The morning chill is refreshing and inviting as our car moves uphill from New Jalpaiguri towards Darjeeling in West Bengal. It starts to drizzle and the temperature dips. Reluctantly, the car windows are rolled up and we huddle in the warmth of a shawl. As the gentle raindrops kiss the leaves of pine, bamboo and the broad leaves of teak, the urge to sip the beveragethat is synonymous with Darjeeling increases.
Whether it is a tea bar at the mall road, cafes, tea gardens, an upscale hotel or the kiosk on the street—sipping tea almost becomes a ritual here. The saying “tea is drunk to forget the din of the world” rings true.The drive past the rolling tea gardens on the slopes of the mountains in Mirik is invigorating. We cross the Nepalese town of Pashupati just a few metres from the border.
While in Darjeeling, do what most people do—strolling on the Chowrasta and hanging out at the mall. The usual horse-riding apart, sit by the window in the sunlit tea bars of Nathmulls or The Golden Tip. The pleasing aroma in the air as tea leaves are infused in hot water is bliss. You are spoilt for choice to select from first flush or second and the estates they come from. You drink it without milk to bring out the characteristic muscatel flavour, just as locals do.
Shop for trinkets at the Tibetan store, window shop for mountaineering paraphernalia or walk into the old Oxford bookstore. Browsing through the vast collection of books on mountaineering, Dalai Lama, Buddhism and vintage photographs of the Himalayan region is a revelation.
In Darjeeling, tea is not the only ‘T’ to be excited about. There is the toy train, Tenzing Norgay Mountaineering institute (HMI), Tibetan food and Tiger Hills.
Walk a little longer from Chowrasta to Gandhi road and you can have authentic Tibetan food at ‘Kunga’ and ‘Dekevas’, both run by Tibetan families. Their hot steamed momos and soups that are served in meal sized bowls full with chicken or vegetables broth up to the brim are delicious. If you really want to delve into the Tibetan cuisine go for chicken thukpa, and various noodle soups interestingly called gyathuk, thenthuk and bhagthuk. You can also try Tibetan tea, butter tea, herbal tea or green tea.
HMI houses the mountaineering gear worn by Tenzing Sherpa and Edmund Hillary for their 1953 Everest expedition, and also the latest sophisticated ones. Adjoining HMI is the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park (Darjeeling Zoo), the only specialised zoo in the country known for its conservation breeding programme of the red panda, snow leopard and other endangered animals of Eastern Himalayas. The red panda and the big black bear is a big attraction here. Children love the zoo and a trip to the rock garden and the lovely Botanical garden resplendent with colourful orchids.
If the child in you wants more fun, head to the joy ride from Darjeeling to Ghoom and back on the Himalayan Railway, built in 1879-1881. This UNESCO World Heritage Site—with a train pulled by a vintage steam engine—has been immortalised in many Bollywood movies of the 60s and 70s. The soot and smoke bellowing out might be a little irritating but the sound of chug-chug of puffing and rising swirls of smoke like wispy clouds make up for it. The 610 mm narrow gauge track with its reverses and loops was considered a feat of engineering. The best stretch of ride is the Batasia loop, where the train negotiates a graceful circle with Kangchenjunga mountain in the background. There’s also a war memorial in Batasia Loop commemorating the martyrdom of Gorkha soldiers who died post-Independence.
From Darjeeling, the Kanchenjunga massif looms up from almost every corner—the mall road, Batasia Loop, Buddhist Pagoda and from hotel rooms. The mountain appears omnipresent like a guardian angel protecting the city and is revered by locals.
However, the most spectacular sight is watching the sunrise from Tiger Hills, a yellow arc that grows bigger and bigger till a round ball of fire emerges. The sky looks like a canvas with scattered colours of yellow, orange and red. The snowy peak of Kanchenjunga on the opposite side glows radiantly in the morning sunlight. As we drive away down the hill, the city of Darjeeling in the cradle of the mountains rises from slumber in the fresh light of dawn.