If you were a forlorn sahib, stuck in the Raj but a victim of the cloying homesickness that so many were prone to, Darjeeling was like a soothing balm on the soul
Words Aninda Sardar
I can’t help but marvel at the engineering prowess of our erstwhile colonial masters. Without adequate power from the antiquated steam engine to haul the few compact compartments of the train up the steep slopes of the eastern Himalayas, they built an elaborate system of loops that reduced the incline. It isn’t for nothing that the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway was declared a UNESCO World Heritage property. In fact, it remains the world’s only narrow gauge railway in commercial use.
Trundling along at a leisurely pace and accompanied by the signature chook chook of a train, I gaze out of the window as the squalor of Siliguri, a typical Indian town at the foothills of the Himalayas in West Bengal, gradually gives way to verdant yet gentle slopes with the majestic mountains silhouetted in the distance. Soon enough you get acquainted with the principal crop that this part of the world is famous for – tea. Rows and rows of beautifully manicured tea bushes. It’s idyllic enough to take you to a different, perhaps simpler time, when you’d read a book instead of checking whatsapp messages or uploading photos on the ‘Gram. So I fish out a weathered copy of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express from my backpack. It seems fitting that I should read this particular book on a train whose heritage could perhaps not rival that of the Orient Express but would certainly be up there in the world of heritage rail travel.
Loop the loop your way up to Darjeeling
Back in the 19th century, steam locomotive technology wasn’t good enough for a train to be pulled up the steep slope towards Darjeeling. So the brilliant engineers that they were the English decided to build a series of zigzags and four loops in the line that connected Siliguri down below to the Queen of Hills. The biggest of these is the Batasia Loop, which is also a garden-cum-War Memorial and therefore a tourist attraction. Quite a pretty place really and bright too. The good bit about being in a slow coach is that you can actually get off the train as you enter the loop, snap off a few pics and get back up at the exit!
If you’ve met enough Bengalis in your life you will hear only one thing about Darjeeling. “This place has been completely spoilt now. It used to be so pristine earlier.” Trust me, nothing has changed. At least not in the last two decades as far as the feel of the place is concerned. Like any other typical hill station anywhere in the country, there are particularly touristy parts of this haven of the Raj that continue to be congested to a point where I’d recommend that a claustrophobe stays away. The roaring business conducted by roadside sellers of moderately priced rough grade woolens, backpacks and junk jewellery that you see elsewhere you will see here as well. So why come here at all?
Don’t miss sunrise at Tiger Hill in Darjeeling
Because you want to get up early enough to catch the sunrise at Tiger Hill (not to be confused with the one in Kargil – this one was named so long before 1999 became an ugly reality on our borders), close to the Batasia Loop. The pink-gold rays of the infant Sun reflecting off the snowy peaks of the Himalayas will take your breath away in short bursts of mist as you rub your gloved palms together, either for warmth or in glee or both. On the way back to main Darjeeling town, which is about a few kilometres and multiple bends and hairpins away, keep the window open a crack instead of turning on the air-con in the cab and let the chill of the mountains wake you up better than fresh water splashed all over your face.
Breakfast at Glenary’s in Darjeeling is a must
If breakfast isn’t at Glenary’s then you’re clearly missing something. The establishment is over a century old and in the humdrum of a change in millennia and now a brand new decade, has continued to exude the old world charm that has forever lured the foodie into its wooden interiors. The quaint café-cum-restaurant now also incorporates a pub and there’s a more modern looking al fresco dining for the discerning customer but I’d prefer the red chequered table cloth on the old wooden table as I stare out of the wooden windows with their classic four glass panes at the majesty of a snow capped Kanchenjunga dead ahead while I gorge on delicious bacon and eggs or sandwiches washed down with a pot of freshly brewed steaming Darjeeling (the tea, if you please). And no, this is one place where I’d take the tea over the coffee on offer, for the same reason why I would never ask for a cup of masala chai if I’m in Coorg.
The mall, Darjeeling
The ever crowded mall of Darjeeling, the main town square, with its hundreds of ponies that you can ride around for a few hundred bucks, street sellers and hawkers can be daunting for the tourist looking for a patch of quietness. Here too you will find gems waiting for you to walk into them. One such is Habeeb Mullick and Sons, a quaint store that has been around since 1890. And don’t be fooled by their surname either for neither are they Bengalis nor are they Punjabis. The shop is actually run by a family descended from an Afghan migrant who had settled here and never left. Here you will find rare photos of Darjeeling from the early part of the 20th century and curious items, all reminders of a bygone era, which the family will refuse to sell you. For they are indeed priceless.
As is the sheer experience that is Darjeeling. Right from the moment you board the little train that is better known as the Toy Train, to the sunrise at Tiger Hill to the breakfast at Glenary’s. Even the congested streets, if you are brave or patient enough to bear with the throngs exude a charm of their own. It’s a riot really. A clash of the crassness of commercial tourism with the class of a bygone era were sophistication and polish were the order of the day. If you’re the musing sort, like I am, it will be impossible for you to not wonder at this clash of cultures as you sip hot lemon tea from a roadside stall while you strike up a conversation with the affable Gurkha known for their odd mix of humility and fierceness in equal measure. Truly, Darjeeling is an experience all by itself.