I arrived in Bagdogra airport and started looking for a shared jeep to Darjeeling. No luck, but I found a friendly couple who offered to take me in their taxi to nearby Siliguri, where the shared jeep stands were.
Sure enough, I quickly found a very shared jeep (ten people plus the driver), and we soon headed through traffic into the forest, and up over hairpin curves into the hills. Temperatures dropped, and the sun slowly set on the horizon casting colorful shadows into the hills behind us. For the first time since I’d left Ladakh, I felt pleasantly cool.
This was the first time I have arrived somewhere at night without a booking, but fortune (or good kamma) was with me. The hotel I had as my first choice had rooms. It’s a budget hotel, and the rooms are a bit musty, but the room I’m in has a big bay window overlooking the mountains. For about $10 a night, it’s just fine.
Darjeeling is a hill town in northern West Bengal. It was named after the local Dorje Ling monastery, which has since moved and changed names. The land was leased by the East India Company (aka, the British) in 1835, and they soon started planting tea and taking vacations there. It continues to be a popular vacation spot, and of course, the tea is known worldwide.
Just as an aside about the tea. I discovered that the Darjeeling tea served here is a lighter tea that almost looks like green tea. It is typically drank without milk, which enables one to really taste the flavor more. Going without milk was a bit of an adjustment, but I got used to it.
The first day I spent wandering about, looking around, going the wrong way and turning around again. It’s a pretty safe city to get lost in, so there was no stress. The next day I woke early to walk down to the taxi stand to get a shared jeep to Tiger Hill to watch the sunrise. Even though mornings at Tiger Hill are incredibly crowded, with jeeps thick over the single road honking and spewing diesel fumes, the sunrise was spectacular, and to see the morning alpenglow on Khangchendzonga and its sibling mountains made the trip seem worthwhile to make at least once.
Fueled by a good start to the morning and breakfast, I walked to the Darjeeling Zoo. After the experience at Trivandrum, I was a bit hesitant to visit another zoo here, but was drawn by their having red pandas. I was pleasantly surprised, as this zoo had spacious enclosures for the animals with native vegetation and other enrichments for the animals. Heck, I’d stay in some of the enclosures they had if I had a tent (maybe not in the same ones with bears or Bengal tigers, though). And as for the red pandas, they pretty much topped the cuteness scale.
The zoo was also the home to the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, which has courses mostly for the military, but select civilians can benefit. It was first directed by Tenzing Norgay, the Sherpa who with Sir Edmund Hillary, first scaled Everest in 1953. The institute has a mountaineering museum, with interesting displays on the mountains nearby, Everest expeditions, and mountaineering equipment.
I was planning to leave a few days after I came, but I’ve kept extending my stay. I’ve enjoyed spending my time here just looking and walking around, gawping at the views, enjoying Tibetan and other various restaurants, and of course, drinking lots of tea. The road and the mountains beckon though, so tomorrow I’ll head further north by another shared jeep. See you soon!