Hill Stations of India - An Insider's Travel guide to Darjeeling

August 12, 2018

by Srijana PS

It was over a chance meeting with a few, well-accomplished traveller-friends of mine when one of them huffed out loud and said,  “Darjeeling is bursting at its seams trying to offer the tourist whatever they are asking for!” This remark unwittingly set the tone and tune for this blog.
Once, the erstwhile colonial getaway for the British in India, this hill town tells its own story and almost always makes it into the bucket list of any warm-blooded traveller. What follows is a swift realisation that it may not necessarily be a priority for most and even if it has been, many a traveller has reportedly admitted being ‘let down’ of sorts.
So, if you have zeroed in on ‘Darjeeling’ and landed on this page in your quest for just-a-bit-more information then you may have probably arrived at the right place. What you will get here is my first-hand attempt to equip you with a no-nonsense express travel guide and an insider-intel for your intended ride uphill.

Joyride on the Toy Train

People

Meet the Darjeelingays – Origin is debatable and certainly not our point of focus here. What you should know is that a fair mix of Lepchas, Tibetans, Sikkimese, Bengalis, Marwaris along with a majority of Nepalese all live amidst a surreal sense of communal harmony here.  English is a reasonable medium of communication and their inner voice.

What to Expect

You can ‘walk-it’ almost anywhere in and around the town although it is bound to get crowded during the popular dates. The lower bazar is best avoidable unless you have specific agendas bestowed by other trusty sources to help you navigate through.
Pack in those long sleeves and light jackets for a spring/summer visit or add-on heavy woollens with down jackets if its autumn/winter time to ensure that you have your backs covered in all literal sense.  Comfortable and closed footwear along with some form of rain-gear is mandatory regardless of what season you are visiting.
Although tempting, the sparkling fresh and cold Himalayan tap water is not potable. Shops and stores around town are generally open from 09 am until 08 pm.

Best time of the year

With only a  slight nip in the air, the dates around March – April are ideal for trekking towards Sandakphu, Phalut and beyond.

Trekking trails

Mid-September and October are widely popular for its pleasant weather almost sans rain and a hint of the forthcoming chill.  This time of the year coincides with the main ‘Tihar’ or festival when you find all forms of ‘spirits’ generally running very high. Try the traditional ‘sel roti’ or deep fried sweet bread made with milk, rice and spices in almost every household.

 

‘Sel Rotis’

To the traveller arriving post-December, please be advised that most hotels do not have general indoor heating. Hot-water bags and/or heaters are of course available.  Note that it does get bitterly cold once it begins to snow atop the surrounding mountains during winter.

Magnolias & Rhododendrons on a foggy day

Places to Stay

While the main town boasts of top names like Mayfair, Windermere, Elgin, Fortune & Ramada Hotels you will find a staggering selection of budget Hotels at every corner.  You can safely pre-book what suits your fancy through any online portal.
You can, however, enhance your Darjeeling sojourn by booking one of the many Homestays in or around the area.  These boutique places offer more holistic options for the all-about-the-feels traveller. Take a call based on your personal privacy settings or mood and look upon these family-owned enterprises for an authentic, organic and memorable experience of the region.
Alternatively, a stay at any one of the tea-estates is also an ideal way to take your tryst with Darjeeling and the Tea experience a notch higher. The verdant tea gardens are best explored through a guided tour of the slopes and the processing units. Custom packaged tea blends straight out of the fresh flush will guarantee that extra appeal as you take home mindful souvenirs.

Tea Garden on a wide endless slope in Darjeeling

Things to Do

A walk around the Mall Road, especially in the early morning, is a visually rewarding treat as you almost always get a clear view of the Kanchendzonga range. You can trudge up the Observatory hill to reach the locally revered ‘Daanra’ (or hilltop) or Mahakal temple.  You will witness an unusual ritual here as a Nepalese Hindu priest and a Tibetan Buddhist monk offer their prayers in harmonious tandem.  The lingering memory of colourful prayer flags fluttering in the fragrant incense infused air against a background of deep reverberating chanting and tinkling bells will stay with you forever.

Sunrise Walk at the Mall

For the ‘culture nut’ and the knick-knack collector, the curio houses lining up the way to the Mall may well be worth your while. They mostly sell a selection of regional antiques, artefacts, semi-precious gems and silver trinkets that makes for good souvenir shopping.
The popular Tiger Hill is a chaotic affair during sunrise so planning a sunset trip here would be a smart move.
The Heritage Toy train is a classic. Tickets are easily available at the counter and even if you do miss a ride you can always catch up on a local taxi.  This is one train that stops for vehicles to pass at a crossing.  A brief halt at  ‘Batasia Loop’ can be an enjoyable photo-opportunity. You can carry onwards for the rest of the lazy, scenic ride or get off at Ghoom for a visit to the picturesque old monastery there.

 What to eat

Darjeeling has patented the fusion of Nepalese and Tibetan ethnic cuisines and proudly dishes them out as its own. Primarily non-vegetarian, they have a definite style and taste, unlike anything you would have tasted of the same version elsewhere. Starting with the familiar ‘momos’ (or ‘Dimsums’ for the conscious elite’), you will be served in ‘pelaas’ (or plates) of four with a generous helping of ‘Dalle ko achar’ (red chillies & tomato puree/paste) and a bowl of hot, clear soup usually garnished with coriander.

Hot steamed Momos

The expanse of this ‘tibeto-nepalese’ fare can be further explored by trying out popular items like ‘typho’(the mother of all momos) ’shyafaley’ (fried Tibetan meatloaf) or ‘thukpa’ (soupy handmade noodles) at Kunga’s, Soaltee or Penang.
At this point, we render it absolutely necessary to mention that ‘aloo’ or potatoes are the go-to comfort food of the region.  It is mostly a simple preparation of boiled potatoes tempered with all existing spices and cooked in mustard oil.   You can head to ‘Benni’s’ for a taste of what has been setting our hearts on fire for ages or brave the local-favourite that is ‘Bhola’s Aloo’ at your own discretion.
Keventers is an all-time favourite for its sizzling bacon platters and a-la-carte breakfasts at the terrace.  Glenary’s sweetens the whole deal with its timeless range of bakery delights. The cosy lounge-bar at its basement lends a perfect ‘Buzz’ while the added glam-al-fresco deck provides a perfect setting for a quick rendezvous regardless of the time of day.

Breakfast at Kev’s

For a town that is globally renowned for tea, the ‘Himalayan Java Cafe’ comes across as a welcome surprise for ‘bean lovers’. A selection of coffee blends from Nepal awaits here in an endearing ambience that is bound to make you fall in love with. The ‘Hot Stimulating Cafe’ is another local favourite for a cosy cuppa.

Magnolia blooms under the Darjeeling sky

I encourage you to try out other sights, sounds and tastes in the area that may peak your interest as every travel experience are not only about the destination but also a personal journey in itself.

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