Darjiling was all misty and rainy when we reached. And that is the way the climate is throughout the year. From being a tiny holiday resort with a few thousand people, D’ling has today come a long way. It is a sprawling town with more than 100,000 inhabitants spread over more than 10 kms at an altitude of 2134 m. Unplanned growth and lack of restrictions on settling has made it like any other Indian town; dirty, smelly and crowded. The town is mostly populated by Gorkhas, the indigenous inhabitants of this place who share a lot in common with their brethren in Nepal. A Gorkhaland Movement demanding an autonomous hill state in Darjiling was in ascendancy throughout the 1980s and early 90s. Through a truce conducted with the Govt of India, an Autonomous Hill Council has been created with the leader of the Gorkhaland Movement, Subhash Ghisingh as the Chairman.
The rain prevented any sightseeing that day. From the balcony of my room in Craigmont, a guest house located about halfway up the hill overlooking D’ling, I could see towering mountains barely 5-6 kms in front of me. Tiny lights twinkled in the cottages spread throughout the tea gardens. Darjiling itself was awash in light with traffic in full flow. The temperature in Darjiling always hovers around the 10 C mark. It is never bone-chilling cold and snowfall is quite rare. Sadly, the much yearned for peace was nowhere to be sought. Honks of taxis and cars could be heard far below. I spent the night watching news channels interview a psycho who claimed to be Abhishek Bachchan’s girlfriend.
At about 3 AM the next morning we set out for Tiger Hill, a hill top at 2585 m about 11 kms from town which we were told offers great sunrise views. Apparently a lot of other tourists were told so too for the roads were chock-a-bloc with tourists at this unearthly hour. A drive of 45 mins through Ghoom and the Senchal Wildlife Sanctuary and a hike of 15 mins through a rock outcrop brought us to our destination. There were close to 300 people there, all waiting for the same sight. Soon the sun rose and painted in pink a massif that rose 8586 m in front of us, Kanchenjunga! The third highest peak in the world! Far to the right peeped out Mount Everest flanked by Mt. Makalu. The colour soon changed to a bright orange. The Teesta and its tributaries flowed towards the south. The snow-capped Chol range too made an appearance. People stood where they were…transfixed by this appearance of superb beauty.
When the spell broke we all proceeded back to D’ling. En route we stopped at Ghoom Monastery, a beautiful building with brilliant paintings whose entrance serves as a much sought after market for local goods. Further ahead we stopped at Batasia Loop, probably the most famous loop in the entire DHR system which too offers mind numbing views of Kanchenjunga. The track here looks down to a deep gorge on one side and the Gorkha War Memorial on the other. A recently planted garden here took away, in my opinion, much of the pristine beauty of this place. The rest of the day saw us exploring the Padmaja Naidu Zoological Park, a beautifully maintained zoo that is a treasure trove for people who want to know about Himalayan fauna. The elusive Red Panda and the Siberian Tiger are the prime attraction here. Adjoining the zoo is the Tenzing Norgay Himalayan Mountaneering Institute which was run by the great mountaineer himself. My favourite spot though was the untouched jungle that abutted the zoo and a trek into which was allowed. After barely walking for half a kilometre, you notice the utter loneliness around. There is no human sound to be heard. Cicadas and birds chirp. Thick Sal trees are all around. The ground is covered with fallen leaves. To your right the hillside descends steeply to a river flowing far below. For the third time that day I was bewitched! We also visited a beautiful butterfly museum and the ropeway site which was then sadly out of order. The hilltop is a particularly good place to check out the Mock Tudor Villas of the erstwhile British planters.
Darjiling is also the best place to have Momos, a tibetan speciality. It is a dumpling with a filling of either vegetables or meat (usually beef or pork).
The boiled vegetarian Momo was heavenly! And who can forget the Darjiling Tea? The locally available brew has a lingering aroma and a taste that is quite unlike the Darjiling we people have in our homes. Evening saw me visit Islamia restaurant in the main market for some taste of North Indian food. The return journey was a disaster. I walked back home in heavy rain (Darjiling has no public transport for city travel). Being unfamiliar with the route I took a longer route by mistake and was thoroughly drenched by the time I reached. The rain in the hills is nothing like the placid one we have here. It stings the skin and is cold, very cold. The wet Islamia dinner (Darjiling has no plastic bags) was what I had to make do with. Tomorrow would see me in Sikkim.