Friday, June 14, 2019

DRIVING AROUND DARJEELING

We started our drive from Pelling to Darjeeling in our Innova cars.

First we drove along the Sikkim roads and then reached West Bengal. After a total drive of some three hours, we reached a place near Kalimpong.

Those who wanted to do White Water Rafting were welcome to enjoy the activity - only five youngsters from our group were game for it. Both of us had done that earlier on the rapids in Manali, so we opted out
 and chose to enjoy the scenic beauty.

We encouraged them by welcoming them back at the destination.

Then we had a simple lunch at a modest place in Kalimpong.

Once again as we started for Darjeeling after 2 pm, there was a line-up of cars.

The drive was beautiful .....

As we were approaching Darjeeling, there was fog and a slight drizzle.

We soon reached Crescent Resort, Darjeeling - yes it is named so because of its crescent shape. We bid goodbye to our drivers from Sikkim and thanked them for their excellent services.

We enjoyed our piping hot welcome coffee.

As we entered our nice big room, an attendant came over and switched on the electric heater. 
We were glad to enjoy the warmth. It was then that we observed that the room did not have a fan / AC. It was windy and cold outside, so no one dared to venture out but chose to enjoy the luxury of a nice rest before dinner.

A nice, refreshing sleep did wonders for us and we were ready for the busy day ahead - 
after a hearty breakfast in our hotel.

We started off in Sumo / Xylo vehicles for the city tour of Darjeeling. Roads were narrow, but well maintained. But our vehicles weren't great. I'm not complaining as distances were short, and it took us not more than 40 minutes to drive from one tourist spot to another.

Within 15 minutes, we reached the first destination, Padmaja Naidu Zoo & Himalayan Mountaineering Institute.

The zoo, opened in 1958, at an average elevation of 7,000 feet, is the largest high altitude zoo in India. It has successful captive breeding programs for the snow leopard, the critically endangered Himalayan wolf and the red panda. 

We first went to see the red panda. Out of the two, one chose to enjoy his nap. 

But the other one entertained us by parading up and down, and up and down - we couldn't take our eyes off from the cute reddish cat-like creature with a white face and ears and a long, furry tail. 

Nor could we stop clicking pics. Anyway, this was the first time we were seeing this animal.


Markhor, the national animal of Pakistan, sat majestically and  with his flowing beard, resembled a 'mullah'.


We were lucky to see the endangered species, the Himalayan wolf which sat and posed for us.


Another endangered species - the Snow Leopard was taking a nap.


We also got to see Mishmi Takin, also known as gnu goat and found in the Himalayan mountains.


We also saw monkeys, yak, snake, birds .....
We were delighted to see unusual species in the zoo. The zoo attracts about 3,00000 visitors every year.

Next to the zoo is the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI). It was established in Darjeeling, on 4 November 1954, with the impetus provided by the first prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, 
to encourage mountaineering as an organized sport in the country, after the first ascent of Mount Everest in 1953 by Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary had sparked a keen interest for mountaineering in people in the region. 


Narendra Dhar Jayal, the pioneer of Indian Mountaineering, was the founding principal of the institute and Tenzing Norgay was the first director of field training. 


At the Jayal Hall, special events are held. 


There is statue of Sir Edmund Hillary.

There is a tablet in honor of Sherpa Tenzing Norgay.




The place itself is very picturesque, with a well-maintained garden.


There is a museum, with interesting exhibits, including old set of mountaineering gear as well as the modern  climbing gears.

HMI regularly conducts Adventure, Basic and Advanced Mountaineering courses which are very comprehensive courses. They are also highly subsidized to encourage mountaineering as a sport.

We then drove to Happy Valley Tea Estate, a tea garden spread over 440 acres, situated at a height of 6,900 ft above sea level, 3 km north of Darjeeling. Established in 1854, it is Darjeeling's second oldest tea estate and employs more than 1500 people. 

After remaining dormant for 4 years, it reopened to public in 2008, with the original factory turned into a working museum. It also displayed single piston slow-speed engines, and the shaft machines. 

We were first welcomed with a hot, tasty cup of tea. 

After this a volunteer explained the process of making tea right from the plucking stage.

After that we had the privilege of 'tea tasting'. There were some half a dozen bowls with different tea varieties - the rare white tea (the lightest of all - wonder when it will take center stage like the green tea), green tea, and varieties of regular tea. Each one of us had to taste all of them one after another using the spoon given to us. We had to take a spoon from the first bowl, pour it in our mouth and slurp (with the sound too) it down slowly, as we get its taste lingering in our tongue. At the end we had to proclaim which one we liked best. Invariably, all of us ended up opting for one of the regular varieties.

Varieties of tea were sold in packets but the prices were forbidding. No wonder, because I came to understand that even in 2008, the hand-rolled tea produced by Happy Valley was chosen to be sold at Harrods in the United Kingdom, with the price ranging from Rs 5,000 ($72) to Rs 6,000 ($87) per kg.

We then came out and were excited go around the sprawling tea estate, as the green bushes beckoned us. The bushes in the garden, we learnt are very old — the minimum age is 80 years, and some are even 150 years old. Very little re-plantation has been done in the recent past. The months of March to May are the busiest time, when plucking and processing are in progress.
It was the month of May alright,  only we didn't have baskets, otherwise we would have plucked tea leaves and handed them to the estate.

The place is open Tuesday to Saturday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

After this we drove to Tenzing Rock climbing place. 

All of were given 'jal mudi' in a paper cone - we got to taste  a typical Bengali street snack.
Except the bunch of senior citizens in our group, all the rest, with the rope tied to their waist, tried their hand at assisted rock climbing  - successfully at that.

It was a scenic drive, back to our hotel at the end of our morning session.

Soon after lunch we proceeded on our post-lunch session.

Our first halt was at Peace Pagoda and Japanese Shrine.


The fabulous Japanese Temple is located 10 minutes away from the heart of Darjeeling town. It is a two storied building built in a traditional Japanese style, in 1972.

Two concrete lion statues smile at us at the entrance. On entering the temple, there is a picture of the founder Fuji Guruji. Statues of Lord Buddha suggest that it is a Buddhist religious temple.

As you climb up the wooden stairs you enter a large prayer room. The prayer timing is from 4.30 am to 6.30 am morning and from 4.30 pm to 6.30 pm in the evening. When we went there, we too could join the prayers and get a chance to feel the divine peace prevailing there. We were offered a small drum pad and a stick which we could use to drum in the same rhythm as the leader there.

We left after ten minutes, while leaving, we were offered small sweet balls as 'prasad'. Photography is permitted inside the temple but is prohibited inside the prayer room during prayers.

Just adjacent to the temple, is located the Peace Pagoda, inaugurated on 1 November 1992. It is the tallest structure in Darjeeling. The pagoda was designed by M. Ohka, and it took 36 months for its construction. It has helped in bringing people together from all creed and race in their aim to look for peace. Wide and short steps lead up to the Pagoda. 
Two concrete models of lions are visible here too, as one climbs up.

Large statues representing the four avatars of Lord Buddha polished in gold color look imposing.
While taking a walk around the Pagoda we noticed the beautiful artwork, etched on a sandstone that looks like a wooden framework which depicts the life of Buddha. 

Stunning views of the mountains and snows peaks are visible if one happens to be there on a clear day. One of the most popular destinations in Darjeeling, the temple is open from 4.30 am morning to 7 pm in the evening. There is no admission fee.


As we were driving to our next destination, we could not help noticing the narrow railway track running along the road.

Darjeeling, the queen of the hills is known for its tea and the world heritage site of DHR (Darjeeling Himalayan Railway). The DHR or 'Toy Train', is a 2 ft gauge railway that runs between New Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling. Built between 1879 and 1881, it is about 88 km long. A major difficulty faced by the DHR was the steepness of the terrain. Loops and zig-zags were incorporated along the route to achieve a comfortable gradient. It climbs from about 328 ft above sea level at New Jalpaiguri to about 7,218 ft at Darjeeling, using six zig-zags and five loops to gain altitude. Six diesel locomotives handle most of the scheduled service, with daily tourist trains from Darjeeling to Ghum — India's highest railway station — and the steam-hauled Red Panda service from Darjeeling to Kurseong.

The line follows Hill Cart Road, a part of National Highway 110. The track runs on the roadside for long stretches, 
sometimes along the left and sometimes along the right. There are times when both track and road might be blocked by a rock slide. 

Since a length of the road is flanked with buildings, the railway line often resembles urban tramway tracks. To warn pedestrians and drivers of an approaching train, train drivers sound the loud horn almost constantly.

Several films have been shot here - the most memorable is the opening scene of 'Aradhana', where the handsome Rajesh Khanna driving in a jeep parallel to the train, sings "Mere Sapno Ki Rani" as heroine Sharmila Tagore, sitting on the train, coyly reacts. Other films that include the railway are 'Barfi!', 'Parineeta', and 'Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman'.

On 2 December 1999, UNESCO declared the DHR a World Heritage Site

We were excited as a ride in the Toy Train was in our itinerary.

But as we were driving to Batasia Loop, we were caught in a massive traffic jam in the heart of the city and were parked alongside the railway track.

It took us some time and inquiries to find out the reason for the traffic jam - there was a freak accident ahead, close to the train station. The Toy Train had dashed into a car - just imagine! As the traffic started moving after some 30 minutes, when we reached the accident spot, 
we could see the smoke still coming out of the engine - and up went our proposed train ride in smoke as the rides had been canceled.

We reached the Batasia Loop, 5 km from Darjeeling. Commissioned in 1919, it is a spiral railway created to lower the gradient of ascent of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway in Darjeeling district. At this point, the track spirals around over itself through a tunnel and over a hilltop.

We got to spend half an hour there. 


We got to enjoy some magnificent views from there.

There is also a War Memorial dedicated to the Gorkha soldiers of the Indian Army who sacrificed their lives after the Indian Independence in 1947. 


Particularly attractive is the spot which proclaims love for Darjeeling. 


From another point, I saw this eatery with the eminently funny name - 'Santa Banta Dhaba'! As we were driving back, we were discussing about shopping, which had taken a backseat during this tour. But we were not going back empty handed / with bulging wallet. 

It had been a hectic day alright, but we still had enough beans in us 
for a quick round of shopping on Mall Road, which was conveniently a 'no-vehicle zone' in the evenings. 


We could take a stroll along Mall Market / Dragon Market / Mahakal Market. 


We requested to be dropped off at Mall Road - and joined the numerous shoppers eagerly thronging the place. It was a good decision as  we could shop for an hour or more and take the downhill walk to our hotel, a mere 10 minute walk. If we chose to go shopping the next day from the hotel, we'd have to walk up the very steep climb which would be exhausting. Some of us shopped for woolen clothes, jackets, ponchos, others went for tea-sets / curios. And we returned to our hotel, our smiles saying it all. 

After dinner, we retired to bed before 9 pm, as we had to wake up very early the next morning. Yes, we had our wake-up call at 2.30 am. We had to drive to Tiger Hill to watch the sunrise at 5 am.

All of us were ready to leave in the three vehicles at 3.30 am. if we had to beat the traffic and be the early birds, not only to get the best viewing spots, but also nearby parking spots to reduce our walking time to a minimum. 

Tiger Hill located 8530 ft above sea level, is the summit of Ghoom and the highest peak in the neighboring region. It is one of the most popular spots for watching the sunrise and the Kanchenjunga. In fact it has a panoramic view of Mount Everest and Mount Kanchenjunga together.

It is 11 km from the town of Darjeeling, and up an incline to the summit. At sunrise, the peaks of Kanchenjunga are illuminated before the sun is seen at lower elevations. 

We all would have watched sunrise during our early morning walks or even from our own backyard. But we take things for granted. Sometimes it demands extra efforts on our part to savor the beauty of mundane things.

We drove in our vehicle on the bumpy roads. The drive on the climb did rattle all our bones and muscles - the only consolation was that there was not much traffic as we were really early. And zero oncoming traffic (who'd travel in the opposite direction at that  unearthly hour?) which was one botheration less. In fact we reached Tiger Hill in one hour - at 4.40 am - in fact we would have been one of the first ten vehicles, so we had to walk up the steep climb for just five minutes. And our vehicle got a good parking space too nearby.


All of us were well protected with sweaters/ jackets / shawls / caps, still the chilly wind was cutting through our body and we tried to cocoon ourselves in our woolens.

As early birds, we got to choose vantage points to be seated. Our tour leaders got us hot coffee / tea - well, you have so many vendors, mostly ladies, who are enterprising enough to be up there in the chill to oblige needy tourists. And make an earning, of course. God bless them!


We sat waiting in anticipation. 


Soon, the sun was rising behind the mountains and the horizon was streaked with yellow and orange. 
But the clouds played spoilsport and diminished the glory of the spectacle for us - the mountains were not seen. It wasn't a great day to view Kanchenjunga at sunrise from Tiger Hill. After all the efforts .... That's the point - you need to have luck on your side to get the best of every itinerary during your one-time-visit during your tour.

The show was over within ten minutes but the wait and the anticipation made it look longer. Anyway, we treasured the beauty of the scene in our minds.

With a tinge of disappointment, we walked briskly to find our car. We didn't have to walk much, and we were glad to experience the warmth inside the car. As we started driving, we found the long, unending line of cars parked. We even saw some cars coming, some people hurrying up to catch a glimpse of the majestic spectacle, not even realizing they had missed it!

Next followed our biggest ordeal. We had been warned of it earlier, so the traffic jam did not come as a surprise. In fact we had three traffic jams and we took two hours to reach our hotel. We were told that it was not bad at all.

We had been warned not to have a hot bath immediately after our return, but allow our body to get adjusted to the difference in temperatures.


As it was a relaxed day, we packed, went around the hotel, and rested before and after lunch.

We had a get-together in the evening - our team leaders conducted 'Housie' and winners happily took home prizes. Songs were presented, jokes were shared. Then came the highlight of the evening.

Celebrations came to a crescendo with cake-cutting on the successful completion of the tour.


Next morning, we started our drive to Bagdogra after a good breakfast.

We reached the airport after a 2 1/2 hour drive - at 12.30 pm. Our flight to Kolkata was at 4.30 pm.

We thanked our tour managers  Shailesh and Soumil for their excellent services. We were handed our lunch packets, which we relished after checking in our luggage and collecting our boarding passes.

One hour flight, and we landed in Kolkata. We had to kill more than three hours before boarding our two-hour flight to Pune.


We bid goodbye to our friends, promised to keep in touch and left for home with a treasure trove of memorable experiences during our tour of Sikkim, Darjeeling.


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