This summer I escaped the hustle-and-bustle and the dust-and-din of Calcutta for a few days’ respite in the beautiful hill town of Darjeeling. One might say it was the quintessential ‘Bong’ summer vacation! For Darjeeling is indeed the pride and joy of every Bengali.
Nestled in the ‘Mahabharat’ or the Lesser Himalaya range, Darjeeling was fondly christened ‘Queen of the Hills’ by the British during the colonial rule. Since then, it has been a much-loved vacation spot, attracting tourists from all over India and the globe. Along with all modern trappings and paraphernalia of a bustling tourist spot, Darjeeling still retains the essence of its indelible colonial heritage. And it is this harmonious confluence between the old and the new that lends the town a quaint, distinct charm.
An overnight train journey from Calcutta brought me to New Jalpaiguri Station, from where hired/shared cabs leave by the dozens every hour, transporting tourists to numerous hill destinations, both in West Bengal and neighbouring Sikkim. My cab ride to Darjeeling took about 3.5 hours. As the flat, busy roads of the plains gradually gave way to the twisting mountain paths, and the air became fresh and cool, I felt thrilled beyond measure. Every time I visit any hill station, it is my particular habit to look out for that very first sight of the mountains looming in the distant horizon. It is a moment of such inexplicable joy!
So there I was in Darjeeling about three hours later, the cab having dropped me off near the Mall or ‘Chowrasta’, the heart of Darjeeling. I headed straight off to my hotel to dump my luggage, freshen up and start exploring as fast as I could. The sun was out from behind the clouds, the Mall buzzing with activities, children running about gleefully or taking pony rides, tourists from the plains happily sporting colourful woollens (me included!), a delicious warmth in the air.
I had planned to have a relaxing, slow-paced first day. But first I desperately needed to get something to eat, quite ravenous after the long journey. And I found the perfect spot named Pineridge just off the Mall. Wooden stairs led up to this cosy place, its tinted windows opened out to the glorious sight of the mountains as the mist and the clouds played hide-and-seek with them. This amazing ambience set the stage for a mouth-watering breakfast of waffles with caramel sauce and ice-cream.
After the late breakfast, I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening in lazy walks along the meandering mountain paths circling the Mall, and visiting the nearby notable attractions.
Close to the Mall, tucked away on the hillside and enjoying an uninterrupted view of the surrounding mountain ranges stands the picturesque ‘Step Aside’, the house where the great Indian freedom-fighter Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das breathed his last; and which has now been converted to a museum.
Rising steeply from one side of the Mall, is the Observatory Hill. A steep flight of steps took me uphill to the Mahakal Temple (temple of Lord Shiva), one of the landmarks of Darjeeling. Standing at a spot once occupied by a Buddhist monastery, the Mahakal temple is a beautiful confluence of Hinduism and Buddhism. It was a singular experience to see Hindu priests and Buddhist monks praying in complete harmony. My abiding memory of the Mahakal Temple is a sensation of being high up in the clouds, surrounded by a glorious abundance of colourful prayer flags fluttering in the breeze, an indescribable serenity, a wonderful lightness of being.
As in the hills, dusk descends swiftly. As the shadows lengthened, the lights came on in the Mall and the surrounding market area, making for a warm, cosy sight. It all looked very inviting to me because I was tired out after what was a hectic but extremely enjoyable first day.
I had heard and read a lot about Glenary’s, one of Darjeeling’s oldest and most popular restaurants and a veritable landmark. So I decided to drop in, and was totally bowled over by the bakery/confectionery section. The spread was delicious and oh-so-inviting. Pure temptation to say the least! Here I could finally fulfil my Enid Blyton-fueled childhood desires of gorging on scones and tarts and shortbread!
Though I was a bit exhausted what with last night’s train journey, the ride up to Darjeeling and the incessant walking about, I was definitely not in the mood to retire to the hotel. So I decided to explore the wide variety of shops.
Right on the Mall, there is an Oxford bookstore which must have been close to a hundred years old. It was my first stop. There was a mindboggling array of books on a wide variety of topics. What caught my eyes were books on two very distinctive topics – Buddhist philosophy and mountaineering, something that I hadn’t usually come across in the city bookshops. Themes that, in a way, define the life in the Himalayan belt, a unique signature of life at Darjeeling.
My next stop was the clothes market. It was a joyous riot of colours on all sides. And an utter delight to the traveller on a tight budget! Easy on the eyes and also on the pockets, what a deal!
So after a joyous round of shopping, I was looking around for a place to have dinner, when I found this small, cosy eatery called Boney’s, serving a delicious assortment of both local and continental dishes. The staff was very warm and friendly. Deciding to savour the local delicacies, I gorged on a plateful of sumptuous momos.
Finally, it was time to call it a day, and head back to the hotel for some much-needed rest.
Bidisha Das Gupta
Bookworm. Cinephile. Travel-addict. Reluctant IT Consultant. Forever dreaming of exploring new places & people; and making memories all over the world. A song that echoes my fondest desires:
“Just a small town girl livin’ in a lonely world,
She took the midnight train goin’ anywhere.”
Read her blog at: http://sweet-serendipity-bdg.blogspot.in/