Do the 7-point tour -- and everything in between -- in Darjeeling

Do the 7-point tour -- and everything in between -- in Darjeeling
Shops on the Mall in Darjeeling sell Tibetan curios such as masks, Photo Credit: Nilayan Dutta
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Sightseeing around this heritage hill station is easy. But give yourself time to enjoy doing nothing, too

Annie M. Mathews
September 30 , 2014
11 Min Read

The Queen of the Mountains may not have a sprightly spring in her step in the misty rains but that crown still sits firm on her dainty head. While it would have been unbelievably shocking if Darjeeling had not changed since 1978, which is when I last visited it, it was still a surprise that though the bustle and numbers have multiplied exponentially in these two decades, it doesn’t seem to have degenerated into an ugly, loud, brash and dirty hill town, replete with grubby fast food joints, rook-the-tourist smooth-talking operators and all-the-world-is-a-garbage dump policy with hillsides of plastic packets. Neither, despite the rains that make it ‘off-season’ for most tourists, is it empty, dank, sinister or boarded-up. On the contrary, there is a constant throng of cheerful souls going about their business through the day and a gentle winding down into a dark, peaceful and early night.

Darjeeling, at an elevation of 7,000ft, was gifted to the East India Company by the King of Sikkim in the 1800s. Like many other hill stations in India, Darjeeling was essentially developed by the British as a sanatorium for its troops — judging by the number of such locations, one would have to assume that the British troops were a fairly sickly sort, in constant need of rest and recreation to recuperate from the task of managing the hot and hoary plains of India. Darjeeling thus also served as the summer getaway for the Raj officers from a scorching Calcutta, which served as capital till 1931. The further development of the area with the establishment of tea estates brought a large influx of workers from Nepal who are now well entrenched into the indigenous set-up of Darjeeling. Add to that the Tibetan refugee centres and Buddhist monasteries, stately institutions like St Paul’s, St Joseph’s and Loreto Convent schools, the local hill tribes and migrants from the plains and you have a pretty mixed bag. But it is, to all appearances, a joyful place — in the medley of languages, customs and religions is an abiding courtesy that extends to negotiating narrow winding roads with quiet patience and minimal fuss, honking or argument.

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During the ‘off-season’ rainy months of June to September — sometimes extending to October — some of Darjeeling’s prime attractions are obscured from view. With the surrounding clouds and mists, famed viewpoints like Tiger Hill (at 2,590m), which would give you uninterrupted sightings of the Everest and Kangchendzonga peaks during clear months, would not yield anything much. You would have to content yourself with a visit to the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI) and regale yourself on photographs of the exploits and feats of Tenzing Norgay, Sir Edmund Hillary and various other intrepid souls who dared to take on unimaginable odds to scale up to the abode of the gods. You could also visit the Tenzing and Gombu Rock, natural formation training rocks on which Tenzing Norgay did his training and which is still used to initiate beginners into the art of climbing.

The approach to the HMI is through the Padmaja Naidu Zoological Park, again a ‘must visit’ in Darjeeling. In wired enclosures, at stone’s throw, are some of the most fascinating, dreaded and ferocious beasts, or most endearing or colourful creatures. Majestic tigers, leopards, wolves, yaks, bears, red pandas, brightly-plumed pheasants...

Sightseeing in Darjeeling is a simple affair in terms of definition. It has been divided into an idiot-friendly ‘point’ system that is offered by all the cars on hire there, and a great deal is also easily accessible on foot, depending on where you stay. You have 2 points, 3 points, 5 points or 7 points, each of these programmes being worth a half-day visit (or more or less depending on you), with the cost depending on the distances, number of points and vehicle of choice.

2 points: A little less than an hour’s drive from Darjeeling is Gangamaiya Falls —  built over a cascade of rapids descending swiftly down boulders and rocks, it is a neatly set-up winding verdant garden with flashes of red and magenta flowers. The pockets of benches and pergolas are interconnected by a series of criss-crossing and arched bridges. You could head towards a designated area of calmer waters where boating takes place during season and, across, a row of little restaurants offering all manner of fare and Bollywood music, or flee in the opposite direction towards the calmer call of nature. Closer to Darjeeling on the same route (a mere 8km away but the winding mountain roads translate that into a half-hour drive) is the Rock Garden, which would roughly be the vertical equivalent of Gangamaiya. Neatly paved steps and gently inclined paths lead higher and higher into a steep cliff face with cascading waterfalls. Stop points occur at regular intervals with benches and uniformed monkey figures proffering dustbins.

3 points: First among these is Tiger Hill of the fabulous views of the highest snow-capped peaks, best visited at sunrise on a clear day. The Batasia Loop is a bit of an engineering marvel where the toy train from Darjeeling to Siliguri takes a miraculous twist and turn of a circle and chugs away disappearing behind a belch of its black smoke. In the midst of the circle is a war memorial to the late soldiers of the soil of Darjeeling. The Ghoom Buddhist Monastery, a short distance away, is a bustle of activity with monks of all ages scurrying about their business. In the midst of this, in a large, colourful and peaceful hall (open to visitors but not to cameras) is an impressive 15-foot Maitreya Buddha.

5 points: The Dhirdham Temple is built pagoda-style, entirely modelled on the Pashupatinath temple of Kathmandu. The Natural History Museum has a comprehensive display of Himalayan fauna. The Lal Kothi, once the property of the Maharaja of Coochbehar, can now only be seen from the outside as it now functions as the office of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council. The Ava Art Gallery displays the exquisite embroidery of Mrs Ava Devi. The pristine white Japanese Peace Pagoda built by the Nipponzan Myohoji Buddhist sect was opened to the public in 1992.

7 points: The country’s highest and longest ropeway was closed for a while following an accident, but service restarted later and the cable car runs between Singla Bazar and Singamari, the latter about 3km from Darjeeling Chowk Bazaar, with panoramic views of the river Little Rangeet. The Himalayan Moutaineering Institute and the Zoological Park are open to the public throughout the year. Training sessions can be watched on the Tenzing and Gombu Rock during clement weather. The Lebong Race Course, possibly the smallest and highest in the world, is another point on this trip. Tibetan carpets, handicrafts, clothes and paintings are on sale at the Tibetan Refugee Centre and, in the first half of the day, you can watch the women expertly wield their traditional looms at the workshop. A fleeting, perhaps unfounded, impression makes me wonder about the longevity of these skills. While the shop was tended by young, affable Tibetan women, the experts wielding the looms varied from middle-aged to as old-as-the-hills but with no youth learning their talents at their feet... Also in the clubbing of 7 points is the mandatory visit to one of the many tea estates of the region.

Around and about are various other possibilities — trekking in Sandakphu, Phalut or Takdlas, day trips to the neighbouring towns of Mirik, Kurseong, Kalimpong...

But judging or doing Darjeeling by points alone would be missing the point entirely... You could dash around from sight to sight or slow down and settle into a mountain pace. Put your feet up at the Lloyd Botanical Gardens. Offer up a prayer at the shrines on Observatory Hill. Enjoy the crisp air or sprinkling rain, sharp blue or laden grey skies, wispy or angry clouds and take a leisurely stroll down the Mall Road, dawdle at Chowrasta circle where all festivities begin and end and little children are taken around on little ponies, browse through Ashok Bazaar with its endless array of slippers and umbrellas, where vendors and wares from all the neighbouring towns lumber up in tractors by eight in the morning and wind up early afternoon. If you have come with more serious shopping in mind, try the Mahabal Palace on Laden-la Road, with its Tibetan handicrafts, curios, clothes and more, much more.

Have a leisurely freshly brewed tea and desultory chat at one of the local shops, settle down to a substantial meal in a restaurant with a view. Enjoy a sundowner against the brilliant sunsets till darkening skies gently mask the magnificent looming mountains. Basically, let go the aimless purposefulness of the urban mind and let your mountain hair down. Darjeeling needs to be absorbed in long, deep breaths!

The information

Getting there

AIR: The nearest airport is Bagdogra, which is well-connected with most major cities. From Bagdogra airport, pre-paid taxis can be hired, and take about 3hrs 30mins to reach Darjeeling. RAIL: The nearest railway station is New Jalpaiguri. Fares and schedules at www.indianrail.gov.in. From New Jalpaiguri, the journey can be made by road or by the leisurely seven-hour toy train that winds through the scenic mountains.

Where to stay

The small but popular hill town of Darjeeling has every variety of accommodation possible, from budget youth hostels, guest houses and tourist lodges to luxury and heritage hotels. During season, all these places are fairly bursting at the seams and you would do well to book in advance; but there are some great bargains to be had during off-season and most hotels also offer packages. Among the more popular of the higher end is Hotel Windamere (www.welcomheritagehotels.in/hotel-overview/windamere-darjeeling), a grand old heritage hotel from the 1930s Raj era, as famed for its genteelness as its views. The New Elgin (www.elginhotels.com/DOCS/darjeeling.php) is another lovely colonial-era hotel. Hotel Mayfair Resort (www.mayfairhotels.com/mayfair-darjeeling) was once the summerhouse of the Maharaja of Nazargunj. This pleasant bungalow is also close to the thick of the action at Chowrasta. Cedar Inn (http://cedarinndarjeeling.com) has pride of location, placed loftily above the Darjeeling Ridge. Shangri-La Regency (www.shangri-la-regency.com) offers modern comforts and its rooftop lounge and bar affords panoramic views of the mountains. It is located close to Mall Road. For simple but functional rooms and a mountain view, try Hotel Sinclairs Darjeeling (www.sinclairshotels.com/darjeeling).

What to see & do

You can’t be in Darjeeling and not visit a tea plantation. Try the Happy Valley Tea Estate for a tour of the factory; the plucking and processing takes place between April and November.

Tiger Hill offers a wonderful panoramic view of the Himalayas. Although it’s a popular tourist destination, particularly for sunrise, it’s well worth it.

Check out the Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Centre, which along with a school, orphanage and clinic, offers craft and gompa workshops for woodcarving, leatherwork, carpet weaving and more. You can buy the handicrafts at the showroom.

The toy train is otherwise known as the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway and is one of the few hill railways still functional in India. If the seven-hour journey is too daunting, there are two-hour ‘joy rides’ (Rs 240) also available. It’s a popular trip, so book in advance.

Another must-do is a visit to a Buddhist monastery — one of the most picturesque is Bhutia Busty Gompa, which houses the original manuscript copy of the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

Where to eat

There are little hole-in-the-wall eateries in plenty everywhere, and then the more regulation establishment restaurants particularly around the popular Chowrasta, down Nehru Road and Laden-la road. There’s something for everybody, from pure vegetarian offerings to Chinese, Continental, Tibetan (often all of the above under the same roof); fast food at Hasty Tasty, leisurely meals at the Mayaloo. The popular Keventer’s terrace essentially caters to foreigners or breakfast fiends — its all-day menu lists pages of permutations and combinations of eggs, sausages and bacon. At the left-over-from-another-time Glenary’s Bar and Restaurant, you could have a Continental sizzler (or Indian or Chinese). Wherever you go, chances are you won’t go wrong; but be warned — food tends to come in large helpings everywhere, no doubt to assuage mountain air appetites.

Top tip

Trainspotters always break into locomotive breath at the mention of Darjeeling, and of late another tribe of fetishists has been panting over the local Land Rover taxis. These venerable workhorses are antique — they’ve been in the hills since the 1950s. And apparently the LWB (long wheelbase) models are rare. But thanks to their aluminium construction, they show no signs of decrepitude. Catch a ride in one to see what all the fuss is about.


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