Our sightseeing began with Darjeeling Ropeway that connects the “North Point” in the town to Singla, which is on the banks of the Ramman River.
The music system inside the car was playing innumerable songs of Kumar Sanu; I recalled something my brother had once said, “Drivers of North Bengal love this guy; you will find them listening to Sanu all day long, as they drive through the crooked and twisted paths of Himalayas”.
Inhaling the fresh and chilly wind of December, I whispered to myself, “Now I am a perfect DIPUDA!” Well, DIPUDA is the conglomeration of the first two letters of 3 places- Digha, Puri and Darjeeling that every Bengali has to visit, at least once in a lifetime. I had managed to explore the first two places and finally, I was on my way to experience the beauty of the Queen of Hills, Darjeeling.
It was 4 pm when we had our sudden rendezvous with Kangchenjunga. The snow capped mountain was no longer white but reflected a golden aura as the rays of sun descended on it. Every time our car meandered through the edgy route, our mouth fell open and our eyes widened in surprise.
It was a picture perfect landscape where everything around was green and the bright peak of Kangchenjunga stood with its head held high and arms open wide.
By then, I already had a clue that the next 3 days of my life were going to be really eventful not to mention ‘chilling’. Though the town was crowded with travelers from all over the world, but I liked the feel of it.
There was a westernized appeal in the way the shops were decorated and in the way the young generation carried themselves. The mongoloid features of the local people made it difficult for me to believe that I was still in West Bengal.
We were staying in a Tibetan Heritage Hotel and the room offered us the typical nostalgic view of Darjeeling and of course a sneak peek into the majestic Kangchenjunga. It was really hard to bind my enthusiasm because I wanted to see the Mall and all those places I had seen in movies.
The town folks were celebrating Tea and Tourism Festival and had lit up the Mall area. There were bands performing on the stage, and the fast food center and of course Darjeeling Tea stalls were abuzz with activity.
As the mercury dropped, we found that the rocking performance of Parikrama was the only way out to keep ourselves warm. Alas! Our ability to fight cold gradually faded and by 9 pm, we were on our way back to the hotel.
Day 1 in Darjeeling: I woke up at 7 am and stared through the foggy windows of my room to find a sleeping beauty bound with ranges. With mesmerized eyes, I stood in front of the window to see the sun stretching its rays to wake up the whole town.
Our sightseeing began with Darjeeling Ropeway that connects the “North Point” in the town to Singla, which is on the banks of the Ramman River. The 45 minutes cable car ride offered us a panoramic view of green valleys, dense forests, mountain ridges and tea gardens. I grabbed my camera and went on clicking.
Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park was our next stop. Though I hate the concept of caged animals, but if you want to see a Red Panda then you have to be in a zoo like this. I was enjoying thoroughly, staring at the funny gestures of the bear and suddenly found myself separated from my friends.
But who cares, when you have Serbian tigers, snow leopard, gorals and a variety of endangered creatures to feast your eyes on, everything else can wait.
The way to the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute was through the zoo itself. The victorious statue of Sir Edmund Hillary at the entrance greeted us with the encouraging phrase, “May (You) Climb from Peak to Peak”.
We also came across a museum displaying the mountaineering gadgets, dresses, shoes and stories of the brave souls who had conquered Mt Everest and many other peaks. It was time to leave and once again we bid goodbye to the animals of the park and headed towards Chunnu Summer Falls in the Rock Garden. (Oh yes…! My companions found me rooted to the spot, staring at the monkeys and literally dragged me to the car).
The temperature at the park was freezing. I was shivering so badly that it was nearly impossible for me to hold the camera steady to take pictures. I tucked my hands in my armpits to keep them warm, resolving to take from my friends later the shots I missed. This was the last stop for the day and we needed to rest and be all ready for the next morning to witness the last sun rise of the year, 2012, at Tiger Hill.
Day 2 at Tiger Hill: We had a great adda (chatting session) about creepy stuff and spooky stories till 1 am in the night. Now this was enough to take away all my sleep. Even a single creaking sound seemed ghostly to me.
My eyes were wide open and my ears consciously picked all the useless noises, which otherwise would have been inconsequential had I not listened to those scary chitchats. But thanks to our 3 am wake-up call, I mercifully didn’t have to keep tossing and turning through a torturous sleepless night for long.
Brrr….it was too cold! The sharp chilly wind kept piercing us through the layers of sweaters and jackets, all the way to Tiger Hill, which is the summit of Ghoom. A friend cribbed, “Why such torture, we could have watched the rising sun from the window of our hotel room!”
We laughed a lot but when we reached the spot, we found more than 100 people eagerly waiting, not paying any attention to the cold. I said to myself, there must be something magical in the sunrise, which has dragged so many people here at 4 am, that too on a freezing, winter morning.
All of a sudden there was light, as if a shy kid abruptly peeked through the curtain of clouds. An array of colors filled the massive canvas and finally the show stopper came out.
The first rays of the sun hit the twin peaks of Kangchenjunga, painting it pink. Though we could not have the panoramic view of the Mt Everest, but whatever we were offered was the best gift of the year!
It is hard for me to put in words what I saw, but may be my pictures can give you some idea. The gift I received at Tiger Hill was priceless and I realized the pain of getting up at 3 am was nothing compared to the blessing I got.
Batasia Loop was our next destination, which is a War Memorial of Gorkha Soldiers of the Indian Army. You will find another breathtaking view of Kangchenjunga from here.
You can even check out the toy train tracks, which otherwise is the hawkers’ den. Though I enjoyed the view and bought some mementos, I wanted to return to the hotel to rest for a while.
We hopped off at the Ghoom Monastery on our way back, which follows the norms of 16th century Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism. The colorful scripted flags at the gate bear the words of wisdom and peace and create an atmosphere of divinity and truth.
A friend had advised me not to miss the famous Keventer’s restaurant. But we found it so crowded that we had to settle down at Glenary’s for our breakfast, which is another renowned eatery in the town.
My tired body was now refueled and the fresh air revived my spirit to check out something more.
I am not much of a shopping person, so I decided to capture the city, its meandering alleys, the sloping routes and most importantly its people, through my lens.
Chawk Bazar was very much like the Esplanade of Kolkata, filled with tourists bargaining and buying sweaters, bags, shoes, caps and what not. I found the town very friendly and its people charming. Their small, bright eyes, red cheeks and sweet smiles made Darjeeling all the more fascinating.
Strolling at the Mall we picked up the famous Darjeeling tea and feasted on hot momos, shawarma and grilled chicken. Back at the hotel, we packed our bags and finally, when the clock struck 12, we welcomed the New Year with memories poignant enough to last a lifetime.
Day 3 at Mirik: It was time for us to return home. We decided to visit Mirik on our way back to Siliguri. It happens to be a nice place with Sumendu Lake but the bustling 1st January crowd had made the place very busy.
However, I could visualize the calm beauty it could have gifted us otherwise. We even visited the Pashupati Market, which is under the jurisdiction of Nepal. We had to show our identity proof and enter this foreign land!
When we got back to the car, a friend quipped, ‘Ahh! Now we are all bilet ferot (foreign returned)!” We laughed to our hearts’ content as our car wound its way down the roads that had 3 days ago brought us close to the heavenly Kangchenjunga.
We could not make for the toy train trip while leaving Darjeeling and that disappointed me. I would have loved to take a seat near the window and sing the famous song, “Meri sapno ki rani” or may be someone could have sung it for me.
But, the hills had other plans for me. All of a sudden I saw white fumes and the toy train appeared at a distance. Though I was sad for not being able to sit inside it, a glimpse of it made me happy.
As I gazed at the toy train from the car window, I realized that Darjeeling has its own special way of saying goodbye to its tourists. The flying flags, the tea garden, the green valleys and the Queen of the Hills were with us all the way, until we reached a point where the roads were plain and the wind was not chilly anymore.
The hills of Bengal have been through political turmoil for long and the struggle to create Gorkhaland and forge a separate identity of its own has been going on. The future will tell what is in store for the town. But I would definitely return to relish the snow-white portrait of Darjeeling once again.
Note from the Editor:
The nearest airport for Darjeeling is Bagdogra (airport code IXB), located at a distance of 14 km from Siliguri and 90 km from Darjeeling.
Jet, Indian, Kingfisher & Spicejet fly to Bagdorga from Kolkata (flying time 55-60 mins) and from Delhi (flying time around 2 hrs for direct flight).
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