“Flowers are everywhere. The days are cold and the sun almost seems to play hide and seek with us”. - Rabindranath Tagore, poet, Nobel laureate writing on Darjeeling.
Darjeeling, nestled amongst the rolling Himalayan mountains, with Mt. Kanchenjunga towering over it, is one of the most beautiful hill stations in the north eastern part of India. It is a nationally and internationally renowned as a tourist destination, famous for its tea (called Darjeeling tea) and the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. Darjeeling is located in the state of West Bengal and can be reached by Rail and Air very easily. I visited Darjeeling along with my husband during summer vacations last year and was completely charmed by the beauty of this quaint hill station.
We took an express train to Siliguri (also called New Jalpaiguri) from Kolkata and landed next morning. Siliguri or New Jalpaiguri (NJP) is the base for travelling to Darjeeling and it is also the base to the other famous destinations in India such as Shillong, Sikkim and also to the neighboring countries of Nepal & Bhutan.
Depending on the season, one can hire a taxi at various rates (ranging from Rs. 500 to Rs.1000) from NJP taxi stand to Darjeeling town. It takes around 4 hour drive to reach Darjeeling from NJP. Alternatively one can ride the Darjeeling Himalayan Railways (popularly known as Toy Train) from NJP railway station to Darjeeling, but the journey will take 8 hours. The ride from the plains of NJP up the hill roads to Darjeeling was fun. We came across some rather sharp curves, drove alongside the tracks of the Himalayan Railways and admired the clouds playing in the clear blue sky.
All along the drive, we could see the rail tracks of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railways next to the road and I was wondering how any train could run on such a narrow gauge. Moreover, it was also very close to the settlements and people were going about their daily activities right on the track, a guy keeping his newly shined shoes to dry on the tracks, one woman cleaning utensils from the stream running adjacent to the track, sitting on it!! So on and so forth, it was as if the tracks and the DHR was such an integral part of their lives.
We reached Darjeeling around 11 in the morning and after quick refreshment, decided to check out the town. The town is quite busy, with lots of locals and tourists. Nevertheless, it has lovely views of the hills surrounding it and clouds playing hide and seek with the sun.
In Darjeeling, we first decided to check out Darjeeling Himalayan Railways (called DHR in short), which is a UNESCO world heritage and very popular with both national & international tourists. The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, nicknamed the “Toy Train”, is a 2 ft (610 mm) narrow gauge railway from New Jalpaiguri to Darjeeling in West Bengal, run by the Indian Railways. It was built between 1879 and 1881 and is about 86 kilometres (53 mile) long.
The DHR has a special joy ride which runs twice a day from Darjeeling to Ghum and back; it’s a 1 hour journey including stoppage at Ghum station and DHR museum entry at Ghum station. The tickets to this ride are available online and therefore it’s advisable to book them in advance as generally the seats are always full!!!
The Darjeeling station and the toy train itself is a work of beauty!! Built by the British, it has retained its old world feel and one is transported to the bygone era standing at the station and looking at the steam spewing engines with their quaint coaches.
Soon, it was time for our joyride, we took our seats inside the trains, clicked a lot of pics and not only us , all the co-passengers, young & old had turned into children in that train; all the passengers were getting in and out of the train, clicking pics from different angles.
When the train started to move, it was such a funny experience, as it was moving at a maximum speed of 10 km per hour!! But it was interesting too, at certain places, the houses and shops were so near to the rail track that I felt that could reach out my hand and grab the stuff displayed on the shop!!
The train’s whistling and billowing out white smoke at intervals was such an different experience, we felt transported back to the 1800s!! Chugging slowly, we reached Batasia loop, where the railtrack laid like a oval loop along a hillock and the Mt. Kanchenjunga can seen very clearly on sunny days. The loop is part of the UNESCO heritage site and has been preserved very beautifully, with rows of flowering plants, a memorial to gorkha soldiers and street furniture. Unfortunately, as we reached in the later part of noon, Mt. Kanchenjunga was covered with clouds and was not at all visible, the train master told us to visit the loop in the morning when the view is crystal clear!!
After the loop, we reached Ghum station, which at 7140 ft from sea level, is the highest railway station in the world. The train stopped for half an hour there and we spent our time in the Ghum rail museum, educating ourselves on the origin of the DHR, how much effort and time it took the British & Indians to actually make this railway line and keep it running till the present day!!!
Well, with new found respect for DHR, we came chugging back to Darjeeling!!!
It was late afternoon when we finished our joyride, so we had a quick lunch and slept off till evening. In the evening, we ventured into main town square (Chowrasta), checking out various tea shops, sampling the various teas and buying souvenirs. We ended our evening with a romantic dinner at an authentic Tibetian restaurant.
Next morning, we got up at before dawn around 3 a.m. and drove in complete darkness to Tiger Hill. It was chilly and windy when we got there, but around 300 people along with us had gathered there, to witness the amazing sunrise of Tiger Hill. The sunrise at Tiger Hill is one of the most renowned natural phenomenon in Darjeeling and it was amazing experience to watch the sun come up from behind the hills.
After witnessing the amazing sunrise at tiger Hill, we drove down to Batasia loop again and this time , as it morning and there were no clouds, we were fortunate to view the magnificent Mt. Kanchenjunga ; it was majestic and calm , if a mountain can ever be that!!
We then visited Ghum monastry, which is around 150 years old and has a maitree buddha statue….it was a nice experience watching young, children monks go about their morning duties, i think their life is not much different from average school kids!!
We came back to main town centre and went to a lovely cafe for our breakfast, after which we strolled around the main town Square/Chowrasta.
The Chowrasta is quite clean and lined with shops, restaurants, tea houses, curio dealers and hawkers. There are also pony wallahs and one can take a pony ride along the Chowrasta. All the important administrative, religious and social buildings of the town are also located along or near the Chowrasta.
Darjeeling is also home to the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI), which was headed for many years by Sherpa Tenzing Norgay (one of the first persons to climb Mt. Everest). The HMI has set up a museum, called Everest Museum which has good photographic and archival records of all attempts made to scale the world’s highest peak. The HMI also organizes rock climbing sessions, so for the adventure minded , this is a great way to spend time in Darjeeling.
There is also a zoological park in Darjeeling, called Padmaja Naidu Zoological Park, which has a number of interesting Himalayan animals. The zoological park also has a Leopard Breeding Centre and one can get a rare glimpse of this elusive creature in captivity.
By the time, we finished with our visit at the Chowrasta, Everest Museum and Zoological Park, it was time for dinner and some much needed sleep.
The next morning, which was our last day in Darjeeling, we drove down to Mirik, which is located near to Darjeeling town and is part of the Darjeeling district.
Mirik is home to the famous Darjeeling tea gardens and our drive was pleasant, with some lovely views of tea gardens, Mt. Kanchenjunga and river Teesta. We also visited a lovely lake in Mirik and set foot on Nepal territory, as Mirik & Nepal are just adjacent to each other.
After enjoying Mirik, we headed back to New Jalpaiguri (NJP) to catch our train back home with some lovely memories and wonderful teas & souvenirs. Darjeeling had been a memorable trip for us and we would reminiscence about it every time we sipped the wonderful Darjeeling tea back at our home!!