Our ride from Jorethang in Sikkim to Darjeeling could easily compare to the best roller-coaster rides around,little did we know that our experience at Darjeeling wouldn’t be too different either.
Darjeeling is easily the most popular hill station in this part of the country.Hills adorned with tea plantations, the smell of freshly baked bread wafting through the air and little girls dressed up in cute convent school uniforms,it ticks off all the boxes required for a hill station.When we landed in Darjeeling we were greeted to a cacophony of blaring horns and cab drivers shouting at the top of their voices. Darjeeling is filled with Cabs, vehicles of all sizes and shapes are parked all over town offering to take you to the remotest of tourist attractions. There were so many off them that navigating through the town proved to be a real hassle. The roads weren’t clean either,crowded, littered and cramped,we were beginning to realise that Darjeeling had another side to it.
One of the must see attractions of Darjeeling is the view point at Tiger Hill. Viewing the sunrise here and being able to catch a glimpse of the lofty Himalayan peaks(Everest included on a clear sky)was something we did not want to miss out on. So we hired a taxi which promptly arrived at our doorsteps at 4 in the morning. Still unsure if we were awake, we boarded the taxi and it sped off to beat the sun to Tiger Hill.Whatever slumber we were in, was shattered by the blaring horns of the gazillion vehicles at the entrance to the hill. Yes!There was actually a traffic jam at four in the morning on this tiny hill. Navigating through the crowd, we managed to buy tickets (the better the viewing point, the higher you had to pay!)to a decent viewing spot. The sea of humans there to great the Sun was a greater spectacle to us than the actual Sunrise.We were half-expecting the people to cheer and do a Mexican Wave as the Sun made its grand entrance. In spite of all the commotion around, nature did not disappoint us and we witnessed a picturesque sunrise bathing the Himalayan peaks in shades of Orange and Red. We were able to locate the Kanchenjunga, but the Everest managed to slip under the clouds and give us a miss.By now were wide awake and the driver also took us to the Ghoom Monastery, one of the oldest in this region and the Gurkha War Memorial dedicated to all the Gurkha soldiers who lost their lives fighting for our country.
In the afternoon, we decided to visit the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park,commonly known as the Darjeeling Zoo. The zoo is located in a fairly large 65 acre plot in the outskirts of the town. We were able to observe a variety of wildlife that were unique to the Himalayan region like the Himalayan Tahr, Blue Sheep, Himalayan Monal, Grey Peacock Pheasant, Himalayan Salamander, Blood Pheasant, Satyr Tragopan, Snow leopards, Red pandas and Gorals (mountain goat). We did spend an extra few minutes in observing the Royal Bengal Tiger, the quest after which this humble blog has been named. The Zoo is also know for its conservation efforts of the Red Panda,the state animal of Sikkim, a timid creature which is usually found in the lower Himalayas. One of the points that caught our attention, were the large open spaces available to some of the animals to freely roam around (the wild ones were obviously caged). It was a refreshing change to the cramped up environments we are so used to seeing in other zoos.
The next day we finally decided to take a ride on the famed Darjeeling Mountain Railway, a UNESCO World Heritage, and the actual purpose of our visit here.The Darjeeling Railways operates both Diesel as well as Steam rail engines. The former ones are called the TOY rides and the latter the JOY rides. We could not understand this unique classification as the JOY of traveling on a steam powered coach was not in our destiny. Tickets for these were already sold out, so we decided to enjoy the diesel-powered TOY ride. These ones are used by the general public for transportation to the New Jalpaiguri and Kurseong Stations, while the steam ones are only used as Novelty rides to Ghoom and back (2 hours ride to cover a distance of 13 kms). Like everything else in Darjeeling, the train compartments were filled with people, all there to capture the excitement of a mountain railway train ride. Fortunately we had reservations and navigated our way through the maze to our seats. The train meandered through Darjeeling town at its own leisurely pace. All vehicles next to the tracks were stopped to give way to the Grand Old Man of Indian Railways. It was actually quite a sight, all the cab drivers, who were generally always shouting as their vehicles overtook one another, were now quietly waiting in line for the Heritage train to pass. We were able to catch glimpses of more tea plantations, and numerous Monasteries on the way. The train ride, was indeed a unique experience, more so for the fact that we were able to ride on one of the oldest trains in India through some of the busiest mountain traffic in the country.
We cannot end this article without mentioning one of the best bakeries we have ever set foot in -Glenary’s. Set right in the centre of town, on Motor Road, the pastries and patties here are truly to die for. Over the course of our two day stay, Glenary’s would not have seen more gluttony tourists before. Spicy chilly chicken patties, tender pork sausages,melting-in your mouth paneer patties, custard oozing cream rolls,soft as fluffy sweet buns, sugar sprinkled donuts and chocolate dripping pastries, nothing was left unsampled.Darjeeling should just advertise this as their main attraction!
Darjeeling does have its charm, its just that its getting harder to find it.With the tourist inflow increasing by infinite bounds, we just hope that this once-quiet mountain town retains its hill station heritage in the years to come. Till then, lets bear with the noisy Cab drivers as you enjoy your mouth watering cream roll, while staring at the lazy heritage train pass by.