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Published: October 27th 2011
The railway journey up the mountain is forty miles, and it takes eight hours to make it. It is so wild and interesting and exciting and enchanting that it ought to take a week. As for the vegetation, it is a museum. The jungle seemed to contain samples of every rare and curious tree and bush that we had ever seen or heard of. I think, that the globe must have been supplied with the trees and vines and shrubs that it holds precious… The road is infinitely and charmingly crooked. It goes winding in and out under lofty cliffs that are smothered in vines and foliage, and around the edges of bottomless chasms; and all the way one glides by files of picturesque natives, some carrying burdens up, others going down from their work in the tea-gardens… By and by we were well up in the region of the clouds, and from that breezy height we looked down and afar over a wonderful picture — the Plains of India, stretching to the horizon, soft and fair, level as a floor, shimmering with heat, mottled with cloud-shadows, and cloven with shining rivers. Immediately below us, and receding down, down and down…
- Mark Twain, describing the ‘Toy Train Journey’ from Siligūrî to Darjeeling
Our train from Varanasi only got us as far as the station in NJP, and was running even later by then, as expected. We caught a shared jeep to Kurseong along really, really bad roads - but with beautiful views of the mountains and tea plantations - to the train station for the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. The train ride, slow and lovely, was wonderful!
Darjeeling really blew us away. Serene, beautifully atmospheric, the nicest people you could imagine, good food, wonderful shopping. Definitely a place to return to. I can safely say we enjoyed every moment of this part of the trip, except having to leave.
Our hotel, Shangri-la Darjeeling, was another highlight of our stay. Beautiful decor, great views, an excellent restaurant downstairs, very helpful staff. The only downside was the lack of heating in the rooms, but during this time of year it wasn't a problem, at least for those used to the weather in San Francisco. Highly recommended.
Our first morning we availed ourselves of the early-morning trip to Tiger Hill to catch the mountain views at sunrise. The sunrise itself
was beautiful, but the pervasive fog made it difficult to see much of the mountains. Khangchendzonga, India's highest peak and the world's third-highest mountain, supposedly dominates the skyline, and I think we were able to make out Everest in the distance. On the way back we stopped at Yiga Choling Gompa, the region's most famous Buddhist monastery, encircled by prayer wheels with some wonderful old murals inside and a statue of the Maitreya Buddha. In the later morning we took a tour of the Lloyd Botanical Garden, and then had afternoon tea at the Elgin Hotel. If you can afford it, this is the place to stay - and the tea wasn't too shabby either.
Clement and I really enjoyed the food here as well. Lots of momos, hearty and delicious soups such as gyathuk, thentuk and thukpa, and other snacks. Shopping was incredible, and although there are many very good shops lining the main streets I can highly recommend Tibet Arts and Habeed Mullick and Son for their professionalism, fair pricing and fabulous artwork.
Our second day there was filled with shopping and enjoying the town. As the toy train left early in the day we had
to take a shared jeep back down the mountain, not the best of experiences but worth it to make the visit. If you have the time, the best way to make this trip is to take the train or a flight from Kolkata into NJP or Siliguri, and catch the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway all the way up. It's a really long and slow ride, but nicer than taking a jeep, and between the fabulous views and a good book to while away the hours you'll be adding to the please of your trip immensely.
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