What can you do in Darjeeling in a few hours? I spent the limited time available to me lazing in the Chowrasta Mall - a flat land where roads meet, usually described as the heart of the hill town - and taking a walk around the Mall Road, which starts from the Mall and goes around Observatory Hill to join the Mall from a different side. I also visited Mirik – another hill station in the Darjeeling Hills on the same day.
We drove from Jalpaiguri town through Siliguri (via National Highway 31) to Darjeeling (via Rohini and Hill Cart Road) (Distance: Siliguri to Darjeeling - 80 kilometers, Jalpaiguri to Darjeeling – 120 kilometers). Relentless views of fields, military encampments, tea gardens, distant hill ranges, jungles and human settlements on the way, one after the other, left us almost breathless and asking for more.
Before reaching the Mall, we stopped at Batasia Loop – one of several loops of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway – five kilometers ahead of the town. At Batasia Loop, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway or the toy train takes a 360-degree turn to make a sharp descent towards Darjeeling town. The spot offers a panoramic view of the town and the ranges around. A war memorial has been constructed at the spot.
Darjeeling is at an average height of 6710 feet (2045 meters). The Mall is a meeting a point of people, a shopping area, a tourist attraction and a viewing point of distant snow-capped mountains. Contrary to our expectations – fuelled by a prediction of the Met Department of possible rains - the weather was good. It was bright, sunny and pleasant. People were out in hordes just standing around. I sat in the Mall watching women in traditional Bhutanese and Nepalese attires, a lady sweeping the Mall, boys and girls from schools, and perhaps colleges as well hanging about, locals lounging and tourists looking around. There are stores including some really old and heritage book and other kinds of shops bordering the Mall and stretching beyond - on the streets around the Mall. I took a walk on the Mall Road and saw dozens of rhododendron trees with various hues of red and pink flowers on the slopes above and below me.
Other attractions in Darjeeling include a few parks, temples, botanical and zoological gardens, Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, a few other institutions, a cable car and tea estates.
The drive from Darjeeling to Mirik via Ghum and Sukhia Pokhri and the return journey from Mirik to Siliguri (Distance: Darjeeling to Mirik – 49 kilometres, Siliguri to Mirik 55 kilometers) were even nicer than the first leg of the trip. The routes have miles and miles of pine and fern forests, tea plantations, occasional habitations, cantonments and gorgeous views of distant ranges.
Mirik – at an average height of 5810 feet (1700 metres) - is well known for its lake fed by perennial rivers. The lake – said to be 1.25 kilometres long - is surrounded by a dense forest on its west side, which lends its water a green hue. In winters, migratory birds visit the lake. A board next to the lake claimed this year Siberian Cranes had been there. I took pictures of a few Great Comorants, sitting comfortably with an air of grandness about them, in the middle of the lake. There are a few restaurants and small eateries by the lake. At one end of the lake, people had gathered to feed colourful fish, the kinds you would see in aquariums, only bigger than average aquarium varieties.
I must have spent about 45 minutes at the lake before heading back to Jalpaiguri. It was a day well spent. I was content, happy and tired, all at once!