18 March 2011

darjeeling: the queen of hills

Ask anyone from West Bengal the four places they have been and chances are rife that the commonest answers would be Digha, Puri, Darjeeling and Santiniketan.

the first rays of sun
I have been to Digha twice and Santiniketan once but Darjeeling and Puri had always been elusive owing to time and financial constraints. So taking a cue from, “loha garam hai, maar do hatoda” I gave a quick assent when my namesake and friend called me one fine evening and said, “Vivek, Darjeeling chalega?” It had hardly been a month since my rendezvous with the North East and with pockets empty and parents angry, Darjeeling, the Queen of the Hills, sounded quite out of scope.

siliguri: a new day has come
My exams were nearing and I had promised myself to be engaged with my books for the next many months but the animal in me was quite alive and it jumped at the very mention of “chalega?" I forgot all about my exam, the tiredness of the previous trip, the cash crunch, the roaring parents and called Vivek over to my home to plan the trip. Within hours, return tickets between Dakshineshwar and New Jalpaiguri and a room at Hotel Pine Ridge were booked and we heaved a sigh of relief. It was the middle of November and more than a month had to pass before the D-day, 23rd of December, 2010.

discussing all that matters
With an anxious wait stretching more than a month the night of 22nd December arrived. I stayed at Vivek’s place and got up early in the morning to head for the railway station in a taxi, which was hardly ten minutes away. Getting up early for a journey and walking along the dimly lit streets with the sun threatening to burst out any moment has always been magical for me and this was no exception. Our train was quite on time and struggling through the jam-packed train (Kangchejunga Express) filled with over-enthusiastic passengers we reached NJP at around 7 in the evening which made it a journey of exactly 12 hours. Train journeys, which used to be a highlight some time back, irritate me no ends but considering our light pockets we had little alternatives.

shuttle stand near darjeeling more
The feeling of coming to yet another station for the first time gave goosebumps. The anticipation of the whole journey that laid in front of us, the feel of the city, the people, the terrain is always special and worth treasuring. NJP, though a part of Siliguri, and often called the Gateway to North East, lies in the district of Jalpaiguri while most of Siliguri is in Darjeeling district. We chanced upon an almost mad rickshaw puller who promised to take us to a budget hotel but stopped midway complaining of the distance from the station. We took an auto till Sewak Road and booked a rickety hotel (Everest Lodge) for the night. We went to the only multiplex in the city, CINEMAX, which was almost deserted and had a garden marriage party in progress nearby. We returned to Sewak Road, ate at a good Punjabi restaurant, Shaan-e-Punjab, walked around the city, had some tea and when the roads were almost deserted went to the cold comforts of our hotel. It was a shabby hotel but good enough to spend the night and for 200 bucks we didn’t stand to complaint either.

the forested mountain
We got up early in the morning, took an auto and got down at a place where the road was lined with shared vehicles that would take enthusiastic tourists to the hill town. It was tourism season at its peak but the roads had a deserted look maybe because we had arrived too early. Moreover, most tourists now head for Gangtok instead to avoid the rush at Darjeeling and the fear of strikes that GJM calls at the drop of a hat. We had to wait for quite a while before our vehicle, a TATA Sumo, headed for the fabled town. Our anticipation grew as the four-wheeler paced its way amidst sleepy homes and the parallel running 6 feet narrow gauge rail track, telling stories, out loud, of an era that had gone by. The Toy Train, hauled by steam engines, one of the oldest in operation in the world, no more plies from Siliguri but from Ghoom.

on the way to darjeeling
It wasn’t long before we left the plains and bypassing the many enormously huge and beautiful tea gardens spread all around came to Sukna, the mouth of the Mahananda WS, one of the most famous forest expanses housing exotic Himalayan animals. The tea gardens beyond it looked even more amazing and were reminiscent of the ones I had seen in the Brahmaputra valley of Assam. The tarmac road running in the middle of a forest opening to a stretch of lustful tea gardens with a riot of colors spread like a splash of green by a painter on his canvas looked awesome. It was one of the most amazing sights of the entire journey.

view from hooker road
Sukna had a small military cantonment owing to which the surrounding areas were smacking clean. The huge and lofty rocks of Mahabharata range, a part of Lesser Himalayas, rose abruptly from the plains of Darjeeling traversed by the rivers Mahananda and its tributaries. What didn’t change was the continuum of the tea gardens and the lush green forest. Darjeeling is one of the few places in the world which grows tea right from the plains to high up in the Himalayas at altitudes greater than 2000 m and has acquired a fame that culminated in it getting the only Geographical Indicator in India.

darjeeling railway station, 2200 m
Unlike in Arunachal where the Himalaya rose gradually, the rise was quite steep in this part of the world. The small towns and villages dotting the forested hills could be seen clearly and with abated tiredness despite lack of sleep we continued on our journey. Passengers kept on moving in and out but we had to go right till the end. Vivek, my friend, slept for most of the journey till Tindharia, a sleepy hamlet and one of the stations of the hill railway. It wasn’t long before we came across Kurseong, a major town in the district.

road to darjeeling
The famed Eagle’s Crag and the Television tower was visible from quite far away but I could not take pictures because of the restless driver who wouldn’t even stop to let us pee. We passed along many towns, small and medium, including Tung, Sonada, Jorebunglow and Ghoom before reaching Darjeeling at about 11 in the morning. The deserted railway track and the rapid population explosion which had resulted in environmental defoliation were visible quite apparently and said a sorry tale. Jorebunglow was the town from where an uphill road took one to the famed Tiger Hill but that was to happen later in the journey. Ghoom, the penultimate station of the Darjeeling Himalayan railway is allegedly the highest railway station in India and as we passed the dusty and misty town we could see a steam engine readying itself to haul a bunch of enthusiastic passengers who, I knew, would lose their cameras on a clicking spree at the Batasia loop. A journey, about which I had read and felt so much, was unfolding at a steady pace and seeing all that I had so far only visualized was a delight in itself and quite unparalleled in the world.

war memorial at batasia loop
Near the famed Ghoom monastery flanked by the hillock that had the War Memorial at Batasia we saw a bike rally of Gorkhaland Janmukti Morcha (GJM). The town has gained widespread notoriety and infamy owing to the unmindful hartals called by GJM and you never know if you are the unlucky one to bear the misfortune of being stuck up in one such hartal that brazenly runs for as long as one month. Though, by and large, tourists have never faced much problem in the hill district, inconvenience cannot be ruled out totally. Tourism, as such is the backbone of the district and strikes, small or big, only affect the localities, more than anyone else. Most people have become wary of it and the participation in the rallies is more out of compulsion than choice. Darjeeling, since the beginning of the 20th century, has been crying for a separate state owing to the indifference and apathy of Bengal government towards their origin and problems. Their demand, which is rightfully justified, has nonetheless never really risen to the challenge for reasons aplenty. The Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council, which was a result of a protest wave gone violent in the late 1980s, had been much of a disaster and things are back to status quo.

inside the ghoom monastery
I have this bad habit of wavering in uncharted territories so back to what this blog is all about. It was afternoon when we reached Darjeeling and a personal achievement of sorts, a dream come true. The air had a harrowing chill and the uncountable flags of GJM could easily be mistaken for Buddhist prayer flags. Now was the time to look for the hotel. We asked for directions and taking an uphill road amidst a seething crowd of Indians and foreigners alike we reached the road that led to our hotel and also to Chowrasta, which was hardly a couple of steps from our hotel. I tasted some chhurpi (smoked cheese made of yak and cattle milk) and though it was as hard as stone, anything to chew in the biting cold was good enough. It was already time for lunch and we hadn’t eaten a morsel since morning. We got into a restaurant and had some luchi and aloo dum and a hot cup of Darjeeling tea. That was special because it was the first time ever I tasted the Champagne of Teas.

view from the hotel room
We reached the hotel reception and asked for our room. It was a nice heritage hotel with exquisite wood work giving it a colonial look which it certainly was. I asked the lady caretaker since when the hotel had been functioning to which she replied, “I have no exact idea but definitely since the British era.” We were quite surprised when we entered the room. It had a royal look and one of the windows directly opened to a stunning view of the valley and the hills. On a clear day one could, am sure, see the mighty Himalayan peaks but today was no such lucky day. A tuft of cool air blew in as I opened the window. I could see a mosque nearby and the muezzin was calling out loud to assemble the faithful. Closing the window and wiping the mist that had collected on the glass panes I could behold an amazing sight.

such classic symbolism
We rested for a while, took a light bath and rushed for Chowrasta. We had to see the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park which had a good assortment of Himalayan flora and fauna and the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (both located in the same campus). The first sight of the very famed Chowrasta was marvelous. We could see families from far and wide cuddled together and having adda over hot cups of tea. Children rode ponies and the elderly sat in closed groups with a disturbing silence. Young people like us paced around in frenzied steps looking for alternatives. It’s always a case of, “What next?” with us. We took a road that went straight to the zoo. It was a memorable walk and one of the highlights of the journey. The Windamere and Mayfair hotels, one of the most popular in the town laid on the way. We also came across a huge auditorium where they conducted cultural events and saw the Raj Bhawan too, where the governor of West Bengal comes for a week or so during the summer. It was a beautiful and clean city, contrary to what I had been hearing all along from people in the plains.

inside hot simulating cafe
We had hardly walked a kilometer when we bumped across a café, Hot Simulating Café, a very tiny one and decided to sip a cup of tea. We had enough time and wanted to let ourselves lose in the flow of the moment. We hadn't got used to the mild taste of Darjeeling tea quite yet but it was about the occasion and not just the tea. A bunch of foreigners were having a great time laughing their hearts out. Songs of Bob Marley filled the air and hundreds of his pictures were stuck on a wall board. It was definitely an amazing place to be and we were enjoying every bit of our stay there. We headed for the zoo after that. It was a long and easy walk with the Observatory Hill on one side lined with ancient buildings and huge trees and the vast expanse of the sky on the other from where you could see the town enveloped in a hazy blue mist.

himalayan wolf (critically endangered)
The zoo was clean and very well managed. The entry fee was nominal and that included the HMI fare too. We got to see quite a bountiful of animals which we had never seen in real including the Snow Leopard, the Himalayan Black Bear, the Himalayan Wolf, the Himalayan Civet and the famous Red Panda besides a host of other animals and birds. The Himalayan Monyal and the Slow Loris were elusive while the Himalayan Salamander had gone into hibernation. The museum at HMI was pretty impressive. It was established by Tenzing Norgay after his successful attempt of Everest with the blessings of Nehru. It had an inspiring collection of stories, photographs and memorabilia from the many expeditions carried by renowned mountaineers in the Himalayas. By the time we got out it was about to be dark so we bunked the idea of visiting the Gombu Rock.

statue of tenzing norgay outside HMI
It was only around 4 in the evening but it gets dark quite early in the hills and moreover it was winter. We had a meal of omelet sandwich and some pakoras and headed for Chowrasta via the Singamari road. The sun was going down slowly spreading its crimson rays through the clouds and presented a beautiful picture. The whole town would soon be engulfed in darkness and we hurried our steps. We had walked enough for the day so we hired a jeep and headed for the main bazaar. We thought of going to the Peace Pagoda but someone told it will take quite some time so we skipped the idea and headed for our hotel. We bought some woolens and some memorabilia including a Japanese fan, a painting and a khukri which I had desperately wanted for myself. The night was getting colder and unbearable and we needed to get warm for sure.

the city under a blue misty veil
We headed for Chowrasta and got a bottle of vodka and took some gulps down our throat. Now was the time for Glenary. It was Christmas Eve and the restaurants were full of people making merry. We had a cup of tea and some eatables from the bakery and went down to the basement at Buzz. It was empty compared to the bakery above. A couple engaged in wild smooching didn’t mind our presence. We had some noodles and soup and went back to our hotel. It was one of the most popular bars in the town and quite a colorful one at that. We had a few more pegs of vodka and decided to call it a day.

freezing cold it was
It was a difficult night with the temperatures dropping below zero but we woke up with the same energy we had started our journey with. It was another freezing day but thankfully the geyser was working fine and the tap water warm. We have a habit of getting up very early when out of the homely comforts. We had decided to skip the pleasure of beholding the sunrise from Tiger Hill and see things at our own pace. We had our morning cup of tea and headed for a clock tower which we could see at a stone’s throw distance. It was majestic albeit crumbling. A poster by some local club said it was under renovation.

darjeeling peace pagoda
We hired a cab to take us around because walking to all the places worth a visit was just not possible. For 700 bucks (bargained down from the original 1200 the driver had asked for) a three point visit didn’t look bad and more so considering the second point was the distant Tiger Hill. First it was the majestic Peace Pagoda and the Nipponzan Myohoji Japanese temple where the Buddhist monk Nichidatsu Fujii had stayed for quite a while. The spiritual leader was very close to Mahatma Gandhi and quite a few of bapu’s letters and works were there in the temple. The Peace Pagoda was quite an imposing structure. It was cluttering cold and we struggled with our naked legs on the cold concrete stairs of the pagoda. We left the place for Tiger Hill via Batasia, Ghoom and Jorebunglow.

senchal lake
It took us almost half an hour to reach the place and it was such a pleasant journey. We passed across the Senchal WS which looked straight out from the heavenly pictures we see in our dreams. The dense cluster of trees, the chirping birds, the bushy mountains, and the sun burnt brown fields gave a surreal look to the place. We were enjoying every bit of our stay in the hilly town but were quite disappointed when we finally reached Tiger Hill. At a height of around 2500 m, it was highest hill in the area and on clear days one could see the Kangchendzonga and even the Everest from there and that too from the naked eyes but we weren’t that lucky today (thanks to the blanket of clouds and mist).

motifs from buddha's life at peace pagoda
But we could see Darjeeling on a hillock engulfed in a thick veil of fog and believe me if not for that the visit to Tiger Hill wouldn’t have been worthy enough. We had a cup of tea going downhill and saw the beautiful Senchal Lake, which supplied most of Darjeeling’s potable water. We halted next at the Ghoom monastery, not the biggest but certainly the most famous in the area. Next was the Batasai loop where you had the War Memorial and the loop where the Toy Train takes a stupendous turn and has been a topic of much fantastic lore. We were lucky to see the Toy Train zoom past us making a continuous hoot and bellowing a thick plume of black smoke. Our driver insisted we go to the Rock Garden and the Ganga Maya Park but asked for 800 bucks more. We decided to skip that and headed for our hotel instead. I was never fond of parks so didn’t mind missing it but for the small waterfall it had. On our way the driver showed us the Ava Art Gallery and the Rink Mall, Darjeeling’s only multiplex and hypermarket.

ava art gallery
We had our breakfast at a Marwari restaurant and even bought some green and black Darjeeling tea. We still had the time of the world but seeing a movie was never in our mind. We headed for the Mahakal Temple located near Chowrasta on the Observatory Hill and it was quite a task to get to the top. There was a small dark cave which had a Shiva shrine where for the alleged sin I did (tearing away a postcard of the fake Sathya Sai Baba) I got a big scratch on my glares and a bump on my head. There was a Kali temple and another unique temple nearby having both a Shiva and a Buddha idol. Pilgrims of both the religions had gathered in huge numbers and it was a real feast for the eyes to see such harmony. All done but the Gombu Rock was still left so we took the Hooker Road and headed straight for it. We again had a brief stopover at the Hot Simulating Café were a couple cracking odd Rajnikanth jokes got on our nerves and we left soon.

senchal wildlife sanctuary
We reached the zoo and took a straight deserted road for the rock. The journey seemed never ending. Whoever we asked said the same thing, “Go straight for another ten minutes” but the rock was nowhere to be seen. We finally got down to Singamari Road at North Point and were amazed that we had actually reached St. Joseph’s School, which was very impressive to say the least. The Darjeeling ropeway, the first in India (1968-2003), was nearby but was inoperative owing to a tragic accident in 2003 that killed four tourists. It went straight down the road to a tea estate notorious for its goons, as the locals said. The elusive Gombu rock was nearby and we thanked our lords that we could finally see it. It was quite amazing and impressive but we decided not to give it a try. We hired a car and got down straight at the main bazaar and from there rushed to our hotel. It was about to be dark and our energy at an all time low. We had seen the city and almost everything else it had to offer and were a satisfied lot.

curvy roads
I personally was very tired after the whole day’s rush and decided to sleep for a while before going to celebrate Christmas at some restaurant but laziness took over. The freezing temperature made vodka necessary so we headed for Chowrasta again and got some tinned sardines too. We had a couple of pegs and slept again and woke up reluctantly for dinner. Buzz was reserved and all the restaurants jam packed with tourists, mostly foreigners so we had to look for one where we could eat something. We finally got one where a nondescript dosa was served. We rushed back to our hotel, downed a couple of pegs more and decided to sleep for good. The cold was unbearable and the whole night I kept on shivering and turning from one side to another. It was perhaps the coldest night of my life.

inside our hotel
The next morning, 27th December, we went to Chowrasta for one last item, had Darjeeling tea for one last item, sat for a while, bathed under the sun and decided to leave for Makaibari tea estate, a few miles ahead of Kurseong, owned by Mr Rajah Banerjee. We reached quite in time and since Mr Banerjee was out in his tea garden we waited at his office. One of his caretakers showed us around the factory but since it was off-season we couldn’t see much. In another hour or so, bypassing the beautiful and lush hilly forests and the tea leaves we reached Siliguri and finally New Jalpaiguri. We still had enough time for our train so we ate and rested at a hotel and finally in the evening went to the station, got into our train and off to home. We reached Dakshineshwar early the next morning and reached home quite in time and after having a bath left for office to continue with the usual dal-chawal zindagi.


  1. each and every line is saying that u had a wonderful visit..

    actually u have penned down everything very brilliantly..itna sab kuch kaise yaad rehta hai tumhe..

    well, wonderful post..GOD BLESS YOU..keep writing and waiting for the next one..

  2. thank you so much for the appreciation.. itna sab kuch kaise yaad rehta hai? talent hai ji :P