After the searing heat in Varanasi, we sought refuge in the Queen of the Hills, tucked away in the foothills of the Himalayas. We hid out there for almost two weeks of resting, exploring the town, and waiting for a clear day so we could get our first glimpse of the Himalayas. We never did catch a break on that one, but we had a chance to enjoy a lot of the other things Darjeeling has to offer. The highlights can be explored in a weekend, so we’ve put this handy guide together in case you visit West Bengal anytime soon.
First, a little about Darjeeling. The town was founded in the mid-nineteenth century as a British colonial post that consisted of a sanatorium and a military depot. Before long they began planting the tea for which the region has become so famous. Today Darjeeling is a popular vacation spot for domestic and foreign tourists alike, the former keeping the food quality high and the prices low. In this city of industry, horns still blare on the roads unless you’re staying up near Chowrastra (also called the Mall), the square at the top of town. As with the rest of India, electricity can be spotty. Sometimes it’s down for most of the day, so make sure to charge your electronics at night.
There are large populations of Tibetan refugees and Nepali porters here, so the faces change along with the landscape. Tibetan handicrafts are abundant, and porters schlep huge items up the hill with almost superhuman strength.
We tried four different hotels in this town but couldn’t find the winning combination of heat, hot water, Internet, and electricity without spending upwards of $100 a night. You know us, we weren’t going to do that. We did find a decent place called Omni Lodge that had Wi-Fi and a great view, although we spent some cold nights there.
Before Day One begins, try to book a seat on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway , aka the “Toy Train”. Built in the late nineteenth century, the train operates on a two-foot narrow gauge track and is headed by a historic steam locomotive. Landslides took out much of the original track in recent years, so at the moment it’s not possible to journey all the way up from New Jalpaiguri. The sections that do remain open from Darjeeling are still popular with tourists, and seats need to be booked in advance if you want to experience this bit of history. Somehow I’ve been to Darjeeling twice now and I failed at riding the Toy Train both times.
On to Day One. If you’ve been kept up all night by the cold (central heating is nonexistent in Darjeeling), head straight to Sonam’s Café , where they offer “real” coffee and the best hashbrowns in Asia. The restaurant is vegetarian, so if you’re of the meaty persuasion instead go down the hill to Keventers across from the first taxi stand. Here you can order a gigantic plate of delightful porkiness – easily enough for two. The also have really good coffee, although it’s a sweet Nescafe instead of the terrific engine oil black they have up at Sonam’s.
If you feel like doing any shopping, make a quick trip down to Hayden Hall for some locally made hats, gloves and carpets. As a non-profit relief and development association, they employ local women to make the products and the profits directly benefit them. Peek in the back room to see women weaving on traditional looms. For other responsible shopping opportunities, visit the Tibetan Refugee Self Help Center – I understand that if you purchase a rug from them, they’ll ship it home for you.
Now that you’re warm and full, walk past the square to Observatory Hill , which is topped off by a temple, thousands of Tibetan prayer flags, and many wily monkeys.
It’s a quiet, happy place, and if you walk down the long way (past the temple), there are good views of the valley and tea fields on the way down.
For lunch, stop by the food stalls that line a small street off the square (when coming down the hill, they’ll be to your left). They seem a bit shady at first, but we never came down with anything after eating there. The second stall in was our favorite. It’s owned and operated by a sweet couple that offer up extremely inexpensive chicken buns, eggrolls, and spicy chowmein. Wash it all down with tiny 10-cent cups of chai from the chai guy , who hangs out near the overlook in the square.
After lunch, walk around twenty minutes to the Himalayan Zoo and Mountaineering Institute . I’m normally not a huge fan of zoos. But this one only has animals that are from the region, several of which are threatened species, and it seems to be managed well. The big cats don’t look too happy in their cages, and I can’t blame them.
But you’ll also see wolves, endangered red pandas, and a Himalayan black bear that paces back and forth all day. I couldn’t tell if he was posing for photos or just going stir crazy.
It’s definitely worth the Rs.100 ($2) to go and support a good cause.
Within the zoo grounds you’ll also find the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, which was founded by Sherpa Tenzing Norgay. Norgay first scaled Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary in 1953 on an expedition that set out from Darjeeling. The institute houses all of the gear from the original Everest ascent, along with equipment used on some successive attempts over the next sixty years. It’s really interesting to see the progression from what were essentially leather slippers and fur, on to high-tech fabrics and down, sleeping bag jumpsuits and moonboots. The whole display definitely helped us appreciate all that Norgay and Hillary did with so little, and it fired us up for some (very easy) trekking of our own. Norgay spent his last days in Darjeeling, and was laid to rest on the hill outside the institute.
Now that you’re feeling inspired, go down to Kunga Tibetan Restaurant for momos (fried or steamed dumplings) and a hearty serving of chicken noodle soup. The serving sizes are really large, so bring your appetite.
Finish up your first night by venturing further down the hill to Joey’s Pub . Adjacent to the mall, Joey’s is an English-style tavern with all the usual beer choices (lager or…lager) but a decidedly different ambiance. It’s a nice place to cozy up and talk away an evening, and the bartender is friendly as can be. He has an empty Guinness can that is prized like a trophy, but alas, no Guinness.
Up next: Tasty food, and tasting tea!