|On The Go Tours|
GHY-NJP Northeast train (7hrs, Rs 300 including commission for sleeper class) was pleasant, sans the eunuchs. Classic Lodge run by Debashish is 10min from NJP station ( Tel 0353-2691673, Mob: 98323-15933, dbl Rs 600) is good enough for a night. Take a share auto to Siliguri Town station to find numerous sumos to Darjeeling. Avoid the agents surrounding you, get a seat at the hidden counter next to Siliguri bus stand gate for Rs 120, 2hr 30min ride. Kuttan at Madras Hotel was very glad to meet us, he hails from Cherthala.
Siliguri-Darjeeling train is cancelled currently due to landslides en route, the diesel train runs upto Kurseong from Darjeeling. The steam powered Toy Train has two joy rides in a day upto Ghoom on its 2ft wide track. You can book 120days in advance, Rs 270, 2hrs. The morning 8am joy ride was powered by diesel engine at the time of this blog, check in advance if you insist on steam. A cheaper option is to take the diesel version from Darjeeling to Kurseong for Rs 27, 3hrs and you may take the return train.
Every other building in Darjeeling is a hotel or restaurant. Tea and Tourism Festival brought huge crowds during the holidays to this choking city. The best value accommodation at Youth Hostel (www.yhaindia.org ) franchisee Hotel Broadway Annexe, Dr. Zakir Husain Rd (Tel 09733022208, 0354 2253248, dbl Rs 440) was a steal. Mystic Mountain restaurant on the same road dishes up delicious home cooked meals -order in advance. They are planning to start a homestay in a tea plantation including a pony ride.
Though the local to tourist ratio is very low, we were lucky to meet a few during our stay. Most memorable was meeting P. Golay and his wife at Hotel ShangriLa while sipping beer at the counter. He talked at length about his treks to GocheLa and RocheLa while he was in college. He even gave us a treat at the end of two hour conversation, which was a shocker!
Tiger Hills, 15km away is much hyped sunrise viewpoint with 1000s of tourists and 100s of vehicles. Herds of tourists flock this location from 4am in the biting cold, vendors and taxi drivers making it more chaotic. If you have agoraphobia, get down from the shared sumo (Rs 150) before the entry gate and on your left side there is a peaceful viewpoint. Otherwise the heated lounge on top might be worth Rs 20. We were not lucky to see the '250km range of Himalayas' but the moon setting down was dazzling sight.
Yiga Choling gompa is a left turn after Ghoom station, known as the highest altitude station in India. Taking a steep concrete path towards right, we strolled up to Jalapahar cantonment- the first British settlement in Darjeeling. Golay advised us on this 2hr lesuire walk through army habitats at 8265ft gives, impressive Himalaya views. Road descends to Jalapahar cantonment cutting through a pine forest, reaching Dr. Zakir Husain Rd, close to Doordarshan building.
Darjeeling Zoo: Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park
The zoo is 15min pleasant walk from Chowrasta, located in a forest, housing rare Himalayan wildlife- snow leopard, red panda, Tibetan wolf etc. Himalayan Mountaineering Institute boasts a museum showcasing Everest expeditions. Mountaineering courses are offered, get ready in advance by running 1hr everyday for a month to pass the physical test of trekking 25km with 15kg backpack within stipulated time. Course fee is subsidised, starting at Rs 4000.
Tea and Tourism Festival
Parikrama band from Delhi enthralled the rock aficionados at the festival on Dec 29th. Bands from Darjeeling and Nepal did well keeping a high tempo. Unlike Hornbill, this is a festival for the masses with the absence of VIP pavillions. We relished the local selroti and aloo dum at the food stalls, sipping various flavour and flush of red, black, white tea in the price range of Rs 10 to 120.
To view the majestic Kanchenjunga and neighbouring peaks without leaving the hotel room, Darjeeling is ideal. Those who can trek for a closer view, go to Mane Bhanjhang, 26km from Darjeeling, get a guide at the National Park border for a multi day trek to Phalut- there are lodges and food available. Tour companies offer 'deluxe' trek with all the creature comforts at Rs 2000/day per person. Even better, for motorheads, there is a Land Rover ride to Sandakphu! For a hasty one day trek, the best option is to stay at Rimbik and trek to Sandakphu and return, provided you are really fit like Golay.