Spread over a steep mountain ridge and surrounded by tea plantations, Darjeeling is West Bengal’s premier hill station. When you aren’t gazing open-mouthed at Khangchendzonga, you can explore colonial-era architecture, visit monasteries or take a ride on the Toy Train. If energies start to flag, a steaming cup of Darjeeling tea is never far away.
In this excerpt from our travel guide Best Escapes East & Northeast India we tell you about the top experiences of this charming hill station.
This zoo (its onerous full name is Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park), one of India’s best, was established in 1958 to study, conserve and preserve Himalayan fauna. Housed within the rocky and forested environment are Himalayan bears, clouded leopards, red pandas and Tibetan wolves. The zoo, and its attached snow-leopard breeding centre (closed to the public), are home to the world’s largest single captive population of snow leopards.
Japanese peace pagoda
Perched on a hillside, this gleaming white structure is one of more than 70 pagodas built around the world by the Japanese Buddhist Nipponzan Myohoji organisation. During the drumming puja, visitors are offered a hand drum and encouraged to join in. It’s a pleasant 30-minute walk from Clubside along Gandhi and AJC Bose Roads.
To watch the dawn light break over a spectacular 250km stretch of Himalayan horizon, including Everest (8848m), Lhotse (8501m) and Makalu (8475m) to the far west, rise early and jeep out to Tiger Hill (2590m), 11km south of Darjeeling. The skyline is dominated by Khangchendzonga (‘great five-peaked snow fortress’; 8598m), India’s highest peak and the world’s third highest mountain. Hundreds of jeeps leave Darjeeling for Tiger Hill every morning at 4am. Even outside of the high season, dawn traffic jams snake down the hillside and crowds of hundreds jostle for the best viewing spots.
Sacred to both Buddhists and Hindus, this hill was the site of the original Dorje Ling monastery that gave the town its name. Today, devotees come to a temple in a small cave to honour Mahakala, a Buddhist deity and wrathful form of the Hindu god Shiva. The summit is marked by several shrines, a flurry of colourful prayer flags and the clang of numerous devotional bells. A path leading up to the hill through giant Japanese cedars starts about 300m along Bhanu Bhakta Sarani from Chowrasta; watch out for marauding monkeys.
Happy Valley Tea Estate
The 1854 tea estate below Hill Cart Road is worth visiting, especially when the plucking and processing are in progress (March to November). An employee will guide you through the aromatic factory and its withering, rolling, fermenting and drying processes, explaining how green, black and white teas all come from the same leaf.
Lloyd Botanical Gardens
These gardens contain an impressive collection of Himalayan plants, most famously orchids and rhododendrons. Follow the signs along Lochnager Road from the Chowk Bazaar bus/jeep station, until the hum of cicadas replaces the honking of jeeps at the main entrance. A map is posted at the office at the top of the park.
Take a ride on the quaint, steam-driven toy train as it puffs and pants its way between the tea towns of Kurseong and Darjeeling, tooting all the way. The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway as it is formally called, pauses briefly at the scenic Batastia Loop from where, on a clear day, you can enjoy a stunning view of the Khangchendzonga. During the train’s half-hour stop at Ghum, India’s highest railway station, you can visit the small museum dedicated to the train.
The junction of Ghum, 7km from Darjeeling, is home to a number of colourful Buddhist monasteries. The area’s most famous monastery, Yiga Choling Gompa has wonderful old murals. Built in 1850, it enshrines a 5m-high statue of Jampa (Maitreya, or ‘Future Buddha’) and 300 beautifully bound Tibetan texts. Other gompas nearby include the fortress-style Sakya Guru Gompa and the Samten Choling Gompa which has the largest Buddha statue in West Bengal. All three gompas are within 10 minutes’ walk of each other on Hill Cart Road.