Paradise found

Paradise found

Hilly retreat

Paradise found

Chugging away: The toy train in Darjeeling. Photo by authorMy sire used to say, “The British have left their legacy not only in their edifices but also in the names of towns and streets.”  Perhaps their anglicised tongues could not pronounce the Indian names. But, this twist made them more stylish and aroused some curiosity. Thiruvananthapuram became Trivandrum, Kanyakumari — Cape Camorin, Shaml — Shimla and Udhagamandalam became Ooty. To add to it, Darjeeling was called Dorjeling.
I have three reasons to visit this place. Firstly, because it’s a hill station and is home to a toy train, which was immortalised in the 1970s blockbuster film (I call it a love poem) ‘Aradhana’, in the song ‘mere sapnon ki rani kab aayegi tu’. I watched it my school days and ever since it has been my cherished dream to tour this place. Secondly, the mountains in Darjeeling and lastly, Darjeeling tea (although I am not a habitual tea drinker).

The train journey from Chennai to NJP (nearest railway station) is arduous. Hence I skip it and decide to fly. From the Bagdogra airport, I proceed by road. After three hours, I reach my destination. The first thing, which strikes me is its alien environment. The contemporary culture and the Mongoloid faces makes me wonder whether it is part of West Bengal. Everywhere I find slogans of Gorkhaland and signboards of Gorka Hill Council.

The architecture of the entire region gives credence to this thought. Our hotel, is a century old beauty, categorised as one of the oldest and finest. It is also one of the several colonial remains turned into a hotel.  The resort is very close to the ‘chowrasta’ — the town square. It has a manicured garden, which offers great views. Owing to its proximity, we limber up to ‘chowrasta’ on the first day itself. It is lined up with shops, restaurants, curio shops and hawkers. Ponywallahs wait for us. In Darjeeling pony-trekking is the best mode of transport as vehicles are neither allowed nor reachable to majority of places. (this includes the renowned Mahakali Temple and Bhutia Bustia Monastery)

The Kanchenjunga range can be sighted from almost all places in Darjeeling. Cafeteria seatings, sitouts on the ‘chowrasta’, the mall and hotel rooms; all are positioned to get the stunning views of one of the world’s most beautiful ranges. They appear like huge cakes with oodles of icing. “Tomorrow you can have a view, which will surpass all this,” avers our chauffeur.

Architecture and spiritualism
Next day’s wake up call comes at 3.30 am. (The proviso is that we should be there before peep of the day). Swathed in winter clothes we sally for Tiger hills. This is the highest point in Darjeeling. It seems the whole lot of tourists in cavalcades make a beeline for this point. The place is overcrowded with people braving the chill. But we ignore the throngs and concentrate on the spectacle. As the first rays of the sun strike the mountains, their white snow-capped peaks don a warm pinkish blue hue. A breathtaking sight.
On our return, the car stops at Ghoom before a monastery. Yiga Choling Gompa, popularly known as Ghoom Monastery, contains the images of Buddhist deities and lamas, a prominent one being the 15ft statue of Maitreya. Also worth a visit is the Dhirdam Mandir, fashioned in the style of Pasupathinath temple of Kathmandu, which showcases the culmination of Gorkhali architecture and is located just below the Darjeeling railway station.

The post-lunch session involves a visit to a park of exotica. Padmaja Naidu Zoological Park (established in 1958) is home to myriad rare fauna. It is home to Himalayan animals including Siberian tigers, red panda and the Tibetan wolf. The best part of this park is the snow leopard breeding centre. Further above (top of the knoll known as Birch Hill) is the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI), an internationally reputed mountaineering establishment. Founded under the guidance of Nehru, it had Tenzing Norgay as its director for many years. It also houses an excellent museum on mountain lore, specimens of flora and fauna, traditional attires of Himalayan tribes and a full-fledged school for mountaineers. The Everest Museum (located in the same campus) chronicles the expeditions to the world’s summit.

Another stop is Mirik, about two hours drive from Darjeeling is a perfect place to take a jaunt. Darjeeling is synonymous with tea since time immemorial. Hence, a tour to this hilly retreat will never be complete without visiting a tea estate. Just two kms away from Mirik, our cab steers through a big estate. The mounds, hillocks and all rises are draped in emerald green. The verdancy is dotted with tea pluckers. We are in the midst of an estate, famous for Olong tea. The visit to the factory ends with a cup of ‘garam chai’.
The final day we allot for shopping and a ride on the toy train. We decide to commence it with purchase of tea (for home). Where to buy it? Well, guide books, suggestions by locals, lead us straight to Nathmull’s. Later we realised that the tea here is extremely expensive — Rs 13000 per kg! Other varieties start from Rs 3000.

Eat and shop
The toy train is in integral part of peoples’  lives in Darjeeling. The town seems to start its day as the first choo-choo puffs out of the station. It starts from the heart of the town and whistles past busy markets, flats and apartments. As the engine runs very slow you will be excited to see rail cars (with heads peeping out) running along with your cab. “I become restless if I don’t hear the chug of the carriage even for a day,” says a local.
After the ride, we return to the main bazaar for shopping. It offers items like wind chimes, brass statues and silver jewellery. Later, we have our lunch at Glenary’s the most famous confectioner in the north-east (also has continental cuisine). The pastries are really delectable. Our kids round it off with a creamy ice cream at Supersoft Parlour.

Quick Bites
Momos, thukpa, waiwai (a form of thick noodles either dampened with soup or served dry), churpees - local chewing gums made out of cow or yak milk.
 Also worth trying is chhang (made from millet) and tongba - a local beer.