Green hills of elevated beauty

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iol travel dec 3 nt darjeeling2

Darjeeling, India - October is not the hottest part of the year in India, but for most of our time in the country the temperature topped 30ºC nevertheless. It thus proved a stroke of genius to have booked four nights’ accommodation in the “hill station” of Darjeeling, perched about 3 000m above sea level in West Bengal.

Just getting to Darjeeling, which is in the foothills of the Himalayas, is a bit of an adventure. We took a flight to Bagdogra airport from Delhi (about two hours) and from there it’s a 90km trip via shared jeep or taxi. Once you’ve found transport it’s supposed to be a three-hour drive up a winding mountain pass through the town of Kurseong and on to Darjeeling, but the road’s rough, and if there’s any delay you’re looking at four or five hours.

Unfortunately, we got stuck in a nasty snarl-up about 10 minutes after leaving the airport, and were set for a tough five-hour drive. But on the plus side, as soon as you get through the town of Siliguri and start to climb, the temperature drops dramatically, tea plantations start to dominate the landscape and there are spectacular views of hills and gorges as you climb up out of the valley. The green surrounds after the dusty plains instantly raised our spirits.

I’d liken the drive up to Kurseong to two Sani Passes, one after the other. It’s a dramatic climb on tarred roads with plenty of switchbacks, and my wife, who’s not too keen on heights, went a little pale at the thought. But once you get up to Kurseong, the climb becomes much more gradual, and it’s a case of hanging on as the driver threads his way past other vehicles, dodging the famous Darjeeling toy train and the pedestrians going about their daily business on this crucial, narrow mountain road. There is only one viable way to get up the hill after all, and while there’s lots of tourist transport on the go, it appears there are more vehicles moving local people and goods up and down the mountains.

We were staying at the Tibetan-owned-and-run Hotel Seven Seventeen, an affordable establishment with an excellent restaurant serving mainly Indian and Cantonese food, with some western-style options. By the time we arrived we’d been travelling all day and it was dark, but the staff were friendly and we hightailed it to our room to indulge in an illicit stiff drink. I’m not sure whether it was elation at having made it or the serious shift in altitude, but we were rather merry after one sharp jolt, and giddily settled in to unpack and head for dinner.

The great thing about Darjeeling is that it’s a relatively stress-free environment. It’s cool for one thing, and you can walk around town to see various attractions without having to constantly call on taxis and tuk-tuks, as is the case elsewhere. Like Delhi and Varanasi, there were street dogs all over town, but these looked in far better condition and this helped to relieve some anxiety – we’d seen some sad cases, particularly in Varanasi.

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Darjeeling, known as the “Queen of the Hills”, is commonly associated with tea, the British Raj and mountaineering. It was from here that the first sincere efforts to climb Mount Everest were launched, and the town boasts the excellent Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, with memorabilia, documentation and equipment from key expeditions. You won’t fail to notice a fitting monument to Sherpa legend and mountain climber Tenzing Norgay, who famously climbed Mount Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary on the first successful ascent. Tenzing spent most of his life in Darjeeling and was the head of the institute for years. There is an understandable and interesting focus on Indian and Nepali contributions and expeditions that form part of the Himalayan story.

A sprawling town spread out over a west-facing slope that forms one of the “bumps” heading towards the serious mountains of Nepal, Tibet and the Himalayas, the town’s layout can be rather confusing, but most of the action occurs around two main squares, Chowrasta and Clubside junction. It’s also a multicultural town, and it’s quite a job trying to work out who’s who among the Bengalis, Tibetans, Nepalis and those from elsewhere in India enjoying a rejuvenating holiday in the hills.

We had saved most of our shopping for Darjeeling and were not disappointed, as we set about buying clothes, textiles, gifts and, of course, tea. Tea is a major industry for the town, ownership has transferred to locals and many workers still find employment in the fields. There are many outlets around town selling a number of varieties, flushes (depending on the time of harvesting) and tea-related paraphernalia, and also offering tastings.

Away from the shops, there’s plenty to do. The hills are brilliant for walking and as soon as you get to the edge of town the birds and insects make themselves heard. Trekking is a big industry and a number of companies offer tours.

Although we certainly got around and saw the sights, we also took the chance to lie low, recharge the batteries and enjoy some quiet time in this eccentric mountain town.

THINGS TO DO

Darjeeling Zoo: Excellent zoo featuring Himalayan black bears, wolves, tigers, snow leopards, red pandas, panthers, monkeys. Established to study and conserve Himalayan fauna.

Himalayan Mountaineering Institute: In the same grounds as the zoo. Definitely worth a visit.

Observatory Hill: Short walk from Chowrasta square. On a clear day offers excellent views of Khangchendzonga, the world’s third-highest mountain.

Visit Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Centre: Either take a steep walk down from near Observatory Hill, or take a taxi to visit this important site. Tibetan refugees carry out arts and crafts to raise funds for the centre and to ensure they can practise their culture and traditions. Includes a home for the aged, an orphanage and clinic. The history and images of the Tibetan struggle for independence are documented in a dedicated facility.

Visit a tea estate: There are a number of options.

Trekking, white-water rafting, pony rides: Feeling active? This is a town perched as high as the KZN-Lesotho Drakensberg escarpment and the options for scenic outdoor activities are spectacular. Unfortunately we didn’t get the opportunity, but a multi-day trek in the area would be unforgettable.

Ride the toy train: The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (known as the toy train) passes close by, and jeeps and taxis constantly cross its narrow tracks. A trip via Toy Train to Kurseong and back might be fun, but a journey all the way down to NJP station near Siliguri might be a bridge too far.

High tea: Enjoy it at the colonial-style Windamere Hotel or the impressive Mayfair Darjeeling. - Sunday Tribune

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