Darjeeling

Overview

Introduction

Set at 7,000 ft/2,135 m and located 310 mi/500 km north of Kolkata, Darjeeling, India, is out of the way, but worth the visit. This pretty resort, built among tea plantations, is one of the cool hill stations where leaders of the British Raj escaped summer heat. The place now attracts Indians and foreign tourists seeking the same natural air-conditioning.

Half the fun of visiting Darjeeling is getting there. The famous "toy train" huffs and puffs, climbing more than 8,000 ft/2,400 m along a narrow-gauge track before reaching the city (you might remember the train from the movie Around the World in 80 Days). The trip begins in Siliguri and takes about eight hours to travel 50 mi/80 km. If you want to save time, take a taxi up and the train down, but be sure to purchase your return ticket in Siliguri because you can't reserve a first-class or air-conditioned compartment in Darjeeling. (Because of the toy train's slow nature, many travelers find the two-hour "Joy Train" from Darjeeling to Ghum, India's second-highest hill station and home to an interesting railway museum, will sate their toy train cravings.)

Darjeeling is built among hills, and visitors can expect to do a lot of climbing up and down stairs to get from one street to the next. There's not a lot to do except relax, listen to the Buddhist monks call the faithful to worship on their long red horns, take tea in a colonial-era cafe and look at the pretty views. Many visitors spend a morning or afternoon learning how tea is harvested by visiting one of the many hilltop tea plantations.

One notable attraction is the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, a training school for mountain climbers. Its museum features memorabilia from the first ascent of Everest, and documentary films are often shown (Sir Edmund Hillary's climbing partner, Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, taught at the institute until his death in 1986). There are also botanical gardens, two Buddhist monasteries, a racetrack and a cable car that connects Darjeeling to the village of Singla Bazar. Skip the zoo—it's depressing.

From mid-April until the end of June, it's usually possible to see Mount Kanchenjunga, the third-highest mountain on Earth, from town. The best view is at dawn atop Tiger Hill, 7 mi/11 km away. We're also told that Everest, 140 mi/225 km distant, can be seen, but we've never had any luck. Once the rainy season has started, the town is likely to be enveloped in fog, which adds a pleasant spookiness.

Mirik, about halfway between Darjeeling and Siliguri, is another hill resort. Mirik offers mountain views, a lake and tea estates. It is a good alternative if Darjeeling is booked.

Two nights in Darjeeling will be enough for the curious; five nights for those in need of rest.

The nearest airport, Bagdogra, is about 50 mi/75 km away; there are direct flights available to and from Delhi and Kolkata.

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