In the city of thunderbolt

Darjeeling

In the city of thunderbolt

City of Thunderbolt’, ‘Roof of the World’, ‘Queen of Hills’ — Darjeeling carries a string of epithets. The name ‘Darjeeling’ originated from two Tibetan words, ‘dorje’ (thunderbolt) and ‘ling’(land), which also explains the epithet, ‘the land of the thunderbolt’.

A place of unparalleled beauty, Darjeeling evokes nostalgia and romance. Nestled in the lap of the Himalayas, its rolling hills dotted with tea gardens, snaking roads stretching endlessly, hilltops kissing the clouds, the popular hill station is a perfect getaway from the humdrum of  city life. Here, the sky is so blue that it hurts the eye, and the green so true that it rejuvenates the soul.

In the 19th century, when the British laid the foundation stone of a sanatorium for their soldiers, little did they imagine that the place would become a tourist hotspot one day. Nor did anyone imagine that the tea bushes planted by Arthur Campbell, a British surgeon, in 1840s, would produce leaves that would go on to attain a prime position in the tea world. It’s impossible for a nature lover to stand before the majestic Kanchenjunga on a clear day and not fall in love with Darjeeling.

For me, the love affair had begun a long time back, while watching Rajesh Khanna wooing Sharmila Tagore as she travelled by the toy train. Memories were revived when I watched the song sequence in Parineeta. Like many in the theatre, I fell in love with the place once again. Then came Barfi! and my mind was made up. This winter, my plans finally took shape and I gave wings to it.

Along the way

As I drove the 70-odd kilometres from New Jalpaiguri to Darjeeling through the emerald tea gardens dotted with the tea-leaf pickers, my eyes were treated to a view of the snow-capped hills in the distance. Fluttering Buddhist prayer flags waved cheerfully in the chilly wind. A brief halt at a tea shop to sip the muscatel-flavoured Darjeeling tea, known as the champagne of teas, and I was ready for good times.

Journey’s begun

The first thing I did was to book a ticket for a joy ride on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, a UNESCO World Heritage train. How could I escape the urge to replay the famous Bollywood sequence that introduced me to the beauty of the place? As the tiny train chugged and hooted along, almost brushing itself against the walls of shops and houses on either side of the track, I realised that things had changed since the days of Rajesh Khanna. The crowd and congestion had added to the chaos along the tracks. Yet, as the train negotiated the Batasia loop, I was hit by a sense of déjà vu. With pit stops at the Gorkha War Memorial, and the Railway Museum at Ghoom, the train chugged leisurely back to base.

A sunrise viewing at Tiger Hills is unmissable; so I groaned and moaned out of my bed at an unearthly hour, the next morning. All discomfort was forgotten as I stood mesmerised along with thousands of visitors, watching the first rays of a glorious sun as they painted the twin peaks of Kanchenjunga in myriad hues of crimson. It was an unearthly sight.

A tryst with the elusive Siberian tiger, snow leopard and red panda had long been a part of my list. At the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park, I struck one more item off my must-see list. Strolling into the adjoining Himalaya Mountaineering Institute, I cheered a group of young mountaineers who had joined the institute with an objective of replicating the feat of Tenzing Norgay.

Skipping the usual tourist traps like the ropeway and souvenir shops, I settled for a plate of momos and steaming noodles from a roadside eatery. The ubiquitous Mall Road, with its shops and cafes, was buzzing with tourists. Having bought my quota of tea leaves, I ambled across the square, plonked myself on one of the benches and indulged in people-watching. The other attractions could wait for my next visit.

Fact file

Reaching there
Bagdogra Airport, at a distance of
66 km from Darjeeling, is the nearest
airport. The nearest railhead is at
New Jalpaiguri, about 70 km away. Cabs are available from the airport
as well as the railhead.

Culinary treats

Momos in the tiny eateries are worth sampling, but a visit to Glenary’s is a must. Stepping into the cafe & cake shop is like stepping back in time. The marzipans, apple pie, cinnamon buns, and chocolates are to die for. To recapture a shot in ‘Barfi!’, enjoy an English breakfast and an excellent cup of tea at the iconic restaurant Keventer’s.

Accommodation

Darjeeling is packed with hotels, small and big. Tea tourism is the latest fad, and some of the tea estates offer accommodation. Homestays are available at the Makaibari tea estate.

Places of interest

Japanese Peace Pagoda, Rock Garden and Lloyd’s Botanical Garden are worth visiting. A ride on the Darjeeling-Rangeet Valley Cable Car, India’s oldest ropeway, provides an aerial view of the tea gardens.

The Makaibari tea estate is worth a visit, too. Kurseong, Mirik, Kalimpong and Pedong lie within striking distance from Darjeeling.

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