Darjeeling! The name in itself is enough to evoke visual imagery of verdant tea gardens, of a small train chugging excitedly up a hilly terrain, of a romantic hill station nestled high up in the mountains.
No wonder we were feeling very excited when we landed in Bagdogra, the nearest airport from where Darjeeling is a 65 kilometres drive. We collected our baggage and were out of the airport in a jiffy looking out for a placard that would bear our names. We located him easily as there were not many people around, he wore a boyish grin as he greeted us and introduced himself as Budesh, our driver, guide and companion for a week as we set off on a sojourn to explore the North Eastern region of India, we proposed to cover Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Gangtok, Pelling, Ravangla, Nathula and some other places on this trip.
TIP You can get a pre-paid taxi from Bagdogra Airport to Darjeeling.
On the road to Darjeeling
Without much ado, we were soon off for our rendezvous with romantic Darjeeling which nestled up in the Lower Himalaya region. as we left the airport , the sun had already begun its western descent though it was still around 16.00 hrs. in the evening. The sun would set around 17.00 – 17.30 hrs.in the evening in these parts was what Budesh informed us.
We made good speed and soon left the dusty town of Bagdogra far behind and soon passed the Military Camp area. After this the landscape changed dramatically and soon we had our first glimpse of the tea gardens. Our friend Budesh gestured at the tea gardens and informed us that Bagdogra itself was surrounded by tea gardens and there were tea estates all around the town. Very soon we crossed the city of Siliguri and noticed that we had started our climb upwards as the road curved. We stopped at a road side eatery for some freshly brewed tea and cookies, and looked upwards at the lights of the town of Kurseong glittering in the dark. Yes, the sun had set and it was dark. I looked at my watch, it was 17.30 hrs. in the evening. We resumed our journey and traveled in awed silence as we breathed in the fresh mountain air and marveled at the landscape unveiling before us.
We reached Darjeeling by 20.00 hrs. and checked in to the hotel.
After an early dinner retired for the night excited in anticipation of what the morrow would bring for us. We had been warned by Budesh to be ready by 3.30 AM ! as we had to travel to Tiger Hill to catch the sunrise.
We woke up quite early and after sipping some authentic Darjeeling tea were ready for our early morning trip to catch the glory of the rising sun from the view point at Tiger Hill. Tiger Hill is about 11 kilometres from Darjeeling town and accessible by Jeep or foot. Our friend Budesh was ready with our vehicle fully spruced up for us and we were off on our way to Tiger Hill. We watched a number of locals walking in the cold towards Tiger Hill, lugging kettles of tea. Budesh informed us that they were tea vendors who would be selling the tea near the view point. He courteously offered a lift to one lady who thankfully accepted, we did not mind at all. Soon we were at the gates of the viewing point where there was a small booth selling tickets to the enclosed viewing point. We bought our tickets and proceeded further. Budesh found a parking place with some difficulty as the place was swarming with crowds.
It was till dark and cold as we made our way inside the viewing point and entered a room with glass windows which was already packed. A local guide explained that on a clear day one can have a panoramic view of Mt. Everest as well as Mt. Kanchenjunga from this point. Even before the sun rose a rosy haze would envelop these mountains as they became visible. However he casually mentioned that the weather was not that good today!
I was not feeling comfortable in the enclosed space and thought it a paradox that one was confined to these four walls to witness nature which knew no bounds. Soon the sky turned from black to grey, but the sun was not visible, leave alone the peaks of the great mountains. By then we were feeling claustrophobic and decided to move out, we breathed a sigh as we inhaled the open mountain air outside. We looked at the clouds floating in the distance, but there was no sun. The crowd waited with bated breath, but soon their feeling of anticipation turned into disappointment and some of them turned back to head towards their hotels. We still looked expectantly at the sky, our instincts and fascination for the sun prevailing over logic. We were not disappointed, the sun broke out from the clouds and we yelled merrily like children who had been given their favourite chocolate! The sight of the sun and the floating clouds pushed all our frustration right out of our minds and we felt waves of happiness traverse through our nervous systems. We could also make out the Kanchenjunga mountain ranges in the distance.
While in Darjeeling do not miss this opportunity and pray for a clear day so that you can have an amazing view.
TIP No need to enter the viewing enclosure, you will get a better view from outside.
After a sumptuous breakfast of Aloo Parathas ( Wheat pancakes made with a blend of spicy potato curry), washed down with some aromatic Darjeeling tea, we headed for our next attraction, the Ghum Monastery.
The Monastery is located at an altitude of about 8,000 feet and is situated about 11 kilometres from Darjeeling town. The Monastery is a beautiful piece of architecture and one would not believe that it was built in 1875. The Monastery has a serene ambience and houses a 15 feet Buddha statue within its precincts. We spent some quite moments here and spun the prayer wheels, praying that our travels continue and we discover more and more amazing places and experience more of the world and all that it has to offer.
The Batasia Loop is an engineering marvel of sorts, it is here that the toy train of the Himalayan Railway takes a descent of 1000 feet facilitated by an ingenuous feet of engineering through which the train travels in a loop with a gradual descent and then crosses its own track near the beginning of the loop through a tunnel below. The Batasia Loop was commissioned by the British in 1919. Today the Batasia Loop also houses well landscaped gardens and a war memorial dedicated to the Gorkha soldiers who were martyred in various wars after India’s Independence.
The place also affords 360 degrees panoramic view of the mountains. There is a small market with women selling sweaters, jackets and caps.
All in all it is a nice place to catch some great views and also marvel at the engineering feat that is Batasia Loop.
Toy Train or The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway
This railway has been listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The railway runs on a narrow gauge measuring 610 mm or 2 feet and connects the towns of New Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling. The railway was built between 1879 and 1881. The total distance covered by the train is 78 kilometeres and the height it covers varies from about 330 feet to about 7,200 feet in Darjeeling. In Darjeeling the train criss-crosses the streets as it slowly chugs up the mountainous terrain.
A ride on this toy train which chugs through breathtaking landscapes is a must for everyone, especially for those for whom trains evoke a different kind of romantic aura altogether.
TIP Take the train joyride from Darjeeling to Ghum and back, this takes about 2 hours, opt for the steam engine schedule.
It was evening and getting dark by the time we returned from one of the most unique and thrilling train rides we had ever had. We were back in our hotel exhausted, but happy and after dinner retired to bed and dreamt of a small steam engine, whistling as it struggled up a hill, white smoke billowing upwards and slowly mingling with the white clouds in the sky.
Watch our short video on Darjeeling. Please watch in HD on full-screen:
Don’t miss part two series of our Darjeeling trip. Do join us as we visit the famed tea gardens of Darjeeling on Day-2. Click here to read – What to see in Darjeeling, the Tea Country – Part II