How to See the Sights in Darjeeling
Darjeeling's sights are quite spread out and road transport is a bit of a hassle. You'll make things easier by visiting certain sights together as clusters.
One popular idea is to jump out of bed well before dawn and take a jeep up to Tiger Hill in time for the spectacular sunrise illuminating Khangchendzonga. After a regulation photo op with the mountain as a backdrop, continue down to Ghum and spend the morning/day visiting the monasteries there and Batasia Loop. An almost traffic-free alternative route back to Darjeeling, making a nice 5km walk, is along quiet Tenzing Norgay Rd from the junction at Jorebunglow, via the charming Mak Dhog Gompa.
If you can't face a dawn trip to Tiger Hill, take an early-morning stroll around The Mall, which loops round Observatory Hill from Chowrasta and offers several stunning viewpoints. Combine the stroll with a visit down to Bhutia Busty Gompa or up to Observatory Hill.
A good half-day itinerary is to walk 20 minutes from Chowrasta to the zoo and Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, then descend to Happy Valley Tea Estate. Then walk the short-cut footpath to the Motor Stand in Chowk Bazar via the Lloyd Botanic Garden.
The word Darjeeling means, more than anything the world over, tea – an aromatic muscatel tea, known for its amber colour, tannic astringence and musky, spicy flavour, considered by many to be the world's best. Purists will tell you that Darjeeling teas are best taken alone or with a slice of lemon (and/or a pinch of sugar), but never with milk.
What Makes Darjeeling Tea Different
The Darjeeling tea region stretches south to Kurseong and Mirik and has 195 sq km of tea bushes on 87 tea estates ('gardens'). It produces less than 1% of Indian tea. The best grades fetch hundreds of dollars per kilogram at auctions. What makes Darjeeling tea different? Some say it just has an indefinable magic. But there are a few observable factors:
- Darjeeling tea plants are Camellia sinensis sinensis, commonly used for Chinese tea. India's other tea regions grow the larger-leaved variety C sinensis assamica.
- The relatively wet, cold, misty climate is propitious for C sinensis sinensis.
- Darjeeling tea is 'orthodox', meaning it goes through a labour-intensive manual production process that ends up with long-leaf tea, as opposed to the CTC (Crush-Tear-Curl) machine process to which most Indian teas are subjected, which yields grains rather than leaves.
- Most Darjeeling tea cultivation is now organic.
- And of course part of the answer lies in the soil: slightly acidic, loamy, not too clay-ey.
Darjeeling Tea Experiences
While in Darjeeling, two top places to enjoy a pot of this fine brew are Sunset Lounge and House of Tea, while afternoon tea at the Windamere Hotel provides a complete immersion in the British tea-ceremony experience. For packets of tea to take home, head to Nathmulls Tea Room.
You can learn a lot about tea growing and tea production on a visit to one of the estates that welcome visitors, such as Makaibari at Kurseong and Happy Valley in Darjeeling. Spring, monsoon and autumn are the busiest times, when the three respective 'flushes' are harvested. There’s normally no plucking on Sunday, which means most of the machinery isn’t working on Monday.
If you wish to spend a night amid the plantations, try staying with a tea pickers' family in a homestay at Makaibari, which also gives you a big discount on day tours of the estate.
Several tea estates offer more luxurious stays. If you're in the mood for splurging, accommodation doesn’t get any more exclusive than top-end Glenburn, a working tea estate and resort outside Darjeeling that boasts five members of staff for every guest. A stay at Glenburn is rumoured to have given director Wes Anderson inspiration for his film The Darjeeling Limited.
To learn more about the Darjeeling tea story, read Jeff Koehler's 2015 book Darjeeling: A History of the World's Greatest Tea.
The junction town of Ghum (Ghoom), 6km southwest from Darjeeling, is home not only to India's highest railway station (2258m; the destination of joy-ride trains from Darjeeling), but also to three colourful Buddhist monasteries and what seems to be its own breed of cute fluffy white dogs (you're sure to see several of these if you explore the town). Dawn trips from Darjeeling to Tiger Hill usually stop at one of the monasteries on the way back. You can also reach Ghum from Darjeeling by shared jeep (₹30) from a Hill Cart Rd stand, or by taxi (one way ₹300).
Yiga Choeling Gompa, the region’s most famous monastery, was founded in 1850 and houses up to 40 monks of the Gelugpa school. The serene temple has wonderful old murals and enshrines a 5m-high statue of Jampa (Maitreya or ‘Future Buddha’) and 300 beautifully bound Tibetan texts. From Ghum station, walk 100m west along the road towards Darjeeling, turn left at the sign for the monastery and go 600m.
The fortress-style Guru Sakya Gompa, with a big new temple consecrated in 2015, conducts prayer sessions between 5.30am and 7.30am (useful if returning from a dawn visit to Tiger Hill). It's 250m towards Darjeeling from the station. A further 350m towards Darjeeling, Samten Choeling Gompa has the largest Buddha statue in West Bengal, and a chorten containing the ashes of the German Buddhist mystic and author Anagarika Govinda.
An enjoyable walking route back to Darjeeling, deliciously free of honking traffic, is along Tenzing Norgay Rd from the junction at Jorebunglow, 500m east from Ghum station. About half way along the 5km route is the charming, century-old Mak Dhog Gompa, run by people from Yolmo in Langtang, Nepal, who emigrated here 150 years ago. Its atmospheric upper-floor chapel is dedicated to Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava) and the monastery founder Sangay Lama.