The year 2018 was very special for all those Darjeeling aficionados who swear by Darjeeling’s ethereal beauty as the Queen of hill stations in India. The TV channels flashed the news with gleaming pictures of snow in Darjeeling on 29th December. By the way snowfall in Darjeeling is some news to the average Calcuttan who has to otherwise bear the brunt of the scorching tropical sun eight months of the year.
Air tickets to Bagdogra, the nearest airport to Darjeeling was all but exhausted and providentially I used my connections with Jet Airways to obtain a ticket. I departed on the morning’s Jet Airways’ flight to Bagdogra with the sole intention of relishing the snowy spectacle of Darjeeling.
By the time I reached Darjeeling it was 2 p.m. and I had already booked my accommodation at the renowned Glenburn Tea Estate Bungalow, with the sole intention of basking in the uninterrupted sight of snow in this charming hill station. The entire tea estate and the surroundings were blanketed in four inches of dazzling white overnight snow. The sight of locals and visitors alike digging up snow and throwing them at each other was straight out of a Mills & Boons novel.
According to the Manager of the Glenburn Tea Estate: “The last time Darjeeling witnessed snow in the month of February was way back in the year 1985”. Here, at the upscale but classy – Glenburn Tea Estate Bungalow, the ethereal view of Kanchenjunga – the 3rd highest peak of the world right from my window was awe-inspiring. The stately pine trees, Rhododendrons, Primulas, Magnolias, Orchids and the houses embracing the Glenburn hill side covered in snow made for a stunning kaleidoscopic vignette.
Glenburn Tea Estate to me is a destination in itself, a plantation retreat that dates back to 1860. The estate was first conceptualized by a Scottish tea company and later on the reigns were transferred to the House of Prakashes, popularly referred to as the “Chaiwala Family” in the Indian tea circles.
In terms of legacy, Glenburn guests can rest assured of a century of tea manufacturing experience – tea tasting, factory visits, immersive cultural experiences and sustainable environmental initiatives are all offered to the discerning guests of Glenburn to savor. The Glenburn experience is every bit eco-friendly and the best part is that they grow their own fruits and vegetables, which are 100% organic.
The Bungalow holiday experience, which is such a rarity in today’s hospitality landscape comes as a breath of fresh air and here in this part of the world - The Burra Bungalow and The Water Lily Bungalow together offer an outstanding cozy Himalayan experience that remains unmatched. The essence is however on the “Colonial” feel and the décor to compliments the same ambiance - old Burma teak for floors, cast-iron window frames and balconies to spend intimate moments.
I for one would strongly recommend prospective visitors to embark on the “Walking Tour”. It is not just refreshing, it is every bit delightful as most of the trail is downhill and anybody in good shape can opt for this one-of-a-kind experience.
The Tea Factory visit will be an eye-opener for many - tea leaf being brought from the gardens, the weighing of the leaves followed by the manufacturing process - withering, rolling, fermenting, drying and sorting. Guests are also offered unique tea tasting options wherein an array of different blends, aromas and flavors are available.
Like many visitors to Darjeeling, I too was driven by my passion for Darjeeling Himalayan Railways. I got interested with DHR when I undertook that unbelievable nostalgic trip on the famed “Toy Train” way back in the year 2010 that was to change my perception of Rail Travel in India.
Ever since the UNESCO declaration, conferring the status of a ‘World Heritage Site’ to the Darjeeling Himalayan Railways, awareness about this railway has increased manifold. Thanks to the pioneering work undertaken by the London based Darjeeling Himalayan Railway Society, toady the DHR is well-positioned in the elite world Railways network.
I have always believed that the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway is one of the most unique train journeys anywhere in the world and it fills my heart with joy when I see the “Toy Train” whirling majestically around the Batasia Loop, which according to my Darj mate Sanjay Gurung who works as an apprentice with the DHR to be among the “most photographed railway site in the world”. And why not?
This time when I visited the Batasia Loop, I made it a point to further heighten my sense of admiration for this unique railway system. On the advise of my local Nepalese friend from DHR – Sanjay, I took a vantage position in a vacant piece of land at a level with Loop 3 and what I saw from there was incredible to say the least. Here the train hangs out for dear life on a spur, yes, a spur! And nothing else. To be able to see the train suspended in space with its squealing wheels and propelled by an engine that never stopped whistling was awe-inspiring as it was scary.
I was most impressed by the recent endeavors undertaken by the DHR Club for promoting awareness about this unique railway system by way of launching custom-designed notebooks and greeting cards that were crafted to perfection by two promising school children of Darjeeling. A pack of 10 costs 5 GBP and the funds thus generated goes towards the further improvement of the DHR.
What must come as a surprise package for the young ones though is the launch of a leaflet My Diary of a Train Journey, an exclusive four-page leaflet with questions pertaining to the DHR which the kids are expected to answer (fill up) on board the toy train. The focus of the DHR Club is clearly on the children who have always had a sentimental attachment with the Toy Train.
Darjeeling has its share of tourist landmarks like the Natural History Museum, the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park, the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, the Shrubbery Park, Observatory Hill, Darjeeling-Rangeet Valley Passenger Ropeway, Lloyd's Botanical Garden, Tiger Hill to name just a few.
The Natural History Museum is in close proximity to the town’s principal promenade and has a good collection of rare Himalayan fauna while the Padmaji Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park is a one-of-its-kind zoo that has the endangered Tibetan Wolf as well as the Snow Leopard and Siberian Tiger as its residents. I had never ever visited a zoo at such a high altitude. The PNHZ is located at a height, which is all of 2133.5 meters above the sea level, and the colossal Kanchenjunga provides the picture-perfect backdrop to this remarkable zoo. The Red Panda is the cynosure of all eyes at this zoo.
Mountaineering as an activity has become very popular and Darjeeling is the native place of the great Indian mountaineer Tenzing Norgay who along with Edmund Hillary was the first to conquer Mt. Everest. In his memory, the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute has been providing yeoman’s service in the domain of Himalayan mountaineering. The institute works in close collaboration with the Swiss Foundation for Alpine Research.
The lure of the Darjeeling – Rangeet Valley Ropeway is irresistible. This ropeway connects Darjeeling with Bijanbari. A ride on this mono-cabled ropeway can be exhilarating. I was initially frightened by the height as most first-time riders would, since the ride commences from a height of 7000 feet from North Point and descends to a low of 800 feet which is quite a descent. I was told by the operator that this Ropeway was the largest passenger ropeway not only in India but Asia as a whole.
On my earlier visits to Darjeeling, I was unable to visit the much-hyped “Tiger Hill”. So I made it a point to visit this romantic spot at the break of dawn. I had left instructions with one of the bellboys to give me a wake-up call at 4 a.m. for my visit to Tiger Hill the next morning. And believe me, not only did he come knocking at my door at 4 a.m. sharp, but had also made arrangements for my cab. Since the chauffeur failed to turn up on time, the bellboy himself volunteered to drive the cab all the way to Tiger Hill and back. This is what you call “quality service” with a human touch, which is a characteristic feature of the world-famous Glenburn Tea Estate.
We traveled through the narrow alleyways of Darjeeling and passed by Ghoom to reach the pinnacle of the hill. We were at an elevation of 8,507 feet and hordes of tourists were flocking in even though the sun was yet to rise. Within an hour or so, the ethereal sight of the red molten ball rising on the far horizon in the midst of the snow-capped Himalayan peaks attracted our attention. For the first time visitors like me, the remarkable scene of sun rising early in the morning as viewed from Tiger Hill was a touch poignant.
Describing the beauty of the sunrise from Tiger Hill, one renowned travel writer was quoted as saying:
Your visit to India is incomplete even if you have visited the Taj Mahal by moonlight a hundred times but haven’t witnessed the spectacular sunrise at Tiger Hill.
At Darjeeling you are actually in Gorkha territory. The Gorkhas are a sturdy lot - those valiant soldiers who have carved a niche for themselves in the annals of Indian Army purely by dint of their military prowess. The Gorkhas are the inhabitants of the Darjeeling hills and they have Mongoloid features and are conspicuous by their “Khukri” knives that are strapped to their waist. They are known to be very hospitable though.
You are also likely to come across a sizeable number of Bhutias of Tibetan origin. They have settled here in the Darjeeling hills so as to evade the persecution of Tibetans in Tibet by China’s Red Army.
As far as shopping in Darjeeling is concerned, there are numerous shops dotting the Darjeeling landscape. Most popular curio shops can be found around Chowrasta, Chowk Bazar, Laden La Road, Nehru Road, the Motor Stand and the Mahakal Market. Visitors are fascinated by Tibetan Thangkas in particular. Carpets and wooden engravings too are in great demand.
In terms of quality, the Manusha Emporium at Nehru Road is much sought after by the visitors for its array of silk and handicraft products. For intricately designed Tibetan carpets, the best place in town is the Hayden Hall on Laden La Road.
While in Darjeeling, don’t forget to grab your packet of 100% authentic Darjeeling Tea. The Nathumull’s in Laden La Road is trusted by the tourist fraternity.
Traveler’s fact file
Air. The nearest airport is Bagdogra and there are regular flights from Kolkata and Delhi to Bagdogra. Indian Airlines, Spice Jet, Jet Airways etc. operate regular flights to Bagdogra from Delhi and Kolkata. From Bagdogra one can reach Darjeeling by road and the distance of 93 Kms. can be covered in 2.5 hours. Hired taxis and cabs are easily available at Bagdogra Airport.
Rail. By rail the nearest railway station is New Jalpaiguri. Trains like Darjeeling Mail, Kanchanjunga Express, Rajdhani Express, Dadar-Guwahati Express, and Guwahati-Bangalore Express etc. halt at New Jalpaiguri railway station. Another innovative way of reaching Darjeeling is by embarking on a journey by the world famous ‘Toy Train’ that departs from New Jalpaiguri Railway Station. The journey by ‘Toy Train’ is covered in 7.5 hours.
Hotels to suit every budget are available in Darjeeling town. Up-market hotels like Windamere, Sterling Resorts, New Elgin Dekeling, Sinclairs, Darjeeling Gymkhana, etc. offer the very best of mountain hospitality. The rooms are spacious and offer breathtaking views of the lofty Himalayan peaks including the Kanchenjunga. The food too is high on quality and the choicest of cuisines ranging from Continental to Chinese and Indian (Tandori) are available. Most of the up-market hotels also have exclusive fireplace. Running hot and cold water is available along with 24 hours room service. The pubs are well stocked and are ideal to unwind after a day of sightseeing.