Darjeeling, the sensational hill station, is mere 75 km away from Siliguri. Initially, the ride was exceptionally good. We had great roads, lush green tea plantations, the mountains and to add more charm- the tiny tracks of the famous toy train never left our sight. It was amazing to see these tracks crisscross through the ghat section. However, half way through the ride the roads turned narrow, became congested and were filled with potholes. This continued till we reached Darjeeling and the rider was faced with more challenges as the roads were way too steep to ride. There were times when the pillion had to get off the bike and give it a little boost.
Like the saying goes 'No pain no gain,' the finale was fruitful. Our very first sight of the phenomenal steam power locomotive made our day. The train was all decked up for a cultural show. It was indeed quite a lovely sight to admire this age old beauty serving to this day chugging out smoke and blowing the iconic horn that echoes around the valley. It awakened the child within us wanting to hop on to it for a joy ride.
This Queen of hill stations is way colder than any of the other places that we have been to in Nepal. The mornings are beautiful with the first sun rays falling on the peaks of Kanchengunga giving it an orange tinge. This place with abundant natural beauty soothes your soul almost instantly. The people are warm and welcoming and very helpful. The sun sets at 5 pm and so does the hill station. Shop owners shut their business at sunset. A perfect time to mingle with your family and friends around a bonfire, sharing stories and enjoying dinner. Unlike, the unhealthy lifestyle of always being hooked to your gadgets with virtual friends.
This place could have been more beautiful had it not been for the poor infrastructure. The narrow roads make sure that vehicles pile up one behind another for kilometers. In spite of the jam, the people wait patiently following traffic rules but for the vehicles that run for the government. If you are on your own vehicle you might have a nightmare finding a parking spot. Apart from the abundant natural beauty, Darjeeling offers some spectacular monasteries such as Ghoom, Dali, Bhutia Busty.
The Ghoom monastery is very calm and peaceful. It is ideal to visit the monastery in the evening and watch monks showcase their soccer skills. They were at their innovative best, playing with a make shift ball rolled out of nothing but plastic bags that was taking a beating.
Dali Monastery, home to more than 200 monks, was built by Kyabje Thuksey Rimpoche in 1971. The walls of this monastery are adorned with beautiful paintings depicting the life of Buddha. It also has a library with a huge collection of books on Buddhism and Tibetan culture.
Bhutia Busty Monastery is a lesser known monastery hidden high up on a hill offering a very peaceful and serene atmosphere. The view of the entire town from here is pretty spectacular. Tucked away 12 km from Darjeeling, it is well worth a visit. An interesting fact about the monastery is that though it is located in the West Bengal district of Darjeeling, it belongs to the State of Sikkim. This place also attracts few tourists as it is believed to house the 'Tibetan Book of the Dead' in their library but contrary to this popular belief, the monastery has given a clarification that it does not exist.
The Batasia loop, an engineering marvel, is where the toy train makes a 360 degree turn. A War Memorial was constructed in 1995 at this site to pay homage to martyrs of this land who did the supreme sacrifice - Laid down their lives to protect their Motherland.
Padmaja Naidu Zoo - This zoo is internationally recognized for its conservation breeding programs of Snow Leopard, Red Panda and Tibetan Wolf. It is the first in South East Asia to have successfully bred Red Panda in captivity and later released them in the wild. It is funny how mankind functions, we as beings are so self centered that we do not care about the repercussions urbanization has on the environment. By the time we wake up, it is already too late.
Though we do not appreciate animals being kept in captive, it is commendable to see the conservation efforts taken up by this zoo. Padmaja Naidu Zoological Park is specialized in educating, creating awareness, captive breeding and releasing endangered animal species in their natural habitat- the Eastern Himalayan region. Some noteworthy wildlife here includes Black Leopard, Snow Leopard, Clouded Leopard, Common Leopard, Red Panda, Leopard Cat, Jungle Cat.
Within the park premises is the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. The museum in the institute is worth a visit as it exhibits gears used by mountaineers for expeditions. Please keep in mind that the zoo and institute are closed for maintenance every Thursday. A kilometer away from the zoo is the Tenzing Rock where you can try your hand at rock climbing.
Last but not the least, your trip to Darjeeling is incomplete if you do not ride on the UNESCO World Heritage Himalayan Railway or the affectionately called Darjeeling Toy Train. The joy ride covers 14 km and lasts for about 2 hours. The toy train stops at the Batasia Loop War Memorial for about 10 minutes and for 30 minutes at Ghoom railway station giving one enough time to visit the Ghoom Railway museum. It is an incredible experience to travel on this piece of History, lovely to see the train chugging through the small hill town and providing mesmerizing views of Kanchenjunga. Everyday there are 4 joy rides with very limited seats. It would be a good idea to plan and accommodate this first in your itinerary. Each ticket costs 400 INR.
We checked into Merry Resort, this is easily one of the best properties in Darjeeling. Once a home for the Maharaja, this heritage property was converted to a hotel or more of a home-stay. The views of the Kanchenjunga from the room are priceless. It is tucked away in a corner with no clutter around and lots of breathing space which is really hard to find in Darjeeling. At the same time, it is only 2 km away from the main market and all other tourist attractions are dotted nearby. The place offers 24 hours running hot water, WiFi at the lobby and brilliant food. The staff are friendly and helpful. Above all, the pricing is a steal deal.
Next stop Gangtok.