About 30km East of the border with Nepal sits the darling town of Darjeeling. Famous for some of the finest black tea in the world, this Victorian holiday-resort is a scenic place to escape busy Indian life. Kanchenjunga (the 3rd highest mountain in the world) and its neighboring peaks 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. And then we found out that this popularity means that hundreds of jeeps packed with tourists drive up there every morning. So 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. The Japanese Peace Pagoda 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. It runs steam- and diesel-engines from Siliguri to Darjeeling, crossing the main road multiple times. The whole way seemed painfully long to us so we took it from Darjeeling to Ghoom and back, supposedly the nicest part.
The blue steam-puffing locomotive drags three little carriages within reaching-distance of shops and houses, through tunnels and over bridges. It uses reversing stations and loops to gain height on the way. It stops at Batasia Loop for a couple of minutes so you can enjoy the views across the valley below. The large windows provide overwhelming views as the journey progresssd and the scenery gradually unfolds. Especially so on the way back, when the Kanchenjunga Range is suddenly revealed just before getting back into town.
We spend every winter in the mountains, so you might wonder why we would be interested in sitting in a cable car when there is no snow involved. This ropeway starts at the Northern end of town, past a zoo with the only successful snowleopard breeding in the world. It is about 1300m long and takes 20 minutes one way, traveling over tea gardens to the Tukvar Tea Estate. We got out and wandered around the green tea fields before going back. The border with Sikkim is on this side and you can see almost the entire state from here. The rough terrain stretching far into the distance.
Darjeeling has around 80 gardens that produce 90 million kg of tea every year, 90% of which is exported. The Happy Valley Tea Estate is the oldest and biggest around here. At a height of 2100m it 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. They have turned the entire farming and cultivation process organic in the past decade. The factory functions as a working museum with a little tour to take you through the proces. Different types of tea all have specific steps for drying, oxidation and cutting. 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.