“It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”
These lines from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”, remind me of the picture of the mighty Kanchenjunga (8586 m) standing tall over the crowded city of Darjeeling.
As you climb the slithering roads to Darjeeling from NJP Railway Station (71km – 3hrs) or Bagdogra Airport (68.3km – 2hrs 35mins), you can feel the cold breeze on the cheeks and your eyes can relax by looking at the lush green forests and foliage. Little breaks at some momo points will be good for both the soul and the stomach. Teesta River will meander by your side for some time and you can see the gorgeous Coronation Bridge. All throughout the journey one the clouds keep rushing in with amazing sounds of chirping birds and crickets. And to top it up, one can have a sudden tooting of the famous narrow gauge Toy Train. The sound itself is legendary.
Little kids on the roads with their furry pets and women sitting in front of their little wooden huts decorated with colourful flowers and orchids smile and wave to welcome you to the Queen of Hills, Darjeeling. Besides them, two other magnificent things welcome you 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.
Yes Darjeeling is the Queen of Hills because with her old world charm she also has too many feathers on her crown. Darjeeling Tea is world famous, The Ghum Station (On the way to Darjeeling) is the Highest Railway Station in India (2258 m) and the Toy Train has UNESCO’s World Heritage Site status. The Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Garden is not only the highest zoo in India but is one of the best zoo’s in the world, as acknowledged by WWF. The Himalayan Mountaineering Institute is significant too. Tenzing Norgay, the first to ascent the summit of Mount Everest, the highest peak in the World. Darjeeling has Asia’s third highest cable car too. Besides these Darjeeling also boasts of some of the most famous boarding schools in India.
Let us now chalk out all the major attractions:
1. In and Around the Darjeeling Mall and Chowrasta
It is an elevated flat land, like the city centre, located on top of Nehru Road, where people come to sit on the benches and soak in the sun and engulf in merry making. There is always some performances or entertaining activities happening. It is the heart 0f Darjeeling. Once in Darjeeling, a sip of Darjeeling tea is a must and for the experience and a wide variety and range to choose from you must be at Golden Tips (On the mall) or Nathmulls (Very close to the mall – Rink Road)
The Nehru road comprises of 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 repertoire of Tibetan art and crafts.
The legendary restaurants to eat are also on the Nehru Road. They are:
Keveters, the roof top with Kanchenjunga view was even Satyajit Ray’s favourite. Their English breakfast and the hot chocolate are in great demand.
You can also 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’.
Glenary’s, bakery of the 1950’s, has a world class café with an open air balcony with view of the mighty Kanchenjunga, a fine dining restaurant and a pub called Buzz. Here every item is delicious and unique. Buzz is really useful in the evening after 7pm when there’s not much to do in town. Well, when we are talking of pubs, Joey’s pub at Chauk Bazar is a cool place for the evening too.
Well, if you want to try out authentic Tibetan dishes, visiting Kunga at Gandhi Road, Chaukbazar is a must. It is a small eatery and there is always a queue. The momos/ dumplings, the thukpas and Asian soups and the fried waiwai are to die for.
The walk around the Mall is beautiful. You can indulge in a horse ride on the Mall road, around the Observatory Hill. The tranquillity will soothe your heart.
2. Mahakal Temple
A steep climb over the observatory Hill is an 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 buit 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 colourful prayer flags fluttering all around.
3. The Tiger Hill
The Tiger Hill is the highest point of Darjeeling Hills, 11 kms away from Darjeeling town, most popular for viewing Sunrise from hill top. The Sunrise paints the colossal Kanchenjunga and the other snow-capped East Himalayan peaks gold. For viewing the sunrise, one needs to start at 3.30am for the Tiger Hill from Darjeeling. If you find it taxing to wake up early, a visit to the Tiger Hill during the day time is also encouraged. You will get to enjoy a goof view of the Himalayas.
4. The Padmaja Naidu Zoological Garden and The Himalayan Mountaineering Insititute
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 numerous Himalayan birds and reptiles. It is a conservation and breeding centre for these animals. These animals are the prized possessions of this zoo as they are of prime attraction too.
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.
5. Llyod’s Botanical Garden
It 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 greens take you to a different world all together. The Weeping Willow may even trigger flashes of Hogwart’s Whomping Willow from Harry Potter.
6. Darjeeling Ropeway/ Cable Car
A 45 mins ride in the glass gondolas (4 persons in 1) provide you with breath-taking views of the lush green tea gardens and valleys below. You will get a glimpse of Kanchenjunga too.
7. Batasia Loop
It is a lovely garden where the hallmark Toy Train rides in a spiral to pick up speed to climb up. Even if you are not takin the Joy Ride, you must visit this UNESCO World Heritage Site. From amidst the beautiful garden of lush green plants and lovely flowers, you get a clear view of the majestic Kanchenjunga. It is also a memorial to the Gorkha soldiers who lost their lives in India’s fight for Independence. The Toy Train ride will definitely make you feel like Rajesh Khanna and Sharmila Tagore from Aradhana’s song, ‘Meri Sapno ki rani’ or Saif ad Vidya from Parineeta’s song, ‘Kasto Mazza He Releima”. But definitely, even if you don’t take a ride and see and listen to the Toy train riding, it is a remarkable experience and is going to reverberate in your memory often.
8. Peace Pagoda
The visit to the Japanese Temple and the Peace Pagoda fills one’s 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 create a mystique ambiance.
9. Rock Garden
The Rock Garden is a park situated on the hill at Chunnu Summer Falls. It is a picturesque place, very good for fun and photo sessions.
10. Happy Valley Tea Estate
When a little dot on the world map is so well known because of her tea, visiting her tea gardens is a quintessential part of the trip. Not only will the scenic beauty capture your heart but you can also gain some fascinating knowledge on tea production through a factory visit.
One little suggestion for the brave hearts, you should definitely take a guided round of paragliding. Soaring like a bird, above the tea gardens and the city with huts and houses appearing like little dots, with the mighty Kanchenjunga along the horizon, is joy for ever. As you fly over the Mall, people will all look at you in awe and wonder if they could also do it.
Darjeeling is a romantic place to visit, providing different sort of feel and beauty at different seasons. From October to mid-December, the sky is clear and you have the best view of the mighty Kanchenjunga. From mid-December to January it is freezing cold and you can experience snow fall. It is generally foggy then. From February the sky clears and till April/May, it is generally clear and pleasant. You get to see lovely flowers. The mountains are beautiful even in the rains when the greens are greener and every nook and corner has little springs. However, Kanchanjunga may not be in full view during rains and it may be difficult to commute. Darjeeling is a good place for both budget tourists and lavish tourists ready to splurge.
From Darjeeling, you can visit places like Mirik/ Lamahata/ Tinchulley/Baramangwa/ Lepchajagat/ Jhorpokheri/ Kalimpong and Delo or move towards Sikkim via Gangtok.
However, I suggest all the above mentioned places deserve an exclusive visit. Please do visit Darjeeling. The Queen of Hills with her modernity and the old world charm will be enchanting and become your Queen of heart. Let us promise to travel responsibly, let us not litter things around and minimize use of plastics and keep our Himalaya clean.