2018 India – Darjeeling

After a short flight I landed at Bagdogra Airport. Luggage did not take long and Rupak, my guide for the next 12 days, was already waiting for me with a big welcoming smile on his face. Getting out of the airport parking was a chaotic experience but finally we were on our way. Darjeeling was only a 90 kilometre drive but still it would take us over three hours to get there. In the mean time Rupak entertained me with a lot of historical and cultural facts about Darjeeling and Sikkim, whilst Urgen, my driver manoeuvred safely over the curvy roads. Soon we started to climb the hills, fortunately the road was in much better condition than in Arunachal Pradesh.

I had lunch at a place with supposedly a fantastic view but as the clouds were already gathering I had to use my imagination for that. The noodle soup and momos were excellent though.

Around four o’clock we arrived in Darjeeling and checked in at my hotel. First I sorted out my laundry as I was staying here for four nights. Then it was time for a nice cup of Darjeeling tea and relax. I enjoyed dinner and went to bed early as the morning after I had to wake up at four o’clock in order to witness sunrise…

It was a restless night as I woke up a couple of times and at three I was right awake. Just after four I got dressed and 45 minutes later I was picked up to go to Tiger Hill. It was a 30 minute drive uphill and in spite of the time of the day it was already very busy. The day in Darjeeling started as usual with a large gathering at tiger hill to witness the first sun-rays of the day. At the peak it was extremely crowded and everywhere you could buy a hot cup of tea or coffee. The temperature, although chilly, was definitely not as cold as in Tawang. I found a brilliant spot from where I could both watch the sunrise, as well as the mountains.

But about 30 minutes before sunrise the clouds started gathering. I could see glimpses of the high peaks in the distance but not very well. A large applause and cheering sounded when a shy sun showed itself for the first time that day. The sunrise might not have been the best I have ever seen but the enthusiasm and excitement of the crowd was affective.

Before we returned to the hotel we visited Ghoom monastery, a rather small but authentic monastery witch a large statue of the Maitreya Buddha dominating the prayer hall. There were the usual collection of artifacts, statues and prayer books on display and I must admit I rather liked this modest place.

At the hotel I had breakfast and a refreshing shower after which I had an hour or so to relax. Around ten we continued the tour. Our first stop was the zoological garden where I could see a wide range of Himalayan animals. They were all in far too small compounds for my liking but that seems to be the norm in Asian zoo’s. I had seen quite a selection of animals already in the wild but was extremely excited to see my first two snow leopards.

Also the red panda’s were extremely beautiful and they seemed to be at ease in their environment, in spite of some of the other animals who clearly showed nervous signs and meandered up and down their confined compartments.

Next to the zoo was the Himalayan Mountain Institute and training centre, this showed an interesting display of items used during mountaineering. A complete floor was dedicated to Mount Everest, which appealed the most to me. A statue for Sherpa Tenzing, the first man to reach the top of Mount Everest, could not fail and his final resting place was in front of the institute as he spent the last years of his life in Darjeeling.

Our next stop was the Darjeeling rope way, a 5 kilometer long cable car ride that mostly went over beautiful tea gardens. It was a delightful ride, in spite of the fog, and I enjoyed it a lot. At the ground station there was not a lot to do so I had a tea and made my way back, this time I was lucky to have a cabin on my own so I could freely move to either side to make pictures.

Time was flying by and Rupak brought me to a great restaurant for a lunch with local specialities. The food, like the people over here, had more in common with Nepal than India, I had a pork dish, fermented vegetables and Nepalese black dahl. Fantastic! To digest we went to a tea tasting centre where I choose 5 different teas to taste. From silver tip, first flush (Spring harvest), to slightly stronger versions. The explanation about the origin of the tea and how to brew the perfect cup was excellent and I did enjoy the experience thoroughly.

We strolled a bit through the city centre and when we passed Glenary’s, the best bakery in town. I could not resist and opted for a black coffee and a piece of cake called chocolate delight. After that I asked to be returned to the hotel as it had been along day. I already knew it would not be late that night.

Next morning I had the luxury of a sleep-in as my program did not start until after nine. The first experience was a ride in the world heritage toy train. We arrived early at the Darjeeling railway station so there was time enough to look around and enjoy the preparations. I must admit I became rather excited as a trip on this train had been playing with my imagination for a long time. The tracks are only 60 cm wide, hence it’s nickname. The train was only 2 carriages long and was powered by an original steam engine

Just after ten the whistle blew to announce the departure of the train. We were on our way. The train followed the same route as the road and after only 5 minutes we had a short stop to fill up with water. Then we continued the scenic route I was staring out of the window with a big smile on my face.

The next stop was the Batasia loop where we halted for about 10 minutes so I could stretch my legs and admire the small park and the Gorkha war memorial that was located within the loop.

Then we were on our way again to Ghum, the end point of our journey. At the first floor of the railway station a small museum was housed with some interesting facts and artifacts on display about this world famous train. It was about a 30 minute break during which the steam engine was moved to the front of the carriages. Then the whistle blew again and the return journey to Darjeeling started. Two hours after we departed we returned there and Rupak did not need to ask whether I had enjoyed myself, the smile on my face spoke for itself.

Our next highlight was the Bhutia Busty Gompa, This monastery originally stood on Observatory Hill, but was rebuilt in its present location after being destroyed by the chogyals of Sikkim in the 19th century. It houses fine murals depicting the life of Buddha, and also the Tibetan Book Of The Dead is kept safely over here.

Then it was time for lunch, I opted for a simple vegetable pulau which tasted rather nice. Yesterday’s lunch had been amazing but for today I wanted something lighter.

Observatory hill was only a short stroll away. Sacred to both Buddhists and Hindus, this hill was the site of the original Dorje Ling monastery that lent Darjeeling its name. Today, devotees come to a temple in a small cave to honour Mahakala, a Buddhist protector deity also worshipped in Hinduism as a wrathful avatar of Shiva the destroyer. The summit is marked by several shrines, a flurry of colorful prayer flags and plenty of ringing bells. I was lucky enough to witness a wedding that was both performed by Buddhist monks and a Hindhu priest, an exceptional experience.

The official program for the day had ended but I had asked Rupak for a visit to the local market. I simply love markets as they are such a wonderful opportunity to make pictures and this one definitely was no exception to that. We started of at the part where beef was sold. Fridges are not required over here and everywhere big lumps of meat were displayed and cut, ready for sale.

Next I saw some stalls where mutton was sold, as well as chicken. All the sellers were extremely friendly and eager to go on the photo after I asked them.

At the fish market I was invited to come in and although it was a rather smelly experience I can only say I loved every single moment of it.

Last to visit was the vegetable and spice market. Over here a cacophony of colors pleased my eyes and I must say the vegetables all looked extremely appealing and fresh. And the spices, their smell and colors were simply overwhelming.

By now I was getting a bit tired but somehow I also was craving for a kingfisher beer so we headed back to Glenary’s, not only the best bakery in town but also a fine bar. I enjoyed my beer and a snack, after it was time to return to my hotel for a well deserved (and needed) afternoon nap. I set the alarm so I would be in time for dinner, and after that returned to my room for a nice and long sleep. What a day it had been.

Instead of staying another day in Darjeeling town it was time to explore the area. It was still rather foggy that morning so unfortunately I still could not admire the view of the hills and the mountains. Not that it mattered as there was enough to be seen. We drove through a dense forrest of fern and low trees. High rising above that and most impressive were the tall and very dense fern trees. What a fantastic sight.

We stopped at a view point that, due to the fog, I renamed to no-view point. With nothing to see we quickly headed on to our next stop, the Gopalhara Tea Gardens. Darjeeling is world famous for it’s characteristic tea and houses about 87 different tea gardens. In spite of only taking care of 1% of the total Indian tea production it’s taste and quality quickly made fame amongst tea lovers. We made a short stroll through the scenic garden where Rupak explained me a bit more. And what better way to finish of a visit to a tea garden than to enjoy a hot cup of freshly brew Darjeeling tea.

Not much later we passed Pashupat, a town at the border with Nepal. I was so tempted to put, if only one, foot into Nepal but as this was no official border crossing for foreigners and the place was guarded by military staff on both sides I resisted.

Our next stop was Mirik lakeside. Mirik is the second town in the area with about 80.000 inhabitants, and although described as picturesque I was not impressed. The lake itself was nice but nothing special. What made it really nice though was watching the people who came to It’s shoreline to relax. I was given the option for a boat and horse ride but decided to skip both.

My eyes got focused on Bokar Monastery, in the hills above Mirik so I asked whether we could go there, and of course we could. The monastery was a relatively new monastery and was home to only local monks. It was beautiful and the prayer hall looked impressive from the large courtyard in front of it. Unfortunately it was closed so I could not admire it’s interior, but instead I was entertained by monks enjoying a game of cricket.

Then it was time for lunch, a lovely masala Papadum followed by an even tastier noodle soup. As there was not much further to see in Mirik I choose to return to Darjeeling. On our way there I dozed away so before I knew I recognized the railway station where I started my lovely journey with the toy train the day before.

By now I decided I had, again, deserved a beer so we returned to the bakery for a refreshing kingfisher. Tomorrow would be a long ride so after my beer we returned to my hotel and I released Rupek und Urgen (my driver) and went for an afternoon nap. Dinner was perfect after which I packed my suitcase so all was ready for a new destination the next day. A new destination, new adventures ahead….

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