by Cecilia Yee.
When someone says India travel, what comes to mind are the Taj Mahal at sunrise, the rich and colourful palaces of Rajasthan, and the chaotic, big city bustle of Mumbai. But there's a lot more to India than that. Its fascinating diversity covers dramatic deserts and palm-fringed beaches, verdant valleys and mighty mountains, wild jungles and sculpted Mughal gardens, quaint bazaars and opulent malls.
This trip, I decided to explore a side of India that most people only know about through reading history books and watching a certain Wes Anderson movie: Darjeeling.
The Toy Train and Tiger Hill
The long, three-flight journey from Hong Kong culminates in a three-hour overland transfer from Bagdogra Airport to Darjeeling town.
Located in the Darjeeling district of West Bengal in the foothills of the Himalayas, the town stands at an elevation of 2,165 metres. Its development dates back to the mid-19th century, when the colonial British administration set up a sanatorium and military depot, and surrounded it with tea plantations.
The name Darjeeling comes from the Tibetan words, dorje (thunderbolt) and ling (place or land), so it means land of the thunderbolt. And to add to the mix, the old town, despite its preponderance of old-colonial landmarks, reminded me of Nepal – even the people look Nepali.
After resting up in town, day two saw us embarking on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Connecting the town with the plains, it has one of the few steam locomotives still in service in India, known locally as the Toy Train. Following in the footsteps of the three zany brothers in Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited, we hopped on and made the journey to Ghum, the highest stop on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway at 2,258 metres. (Fans of the 2007 flick, and the incredible Indian landscapes it reveals, will not be disappointed.)
Day three, we drove out to Tiger Hill, the summit of Ghum at 2,585 metres, to watch the sunrise over the Himalayan range. Nine kilometres outside of town, you drive or walk to Tiger Hill through Chowrasta, Alubari (the oldest tea plantation in the district), and then climb to the summit, which takes about two hours at an easy pace. After hours of waiting, in below freezing temperatures, the sun slowly revealed itself, the clouds parted, and there it was, the big ticket item – Mount Kanchenjunga, the third tallest mountain in the world at 8,586 metres.
From Tiger Hill, 8,848-metre Mount Everest is just visible, peeping out through two other peaks standing by its side. The distance in a straight line from Tiger Hill to Mount Everest is 172 kilometres.
While at Tiger Hill, you can also visit Senchal Wildlife Sanctuary, which offers up great picnic spots, and two picturesque reservoirs. Ghum Monastery is another highpoint. Thanks to the colourful prayer flags and prayer wheels, and the pungent smell of wafting incense and yak butter, I felt transported to Tibet.
Time for tea?
During the British Raj, Darjeeling's temperate climate led to its development as a hill station for British residents seeking to escape the summer heat of the plains.
While the town became known as a health resort, extensive tea plantations were established in the surrounding hills. The early tea growers developed hybrids of black tea and created new fermentation techniques; the resultant Darjeeling tea now ranks among the most popular in the world.
Many of the tea plantations (also called tea estates) in Darjeeling now provide getaways for tourists, and we were treated with genuine hospitality at Glenburn Tea Estate & Boutique Hotel. Established by a Scottish tea company in 1859, Glenburn has belonged to the Prakashes, one of India's pioneering tea-planting families, for four generations.
The Prakash family carries almost a century of tea knowledge in their inheritance, and the tour of the estate is informative as well as fun. We were taken through the tea-making process – from plucking to drying – and offered at least 12 different types of tea. Traditionally, Darjeeling tea is black, however oolong, white and green varieties are becoming more common. Thin-bodied and light-coloured, with a floral aroma, Darjeeling tastes slightly astringent, with a little bit of musk and spiciness thrown in.
Glenburn is a heavenly retreat nestled on a hillock above the banks of the Rungeet River. Here, hiking is a must. One of my favourite walks took us through Simbong Forest to the Manjitar Suspension Bridge, which connects Darjeeling to neighbouring Sikkim. Our guide helped us identify the forest's glorious birds, butterflies and plant life.
After a good few days relaxing in and around the tea plantations, we decided to head north to Sikkim. A landlocked state high up in the Himalayas, it was once a part of Tibet, and after gaining independence from the British in 1947, it remained an independent monarchy until 1975 when it became a part of India.
You need to obtain an Inner Line Permit in advance to gain entry to Sikkim; and at the border, you go through 'immigration' to get your passport stamped.
Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim, is modernising apace but there's still a strong Buddhist presence and plenty of ancient monasteries to visit. Gangtok's 1-kilometre cable car ride offers up spectacular views. We also explored the surrounding villages, where Tibetan-style monasteries and colourfully painted houses are stacked on top of each other against mountain ridges.
In Sikkim, we were able to get better acquainted with Mount Kanchenjunga, and the region is also home to spectacular glaciers, flower-filled alpine meadows and verdant rice terraces. Peaceful, quiet and lush.
As clichéd as it may sound, I came back from this trip inspired and rejuvenated. What I saw in and around Darjeeling was a million miles from the stereotypically loud and busy India I'd experienced before.