85 year old Aku was happy to see visitors and gleefully narrated stories about the secluded monastery, where he is the head monk and caretaker. He is the lone person at the monastery which also offers breathtaking views of the snow clad Himalayas. As I listened to his stories, my eyes loitered around the colourful walls of the monastery and the spectacular views. I was a tad disappointed that it was only on the last day of my travel in Darjeeling that I found this gem, tucked away from the touristy trail. I could have probably spent more time here, otherwise. While some like Aku love meeting people, otherwise like me are on the lookout for serene corners away from the crowds, and Darjeeling ensures that it offers the best of both worlds to both tourists and travellers.
The name Darjeeling translates to Land of Thunderbolt in Tibetan (Dorje means thunderbolt and Ling means place or land). Nestled at a height of a more than 6700 feet in the northern tip of the state of West Bengal, Darjeeling has over the years grown from being a colonial hill station to offering the widely popular Darjeeling tea to cementing itself as one of the prominent tourist destinations in the country. The neighbouring hill stations of Kalimpong and Kurseong too are worth a visit. While the view of the splendid Kanchenjunga, chugging along on the toy train, enjoying a sip of Darjeeling tea and exploring the age old monasteries remain the highlights of this hill town, Darjeeling definitely has more to offer if you are ready to go beyond the guide book.
It was a nice long drive from Bagdogra, the closest airport to Darjeeling as landscapes changed and the frames turned more captivating. Despite being in the east and well known for its sunrises, especially from Tiger Hill, Darjeeling offered a gorgeous sunset with a mélange of hues as I entered the hill town.
I have always believed that the best way to explore any place is by foot and I did that for a large part while exploring Darjeeling. A walk down the road from my hotel led me past the heart of Darjeeling lined with popular cafes, colourful shops and bustling markets to Lloyd Botanical garden. It was a long walk down on slopping roads and through residential areas to the garden, which definitely seemed not too popular on the tourist’s trail. With hardly a soul around, I strolled through the beautiful pathway that meandered through the lush greenery and moss laden trees. Listening to resonance of cicadas and taking in the fragrance of orchids, cacti, herbs and rhododendrons, I soaked in the sunlight that percolated through the canopy, and the surroundings of this 19th century garden built during the colonial era. The garden is home to a wide range of flora characteristic to Eastern Himalayas with more than 110 species of orchids, and has a glass house as well.
From the serene gardens I trudged back to the market on top and walked further to Happy Valley Tea Estate, the most popular tea gardens in Darjeeling. Though the sun turned harsh by then, the gorgeous intermittent views of the distant hills and colourfully stacked houses amidst them with floating mist to boot made the walk less tiring. I went past the winding road and gardens which had a few workers plucking tea leaves. While the estate is not a sprawling one, the engulfing mountains in the backdrop create a picturesque frame. The tea here came from China, and over the years Darjeeling tea has become one of the renowned teas worldwide. The tea factory here offered a lovely tour of how the tea leaves are plucked, processed and made into tea powder. The tea tasting session offered a deeper insight into different types of tea such as black tea, white tea and green tea.
The next pit stop was at Himalayan Mountaineering Institute within the premise of Padmaja zoological park. The institute has exhibits of equipment, photographs and stories about Edmund Hillary, Tenzing Norgay and various other mountaineers. The stories and displays are quite inspiring and gives you a glimpse of what these adventurers went through while climbing some of the highest peaks in the world. Unfortunately, photography inside the museum is prohibited. Just outside the museum is the statue of Tenzing Norgay where his remains are also kept.
An ideal time to explore the famous mall road of Darjeeling is in the evening. The crowded street which is lined with shops selling myriad items, cafes and restaurants offering continental and Tibetan cuisine, musicians performing and street hawkers selling random things is a vibrant place to enjoy an evening stroll. Relishing different types of momos to tasting Darjeeling tea to buying curios to people watching, I spent most of my evenings in Darjeeling on this street. The evening skies are an absolute treat with a mélange of colours spreading over the horizon.
Probably the most popular activity while exploring Darjeeling is to witness the sun rise from Tiger hill. My driver sped away through the narrow alleys of the town which was still dark except for the sodium vapour lamps at the corners. As we neared the hill at 4.30 A.M., I could sense the crowd up there with numerous vehicles, people hustling to reach the hill, vendors selling tea and photographers walking around with lenses dangling around their necks. That was definitely not a pleasing sight when you would like to experience a serene sunrise. The wait continued until 5.00 A.M. and then the dark sky slowly gave way to a tinge of morning rays. As far as I could see there were floating clouds interspersed with mist and the silhouettes of mountains beyond them. The changing hues over the horizon and the first rays immersing the snow clad peaks in a golden glow was undoubtedly a spellbinding frame. Mount Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world stood tall amidst the clouds and mist, and looked the most prettiest of the lot. While I have always loved the hues of a sunset over sunrise, the gaze waiting to see the orange ball come up was definitely worth it.
Darjeeling has a host of wonderful cafes and restaurants that serve delicious continental breakfast, and post relishing my spread I took a taxi to Japanese Peace Pagoda. Built by the Japanese Buddhist Nipponzan Myohoji organization, the large white pagoda has numerous carvings of Buddha and his preaching. I strolled around the pagoda and visited the adjoining Buddhist temple as well before heading out.
Darjeeling has a couple of old monasteries and I headed out to Druk Sangak Choling Gompa or Dali monastery as it is commonly referred. Built in 1993 and enroute Ghum, what caught my attention at this monastery were its extensive and vibrant wall art. Though the monastery was shut when I visited, it was nice to see numerous young monks going about their daily activities. The monastery is home to more than 300 monks who learn philosophy, literature, meditation, music and dance here.
Next in line was Samten Choling Gompa, by the main road which had a couple of young monks selling Buddhist curios and paraphernalia. The inner sanctum seemed like any other monastery with a huge statue of Buddha, which I was told later by my taxi driver that it’s one of the largest in West Bengal.
Guru Sakya monastery looks like it is built inside fort walls from a distance. It took a while for me to see the red coloured structure in full frame due to the intermittent mist that wafted across. When it finally cleared it was a delight to see many kids playing football with the tall monastery in the backdrop. The art works on the walls are quite an attraction here.
More mist welcomed me at Yiga Choling gompa, one of the oldest monasteries in this region built in 1850. There was some celebration that was coming to an end and the monks happily offered me food and tea. This is also apparently the largest and most popular monastery in Darjeeling. A large statue of Maitreya (known as future Buddha) sat calmly surrounded by beautiful mural works, a huge collection of sacred texts and various smaller statues. A monk lit the lights and incense sticks as I went around gawking at the wonderful works.
Back in town and after a quick lunch at Kunga, a Tibetan restaurant which serves delicious fried momos, I rushed to Darjeeling Railway station to get on the popular Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. A UNESCO World Heritage area, this mountain rail was built in 1881 connecting 13 stations over 88 km on a mountainous terrain during the British colonial rule. Criss crossing along the Hill Cart road, running along loops and reversing on a ‘Z’ shaped layout are some of the highlights of this train ride apart from the lovely vistas all along. I took the ride to Ghum, the highest railway station in India at more than 7400 feet. The steam locomotive from the bygone era was a charmer and created a sense of nostalgia as it chugged its way past the town and alongside the road. Apart from the shrilling sound it gave out intermittently, the ride was quite a pleasant experience. The train had a short stop at Batasia loop which has a small but pretty garden and overlooks the city of Darjeeling. Ghum railway station reminded me of some of the old railway stations that you can probably see in movies from 1960s or 70s. The station also houses a museum which displays stories, pictures and technicalities of how the rail line was built more than a century ago. Back in Darjeeling, it was time for more nonchalant walks, sunset views and café hopping.
My last day in Darjeeling started with a late and delicious continental breakfast at Tom & Jerry café. A stroll towards observatory hill led me to St. Andrew’s church, a pretty looking white structure against the blue skies. The church was closed and I walked further ahead to the view point on observatory hill. The views of the spectacular snow clad Kanchenjunga peak with clear skies were absolutely breathtaking. All that I did was to gaze at it in oblivion, while sipping multiple cups of tea. This vantage point undoubtedly offers the best view of Kanhenjunga from Darjeeling.
Back amidst the crowd, the long road down from Mall road took me to Bhutia Basti monastery, the prettiest monastery (more for its location) in Darjeeling. The views enroute are scenic and that helped me to go on, despite losing my way a couple of times. The 19th century monastery was earlier located in Sikkim and then transferred to the Observatory hill in Darjeeling before being moved again to its present location due to a Gorkha invasion. The interiors are adorned with the statue of Buddha and beautiful murals. The picturesque location with views of endless snow clad mountains and deep gorges is absolutely spectacular and adds to the charm of the monastery. If I come back to Darjeeling, I would love to spend solitude time at this monastery and listen to more stories from the head monk, Aku.
How to reach Darjeeling:
Located in West Bengal, the closest airport to Darjeeling is at Bagdogra, 70 Kms away. From Bagdogra you can take a private taxi to reach Darjeeling. Public transportation such as shared jeeps is available as well, which could work out cheaper.
Food and Accommodation:
Darjeeling is well known for its numerous cafes and restaurants that serve continental and Tibetan cuisine. If you would like to check out Darjeeling tea, head to Nathmull’s. There are a host of options to stay from hostels to resorts to choose from. I stayed at Golden Dolma hotel near mall road, which is well recommended.