Darjeeling: More Than Just a Cuppa Tea

 

Darjeeling, located at the Northern tip of the state of West Bengal, is nestled between Nepal and Bhutan. It’s famously known as the place where the best tea in India is harvested to then be sold all over the world. Even if you’re not a tea enthusiast, this cozy town with a backdrop of the snow-capped Himalayan mountains is worth taking the time to visit.

We arrived at the New Jalpaiguri (NJP) station by overnight train from Varanasi. The most practical way to get to Darjeeling is by shared taxis (SUV’s) amply available at the exit of the New Jalpaiguri train station. With drivers eagerly waiting for patrons, the fixed price of 150 rupees/passenger isn’t negotiable (we tried). The journey started off on a flat road which shortly turned into a winding, narrow, cliff-hugging road for the duration of about 3 hours.

The zig-zag road consisted of many sharp turns and at times was quite nerve-racking but, thankfully, our driver was very skilled (though it was a little unnerving when he spoke on his cell phone while driving). If you’re prone to motion sickness, I strongly suggest you take some anti-nausea medication first to avoid getting sick – that would make for a very uncomfortable ride not to mention you would miss the amazing views along the way.

 

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We were in Darjeeling in January and it was much colder than we had expected! Mercifully, during the day the sun was shining bright to warm us up but at night the temperature drastically fell close to the freezing point. Since there was no heating in the room, the lovely owner of the guest house we stayed at graciously gave us four (!) heavy fleece blankets plus a heated water gourd. Despite all these layers, it still took a while for us to warm up and fall asleep in the arms of Morpheus. The good part was that Darjeeling had already won us over – waking up (albeit in a cold room) with a view of the Himalayas was nothing less than exhilarating!

There’s plenty of accommodation in Darjeeling for every type of traveler and for every budget though rooms do tend to be more expensive than the rest of India as this is a popular vacation spot. Also, since Darjeeling is situated on a hillside, be ready to climb steeply inclined streets to get to your hotel or guesthouse. If you want to save your legs the hard work, taxis are available.

If the breath-taking views and all-around laid back feel of Darjeeling aren’t enough to lure you in, following are a few things to do in this misty hillside town hovering above the clouds.

 

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01. THE PADMAJA NAIDU HIMALAYAN ZOOLOGICAL PARK

Let me start by saying that I don’t like zoos but I was enticed by the surroundings and figured a zoo in a place as beautiful as Darjeeling couldn’t be too bad. The untouched setting of the zoo was undeniably very pretty with a multitude of trees lining the wide paths. The enclaves for the animals were set up as what seemed like natural habitats but a few of the animals (including many species of birds) were in rusty cages. Despite its righteous claim, I just couldn’t get it out of my head that this remained a zoo.

In its defense, the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park is internationally recognized for its breeding programs aimed at conserving endangered species of the Himalayas. Among the endangered species are the red panda, snow leopard and Tibetan wolf – all of which were easily visible.

Entrance fee: 50 rupees/person (in 2015)

Opening hours: 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.

 

 

02. THE TIBETAN REFUGEE SELF-HELP CENTER

Located about a 20-minute walk from the center of Darjeeling, the Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Center is a community that was established to help refugees earn a living by working in small workshops making wood carvings, weaving wool carpets as well as other handmade items. While indulging us with incredible views, the scenic road lead us through a number of villages with a mumble-jumble of tin-roof houses precariously perched on the side of cliffs.

 

 

 

 

Although I love buying locally handmade products directly from artisans, I was very disappointed with the shop at the Center. I expected the workshops to be in full swing with artisans hammering away and the sound of rustic looms being heard from afar but the center was as quiet as an empty house. Most of the workshops were closed save for one where three men in their late eighties were painstakingly dyeing and combing yarn.

The women working at the counter weren’t very friendly nor welcoming – it was almost like we were interrupting their afternoon nap. The shop was sparsely filled with items that weren’t any different than those sold in town. They even had generic touristy t-shirts (obviously not handmade) found all over India.

But all was not lost.

 

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We followed the lonesome sound of hammering tools. There was a man working on some wood carvings in the only other workshop that was opened. He spoke English very well so we asked him a few questions about his work and his background. His name was Paljor, he was from Nepal and arrived as a refugee as a young boy. The workshop belonged to him and he also taught young men how to master the art of wood carving.

As I browsed his workshop, I noticed two wood carvings hanging on the wall left in their natural state. Paljor explained these were the first pieces he had worked on as an apprentice years ago. That was enough reason for me to want to buy them but Paljor said they weren’t for sale. To me, the awkward markings of an apprentice learning a new trade were part of their charm; to him they were just early works covered in the mistakes of an inexperienced young apprentice. Not understanding why I would want to buy these ‘ugly’ unfinished wood carvings, he kindly offered them to me as a gift. I was overjoyed and honored! I asked him to sign his early masterpieces and walked away with the biggest smile on my face. To this day, meeting Paljor and being the recipient of his unconditional kindness remains one of my fondest memories of my time in Darjeeling.

Opening hours of the Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Center: Every day from 10:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. (note that we went the first time on a Sunday and it was closed so we went back on the following Monday)

 

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03. EATING OUT

Darjeeling has loads of restaurants, street food stalls and coffee shops including popular American fast food joints which we avoid except when we I desperately need to use the loo (clean + toilet paper = yay!). But we didn’t bother trying any other restaurants once we went to Walden Cafe & Tibetan Restaurant – a family-run authentic Tibetan hole-in-the-wall eatery.

With only about a dozen seats, it was always full with hungry locals (and there was usually a line-up) – a sure sign that the food is good delicious and freshly made. In fact, we had breakfast and supper there every day. It was the first time I had hot and steamy Tibetan butter bread – just writing about it makes my mouth water!

 

 

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04. THE DARJEELING ROPEWAY

The Darjeeling Ropeway is about 3 km from the center of Darjeeling. Still not weary of the scenery, we decided to walk. If you’re not afraid of heights or of rickety cable cars then taking the ropeway is a nice way to spend an afternoon. The panoramic views of the snow-capped Himalayas, the greenery of the tea plantations carpeting the land below and the surrounding valleys were breath-taking.

Many tea factories/plantations are scattered around Darjeeling but the most popular is Happy Valley Tea Estate. We went to the ropeway on a Sunday so all the tea factories were closed including this one. Once we reached the bottom there was a tiny village with a handful of houses and friendly locals going about their day. There wasn’t much else to see but riding on the ropeway was an inexpensive way to get a bird’s eye view of the whole region of Darjeeling and it was well worth it.

Entrance fee: 150 rupees two-way ticket (in 2015)

Opening hours: 10:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m. (high-season/Summer) – 4:00 p.m. (off-season/Winter)

 

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05. BUY SOME TEA (OF COURSE!)

As mentioned previously, India’s most coveted teas are produced in Darjeeling so don’t miss your chance to buy some. These items are inexpensive, lightweight and easy to carry and make great gifts (for others and for yourself). The best shops are on Laden La Road adjacent to the town square. The knowledgeable and friendly staff at Golden Tips Teas and Nathmull Tea shops will help you choose from among the dozens of teas on offer. From masala tea to green teas laced with Indian spices and jasmine, you’re sure to find something to suit your tea-loving palette.

 

 

06. SHOP DARJEELING-STYLE

As in most cities in India, shopping is omnipresent and Darjeeling is no exception. From street markets overflowing with a dizzying panoply of goods to more specialized curio shops selling locally handmade wares to vintage photographs to dust-covered Tibetan antiques, Darjeeling will surely send you into a shopping frenzy. But beware, shopping in Darjeeling can be a workout not only for your wallet but also for your cardio; strenuously walking up and down those steep pedestrian-only streets will get your heart thumping for sure!

 

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Ready to conquer the stalls at the Mall Street Market!

 

07. WHAT WE MISSED (BECAUSE WE WERE TOO COLD AND LAZY)

One of the reasons why I wanted to go to Darjeeling was to take a joy ride on the “Toy Train” (named after its small size) which I had seen on a travel documentary. Officially known as the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, it dates back to its construction in 1879 and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It slowly snakes through the mountains promising endless views of the surrounding landscape. The train runs 4 times a day but we didn’t get to experience this coveted ride because, well, we were too busy being lazy. But don’t miss it if ever you’re in Darjeeling!

Another excursion we desperately tried to wake up for every morning was to witness the sunrise and sweeping views from Tiger Hill where Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world situated partly in India and partly in Nepal, could also be seen. Honestly, we just couldn’t fathom waking up before the sun (the only source of heat) and stepping out into the cold, dark early morning hours. We both agreed we were satisfied with the views of the Himalayas from our room (and warm bed).

 

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The time we spent in Darjeeling was some of the best of our trip in India. It was absolutely mesmerizing to be constantly surrounded by the greatness of the Himalayas – a veritable feast for the eyes. We quickly came to the conclusion that Darjeeling was definitely more than just a cuppa tea!

 

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Read all about my travels in India!

 


 
 

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Have you been to Darjeeling? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

 

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  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    Hi Izzy! India and its fabulous teas are waiting for you! 😉

  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    Hi Aisha! I’m so happy my post brought back some memories of your time in India. I think you definitely need to go back! 😉

  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    We really did have a lovely time! I hope you make it to India one day and get to taste some of the best tea in Darjeeling! 🙂

    • Kellyn Jeremy-Aponte

      I hope so too. I’ve been considering coming for a yoga retreat.

      • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

        That would be great! I didn’t do any retreats while I was there (hoping to go back though) but there are plenty of options. I liked the vibe (and the clean Ganges!) in Rishikesh which is the city where yoga was born.

  • Janine Good

    Darjeeling looks like a lovely part of India. Sad to read that you had a somewhat bad experience initially at the shop at the centre. Interrupting their nap!? Terrible. The food looks really tasty as well. I had trouble finding foods I liked while I was over there, but your meal looked so good.

  • Anita Sane

    It looks like a great place to visit not just for tea. Loved your tips and beautiful pictures.

  • Neha Verma

    Your post brought a strong nostalgia. I went there long long back with my parents. And I totally loved Darjeeling. Particularly the moist and fresh air, the roapway, the toy train, the beautiful shops that you take us on a virtual tour of and of course the tea

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      So happy it brought back some fond memories of your travels! 🙂

  • Kiara Mijares

    Looks so magical over there! The mountain though… Wow! Really, I wish I had more to say but I guess it leaves me speechless!

  • I have been to darjeeling in 1995 and to be honest it is no where as beautiful as the way it was in 90’s . It was our summer vacation trip and your post made me nostalgic remembering our amazing trip. We did a road trip from Kolkatta to darjeeling.

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Would love to have seen Darjeeling in the 90’s!

  • Sandy & Vyjay

    Darjeeling is a very enchanting place, crowded by tourists but beautiful just the same. The animals you captured on your camera are so beautiful. The mountains and the houses built on slopes looks lovely!

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      It wasn’t so crowded when we were there but I’ve heard that it gets very crowded depending on the season. Glad I got to see it with less people! 🙂

  • Meg Marie

    Looks like you had a great time! I’ve always wanted to visit Darjeeling and you have me convinced! I’m headed to the Nepal side of the Himalayas in 2 weeks. 🙂

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      I haven’t been to Nepal but I’m sure you’re going to enjoy it and the views! 🙂

  • That view of the snow capped Himalayas is just amazing. Did you see the sun rise over those? Must be magical. Love the way you have captured Darjeeling. It does seem like a quaint and cosy place.

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      We were too lazy and cold to wake up for the sunrise! 😉

  • Debra Schroeder

    Darjeeling sounds cool! Great tip to mention about the road and taking anti-nausea medicine before leaving. There’s probably only a few places where you can see a red panda. I’m with you, I would have bought Paljor’s first wood carvings too.

  • 150 Rs for a shared taxi actually doesn’t sound too bad, especially for foreigners traveling in India. They usually try to fleece sometimes if you are not aware of the rates. It was so sweet of you to buy the wood carvings from Paljor. Those ropeways actually look scary.

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      The price was reasonable but at first we didn’t know it was a fixed price so we tried to bargain it down (because…..India!). But the drivers know there aren’t many options to get to Darjeeling so they didn’t budge at all. The ropeway was a little daunting but I kept my eyes on the landscape! 😉

  • How beautiful! You did a great job of showing us a region everyone has heard of… yet few people know anything about! Brr, that scarf looks like the perfect snuggly travel accessory for a region like this. As a tea fanatic, I’d LOVE to go here ASAP.

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      I actually bought that scarf in Jodhpur to wear back home (Quebec) in Winter but I was so happy to have it in Darjeeling – it was so cold especially at night! Then you need to head to Darjeeling to buy some tea! My boyfriend loves tea and he bought some of the best ones there.

  • I would love to visit Darjeeling. I have been 3 times to India before but not in this area, the closest I’ve reached was Varanasi. To be honest, I didn’t even knew how it looks like and from your photos I see that it’s wonderful! Shame that the women from the shop weren’t helpful but it’s great that you got to meet the Tibetan refugee with his wood workshop.

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Maybe you can go to Darjeeling next time you visit India! 😉
      Paljor definitely saved the day with his generosity and warm welcoming!

  • Adventurous Travels

    What an amazing place! Reminds me of the hikes in Nepal. The views are great. Also, my dream is to visit Bhutan but it’s pretty expensive :/
    Tom @ Adventurous Travels

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Would love to go to Bhutan also! Hopefully one day it will be more accessible (while still keeping it genuine) to everyone.

      • Adventurous Travels

        Yes, that’s difficult – to keep the balance between easily accessible and authentic. If you love places like this, I recommend Albania – right in the middle of Europe, beside the famous countries (Greece, Italy), very few tourists, paradise white sand beaches and unique, fairy-tale towns 🙂

        • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

          Albania sounds perfect – thanks for the tip!

  • Suruchi Mittal

    Your post got me back to the memories of childhood. It is been years since i visited the city of tea and its plantations. Darjeeling seems to have changed a lot since that time. The toy train ride is also a beautiful experience. You missed it this time but do try whenever you get a chance to visit Darjeeling next.

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      I’m so glad my post brought back some fond memories of your time in Darjeeling! 🙂
      Yes, next time I’m definitely taking the Toy Train (and visiting Sikkim)!

  • I always loved how Darjeeling sounds, it’s such a musical destination name 😀 That aside, it looks absolutely gorgeous. And that wold at the zoo was amazing. I’d like to go try out at least everything you’ve seen. I totally sympathize with the too cold and too tired bit, I am not a fan of chilly weather and somehow I always manage to exhaust myself before my trips.

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      I like that…..Darjeeling does sound like a musical place! This was at the end of nearly 2 months of traveling through India so we weren’t up to defying the cold so early in the morning but we enjoyed Darjeeling immensely nonetheless.

  • MelBTravel

    I love tea especially green tea. I never that fact about India and tea, I think it such a cool fact. I went to Nepal a couple of years ago to trek to Everest base camp and I wish I known about this place as it looks beautiful. Sorry you missed going on the Toy Train but see it as an excuse to go back again 🙂

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Lots of green teas in Darjeeling! If you’ve been to Nepal then I’m sure you would enjoy Darjeeling as it has a lot of Nepalese and Tibetan influences. Sounds like a perfect excuse to go back! 🙂

  • Neha Verma

    Your post brought tons of nostalgia. I went to Darjeeling long back with my parents and did most of the things that you covered here. When I read your line “The zig-zag road consisted of many sharp turns and at times was quite nerve-racking ” – I could totally relate. Still remember the steep curves that we took while going uphill to Darjeeling. And another adventure was the ropeway stopping halfway through while traversing to the tea estates 🙂 But still had lots of fun. Looks like you too had

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      That road was definitely making everyone nervous….lol! Uh-oh…..I wouldn’t want to be stuck halfway on that ropeway as it didn’t seem very solid. :

  • Aneesha Rai

    Darjeeling has a lot of history from British India. Never visited, but definitely on the list. It’s also apparently quite romantic.

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      One can definitely see the British heritage especially in the architecture. It did have a certain romantic feel to it. 🙂

  • Isha Write

    I am too scared of the cold weather :(. You are so brave to wonder down unknown alleys in the cold, but I guess it lead you to meet some interesting people. I feel inspired by your story Lydia 😀

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Thanks Isha! I live in Canada where temperatures in Winter can go down to -30 Celsius but I still hate the cold! I try to avoid it when we travel but Northern India turned out to be much colder than we expected though it was all worth it! 🙂

  • Abhinav Singh

    I agree Darjeeling has so much to offer. These places were on my to do as well. Unfortunately we stayed holed up in hotel all day because my parents started feeling unwell. Never mind. It’s an excuse to get back.

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Oh no…..that’s too bad but, like you said, it’s the perfect reason to go back! 😉

  • Indrani

    So good to read about Darjleeng! I visited it several years ago and recently I was at Kurseong close to Darjleeng. I don’t remember exploring it so extensively as you did, particularly the refugee centre. Sad for you that you missed the train ride. I adore their hand loom stuffs, but I feel disappointed when the synthetic jackets have replaced their hand woven garments.

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Hi Indrani! We basically just enjoyed walking around as each turn was prettier than the one before. The shop at the Center did have some handmade looms but there were way too many generic items as well which was very disappointing. 🙁

  • Melissa Kiely

    Lydia this place looks awesome – a place I have never heard of and quite different to what I usually think of when I consider India. I must add this to my must do list. Love your honesty – too lazy to get out of bed – LOL – weather can do that to you when travelling – either too hot or too cold. Looks like you saw enough though.

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Thanks Melissa! Darjeeling is quite different from the rest of India as it has a lot of Buddhist influence (people, food, architecture). Unfortunately, we can’t control the weather but I made sure to wear as many layers as possible….lol!

  • Darjeeling looks like such an interesting place! I never would have known! Those views are incredible though – would love to see the Himalayas!

  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    Hi Mohit! Unfortunately, after almost 2 months of traveling our laziness took over and we missed the Toy Train but abundantly enjoyed Darjeeling nonetheless. 🙂

  • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

    The drivers know there aren’t that many options readily available that’s why they don’t budge on the price but at least they know the road quite well! I was layering so much clothing to keep warm….lol!

  • Madelainxos

    Looks like an amazing adventure. I love tea and those Himalayan Mountains are beautiful 🙂

    Madelain | http://www.wheremyheartwanders.com

  • Haven’t been to Darjeeling but I was sold by the time I saw your photos of the Himalaya! Given its location, not sure if I’d want to go there during winter though! But one thing for sure, despite of my fear of heights, I’d still give the ropeway a shot; and would be checking out the Himalayan Railway too!

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      We were there during Winter and, luckily, there wasn’t any snow but we couldn’t get to Sikkim (a restricted region) because the roads weren’t very good. I think Darjeeling in the warmer months would be a dream! Let me know if ever you make it on the “Toy Train”. 🙂

  • TravellingMom

    What a magnificent destination! So scenic and picturesque. I want a taste of that Tibetan butter bread too!

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      The Tibetan butter bread is so yummy!!

  • Annie Wicker

    I always enjoy wandering down quiet roads, you almost always meet some interesting and kind locals. Your story of meeting Paljor and having an experience with a local shop owner is absolutely touching. How wonderful that he gifted you his earliest pieces, it must be a lasting memory.

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Then you would certainly enjoy Darjeeling! I still smile when I see those works of art Paljor gifted me. 🙂

  • Looks like an amazing trip – I love the sound of a hot water gourd! And, you really do look as if you loved every minute

  • Jenna

    Darjeeling looks like a great town to explore. I would love to see some of the tea plantations and the ropeway looks like a fun time! The train sounds fun too–the views would be amazing, plus, it makes me think of the movie The Darjeeling Limited, lol!

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      I haven’t seen the Darjeeling Limited but now I’m curious – will take a look at it!

  • I haven’t been to Darjeeling but I am intrigued. It sounds like an interesting spot with lots more to see and do apart from drinking delicious tea. I enjoyed reading about your experience at the wood carving shop – that is such a special gift.

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      We had such a wonderful time in Darjeeling – I hope you make it there one day! Paljor definitely saved the day! 🙂

  • Rand Blimes

    Thank you for this post. I especially enjoyed the story of Paljor. Before I went to India with my family last year, we heard warning after warning about all the scams and pushy shop keeps and groping men. We were more than a little nervous. But we had remarkably good experiences with the Indians. We met for more people like Paljor than we expected, and came away loving India and Indians.

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      India certainly has its share of scammers and touts but we also found Indians to be very welcoming and generous. Glad you had an enjoyable experience in India!

  • Tamara Elliott (Globe Guide)

    Such a fascinating part of the world! India and Bhutan are both high on my list to visit, so northern India might be a good place to start.

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      I also would like to visit Bhutan! Hope you make it to India one day – it’s such a fascinating country! And the Northern part is quite different as there is a lot of Tibetan & Nepalese influence in every aspect (architecture, food, etc).

  • Firstly I love the name of this post! And the rope way looks scary but an unmissable experience

    • Lydia@Lifeuntraveled.com

      Thank you! The ropeway was such a fun experience enhanced by my meeting a very exuberant young girl from Calcutta. 🙂