After coasting along the Indian plains over the past several months, Madhu and I were looking forward to the hills! From Kolkata we booked 2 seats on the Kanchankanya Express, which originates at the city’s Sealdah station at 8:30 PM and pulls into Siliguri junction at the base of the Darjeeling hills at 8 AM the following morning. To our dismay the train was delayed by nearly 4hrs and didn’t get to Siliguri until 11:30am the next day; it was a horrendously tiring journey!
From the taxi stand outside Siliguri Junction station, we boarded a shared jeep (Rs.100 per head) that drove us to Darjeeling and the route was absolutely scenic. Along the way, the jeep stopped at a small way-side restaurant for lunch where we had a wonderful meal of rice, dal, vegetables, momos and chicken & mutton curries (yeah, we were super hungry!). As we stepped out of the restaurant, refreshed by both the meal as well as the crisp mountain air, we realized how much we loved the hills; we were thrilled to be back amongst them!
The town of Darjeeling was established by the British in the mid-19th century and soon tea plantations cropped up around it to take advantage of the fabulous weather conditions. Today it is hailed internationally as one of the top producers of the best black tea in the world. The tea plantations have added to the gorgeous landscape of the hill-station, which has become very popular amongst domestic and international travelers alike. Add to that other attractions like the UNESCO World Heritage listed Darjeeling Himalayan Railway and spectacular views of the Kanchenjunga mountains, and the town is now rightfully called the Queen of the Hills!
We checked into a fabulous little hotel called ‘Revolver’ and spent 4 days in Darjeeling pleasantly surprised by its quaint little town center, tea lounges and spectacular mountain views. But the intensity of the winter weather completely took us by surprise! After the heat of the plains, the chill, though pleasant to many, was a little too much for us and even though we ran down to the market to buy sweaters, hats and gloves, both Madhu and I were immediately struck with a terrible cold and cough. Oh well!
Darjeeling‘s town center has the quintessential Mall Rd where all the shopping and cafes are centered. There are many street stalls here selling reasonably-priced, hand-woven woolens (for unprepared tourists like us), Tibetan-style jewelry (my favorite!) and local handicrafts. On our first day in town we strolled through here, shopped a bit and then walked about half an hour further north, passing several beautiful British-era buildings, including a pretty church. We eventually got to the Himalayan Zoological Park, with the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI) located within the same grounds.
The zoo, though small, is surprisingly quite nice. It’s a well- maintained park with a few stores near the entrance and a caf © at the back near the HMI’s entrance. We loved the beautiful leopards, tigers, wolves, black bears and red pandas it housed, and had a fun time peeking into all the enclosures. Madhu got some gorgeous shots of the animals! This was the first zoo we’d visited during our entire India trip!
Established in 1954 as an institute to promote the art of mountaineering, the HMI conducts training programs on basic to advanced mountaineering skills and is a highly renowned institute of the country. For casual visitors like us, it houses a nice museum of sorts, which displayed information on the numerous expeditions to scale Mount Everest: profiles of the team members, their gear and the story of their attempt – it was very interesting! But what I liked best was a large model of the Himalayan and Karakoram mountain ranges with peaks highlighted and a lighted display of the rivers that originate from them – it went a long way in making me understand the layout of the mountains in these northern parts.
On our way back from the zoo, we walked along Mall Rd’s eastern edge, which gave us unbelievably gorgeous views of the twin peaks of Kanchenjunga. The govt has placed metal seats and shelters by the cliff-side from where visitors can sit and gaze out at the beauty before them. It was a lovely street to stroll along in and we enjoyed it in spite of the chill in the air.
But for the best views of these mountains, we woke up at 4 AM the following morning and took a taxi (arranged by the owners of Revolver) to Tiger Hill. Since it wasn’t really peak tourist season and since I didn’t really expect the few fellow tourists to wake up at such an unearthly hour, I was looking forward to a peaceful and calming experience of watching the sun rise majestically over the hills. But I was soooooo mistaken!!! When we got to the top of Tiger Hill the place was already completely packed with vehicles and the place was swarming with people. Our car couldn’t get to the parking area at the very top, so we had to alight a little below and walk up the rest of the way.
Entry tickets are charged for the viewing points at the top. A general ticket of Rs.20 allowed us entry to the open-air viewing platform from where we could get great views. There was also a double-storied, glass-enclosed structure, which had an entry ticket of Rs.40. Our driver advised that the general ticket was the best as it afforded better views. That may be true but the glass enclosure would have definitely protected us from the vicious 3degree Celsius weather .
To say that Tiger Hill was crowded with barely enough space to plant a foot would be an understatement! I was super-cold and super-irritated with the maddening rush and wondered if it was really going to be worth it. Local women walked around with large flasks of hot, steaming coffee from which we gratefully gulped down a few glasses for a premium price of Rs.10 each. When the first rays of the sun lit the sky everybody oohed and aahed but I was still not impressed and kept wishing I was back in bed. But a few minutes later, the sun rays touched the tip of the Kanchenjunga Mountains and it turned a little pinkish-orange; that took our breath away! And then slowly the color spread down the cliff face and it was the most beautiful sight ever! Almost at the same time, another snow-clad peak in the distance turned pink and glowed in the morning light. This was Mount Everest! Tiger Hill is the only place in India where one can view both the peaks. And to see them like this, in all their glory, was just unbelievably mind-blowing! Even though I was still super-cold and very uncomfortable, this fabulous sight made it worth the effort and my mood thawed considerably!
On our way back from Tiger Hill, we stopped at the Yogachoeling Gompa in the village of Ghoom and visited the small prayer hall within. It enshrines a beautiful, 15ft high statue of the Maitreya Buddha. Its walls have lovely murals as well but they were a little hard to appreciate because of the crowds thronging the hall yep, most of the Tiger Hill visitors who had hired private taxis for the ride up the hill had stopped by the monastery as well!
About a kilometer down the hill from the monastery is the lovely Gurkha War Memorial. It’s a small garden with a large platform in the center dedicated to the numerous Gurkha soldiers who were martyred while fighting for India. Visitors are not allowed to climb the platform, which is just as well – it looks quite pretty from afar, especially with the fabulous Kanchenjunga mountains framed behind. The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway’s joy ride train makes a loop through this garden and stops as well for a few minutes.
That day, after the early morning assault of cold winds and super-cold temperatures, Madhu and I came down with a terrible cold and, except for a short walk around town, we stayed indoors most of the time to recuperate. I’m so glad that we had found such a comfortable place to stay¦
On our last day in town, we walked for about 30minutes to the Happy Valley Tea Estate. It is located near the northwestern end of town, with the tea-producing factory a kilometer down a dirt-track from the main road. This last bit is surrounded by tea plantations all around and was a scenic and fun walk down (can’t say the same about the hike back up!). At the tea factory, we were shown around the premises and the entire tea-producing mechanism was explained. We learnt that Happy Valley has many such estates and factories spread all around Darjeeling – this particular one was just the tip of the iceberg! They are exclusive suppliers of Darjeeling tea to UK’s famed retail store – Harrods – we were suitably impressed! I was hoping that the factory would also have a ‘tea tasting’ lounge or caf © (would have surely helped the cold!) but there was none of that. After the tour of the factory we walked around the tea plantations hoping to watch how the tea leaves are actually hand-picked. Unfortunately, since we had started out late (blame the cold for it just couldn’t wake up!), we got to the tea estate around noon when the tea-leaf-pickers went on their lunch break . We sat around for a while enjoying the beautiful scenery, fed a stray dog (this has been our favorite pastime in India) and then trudged back up the hill all the way back to the town center – quite an exercise!
For some tea tasting, there are a couple of nice lounges in Darjeeling. One is Nathmull’s Sunset Lounge at the Chowrasta junction and the other is Glenary’s, which is on Nehru road nestled between street-side stalls. Both are great places to relax with a big pot of tea nibbling on snacks, although, I preferred Nathmull’s over the other. However, in terms of actual tea-tasting, neither could beat our evening at Kolkata’s Dolly’s Tea Shop! Sigh!
After tea and a light lunch at Glenary’s Madhu and I walked back to our hotel but the day was too pretty to be spent indoors. So we continued walking uphill past the hotel. As we climbed higher the scenery simply got prettier and prettier. After nearly half an hour we passed an area called Lal Kothi and reached the fabulous Nipponzan Myohoji Peace Pagoda. Just like most of the other ones in India, the peace pagoda here was built by the Japanese in 1972. Till date, we’ve visited two others – the Shanti Stupas of Leh (Ladakh region, Jammu & Kashmir) and Dhauli (Bhubaneswar, Orissa). Here, however, we were in for a different experience! A simple Buddhist temple sits before the Stupa and when we visited it, we found 4 monks (3 men and a woman) engrossed in chanting the Japanese words ‘Na Mu Myo Ho Ren Ge Kyo’. To our amazement one of the monks saw us approaching and invited us to sit in with them and chant the words along with beating its rhythm on a small hand-held drum. It was an amazing experience and one that we enjoyed tremendously.
The peace pagoda has four beautiful statues of Lord Buddha and lovely stone panels depicting scenes from his life. Unlike the mediocre craftsmanship of the Stupa in Leh, here the work was exquisite and of the highest quality. The views from here were fabulous too! We thanked our stars for accidentally stumbling upon this lovely site!
The only thing left to experience in Darjeeling was the train ride. But we didn’t want to be bored on the 8hr long one from Siliguri to Darjeeling. So we had planned on trying the 2hr ‘Joy Ride’, which is a round-trip from Darjeeling on the famed train. However, we had no such luck! The Gorkhaland supporters decided to go on a strike while we there, stopping all train rides in and out of town . All we could do was take pictures of the pretty, British-era station and a marooned train before leaving.
Madhu and I are not big fans of India’s hill stations as they are usually very crowded and quite kitschy. But since it wasn’t really peak season in Darjeeling we enjoyed walking its quaint streets with fabulous views of the mighty Kanchenjunga and tasting the yummy tea! So it was a fun visit although, I wish it hadn’t been that cold!