About 30km East of the border with Nepal, on top of a 2200m high ridge of the Himalayas, sits the darling town of Darjeeling. Famous for some of the finest black tea in the world and great mountain views, this Victorian holiday-resort is a scenic place to escape busy Indian life and get some fresh air. Kanchenjunga (the 3rd highest mountain in the world) and its neighboring peaks, all with ice-capped summits, make for a great backdrop to any activity.
The viewpoint of Tiger Hill (2585m) is one of the main touristy things to do around here. This 360-degree Himalaya panorama gives you a glimpse of Everest and supposedly is an incredible spot to catch a dramatic sunrise. However, when we found out that this popularity means that hundreds of jeeps packed with tourists drive up there from Darjeeling every morning, we decided to skip it. Although it sounds quite nice, sitting there at 5 A.M with a thousand people waiting for the sun to rise is just not for us. As an alternative, follow the monks on their early morning walk and sound of their drumming in the streets, to the Japanese Peace Pagoda. This place sees very little tourists in the morning and has great views too.
The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway Toy Train was put on the UNESCO-list in 1999 because of its especially narrow track that runs steam- and diesel-engines from Siliguri to Darjeeling, crossing the main road multiple times and even sharing it with other traffic. The whole way seemed painfully long to us so we took it from Darjeeling to Ghoom and back, apparently the nicest part of the route. The blue steam-puffing locomotive drags three little carriages within reaching-distance of shops and houses, through tunnels and over bridges, past reversing stations and loops to gain height. It stops at Batasia Loop for a couple of minutes on the way so you can get out and enjoy the views across the valley below. The large windows provided overwhelming views as the journey progressed and the scenery gradually unfolded, especially on the way back when the Kanchenjunga Range was suddenly revealed just before getting into town again.
Even though we spend every winter in the mountains, you might wonder why we would be interested in sitting in a cable car when there is no snow involved, but it seemed like fun. This ropeway starts at the Northern end of town, past a fascinating little zoo with the only successful snow leopard breeding centre in the world. It is about 1300m long and takes 20 minutes one way, traveling over tea gardens to the Tukvar Tea Estate, where we got out and wandered around the green fields before going back. The border with Sikkim is on this side and you can see almost the entire state from here, it’s rough terrain stretching far into the distance.
Darjeeling has around 80 tea gardens that produce 90 million kg of tea every year, about 90% of which is exported. The Happy Valley Tea Estate is the oldest and biggest around here, and at a height of 2100m it is has one of the highest tea factories in the world. It is also the closest to town, so you can easily walk there and enjoy the views on the way. Cultivation of tea in this region has a long history, started by an Englishman, but the current estate and factory are owned by Indians, who have turned the entire farming and cultivation process organic. The factory functions as a working museum with a little tour to take you through the steps of drying, oxidation and cutting necessary for different types of tea. Walking around tea-fields may seem like a boring activity but the dark peacock-green color of the 100-year-old bushes topped with a layer of fresh leaves, grown in neat rows that form wave-patterns over the hills, is a true treat to the eye.