A Travel Guide to Darjeeling

Darjeeling, the Queen of the Hills


The best time to enjoy the Darjeeling hills is November-December. The weather is clear, and the views of the Kanchendzonga range are fabulous. Darjeeling can be reached by road after a three hour drive from Siliguri. There are regular taxis where you can book the entire car or book a seat for 100 rupees. The nearest railhead is New Jalpaiguri, a 12 hour train ride from Calcutta. Bagdogra is the nearest airport, with regular flights from Calcutta. For those who have time on their hands, the toy train is an excellent option since it allows you to savor the views at a much slower pace. However, for the weekend tourist, I would advises doing a toy train ride from Darjeeling to any of the three or four stations after it and then catching a ride back in the local taxis for as less as 10-20 rupees.


The drive to Darjeeling is a beautiful one. I am told that on a clear day, one can see the mountain range from Siliguri, but in my frequent visits, such a clear day has not befallen me. One leaves Siliguri, the last trading post in the plains, and passes through the foothills tea gardens and the forests of the terai, feeling the growing nip in the air, till you suddenly realize that you are looking down the hillside. The sal and semul give way to fig, cedar, birch and pine. If you have booked your own car, you can stop as you wish. After the monsoons, the several waterfalls on highway 55 make for a breathtaking experience. At a moderate altitude of 4860 feet, you come to Kurseong, the place of the white orchids. Kurseong offers the first view of the mountain range in the north behind the Ghoom ridge.


After stopping for the statutory tea (you get full flavored teas everywhere in the Darjeeling hills, whether the light liquors at the tea room at Glenary’s or the boiled and masala versions at the samosa and laddoo joints run by migrants from UP) and momos (tasty Tibetan dumplings that comes with meat or vegetable fillings) in or around Kurseong, the climb continues to Toong, Sonada and Ghoom, the highest rail road station in the world at 7400 feet, and then descends to Darjeeling. The bright colors of flowers that grow beautifully and effortlessly and everywhere will warm even the coldest of hearts as will the sight of chubby cheeked children walking to and from schools in the middle of nowhere.
Death by Darjeeling (A Tea Shop Mystery)The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway: Illustrated Guide for TouristsList of the Trees, Shrubs and Large Climbers Found in the Darjeeling District, BengalThe Darjeeling Limited
There are endless options to stay at Darjeeling from star comforts to budget hostels. It is advisable to go with a booking during peak season, especially if it is around holidays or festivals. At other times, it may make sense to go with a day’s booking and then scout around for something that suits your taste and pocket. A reasonably comfortable stay (bed and breakfast) would be at Rupees 800-1500 a day. If traveling into winter, a fireplace or a heater in the room is an added but commonly found luxury.

For those with eclectic food habits, Darjeeling offers and endless range of good food. Glenary’s, run by the Edwards offers excellent continental cuisine at their restaurant and tea room. For vegetarians, there is Hasty Tasty, an open kitchen outlet that offers equally good north and south Indian cuisine, a surprise indeed in the hills. Tibetan food joints abound, as do Jain and Marwari outlets. If you enjoy the Tibetan/Nepali/Sikkimese food, you may want to pick up some of the ingredients from the local market for your kitchen since much of it is not available in most of our cities.

If it is your first visit, go for the standard seven-point rides. These are packaged rides that take you to the usual tourist destinations, with manmade gardens, Tibetan refugee centers, tea plantations, the zoo, and the HMI thrown in. It is a wonderful experience, and since this is usually a full taxi hire, you can choose how much time you want to spend where. However, if you have already done the seven points and have days in hand, or if you are particularly turned off by the touristy packaging, a day trip each to Kalimpong and Kurseong, a sunrise at Tiger Hill, and a visit to Lloyds Botanical Garden and the Museum of Natural History are a must.

Kalimpong, at a temperate 1200 feet, is famous for its flower nurseries and for its view from Durpin Dara. The nurseries also boast a fine offering of cacti. The view from Durpin Dara is breathtaking with the entire range in front and the confluence of the Rangeet and Teesta rivers. The drive along the Teesta river is also a fabulous experience. For the brave hearted, white water rafting (grade II, III, and IV) is offered on the Teesta. Kalimpong is also known for its dairy products, I would recommend picking up some good cheese (hunt around, the variety and uniqueness is astounding), and some chocolate lollipop (called Father Booty’s, an excellent and unusual gift for kids back home).

Though famous today for its several reputed schools, Goethals, Victoria and Dow Hill among them, Kurseong has also been host to Sister Nivedita, Fazlul Haque, Tagore, and Atul Prasad Sen. Another resident was Netaji who was interned at a house in Giddapahar by the colonial government in 1936. Just under an hour’s drive from Darjeeling, and with regular shuttle taxis every few minutes, one can make a day trip very comfortably. The Kurseong market is a treat to all the senses, with its riot of colors and smells and of course people. Do not forget to check out the butter and the chilies. The day we were at Kurseong, the Lepcha community from all over the hills took out a procession demanding the inclusion of Lepcha language in the state education curriculum. Most of them dressed traditionally for the protest. It was heartening to see the passion with which they were defending their heritage and culture, but it also made one wonder about how globalization and the new economy was wiping out indigenous languages and the anthropological wisdom that lies in them. While in Kurseong, a drive down Pankhabari road is a good substitute for a roller coaster ride. This is the shortest and the steepest road from Siliguri to Kurseong and is replete with the tightest of turns and breathtaking views of the plains below. Kurseong is also home to some excellent tea gardens and most of them have outlets manned by knowledgeable and helpful staff who can guide you to an appropriate selection. A must see at Kurseong is the forest museum at Dow Hill, showcasing the wildlife and fauna of the region.
Tiger HillsWoman Tea Picking, Goomtee Tea Estate, Kurseong, West Bengal, India Photographic Poster Print by Jane Sweeney, 24x32Rainbow Road: From Tooting Broadway to Kalimpong: Memoirs of an English BuddhistDark Road to Darjeeling
The Tiger Hill sunrise comes packaged as a wake up knock on your door and a drive past Ghoom in the darkness of the night. At 8500 feet, this point offers a spectacular view of the ranges as the rays of the rising sun hits them. Try to go early, at least 15-30 minutes before sunrise, so that you can position yourself with a view of the range in the west. The government has made an enclosed viewing gallery with large glass windows (and tea and cookies) that allows you to watch this from warm comfort, but if you really want to enjoy it, you will want to be outside and at the rails, but be warned, if you are late, you will be crowded out. It is freezing cold, go as well protected as you can. One can see Kanchendzonga, Makalu, and Everest, and it is a wonder to see the tips of the peaks come alive like red light bulbs as the sun rises, and then bleed downward. My preoccupation with capturing this on camera and the oohs and aahs of the audience reminded me of Buddhadeb Bose’s 1938 poem. “Click click click,/murmured the forest of cameras,/and the audience praised./ Cries of delight in sharps and flats:/look, look, did you see!/Oh how lovely! Really wonderful! -/rolled the Feringhee English./Nothing was omitted:/fire on all the snow-peaks from the north to the west,/rainbow colours on the cloud’s blue-black body,/the money recovered, the trouble worth it./The face with make-up cadaverous in the clear light of day.” Not much has changed. My tip for Tiger Hill – go early, return late. The daylight gives you a better view of the range and the view below, and anyway, the exiting traffic doesn’t clear for some time, so you save on the time you would have been stuck in the car.

The botanical gardens is a walk down from the Motor Stand. It is a 40-acre park that is a delight for plant lovers. There are separate sections for orchids and cacti and succulents. There are plants from all regions, including those from Europe, Africa and the Americas. For the casual visitors, the range of colors on bloom as well as the number of varieties of flowers is astounding.

Though offered on most packages, the Natural History Museum at Darjeeling tends to get sidelined as something that can be missed. However, it is an incredible collection, and well worth a visit. Till I saw this, I never imagined that there were so many different kinds of insects, animals, birds, fish and reptiles in our own backyard.

Of course, one of the most important activities while in Darjeeling is sitting at the chowrasta or at any of the shelters on mall road and doing nothing. A sunny seat with a good book is a wonderful (and important) way of spending an afternoon. The other important activity is going on destinationless walks. It takes one day to get the gait right for the hills and another to get the aching calves to agree to keep going, but once you have got it, all you need is a hillside.
In Praise of Idleness: And Other Essays (Routledge Classics)Murder in the High Himalaya: Loyalty, Tragedy, and Escape from TibetHidden HimalayasThe Darjeeling Limited (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
Every time I visit Darjeeling, I hear the familiar lament of how crowded it is and how rapidly development is devouring the beauty of the town. However, the Queen of the Hills remain just that and every visitor to her court returns refreshed and rested and with memories that will never fade.

11 comments:

  1. Read it again. memories tumbled out of a jar like candies.we were there between 1966 and 1970.you were almost 4 when we left Darjeeling.
    Recently subroto chaudhuri has been writing a lot on Darjeeling in the Statesman.He is my cousin's husband.It seems they had gone for their honemoon there and since then fell in love with the place.
    I remember going to the college early in the morning through dense fog in February . I remember the rhododendrons and Tagore's poem on them. I remember a little toddler fetching his milk from Keventer's and the cakes from Glenary's on your first four birthdays.
    I remember our flight to Tagda during the peak season when you met calcuttans at every corner whom you have not seen for ages in calcutta.
    I sure was glad to see in today's paper that tourists are being assured that there will be no problem if they go to Darj. hope to go there once more in this lifetime. When I cant sleep I just have to shut my eyes and roam through the streets of Darj.go down to the Botanics ,look out of the window to catch the glorious,panoramic view of the kanchan jangha or knit sitting in a bench in the mall and feel the soothing hand of Darj lulling me to sleep.

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  2. I remember my short visit to Kurseong to see an uncle who was admitted in the sanatorium there .. remember going down a hill and squabbling with those rosy cheeked kids .. it was ages ago, and I am sure things must be completely different today ..BTW, I wish there were pictures with your descriptions!

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  3. some pictures here. http://goo.gl/qgzzd

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  4. very informative!
    hope to make it some day!

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  5. An explicit write up! On the note it sounds lovely, unfortunately my trip to Darjeeling last year wasn't as fascinating. I remember visiting the Queen as a child and the one last year were poles apart. Tourism has ruined the cleanliness and aura of the hills. It is now highly interrupted and commercial. I didn't feel like I was visiting a hill station.

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  6. I am late by some years, but I want to appreciate how nicely you have described the place.

    It all came back, but the special memory is for visit to Tiger hills, sitting near the road at 3 a.m. , walking on the steep road, with my kids tugging behind us, the sight of those peaks, the cold..Unforgettable.
    The trip down the roads, along with Teesta river, was memorable.

    Thanks for stirring up the memory.

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  7. @Ruchi - In spite of all the inroads made by commerce and urban life, Darjeeling continues to have a charm all of its own, and especially if you go during peak winter, it is still a Queen of sorts. Thanks for dropping by and sharing your thoughts.

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  8. @Vetrimagal - So glad that you discovered this post after all this time and liked it. There is no other place that I have such a strong attraction for as I do for Darjeeling. I spent my very early years there, but my memories are all from later visits. The Teesta route is indeed one of the most beautiful hill drives anywhere in India.

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  9. Oh man you've summed up everything in a single post which I've been struggling to do even in multiple posts... in this context I remembered the advice of my school bengali teacher... she always insisted on writing long long paragraphs, as much we could write.... her logic was we were no Rabindranath to sum up a topic wonderfully just in ten lines :-D
    Darjeeling is darjeeling (from a bong sentiment) but honestly and quite unfortunately darjeeling was never a part of bengal, be it politically, socially, culturally, economically or even linguistically :-)

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    1. Thanks, Anunoy. I must admit that your posts on the hills are much more objective and informative, while mine are, and perhaps will always remain, utter emotional blabber.

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  10. Darjeeling is one place that I have had on my list to do! It looks beautiful there. Great write up, makes me want to go there even more :-)

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