Darjeeling: Backpacking to the Unknown!

8th Mar 2010
Photo of Darjeeling: Backpacking to the Unknown! by Sayanti Halder
Day 1

Recollecting my father’s gallantry stories of eloping to Darjeeling to her aunt after failing in his exam, it occurred to me that I, too, should set my heart on visiting the “Queen of Hills”, simply, to revive my father’s long-forgotten escapade. But then, my escape had to be executed in a unique fashion by visiting the unconventional spots in and around the town. A special place because of a serendipitous meeting of location and history at the foothills of the Himalaya, Darjeeling resides over by the mighty massif Kanchenjunga.

Reaching Darjeeling from the foothills, by the toy train that runs on narrow gauge, is a journey by itself; mountain views, forests, waterfalls, little cottages by the wayside and tea gardens dot the Hill Cart Road. Sometimes, the toy train and the motorable road run side by side, which reminded me of scenes from the movies Aradhana, Parineeta and Barfi. Mountains hiding behind the mist, grey sky, invisible valleys, relentless rain, and worn out road... was the reality during my visit as I drove on an uneven road with lots of water streaming down. After an overnight train journey from Kolkata to New Jalpaiguri followed by an uphill drive of around 2134 metres, I was in this quaint mountain town amidst verdant everywhere, mountains with cloud hats, tea gardens carpeting the rolling hills, waterfalls as adornments, cool breeze and an unparalleled panorama, stretched as far as my eyes could gaze. With no WiFi or phone network and no choice but to enjoy what Mother Nature has to offer, I found myself surrounded by the gardens that produce the Darjeeling tea, the ‘champagne of teas'. Nestled amidst the eponymous town with a mix of colonial legacy and modern times, the tea estates in Darjeeling amplify the charm of this place.
Well, there is no hotel in Darjeeling that are dedicated or just meant for backpackers only. But over the years there are some that have became quite popular with the backpackers who come here from all over the world. The prime reason for that is the low price, clean rooms combined with good friendly service. Located near the Broadway Annex, I booked a space at the Tenzing Norgay Youth Hostel. Reputed, mainly, amongst the backpackers, the Youth Hostel is actually open to all including families. Providing with the basic amenities, geared towards basic stay; there is no food or room service. However, it has a large kitchen  space (just the space!) at your service. The hostel has dormitories with 44 beds, couple of double rooms and one four bedded room. The I booked for a double room at the rate of Rs. 500 offering excellent basic accommodation.

Pine forest adjacent to the rail line

Photo of Darjeeling: Backpacking to the Unknown! by Sayanti Halder

The vintage choo choo

Photo of Darjeeling: Backpacking to the Unknown! by Sayanti Halder
Day 2

Next morning, I started my journey at 3:30AM and, immediately, booked a shared taxis for Tiger Hill. My enthusiasm kept mounting with our car although, those 11 km of steep-drive seemed like the longest journey of my life. I prayed hard, to whichever god I could think of, for a clear sky, as the weather can be highly unpredictable. The hilly trails lead me to the summit boasting of a stunning view of the Kanchenjunga with its wide range dominating the skyline. After waiting in the cold half-light for 30 or 60 minutes, the Sun suddenly burst into view in the east, everyone clapped and shouted and the white Himalayan mountains in the west — especially the massive five-peaked Kanchenjunga — started turning various glorious shades of gold and rose. As the Sun cleared the horizon and climbed into the sky, Mount. Kanchenjunga and its mountain range gradually became visible shining snow-white on a clear morning sky-line, luck favouring me! The mountain people say that the mountain chooses who it reveals itself to, so I feel blessed to have seen it at all. Out of the wraps of a white blanket, the kaleidoscopic play of colours on the snow peaks is something no one will not forget in a hurry. It is, indeed, one of nature’s greatest shows on earth.
Although one may take a car and make a day-trip to Mirik to enjoy the lake, boating and some local sightseeing before concluding their day; I, generously,  decided to spend the rest of the day soaking most of Darjeeling’s freshness and tranquillity only to mend my tired mind. Followed by this, I concluded my Day#2 by feasting on some of the land’s richest tea accompanied by possibly the sweetest of cakes, scones, and macaroons, and a mesmerizing scenery from the top floor of the colonial Glenary's Bakery and Café.

The mighty Kanchenjunga from the Tiger Hill

Photo of Darjeeling: Backpacking to the Unknown! by Sayanti Halder
Day 3

After a greasy, carbohydrate-laden breakfast at the Kunga, I headed for a mystical place, still, securing it’s grandeur from the clutches of tourists and selfie-maniacs and emerging as a clone of the virgin Darjeeling the Englishmen viewed and wowed centuries ago. Around 23kms. east of Darjeeling is small village named Lamahatta, set in vast stretching of dense Dhupi and Pine forests, and the magnificent views of the peaks and rivers around. “Lama” in Lamahatta stands for Buddhist monk and “Hatta” for hut - a monk's hermitage boasts of it’s terraced farmlands and vast stretches of beautifully manicured gardens as the main attractions. Silence rules here, except for an occasional vehicle ferrying villagers or visitors up or down the hill. The cherry-on-the-cake was the steaming momos and thukpas (Tibetan noodle soup) sold by an old, local aunt who with her ceaseless smile, would fill your heart even if the momos don’t fill your gut. After hours of striding into the silent avenues of tranquillity, it took a lot of effort for me to severe all the connections and head back to town.
When most of the visitors think that there is no nightlife in Darjeeling and some even think that there can’t be one  in such a lazy hill town that goes off to sleep by 8pm, I stepped out to venture into the dark and discover the two separate ideas of “night” and “life” that Darjeeling bears. Walking towards the centre of the town, commonly known as the Mall, stands a traditional British style pub housed in a cozy cottage building, bearing an old-fashioned sign board saying “Joey’s Pub”. Few of the locals and foreign tourists, waiting outside the pub who go there regularly and swear by this pub, convinced me to have an experience-of-lifetime. Inside, there were several tables with comfortable cushioned seats, a comfy fireplace with vintage décor, and a sweet ambiance to kill for. As the night trickled through, a guest played his favourite guitar that amplified the mood to another level.

The vibrant hues of Lamahatta

Photo of Darjeeling: Backpacking to the Unknown! by Sayanti Halder

The ideal company for solo trips

Photo of Darjeeling: Backpacking to the Unknown! by Sayanti Halder
Day 4

On the last day, I made a mandatory visit for a scrumptious breakfast at this place, exhibiting a sublime perception of the colonial days in Darjeeling. Having completed 100 years since it's establishment in the British Colonial days and standing tall amidst a busy shopping area, the Keventer's, gradually, built it’s reputation for serving some of the best English breakfast, tea and snacks in this hill town. I climbed up the narrow wooden stairs while crossing the glass top tables with checked tables cloths, cane chairs with vintage cushions, dark green low walls, red stoned floor, and Victorian lamps on the pillars to the magnificent open-terrace, the highlight of this eatery. The entire idea of looking at the unabated view of the mountain range with a spread of divine scenery at its foothill was a dream-like moment for me. Sipping on a cup of freshly brewed Darjeeling, I had a plateful of fried eggs, bacon’s, sausages, salami, ham and meat balls with a bowlful of contentment that morning. Afterwards, I drifted to the nooks and crannies of this humble town like a wayfarer that I am till it was time for me to face the harsh reality of returning home. As I drove downhill from the summit to the foothills, travelling from the place which I chose to the place that chose me, the sadness of leaving this dear place was tinged with warmth as I know that this town will always give me a warm welcome whenever I visit.

Breakfast like a king!

Photo of Darjeeling: Backpacking to the Unknown! by Sayanti Halder

View from the terrace of Keventer's

Photo of Darjeeling: Backpacking to the Unknown! by Sayanti Halder

When the name says it all

Photo of Darjeeling: Backpacking to the Unknown! by Sayanti Halder