India

Finding Cooler Air in Darjeeling

We have been to many hill stations in India but Darjeeling has to be our favourite. At 2135m above sea level, Darjeeling offers a cool respite from the plains, something we were definitely looking forward to after a month in Central India.

Darjeeling lies in the state of West Bengal, very close to the borders of Sikkim and Nepal. In fact, most of the faces in Darjeeling are those of the Himalayan regions of Sikkim, Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan; the hill town is also full of influences from these parts. There are many Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and Tibetan is the main cuisine in town.

Surrounded by lofty Himalayan peaks, including Kanchenjunga (the third highest mountain in the world), Darjeeling offers some breathtaking views. Unfortunately for us, despite visiting in one of the two best seasons, the clouds stubbornly hung over town the whole time we were there. Though we caught a glimpse of the sunshine, we didn’t see a single snowy mountain when we were in Darjeeling.

Despite this we fell in love with the place, with its people, its scenery and its unique energy. We almost felt as though we were in Tibet, so different is Darjeeling from the Indian plains.

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Guru Sakya Gompa, Ghum

Ollie and I spent four days in Darjeeling; we had planned to do the five-day Singalila Ridge Trek but, owing to the lack of visibility, were forced to make alternative arrangements. The mist and fog was so bad at times that we could barely see a few metres in front of us. We will return to Darjeeling soon and do the trek when the views are clear and those incredible mountains create a magical panorama.

We spent our time exploring the town and its green surroundings; there are plenty of sights to see other than the mountains.

Here is what we did:

Day 1:

We got an early start and headed off on a circular hike to explore the Buddhist monasteries around the junction of Ghum, 7km southwest of Darjeeling. We visited Yiga Choling Gompa, Guru Sakya Gompa, Samten Choling Gompa, Druk Sangak Choling Gompa and Alu Bari Gompa, all very colourful and beautiful.

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Samten Choling Gompa, Ghum

On our way back into town we stopped to see the Batasia Loop, the famous railway loop that goes around the open-air War Memorial. This was built to commemorate those soldiers from the region who lost their lives in WW1 and WW2.

We also visited Dhirdham Mandir, near Darjeeling train station, the town’s most conspicuous Hindu temple that is a replica of Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu. We finished the day at the Japanese Peace Pagoda, one of more than 70 pagodas built around the world by the Japanese Buddhist Nipponzan Myohoji organisation.

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The Japanese Peace Pagoda

Day 2:

We started day two with a visit to Bhutia Busty Gompa. We then followed the path on to the Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Centre, which was established in 1959 after the Chinese occupation of Tibet. The centre is comprised of a home for the aged, a school, an orphanage, a clinic, a gompa and many craft workshops. There is also a very interesting photo exhibition that portrays the early years of the Tibetan refugees in Darjeeling.

We then headed up to Observatory Hill, which is sacred to both Hindus and Buddhists. At the top of the short flight of stairs is a small temple complex with several shrines and a flurry of colourful prayer flags.

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Temples and Shrines at Observatory Hill

From here it was just a short downhill walk to the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park, which also houses the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in its grounds. Though we aren’t usually fans of zoos, this particular one is pretty good; it is also home to the world’s largest single captive population of snow leopards.

The Himalayan Mountaineering Institute was founded in 1954 and has provided training to some of India’s leading mountaineers. The museum is very interesting; it’s possible to read about and see memorabilia from the 1922 and 1924 Everest expeditions, as well as from more recent summit attempts.

Day 3:

On day three we first went to the Rangit Valley Ropeway, taking a cable car down from North Point to the Takvar Valley Tea Estate. The journey down, and then back up again, offers stunning views over the tea plantation, the manicured bushes looking like giant broccoli on the mountain slopes.

We then hiked back up to Darjeeling via the Happy Valley Tea Estate and the Lloyd Botanical Gardens. Visiting the Happy Valley estate was amazing; we got lost among the tea bushes, marvelling at the endless emerald green carpet spread out before us. We enjoyed beautiful sunshine on this day; the sky was still hazy so there was no chance of seeing the mountains, but the mist cleared and blue sky appeared! It was a great last day in Darjeeling.

On day four we chilled out in town for half the day, before taking a jeep down to Siliguri to get our night train to Guwahati.

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Riding over the Takvar Valley Tea Estate

Where to Stay in Darjeeling

There are plenty of places to stay in and around Darjeeling. We chose Joshi’s Homestay, run by a local Nepali family. Staying here was wonderful; it felt like coming home every evening. We sat in the lounge, drinking steaming mugs of Darjeeling tea, chatting with the family or to other guests. The set-up is small and very well managed; they are also really knowledgeable and can tell you everything you need to know in order to plan full, busy days!

Food and Tea

There are many restaurants and cafes in town, many of which are Tibetan and offer traditional dishes for travellers to try. Nepali dal bhat is also on offer; Indian restaurants, however, are few and far between.

One thing we made sure we got plenty of in Darjeeling was the local brew, which was quite often served the British way – black with milk on the side. We are big fans of Darjeeling tea and in Darjeeling itself, we couldn’t have got it any fresher! The chai we enjoyed was also super tasty – much lighter than that of Assam, where we were heading next.

Getting to Darjeeling

In terms of getting to Darjeeling there are a few options; whichever option you take you’ll need to make it to Siliguri first. We flew from Delhi to Bagdogra airport (near Siliguri); you can also take a train to Siliguri (New Jalpaiguri station) from Kolkata or even Delhi. Once you reach Siliguri, which sits on the plains, you’ll need to make it up to Darjeeling in the hills.

Jeeps ply this route throughout the day, taking about three hours to cover the winding curves. It’s a pretty nauseating journey, so travel sickness tablets may be a good idea!

For something a bit slower, and a chance to enjoy the scenery, taking the legendary toy train is also an option. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the few hill railways still operating in India and Ghum station, which you’ll pass through, is the highest railway station in India.

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The Darjeeling Toy Train

If you visit Darjeeling one issue you’ll probably hear about is the proposed state of Gorkhaland, which the people of the Darjeeling hills are pushing to be created. Because the people in this area are culturally and linguistically different from those of the West Bengal plains, they want their own state with Nepali as the official language.

Several strikes and rallies have occurred over this issue, including just last week, when violence surged again. It remains to be seen whether the demands of the Darjeeling people will eventually come to fruition; dividing West Bengal to create a separate state has always been contentious.

From Darjeeling head over to Assam to start an awesome north-east adventure!

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