A chance conversation with a friend resulted in a short visit to Darjeeling, the “Queen of the Hills”. The idea was to commemorate a course I had attended at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, Darjeeling many years ago. Because of the incessant monsoon rains early September is not a good time to visit Darjeeling. But as we this was the only time slot available I decided to chance it.
A 36 hour train journey from Delhi brought me to New Jalpaiguri junction and after a further 4 hour taxi drive we reached the Dekeling Hotel, our home for the next couple of days, by 8:30 pm.
Located on the Gandhi Road, in the heart of Darjeeling, Hotel Dekeling is run by a Sherpa family. Reached by a long steep flight of stairs, it is homely, cosy, clean and efficiently run. It also has great views of the Kanchenjunga range. All in all it is a great place to stay if you don’t mind the stairs.
Darjeeling is located at an average altitude of about 2000 meters in the Darjeeling-Jalapahar range which itself is a part of the Mahabharat Range. These mountains are nestled below the great Kanchenjunga massif. On clear days the views from Darjeeling are dominated by Mt. Kanchenjunga, world’s third highest peak at 8,598 meters. On exceptionally clear days Mount Everest can also be seen.
Darjeeling was the first “Hill Station” of British India. Its popularity never decreased and many (myself amongst them) feel it is still the best “Hill Station” of India. But before I continue further with my story a short history of Darjeeling would be in order.
A Short History of the Darjeeling region:
The mountainous regions around Darjeeling were controlled by Sikkim till the early 19th century. Darjeeling was first mentioned in the British records by a delegation of the British East India Company. While on its way to Sikkim, the members of this delegation stayed in the Darjeeling region. They found the area suitable for building a sanatorium for British soldiers. In 1835 the British East India Company negotiated a lease for the region west of the Mahananda river from the Chogyal of Sikkim. In 1849 friction developed between the British East India Company and the State of Sikkim when the forces of Sikkim imprisoned Arthur Campbell, a director of the British East India Company, and Joseph Dalton Hooker, an eminent botanist and explorer, in the Darjeeling region. The company sent a force to free them. The result was an annexation of about 1700 Sq. Km. of Sikkim’s territory by the British East India Company. In 1864 the British signed the Treaty of Sinochula with the Bhutanese government. In this treaty the Bhutanese Government ceded some hill passes and Kalimpong to the British. The continuing British-Sikkimese discord resulted in a war. The result of this war was a treaty in 1865 in which the British annexed the areas east of the Teesta river. By 1866 the Darjeeling district was firmly under the British and had assumed its current size and shape.
After coming under the British Raj, the development of Darjeeling proceeded briskly. Arthur Campbell, a Surgeon and Lieutenant Robert Napier were amongst its first settlers. Its population increased a hundredfold between 1835 and 1849. Soon Darjeeling was a thriving town. The first road to the plains was built by 1842 and Darjeeling became a municipality by 1850. Commercial cultivation of the world famous Darjeeling Tea began in 1856 and after 1864 Darjeeling became the summer capital on the Bengal Presidency. Scottish missionaries constructed schools and soon Darjeeling became a noted center for education. In 1881 the Darjeeling Himalayan railway was opened further hastening the development of Darjeeling.
Before going to sleep I set the alarm for 5:30am. I didn’t want to miss the sunrise on the Kanchenjunga range if the weather in the morning was clear. I woke up even before the alarm and looked out of the window to find a solid overcast sky. Disappointed, I went back to sleep again. Woke up again at 6:30 and after brushing my teeth looked out of the window again. The sky had cleared and the Kanchenjunga range could be seen in all its glory. I quickly grabbed my camera and rushed to the top floor lounge. The view was clear for only about half an hour, enough to get some good images.
After a hearty breakfast of bacon and eggs with a pot of Darjeeling tea at Glenary’s, we walked off towards the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI).
Darjeeling is a town best explored on foot. The authorities have put up road maps at strategic locations to help the tourist. Here is a copy of one such map :
The walk to HMI takes one up the Gandhi road to the Chowrasta square and from there along a beautiful shady road to the Raj Bhawan gates and then on to the Padmaja Naidu Zoological Gardens. On the way we also saw the beautiful St. Andrews church.
The Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, Darjeeling :
To reach HMI one has to get a ticket for the Zoo and then walk across the Zoo to the HMI compound.
It is a lovely walk through a beautiful shady oak forest. After entering the zoo, we walked straight up to the HMI compound and spent a about an hour reliving the old memories of the days spent here during our mountaineering course. More about HMI and my experiences there later.
As I have already said, to visit HMI one has to buy the tickets for the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zooligical Park. As we already had tickets we spent the next couple of hours exploring the Zoo and photographing its inhabitants.
Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park
The Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park, or the Darjeeling Zoo is easily the best Zoo I have visited in India. It concentrates on Himalayan birds and animals and has a good collection of Himalayan pheasants. It also houses a Snow Leopard breeding center. The highlights of the zoo are the Snow Leopards, the Clouded Leopard and the Red Pandas.
The Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park is a good place to observe and photograph these elusive animals at close range.
You can have a look at some images in this gallery :
Images from the Darjeeling Zoo
The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway
Any account of Darjeeling is incomplete without a mention of its “Toy Train”. As mentioned earlier, the Darjeeling – Jalpaiguri narrow gauge train was inaugurated in 1881. It is one of the oldest functional narrow gauge railway system anywhere in the world and is very popular with the tourists. Due to heavy rains the full route, ie to the New Jalpaiguri Station, was not functional. The Toy Train was running from Darjeeling to Kurseong, and a Tourist Special train was running to the Ghoom Railway station and back two times a day. The tourist special is powered by a fully functional steam engine.
Some images of the Darjeeling toy train :
Early next morning I walked to the Mahakal temple on the observatory hill and to the Shrubbery Park. The Shrubbery Park provides some of the best views for the Kanchenjungha range from Darjeeling.
It was quite overcast but I did get a few fleeting glances of the mighty Kanchenjungha and some lovely views of the Sikkim and Bengal Himalayas.
There were sharp showers throughout the day. I spent the day walking around the town with my camera, just enjoying being in the Queen of Hills. Soon it was evening, time to pack up and prepare for the journey home.