Warning: This is not a regular travel blog post dispensing information in bullet points, or a food blog highlighting hidden treasures in Darjeeling. If you are looking for either of those, this is the time to leave this page and move to the hundreds of information enriched blogs existing on the ‘Queen of the hills’.
However, if you are a lover of mountains, rains, solitude, emotions, and words, stay right here and read on. I am a solo traveller and I have recently spent my birthday in the hill town of Darjeeling in the North of West Bengal, India and this is my story.
Unlike the previous few vacations that were almost instant decisions and involved minimal planning, the Darjeeling trip was planned 1.5 months ahead. The reason being, it was my birthday vacation and my birthdays were jinxed to go bad. I was determined to do all that I could do to make things better this time. ‘Coz hey, if not now, then when?!’
Doing research on Darjeeling is not a tough task at all. A plethora of information is available on the internet, though one needs skills to identify the right sites. I didn’t make an itinerary, as that was not my style, and I love to surprise myself. I made flights, hotels and transport bookings, read up on places to see and do and of course where to eat and what to eat, (also, where to shop, ahem!).
It was a four-night vacation and I divided it into two parts – the first part was an attempt to do it the backpackers’ way for experience’s sake and the second part involved my usual small luxuries. Well, at my age, one would want to gather as many experiences as one can ‘coz hey, if not now, then when?!’
I flew with Indigo on Thursday, 1st August and reached Bagdogra at around 12:30 pm. I had about one hour to kill as my ride was scheduled at 1:30 in the afternoon. Bagdogra is a small airport near Siliguri that connects the world to Darjeeling and other nearby hill towns and Sikkim. As all religious foodies, I decided to wait at the Airport restaurant on the first floor. From the arrival area, the access to the restaurant is through several flights of staircases, but thankfully restaurant staff waits downstairs to assist (read capture) passengers to the food zone. The restaurant was spacious and had a bar and travellers were relaxing over chilled beer. As most airport food places, the menu had boring options, average food , and high-end prices. I settled for a chili, onion, tomato, masala omelette and lemon tea. I was served an Esplanade sidewalk (Kolkata street food style, for the uninitiated) omelette which was thin, fried till golden and loaded with green chillies- just the way I prefer my eggs (much to the indignation of my corporate honcho ex-boyfriend and ex-travel partner). A smug smile was hovering on my mouth when I received a phone call from Wizzride that my driver had arrived.
Wizzride (www.wizzride.com) is a cab service started by a bunch of North-Eastern guys and is an excellent way to ‘share cab it’ to Darjeeling and other destinations. You can also book an entire cab. It’s a fully online service and you can select the date, time, type of cab, and seats and pay online against a formal receipt. I found the service to be professional. The driver arrived dot on time and the car condition was excellent. The big car had only one other woman passenger as it was off-season. I had chosen the seat beside the driver and Subbaji was a pleasant man with great driving skills. Well, all good things have some not-so-good sides as well. For Wizzride, it was the route and drop off points. The route would be chosen by the driver and the drop off points would be near your hotel, but not at the door step. This caused me a wee bit of pain as Subbaji had taken a route that was bumpy, congested, shabby and longer (almost 4 hours). And my hotel was a good 10 minutes uphill walk from the drop off point. But hey, I did ask for backpackers’ experience, so why complain! And I had paid only Rs 649/- including GST for my Wizzride.
I had booked a room in Revolver for the first two nights. I had been hearing a lot about Revolver, the Beatles themed backpackers’ den run by a couple – Vikash and Asenla who left jobs in Nepal to return to their roots. The two-storied house has 5 rooms on the first floor, each named after a Beatles member and a restaurant on the ground floor. Though I had booked Brian, Asenla upgraded me to John, the largest and nicest room at no extra cost. The rooms don’t have mountain views as such, but birds chirping could be your morning wake-up call and the trees outside definitely host loads of unknown, beautiful birds. If there’s a list of budget hotels, Revolver would definitely top the list in that category. It was squeaky clean (including the washroom), comfortable, and very, very sensibly-maintained place. The owners’ aesthetic and disciplined senses were written all over the place. It gives you more of a home stay like feeling rather than a hotel with all the amenities of the latter. The other great thing about the place is food. I had ordered a Naga dinner on the first night, and the taste ranged from interesting to superb to someone who was eating Naga food for the first time. The platter consisted of pork with dried bamboo shoots, merse-un or broth made with dried fish and lentils and boiled vegetables. Rice is also served with the platter but I had skipped that. The broth taste was a bit too alien to me, and I guess one needed to be more accustomed to the taste to develop a liking. Pork with bamboo shoots was excellently textured and Pork quality was A-1. If you are looking for lean meat, Darjeeling is not the place for you. Here pork fat is a way of living. The dish was loaded with Dalle chillies and I just loved the salty, fiery taste enveloping the soft meat. The pork quality was superb at Revolver and I realised that once again when I had ordered pork sausages for breakfast a day later. Crisp casing packed with excellent pork meat. Too good stuff! And last but not the least, you get drop dead gorgeous drip coffee at Revolver!!!!
The first thing to cover for any first-timer is Darjeeling Mall. Oh did I not mention that this was my VERY FIRST TRIP to Darjeeling in spite of being born and raised in Kolkata? My bad! Yes, I am Bangali and I had not been to Darjeeling before- something that was kinda blasphemy in Bengali’s Holy Book of Travelling Destinations. Coming back to the most popular thing to do in Darjeeling, is obviously checking out Chowrasta or Mall. The joining of four roads [hence chow (four) +rasta(roads)] is a flat town square lined with benches and heritage shops. The most widely accessed road to Chowrasta is Nehru Road that begins with Keventer’s, an institution in itself. The uphill 7-8 minutes stretch also has Glenary’s, the heritage bakery and restaurant, a few hotels and several shops selling Tibetan handicrafts, warm clothes and Darjeeling tea (best to avoid these shops as things are priced for the tourists). The mall is a huge open area where people just relax and absorb the environment- a tradition that has been going on since the Victorian era. Darjeeling was a planned summer resort town on the hills that served as recharge point for the British officers who worked in Kolkata, the then capital of India. The shops lining the mall have a history that attracts the heritage thrill-seekers. Nuthmulls and Golden tips too have their tea-lounges at the mall. The over-enthusiastic and ill-shaped tourists also torture the ponies by riding them around the mall and amateur photographers with burly lenses try to pull off NatGeo to impress wives. I sat on one of the benches and tried to relive the pages of ‘Feluda’r Goendagiri’ or the scenes from Kanchanjangha, another Ray classics. There were goosebumps and smiles, helped by the fewer tourists and more locals in the environment. One of the primary reasons for doing Darjeeling in the off-season was to avoid the sea of Bengalis in monkey caps looking for bhat-daal-deemer dalna and disciplining ghontu and jhontu, the trouble-making kids. I was hugely rewarded for my decision and the otherwise crowded Darjeeling had only a few oddballs like me during my trip.
Two of the Chowrasta are two ends of Observatory Hill Road. The road goes around Mahakal hill and comes back to Chowrasta. It is one of the most beautiful roads with great views and several rest points equipped with benches and make-shift tea stalls. It’s quite a bit of walk for city dwellers but is thoroughly enjoyable. By the way, no transport is allowed in or around the Mall and walking is the only option. For Observatory Hill road, one can ride a pony but that involves animal cruelty and definitely NOT recommended. I had taken only one break to cover the entire rain-drenched, emerald mossed, trees adorned, cloud smeared stretch and was proud of myself! 😀
On Day 3, I shifted to Central Heritage, one of the oldest resorts in Darjeeling. It was pre-booked as per my plans. A list of cab drivers was provided in the room at Revolver and that helped me get a cab for the hotel transfer and the drive to the ropeway. Central Heritage, built in 1905, is in a prime location at Robertson Road – one minute away from Keventer’s and two minutes away from Glenary’s and 5 minutes away from the Mall. You can’t get any more central than this! Of course, the tariff is also prime but I got off-season rates. I had booked a deluxe room with mountain views. It was a luxurious room that a birthday girl deserved. The room came with breakfast and spa. The service was a bit slow, but in off-seasons, many things tend to get off the tracks. Another great plus point about this hotel is car can come to the door steps, a privilege most of the hotels in Darjeeling lack.
Tip: The heritage wing has mountain views. There’s an annex building across the road, that doesn’t have anything heritage about it and zero views. So if you are booking a room, make sure you book in the main wing. I did good research and I knew about this beforehand.
After checking in, I took the same car to the Ropeway point. Though Darjeeling is a small town, the ropeway station was a bit far from the centre and was not really doable on feet, at least for me. Rajesh Ji, who was driving me enquired if I wanted to cover all tourist points and was totally understanding when I said I had come for peace and would skip sightseeing. He dropped me at the ticket counter and went to the parking to wait for me. Rides were priced at Rs200/person and the wait wasn’t long at all. Each car could accommodate 6 persons. I shared the ropeway car with a family that came from Nepal-Husband wife and two boys. We had no common language yet we co-existed peacefully and also helped each other with photos. The ride offered breathtakingly beautiful views of tree plantations on the hills. It was a drop of 1000ft but the car moved slow. After an initial 2-minutes of rocking, everything was stable and well-balanced. It takes you to Takdah where you can get off if you wish to. There’s a small shack there selling tea and momos where you can enjoy the views and indulge in clicking photos. My co-passengers skipped getting off and returned. I stayed and had a cup of tea. On my way back, I had to share the ropeway car with two young Bengali couples (most probably unmarried). It was a hellish 20 minutes ride. They looked okay but totally lacked manners and education. My presence made them conscious and they tried every way possible to prove that they were cool. The result was me being subjected to crass PDA and moronic conversations that they continued with. I never missed my iPod so much! And I felt so ashamed to be a Bengali!!! What’s wrong with the present generation?!!!!
To do something about the bad taste in the mouth that my own race caused, I decided to have Momos at Kunga- the tiny Tibetan restaurant on Gandhi Road (just a stone throw away from Keventer’s) that gets raving reviews from the epicureans. Well, I had visited Kunga the day before as well and had the most awesome chilli pork and delicious chicken and mushroom soup. I had shied away from momos as I was still undecided whether to break my low-carb diet. But that afternoon I was in ‘what the hell’ mood and went straight for steamed pork momos. Boy oh boy! The momos were the gateway to heaven. Each had thin dough walls holding herbed pork mince and juice inside. Very little onions to tamper with the taste of meat. The fiery red chilli paste made perfect yin-yang balance in the mouth. I had planned to order phing (glass noodles made from moong beans) after the momos. But 10 meaty balls bowled me out of the playground and I retired full and satisfied. It was time to return to the hotel and take a nap.
You can’t be in Darjeeling for the first time and not ride the heritage toy train. No, not because of Rajesh Khanna trying to hit on Sharmila Tagore memories (which I find meh!), but because of several childhood stories and poems including Annadashankar’s Ting Ting Darjeeling. I was pretty excited about it and had booked it on the official website more than a month back. But nothing happens in my life without some drama. Even before I could enter Darjeeling town, I had received an SMS from Indian Railways that my train got cancelled. You should have seen my face! Much miffed with the railways, I had decided to give it a miss. But the constant train whistles I could hear from my room at Revolver made me make another attempt. The original ride was scheduled on 2nd August. I re-booked for the 4th – my birthday. No more drama unfolded and I reached Darjeeling station an hour earlier for my joyride. The station was 1.6 km downhill walk from my hotel and gave me a chance to explore the town on feet, something that I really enjoyed! Reaching early was the Plan as I wanted to absorb the environment and click plenty of pictures of this UNESCO declared World Heritage Site. It was a cute little station with two platforms. The DHR logo (Darjeeling Himalayan Railways) was proudly displayed everywhere and surely transferred the pride to the passengers as well. The off-season was the magic mantra and the station was nearly empty barring a few enthusiastic monsoon travellers like me. I noticed the Bengali ‘Phamily’ that breakfasted with me at the hotel (Central Heritage) was present there too. They had idli and aloo paratha for breakfast much to my indignation. Who eats idli in Darjeeling??????!!!!! Anyway, there were two souvenir shops at the station where one might pick up postcards and other items. The train ride was of 1 hour 30 minutes and made two stops – one at Batasia Loop and the other at Ghoom station. Post that it returned to Darjeeling. At both stops, the passengers were encouraged to get off and look around. The two-coach train was comfortable and rode through the city. Though it didn’t offer much of a view, it was fun! And you should see the air the steam engine drivers put on (pun intended ;P)!
The place that made my birthday extra special was definitely Glenary’s. I had four meals there over 3 days, and each was a unique experience. Not only because of the food, but also to a large extent the environment and the slow life that it promoted. Yes, I am a sucker for old world and unrushed breakfasts and dinners. The British Colonial Building which is existing since 1915, has three parts. On the ground floor, there’s bakery and café and a pub. On the first floor is the restaurant that can be directly accessed from the road. For ground floor, one has to negotiate a slope as the entrance is on a lower level than the road. I was aware that Keventer’s was closed for renovation. A friend who visited a week before had alerted me. So on the very second day, I reached Glenary’s for breakfast. It was raining and I took a table inside the cafe, overlooking the glass wall that separated the room and the terrace. I was transported to the British Era when a silver pot of Darjeeling tea was placed on my table followed by fried eggs and sausages. You can spend hours there and nobody would bother you. There’s free wifi also in case you are carrying a laptop. I am not sure why people go crazy about Keventer’s which looked pretty pedestrian to me and lacked the glamour of Glenary’s. I came back the following night to have dinner at the 1st-floor restaurant. By that time I had shifted to Central Heritage and of course, Glenary’s was the logical choice. It was love at first sight. It had the looks of our Park Street restaurants of the 80’s complete with live music. 60’s classics were belted out by the in-house singer who had a marvellous voice and did goddamn justice to the songs! I ordered roast pork that was washed down with a screwdriver. I exercised caution as I was drinking alcohol after a month. But man! The environment was so lively like it is always Christmas in Glenary’s and you would feel nothing can go wrong here. The next day was my birthday and also the last night in Darjeeling. After returning from my toy train ride, I settled at a terrace table in Glenary’s to have a late lunch. And it started raining… one of the most wonderful afternoons of my life!!!! I wished time stood still. But it was a birthday and I knew I would have to come back for dinner. A nap, a shower, and a dress change later, I was back at Glenary’s. The drink this time was planter’s punch. I am not really a rum person, but this was interesting. The order of fried pork turned out oversalted and I had to return it. Instead, I ordered fish au gratin and a glass of Sula. In spite of knowing the fish would be basa, I had to give in to the craving for fish and cheese. The dish was decent enough, the wine fantastic and the songs were magical. There was a group of teenagers that celebrated the birthday of a group member. I smiled inwardly and said a silent blessing for the girl. This happiness evaded me when I was growing up. In fact, in the past 43 years, there wasn’t a single birthday that didn’t bring tears. I dreaded my birthdays as those were always the saddest day of the year. But no more! I broke out of my own prison and my 44th birthday was perfect from morning to night. The first birthday without tears and I know I have happier days ahead.
Was it the place or was it the tests of life I had gone through and emerged a stronger person, I wouldn’t deliberate on that in this post. But Darjeeling and I connected soul to soul and the town would always remain special for the memories it gifted. I know I have to come back to ‘Hamro Darzeeling’ and spend more time here. Till then, I have enough stock of the fine tea to sip and relish thoughts about this trip.
I had booked the same cab that had taken me to the ropeway point. Yes, I didn’t book wizzride on my way back, because I knew I would want to enjoy one solo ride. I was hugely rewarded for my decision. My driver took the picturesque Pankhabari route that spirals down keeping the Makaibari tea estate on the left. The stretch had all the thrills of mountain roads such as –- sharp bends, deep forests, and sudden streams. The ride back was also shorter, could be because we were going down. I reached the airport within 3 hours, a good 2.5 hours before my scheduled flight. I was told the Mirik route was even better throwing open gorgeous views of pine trees but takes 4.5 hours. Time to plan a trip to Mirik? 😁