The beauty of armchair travels is that at any moment you can be any place in the world and discover new and wonderful things. From the Andaman Islands we step onto the mainland of India. Our first stop here is a lovely town Darjeeling, located in the West Bengal State of India in the Himalayan foothills. It is well-known for its distinctive black tea that is grown on plantations doting the surrounding slope. The town’s backdrop is Mt. Kanchenjunga, among the world’s highest peaks.
The region’s most famous monastery is Yiga Choling Gompa. You can see impressive old murals and it’s home to some 30 monks of the Gelugpa school. The monastery was built in 1850 and enshrines a 5m-high statue of Jampa (Maitreya or “Future Buddah”) and 300 beautifully bound Tibetan texts.
Close-by is the fortress-style Guru Sakya Gompa, which conducts prayer sessions between 5:30AM and 7:30 AM.
Downhill you’ll find the active Samten Choling Gompa which has the largest Buddha statue in West Bengal, a memorial chorten dedicated to German mystic Lama Govinda and a small cafe.
Halfway between Ghum and Darjeeling you’ll find the huge Druk Sangag Choling Gompa also known as Dali Gompa, inaugurated by the Dalai Lama in 1993. It is known for its vibrant frescoes and is home to 300 Himalayan monks who study philosophy, literature, astronomy, meditation, dance and music. Prayers are said between 4PM and 6PM.
It’s spectacular and amazing to watch the sunrise from Tiger Hill (2590m) as the dawn breaks over the spectacular 250km stretch of Himalayan horizon, including Everest (8848m), Lhotse (8501m) and Makalu (8475m). This incredible skyline is dominated by Khangchendzonga (“great five-peak snow fortress”), India’s highest peak and the world’s third-highest. Many people come to see the sunrise so you’ll find yourself in some traffic but it’s all worth it once you get to the summit. The best views are in autumn and spring.
Located on the zoo grounds is the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute founded in 1954 and has provided training for some of India’s leading mountaineers. Within the complex is the amazing Mountaineering Museum which houses sundry details and memorabilia from the 1922 and 1924 Everest expeditions, which set off from Darjeeling. Among the displays you can see the Carl Zeiss telescope presented by Adolf Hitler to the head of the Nepali Army.
Beside the museum, near the spot where Tenzing Norgay was cremated, stands the Tenzing Statue. The intrepid Everest summiteer lived in Darjeeling for most of his life and was the director of the institute for many years.
The institute runs 28-day basic and advanced mountaineering courses from March to May and September to December.
Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park is one of India’s best zoos and was established in 1958. Living in rocky and forested environments are species like Himalayan bears, clouded leopards, red pandas and Tibetan wolves. The zoo has a snow leopard-breeding center and is home to the world’s largest single captive population of these leopards. The zoo stretches for 67.56 acres and sits at an elevation of 2,134 meters above sea level and is the largest high altitude zoo in India.
Among the rare and endangered species are snow leopards, red pandas, Himalayan salamanders, Tibetan wolves, Himalayan mountain goats and Siberian tigers. The zoo has more than 200 species of trees, plants, shrubs, climbers, medicinal plants and about 60 varieties of orchids.
Entering the zoo at the main gate you’ll see some curio and souvenir shops. Right in front is the Aviary, a huge circular bird cage. There are all kinds of different birds including Rose Ring Parakeets, Hill Mynas, Ring Necked Pheasants, Blue Gold Macaws and others.
You can see Himalayan black bears and yaks roaming about. A snow leopard has been imported to Darjeeling recently from the Dudley Zoological Gardens in the U.K. The 2 year old snow leopard is named Makalu. Altogether there are now 10 snow leopards at the zoo.
Observatory Hill is sacred to both Buddhists and Hindus. It was the site of the original Dorie Ling Monastery that gave Darjeeling its name. Devotees come to a temple in a small cave to honor Mahakala, a Buddhist protector deity also worshipped in Hinduism as a wrathful avatar of Shiva the destroyer. The summit is marked by several shrines, colorful prayer flags and the ringing of numerous devotional bells. A path leads up the hill through giant Japanese cedars. Watch out for marauding monkeys.
The Chowrasta or the Mall is the town center of Darjeeling. This is a wonderful public square where four roads meet. It is a great place to take in the sun, people watch and see wonderful views of the mountain range. One side of the mall is lined with pine trees and the other side with boutique shops. There are benches all around upon which to relax.
There are two lovely scenic parks located just a few miles from the Darjeeling town.
Rock Garden has wonderful terraced gardens at different levels which have been cut through the rocks with amazing waterfalls.
Ganga Maya is a park that is more spread out, has a beautiful stream flowing through it on a valley, flower gardens, fountains and more.
Senchal Lake is part of the Senchal Sanctuary which is one of the oldest wildlife sanctuaries of Darjeeling Hills. A mountain spring feeds the lake and is the main reservoir supplying water to the town. The lake is surrounded by trees and forests. Among the trees are oaks, pines and birch. There are more than 350 types of flowering plants including rhododendrons and orchids.
The Senchal Sanctuary covers an area of around 39 sq.km. including the lake and is considered to be one of the oldest in India, opening in 1915. You can get a guide to take you around. Among the wildlife here are Himalayan black bears, barking deer, leopards, monkeys, flying squirrels, wild dogs, scaly ant eaters and many more.
Among the birds you might see golden back woodpecker, emerald cuckoos, black-backed pheasant, red jungle fowl, hornbills, Babblers and Sunbirds.
If you enjoy playing golf there is a 9-hole golf course at the Senchal area. It is supposedly one of the highest golf courses in the world.
Perched on a hillside you’ll find the Japanese Peace Pagoda. This white pagoda is one of more than 70 pagodas built around the world by the Japanese Buddhist Nipponzan Myohoji Organization. During the drumming puja (prayers) sessions, visitors are offered a hand drum and encouraged to join in the rituals.
Visitors enjoy the scenic Singalila National Park, offering spectacular views of the Himalayas. If you prefer you can hire a guide. The park is known for its incredible peaks and panoramic views. This is a trekker’s paradise with a variety of mountainous vegetation, fauna and birds. Some of the wildlife you might encounter includes rare and endangered species like the Red Panda, Black Bear, Leopard, Tigers, Clouded Leopard, Serow, Leopard Cat, Barking Deer, Yellow-throated Marten, Wild Boar, Pangolin and Takin.
Take the time to ride the amazing Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, affectionately called the Toy Train. It made its first journey along the precipice-topping, 2ft.-wide tracks in September 1881. It is one of the few hill railways still operating in India and has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. It offers regular diesel and steam service and joy rides.
The Happy Valley Tea Estate dates back to 1854. It is well worth a visit when the plucking and processing are in progress from March to November. You’ll be guided through the aromatic factory and will learn how green, black and white teas all come from the same leaf. It covers 437 acres at an elevation of 2,100 meters above sea level. It has become one of the major tourist attractions in Darjeeling.
While riding back on the toy train or walking back from Tiger Hill keep a look out for the famous railway loop – Batasia Loop. It goes around the open-air Gorkha War Memorial, erected in honor of the brave soldiers from the region who lost their lives in WWI and WWII. The loop covers an area of 50,000 square feet and transverses spirally through tunnels, landscaped parks and hillocks in this 1,000 foot high descent. There is a local crafts market nearby.
Bhutia Busty Gompa temple originally stood on Observatory Hill. It was rebuilt in its present location by the chogyals of Sikkim in the 19th century. You can see some fine murals that depict the life of Buddha. Khangchendzonga provides an impressive backdrop.
Visitors enjoy the scenic Rangit Valley Ropeway. The 40 minute ride takes you from North Point to the Takvar Valley Tea Estate, It is quite a spectacular view as you glide over the green tea bushes of the plantation.
Lloyd Botanical Gardens are pleasant gardens displaying an impressive collection of Himalayan plants particularly orchids and rhododendrons. You’ll find a map posted at the office at the top of the park. In the middle section you’ll find a large collection of fern and conifer trees along with Alpine collections. There is a separate greenhouse which displays some 150 species of cactus. The lower section has colorful exotic plants from various countries in the world. The most striking here is the weeping willow and there are two living fossil trees brought from China.
The Neora Valley National Park is one of the richest biological zones in the north-east. This park is famous for being home to one of the largest populations of red panda in India. It was established in 1986 and has several endangered and rare species of flora and fauna.
The Railway Museum is a heritage museum with an interesting collection of memorabilia from the bygone days of the railway. In an outer courtyard you can see Baby Sivok, the oldest engine of the railway.
Of particular interest in Darjeeling is the main clock tower in the town center.
When you want to relax after a full day’s activity walk on over to Joey’s Pub. This English style pub was built in 1948 and is one of the prime attractions for tourists. Here you can try some mid-priced drinks and snacks while listening to light classic rock and blues.