Beauty from the heights

Beauty from the heights

Queen of the hills

Beauty from the heights

Sitting in a little cabin, suspended over a valley, the thought occurs to you: the scenery you’re seeing is probably the same thing the British saw a hundred years ago.

Green, as far as the eye can see, capped by rolling clouds, beyond them the mountains, and even beyond them, the silvery peaks of the Kanchenjunga range. Admittedly, you’re seeing it from a better vantage point. You’re sitting in a cabin of the Darjeeling-Rangeet Valley Ropeway. Below you lie the old trails that were once the only way here. The whispering rustle of the breeze is the only sound.

Darjeeling may not be the tiny hamlet it was during the British, but the old tranquillity is there, hidden in places like this.

Darjeeling has had an interesting history. The hilly area around Darjeeling was under the control of the Sikkim king in the beginning of the 19th century. Multiple battles, then treaties signed with the British, led to it coming under British control in the mid-19th century.

The cool climate and peaceful atmosphere led to its development as a hill station and sanatorium. It became the formal summer capital of the Bengal Presidency in 1864. Today, it’s a part of West Bengal, and has the enviable title of the 'Queen of the Hills' . To get there, one can take a train (to New Jalpaiguri Station), or flight (to Bagdogra Airport), and thence a 4-5 hour taxi to the town through winding mountain roads.

For everyone

Like the best of holiday destinations, Darjeeling has something for all kinds of visitors. There are multiple heritage attractions. The views are spellbinding. Tea and food you will not get anywhere else. The people are warm and friendly. But everyone who comes to Darjeeling has one thing in common: they all want to ride the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway.

The Himalayan Railway (colloquially called the Toy Train) is a UNESCO registered heritage site, running since 1881. It was initially a goods train, carrying tea and other commodities down, and supplies upwards. Now it’s Darjeeling’s biggest tourist attraction. Although the full route from Siliguri to Darjeeling is served by diesel engines, a shorter joy ride from Darjeeling to Ghum station is run with vintage steam engines.

The route crisscrosses the road, and the whistle resounds through the town as the train goes by, two small coaches with happy passengers waving through the windows. The snow-capped mountains are visible most of the way. At Ghum station, the train halts long enough for you to visit the Railway Museum, built above the station, and get a cup of hot tea from a stall, and then you head back. Both ways, you cross the famous Batasia Loop, a spiral arrangement of tracks meant to help the train lose or gain altitude quickly.

Batasia Loop, of course, is famous for two more reasons. It features in the iconic 'Mere Sapno Ki Rani ' song from the 1969 film Aradhana, along with other sections of the train route. At the very centre of the loop, there is a war memorial in a verdant garden, a monument to the many Gorkha soldiers who have lost their lives in battle.

The other thing that everyone does on their trip to Darjeeling is to taste and buy the world-famous Darjeeling tea. There are various tea garden estates — Happy Valley, Orange Valley, Margaret’s Hope, and more. Walk around the tranquil gardens, green as far as the eye can see, then visit the factory itself and see the process of making tea. Or just head to one of the famous shops in town: Nathmull’s and Golden Tips are well known. Either way, you can learn of the various types of tea, taste a cup (or two!) of them, and spend a happy few hours deciding which one you’d like to take back home as a souvenir.

Scaling heights

For the kids who weren’t charmed by the ropeway and the toy train, the Padmaja Naidu Zoo is likely to be a star attraction. Though small, it houses some animals you won’t see anywhere else: red pandas, snow leopards, black leopards, and Himalayan wolves. In the same complex is the inspiring Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, India’s premier centre for mountaineering training.

The museum there features the history of this demanding adventure sport, exhibits about the conquest of Mount Everest and detailed maps of the Himalayan ranges. If you’re interested in taking a stab at it, there’s also an indoor rock-climbing wall. Well, that’s been a long day of sightseeing. Time to unwind. The best place in Darjeeling for doing absolutely nothing is Chowrasta — the town square. This is an open space with shops on one side, and a view of pine trees on the other.

A statue of Nepali poet Bhanubhakta Acharya dominates the place, and there is an open-air stage where cultural programmes are held occasionally. The space is ringed with benches to sit on, and many people do just that. But you could also take pony rides, eat puchkas, or browse the shops: the Oxford Bookstore, Nathmull’s and Golden Tips, look for Tibetan curios and artworks, a few restaurants.

If you’d like to see the sunset while sipping on tea, probably the best place is the Glenary's Bakery and Cafe on Nehru Road. This British-era shop has an open deck facing the west, and offers pots of Darjeeling tea along with their own baked goodies. Or, for dinner, the Shangri-la Hotel, also in a vintage building, offers Tibetan food along with the usual Indian and Chinese.

Make sure you sleep early. Because there’s still Tiger Hill to go to. You start before sunrise to get to this viewpoint, which is about 90 minutes away from Darjeeling. A sizeable crowd, clad in mufflers, sweaters and woollen caps, collect there, waiting for the sunrise. As the golden orb ascends, everyone rushes to the other side of the viewpoint. The peaks of the Kanchenjunga are there, visible in the dawn’s first light, glimmering golden and fantasy-like.

It’s easy to see why Darjeeling is the Queen of the Hills. May it remain so.

 

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