Sleepwalking in Darjeeling
A place as familiar as the Queen of Hills needs no introduction, even if some of us haven’t been there. Breaking away from the humdrum of everyday life and the grueling heat, a small escapade into this wonderland was never a bad idea! To the exhausted mind of a preoccupied traveler, Darjeeling is heaven. It’s the epitome of beauty, of tranquility and a splendid bonhomie. Carpets of luscious green tea plantations, gushing rivers, cloud-covered hills, picturesque villages, cascades of gorgeous orchids in full bloom, aroma of steamed dumplings, warm and friendly locals, and of course the magnificent Himalayas. That is Darjeeling – and much more than words can describe, much more alluring than the human mind can comprehend.
Director Satyajit Ray while discussing why he had chosen Darjeeling to shoot his film Kanchenjunga, had once told his biographer Andrew Robinson: ‘The idea was to have the film starting with sunlight. Then clouds coming, then mist rising, and then mist disappearing, the cloud disappearing, and then the sun shining on the snow-peaks. There is an independent progression to nature itself, and the story reflects this.’
Many a weary mind is set on flame as eyes behold the gorgeous Kanchenjunga. Many tribulations are put to rest after one has a glimpse of the gigantic Himalayas. The cloud follows you till heaven, and then unravels the beauty of the lofty Kanchenjunga, sunlit and shining, stands the third highest mountain in the world. It has five peaks of which the tallest is 28,169 ft (8,586 m).
The best way to reach Darjeeling is to book a car from New Jalpaiguri station. There are a number of routes one can take – Pankhawadi, Mirik and Mungpoo respectively. Or even a journey can be undertaken by very few indomitable spirits on the toy train – a seven-hour ride through the villages and tea gardens of this beautiful hill town.
Visiting Darjeeling is like going back to the days of the British era – a vertical Victorian London – populated with oriental faces, dotted with Church spires and brick chimneys. The mall is a shoppers’ paradise. From hand-knitted sweaters, stoles, wind-chimes, prayer wheels, souvenirs, rosaries, brass statuettes and Gorkha daggers, artifacts and both real and imitation antiques – the mall has it all. Children taking pony-rides and others playing with the bubble-man are a common sight. Friends discussing recent movies and gossips are aplenty. And lovers taking a romantic stroll down the mall hand-in-hand are a beautiful sight.
A little ahead is the chowrasta, meaning crossroad. This is the heart of Victorian Darjeeling. Hotels, restaurants and shops brush against each other here. The stalls are a veritable paradise for souvenir collectors. Alongside foreign goods, local handicrafts are very much in demand here.
One cannot miss Glenary’s on the mall road. This elegant restaurant atop the famous bakery and cafe receives mainly rave reviews: of note are the continental sizzlers, Chinese delicacies, tandoori specials and the highly recommended veg gratin (especially if you’re off spicy food). Chocolates are a hot favourite and no chocolate-lover leaves empty-handed from this shop. Pastries and patties are a hit among customers here. Keventers is a legacy in Darjeeling. Chicken salaami sandwiches with chocolate milk-shakes are like a mouthful of happiness.
The oldest site in Darjeeling is the Observatory Hill, known locally as ‘Makal-Babu-Ko-Thaan’. The place is sacred for both the Hindus and the Buddhists. From there, on a clear day, tourists can spot the Kanchenjunga at its very best. Beside the temple on the Observatory Hill is a Buddhist shrine. Worshippers from several parts of the country pay a visit here. A spot not to be missed is the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute founded by the late Tenzing Norgay, the Sherpa who conquered Mt Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary on May 2,91,953. A display of equipment used on the climb is one of the highlights. One can also visit the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park nearby. The main attractions are yaks, Himalayan black bear, Siberian tigers, Tibetan wolves, snow leopards and the endangered red pandas. The zoo is well-known for its captive breeding programmes inorder to preserve several endangered species. The botanical garden is worth a visit for its exotic and exclusive collection of a variety of Himalayan plants, flowers and orchids and is a tree-lovers’ delight.
The ropeway is another major attraction in Darjeeling. At North Point, about three km from the town, it is the first passenger ropeway in India. It is approximately five kilometers long and connects Darjeeling with Singla Bazaar on the Ranjit River at the bottom of the valley. It passes over lush green tea estates and picturesque hills.
Darjeeling is all about enjoying the breathtaking beauty of nature. The exotic hill town conjures visions of serenity, vibrant green hills steeped in splendour, a land of astonishing beauty crowned by the majestic Himalayas. Darjeeling – the name is derived from the Tibetian word ‘Dorje’, meaning the precious stone or ecclesiastical sceptre, which is emblematic of the thunderbolt of Indra, and ‘ling’ – a place, hence the land of the thunderbolt.
About eight km from Darjeeling is the Dhoom Gompa. A beautiful statue of the Maitrayie Buddha is the main tourist attraction and the monastery is known to preserve a few of the rare handwritten Buddhist manuscripts.
A visit to the St. Andrews Church, that is now a heritage building of grand beauty and splendour, continues to be a witness to the bygone days. Also worth seeing are the petite chapels in Loreto Convent, St. Pauls School and St. Joseph’s school.
Ask any regular visitor and he would say Kanchenjunga can be best viewed from the Tiger Hill. Notched up at an altitude of 2,590m (8,482 ft.) and 13-km from the town, this spot has become internationally acclaimed for the magnificent vista of the sunrise over Kanchenjunga and the great Eastern Himalayan Mountains. Even Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak, is visible from here. Tiger Hill is usually very crowded and people gather to witness the encapsulating spectre of the sunrise over Kanchenjunga since the wee hours. Devastation would strike them if there is mist or there is a heavy fog cover. However, they say the best time to visit Darjeeling is in October when the sky is clear and the entire range is visible.
Darjeeling is a trekkers’ hunting ground. A trip to Phalut and Sandakphu will get one within reach of the highest peaks; for the onlooker it affords a more spectacular panorama than at the Tiger Hill. Giant flowering rhododendrons are great for company along with pine trees wrapped in cloud-cover.
The Batasia Loop is an interesting example of engineering. At this point, the toy train track spirals around over itself through a tunnel and over a hilltop. It also has a market where one can buy purses, bags and other souvenir for friends and family. The tea gardens in Darjeeling have a rich history and legacy. The closest and the richest is the Happy Valley tea estate, below Hill Cart Road, is worth visiting when the plucking and processing are in progress. March to May is the busiest time, but occasional plucking also happens from June to November.
Through an endless corridor of pines and Japanese cedars, surging ahead through undulating tea estates, orange orchards and cardamom plantations, one can reach Mirik, a honeymoon destination just 49 km from Darjeeling. Touted to be the youngest hill station of India, Mirik is fast catching up with its aged counterparts. It is built around a 1.25 km long natural lake. The wild flowers, lovely lake and flourishing forests of Cryptomaria Japanica trees have turned Mirik to be a tropical paradise. There is a floating fountain in the middle of the lake and a quaint little footbridge connecting the flower garden on the eastern bank to the heavily forested ridge on the west.
Mirik offers a stunning view of the Kanchenjunga and other Himalayan peaks.
The best way to discover Darjeeling is by walking. Many parts of the town are ‘walking only’ areas. There are innumerable flights of steps going down the hillside into another part of the town. But the natural beauty that unwinds with every step and turn is breathtaking. Cascades of clouds that flow around leave an indelible mark on the travelers’ mind and memory. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had perhaps rightly said:
‘If thou wouldst read a lesson, that will keep
Thy heart from fainting and thy soul from sleep,
Go to the woods and hills! No tears
Dim the sweet look that Nature wears.’
Truly so, in Darjeeling, it is much beyond the beautiful forevers.