Yes, it is crowded and congested yet she is blessed with Mother Nature’s abundance. She is Darjeeling, not just the ‘Queen of Hills’ but also the ‘Queen of Hearts’. The mighty Kanchenjunga (8586 m) stands tall over the crowded city of Darjeeling like her guardian.
We enjoyed the 3 hours’ drive from New Jalpaiguri (NJP) to Darjeeling to the fullest via NH55. The drive in the plains was through the Sukna Forest and then as we started climbing uphill, the tea gardens took over. We took a break at the Roadies Café near Rohini (Kurseong Road) for some hot smacking momos. It was a great feeling to be sipping the steaming hot tea at the balcony of the café from where we could see a small waterfall. As we started climbing further up, the road meandered through sky high pines and the happy clouds gushed in to kiss our cheeks. We passed the Ghoom Railway Station, the highest railway station in India (2258 m). Then we could hear the legendary tooting sound of the Toy train and then the steam engine passed by us. It is a narrow gauge train which is a landmark of Darjeeling. It enjoys the UNESCO’s WorldHeritage Site Status. Besides the landmark Ghoom Station and the toy train, two other magnificent things seem to welcome us at the very entrance of the city – The Kanchenjunga at the left and the Druk Sangag Choeling Monastery or The Dali Monastery at the right.
We were as usual spoilt for choice when it came to food at Darjeeling. Finally we had mouth-watering Tibetan lunch at Kunga’s. The juicy dumplings, the soupy thukpa and the fried wai wai were mind blowing.
After lunch, we began to walk the Nehru road towards the Darjeeling Mall on which there are all the major eateries/restaurants and the shops and curios. It is a shopper’s Paradise whether you have limited or luxurious budget. You can shop warm clothes and accessories, gems and stones and real silver jewellery and also the ones which are fake but good. It is a repertoire of Tibetan art and crafts. Then I reached the Mall and sat on a bench soaking into the spirit of the place watching some local parade. Some performance or the other keep happening at the mall, creating a very festive environment. The Chowrasta Mall is the heart of Darjeeling.
We walked all around the mall, climbed the Observatory hill to the Mahakal Temple. After the steep climb over the Observatory Hill we reached the age old temple, built in 1765 by Lama Dorjey Rinzing. The temple is a peaceful amalgamation of Hinduism and Buddhism. Lord Shiva and Lord Buddha share the same temple site. There is also a Kali Temple. It is said that Darjeeling has derived its name from Dorjey-Ling, the Buddhist temple, built in 1765. In 1782 the 3 lingas manifested themselves and then the temple was rebuilt. The hill appears heavenly with mist and the pines and the sound off ringing bells and the colourful prayer flags fluttering all around.
After climbing down, we sat for some times with a cup of luxurious orange pekoe at Golden Tips, a famous tea shop at the Mall. Darjeeling tea is world famous. It is what single malt is to Scotland and Champagne is to France. The day ended with live music and dinner at Buzz (Basement of Glenary’s).
The next morning we started at 3.30am for viewing the gorgeous sun rise from the Tiger Hill, the highest point of Darjeeling Hills, 11 kms away from Darjeeling town, most popular for viewing Sunrise from hill top. The Sunrise painted the colossal Kanchenjunga and the other snow-capped East Himalayan peaks gold.
After such a fulfilling experience, it was important for us to fill our stomachs with breakfast at the legendary Keventer’s,the roof top cafe with Kanchenjunga view. Itwas even Satyajit Ray’s favourite. Their English breakfast and the hot chocolate are in great demand.We could see the famous Clock Tower, constructed in 1852, at the Laden La Road. The huge clock plays a lovely musical tone followed by the dings of the bell at every hour. Both Keventers’ rooftop and the Clock Tower featured in the Bollywood movie, ‘Barfi’.
After a fulfilling breakfast, it was time for site seeing. We first headed to The Padmaja Naidu Zoological Garden and the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. The zoo is not like most other zoos in India. It is the largest high altitude zoo in India. It is home to numerous endangered species like Red Panda, Tibetan Wolf, Snow Leopard, Siberian Tiger, Yak, Black Panther, Bengal Tiger and Himalayan Black Bear and many Himalayan birds and reptiles. I had seen red panda and snow leopard for the first time here. It is a conservation and breeding centre for these animals. WWF acknowledges it as one of the best conservation centres in the world.The Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI) is in the same compound. It is not only an institute to teach and promote mountaineering as a sport but also houses a museum, the Tenzing Memorial and the Tenzing Rock.
Then we went to the Llyod’s Botanical Garden which is a repertoire of Himalayan flora – Ferns and conifers, alpine vegetation, unique orchiderium housing 2500 orchids of more than 50 varieties, rhododendrons and beautiful flowers. It also has a greenhouse conservation of more than 150 species of cacti. The Weeping Willow triggered flashes of Hogwart’s Whomping Willow from Harry Potter in my mind.
We also visited Sister Nivedita’s house which is of historic significance.
The next in line was the Darjeeling Ropeway/ Cable Car.45 mins ride in the glass gondolaprovided breath-taking views of the lush green tea gardens and valleys below with glimpse of Kanchenjunga at times. Near the Ropeway station, we saw the grand North Point School and St. Joseph’s College. ‘Main Hu Na’ was shot in another grand school here in Darjeeling, St.Paul’s. Darjeeling boasts of some of India’s oldest and best convents.
Then we came back to the Mall again and had lunch at Glenary’s, a bakery of the 1950’s, with a world class café with an open air balcony with view of the mighty Kanchenjunga and a fine dining restaurant. It offers a plethora of choice of food. I felt I could spend a whole day, just sitting there in the open balcony, watching the snow peaked mighty Kanchenjunga and munching on various items from their patisserie.
After lunch we headed for Batasia Loop which is a lovely garden where the hallmark Toy Train rides in a spiral to pick up speed to climb up. From amidst the beautiful garden of lush green plants and lovely flowers, we got a clear view of Kanchenjunga. It is also a memorial to the Gorkha soldiers who lost their lives in India’s fight for Independence. The Toy Train ride definitely made my parents feel like Rajesh Khanna and Sharmila Tagore from Aradhana’s song, ‘Meri Sapnoki rani’. New age couples may feel like Saif Ali Khan and VidyaBalan from Parineeta’s song, ‘KastoMazza He Releima”. But definitely, even if you don’t take a ride, just watching and listening to the sounds of the Toy train is a remarkable experience and is going to reverberate in your memory often.
Peace Pagoda was our next destination.The visit to the Japanese Temple and the Peace Pagoda filled my heart with heavenly peace. The temple, nestled in the pine forest with four avatars of Buddha on the top is an epitome of peace and tranquillity. The misty environment with the continuous humming sound of the chants created a mystique ambiance.
From there we headed to the Rock Garden which is a park situated on the hill at Chunnu Summer Falls. It is a picturesque place, very good for fun and photo sessions.
The last stop was theTibetan Refugee Centre which is a self-helpcentrefor the Tibetan refugees and their families. We got the first hand feel of Tibetan life style. Besides panoramic view and a warm welcome by the people, the centre had a monastery, hill top shop for handmadewoollens, leather jackets and accessories. They weave carpets too and there are numerous souvenirs and handicraft items to buy. They also have a small restaurant offering mouth-watering Tibetan dishes.
I observed that Darjeeling has the perfect blend of the local culture, the old world charm and the modern day styles together with a plethora of choicesfor eating, shopping, lodging and touring, ranging from extreme luxury to pocket friendly economic options. This made my short trip to Darjeeling very memorable.