There’s more to this beautiful hill station than just tea estates and a picturesque setting. Here’s a guide to the enchanting Darjeeling.
It is spring and the last thing we wanted to do is plan a trip to Mussoorie, Manali or Mahabaleshwar. Because let’s face it, no one wants to spend hours stuck in traffic jams just to get there, then queue up to take a selfie at a waterfall or wait patiently outside for a table at that amazing restaurant your friend said you must visit. So, we decided to beat the crowd and head to Darjeeling instead. Now, we know what you are thinking. Why go all the way to West Bengal to see tea plantations and some hills when Munnar and Ooty are much closer and easily accessible? Well, because Darjeeling has a lot of offer. Here are just a few reasons it should be on your travel bucket list for 2020.
Sunrise at Tiger Hill
There is nothing quite as spectacular as seeing the sun rise over the tallest mountain in India, Kanchenjunga. On a good day, you can even see the Mt Everest. But the best things in life don’t come easy. So, we wake up at 4am on a chilly morning, bundle into sweaters and head to Tiger Hill to see what the hype is about. The last kilometre or so is an uphill climb to reach the viewing point. Tourists gather around us. The wait begins and the anticipation grows. Sunrise is at 5.45am. The sun looks like it will emerge a few times, but there’s no sunrise. Undeterred, we make the journey again the next day. Our patience and doggedness is rewarded. We reach just in time to watch the sky turn a brilliant blue while the first rays of the sun fall on the Himalayan range.
- Darjeeling Zoo: The main entrance to the zoo and the HMI are the same. You can see rare animals such as the red panda, snow leopard and Tibetan wolf here.
- Japanese Temple: It is built in traditional Japanese style. You can join the prayers and channel your inner peace while praying here.
- Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Centre: It was established in 1959 for the rehabilitation of Tibetans who followed the Dalai Lama and escaped their homeland. It works on the principle of self-help. Men and women make exquisite handcrafted items like woollen carpets, shawls, carved wooden crafts, leather items, etc. These can be purchased at an outlet at the centre.
- Local restaurants on Gandhi Road: Try momos, thupka, traditional Nepali Thali, Alu Dum, Dalle (local pickles), Naga cuisine, Kakra ko Achar and Kinema. Yummy!
Ride the toy train
Which kid has not loved a ride on a toy train while growing up? Darjeeling’s famous toy train runs on a 2 ft (610 mm) gauge railway between New Jalpaiguri and the hill station. Purchase tickets online to guarantee yourself a seat on it. If you do take the toy train, you will pass the magnificent Batasia Loop. This spiral railway was created to lower the gradient of ascent. The train stops here for a few minutes. Do get off to check out the flowering garden from where you can get an excellent view of the Kanchenjunga on a clear day.
One of the best ways to take in the panoramic sights of this beautiful hill station is by taking the Rangeet Valley Cable Car. Started in 1968, it is the first cable car system in India. It was initially set up to cater to the tea gardens in the valleys that did not otherwise have easy access. What began with just one cable car or a gondola, has now been upgraded to accommodate 16.
Once you are off, check out the breathtaking view of the valley below. You can spot lush green tea gardens on the hill slopes, flowing rivers, forests, waterfalls and the magnificent view of the Eastern Himalayan range.
Sherpa Tenzing Norgay’s feat was honoured by building the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI). Till date, it remains a must-visit place for professional climbers and trekking enthusiasts.
Don’t miss the personal gears and clothing of Norgay and the equipment used by Norgay and Hillary during the 1953 Everest expedition. And yes, do take a selfie against the wall with an impression of a mountaineer. The quote next to it reads: “May (you) climb from peak to peak”.
Take a stroll along Mall Road
What’s so special about this place, you ask? Well, this mountain walkway was once used by British families for leisure strolls to enjoy the best of views. Spot rhododendrons along the way, check out Bhanu Bhawan or St Andrew’s Church, or pass by the Raj Bhavan (summer residence of the governor of West Bengal) and Observatory Hill.
Plan your trip
The closest airport to Darjeeling is Bagdogra. The nearest railway station to Darjeeling is New Jalpaiguri. The DHR Toy Train service starts here. The road network in the area is quite good and one can easily head to Darjeeling from nearby cities like Siliguri, Kalimpong and Kurseong.
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