Darjeeling

For tens of thousands of visitors from Kolkata and the steamy plains, Darjeeling is a place to escape the summer heat. Built on a crescent-shaped ridge the town is surrounded by hills, which are thickly covered with coniferous forests and terraced tea gardens. The idyllic setting, the exhilarating air outside town, and stunning views of the Kangchendzonga range (when you can see through the clouds) attract plenty of trekkers too. Nevertheless, Darjeeling's modern reality is a crowded, noisy and in places shockingly dirty and polluted town. Between June and September the monsoons bring heavy downpours, sometimes causing landslides, but the air clears after mid-September. Winter evenings are cold enough to demand log fires and lots of warm clothing.

Ins and outsGetting there

Bagdogra, near Siliguri, is Darjeeling's nearest airport, where jeeps and shared taxis tout for business, since buses only run from Siliguri. The railway station is in the lower part of town on Hill Cart Road, with the taxi and bus stands. Trains connect New Jalpaiguri/Siliguri with Kolkata and other major cities. The diesel 'toy train' runs from Siliguri/NJP in season but is very slow. Most people reach Darjeeling by bus or shared taxi and arrive at the Bazar Bus Stand in the lower town, though some taxis go to Clubside on The Mall, which is more convenient for most accommodation. Buses from Gangtok arrive near the GPO.

Observatory Hill
, sacred to Siva, is pleasant for walks though the views of the mountains are obscured by tall trees. Further north is
Himalayan Mountaineering Institute and Everest Museum
 which is recommended. Previously headed by the late Tenzing Norgay who shared the first climb of Everest in 1953, it traces the history of attempted climbs from 1857 and displays old mountaineering equipment including that used on that historic Tenzing-Hillary climb. Next door, the
zoo
 includes high-altitude wildlife such as Himalayan black bears, Siberian tigers, red pandas, yaks and llama. There are large enclosures over a section of the hillside though at feeding time and during wet weather they retreat into their small cement enclosures giving the impression that they are restricted to their cells. There is a reasonably successful snow leopard breeding programme.

Back into the centre of the town, east of Observatory Hill,
The Mall
(pedestrianized) offers good views near the Chowrasta. Beware of the monkeys as they may bite. The decaying
Natural History Museum
 has a large collection of fauna of the region. The
Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Centre
 has a temple, school and hospital. After the Chinese invasion, thousands of Tibetan refugees settled in Darjeeling (many having accompanied the Dalai Lama) and the rehabilitation centre was set up in 1959 to enable them to continue to practise their skills and provide a sales outlet. You can watch them at work (carpet weaving, spinning, dyeing, woodwork, etc) during the season, when it is well worth a visit (closes for lunch). The shop sells carpets (orders taken and posted), textiles, curios or jewellery, though not cheap to buy. South of town, the
Aloobari Monastery
, on Tenzing Norgay Road, is open to visitors. Tibetan and Sikkimese handicrafts made by the monks are for sale.

Near the market are
Lloyds Botanical Gardens
.
These were laid out in 1878 on land given by Mr W Lloyd, owner of the Lloyd's Bank. They have a modest collection of Himalayan and Alpine flora including banks of azaleas and rhododendrons, magnolias, a good orchid house and a herbarium. It is a pleasant and quiet spot.
Victoria Falls
, which is only impressive in the monsoons, provides added interest to a three-hour nature trail. There are several tea gardens close to Darjeeling, but not all welcome visitors. One that does is the
Pattabong Estate
on the road towards Sikkim.
Visit the
shrubbery
, behind Raj Bhawan on Birch Hill, for spectacular views of Kangchendzonga.

Around Darjeeling

At
Ghoom
(altitude of 2550 m), is the important
Yiga-Choling Gompa
, a Yellow-hat Buddhist Monastery. Built in 1875, it houses famous Buddhist scriptures. Ghoom can be visited on the
steam train
from April to June and October to November. There is an interesting
Darjeeling Himalayan Railway Museum
at the station. A few
spruced up carriages offer a tourist-only ride in summer with a photo stop at Batasia (departing 1040, returning 1200, and again at 1320, returning 1440; but check times, at the station or www.dhr.in, Rs 240). It's limited to 40 passengers so book in advance. Alternatively, take the diesel train at 0915 (first class Rs 144); (second class Rs 27), or the regular steam train, 1015, which goes to Kurseong via Ghoom, and return on foot or by bus. . All pass through
Batasia Loop
, 5 km from Darjeeling on the way to Ghoom, which allows the narrow gauge rail to do a figure-of-eight loop. There's a war memorial here in a pleasant park with good mountain views.

The disused
Lebong Race Course
, 8 km away from Darjeeling, was once the smallest and highest in the world and is still pleasant for a walk. It was started as a parade ground in 1885.

It is worth rising as at 0400 to make the hour's journey for a breathtaking view (weather permitting) of the sunrise on Kangchendzonga at
Tiger Hill
. Mount Everest (8846 m), 225 km away, is visible on a clear day. The crowds at sunrise disappear by mid-morning.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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