Monday, May 29, 2017

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Darjeeling - A Natural Beauty in Bengal

Bengal is the land of art, culture, and beauty and Darjeeling is what the last attribute is all about ๐Ÿ˜Š We take you on a journey to this beautiful hill station through this article and the video based on our experience.


Carefully carved out with the backdrop of the third highest peak of the world - Kanchenjunga - Darjeeling is a beautiful hill station located at about 6700 feet (2200 meters) above sea level in Lesser Himalaya region. The district headquarters of one of the most important tourist center, the town attracts visitors for both pleasure and business. While it is a sought-after destinations for those looking to get away from the heat of plains, it is also an important business center, especially for tea trade. Apart from rich natural scenery and spectacular views, the town is famous for the Darjeeling Mountain Railway, a UNESCO world heritage site, and tea plantations. As fascinating as the natural landscape are the natives of the hills of Darjeeling, the Lepchas, the Gorkhas, the Sherpas, and the Bhutias with their distinctive Nepali and Tibetan influence.

As part of our trip to North East, Darjeeling was our first stop as it suited well from the logistics and planning purposes. We had landed at Bagdogra, the nearest airport to this hill city, in the afternoon of May 6th, 2017 and proceeded to Darjeeling to explore the hill town of West Bengal. As we came out of the airport, we were greeted with light drizzle which made the weather inviting and we enjoyed such a "cool" welcome. Apparently, the hills had received good rain and we looked forward to better weathers up there. We had already called in the driver and he met us at the exit and directed us towards the car in the parking. The luggage strolled on the airport trolley until it was loaded on the car. We had booked an Innova, a relatively bigger car for two, as we wanted our road journeys to be comfortable. The driver Pramod was a young guy in the late 20's or early 30's and was quite interactive and welcoming. We boarded the cab at about 2:30 PM and the driver made the move. We slowly came out of the airport area and negotiated the residential areas before coming out of the airport town. We were already armed with the camera and were trying to capture the first glimpses of our holiday.

A video blog on the journey to Darjeeling


As we came out of the town area and raced through the metalled roads, Pramod warned us to avoid taking pictures for some time as we were passing through the cantonment area. He, in his experience, had seen army personnel come up from nowhere and confiscate cameras or the memory cards of those taking pictures in this prohibited zones. Well, we obliged requesting him to let us know once the "danger" zone ends. The cantonment in the region is relatively large and sensitive from a strategic perspective because this area is pretty close to four international borders - one with Nepal, China, Bhutan, and Bangladesh. Soon we were back to our free selves as the cantonment area ended. The roads in front of us were definitely a beautiful creation of nature as big trees adorned both sides of the black strip curving at the top to form a gate-like structure.

As we moved further, lush green tea estates covered the view as far as our eyes could see. We stopped at one of the tea gardens - Longview Tea Estate - and made way inside to play within the short dense plantation. As we started and began our ascent on the hill, the drizzle converted to heavier fall but the car kept steering through the falling power and made its way towards the destination. We took a short tea break at a roadside joint and then continued towards the top. Another stop was at a viewpoint en route which gave a chance for first glimpses of the Kanchenjunga's snow-capped peaks. While we hoped to see a lot of this through the trip, the driver advised that weather then was perfect for a clear view. We absorbed the green and white views and continued the drive. We also got a chance to visit Samten Choling Monastery, popularly referred to by locals as Ghum Monastery. Buddhism being second most popular religion followed in Darjeeling district, monasteries are in abundance and important institutions in the area. We pulled into the hotel premises by about 6 in the evening and checked into our room.

View of Darjeeling in Night
We had a corner room towards the other end of the hotel and walked through the long aisle with room on one side and views of the valley on the other. The hotel was spread across three floors and ours was on the top floor corner - the ideal location that we can think of for the place. The room had a wooden interior finish and was nicely set up for our taste. There was a small sitting room followed by a grand bedroom. The room was furnished generously with equipment and had windows on the three side - one towards the aisle, other towards the valley and third towards the hotel. We had already decided to keep the hotel one closed for the most time. We removed the curtains to the valley view and were pleasantly amazed by the views - the view of Kanchenjunga that we had from the viewpoints a few moments ago was there right in front of us. We settled into the room and ordered a tea while we freshened up.

After some light refreshments, we moved out of the hotel to explore the city. Being in the eastern part of the country, the dark sets in early and our quest was short lived. However, we did manage to grasp some flavor of the town and got our hands on freshly steaming samosas (an Indian snack) before we called it a day. We were back in the hotel by about 9 PM and ordered dinner at the hotel itself. The dinner was an almost home-like fare with the right level of spice and courtesy - filled the belly and heart to its fullest. Then we called it an early night by 10 PM - one may wonder why such an early night on a trip and the question may be genuine but we had a really early morning the next day.

Early Morning Darjeeling - View from Hotel
The next day, we were up early - by any standards. The alarm buzzed us out of our slumber at 3:30 AM. We readied ourselves at lightning pace and were already seated in the car by 4 AM. We were soon negotiating tourist rush and curvy roads as we headed towards the Tiger Hill to witness the sunrise. Our driver for the day - Satish - was an elderly person who was to the point and bit grumpy - however factually right. While the driver seemed in an unusual hurry, we were content with the hour we had before the estimated time of the sunrise. However, we realized his rationale when we reached the sunrise viewpoint just in time with only a few moments to spare. We had to take tickets on the route required by the Gorkhaland Administrative Tribunal - the semi-autonomous administration of the region - 10 bucks each for us and 10 for the car. There is a short hike involved from where the vehicle drops you to the point where you get the best view. Some drivers drop passengers at another point which is much lower in height but ours did take us to the real Tiger Hill View Point. Sun rose at the scheduled time of 5 - the horizon was cloudy and hence view was intermittent but apparently much better than the previous day when clouds did not budge a bit. We enjoyed the charm of the morning sun for about half an hour, welcomed the day eye-to-eye the Sun God and enjoyed a steaming coffee. We enjoyed the scene in its full glory and boarded the vehicle by about 5:25 AM to return towards Darjeeling covering a couple of points en route. However, traffic plays spoilsport and snarls are really irritating. We had to wait for about an hour in the deadlock as someone had taken the liberty to park his vehicle right in the middle of the road.

Batasia War Memorial
Lush Green Slopes
On our way back we stopped at the Batasia Loop and the War Memorial which are situated about 5 km away from the main city. Batasia loop is the name given to interesting engineering marvel undertaken by the railway engineers to avoid steep gradient on the toy train. The challenge was to cross the same point but at a different altitude. Engineers designed the track to go in a circular loop and cross itself at the difference of about 140 feet in vertical levels. The size is perfect to have an all-around view of the hill town and surrounding valleys. The name Batasia itself means airy and the location makes the name live its meaning. You could cross the loop on a toy train if you are taking a ride or could walk through the loop (we were supposed to ride the toy train in the evening but still took a stroll). There is an eco-garden developed around the loop which provides a lot of information about organic farming and plantations in Darjeeling. Here you could find many rare species of plants and one can spend some moments amidst the greenery and vegetation. At the center of the loop, a war memorial has been erected in 1995 to commemorate the Gorkha soldiers of the Darjeeling Hills who sacrificed their lives in various wars after India's independence. At an elevated platform, there is a Cenotaph and a statue of a soldier paying homage. Local shopkeepers set up fleece market by the track especially in the morning hours - they have to remove it every time the train passes through. Outside too, a number of hawkers set up temporary stalls serving snacks and breakfast. The army council authorities charge a nominal fee of 15 Rs each for the tourists visiting the spot.

We returned to the hotel by about 8 and lazily dragged ourselves into the room to get ready for the day-long tour of the hill town. We had our breakfast at the hotel itself - hot aloo paratha (stuffed Indian bread) served by the cook. We left for the city tour by 9:30 AM and our first stop for the tour was the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park and the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute - both within the same campus. It was a good fifteen minutes of a hike from where the driver had dropped us, to the gate of the campus. We took the tickets for the entry - 60 bucks each and another 10 bucks for the camera. This is the largest high altitude zoo in India spanning across 67.5 acres of area at an average altitude of 7,000ft (2133m). The zoo had some interesting animals difficult to find in other terrains - including the red panda, Himalayan bear, and the yak - but other than these, most were either hidden away or unavailable. The authorities have tried to provide some natural touch to the environment by providing pits for animals rather than cages in some cases. The zoo is well organized given that there are roads spanning all across and the area has highs and lows all around. The arrangement allows you to move from one end to other over sloping roads and then take the stairs back to the exit.

Towards the other end of the zoo is the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI). The Institute was built to commemorate the conquest of Mount Everest in 1953, where the local lad Tenzing Norgay was an equal partner of Edmund Hillary from England. It comprises of a residential school for mountaineering students, Swiss-style houses for the Sherpa trainers, a well-stocked museum with the whole host of mountaineering artifacts and many expedition displays, a restaurant & a tea parlor, a souvenir shop and more. It is considered a pilgrimage for climbing enthusiasts and engages guests with its interesting display of items. We spent about an hour at both these spots in total and descended to the main road to get in the car. Throughout Darjeeling, we saw a lot of water tankers and lorries carrying water cans. When we talked to locals about these, we came to know that water is a major issue in Darjeeling, something which I faintly recall from my trip a decade earlier. The problem hasn't still found a solution and a large part of water consumed in the city is brought from downstream areas in tankers. We saw a few dam projects in progress and hopefully, these are able to solve this acute problem.

Next stop for the day was the Darjeeling Rangeet Valley Ropeway where though we stepped out of the car but gave the trip a miss as the tourist rush meant over a couple of hours of wait before our turn could arrive. Tourists coming down from the ropeway ride did tell us about the spectacular views and I am sure this would be a good ride across the valley. We proceeded to the Happy Valley Tea Estate as our next stop and delved deep into the tea plantation to grasp an understanding of the famous Darjeeling tea. The tour did provide us with a number of curious and explained to us the difference between the tea estates that we saw on the foothills and the one we were in. The tea from lower regions is called the Assam Tea which is stronger in nature. As we climb up the hills the tea on slopes is what is Darjeeling is famous for. This tea has a flavor that is enriching in characteristics. A blend of both makes the best tea for Indian taste. We also had awesome tea from the leaves of the plantation at one of the stalls there. Most drivers have tie-ups with specific stalls and ours had it with stall # 8 - so that was where we had our tea. We also bought some souvenirs from the stall.

Tea Plantations - Green Carpet of Nature

Peace Pagoda
We began our drive to the next location and we were gradually realizing the pain of drive in this town - the traffic. Narrow hill roads with two-way lanes for big cars create the mess which is at times worsened when a truck or lorry tries to make its way through. On our way we passed through the Tenzing rock, another memorial built in commemoration of Tenzing Norgay. This is a site for rock climbing sport with many tourists and school students trying their hand at the skill. We stopped there for a while but did not actually climb it up. Next, we visited the Tibetan Refugee Self Help Center - a complex set up by the Tibetan refugees in 1959 after escaping Tibet with the Dalai Lama and seeking refuge in India. The refugees have adopted the goal of self-reliance and try to earn their living by making beautiful handicraft material. Their creations are exported to the world over and are also available to tourists at the showroom within the center.

Our last stop for the day tour was the Japanese Monastery and the Peace Pagoda, both co-located within the same campus. The temple is also known as the Nipponzan Myohoji Buddhist Temple. The two storied white building was built in a traditional Japanese style in the year 1972. There is a wooden staircase that takes you to the first floor where there is a large prayer room. Prayers are held twice every day and visitors are welcome to join but need to maintain silence and avoid distractions. Close to the temple, a short walk away is the Peace Pagoda which is the tallest free-standing structure in Darjeeling. The Peace Pagoda showcases the four avatars or incarnations of Lord Buddha in form of large statues carved in the walls and polished in gold color. The top of Pagoda also provides great views of the town all around.


Heritage Stem Engine of Mountain Railway


Welcoming the Special Guest Onboard

Next, we had planned a ride on the heritage toy train of Darjeeling. The car dropped us at the Darjeeling Railway Station at about 3 in the afternoon after which we had our lunch at a nearby joint - Agarwal Rasoi which served delicious Manchurian and fried rice. After lunch we waiting at the railway station for our 4 PM train. The railway station is a basic facility but provides the necessities including booking counters, canteen, book stall, and a waiting room. Soon our train rolled in - a set of two railway bogies being pulled by a diesel engine. One of them is the first class coach - where we were booked - while the other is a second-class coach mostly used by locals for their travel. We had booked our tickets up till the Ghum station which is about 7 kilometers away from Darjeeling and the train takes about 45 minutes to cover this distance. The toy train is just the nickname given to the Himalayan Darjeeling Railway. This is a romantic way to travel on the hills and the spectacular views of the hill slopes and peaks are worth the time that this ride takes. Ghum is at a higher altitude compared to Darjeeling and hence we climbed up on the crawling train. On the route, we passed through the Batasia Loop circling the war memorial while climbing about 140 feet. We reached the Ghum station by 4:50 PM and exited the station. We took a shared cab back to the Darjeeling Railway Station which charged 20 bucks per head. We took the entire middle seat of Tata Sumo (generally the car used for the shared cabs) and the driver charged us for four passengers. We were back to the hotel by 7 and had our dinner. This marked end of the day and we went to bed planning how to utilize the half day we had before we departed for our next destination.

The next day we woke up to a relaxed morning and were out of the bed by about 8 when the sun was pretty much blaring us to be active. We spent some time strolling around the hotel campus and had our breakfast. After gearing up, we went for a final walk into the town to explore the local markets. We walked down to the Mall Road and roamed around the Chowrasta Market. Later we moved to the Mahakaal Market, named after the Shiv Temple located within the market. Shops were still opening up at about 10:30 AM and we had to be careful while enquiring about stuff as people believe it to be bad luck if the first customer of the day returns without buying. We did some souvenir shopping and returned to the hotel. We had a cup of tea and left for our next destination.

The Journey Continues
How was your experience visiting this hill town along with us in this article? Did it excite you to plan a journey soon? Or have you already been there? Have some comments - praise, appreciation, criticism? Well, here is your chance to express all of it. We do appreciate each comment and are encouraged by them. So, keep them coming and in case you are inclined to - do share our post ๐Ÿ™‚

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