It’s often been said that nothing worthwhile is easy. This is a perfect way to describe the Darjeeling area of far northern India, which cannot in any terms be described as easy to get to. You have to want to go to Darjeeling; you have to be dedicated, really.
Starting from Kolkata or Delhi you fly into Bagdogra Airport or take the train to New Jalpaiguri station; from there it is either a 5-hour car ride along steep, winding, bumpy mountain roads or you can take the famous Himalayan Railway Toy Train – although this will take 7 hours or longer.
But let me put your mind to rest – all of this is exceedingly worth it. Although the ride is rather jostling it is also magnificent, with some of the most spectacular views on earth of the world’s highest mountains, and green valleys below dotted with villages and farms. And once you have arrived, you quickly begin to understand the draw that this magical place has.
This district of West Bengal, shoehorned right in between Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan, lies in the foothills of the Roof of the World and is unlike anywhere else in India. With a large Nepali population, and a fair number of Tibetans as well, it has more of the feel of those places than of India.
The wonderfully cool climate, clear brisk air and breathtaking scenery drew the British and Indian royalty here to escape the stifling heat of Kolkata, as it still does holiday-makers today.
It’s the perfect spot for both outdoor adventurers, with world-class trekking and sports; but it also provides incomparable opportunities to settle in, relax, and simply be still.
Arriving in the town of Darjeeling, I was surprised by how crowded and busy it was. I had expected a sleepy little hill station, but the locals will tell you that Darjeeling has grown considerably in the past decade as more and more people migrate from the surrounding countryside to earn a living. Once you’re outside Darjeeling, most everyone will refer to the town as the “big city,” like it’s Manhattan itself.
Yes, Darjeeling is bustling, but it’s not that big; for most Westerners it still holds the charm of a small town and traces of its grandeur as the summer getaway during the heyday of the British Raj.
There is, however, much more traffic than the town was built for; be careful walking along the constricted streets, as it seems to be up to pedestrians to jump out of the way of cars attempting to maneuver past each other, and many drive much too fast for the mountain roads.
Begin your exploration by winding your way along the maze of narrow market lanes, up to the main promenade of Chowrasta. Here you will find a large open square lined by fantastic curio, antique and jewelry shops filled with quality treasures, while horses and donkeys tote small children around the pavestones for a ride.
Continue following the pathway up the adjacent green hill and you will find the Mahakal Temple, situated on the highest point in Darjeeling. It’s really a number of small shrines that you can wander between, receiving blessings from the monks and priests who preside over each one.
Don’t miss the tiny, interesting underground cave temple, just downhill a bit from the others. And be prepared for the monkeys – they are everywhere as the locals feed them, and some are none too shy.
As I leaned against a short wall to take a photo, I felt something tugging at the pashmina flipped across my shoulder. I turned to find a huge monkey with a strong grip on the material; a tug-of-war ensued, both of us a bit surprised as well as determined. As the victim of a previous monkey robbery (location: Nepal; crime: fruit-snatching), I was not about to give up my scarf to this creature; I won soundly and the monkey scurried off to sulk.
A short walk past the temples, away from town, brings you to the world-famous Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, a training center for mountaineers and a terrific museum documenting expeditions and conquests of the world’s highest peaks. Sherpa Tenzing Norgay’s remains are entombed right in front of the museum. The ticket into HMI also grants entrance to the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological park, home to Siberian tigers, black bears, red pandas and many other indigenous species, as well as a snow leopard breeding center.
The Kanchenjunga mountains are a big draw, visible from most points of town and irresistible to trekkers. You can spend a couple of hours or the whole day hiking nearby; Tiger Hill at sunrise is particularly stunning. Several interesting Buddhist monasteries are worth a visit including Bhutia Busty, Thupten Sangag Choling and Yiga-Choling. And of course, don’t miss a joy ride on the historic Toy Train, operating since 1879 and designated World Heritage Site. The best way to do this is to take one of the “joy rides” along the Batasia Loop, which is about two hours round-trip.
Further Afield: Tea Estates and Trekking
Mention the name Darjeeling, and what first comes to mind for most people is the famous tea – light, floral and aromatic. A visit to the region wouldn’t be complete without exploring some of the 70 tea gardens that are found here, for tours and tastings. Many can be easily done on a day trip from town, but nothing beats the experience of staying at a tea estate for several days. There are several that offer overnight accommodations, but none quite in the style of Glenburn.
Glenburn Tea Estate is a heavenly little plantation retreat that lies on a hillock above the banks of the River Rungeet. Started by a Scottish company in 1859, Glenburn passed into the hands of one of India’s pioneering tea planting families, The Prakashes, over a hundred years ago. Today, the third and fourth generation Prakash family carry almost a century of tea knowledge in their inheritance, and share it with their guests at Glenburn. Eight stylish, antique-filled guest rooms open onto communal living salons and expansive verandahs.
One of the real pleasures of a stay at Glenburn is the food; all meals, snacks and refreshments are included in the tariff, and menus comprise a range of cuisines using fruit, vegetables, herbs and spices from the well-stocked garden. Dinners here are known for the camaraderie and conversations among guests from all around the world.
During the day, you have plenty of opportunities to burn off the calories with Glenburn’s top-notch walking guides leading nature hikes and providing a wealth of information on the plants, birds and wildlife. Tea Estate Manager Sanjay Sharma also leads guests on tours of the tea factory, including a tasting, and is incredibly informative about the process – as well as highly entertaining, with colorful stories.
Because the focus at Glenburn is on nature and relaxation, there are no televisions, phones or internet connection in any of the accommodations. But really, guests come to Glenburn to get away from all that – and there is no better place in the world to do so, nestled in the Himalayan foothills amid acres of rolling green tea gardens.
For a completely different countryside experience, head to Karmi Farm about an hour away. This organic farm has been in the Pulger-Frame family for decades, offering a basic yet comfortable homestay experience that will have you feeling part of the family within hours. Guests partake of the nearly endless opportunities for trekking and bird-watching in the mountains that offer breath-stopping vistas.
Andrew Pulger-Frame is happy to arrange all manner of hikes, from short one-to-two hour walks to all-day or multi-day treks. For the serious trekker, the Singali La route is incredible, a six day journey from the Nepal border to Rimbik with awesome views of the Kanchenjunga mountain range and Mount Everest. A shorter three day version is also possible.
On my visit, one of my favorite activities was a half-day trek up to the small 17th-century Nezi Monastery. A monk’s mother unlocked the doors to let us inside, where ancient prayer books piled on top of each other beneath peeling frescoes and Tibetan Buddhist statues.
Outside the monastery, we ate a picnic lunch of delicious curried potatoes wrapped in flat bread and served on banana leaves, while our guide Hisay played a game of pick-up football with two kids.
Karmi also conducts art retreats and yoga clinics throughout the year, and houses a small medical clinic staffed by many guest volunteers who often come for weeks or months at a time. Any guest is welcome to volunteer with the clinic as it offers free and low-cost treatments to villagers, many of whom walk for hours to be seen.
On my stay I met Tom and Emily, an English couple who had been working in the clinic for six weeks. Karmi Farm is very much a part of the neighboring villages, and offers an authentic glimpse into a hill farming lifestyle that seems to be rapidly fading from our modern world.