Thursday, October 29, 2009

Darjeeling – the true QUEEN of hill stations in West Bengal, India!!

Of days gone by...this April during my solo all India motorcycle journey

It was a cloudy day and I was climbing the winding roads and through the crisscrossing railway tracks that led to Darjeeling, the absolutely stunning green hill station nestled in the Eastern Himalayas and bordering the Eastern half Nepal. Majestic pines and lush green tea gardens covered the entire hill slope. Interspersed were the brilliant  red rhododendrons. And the icing on the cake, was riding beside the chugging world heritage toy train that is synonymous with Darjeeling. This Darjeeling Himalayan Railway is a legendary late 19th century product and is still being powered by a steam engine.

Well, all this excitement, thump and anticipation fizzled out as it started raining soon and the rains continued during my entire stay at Darjeeling. Even worse was the heavy fog cover that reduced visibility to less than ten feet. The weather completely dampened my mood and forced me to alter my plans. I had initially planned on going on a 3 day trek to Sandakphu and Phalut from Manenbhanjang, a place about 30 kms west of Darjeeling. This trek inside the Singalila National Park and on the Singalila range would have given me great views of Mount Everest and Mount Kangchendzonga. But, thanks to the inclement weather and the ensuing landslides, all treks inside the national park had been called off. Even the customary views of the Himalayas offered from Darjeeling were not to be seen.

After sulking indoors for a day, I mentally prepared myself to put the rain and the chilly weather behind me and explore this hill station.

The heart of this hill station is crowded like most other hill stations in India and has got a tad too dirty for comfort. And, even worse locals told me that there is a huge water problem in this place and one has to get drinking water from the plains of Siliguri. But, I guess that is a bane for such heightened tourism. But, I soon found out that there is a much brighter side to Darjeeling and which would change all of the above.

First, I went to the Batasia loop, a railway loop and a marvellous feat of engineering, about 5 kms from Darjeeling, and treated myself to the sight of the toy train passing through this loop. Next, I walked down to the Happy Valley Tea Estate, about 3 kms from the town to watch the actual manufacturing mechanism behind the famous and aromatic Darjeeling tea. The next morning, I woke up early and went to Tiger Hill hoping for some clear skies and for some views of the Himalayan peaks. The ride was beautiful through steep and narrow roads and through lush green forests. But, as my luck would have it, the peak was completely covered in dense fog and visibility was at its lowest. Tiger Hill is situated at an altitude of 2590 metres (8482 feet) and is 15 kms from Darjeeling town. On a clear day, one can get breathtaking views of Mount Everest and Kanchenjunga.

Feeling dejected, I rode down and went to the town of Ghoom, which is situated 8 kms from Darjeeling. This is where I got to see the ancient, but appealing Yiga Chilling Monastery, the oldest Tibetan monastery in this area. Constructed in 1875 and belonging to the Gelugpa sect, it enshrines an image of the ‘Coming Buddha’ or the ‘Maitriya Buddha.

It was only on my way out of Darjeeling that the weather started to get a bit better. There is a road that goes from Ghoom to Teesta Bazaar. This is an amazing stretch of road with consistent declines greater than 45 degrees. It was a struggle even with my motorcycle in first gear and me jamming both my brakes. It is enroute to Teesta Bazaar that I came across the amazingly beautiful Triveni view point, which is yet another tourist attraction near Darjeeling. This is where one can see the confluence of the Rangeet (river that flows from West Bengal) and the Teesta (river that flows from Sikkim) rivers. It is on these rivers in the summer and in the monsoons, that the adventure seeker goes on river rafting expeditions and struggles with the furious Himalayan waters.

So as you can see, there are opportunities galore for each type of tourist at this ancient Gorkha capital. I will definitely visit Darjeeling when the days have clear blue skies and complete my planned Singalila trek and maybe go on a river rafting expedition on the Rangeet…

To see India through the eyes of a motorcyclist’s lens, visit the album below.

my solo all-india motorcycle journey

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