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Darjeeling and Sikkim– In Himalayan Shadows

For most of the world, or least the tea loving junta, the city of Darjeeling in the Himalayan foothills of West Bengal (at about 6700 ft) should need no introduction. After all, it produces some of the finest aromatic tea in the world and my personal favorite – the Darjeeling Oolong – with dark orange liquor and a distinct musky spiciness.Of course, tea is not all this charming city is known for, as you’ll soon discover. Nestled as it is in the lesser Himalayas, Darjeeling along with the neighboring state of Sikkim offer some unparalled vistas of the majestic mountains and two of the highest peaks in the world.

I love to travel by road, as you would have figured out by now; it is without doubt the best way to get to know a place and its people. This trip (I’d planned the Bagdogra-Darjeeling-Gangtok route) was no different. I landed at the Bagdogra airport, the focal point of all travel in the state, still awe-struck by my first glimpse of Mt. Everest – standing tall at 29029 ft – from the aircraft. Since that would be the nearest I’d ever get to the world’s highest mountain, I took a moment to wonder at its sheer ruggedness, standing tall and proud in majestic isolation against the ravages of time. Mountains, of course, are meant to be majestic and exude a certain aura that is hard to define – they spell bind you with their mysticism and quiet mysteries. The Himalayas in this corner of the country dojust that, welcoming you with a certain grace and nurturing you as you traverse through its folds and valleys.A journey like this can change you, I soon realised.

From Bagdogra there are three routes to travel to Darjeeling and its takes about 3-3.5 hours to cover the distance of 97 kms. Each of the routes are comparatively scenic, with good roads and pit stops and take you through some of the larger tea estates and gushing rivers before climbing sharply onto higher grounds. The first route is throughRohiniand takes you all the way to Kurseong via the Rohini Tea Estate. With a little bit of luck you may even cross the Heritage Toy Trainof the Darjeeling Himalayan Railways (accorded the UNESCO World Heritage status), its small steam engine merrily chugging alongside your car as it makes its way up the narrow gauge tracks.

The second route from Mirik to Darjeeling takes you through some of the most enthralling views – the shining Mirik Lake and sprawling tea estates like the famous Goodricke Tea garden. The third route takes you via Pankhabari along the fierce Teesta and Balasun rivers. This is the route that we chose. It took us through the meandering roads alongside the Longview tea Estate, the sleepy hamlet of Pankhabari and the Makaibari Tea Estate, one of the oldest tea gardens in the state. The tea gardens, mind you, are a world in itself  – large estates and an equally sprawling colonial-style bungalow (usually the home of the estate manager) that are a charming reminder of the days of old. As we drove past the gardens we caught a glimpse of the workers plucking tea leaves with such deftness and speed, it was almost rhythmic! The gentle roads of the lower tea gardens slowly started giving way to sharper bends and steeper climbs as we drove towards the quaint town of Kurseong, about 3 km from Darjeeling. Kurseong was originally the abode of the Lepchas – also known as the Children of God – indigenous people that are scattered across Sikkim, Darjeeling, Kurseong, Kalimpong, Nepal and parts of Bhutan. They are believed to have Tibeto-Burmese origins and are primarily Buddhists, though many still practice their ancient religion called Mun. Talking about indigenous tribes, it will be worthy to mention the Gorkhas here. Though originally from the hills of Nepal, the valiant Gorkhas have made this part of the world their own. With a reputation to be fearless warriors they are a vital part of the Nepalese, Indian and British military.

As we exited Kurseong, the road led us straight to Darjeeling in no time. And what a beautiful entry! The mountains were almost upon us – their craggy landscape imposing against clear blue skies and bright sunshine. It couldn’t get better than this, I thought to myself. I am finally here!
Darjeeling – the Queen of the Hills, was set up as a sanatorium by the British for their troops and workers owing to its temperate climate and clean, fresh mountain air. On a clear day, one can enjoy spectacular views ofKhangchendzonga, the third highest mountain in the world at 28169 ft. Locals believe that the mountain chooses to reveal itself only when it wants to! For this reason, a trip to Tiger Hill (presumed to have the best view of the Kanchenjunga) to view the sunrise was on my bucket list. Waiting atop the hill for the sun to rise was surreal, akin to meditation. And the mountain did not disappoint. As the sun arose its first rays kissed the peaks, which sparkled almost like the sun itself and the play of myriad colors as the sun rose higher – the sight was breathtaking! For a few moments, there was silence around me, as we watched in wonder at the sheer beauty of the mountains and the marvels of the universe.

Well, we had satiated our senses; it was time to satiate our stomachs! Darjeeling has some of the finest English style eateries in this part of the country –a legacy of its colonial past. I’d recommend the hearty breakfast platter at Keventers with some freshly brewed Darjeeling tea. Or afternoon high tea complete with scones, muffins and assorted sandwiches at Glenary’s – another eatery reminiscent of a bygone era. In fact, Darjeeling is a foodie heaven – from the steaming hot bowls of thukpas (a Tibetan noodle soup filled with vegetables and meat) to a variety of momos (a hardier cousin of the dumpling) and my personal favorite – the Churrpis – a kind of yak cheese with a sharp pungent taste that takes a while to acquire or the lesser known Bandel cheese that is made from cow’s milk and is crumbly and smoky in flavor. Needless to say Darjeeling offers a wide range of gastronomic experiences – Nepali, Tibetan, Indian and British. The same can be said of its rich culture and traditions that borrow heavily from these communities. In fact, the entire region is dotted with Buddhist monasteries, Gompas, Pagodas, beautiful Tudor style bungalows and Gothic churches.

Of course, as you exit Darjeeling and drive onto the highway connecting to Sikkim, the buildings get sparser, and you are greeted with monastery towns and a distinct quietude in the air. The drive from Darjeeling to Sikkim takes about 3-4 hours and to me, was one of the most challenging rides I’d ever taken. The roads are pretty steep and the bends equally hair-raising but oh the views! Shimmering glacial lakes, abundant waterfalls, snowcapped mountains and lush valleys sprinkled with vivid rhododendron more than made up for bumpy roads and the backaches!

Sikkim, till a few years ago, was not on the tourist map largely due to lack of infrastructure. Today, it is one of the cleanest states in the country and much of its produce largely organic and attracts visitors largely for its natural beauty and roads less travelled, literally. A mountain kingdom till 1975 Sikkim, despite being one of the most progressive states has managed to retain its distinctive aura, which can be felt in its numerous Tibetan Buddhist monasteries or the Hindu shrines of the burgeoning Nepali community.I felt it most especially in the magnificent Rumtek Monastery near the capital city of Gangtok. The official seat of the revered Karmapa

Lama, the monastery is a rich repository of Tibetan treasures and exudes a certain divinity that I couldn’t quite put my finger to. This mysticism is all pervasive. It was almost as if it was following me everywhere. When I visited the sublimely beautiful valleys of the north – Yumthang and Tsopta or the serene Tsomgo Lake (a 4 hour rugged drive away from Gangtok) against the dramatic backdrop of wild mountains or the shores of the turbulent Teesta river or something as simple as enjoying piping hot tea and momos on the roadside. It’s almost as if the mountains were trying to tell you something. Maybe tales of yore, or mysteries of the land and its people. All you have to do is listen. It kept bringing to mind a favorite quote:

“What are men to rocks and mountains?” – Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice.

Indeed.

RADHIKA DAS

A media professional with over 15 years of experience, I specialize in writing and editing across platforms. I have written extensively on lifestyle and entertainment for several publications and mediums – newspapers, magazines, and the Internet. I author a blog called HighTimes that focuses on lifestyle, parenting, education and giftedness. Do drop in @https://www.facebook.com/shareinspireempower/

In addition to writing, I am a compulsive traveler with decidedly itchy feet! Of course, parenting a demanding tweenager doesn’t leave much time to spare, but when possible, I indulge in a bit of hobby baking and cake art and am a Le Cordon Bleu certified cake decorator.

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