I went to: Observation point, Happy Valley Tea Estate, Mountaineering Institute & Padmaja Naidu Zoo, Golden Tips Tea Shop and Tasting room, Darjeeling Ropeway, Ghoom Monestery, Bengal Natural History Museum, Kali temple (Hill Cart Road)
I stayed at: Mayfair Darjeeling Hotel (4*) £££££
I went here because…
I was looking for a destination for a short trip with my parents in India, where they were on holiday.
The best thing was…
The view of Kanchenjunga and the mountain range even though it was very cloudy.
I'd like to change…
How much time I spent looking around the city at some of the odd tourist attractions. I should stayed at the hotel, drank more tea and enjoyed the view instead!
I wish I'd had time to…
Drive around the city in a rubbish truck and give it a big clean!
Located north of the state of West Bengal, Darjeeling is a hill station famous worldwide for its tea plantations developed by the British in the 19th century. The city's station hosts the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, a UNESCO world heritage site. Many residents speak Nepali although Bengali is also spoken. The area is managed by Gorkhaland territorial administration but some affairs, including law, are under West Bengal's jurisdiction. There continues to be a strong will by locals for the area to be an independent state of Gorkhaland.
I've been to West Bengal many many times, yet I've never made it to Darjeeling. An hours flight takes you from the area's capital Kolkata (Calcutta), to Darjeelings's nearest airport of Bagdogra. From there, a bumpy 3 hour drive of hairpin turns and narrow high altitude roads gets you to the stunning scenes and cool air of Darjeeling.
I spent my youth in car journeys with my head in a plastic bag swaying side to side with the tiredness of travel sickness pills. As an adult I'm completely the opposite. I love car journeys. I get to see others' lives through snapshots, through cities and villages, through changing climates and landscapes. In the 3 hour journey all of those things happened. We turned the air conditioning off and the heating on; the flat dry land became fertile hills and mountains; and I saw soldiers on huge army bases alongside farmers on their lands. If you're not a fan of planes, you can take the train from Kolkata very easily, but I would have rather taken a car the whole way (about 14 hours) if I had more time. It is advised by all however to take a local driver from the airport as they will have the best knowledge of the roads, as cloud can quickly cover over your path making the journey quite dangerous to the unskilled. It was completely pain free to get a car and driver- we went to the pre-paid taxi desk inside the airport.
We spent 3 wonderful nights at the Mayfair Hotel and the entire family loved every minute of our stay. Yes it was very cold at night with temperatures dropping to -10 at times, and yes the hotel doesn't have centralised heating. Instead we had a tiny electric heater which was not enough, but we did have a roaring fire in our room and we were welcomed by hot water bottles whenever we requested them. A lovely find when returning to the room after dinner. I have to say the hotel was probably a big highlight and we had both breakfast and dinner included in the rate every night. The hotel was not just a highlight due to the excellent friendly staff in restaurant, but because of its stunning position and views on the clear days. Glorious to see when you wake up in the morning.
We spent the first day doing a city tour arranged with the driver who brought us from the airport. Unfortunately, I'm spoilt by the Natural History Museum in London (my favourite museum) and the Bengali version was probably the worst museum I've ever visited! Dusty stuffed animals in a dimly lit room. My dad seemed to like like it though and persisted to read every single label there. The zoo was a more positive experience where I saw a brown bear very close up and a red panda! The mountaineering institute housed a very interesting museum and has some great pictures from early expeditions to the Himalayas. Unfortunately like many things I've seen in West Bengal, it was quite poorly maintained. Such a shame. The maintanance issues continued around the city. When I've spoken about my trip to others I've said the place is absolutely stunning if you keep your gaze above eye level. Anything below that as a pedestrian and your faced with piles of household waste at every corner. Thankfully our ride on the Ropeway high in the clouds was focused on beautiful tea gardens as far as the eye could see.
Unfortunately as it was not tea picking season, the tea estates were closed although Happy Valley welcomed us and gave a great informal talk about the processes despite the heavy construction work to modernise the factory (one of the perks of knowing people in a city). We then went to a tea shop where they were kind enough to let us sample a wide variety of tea including white and first flushes. We stocked up happily, especially given how much cheaper good tea is the compared to in England. As I type, I'm having a glass of stunning golden coloured caffeine free white tea.
Unfortunately we did have quite a bit of light rain and cloud cover during the stay which meant we weren't blessed with clear views of the mountain range from the observation point (a 5 minute walk from our room at the hotel). However there was a glimmer of hope on our last day and I happily spent a few hours waiting for the privilege of gawping at Kanchenjunga. I wasn't disappointed even though it wasn't a clear view. Well worth the wait. We also spent a while walking up to the Kali temple above the observation point. I'm not going to lie, I was out of breath but again worth it for the serenity and beauty of a temple in the clouds.
Pictures do not do this city justice. Next trip to India, Leh in Ladakh is my priority stop to satisfy my mountain viewing urges!
Sites & places of interest:
Happy Valley Tea Estate tours
Golden Tips tea shop and tasting room
Travelled February 2014