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Travel & Holiday

Darjeeling delights

Discover a world up in the mountains
The Straits Times - June 28, 2011
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Darjeeling delights En route from Tumling to Sandakphu, the landscape is dotted with mini shrines (above) and Tibetan prayer flags, offered by the mountain inhabitants to their gods. -- ST PHOTOS: JESSICA CHEAM

Darjeeling, the Himalayan town in India's West Bengal, is strange and familiar all at once.

Strange because you will wonder how an entire sprawling town came to be built at such an inaccessible location so high up in the mountains - more than 2,000m above sea level - and still continues to thrive and attract visitors.

Familiar because, like Singapore with its British colonial past, parts of it resemble a British town, dotted with beautiful buildings whose architecture speaks volumes about its history.

Darjeeling is a destination not meant for the faint-hearted but as I discovered, it is a delightful, different world unto its own.

To get there, I had to survive a 3 1/2-hour taxi ride from India's Bagdogra airport in an underpowered jeep, where for most part of the bumpy journey, my travelling companions and I were only 30cm away from the edge of a steep cliff - oh, and a ghastly death.

What was comforting was that our driver was superbly experienced and confident in navigating the hills, and there were the stunning views of the plains and valleys to distract us.

Darjeeling's tea plantations are vast (this is where the 'champagne of tea' is produced) and trying the local pots of sweet, milky tea is a must.

The roads are narrow and mostly shared by both pedestrians and vehicles.

Nearer the centre, Darjeeling becomes a noisy, bustling place with drivers beeping their horns to signal their presence.

It can get quite polluted in some parts of the town, but you could escape the busy parts by navigating the quieter streets.

Along the way, we spotted the famous 'toy train' tracks, also known as the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, and a Unesco World Heritage Site. It is a narrow gauge railway (only 60cm wide) that runs from New Jalpaiguri to Darjeeling, although many visitors do not take the steam trains that run on it unless they have a lot of time to kill as it travels very slowly.

Part of the fun of being in Darjeeling is basking in the diversity of the town. Its inhabitants are a wonderful mix of North Indians, Tibetans and Nepalese - and most of them speak the fast, lilting Nepalese language.

The locals are a cheerful bunch. In the 'city centre' of Darjeeling, many of them set up makeshift shops out of wooden planks and canvas sheets, touting their wares ranging from clothes to toys to art.

Pots of tea and curries are a mainstay of the Darjeeling diet and there are restaurants (one of them called The Shangri-La) that serve great tandoori dishes.

In the main area known as Chowrasta, people sit around on benches either to chat and people-watch, or to gaze at the hills. At Tiger Hill, we could see great views of Mount Kangchenjunga, the world's third-highest mountain - the backdrop to this little town.

Darjeeling is a great place - either for that much-needed change of scenery and to recharge or a great base from which to embark on other adventures such as trekking or mountain biking.

I was there for three days - before and after the trek - and did not have time to visit some other interesting places, including the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, set up by the late Tenzing Norgay, who with Edmund Hillary were the first mountain climbers to reach Mount Everest's summit, and a Himalayan Zoo with animals found in the region.

But if I had the chance to return again, I would - despite the long, arduous journey. After all, the best places are often the hardest to get to.

5 things to do

1 Pack appropriate gear and warm clothes if you are trekking. Find out what the temperatures are before leaving and pack for that weather.

2 Consider visiting in October and November, although it is colder than in April and May. There is less rain and mist and you are more likely to get better views of the mountains.

3 Research the hotels you are staying at. Not many of them are of a high quality. Go for those that offer hot showers.

4 Try the local food and drink lots of Darjeeling tea, known as the 'champagne of teas'. Tibetan dumplings called 'momo' are a local delicacy and best eaten with chilli. The flavourful Indian curry dishes are also worth trying.

5 Take plenty of memory storage for your camera as Darjeeling and the Himalayan treks offer stunning views and abundant flora and fauna for you to take great pictures.

2 don'ts

1 Don't drink the tap water. It is unfiltered and could upset your stomach. Boiled or mineral water is your best bet but do recycle the plastic bottle.

2 Don't get too drunk, especially at night as places are not well-lit and you could fall off the side of roads - and you never know how deep the fall is going to be.



Paradise after the pain