East India

by David Woollan

Global Mark : to come

Ratings by criteria : 

Charm Scenery Parks Culture Minor. Market Relax Fiesta 



Ratings by backpackers :

Surveyed Liked  Comeback  Recommend  Range AVER.

Description ? Situated in the northeastern corner of West Bengal, just a few kilometres south of the Sikkim border, Darjeeling is a hill station built in the days of the British Raj, and known by them as "Queen of the Hill Stations". On a clear day you can see the Kachenjunga mountain range that separates this part of India from Nepal. At 2100 metres above sea level, it is a great place to come to escape the heat of the plains and, if you've had a bit too much of India come here for a slice of "almost" Nepali life.

What to do ? Buy some famous Darjeeling tea to ship home, and visit a tea estate / Ride on the Toy Train, a narrow gauge steam locomotive / Visit the snow leopard breeding centre / Have a cup of tea at the Windamere Hotel / Visit one or more of several monasteries / Get lost in the tiny streets of Chowk Bazaar market / Visit the Botanical garden / Take a ride on the ropeway (cable car) / Sign up for a course in meditation / Volunteer at the Tibetan Refugee's Self-Help Centre / Find one of the few bars in town and drink a super strong "Hit" beer smuggled in from Sikkim / Visit the zoo and snow leopard breeding centre and the nearby Himalayan Mountain Institute (all are closed Thursdays) / Look at the telescope Adolf Hitler once owned! / If staying longer, sign up for a four or five day trek to the mountains along the Nepal border or stay for a couple of days in the other nearby towns. 

What you may not like ? Frequent electricity cuts / Almost zero visibility when the clouds sit on top of the town, especially during June to the end of August / Most activity ends by nine o' clock at night - this is not a town for nightlife.

How long ? If you're just making a trip as a visit from Nepal then three or four days might be enough to satisfy your curiosity. If you want to go trekking and have time to kill, then up to two weeks will be enough to explore the region. 

When to visit ? To escape the cold weather and for good visibility the best months are April to May, and September to October. The early morning views of the Himalayas, especially Kachenjunga at 8585 meters, are world famous. From Darjeeling, a 120 degree view of snow peaked mountains can be had. Even Everest is visible.

Background ? When the British brought in laborers from Nepal to work on the tea plantations they had established in the hills around the newly-built town of Darjeeling in the mid 1800's, they probably had no idea that over 140 years later the descendents of these workers would have achieved a limited form of self autonomy within the West Bengal government. Today, the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council runs the day-to-day affairs of a region that exceeds 1,200 square miles in size. In this area, the dominant language is Nepali, and the people are mainly Gurungs, Tamangs, Rais and Magars, all Nepalese castes of Mongolian descent. Collectively they are known as Gorkhas.

Where to stay ?
Darjeeling has a population of about 70,000 and hence is not a particularly large town. But is has over 270 hotels! You won't find it hard to secure a bed for the night. Almost all the backpackers make for the area around the TV tower at Darjeeling's highest point. When you get off the train or jeep, turn right to the hill in front of you and start climbing. After fifteen minutes you will be in the most popular area. The following list concentrates on hotels in this area, although hotels can be found in almost every street of the town. Budget hotels/guest houses have been listed first. Note that all the prices quoted here were given to me in the off-season. Budget hotels generally give very little discount for the off season but the upper priced establishments will offer discounts of up to 50%. With so many hotels in town, one must be prepared to bargain. Those who want to stay for a month or more can find apartments for around R3000/month. Head for the Tibetan Refugee Self Help Centre and ask to chat with some of the volunteers for more information.

  • Hotel Long Island, Dr. Z Hussain Road, just across the road from the ever popular Tower View Lodge. Very basic doubles R80 with bath and hot water in buckets. Singles also R80 with bath and hot water can be provided in a bucket. Concrete built rooms. What you may not like: early morning prayer music is provided for the general public in the street from an nearby loudspeaker starting at about 6 a.m. 
  • ® Tower View Lodge (54452), 8/1 Dr. Z Hussain Road. On the other side of the road from the above. The most popular backpacker lodge. A friendly family run the business, basic but popular meals served in restaurant area. Downstairs concrete built rooms very gloomy. Upstairs wooden-built rooms better but noisy. Doubles R100/80 with bath, no hot water. Single occupancy R80. One hot-water shower available for all (if the electricity is working). Internet access. What you may not like: lounge/restaurant area has a very loud television 
  • ® Hotel Aliment (55068), 40 Dr. Z Hussain Road. Another popular place for budget travelers, this place has a top floor restaurant that closes at 9.30 p.m., an Internet café and a mini library. Doubles with bath/hot water R200, doubles with bath/no hot water R150. Singles with bath/no hot water R70. Hot water can be provided in buckets. Laundry service available.
  • Hotel Sunrise T.N. Road (near Chowrasta, start of Dr. Z Hussain Road) Basic and run down. Doubles with bath (hot water in buckets) R100. Any of the three mentioned above are better than this one.
  • Hotel Vinayak (55807), 1A/B Rockville Road. A stone jungle. Like being in an echo chamber. Loud TV is even worse. Doubles with bath/hot water provided in bucket R200. Only for the desperate.
  • Hotel Dreamland, 203 T.N. Road (by Chowrasta) Gloomy, small rooms, very basic. Doubles with bath (hot water in buckets) R300/250 Single occupancy R200. This hotel is best avoided.
  • Hotel Rockville (52513), 4 Rockville Road. Doubles with bath/hot water and TV R300 Single with bath/hot water TV R200. This hotel currently closed for renovation.
  • ® Andy's Guest House (53125), 102 Dr. Z. Hussain Road. Very clean and well maintained, extremely quiet. Friendly owner. Big lounge area. Rooms with Indian style bathroom, no hot water, doubles R250 singles R150. Rooms with European style bathroom and hot water geyser, doubles R300 singles R250.
  • ® Hotel Springburn (52054), Gandhi Road. In a large house, clean but slightly rundown. All rooms are large doubles with bathroom and have hot water geysers. TV. Doubles R250, single occupancy R220. Good value.
  • ® Pineridge Hotel (54074), Nehru Road, next to Chowrasta, telephone 54074. An enormous and ancient hotel. Seemingly a wreck of a place from the outside but, after walking down dark alleyways: Double R350, single occupancy R250, fairly clean and comfortable, large rooms with fireplace and chesterfield sofas!! All rooms with bathroom/hot water geyser.
  • Dil Hotel (52773), 12A Rockville Road. Main door leads to carpeted hallway and rooms on either side. Quite clean. All rooms have attached bath with hot water geyser and TV. Hotel has own generator. Triples for R400, doubles, R400, single occupancy on double size bed R300.
  • ® Classic Guest House, also known as Dant Koti (54106, 54120), C.R. Das road, one minute from Chowrasta. Very comfortable, quiet rooms. TV. Bathroom with hot water geyser. Doubles R450, single occupancy R350.
  • Hotel Shangrila (54149), 5 Nehru Road. A faded wooden building, on the scruffy side. Extremely large, doubles with fireplace R400. All with bathroom and hot water geyser. Also Indian/Chinese restaurant and bar.
  • ® Hotel Sunflower (54390/54391, sundgr@dte.vsnl.net.in), Chowrasta. A modern hotel with smallish sized rooms. Doubles R600 with bath/hot water. No singles. TV/telephone. Quiet and extremely clean. Vegetarian restaurant. Helpful staff.
  • ® Hotel Dekeling (54159, norbu@dekeling.com), 51 Gandhi Road, telephone  A marble staircase leads to rooms with TV, telephone, bathrooms with hot water geyser. Fully carpeted. Spotlessly clean and extremely comfortable. Beautiful lounge/restaurant and library. Own generator. Double R700 for rooms with view, backrooms R400-600 for a double. Single occupancy same rate. If you fancy a bit of luxury...

Where to eat ? If you want to eat as the British Officers did in the days of the Raj, then order a meal at the Windamere Hotel followed by brandy and a cigar in the smoking room. For a candle lit meal, head for the upstairs restaurant of Glenary's Bakery on Nehru Road. For soya bean momos or the best vegetable/rice dish in town, eat at the tiny (and we mean tiny) Sonarm's Kitchen (formerly Trishna Cozy Cafe) on Dr.Z.Hussain Road. For a dirt-cheap snack, try the samosas and/or chaat stalls on T.N. Road, just off Chowrasta. Want to have a beer and don't fancy the bars where you will be huddled into a tiny cubicle? Try Darjeeling's only Pub. Joey's Pub lies on a side road just off Ladenla Road, by a cinema, close to the Post Office. 

Fancy a cup of tea ? What would Darjeeling be without its association with tea? All the hills around Darjeeling are dedicated to the production of tea, and the quality of this tea is the world's best. It is possible to spend hours walking through the tea estates and two places offer a tour around a tea factory, where the leaves are subjected to moisture extraction, rolled and withered, sifted and fermented, dried and sorted. See it all in action at Happy Valley Tea Estate, just a kilometers walk from the botanical gardens, or take the ropeway to Tukvar village and ask for the guide who will show you around Tukvar Tea Estate and factory.
Once back in town, select some tea to send home :

  • Natmulls Tea Room, opposite the State bank of India on Ladenla Road. An old established company, it has a huge selection of teas to choose from.
  • Chowrasta Tea Store, Chowrasta. Only a small selection of teas to choose from, but they offer a courier service that will ship up to one kilogram of tea to anywhere in the world for only R400 in eight days. An excellent bargain.

Internet and the WWW ?
There has been a price war in the last few months and some places, e.g. Amigos are charging just R25 per hour. Most places charge R30 per hour. No diskettes allowed. Note that connection speeds can be incredibly slow and there are constant disconnections : 

  • "Darjlink" Inside the Pradhan Hotel, 57 Gandhi Road
  • Inside Glenary's Bakery, Nehru Road
  • Rhythm Internet, J.P. Sharma Road
  • Udayan Cyber Café, above Hotel Red Rose, 37 Ladenla Road
  • Compuset Centre, 14 Gandhi Road. Probably the best in town.
  • Amigos Internet, Chow Rasta

The Toy Train ?

The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway is a narrow guage (2 feet) line that runs from NJP Station (New Jalpiaguri) to Darjeeling. Tiny steam-powered locomotives pull both freight and passengers at incredibly slow speed in both directions. From Ghum to Darjeeling the train announces its presence with a shrill whistle every few seconds to move pedestrians off the railway line! Current schedule :

  • To Darjeeling : NJP 09.00 Siliguri 09.25 Kurseong 13.11 Ghum 15.02 Arrives Darjeeling 15.30 / Kurseong 06.40 Ghum 08.36 Arrives Darjeeling 09.10
  • To Kurseong or NJP : Darjeeling 10.40 Ghum 11.11 Kurseong 13.17 Siliguri 16.40 Arrives NJP 17.10 / Darjeeling 16.30 Ghum 17.06 Arrives Kurseong 19.00

Additionally the Dept. of Tourism had added a "round trip extra". It travels from Darjeeling to Ghum and back, with a brief stop at the Batasia Loop, a monument to the Gorkha soldiers who have died in various conflicts whilst serving with the Indian Army.
The fare is R200 and the train departs Darjeeling about mid-morning. Contact the rail station for exact departure time.

The Ropeways ?  In the area around Darjeeling a number of ropeways (cable cars for carrying freight/passengers) were built and one of them still offers an exciting aerial view of a tea estate as it carries you from the Darjeeling Ropeway Station to Tukvar village. Originally this cable car took passengers all the way to Singla Bazaar, at the Sikkim border, from the hill top at 2,100 meters to the valley floor at 230 meters. Today it will carry you a third of the way down the valley for a return fare of R60.50. (the extra 50 Paisa is a toilet service charge!!) Journey time is about fifteen minutes. From Chowrasta the Ropeway Station is a pleasant forty minutes walk along Jawahar Road. Note that during the off season, the ropeway service might be suspended.

Daywalks from Darjeeling ? Unlike in Nepal, most of the walks you undertake around Darjeeling will be on sealed roads. Trekking boots are not necessary, just a comfortable pair of shoes. As all the hills around Darjeeling have been planted to tea, you will walk along tea-estate roads and through small villages. The tea estate workers will wave to you and engage you in conversation. Stop at the tiny stalls for a drink. Peer into the small schools. When you reach the valley floor, take a swim in the river.

- Darjeeling to Singla Bazaar (Sikkim Border). Four and a half hours walking downhill. About 23 kilometers. From 2100 meters to 230 meters. Set off early and return by jeep (last jeep back to Darjeeling about 14.30 hrs)
Walk to Chowrasta Chowk (The Mall). Turn left onto Jawahar Road, the road that passes Windamere Hotel. Keep on this road, for 40 minutes, descending slowly, passing the zoo and eventually you will come to the ropeway station. At this point go down the stairs on your left hand side, cross over the busy Hill Cart Road and go down the road on the left that is marked Tukvar. Or ask somebody where is Tukvar Phatak. Keep straight on this road for 18 kilometers, until you come to Singla Bazaar. You will pass through the Tukvar Tea Estate, Talagua and Barnasbeg Villages and at Singla you pass over a bridge of the Rangit River. Good swimming here. You can continue to Naya bazaar but then you most cross the border into Sikkim. Make sure you catch the jeep back by the Darjeeling side of the first bridge. Only very occasional traffic uses this road.

- Darjeeling via Pandam Tea Estate to the Rungdung River and back to Darjeeling via the Lebong Road. About five hours walk.
From Chowrasta (The Mall) turn right onto the Tungsung Road that passes the pony stand. Tungsung road is the far left road that descends quickest when the road divides into three roads. This becomes the Pandam Tea estate Road. Follow this road down to the Pandam Tea Estate Factory, under one hour walk. From the Pandam Tea Factory you can walk on a grass/stone path down to the Rungdung River in about one and a half hours slow walking. At the bailey bridge, turn left and walk up the mettled road to Lebong, passing through Harasing Village. This one and a half hour climb uphill will bring you Lebong, and you'll pass the Gorkha football stadium. Above this you will join the Lebong Hill Cart Road where you can catch a shared taxi back to Darjeeling (R5 per person). 
Or you can continue walking to Darjeeling via the C.R Das Road, about another 40 minutes walk. Passing the football stadium, when you get to the Lebong Hill Cart Road, turn left and walk about 200 meters until you see what looks like a Swiss Chalet, painted with a green roof. By the Swiss Chalet, go up a stone path that becomes a concrete stairway. Continue up the stairway and you join the C.R. Das Road that take you to Chowrasta, Darjeeling.
Or, when you have descended from Darjeeling to the Pandam Tea factory, turn left and follow the motorable road to the Gorkha football stadium in Lebong. This can be seen as a huge concrete construction some hundreds of meters elevation higher than Pandam. The road uphill to the stadium will take about 45 minutes walk.

- Darjeeling to Pul Bazaar and Bijanbari via the Singtom Tea Estate. 7 miles to Bijanbari, seven miles back. 14 miles in all. 2100 meters to 760metres, and back up. Six hours walking, plus time to swim in river and eat a snack in roadside café.
From Darjeeling there is a bus service to Bijanbari that takes almost three hours. But it is possible to walk via the Singtom Tea Estate to Bijanbari in almost the same time. You descent constantly, at times very steeply, from 2100 meters to 760 meters in just about two and a half hours of walking.
Follow the Lebong Hill Cart Road out of Darjeeling and, before you reach St. Joseph's College (about 30 minutes walk out of the centre of Darjeeling), on the left hand side is a small road leading down hill, with a sign that reads, "Way to Sargam digital audio recording studio." If you cannot find this road, just ask anyone for Singtom Phatak. Once you are on this road just follow it all the way downhill for about one hour and forty-five minutes, down hill all the way to the river. Initially you pass through the built up suburb of Darjeeling and then the road passes through Singtom Tea Estate. After a further thirty minutes the road divides. You can take either route. One goes to the tea factory, the other through the workers' village. Continue walking downhill for about another hour. At the river you will see a hydro-electricity plant (ancient, Manchester-built turbines are on view if you peer inside) on your left hand side. Cross over the bridge, walk uphill and pass a small settlement on a stone/grass path and you will join the Darjeeling/Bijanbari Road. Another 10 minutes takes you over the bridge to Pul Bazaar. Turn left through the village and another 20 minutes will take you to Bijanbari. Return by the same route but when you finally get to the Lebong Cart Road, take a taxi back to save you 40 minutes walk at the end of the day through Darjeeling traffic.
By the hydro electricity plant is a good place for a swim. Bijanbari has a market on Friday. Extensive interesting walks from Pul Bazaar and Bijanbari. See separate section.

- Quick walk within Darjeeling. To the Lloyds Botanical garden and the Happy valley Tea Estate. 
At Chowk Bazaar bus stand walk down Lochnagar Road (also called Garden way) to the Lloyds Botanical Garden. The gardens (like the town) occupy part of a steep hill and so they are intersected by lanes. The gardens house mostly trees and it is pleasant to walk the lanes; a bit of tranquility within the noisy town. Leaving the gardens, keep on the same road but descend. The road becomes a dirt road, passes a shrine and enters the Happy Valley Tea Estate. This is the closest estate to Darjeeling and offers conducted tours around its factory which you will pass immediately as you enter the estate. You can purchase their tea directly from the factory.

- Tiger Hill Walk : From Chowrasta walk past the pony stables and when the road forks into three roads, take the middle road. This is T.N. Road. This is one of the few roads in Darjeeling where you won't have to climb steeply up on down, it is fairly level all the way. You'll pass a Buddhist cemetery and the Mak Dhok monastery. 1.5 kms out of Darjeeling the road divides into two. Take the right, upper road. 4 kms out of Darjeeling you reach the small village of Jorebunglow. Turn left at the junction and you'll see a signposted road for Tiger Hill. This road, which passes through the Senchal Wildlife Sanctuary, is a 5 km climb to the lookout tower, at 2590 metres. It is paved and the gradient is not steep. There are two other trails through the sanctuary and it is possible to hire guides to help you spot the wild animals.

- Darjeeling to Rungdung River via Bannockburn T.E. and back again (about 5.5 hours) : Walk to Lebong as described in Darjeeling to Singla Bazaar walk above. Take the steep downhill road that leads to the Gorkha stadium but instead of turning right into the stadium area, keep on the road as it turns left. Walk about 2 kms until just past an army barracks. On your right hand side you'll see a signposted track, Bannockburn T.E. Just keep on this track as it descends rapidly to the river. You will pass the tea factory, the estate workers' village and an area of forest as well. The track is mostly a reasonably sealed road, jeepable (although no vehicle will probably pass you). When the road finally stops, by a roofed storage area, turn right onto a very narrow track, climb up through a stand of bamboo and when you come to another area of tea bushes, descend the zigzagging path through the bushes to the edge of the river. I found it was not possible to actually climb down to the river, but if you are desperate for a swim you might have better luck than I. Return by retracing your steps. Alternatively, you might find it possible to turn right when you get to the river and follow the river until you reach, after about 2 kms, the Bailey Bridge mentioned in the ?? walk above. Then you can walk the road back to Lebong. If you carry on the main road pass the army barracks you will come, after another 1 km, to the village of Ging. Pass through the village and you will descend through thick bamboo stands. After about another 1 km an excellent view of the town of Jorethang and the Rangit River can be had, down at 270 metres. It is a long, meandering road downhill. Expect to take at least five hours.

Long Treks in the Darjeeling area ? Singalila Range Trek. This is a high altitude trek that would be best undertaken between mid-March to the end of April for stunning views and the rhododendrons. Take an early morning bus/jeep to Sukiapokhari (in about one hour) and then walk the five or so kms to Manebhanjang at 2134 metres, the "official start" of the trek. 11 kms to Tonglu at 3070 metres. 19 kms to Sandakphu at 3636 metres. 21 kms to Phalut at 3600 metres. This walk can be extended by making Bijanbari (762 metres) your departure or destination point. If you decide to leave from Bijanbari you will have to ascend to Phalut, the last two of the three days is tough going! On the first day walk uphill to Kaijaley, descend to Jhepi, Lodhma at 1089 metres (have a quick swim in the river) before ascending to Rimbik at 2286 metres, a distance of about 26 kms. The next day walk via Sirikhola to Raman at 2560 metres. This is a hard days walk of 25 kms. The next day walk via Samanden and Gorkhey to Phalut at 3600 metres, a distance of about 24 kms. You can then join the Singalila Range Trek.
Note that in many places on the Singalila Range Trek you are actually in Nepal, but it is not necessary to have a Nepal visa to do the trek!

The trip to ??? :  (scenery rating ?) / (left or right side best ?) / (cost ?) / (time ?) / (type of transport ?)
(story of the trip )

See also the trip from ???