Darjeeling in Northern Bengal is a familiar term for most readers: its tea is world-famous and has made this little mountain village (on 2000 meters) very popular. In the shadow of Kanchenjunga – the third highest mountain in the world – Darjeeling itself is characterized by a mix of different influences: its destination at the foot of the Himalayans, the Buddhist monasteries in the area but also by what happened during colonialism.
Darjeeling – A Village of World Reputation
Darjeeling – a word that sounds strangely familiar. Everyone has already heard the name. Darjeeling is very well-known ever since the English have started making tea here that gets exported it into the world. But: most people don’t neither know where locate it on the map or nor anything else about Darjeeling.
Here is some basic information about the little town:
Darjeeling has about 130,000 residents, In Europe that would count as a town, in India that is only a village. Darjeeling is on an elevation of 2000 meters in the state of Bengal (sometimes referred to as West-Bengal) at the foot of the Himalayans and usually serves as the gateway to the mountain area. Darjeeling is never really warm but mostly rainy. Its seasons are similar to the ones in Europe, June to August are the warmest time of the year, but temperature reach only 20 degrees on average. Winters are mild, temperatures don’t go below freezing point. The only real difference is the monsoon that makes summers usually wet.
Darjeeling – Home of the Famous Tea
Of course, first thing that comes to mind about Darjeeling is the famous black tea. Tea plantations are everywhere in and around Darjeeling. There are 150 tea plantations in Darjeeling, not all of them are open to public. You can do a tour on some or even book an overnight stay on others. We visited Happy Valley Tea Plantation. Happy Valley is right in Darjeeling, easy to reach and the best thing to do for a short tour. Full travel packages from the German travel agencies often include a visit to Glenburn Tea Estate. But there are many more tea estates to visit.
You can find a list here:
Anyways, some of the plantations on the list are rather far from Darjeeling.
We did not do much planning in advance, we just asked the driver and that worked quite well.
At the market place (end of Mall Road, easy to find) there is a “Tea Tasting”: a tea shop with a café where you can try several kinds of tea. The shop owner is Golden Tips, you find all kinds of tea here (black, green, white tea) to buy but also to try.
Toy Train: Small Railway in the Mountains
The English have built are narrow-gauge railway in Darjeeling. This was a way to manage the areas ascends: the train moves in circles up the hill. This means no bridges and tunnel are necessary. Today, this narrow-gauge train is still a tourist attraction, a classic steam train that drives from Ghoom to Darjeeling.
We did not take the train but saw it in Ghoom and Batasia Loop. Batasia Loop is a viewpoint from which you can see quite nicely how the train moves up the mountain in a circle. The train makes quite some noise and leaves a huge steam cloud behind. I would definitely recommend visiting Batasia Loop but I think you don’t really need a ride on the train.
Tiger Hill Viewpoint
Another very famous spot is the Tiger Hill Viewpoint. You can already see the Kanchenjunga from here. Tiger Hill is 11 km from Darjeeling but you still need 30 minutes to reach. Sunrise is at 5 am, you need to leave at 4.30 am. We were unlucky: it was rainy and cloudy, no view to the mountains at all. The following day was better; we could see the mountains but have missed the sunrise. We saw that later in Pelling.
The view from Tiger Hill is very good and very nice. If you are in Darjeeling, definitely try to find and see Kanchenjunga. If you travel further to Sikkim, you will have another change. But in the mountains, always use any opportunity the weather permits.
Tibetian Refugee Center and Japanese Peace Pagoda
Two more interesting spots are the Tibetian Refugee Center and the Japanese Peace Pagoda. Driving to the Tibetian Refugee Center (from 1959) is a steady climb on a hill. This center has several exhibits about the history of Tibet, its art and craft. There is some wooden and woolen work available, as well as carpets and leather. You can buy all these products in a store which is much cheaper than anything you find in town. The Refugee Center is definitely worth a visit.
Japanese Peace Pagoda (also called Japanese Temple and Peace Pagoda) is a spiritual place on Jalapar Hill. The Buddhist monastery was built as a sign of peace for people all over the world, no matter which race, religion or color. It wants to remind of peace and friendship, there are several peace pagoda worldwide. Darjeeling’s Peace Pagoda has a very good view.
Darjeeling Ropeway and Mall Road (Chowrasta)
There is a ropeway from Darjeeling to the valley. The rope did not work for us, because it was cloudy with no view at all. I’m sure the view to the valley is great on a good day. You can go down to a lower stop and visit a tea plantation.
Mall Road is Darjeeling’s center. Here, you find stores and restaurants the area is mostly blocked for cars and only open to walking traffic. There is a CCD (if you don’t know, that stands for Café Coffee Day, the Indian equivalent to Starbucks) with a very good valley view. A few steps further, you find the Golden Tipps tea store I mentioned above.
Traffic in Darjeeling
If you have ever been to India, you know the big mess traffic is there. Take all this mess, put it into a little mountain village with narrow streets and you have Darjeeling. Plus, there is a lot of walking traffic. Residents from Darjeeling quite often simply walk, and there are many kids in school uniforms walking around. Everything else, “typically Indian” is also there: rikschas, shared jeeps, busses, cars and scooters. Darjeeling has become a popular holiday destination for Indians that means many tourist cars (usually Toyota Innova) are everywhere. The toy train also drives every now. Parts of its tracks are on the street that means everyone needs to share the road with the train as well. As soon as the toy train comes, the entire traffic stops and collapses. But even without the toy train, traffic is very slow and you get stuck in traffic a lot, and only move very, very slowly.
How To Reach Darjeeling
Darjeeling does not have an airport. The closest airport is Bagdhora. You can reach Bagdhora easily with all Indian carriers. In Bagdhora, you should take a driver. There are no busses to Darjeeling and everything else is too exhausting and takes too long. There is a tourist counter at Darjeeling airport that was very helpful in organizing a driver and a tour. The drivers already wait at the airport. That is what we did, everything worked quite well.
It’s only 70 km from Bagdhora to Darjeeling but it takes 2 ½ hours. Driving along the mountains makes a nice road tour. You should stop every now and then to enjoy the view.
If you feel uncomfortable like this, you can book a driver in advance through your travel agency. You will not have a different driver, but maybe you have more security or feel you have more.
If you dare and have the nerves to do so, book when you are there. It’s not a problem at all, that is how things are done in India and you can trust it. It’s definitely much cheaper than anything you get from your travel agency.
Sightseeing in Darjeeling
The driver took us around and showed us everything that is important in Darjeeling. That was the right thing to do, without him we would not have seen that much. There is basically no parking anywhere. The drivers stop at the roadside, somehow turn around (I don’t know how they do it in these narrow streets.) and wait at the car. Things are such a mess; you need to leave these kind of things up to locals.
How to Combine Things:
You can go to Ghoom, on the way you pass Batasia Loop. The Samten Choling Monastery is right next to it. Tiger Hill Viewpoint is a bit further, also reachable via Ghoom.
At the other end of Darjeeling, there are Happy Valley Tea Estate, the Zoo and the Mountaineering Institute.
There are several Buddhist monasteries. There is also a zoo in which you can find the Mountaineering Institute. We only went there because of the Mountaineering Institute. The zoo is not that great, the Mountaineering Institute is better. You can do it, you it would not be a top priority for me. Tenzig Norgay, Edmund Hilary’s Sherpa and first person to climb the Mount Everest lived in Darjeeling and was for many years president of the Mountaineering Institute. Norgay’s grave is also here, he is a national hero in Darjeeling, people refer to him only by his first name “Norgay”.
If you only know India’s large cities, you will see an entirely new and different India here. It’s colder, you are at the Himalaya outskirts and things are somehow, much more relaxed. People are very friendly, a bit of a chaos is there, but the mood is good and friendly. Even the street dogs look healthier and fitter. I have never seen any landscape that can be compared to Darjeeling. Tea Plantations are everywhere on steady mountains. There are thousands of visible power lines, but no bridges or tunnel. Definitely an extraordinary place and a good starting point for tours to the Himalaya Mountains.