It’s 8am. I could hear some noise from the kitchen which was next to my bedroom. Breakfast was being prepared and I could not wait to start my day.
I had arrived in Darjeeling the day before, and my homestay host, Mr Pradhan had been sharing with me the various activities I could do throughout my stay at the hill station. However, the first thing I wanted to do that morning was to go to the District Magistrate’s Office to apply for the Inner Line Permit to enter Sikkim. I wasn’t sure how long it would take to process the permit, so I had decided to put aside sightseeing activities much later. Luckily, the Office was only 5 minutes walk from the guesthouse, and my host had offered to walk with me to the office and guide me through the application process.
After a hearty breakfast of oats porridge, toast, omelette and tea, I’d thought it was time to go to the District Magistrate’s Office. After all, it was 9am and government offices should be opened by then, right?
Me: Uncle, should we leave shortly for the Magistrate’s Office?
Host: You want to go now? But it’s only 9 o’clock.
Me: Oh, what time is the office opened?
Host: Hmm, around 10 or 10.30.
Me: 10.30? So late!
Host: (laughing) Ya, it’s government! They don’t start working so early. Anyway, it’s the festival time, so I think they will be opened at 10.30. We leave here at 10.30, ok? You want more tea?
Me: Ok. Ya, I’ll have more tea.
What to do huh? So I had more tea – on the roof terrace – and the view was spectacular that morning. The sun shone brightly, the clouds dispersed and the green, hilly terrain of Darjeeling was very much visible.
To pass time till 10.30, I planned my itinerary for the next two days. Darjeeling isn’t a very large hill station, hence many of the sights could be visited in a day though on a very rushed schedule. Should you wish to experience this hill station at a more relaxed pace which was what I did, then two days is good enough.
Here are the activities I did in Darjeeling:
Breakfast at Keventer’s
At the start of Nehru Road, Keventer’s is a popular place for most visitors as the restaurant is known for its breakfast with bacon and sausages. The bakery is on the ground floor of the restaurant while the diner is upstairs. Visitors can opt to have their breakfast on the balcony overlooking the Clock Tower which is part of the Municipality Building.
I found my experience at Keventer’s just ordinary. Any romantic notions of sitting outside, eating bacon and eggs, enjoying the cool air – all washed away by the incessant sounds of honking from the roads below. I should be used to this by now (after all I have had been travelling to Honkistan 9 times!) but I found the continuous blaring of horns in this small hill station unbearable.
Sorry to spoil the idyllic settings for you but if you’re OK with honking first thing in the morning, then Keventer’s is the place 😉
Walk along Nehru Road to The Mall
After breakfast, you can walk along Nehru Road which is lined with shops, cafes and restaurants. Shops open at 10am, so it’s best to postpone shopping a little later. Continue walking to the top of Nehru Road where you will find Chowrasta or The Mall. The Mall is the heart of Darjeeling town where locals and tourists relax on the many benches to people-watch or to admire the grand views of mountain peaks and valleys all around.
Further uphill from The Mall is Observatory Hill, an area on the hill top which provides a panoramic view of the snow-capped mountains especially Mount Kangchenjunga. Kangchenjunga is the third highest mountain in the world, and many a time, views of this mountain are not visible due to clouds enveloping the entire area.
I was very fortunate to see Kangchenjunga twice. The first time was on the way to the Foreigners Registration Office on Laden La Road – my host waited patiently for me while I was catching my breath after walking up several steep narrow lanes, and then he pointed in the direction behind me and exclaimed, “Oh look, Kangchenjunga!”.
The second time was at Observatory Hill. I stopped walking to take in the magnificent views of the lush forests, relishing the cool nip in the air, and listening to children singing from a nearby school, and then miraculously, Kangchenjunga appeared! I had the mountain to myself for full ten minutes, after which it disappeared in the thick of clouds.
Shopping and Eating
The walk on Observatory Hill will bring you back to The Mall. By the time you return to The Mall, the shops would be opened. Habeeb Mullick & Sons is famous for curios and Tibetan jewellery. Ever since my Ladakh trip in 2010, I have always been fascinated by Tibetan jewellery typically made of turquoise or coral stones and silver. I bought two lovely necklaces from Habeeb.
Another thing that fascinates me is…books. My trips to India always, invariably, involve a trip (or two) to book shops. Books in India are much cheaper than in Malaysia, but most of all, I’m amazed with the various genres of books readily available here. Needless to say, I spent a long time browsing through the books in Oxford Book Shop and ended up buying four books.
With all that shopping (and the cool air), you would be hungry. Plenty of cafes and restaurants on Nehru Road. There’s Glenary’s – a 100 year old restaurant established during the British colonial days – serving Indian and continental dishes. The cakes and pastries from the bakery are quite nice.
The restaurant which I highly recommend is Kunga. Kunga is a small restaurant on Gandhi Road, serving delicious Tibetan food. I ordered pork gyathuk, a soup noodle dish of pork and omelette slices. The broth is absolutely yummy. Don’t worry, vegetarian options are also available here.
Happy Valley Tea Estate
Darjeeling is synonymous with tea and a first time visit to Darjeeling is incomplete without a visit to a tea plantation. Close to my guesthouse is Happy Valley Tea Estate, the second oldest tea estate in Darjeeling.
I visited the estate with a Dutch tourist (we happened to meet while processing our Sikkim permit) but we didn’t get the chance to see the factory operations because it was their lunch break, and neither did we see any tea leave plucking in the gardens because it was off-season. We were informed later that the tea leave plucking season is March-May and factory operations are best seen around 7.30am.
Himalayan Mountaineering Institute and The Zoo
The Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI) was established in honour of Tenzing Norgay after his successful climb of Mount Everest with Edmund Hillary. Since that successful expedition, enthusiasm for mountaineering grew among the people in the region. HMI is a pioneering institute giving mountaineering lessons to students from all over the world. Tenzing was the first director of field training for the institute.
The HMI complex now consists of the mountaineering and rock climbing school, a memorial in honour of Tenzing (his remains were cremated here) and a museum. I highly recommend travellers to visit HMI especially the museum because it houses all the mountaineering paraphernalia and memorabilia from various Everest expeditions over many decades.
To access and exit HMI, you will have to walk past the Zoo. I’m not really into zoos but it’s worthwhile to see the high altitude animals of the Himalayas such as the snow leopards and red pandas.
Some of you may realise that I didn’t mention about sunrise view of Mount Kangchenjunga at Tiger Hill and the Toy Train ride. To be honest, I’m not a morning person. To wake up at 3.30am in order to be at Tiger Hill by 4.15, and to encounter fleets of cars with hundred of tourists rushing for the perfect spot to take photos of the mountains – not exactly a motivation for me. Furthermore, the mountains are constantly engulfed in fog and mist, so there is no guarantee of a perfect sunrise view from Tiger Hill or anywhere in Darjeeling for that matter.
As for the Toy Train, undoubtedly, it would be a novelty experience to be in a small steam engine chugging up the hilly terrain on narrow railway tracks since the 1880s. However, the route is exactly the same as my car journey from Bagdogra airport to Darjeeling, thus no difference in views of the hills and small towns. As a result, I skipped the entire Toy Train experience.
Ever since I came back from India, friends (Indians and Malaysians) have asked for my opinion on Darjeeling. It’s a charming hill station but there were times I was bemused by the huge number of tourists visiting this town. Darjeeling’s small infrastructure is bursting through the seams to support more and more hotels and guesthouses, shops, eateries, and…vehicles. With more vehicles, there is congestion and pollution. The locals want tourism as the district relies on tourism revenue while others say that congestion is increasingly a common fate suffered by hill stations in India.
Well, I’m not here to proffer my opinion on what should work best for hill stations in India. Despite the congestion, my time in Darjeeling was memorable. As much as I enjoyed the sights, it was the “mundane” activities that stuck with me such as browsing in Oxford Book Shop, eating delicious pastries in Glenary’s or…just enjoying a cup of Darjeeling tea on the roof terrace of my guesthouse with sweeping views of the hills and mountains.
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