DARJEELING: ITS STUNNING TOY TRAIN, TREKS AND VIEWS OF THE HIMALAYAS

DARJEELING

Darjeeling (700 kilometers north of Kolkata) is sometimes called the "Queen of the Hill Station." Located in one of India's most beautiful regions, it was established in the mid 19th century and was originally a sanitarium built by the East India Company. Darjeeling has prospered as the center of a tea growing area. Today it is home to around 135,000 people. The town has more of Nepalese feel than an Indian one. There is even a separatist movement that wants to establish a separate Nepalese state called Gurkaland. There is also a sizable Tibetan community. The name Darjeeling is derived from the Tibetan phrase "Dorje-Ling ("the place of the thunderbolt")

Situated at an elevation of 2042 meters (6,700 feet), Darjeeling is surrounded by lush tea plantations, flower-covered meadows and beautiful Himalayan peaks. Nearby is 8,595-meter (28,208-foot) Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain the world, and Buddhist monasteries and convents. Gone unfortunately are the licensed Ganga and Bhang sellers (in 1984 ten grams of marijuana sold for about 30 cents). But there are plenty of street dealers to take up the slack.

The people are generally friendly, hospitable and welcoming. In addition to Nepalese and Indians there are Bhutanese, Bengalis, Sherpas, Sikkimese and local Bhotias. Jan Morris wrote in National Geographic Traveler: “Most of them are small and many of them are poor, but they move about like champions, here in their own air, beneath their own skies, they carry with them the splendid confidence of possession. They are like so many exuberant aristocrats as they swarm their alleys, or jostle through the dusk around the flickering firelights of the lower town. No maharaja could be prouder or merrier than a citizen of Darjeeling at home!”

Sprawled over a steep mountain ridge, Darjeeling is a quaint hill station with colonial-era building and gardens. One of the best ways to reach the city is by riding in the 140-year-old Darjeeling Himalayan Railway that meanders through some of the most awe-inspiring landscapes in and around the hill station. There are plenty of places like Singalila Ridge to go trekking and mountain biking. The bustling bazaars are good to shop for handcrafts and Tibetan souvenirs,

Before being acquired by the East India Company in 1835, Darjeeling was a part of Sikkim and Nepal for a while. Initially, the city was ruled by the kings of Sikkim, who were engaged in wars against the Gurkhas, or the native warriors clan. Captain George Alymer Lloyd, a British officer stationed in the area, was attracted by the beauty of the hills and proposed build a sanatorium. Serving as the summer retreat of the British in the mid-19th century, Darjeeling grew in importance. For information on Darjeeling’s history read Barbara Crossete's “Great Hill Stations of Asia”.

Getting There: Siliguri (80 kilometers south of Darjeeling) is the gateway to Darjeeling and Sikkim. A bustling commercial city with 700,000 people, it is located in the middle of lovely tea growing region and is a good access point for Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Sikkim and Gangtok. By Air: The nearest airport is at Bagdogra that is around 88 kilometers away from Darjeeling. It is connected to all the major cities. By Road: The main access to Darjeeling is through Siliguri, located at about 80 kilometers, which connects to all the major cities of India. By Train: The nearest railway station is the New Jalpaiguri (NJPA), which connects all the major cities of the country. Most of the trains heading the North East stop here.

Shopping in Darjeeling

Darjeeling is great place to shop. There interesting curio shops with jewelry, Chinese porcelain, Hindu bronzes, and Tibetan Buddhist prayer wheels and thangka scroll paintings. Some Tibetans make their living as professional yak bone carvers and vendors who sell turquoise beads, embroidered felt boots, silver butter lamps and cakes of dried yak milk.

At the Hong Kong Market, near the town of Siliguri. One can find a good selection of — often fake — foreign goods and international brands of apparel to gadgets for reasonable prices. There are are good selections of clothes, shoes, bags, accessories and Tibetan and Himalayan products and souvenirs.

Darjeeling and nearby Kalimpong are good place to shop for home décor objects. There are arrays of shops selling beautiful curios made on copper plates studded with red and blue stones with engravings of various deities, Laughing Buddha statues, replicas of thangkas, wooden objects into which inscriptions and other religious subjects have been carved, brass vessels and statues and lovely Tibetan carpets. You can also find Bhutanese paintings, folding partitions, handbags, fire screens, and woollen carpets that are usually dyed with pigments extracted from various vegetables. There are also good deals on Bhutia blankets and bedsheets, as well as masks, shoes, bedroom slippers and coats.

Chowrasta or the Mall is the heart of Darjeeling town. Located on top of Nehru Road, this is a nice flat land where tourists and locals come to lounge in the sun, take a seat on one of the many benches along the periphery, and watch the wonderful views of the mountain peaks and valleys all around. Mall is like the town center or the social center of Darjeeling. This is where some of the old and heritage stores are lined up on one side, and there is open view on the other with many pine trees all around. There are lots of young local lads with their ponies offering horse rides to children. Many elderly tourists indulge as well.

Tibetan Refugee Self Help Center is home to 650 refugees, all engaged in handicrafts and weaving. It also houses an old age home, a school, an orphanage, a clinic and a Tibetan Buddhist monastery, photographic exhibition that displays Tibetan history and also hosts craft workshops regularly. Tourists can purchase carpets, leather products and woolen garments made by skilled Tibetan craftsmen. Such is the reputation of its products, the center now exports its merchandise to over 36 countries! You can pick up a wide range of clothes, wooden artefacts and more for reasonable prices here.

The center was created in 1959 to rehabilitate displaced Tibetans, who followed His Holiness the Dalai Lama. This was a direct result of the refugees need to become entirely self-reliant, as they adjusted with grace and adroitness in a foreign country. The center can be approached via the Lebong Cart Road, and is located on a top of a hill, overlooking a green valley. In the beginning, the community primarily raised funds through donations, charities and even the occasional football match. Subsequently, a committee was set up for the development and maintenance of the center,Tenzin Norgay, the first man on Mt. Everest, was one of the first members of the group.

Sights in Darjeeling

Sights in Darjeeling include the Mountaineering Institute, Geological Park, Lloyds Botanical Gardens (founded in 1878 and featuring plants from all over Asia), the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological park, Dhriran Temple, Ghoom Buddhist Monastery, the Natural History Museum and the Everest Museum. Darjeeling also one the few places on earth where you can see five countries from a single viewpoint (India, Nepal, China, Sikkim and Bhutan). The Windemere Hotel is famous for flowers and formal hospitality. Bhutia Busty monastery houses a copy of the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

Observatory Hill is as its name suggests one of the best spots in Darjeeling to get a great, panoramic view. It is located in the Mall area of Darjeeling, and its highest point is a 15-minute uphill walk. It was the original site of the Dorje Ling Monastery, and is therefore quite significant for the Buddhist community that thrives here. A Hindu shrine known as the Mahakal Temple, which houses the protector deity according to Buddhism, has been set up at the highest point. There are three lingams (phallic symbols honoring Shiva) at the temple, said to have self-manifested in 1785. These represent the Holy Trinity - Lord Brahma, Lord Vishnu and Lord Mahesh. In addition to this, the summit has a number of shrines, dedicated to Lord Hanuman and Siddhi Sai Baba, and a flurry of colorful prayer flags along with the pleasant sounds of devotional bells, providing the perfect frame for your holiday memories. As you walk up to the main temple, your path will often be intercepted by playful monkeys that call this hill home.

Japanese Temple And Peace Pagoda (10 minutes from the Darjeeling town center) was built in 1972 on Jalapahar hill. Also known as Nipponzan Myohoji Buddhist Temple, this resplendent white building features classic Japanese architecture and has a quiet sanctum where people can meditate. Inside the temple are images of Buddha and Fujii Guruji, the founder of the temple and Nipponzan Myohoji , a Buddhist order for world peace. He is said to have witnessed the tragedy of Hiroshima - Nagasaki and was given the title of Guruji by Mahatma Gandhi. If you happen to visit the temple during prayer times (4:30am to 6:30am and 4:30pm to 6:30pm), you will have the opportunity to feel firsthand the beats of the huge drum in the prayer room. Near the temple is the Peace Pagoda, depicting four avatars of Lord Buddha (sitting, sleeping, standing and meditating), which are also the tallest free-standing structures in Darjeeling.

Bengal Natural History Museum boasts a huge collection of skins, bones, antlers and other anatomical parts of a number of species of birds, mammals, insects, fish and reptiles such as the Himalayan brown wood owl, northern spotted owlet, northern brown fish owl, pheasants, fly catchers, myna, night jar, thrush, warbler, flycatcher, kingfisher, snipe, woodpecker, swift, niltava, water bird, barbet, hornbill, cuckoo, and even some large birds of prey. There are 820 specimen of birds that belong to more than 400 species along with 110 species of eggs, 35 species of snakes and 57 species of fish. The museum also houses a Botanical Garden for displaying butterflies and birds of the area.

Batasia Loop is engineering masterpiece situated in the periphery of the city, and offers a 360 degree view of the city. It was commissioned in the year 1919 in order to enable the famous Toy Train to maneuver the steep gradient of about 140 feet. The word Batasia translates to an airy space. The area features a beautiful garden sprawled over 50,000 square ft, which also contains rare species of plants like gingko, and biloba along with fir trees and rhododendrons, all blooming in the Eco Garden in the premises. At the center is a War Memorial built to honour the brave Gurkha soldiers, who lost their lives in the wars after independence.

Lloyd Botanical Garden

Lloyd Botanical Garden is sprawled over about 40 acre of land. One of Darjeeling’s most unique attractions, of the city. It is a delight for anyone who wishes to enjoy a vibrant display of nature’s colors. The collection of flora includes alpine plants, arum lilies, geraniums, ash, birch and lilac from China and Japan, in addition to cryptomerias, plums, cherries, magnolias and maples, weeping willows and deodars from Africa and Bulbon plants and cypress from the United States. There are as many as 150 species of cacti and succulents on display at the greenhouse here.

While the entire garden is a treasure box for tourists, the Orchadium is especially worth a visit. It houses as many as 2,500 orchids, which include 50 rare varieties. Most of these have been brought here from Singalila National Park, which can be found on the way to Sandakphu, about 75 kilometers away. There are three more distinctive sections – the upper section is where you will find the Darjeeling Himalayan vegetation; the mid-section is home to a large selection of alpine trees, ferns and conifers; and the lower section has the famous weeping willow, named as such for its drooping branches that create the illusion that the tree is weeping!

The Lloyd Botanical Garden doesn’t just give you a rundown of present-day flora, it also allows to peep into the prehistoric ages through its two living fossil trees that have been brought to Darjeeling from China. Additionally, there is Student’s Section that has a plethora of literature on the vegetation of the state, a Medical Garden where you can study the different medicinal properties of certain plants, and a Rock Garden where you can take a leisurely stroll as you admire the natural beauty of Sikkim. Named after William Lloyd, a British bank owner, the garden was his gift to the people of Darjeeling, and was established in the year 1878. The main aim of this place is to preserve the indigenous species of rare flora of the Darjeeling Himalayan hill region, Sikkim and its neighbouring areas.

Monasteries in Darjeeling

Bhutia Busty Monastery is one of the oldest Tibetan monasteries in West Bengal. The monastery was built in 1761 by Lama Dorje Rinzing, and was originally a part of Sikkim s Phodang Monastery under the Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism, associated with the Kagyu order of Tibetan Buddhism. It was eventually moved to Darjeeling in 1879. In its prime, it stood tall where the Observatory Hill is now found, but was destroyed during the Gurkha invasion in the 19th century. Even the new building was almost entirely ravaged by an earthquake in 1934, until the Chogyal of Sikkim stepped forward to rebuild it.

Bhutia Busty Monastery displays traditional Tibetan-style architecture with Sikkimese influences. It now belongs to the Red Sect of Buddhists. The interiors showcase fine murals that portray the life of Lord Buddha. You will also see images of the Dalai Lama, Tara Devi and Lakshmiswari, the goddess with a thousand hands and eyes. You can also visit the library, where thousands of books on Tibetan scripts, culture, and traditions etc., are stocked. The main attraction is the original copy of The Tibetan Book of the Dead , preserved in mint condition. Photography is completely prohibited inside the monastery.

Bokar Ngedon Chokhor Ling Monastery was founded in 1984. It was initially started as a small retreat center but over time, it grew in importance and size, and is now a thriving place of education and home to more than 500 monks who are devoted to studying and propagating the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha. The monks are taught various aspects of spirituality along with Tibetan language, grammar and handwriting. They also study the liturgies and prayers of Buddhism, and train in the elements and practices of their traditions, including making elaborate prayers, learning how to play different instruments and performing ritualistic dances, mastering varied hand gestures (also known as mudras), and reviewing chanting melodies.

Every month, the monks undergo vigorous week-long training in the practices preserved by the Karma Kagyu and Nyingma traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, which includes building a sand mandala, playing traditional music, creating detailed offerings, and more. The monks also receive instruction in Tantras, which encompass the commentaries of Kalachakra and Hevajra. Additionally, every year witnesses two major events the Great Spring Exposition and the Great Summer Exposition during which some of the most important texts of Buddhism, like the Vinaya (code of monastic disciple) and the Sutras (the actual discourses of Lord Buddha) are presented and taught.

Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (Darjeeling Toy Train)

The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR), or Darjeeling Toy Train as it is affectionately called, was declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. Extending for 88.5 kilometers and requiring more than five hours to cover the entire distance, the train was started in 1881 in order to make the transport of rice and other commodities easier and more cost-efficient. Now, it is a focal point of Darjeeling's tourism industry, and is still one of the most outstanding examples of engineering in a challenging terrain. The track on which the train runs is only 60 centimeters wide. Site back and enjoy the creaking, snail-paced ride.

According to UNESCO: “The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway consists of 88.48 kilometers of 2 feet (0.610 meter) gauge track that connects New Jalpaiguri with Darjeeling, passing through Ghoom at an altitude of 2258 meters. The innovative design includes six zigzag reverses and three loops with a ruling gradient of 1:31. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage Site website]

“The tracks have been re-laid and retaining walls rebuilt at various points during the highly eventful history of the railways’ operation, regularly disturbed by monsoon rain, landslides and rock-falls. Various station buildings on the three railways have undergone reconstruction during the course of the century, especially those destroyed by earthquake or fire. These buildings are being restored and maintained in their latest form. Further railway related structures have been restored and maintained in their original form. Though new rolling stock and engines have been introduced, the remaining original ones have also been maintained. This includes the famous B-class steam engines of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. Original 4-wheeled carriages and bogie-type carriages are still in use. The vulnerabilities are clearly linked to the fact that these properties are functioning railways which require constant repair and the changing of parts. However care has been given to ensure that these parts retain the design and quality of the original.”

History of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway

According to UNESCO: “The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway is intimately linked with the development of Darjeeling as the queen of hill stations and one of the main tea-growing areas in India, in the early 19th century. The densely wooded mountain spur on which Darjeeling now stands was formerly part of the Kingdom of Sikkim. It was adopted by the British East India Company as a rest and recovery station for its soldiers in 1835, when the area was leased from Sikkim and building of the hill station began, linked to the plains by road. The region was annexed by the British Indian Empire in 1858.

“Kolkata had been linked by rail in 1878 to Siliguri, in the foothills of the Himalaya. By this time the tea industry had become of great importance for the Darjeeling region, and the existing road transport system was inadequate to cope with the increased traffic. Franklin Prestage, Agent of the Eastern Bengal Railway, submitted a detailed proposal for a steam railway from Siliguri to Darjeeling. This received official approval and construction work began immediately. By 1881 it had been completed in three stages.

“The privately owned Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (hereafter referred to as the DHR) was purchased by the Government of India in October 1948. Since 1958 it has been managed by the State-owned Northeast Frontier Railway.”

Mountain Railways of India: UNESCO World Heritage Site

Mountain Railways of India were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999, 2005 and 2008. According to UNESCO: “The Mountain Railway of India consists of three railways: the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway located in the foothills of the Himalayas in West Bengal (Northeast India) having an area of 5.34 ha., the Nilgiri Mountain Railways located in the Nilgiri Hills of Tamil Nadu (South India) having an area of 4.59 ha. and the Kalka Shimla Railway located in the Himalayan foothills of Himachal Pradesh (Northwest India) having an area of 79.06 ha. All three railways are still fully functional and operational. [Source: UNESCO World Heritage Site website]

“The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway was the first, and is still the most outstanding, example of a hill passenger railway. Opened in 1881, its design applies bold and ingenious engineering solutions to the problem of establishing an effective rail link across a mountainous terrain of great beauty. The construction of the Nilgiri Mountain Railway, a 46-kilometer long meter-gauge single-track railway in Tamil Nadu State was first proposed in 1854, but due to the difficulty of the mountainous location the work only started in 1891 and was completed in 1908. This railway, scaling an elevation of 326 meters to 2,203 meters, represented the latest technology of the time. The Kalka Shimla Railway, a 96-kilometer long, single track working rail link built in the mid-19th century to provide a service to the highland town of Shimla is emblematic of the technical and material efforts to disenclave mountain populations through the railway. All three railways are still fully operational.

“The Mountain Railways of India are outstanding examples of hill railways. Opened between 1881 and 1908 they applied bold and ingenious engineering solutions to the problem of establishing an effective rail link across a mountainous terrain of great beauty. They are still fully operational as living examples of the engineering enterprise of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

“The Mountain Railways of India are outstanding examples of the interchange of values on developments in technology, and the impact of an innovative transportation system on the social and economic development of a multicultural region, which was to serve as a model for similar developments in many parts of the world. The Mountain Railways of India exhibit an important cultural and technologicaly transfer in the colonial setting of the period of its construction, particularly with regard to the eminently political function of the terminus station, Shimla.. The railway then enabled significant and enduring human settlement, of which it has remained the main vector up to the present day.

“The development of railways in the 19th century had a profound influence on social and economic developments in many parts of the world. The Mountain Railways of India are outstanding examples of a technological ensemble, representing different phases of the development in high mountain areas. The Mountain Railways of India are outstanding examples of how access has been provided to the plains and plateaus of the Indian mountains. They are emblematic of the technical and material efforts of human societies of this period to disenclave mountain populations through the railway. They are well-maintained and fully operational living lines. They are used in a spirit and for purposes that are the same as those at its their inception.”

Route of the

Darjeeling Himalayan Railway

The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway begin its journey in New Jalpaiguri and passes through Ghum and Sonada, where plains are visible through hillsides and valleys. After reaching it high point (2,258 meters, 7,407 feet), the train descends into Darjeeling down a spiral known as the Batasia Loops.

According to UNESCO: “The DHR consists of 88.48 kilometers of 2 feet (0.610 meters) gauge track that connects New Jalpaiguri with Darjeeling, passing through eleven stations between the two termini. One of these, Ghoom, is the second highest railway station in the world, at an altitude of 2258 meters. Because it passes through a mountainous region, 73 percent of the total length of the line consists of curves, the sharpest of which is that between Sukna and Rongtong, where the track passes through 120°. There are six reverses and three loops on the line, the most famous of these being the Batasia Loop between Ghoom and Darjeeling.

“The steepest gradient is 1 in 18 (in zigzag reverses). The Toy Train, as it is affectionately known, affords breathtaking views of high waterfalls, green valleys that are often hidden by cloud, and at its end the splendid panorama of the snow-capped Kanchenjunga range. There are several distinct sections: the 10 kilometers plains section between Siliguri and Sukna (partly urban and partly agricultural), the 11 kilometers densely forested section from Sukna to beyond Rongtong, the 38 kilometers largely deforested open hill section with its many tea gardens to Kurseong, and finally the 30 kilometers alpine section to Darjeeling, dominated by stands of Himalayan pine and tea gardens.”

Batasia Loop is engineering masterpiece situated in the periphery of the city, and offers a 360 degree view of the city. It was commissioned in the year 1919 in order to enable the famous Toy Train to maneuver the steep gradient of about 140 feet. The word Batasia translates to an airy space. The area features a beautiful garden sprawled over 50,000 square ft, which also contains rare species of plants like gingko, and biloba along with fir trees and rhododendrons, all blooming in the Eco Garden in the premises. At the center is a War Memorial built to honour the brave Gurkha soldiers, who lost their lives in the wars after independence.

Traveling on the

Darjeeling Toy Train

The Darjeeling Toy Train has been in operation of for over 200 years on the narrowest tracks in India (only two-feet apart). Mark Twain rode on it and didn’t complain about how long it took. The ride, he wrote, is "so wild and interesting and exciting and enchanting that it ought to take a week." At the Batasia Loops the bay blue engines of the train almost collide with the caboose during a descent Twain compared with a "snake swallowing itself."

The 87 kilometers route offers breathtaking views of the hills, tea plantations, rice fields and the dense forests running between New Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling. The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway has been featured in several films such as “Parineeta” and “Barfi.” Chugging up to the small hamlet of Ghum, the train covers a vast distance at an unhurried pace, allowing you to really soak in the beauty of the state. Lean out of the window and let the fresh mountain air drive away your fatigue, as you take in the resplendent view of vibrant valleys, with tall mountains rising dramatically behind them. The pace is slow in some up hill parts you can jump off the train, take some photos, and hop back on, while the train is moving.

The train is usually filled with tourists, businessmen, farmers, monks, school children and joy riders. The eight-hour, 54-mile trip passes gardens with yellow primroses, carnations and roses, dogs sleeping on the tracks, and children rolling toys and men sliding logs along the rails. Tickets only cost a few cents.

Near Darjeeling

Sights Near Darjeeling include Tiger Hill (a viewpoint with wonderful views of the Himalayas), Happy Valley Tea Estate, Senchal Lake (10 kilometers away), and Bijanbari (25 kilometers away), a delightful picnic area next to a river. Darjeeling is a good starting point for treks into the eastern Himalayas and the Kanchenjunga area. The travel writer Paul Theroux wrote: Sonada is like standing at the heights of a giant amphitheaterand nearly everyone has rosy cheeks.”

Singalila Hills are a popular trekking here. From here there are splendid views of Everest, Makalu, Kanchenjunga and Lhotse. The treks in the area start at an elevation of 2,134 meters and end at 3,636 meters. While trekking you will come across a number of pretty flowering shrubs and majestic trees, typical of the Himalayan region, as well as small animals.

Bagdogra-Darjeeling Road is scenic way of getting to Darjeeling. The road begins in the scorching plains and switchbacks and winds past banana trees and bamboo thickets and tropical vegetation to silver fir, rhododendron, maple and oak in the highlands.

Lolegaon (40 kilometers west of Darjeeling) is a beautiful and scenic place situated at a height of 1,675 meters (5,500 feet). Also known as Kaffer, it is located at the extreme end of a Himalayan ridge and is surrounded by thick forests. One must take the Canopy Walk on a wooden bridge through the dense jungle to get here. A small haven for bird watchers, it is blessed with colorful plantations and orchid blooms. Points in the hamlet are privy to astounding views of Mt Kanchenjunga, and other Himalayan peaks. Jhandi Dara is an observation point that provides a view of the snow-covered peaks of the Singalila Range and sunrise.

Sandakphu is the highest peak in West Bengal. Situated at the edge of Singalila National Park, on the northwest end of Darjeeling at an altitude of approximately 3600 meters, it offers views four out of the five highest peaks in the world: Everest, Kanchenjunga, Lhotse and Makalu. You can view the famed Three Sisters between Everest and Kanchenjunga, and further to the east of the latter, you will have a clear of the Tibetan peaks of Narsing, Dongkya and Chola. This is why Sandakphu is a favorite among seasoned trekkers while the journey is challenging, the destination is worth the hard work. Sandakphu literally means height of the poisonous plants. This is attributed to the aconite plants that grow in abundance here. They are only poisonous when consumed. The area has beautiful rhododendron and silver fir forests. It is possible to go river rafting on the gushing River Teesta.

Tiger Hill

Tiger Hill (13 kilometers from Darjeeling) is situated at a height of 2,590 meters(8,500 feet) above the town of Ghum. It is internationally acclaimed for providing one of the most stunning views in the world. At sunrise you can watch the sun rising over Kanchenjunga and other important peaks of the Himalayas. If you are there ar the right time you can catch a view of Mount Everest.

While there are several viewpoints in Darjeeling that allow you a glimpse of the mighty Himalayas, there is none that surpass Tiger Hill. Jeeps start for Tiger Hill as early as 4:00am, and there is usually a scramble to get an unhindered view of the impressive peaks. As the sun ascends into the sky, the snow-covered peaks turn into a canvas of blue, pink and purple, set aglow by the golden rays of the morning sun.

Most of the guided tours stop at other attractions on the way back, including Batasia Loop and Ghum Monastery. It is said autumn and spring are the best times to view the sunrises.

Kanchenjunga

Kanchenjunga (Khangchendzonga) is the world’s third highest mountain at 8,598 meters (28,208-feet) -high and is regarded as so sacred that mountaineers are banned from summitting it. Locals believe that gods dwell on the top of the mountain. As a result climbers who assault the mountain halt their ascent a few meters short of the summit as a sign of respect. The mountain itself is so massive that it is visible from Darjeeling to eastern Nepal.

Located in remote corner of the Himalayas between Sikkim and northwest Nepal, Kanchenjunga means the "Five treasures" or “Great Five Peaked Fortress” in Tibetan, a reference to its five separate summits. The mountain was first climbed in 1955 by a British expedition led by veteran Everest climber Charles Evan. In 1985, mountaineer Chris Chandler died of cerebral edema during a wintertime ascent in which his girl friend lost her fingers when she took off her gloves in a desperate attempt to save him.

Kanchenjunga is not just a physical entity but the abode of guardian deity whose benign watchfulness ensures peace and prosperity of the land. The base of Kanchenjunga can be reached by a 200-mile trek in Nepal that begins in Taplejung (a small town 150 miles from Kathmandu in Nepal) and travels through some of the most spectacular scenery in the Himalayas, including 25,294-foot Jannu, the "Mountain of Terror."

Kanchenjunga lies near one of Nepal’s largest glaciers and forests that are home to Himalayan black bears, blue sheep, musk deer and snow leopards. In 1997, a 690-square mile Kanchenjunga Conservation Area was created. In 1977 India created a national park along the Nepal border, It is hoped that China will name its territory in the region a park. About 6,200 people form 13 ethnic groups live in the region.

The mountains around Kanchenjunga are hit hard by the summer monsoons and as a result the mountains are shrouded in snows and surrounded by huge glaciers. Along the trekking route visitors pass through vast forests inhabited by snow leopards and rare Asian bears. The destination of the trek in Pan Pema, a 16,800-foot-high camp sight with spectacular views of Kanchenjung and its surrounding glaciers and mountains. Many trekkers say the view is better than that the Mt. Everest or Annapurna panoramas. Longer treks visit another high campsite on a different side of the mountain.

Kanchenjunga is considered a restricted area. In Nepal, trekkers need a special permit and only about 400 visitors travel to the region each year. One of the most difficult stretches of the trek involves a 7,000 foot descent to a river, a hike through jungle and a steep gorge over river boulders, a river crossing on the back of a 150-pound porter, and a 7,000 foot accent. Trekkers are usually flown into Taplejung and flown out of Suketar.

Siliguri

Siliguri (80 kilometers south of Darjeeling) is the gateway to Darjeeling and Sikkim. A bustling commercial city with 700,000 people, it is located in the middle of lovely tea growing region and is a good access point for Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Sikkim and Gangtok.

Coronation Bridge was built to mark the coronation of King George V in 1937. It is located close Sevokeswari Kali Mandir in Siliguri, at the confluence of the Teesta and Rangeet rivers. Its primary purpose was to provide a link to the beautiful hill stations of the Northeast, as well as Dooars (alluvial flood plains at the foot of the Himalayas) and Bhutan. Today, it serves as a significant gateway to such holiday destinations as Darjeeling. The bridge is considered an engineering marvel due to its cantilever system. It is also called Bagh Pool by the locals because of the statutes of two lions on one end. The bright magenta turrets are another feature of the bridge.

Mirik (50 kilometers from Siliguri) is a hill station famous for its beautiful lake and well-laid-out gardens. The city is surrounded by cardamom plantations, orange orchards, mountains and forests of Japanese cedar and Cryptomeria. Along the lake is a two mile promenade and 80-foot long arch bride. The nice viewpoint and picnic spots at Kawley Bara and Desosi Dara. Sandakphu and Kurseong are popular nearby trekking destinations.

Kalimpong

Kalimpong (32 kilometers miles east of Darjeeling and 65 kilometers north of Siliguri) is a hill station set in the eastern Himalayan foothills. Formerly a wool trading post and a caravan stop on the road from Tibet to Gangetic Plain, it was annexed from Bhutan and Today it is a favorite vacation spot for the Bhutanese royalty and wealthy Calcutta families.. The best time to visit here is from March to May and from September to November. People should generally avoid monsoons as the rainfall is quite heavy. Winter can be chilly.

Kalimpong lack's Darjeeling charm. It's old caravan atmosphere has been lost to modern building and streets packed with shops. Ethnic groups that live here include Nepalese, Tibetans, Bhutanese, Sikkimese, and Lepchas (indigenous Buddhists). Sights include colonial homes, Buddhist monasteries and traditional Himalayan markets. The Himalayan Hotel is a charming place run by David Macdonald, a Scotsman who helped the Dalai Lam escape from Tibet. For information on its history read Barbara Crossete's “Great Hill Stations of Asia”.

Kalimpong is spread along a saddle-shaped ridge, overlooking the meandering River Teesta. Surrounded by snow-capped Himalayas that are crowned by the summit of Kanchenjunga, , the third highest peak in the world, Kalimpong is noted for its Buddhist monasteries, Tibetan handicrafts and churches. According to legend when the local Lepcha tribesmen were not busy with agricultural commitments, they indulged in field sports. Hence, the name Kalimpong, which means the ridge where we play. The city was once the center of trans-Himalayan trade between India and Tibet with merchants ferrying goods through Jelep la Pass on the Sikkim-Tibet border. The city is also known for its educational institutions, most of which were established during the British era. The region around Kalimpong was ruled by the Sikkimese and Bhutanese kingdoms in succession until the 19th century.

Getting There: By Air: Bagdogra, around 80 kilometers from Kalimpong, is the nearest airport and has regular connections with Delhi, Kolkata and Guwahati. By Road: The city of Kalimpong is well-connected with all towns and cities in the state and across India. By Train: The nearest railhead is New Jalpaiguri which is well-connected by road with Siliguri, Gangtok and Kolkata.

Sights in Around Kalimpong

Durpin Dara offers a panoramic view of the Kachenjunga range and the valley and plains below. The Lepcha Museum in Bag Dhara exhibits manuscripts and the effects of the Lepchas, the original people of Kalimpong. Popular destinations nearby include the Rississum picnic ares (20 kilometers away); the Damsang Bhutanese Fort (16 kilometers); Takdah Orchid Center (45 kilometers); Chitray Falls (10 kilometers); and Munsong Teak Forest (24 kilometers). Treks can also be arranged to places with views of Kachenjunga. Sikkim is not far away. Deolo Hill is the highest point in Kalimpong. Located on a 1,650-meter (5,413-foot) high ridge, it offers a spectacular panorama of the entire hilly region. Deolo Hill lies to the northeast of Kalimpong and one can see the Relli valley from the top along with the Teesta river. Single and tandem paragliders take off from here. There is an eight-acre park with manicured flower gardens on the summit of the hills. One can see Kanchenjunga peak from the hilltop.

Crockety (51 kilometers from Darjeeling in in the upper section of Kalimpong) is a majestic colonial bungalow constructed in the 18th century by British wool traders. Open to the public viewing, the bungalow stands as a symbol of British engineering and architectural excellence. and is a quaint structure. Just behind Crockety is the home of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore. This is the place from where he broadcasted his poem “Janmadin” on the All India Radio on his birthday. It is one of the major tourist attractions in the area.

\ Galingka is another British-era bungalow and is also one of the best locations to catch a view of Kanchenjunga. The structure was constructed by British wool traders to use as a rest stop during their travels. The bungalow lies amidst picturesque surroundings and a park dotted with flowering plants and trees.

Lava (15 kilometers east of Kalimpong) is small hamlet situated at an altitude of 2,138 meters (7,015 feet) above sea level. One of the few places in West Bengal that receives snowfall during winters, it serves as an entry point to Neora Valley National Park and the route there is very scenic. Primarily a stop on the way to Kalimpong and the national park, Lava offers a range of homestays and small hotels. A popular trek to Samthar Plateau starts from Gompa Dara, located close by Lava. Rishyap, four kilometers away from Lava, provides breathtaking vistas of Himalayan peaks. Lava Monastery is situated at the edge of a cliff.

Neora Valley National Park

Neora National Park (30 kilometers east of Kalimpong, near Bhutan’s western border) occupies over 88 square kilometers with the spectacular Kanchenjunga range as its backdrop. Reaching an altitude of 3,200 meters, it is one of the richest biological zones in northeastern India and one of the best places in the world to spot the red panda in its natural habitat. The vegetation here is so thick that even sunlight finds it a challenge to touch the ground. Most of the park is inaccessible. The highest point is near Rachela Pass. The forests cling abruptly-rising hills and mountains.

Neora Valley National Park was nominated to be a UNESCO World Heritage site in. 2009. According to a report submitted to UNESCO: The Neora Valley National Park (NVNP) “is a compact patch of virgin forest, rich in biodiversity located in the Eastern Himalayas, a global 'biodiversity hotspot'. It was notified as a National Park based on the provisions of the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972 in the year 1992. It is contiguous with Sikkim and Bhutan at its northern and northeastern boundaries respectively and links the Pangolakha Wildlife Sanctuary in Sikkim and the Toorsa Strict Reserve of Bhutan. It is also an integral part of the Kanchenjunga Landscape. The southern boundaries of the Park are adjoining to the forests of Jalpaiguri district which have connectivity with the Chapramari Wildlife Sanctuary and the Gorumara National Park. [Source: UNESCO]

“NVNP is one of the three PAs in Darjeeling district of West Bengal and the most undisturbed patch of forest of the State. It is unique and ecologically important as it includes a relatively inaccessible patch of late successional forests and with rich diversity and a wide range of environment gradients.

“The compact tract of forest is virgin in nature because of its unique topography comprising the hills which rise up abruptly from the piedmonts increasing northwards and having a mosaic of micro topographic units. This complex physical environment is a result of different geomorphic processes, each of which has developed into the characteristic assemblage of landforms. The altitude varies from 183m to 3200m, the highest point being near Sikkim border in the North. The altitudinal variation covers two biomes namely Sino- Himalayan Temperate Forest (Biome -7) from 1800m to 3600m and Sino-Himalayan Subtropical Forest (Biome-8) from 1000m to 2000m (Islam and Rahmani 2004).

“NVNP lies in the biogeographic zone 2 (Rodgers et al. 2002). In spite of being in Oriental Regional, NVNP has some floral and faunal similarities with the Palaearctic Region, the adjacent zoogeographic region. Moreover, it consists of the characteristics of all the three sub-regions, namely Himalayan Montane System, Indian Peninsular Sub-region and the Malayan sub-region. Four habitat types are recognised viz., (i) Subtropical Mixed Broadleaf Forest, (ii) Lower Temperate Evergreen Forest, (iii) Upper Temperate Mixed Broadleaf Forest and (iv) Rhododendron Forest. The vegetation includes Dry Mixed Forest, Wet Mixed Forest, Lauraceous Forest, Bak-Oak Forest, High level oak Forest, Coniferous Forest, Himalayas Moist Temperate Forest and Rhododendron forest. It is home to several endemic orchids.”

“The NVNP is unique and ecologically important as it includes a relatively inaccessible patch of late successional forests with rich diversity and a wide range of environmental gradients from 183 meters to 3200m. The temperate forests in NVNP found at elevations where moisture tends to condense and remain in the air during the warm moist rowing season are among the most spectacular and species rich temperate forests in the world. These forests are dominated by evergreen broadleaved trees like Quercus in the lower reaches from about 2000-2500m and mixed conifers like Taxus, Tsuga and winter deciduous broadleaved species like Acer, Betula, Magnolia in the upper reaches from 2500-3000m. The drier south facing slopes support extensive stands of arboreal Rhododendron species that are associated with oaks. These forests support rich epiphytic plants of various dicots, orchids, ferns and mosses. Bamboo (Arundinaria spp.) is dominant in the understorey.”

Animals and Plants Neora Valley National Park

Neora National Park is one of the best places in the world to spot the red panda in its natural habitat. The national park is also home to the crimson-breasted woodpecker, Darjeeling woodpecker, Hodgson’s hawk cuckoo, mountain hawk eagle, black-faced warbler, fire-tailed sunbird, king cobra, green pit viper, civets, sloth bear, wild boar, leopard cat and barking deer.

According to a report submitted to UNESCO: Approximately 20 percent of the total species (680 angiosperm species, about 23 Peteridophytes species, 4-5 species of Gymnosperms) found in the PA are extremely rare. Many of these species face the threat of extinction such as Balanophora neorensis (a unique species of parasitic angiosperm), Balanophora polyandra, Betula utilis, Swertia chirata, Swertia bimaculata, Rananculus tricuspes, Digitalis purpuria, Geranium nepalense, Taxus baccata, and Ilex hookeri. The common species of Rhododendrons are Rhododendron arboruem, R. barbatum, R.falconeri, R. dalhousiae. A number of species with medicinal value are also found here. Some of them are Swertia chirata, Lycopodium spp., Aconitum spp., Aristolochia spp., Berberis cristata, Costus speciosa, Didymocarpus pedicellate, Rouwolfia serpentine, etc.

“The mammals of NVNP include the Red Panda (Ailurus fulgens), Himalayan Tahr (Hemitragus jemlahicus), Himalayan Black Bear (Ursus thibetanus), Sāmbar (Cervus unicolor), Barking Deer (Muntaicus muntjak,), Serow (Naemorhedus sumatraensis), Goral (Naemorhedus goral, Dhole (Cuon alpinus), Gaur (Bos frontalis), Tiger (Panthera tigris), Clouded Leopard (Neofelis nebulosa), Leopard (Panthera pardus), Leopard cat (Prionailurus bengalensis), Elephant (Elephas maximas), Fishing cat (Prionailurus viverrinus), Marbled cat (Pardofelis), Indian Pangolin (Manis crassicaudata), Chinese marmorata Pangolin (Manis pentadactyla), Malayan Giant Squirrel (Ratufa bicolor).

“NVNP provides protection to various species of wildlife included in Red Data Book of IUCN and the appendices of CITES. These include more than 31 species of mammals, 258 species of birds (Islam and Rahmani 2004), 276 species of insects, 38 species of other invertebrates including 6 species of leeches, namely Dinobdella forox, Hirudinaria manillensis, Haemadipsa zeylanica, Haemadipsa Montana, Haemadipsa sylvestris and Haemadipsa ornate. Neora Valley National Park is rich in entomofauna and other invertebrates.

“NVNP is an Important Bird Area (Islam and Rahmani 2004) which falls within the Restricted Range Species site - the Endemic Bird Area, Eastern Himalayas and the Restricted Assemblages Biomes, Sino Himalayan Temperate Forest and Sino Himalayan Subtropical Forest. Seven Globally Threatened species and two Near Threatened species occur including endemic birds viz., Black-lored Tit Parus, Indian Scimitar Babbler Pomatorhinus horsfieldii, Rufous Throated Wren xanthogenys Babbler Spelaeornis caudatus, Rusty Throated Wren Babbler S. badeigularis and Rufous Sibia Heterophasia capistrata. The Park also harbours many rare birds such as the Ward's Trogon Harpactes wardi, Satyr Tragopan Tragopan satyra and the Rufous Necked Hornbill Aceros nipalensis. It is one of the best sites in India to see Rustybellied Shortwing Brachypteryx hyperythra, which is endemic to the Eastern Himalayas.

“Of the mammals present, the Red Panda is the most endangered and unique resident of the Park. Historically, the Red Panda shifted to Eastern Himalayas when big gorges were created after the formation of Himalayas and is endemic to Bhutan, southern China, Pakistan, India, Laos, Nepal and Myanmar. The sub-species of Red Panda (Ailurus fulgens fulgens) is found in Nepal, Sikkim, Darjeeling, Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh while on the other side of Brahmaputra in China and Myanmar, the red panda evolved into other sub-species, Ailurus fulgens styani. Within India, it is found in the states of Sikkim, West Bengal, Meghalaya and there is a substantial population in Arunachal Pradesh. Although it is likely that the Red Panda survived in forests of Sikkim and Singalila National Park, the undisturbed forest area of NVNP is the last remaining good habitat for Red Panda.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: India tourism website ( incredibleindia.org), India’s Ministry of Tourism and other government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in August 2020

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