Darjeeling, the enchanting Himalayan Queen

The very first thing that comes to my mind, and perhaps to a host of people around when you utter “Darjeeling‘ is the famous tea that this part of the globe produces. Well, this hill station has far more to offer than the aromatic tea that one sips and gets into a tizzy of joy.

She is truly a queen.

The majestic Kangchenjunga, the third tallest mountain at 8586 meters under the morning sun rays makes you forget who you are, where you come from. I was dumbfounded and spent 2 hours soaking in the sublime beauty  at Darjeeling, West bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
The majestic Kangchenjunga, the third tallest mountain at 8586 meters under the morning sun rays makes you forget who you are, where you come from. I was dumbfounded and spent 2 hours soaking in the sublime beauty

Breathtaking views of mountains. Undulating plateaus and valleys, the greenery that stretched far and wide. The most striking are the colors that we saw.

Along the hill edge as we walked, the town with its small and conical houses draped the hill surface ..all under the glare of the morning sun  at Darjeeling, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
Along the hill edge as we walked, the town with its small and conical houses draped the hill surface ..all under the glare of the morning sun
The greenery cloaked valleys with a curtain of fluffy clouds hanging from the sky made us stare forever  at Darjeeling, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
The greenery cloaked valleys with a curtain of fluffy clouds hanging from the sky made us stare forever

A mix of blue dipped in light and dark shades of green, make an incredible style statement from nature… wherever you look, all you see is dazzling colors thrown by nature.

The Tiger hill valley which we trudged to catch the sunrise on Kangchenjunga  at Darjeeling, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
The Tiger hill valley which we trudged to catch the sunrise on Kangchenjunga

We planned to spend four to five days in this hilly crucible. The terrain is harsh and the roads are steep, circuitous, and moderately drivable. Instead of our trusted Swift, we were driving a locally bred rugged SUV, a Sumo Spacio 3 liters which were fairly well suited due to her high ground clearance and high low-end torque needed to climb the gradient.   

We started our sojourn by getting up early to see the sunrise at Tiger Hill.

The sun skirts the hill edge as it climbs the golden sky over the Tiger Hill  at Darjeeling, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
The sun skirts the hill edge as it climbs the golden sky

At 5 am the temperature was around one to two degrees and with the skin numbing cold, we were hardly able to talk.    With hands dug deep into the jackets, we kept our eyes peeled to catch the first light of the sun.

Khangchendzonga, looked like jagged-edged bullion as the first sun rays fell on the slopes  at Darjeeling, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
Khangchendzonga, looked like jagged-edged bullion as the first sun rays fell on the slopes

I will try to paint the thought I had when I saw this… I felt like being a nonexistent entity and all my problems in life overshadowed, all my challenges in life weathered..all my accomplishments in life simply evaporated.   

I lost my worldly presence… perhaps I was looking at the creator.

Every second the mountain changed its color.. it was gold, then was it crimson? or white. The clouds, the wind and all the forces of nature were playing around  at Darjeeling, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
Every second the mountain changed its color.. it was gold, then was it crimson? or white. The clouds, the wind and all the forces of nature were playing around

The peak with all the flashing color looked like a supreme force which was not from this world.    There is such a level of brilliance in this world of ours…and what we do, think about mean and petty things of win and loss and join the rat race to ruin ourselves…

The serenity over the Tiger Hill was absolute..who used the brush..the sun or the wind, was hard to find  at Darjeeling, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
The serenity over the Tiger Hill was absolute..who used the brush..the sun or the wind, was hard to find

I was glad that I had the perception of beauty and that element was working for me to appreciate what I saw. As we came down, the valley lit up and the activities started. A huge section of local people had laid out a market to sell warm garments for the winter which included shawls, pullovers, sweaters.

Local inhabitants selling warm garments and attracting customers on the prowl for buying  at Darjeeling, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
Local inhabitants selling warm garments and attracting customers on the prowl for buying

We too went for a stroll across to catch a glimpse.   The cool breeze wafted across the valley and multiple varieties of flowers swung randomly to welcome the visitors.

Flowers with their gentle colors drew crowds in large numbers  at Darjeeling, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
Flowers with their gentle colors drew crowds in large numbers

In some places, we saw dense forest growth which stretched as far as the distant mountains. The backdrop of dark mountains continuously changed colors presenting nature’s ever-changing moods.

As the day grew older, the clouds thickened, slowly blanking Khangchendzonga as we saw the range through the forest  at Darjeeling, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
As the day grew older, the clouds thickened, slowly blanking Khangchendzonga as we saw the range through the forest 

On our way down, we saw “Ghum“, India’s highest railway station. Tucked away on the slopes, the small station had few meter-gauge railway wagons parked. How tiny they looked.

Ghum, in the early morning... train traffic is yet to begin  at Darjeeling, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
Ghum, in the early morning… train traffic is yet to begin

The most interesting part is the drive over the Hill Cart road which juxtaposes itself with the meter-gauge railway track and both train and vehicular traffic criss-cross each other and train and cars stop to give a passage to the other.

Sometimes, people jump out of the slow-moving smoke emitting train and grab the passing car/Jeep to travel.

The Darjeeling toy train and our car playing hide and seek on the Hill Cart Road  at Darjeeling, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
The Darjeeling toy train and our car playing hide and seek on the Hill Cart Road

The feeder roads in Darjeeling are narrow and comes in sharply with a thirty-degree angle, this necessitates to have smaller cars with short wheelbases for quick turns.

Typical Darjeeling road with sharp turns  at Darjeeling, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
Typical Darjeeling road with sharp turns

One of the most interesting places is the Darjeeling zoo. It has great inmates – Red pandas, leopards, exotic birds, so we parked on the angled road and paid a quick visit.

The musk deer are known for its scent which he emits used as a fragrance by the city yuppies to make their presence felt  at Darjeeling, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
The musk deer are known for its scent which he emits used as a fragrance by the city yuppies to make their presence felt
The near-extinct Snow leopard with his head on the cage wire..that long tail helps the feline to balance on rocky ravines when it pounces on its prey  at Darjeeling, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
The near-extinct Snow leopard with his head on the cage wire..that long tail helps the feline to balance on rocky ravines when it pounces on its prey
A Common leopard uses stealth and surprise to kill..it took quite an effort to locate the cat  at Darjeeling, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
A Common leopard uses stealth and surprise to kill..it took quite an effort to locate the cat
Clouded leopard, extremely rare..rolled on his side to catch the sun  at Darjeeling, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
Clouded leopard, extremely rare..rolled on his side to catch the sun
A pair of red pandas on a late afternoon walk across the tree branches  at Darjeeling, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
A pair of red pandas on a late afternoon walk across the tree branches

After a two hour stint at the zoo, we started driving towards newer areas to see the tea lands which hug the mountainsides like a green carpet.

Women and children working in the tea gardens and throwing the tea leaves behind them in the basket that they carry  at Darjeeling, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
Women and children working in the tea gardens and throwing the tea leaves behind them in the basket that they carry

As far as we could see, we saw tea gardens hung over the undulating hills and valleys. The temperature was quite low due to a mix of heavy moisture from the trees and a slight drizzle from the rain.

The tea gardens of Darjeeling... acres of hill slopes covered with this low height trees that fill the appetite of millions across the globe  at Darjeeling, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
The tea gardens of Darjeeling… acres of hill slopes covered with this low height trees that fill the appetite of millions across the globe
The famous Darjeeling black tea leaves from a nearby stall in the garden. The aroma itself was so good, that we took three cups of it with various combinations of milk, and no milk; the liquor type is very translucent if properly made  at Darjeeling, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
The famous Darjeeling black tea leaves from a nearby stall in the garden. The aroma itself was so good, that we took three cups of it with various combinations of milk, and no milk; the liquor type is very translucent if properly made

Driving in Darjeeling is quite challenging, especially if you are a driver of the plains. The road surface in some places is quite rough but the trick is to drive in low gears, and I being a die-hard stick shift gear head .. I only drive vehicles with a manual transmission, that way I had the complete control to suit the road condition.    

Of course, a four-wheel-drive vehicle like a Land Rover would have been really good for climbing steep roads.

Hillside driving.. which one to see, the beautiful scenery around you through the windows or the road ahead  at Darjeeling, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
Hillside driving.. which one to see, the beautiful scenery around you through the windows or the road ahead

The difficult part is when you are turning on the outer edge of a road where there’s a plunge on your left and you have a car on the opposite side.

Driving with the utmost care, balancing the car between the death on the left and the car in the opposite direction...quite an interesting moment  at Darjeeling, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
Driving with the utmost care, balancing the car between the death on the left and the car in the opposite direction…quite an interesting moment

You just drive with the outer edge as your guide and keep slow speed and use the engine as your brake.

We came down and parked to visit the handicrafts shop to see things on display… absolutely beautiful decorative objects available in any of the shops in this hill town.

Buddha heads, with intricate designs on display  at Darjeeling, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
Buddha heads, with intricate designs on display

For lunch, we used to have this very simple and highly nutritive dish, called Thukpa. Not only we felt ready to move around even after a good meal, but we also could pull for at least 4 hours without a meal.

Thukpa, the Tibetan dish of chicken stock, noodles with veg or non-veg mix  at Darjeeling, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
Thukpa, the Tibetan dish of chicken stock, noodles with veg or non-veg mix

One of the famous places in Darjeeling is the ‘Mall‘, it is an open area with scores of handicraft shops, eateries with good music ring around the ground.  People in great number flock to this place to have a great view of the Kangchenjunga and just amble across in the evenings… everyone has a fair share of their liking.

The Mall in Darjeeling, where tourist flock to spend the evening  at Darjeeling, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
The Mall in Darjeeling, where tourist flock to spend the evening
The crowd enjoying the Mall...the area remains filled with revelers even till 9 pm in the night  at Darjeeling, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
The crowd enjoying the Mall…the area remains filled with revelers even till 9 pm in the night

The following day, we drove to Kalimpong, another hill town, around 49 kilometres from Darjeeling with splendid mountain views all around.    We saw great many tea gardens and saw villagers coming back from them after a day’s work.

Road to Kalimpong, quite smooth over the hills snaking its way through the mountains  at Darjeeling, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
Road to Kalimpong, quite smooth over the hills snaking its way through the mountains
The confluence of Teesta river and Rangeet river, The spot from where we took this snap was picture perfect. Two rivers meandering through the dense jungles over the hills. All you can hear is the distant roar of the rivers and sound of the wind  at Darjeeling, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
The confluence of Teesta river and Rangeet river, The spot from where we took this snap was picture perfect. Two rivers meandering through the dense jungles over the hills. All you can hear is the distant roar of the rivers and sound of the wind

On our way down, we visited a few monasteries, which are quite prevalent across hill town. We saw the revolving rhymes line the walls. Young lamas were seen playing on the monastery grounds.

At a Tibetan monastery   at Darjeeling, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
A senior Lama is lighting up the fire before the worshiping sessions start. The fragrance of herbs and dry plants burning as the Lama blows over it was intense and smelled as if we were traveling through a thousand deep forests.  
The area with the smell and quietness and a distant drum of a Tibetan hymn kept us captivated for hours 
A monastery brings such serenity to the mind, we spent about an hour exploring  at Darjeeling, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
A monastery brings such serenity to the mind, we spent about an hour exploring 
A little lama boy from the monastery was playing cricket as we visited  at Darjeeling, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
A little lama boy from the monastery was playing cricket as we visited

We drove back to Darjeeling along the gurgling Teesta river which with marvelous views on every turn of the road. The road went up and down with numerous bends which kept my hands very busy with the steering wheel as we changed course.

Crossing the Teesta river and stopping to take a break to see the fast-moving river water splashing against the rocks that shoulder the banks  at Darjeeling, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
Crossing the Teesta river and stopping to take a break to see the fast-moving river water splashing against the rocks that shoulder the banks
Kalimpong to Darjeeling road along the Teesta river  at Darjeeling, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
Kalimpong to Darjeeling road along the Teesta river

The roads in these parts of the country ride wooden bridges over scores of small to big rivers as streams and rapids are commonplace in this terrain.

When the car climbs on one of these, the entire bridge makes squeaks and sways sideways as we crossed one after the other.

A wooden bridge awaiting the weight of our vehicle as I aligned the car to cross a stream  at Darjeeling, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
A wooden bridge awaiting the weight of our vehicle as I aligned the car to cross a stream

After a grueling drive of close to 8-9 hours, we returned to Darjeeling, By the evening, we could see the setting sun disappearing among the Himalayan mountain range.

The tea garden workers were also returning home with us, only traveling up along the road.

A day for these tea garden women workers coming to an end as we were driving home  at Darjeeling, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
A day for these tea garden women workers coming to an end as we were driving home
We bid goodbye to the setting sun as the hills started looking menacing with the fast disappearing light  at Darjeeling, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
We bid goodbye to the setting sun as the hills started looking menacing with the fast disappearing light

A singular experience of visiting and driving in Darjeeling. Every bit of the place is a nature’s creation of vivid colors coupled with changing the mood of the weather.

Darjeeling town with its small houses hugged the hillsides and the valley like a necklace  at Darjeeling, West Bengal, India by Gautam Lahiri
Darjeeling town with its small houses hugged the hillsides and the valley like a necklace

As the sun went down, the houses built over the hillsides slowly started lighting up and looked like dots of yellow light as people prepared for the night.  Once the sun went down, the general activity of a town comes down very rapidly and a quietness falls over the mountains…all you hear is the hush of wind, punctuated by car horns as somewhere a Jeep or a car making its way back home.

Shades of cold winds lingered over the valley and town. Tightening the collar of my warm jacket I eased the clutch of the Jeep and with a cloud of loose dust off the hills, the quarter ton four wheel drive took us to our refuge at the base.

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