
- Darjeeling Heritage Walk
- Lecture: Reading a temple; the mandala concept
We depart Gangtok for the morning drive to Darjeeling, the most renowned of the British hill-stations in eastern India. The road descends and ascends the jungle-covered hills where birds and monkeys flourish and wayside temples line the route. As we approach Darjeeling the jungle gives way to neatly-ordered tea-gardens, for Darjeeling has been synonymous with tea since it was introduced by the British during the 19th century.
In Darjeeling we will stay at the former summer residence of the Maharaja of Cooch Behar. Built in 1887, this colonial-style mansion is now a luxury Heritage Hotel and we will have time to appreciate its history and hospitality.
After lunch at our hotel, we visit a tea garden to see the journey of Darjeeling’s famous crop from bush to cup, and of course to sample a selection of different varieties of tea.
Darjeeling’s cool climate made it a favourite hill-station for British colonial officers seeking refuge from the summer heat on the plains, and it remains a favourite holiday and honeymoon spot for Indians today. In the late afternoon we join them for a guided walk among the colonial bungalows and along the shop-lined Mall, the centre of life in Darjeeling.
Following pre-dinner drinks and a lecture, ‘Reading a temple; the mandala concept’, we dine together at the hotel. (Overnight Darjeeling, West Bengal) BLD
Day 6: Friday 13 November, Darjeeling
- Sunrise at Tiger Hill/Observatory Hill
- Toy Train to Ghoom
- Yiga Choeling (Ghoom) Monastery
- Mountaineering Institute
- Afternoon at leisure – optional visit to Lloyd’s Botanical Gardens, Everest Museum or walk around exterior of the Raj Bhavan of Darjeeling
- Lecture: Pilgrimage and Sacred Landscape
The day begins with an (optional) early morning visit to Tiger Hill to take in the spectacular sunrise over the snow-capped Himalayan peaks.
We then take the famous ‘toy train’, from Darjeeling to Ghoom, where we visit the historic Buddhist monastery and, time-permitting, the railway museum. The ‘toy train’ is a remarkable feat of engineering, providing a regular service on the narrow gauge line that winds slowly around the mountain ridges, offering views of both mountains and local farms and villages.
After returning to Darjeeling we visit the Mountaineering Institute which was for many years headed by Sir Edmund Hillary’s Everest partner, Tenzing Norgay, a Sherpa who first came to Darjeeling as a young boy seeking work as a porter.
The remainder of the day is at leisure. We will have the option to take in more sites or to relax in the hotel gardens and enjoy the Himalayan views. You may wish to visit the Lloyd’s Botanical Gardens or gain further insights into mountaineering with a visit to the Everest Museum, which also celebrates the remarkable achievements of the early Himalayan climbers who were recently brought back into the spotlight in Wade Davis’s enthralling book Into the Silence.
Following pre-dinner drinks and a lecture entitled ‘Pilgrimage and Sacred Landscapes’, we dine together at the hotel. (Overnight Darjeeling, West Bengal) BLD
Haridwar, Uttarakhand - 2 nights
Day 7: Saturday 14 November, Darjeeling – Bagdogra – Delhi – Dehra Dun – Haridwar
- Fly Bagdogra – Delhi (9W 712 1320-1540)
- Fly Delhi – Dehra Dun (9W 2825 1810-1920)
- Coach to Haridwar
Today we fly from the eastern to the western edges of the Himalayas. On arrival we take a short (1.5hrs) coach journey to the sacred Hindu town of Haridwar. Our hotel, a traditional urban mansion converted into a comfortable hotel, is situated beside the river amidst bustling and brightly lit streets in the old bazaar. Snacks will be provided for our journey to Haridwar, and a late evening meal will be served at the hotel. (Overnight Haridwar, Uttarakhand) BLD
Note: Haridwar and Rishikesh are vegetarian and non-alcohol towns but alcohol and meat can be served at the Jungle camp in Rajaji National Park.
Day 8: Sunday 15 November, Haridwar – Rishikesh – Haridwar
- Rishikesh Bazaar and sacred bathing ghats
- Forest Walk to Neer Garh Waterfall
- Indian Classical Music (or dance) Performance
- Lecture: Yoga, Tantra and Saddhus
In the morning we drive to nearby Rishikesh, where the Ganges emerges onto the plains from the surrounding mountains. This was where the Beatles stayed when they made their famous visit to the ashram of the Maharishi, a famous Hindu spiritual guide, and there are many reminders of their presence here. We will stroll through the colourful Ramjula bridge market area beside the Ganges, with time to view the vibrant throng of pilgrims, travellers, and Indian holy men (saddhus) who are drawn to this ancient centre of Hinduism. You will soon begin to recognise the different types of pilgrims and religious figures and learn more about their lives and customs.
We will take lunch at a popular local eating place famed for its excellent northern Indian cuisine, as well as for its colourful ‘living god’ welcoming you, and its almost identical competitor next door.
In the afternoon will visit a local ghat (sacred bathing place) on the shores of the Ganges to observe both how the community there revolves around the age-old pilgrimage traffic and how the pilgrims perform their rituals. Time permitting, we can also enjoy a pleasant walk through the forest to a popular waterfall.
We return to our hotel in time to enjoy watching the timeless sunset rituals of worship on the riverbank. Haridwar has been a pilgrimage place for many centuries and neither the Mughal or British empires had much impact on this Hindu centre. Most of the town is devoted to religious activities and temples and ashrams (pilgrim hostels) line the banks of the Ganges river as it flows towards the north Indian plains. Devotional music and worship is constant here, but the pace is unhurried and the atmosphere tolerant and welcoming.
Following a lecture on Yoga, Tantra and Saddhus, we dine together at the hotel, where we will also be treated to a performance of Indian classical music. (Overnight Haridwar, Uttarakhand) BLD
Rajaji National Park, Dehradun, Uttarakhand - 1 night
Day 9: Monday 16 November, Haridwar – Rajaji National Park
- Temple and ashram tour of Haridwar
- Jeep Safari Tour, Rajaji National Park
Haridwar is a city of temples, ranging from wayside shrines to spectacular landmarks that attract followers from around the world. It regularly hosts the famous Kumb Mela that attracts many millions of pilgrims to its river banks.
In the morning we will visit two of the most famous of the many colourful temples, one dedicated to the great Indian deity Shiva and another to a local goddess, illustrating the blend of local and national gods that make up the Hindu pantheon. We will also visit an ashram where we can see how the majority of pilgrims are housed and provided for in this sacred city.
Late morning we transfer to Rajaji National Park, where after lunch, we take a Jeep Safari. Rajaji National Park is one of India’s best wildlife reservations. The park, which will be flourishing after the rainy season, is home to more than 500 species of birds, as well as native animals including elephants, leopards, bears, hyenas, langurs, and monkeys. Dinner will be served in an open air restaurant at the luxury camp. (Overnight Jungle Camp, Rajaji National Park, Uttarakhand) BLD
Haridwar, Uttarkhand - 1 night
Day 10: Tuesday 17 November, Rajaji National Park – Ananda – Haridwar
- Early morning Jungle Walk
- Lunch at ‘Ananda in the Himalayas’ (or The Glasshouse on The Ganges)
- Walk on Hari Ki Pauri Ghat and Ganga arti at hotel
The day begins with another opportunity for wildlife viewing as we take an early morning guided jungle walk (or elephant ride if available).
After this taste of the type of jungle that inspired the writings of Rudyard Kipling, we then drive into the richly forested hills for a private lunch at the ‘Ananda in the Himalayas’ resort, which follows the principles of Ayurveda, the earliest Indian healing system. In Indian Ayurvedic understanding food should both tempt the palate and assist health and well-being, and here we will take in the wonderful views over the Ganges valley while enjoying a meal especially created for us.**
We then return to Haridwar to experience some of the extraordinary varieties of Hindu worship in and near our hotel, including the memorable evening worship of the river deity, when pilgrims set coconut boats filled with flowers and a burning candle afloat on the river to the accompaniment of sacred music. There is a reverential family atmosphere on the river-bank and you will be welcome to watch or join in as you choose.
You may also wish to spend more time wandering through the many colourful shops and stalls in the vicinity or enjoy a quiet evening looking out over the Ganges, with the campfires of the pilgrims and the flickering lights of temples illuminating the scene. River dolphins can often be seen swimming past. (Overnight Haridwar, Uttarakhand) BLD
** Our meal at the Ananda Restaurant is subject to confirmation, and may be replaced with lunch at The Glasshouse on The Ganges – set in a lychee and mango orchard of the Maharajas of Tehri Garhwal, with a garden of tropical plants.
Delhi - 1 night
Day 11: Wednesday 18 November, Hardiwar – Delhi
- Shatabi Express: Haridwar – Delhi (0625-1110)
- Afternoon in Delhi’s Connaught Place
In the morning we experience a fully-escorted journey across the rich agricultural plains of north India to the capital city, New Delhi. We will be travelling on India’s finest class of train, the Shatabi Express, which is still a very Indian experience. Indian railways are a unique blend of order and chaos, with ever-changing views of Indian life and culture both rich and poor, and the trip will offer us an unforgettable travel experience.
After transferring to our hotel we will have time to visit Connaught Place, the ordered and sophisticated centre of New Delhi. Shops include outlets for both modern and traditional Indian goods and fabrics, books, jewellery, and clothing as well as a variety of eating places and market stalls selling every conceivable item. In the evening we will relax over dinner at our luxury heritage hotel, The Maidens. (Overnight Delhi) BLD
McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala - 4 nights
Day 12: Thursday 19 November, Delhi – Dharamsala
- Fly Delhi – Dharamsala (SG2191 1130-1255)
- Introductory walk through bazaar
- Lecture: Tibet in Exile
After a mid-morning flight we arrive in the market town of Dharamsala and transfer to McLeod Ganj, (‘Little Tibet’), the small tree-fringed village above Dharamsala where the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan exile government have been based since 1959. We stay in a modern Tibetan-run hotel in the centre of the market area.
In the afternoon we will orientate ourselves with a leisurely walk through the bazaar and further our encounter with Tibetan Buddhist culture. The Tibetans are probably the world’s most successful refugee community, and they attract a constant stream of both Indian and foreign visitors to their vibrant town. Tibetans have always had a reputation for being keen traders, and lining the roads there are numerous shops and stalls with a fascinating range of Tibetan books, music, food and fabrics.
Following a lecture entitled ‘Tibet in Exile’, we dine together at the hotel. (Overnight McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh) BLD
Day 13: Friday 20 November, Dharamsala
- Tibetan Medical and Astrological Institute (Men-Tsee-Khang)
- Gamru Village School
- Lunch at Chonor House
- Tibetan Handicraft Centre
- Afternoon at leisure – optional forest walk
This morning we will learn about their medical system during a tour and talk at the centre for modern Tibetan medical practice. The Tibetan government in exile maintains both Western and Tibetan medical centres in Dharamsala, but their traditional medical practices have had considerable appeal internationally. They are also heavily involved in mind-body experimentation in collaboration with Western scientists and will be happy to share their knowledge of recent discoveries in this area.
While there are many wealthier and better schools in the area, we end our morning with a visit to a local village school where the children of migrant labourers from poorer regions of India receive their education courtesy of a small local charity. Here we will have the opportunity to interact with students who are tremendously keen to learn about the outside world.
Lunch is taken in the secluded gardens of Chonor House, the small but beautifully decorated Tibetan government hotel in the centre of McLeod Ganj.
After viewing the making of traditional Tibetan handicrafts, the remainder of the afternoon is free to wander in the bazaar. Alternatively you may wish to take a guided walk through the pine forests above the town where monkeys, langurs and pine-martins abound, and where we can take in the extended view over the plains below.
Dinner will be taken in a Tibetan restaurant. (Overnight McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh) BLD
Day 14: Saturday 21 November, Dharamsala – Kangra Valley – Dharamsala
- St John in the Wilderness, Forsyth Gunj
- Kangra Fort and Maharaja Sansar Chandra Museum
- Masroor Rock-Cut Temple
- Dorzong Jamchub Jong (monastery)
- Evening Performance: Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (subject to confirmation)
Today we travel out of McLeod Ganj, with a brief halt in the forest at the delightful little Christian church of St John in the Wilderness. Dharamsala was both a minor British hill-station and had a nearby army cantonment, and the graves of British colonial residents interred here include those of a former Viceroy of India and victims of earthquakes and bear attacks.
We then drive to the local Maharaja’s small and fascinatingly eclectic museum of his family and kingdom before touring the awe-inspiring Kangra fort. The largest in the Himalayas, it has stood on a rugged rock outcrop for more than 2,000 years.
We then continue our drive through the rugged Sivalik hills to visit the ancient Masroor rock-cut temple. The only one of its type in North India, it has been carved from solid rock monoliths, probably around 1500 years ago. Quite who built it, and why, remains a mystery.
In the late afternoon we take a guided tour of the spectacular new monastery of Jamchub Jong, which nestles below the snow-covered mountains. Another centre for the Kargyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism, it is a fabulous example of how traditional Tibetan architecture and decorative skills survive and are deployed in the modern world. If you have read books like Seven Years in Tibet you will recognise this other-worldly setting.
In the evening we will enjoy a modern Tibetan-style dinner and performance by the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts, which is dedicated to preserving the artistic heritage of Tibet. This will include a selection of both folk dances and Tibetan opera excerpts, and explanations of them. (Overnight McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh) BLD
Day 15: Sunday 22 November, Dharamsala
- Dalai Lama’s monastery complex (Namgyal Monastery)
- Lunch at White Haven Estate
- Events to be arranged
In McLeod Ganj’s Tibetan exile community they begin their day in the traditional way, twirling their prayer wheels as they walk a circular path around the grounds of the Dalai Lama’s monastery (the sacred centre of their journey). This morning we will join the throngs of worshippers. This temple (or tsuglakhang) is part of the Namgyal monastery complex, which is home to around 200 monks, as well as the private apartments of the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan government institutions. It includes a museum of modern Tibetan history that highlights the events that sent them into exile from China.
We will take lunch in the palatial gardens of White Haven estate, an old colonial property which was established in 1857 and has breathtaking views of the snow-capped Dhauladhar range above Dharamsala. We will have time to admire the atmospheric hunting trophies and old portraits on the walls before returning to McLeod Ganj for the afternoon program – which is currently under preparation. (Overnight McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh) BLD
Delhi - 1 night
Day 16: Monday 23 November, Dharamsala – Delhi
- Fly Dharamsala – Delhi (SG 2192 1315 – 1440)
- Lotus Temple (Bahá’í Temple), New Delhi
- Evening Farewell Meal
Following some time at leisure and perhaps a last visit to the bazaar, we transfer to the airport for our return flight to India’s bustling capital, Delhi, made up of ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Delhi. On arrival we transfer to The Claridges, one of British India’s best, which ranks with the Maidens Hotel for its atmosphere and service. Along the way we will see the vibrancy of a modern Indian city, with its extremes of wealth and poverty and its optimism for the future.
En route we visit the beautiful Lotus Temple, a Bahá’í House of Worship completed in 1986 which has won numerous architectural awards and been featured in hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles. The Bahá’í are a faith of Iranian origin that emphasises non-violence and harmony. The Bahá’í faith has found a home alongside similar Indian traditions. While less known than Delhi’s grand Mughal or colonial buildings, the Lotus Temple is a quiet and peaceful corner of the bustling city that deserves greater renown. Tonight we enjoy a farewell dinner in the atmospheric surrounds of our heritage hotel. (Overnight Delhi) BLD
Day 17: Tuesday 24 November, Depart Delhi
- Red Fort, Old Delhi
- Lunch: A final taste of Indian Cuisine
- Time at leisure
- Departure on SQ403 at 2200hrs
This morning after breakfast we visit one of India’s greatest buildings, the Red Fort. In 1639 the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan laid the foundation of a new capital to be named Shahjahanabad (now Old Delhi). At the eastern edge of the new city the Red Fort was constructed as his imperial citadel. Enclosed in vast formal and almost impregnable walls, it contains some of the finest examples of Mughal architecture, including a suite of grand audience halls and exquisitely chaste inlaid marble pavilions set in formal gardens with ornamental pools and fountains. After viewing this great monument and enjoying a final taste of Indian cuisine at lunch there will be some time at leisure before continuing to Delhi Airport for the return flight to Australia. BL