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.
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.
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.
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)
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!
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)
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!
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).
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!
Read all about my travels in India!
Enjoyed this post? Please pin it!
Have you been to Darjeeling? Share your thoughts in the comments below!