9-11 March 2024

Today, we fly from Kolkata to the Bagdogra International Airport in West Bengal, some 350 miles north. A 55-minute flight replaces a 13-hour drive. Our “adventure begins with a scenic drive to Darjeeling” which is always tour-speak for “you will be on a bus for a long time. Be prepared.”

The fastest route is 44 miles with an estimated travel time of 3 hours. Any section of a relatively straight road quickly transitions into mountains and an endless series of twists and curves as we climb into the Himalayan foothills.

Enroute, we pass large tea estates, Elephant Crossings, temples, government check posts, traffic police, and fantastic views. Countless homestays dot the verdant and spectacular steep hillsides. We climb higher and higher.

Passing through lively villages, I am so close to storefronts I could reach out and touch someone. The cacophony of horns is constant as we swing around tight curves and between homes and businesses. To add to the scene, the Indian Railroad parallels our narrow road. A loaded train blasts its horn as it transports its passengers beside us and through the middle of each village.

The entire route is a feast for the eyes and a trial for the stomach.

Darjeeling, the City, Not The Tea

We lodge for three nights in Darjeeling, “The Queen of the Hills.” It has the feel of the Himalayas with an elevation of around 6,900 feet. Darjeeling’s name comes from a Tibetan word meaning “Land of Dorje,” or “of the thunderbolt,” the weapon of the Hindu god Indra.

To our west is Nepal, to the east the Kingdom of Bhutan, north is the Indian state of Sikkim, and further north is Tibet. The colorful homes, green hillsides, mountain peaks, and, if it was clear, snow-tipped Himalayas, contribute to a stunning location. 

Darjeeling’s location in foothills of Himalayas is magical

Darjeeling, like most of the area, was founded by the British East India Company. In the early 19th century, the British elite retreated here during summer. They eventually annexed the region from the Kingdom of Sikkim’s monarchy. Laborers came from Nepal to clear the forest and build British cottages.

Then came the tea and more deforestation. By 1881, the narrow-gauge Himalayan Railroad launched bringing even more summer residents and freighting tons of tea out for export. Following Independence in 1947, the British left and wealthy Indian friends bought up the plantations and cottages. 

Sunrise and High Hopes

My alarm informs me it is 3:30 am. As if yesterday’s curves were not enough, we twist and turn 7 miles of narrow hairpins to the observatory atop Tiger Hill, an altitude of about 8482 feet. Our purpose is to view the sun as it comes up to reveal a spectacular, snow-capped Eastern Himalayan range. Further, if the sky is clear of fog and mist, I might see Mt. Kanchenjunga, the third tallest mountain in the world. Its summit lies at 28,169 ft.

We slowly progress up Senchal Road. Daybreak isn’t for another hour, yet we find crowds of people in the unfinished Observatory Tower and on the terrace. It is chilly but not cold. I look to the East and am told the sun’s appearance and its changing colors upon snowy peaks is a spectacle not to miss.

This morning, it is a miss! Mother Nature brings clouds and fog behind which hides our awaited Sun.

Railroad Darjeeling to Ghum

The narrow-gauge Himalayan Railroad was built compliments of the Raj in 1881. Its tracks run from Darjeeling to Ghum, about 4 miles distant. There is both a diesel and steam engine version. We rode the steam train as it crawled through town, blasting its horn as it squeezed past cars, shops and homes. The coal burning engine, spewing black smoke and soot, makes its mark on all it passes.

About halfway, the train pauses at the Batasia Loop where we find the Roll of Honor dedicated to the Gorkha soldiers who sacrificed their lives in various wars.

The “Toy Train” as it is called, earned UNESCO World Heritage status in 1999. Our ride is short but interesting and ends at the DHR Ghum Railway Museum. The museum explains the role of the Raj in founding and developing Darjeeling and displays memorabilia and photos of its history. Outside is the oldest steam engine, Baby Sivok. 

Monastery at Ghum

Maitreya Buddha at Ghum Monastery

Close by is the Ghum Monastery or Yiga Choeling. Established in 1850 by Lama Sherab Gyats, it belongs to the Yellow Hat/Gelug sect. During the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1959, many Tibetan monks fled to India and became refugees in the monastery. The monastery is known for the 15-foot-high Maitreya Buddha (future Buddha) statue. Maitreya Buddha ranks the fifth and final Buddha of the current era. His teachings focus on the re-estabishment of the harmony that sustains life. 

The Story of Tea

As the British became addicted to tea, India, and China, grew in importance. Britain was importing tea from China since the mid 16th century. As everyone knows, tea caught on with the Brits. But the Chinese imposed the death penalty on anyone caught exporting the plant. Therefore, as demand at home grew, the United Kingdom needed ways to balance the trade. As their trade deficient grew, Colonial India offered a solution.

India grew opium, one product tradable to China. So, from India came the opium, to China went the opium, and from China came the Brit’s tea. Too late, the Chinese government recognize the devastation caused by opium; too late the Emperor declared a ban on its trade. The result was the Opium Wars of the 19th century – not because of the evil of opium but because the British would not tolerate a ban. They needed their tea.

Opium factory stacking room in Patna, India. On the shelves are stacked balls of opium planned for export into China to balance the cost of importing tea to the British.

A botanist from the East India Company, Robert Fortune, managed to smuggle a small shoot for planting or possibly a twig for grafting. It found its way to British India. Cultivation began by 1840. Today, India continues as one of the top exporters of tea in the world. Between Kolkata and Darjeeling, it is a mass of tea plantations. 

Darjeeling Tea

The tea produced in the Darjeeling hills is mostly orthodox tea which looks like the twisted and dried version of the green leaves on the bushes. (Chai tea is produced differently.) Unlike China, where the tea bush grew into a tree, the early British planters grew tightly packed hedges on vast estates, some 81 in and around Darjeeling. In the plantation factories, men operate machines to dry, ferment, and package the green tea leaves. But the women are doing the backbreaking field labor of picking earning as average daily wage, with no benefits, of about $2.30 a day. 

About Darjeeling

One discovers a tea store every few yards. Golden Tips has several stores but the best and largest, offering a terrace for tasting, is its store on the town center on Mall Road.

For an excellent, varied menu, be it lunch or dinner, Glenary’s is the place. Their bakery downstairs is a destination in itself.

Tea in India

We visited a tea factory among the dozens that line the highway. I am always open to check out tea in the hopes I find one I like but am mostly disappointed. I am just not a tea drinker.

Tea processing is demonstrated and the smells are interesting, the taste bland. Most of the tea fields are still picked by hand, and mostly by women and children. In fact, 60% of the estates’ labor jobs are held by women. 

Tea processing includes withering, rolling, oxidation, firing, and sorting. Taste is highly subjective. Tea and I have a complicated relationship. It’s like we’re distant acquaintances who exchange polite hellos at family gatherings but never really hit it off. As yet, my taste buds haven’t acquired any taste for tainted leaf water!


Our lodging is the historic Elgin Hotel. It offers beautiful parlors, comfortable rooms, excellent service and fantastic views over Darjeeling, when clear. There are numerous old photos of the owners and Nepalese guide Tenzing Norgay and family.

May you climb from peak to peak

For more on Norgay and his achievements, north of Darjeeling is the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute and Museum. Founded following the successful conquering of Mount Everest by Edmund Hillary and Norgay, his guide. Norgay lived his later years in Darjeeling and the museum covers his life. Exhibited equipment is that used during Hilary’s 1952 expedition. The displays and exhibitions are excellent. And if one is so inclined, there are classes for people desiring to follow in the footsteps of Norgay. 

Also in the square outside the museum is the memorial to Tenzing Norgay. He was Director of Field Training of the mountaineering school until his death in 1986. Norgay was cremated here.

Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park

In the same park is the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park. Seems rather high (7,000’) and cold for a zoo, but it is ranked among the top zoos of India. It houses seldom-seen animals like the adorable Red Panda and elusive Snow Leopard. The Siberian tigers came to India as a gift from Premier Khrushchev in 1960, before Khrushchev became extinct. The tiger thrives.  

Exhibits include the Himalayan black bear, yaks, a Bengal Tiger, Tibetan wolf and other mountain four-legged residents. Its excellent breeding program is helping to save many of these endangered species.

Tibetan Refugee Center

We also made a brief stop at the Tibetan Refugee Self Help Center. This complex is on a hill above the city of Darjeeling. The location was especially important to Tibetans as it is the site where the 13th Dalai Lama spent his 2-year exile in India after he fled the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1910. It provided emergency relief to Tibetans who had braved the dangerous trek over the Himalayas into India. 

The Self Help Center opened in 1959 following the escape of the present Dalai Lama from Tibet. Today, it acts as home to over 130 Tibetan families. Its purpose continues to provide rehabilitation for Tibetan refugees. Families make and sell handicrafts including Tibetan carpets, wood carvings and coats. 

On The Road Again

Tomorrow, we depart Darjeeling. It has been a pleasant three days. Temperatures have ranged in the 60s and the sun shines in a blue sky. Unfortunately, if I try to look across the valley, I realize how much haze and pollution mars the environment. As I adjust to the altitude, I look forward to climbing higher into the Himalayans to seek blue skies and the snow-capped peaks of the mountains.

Blue skies, white clouds
Horizon marred by haze


Retired. Have time for the things I love: travel, my cat, reading, good food, travel, genealogy, walking, and of course travel.


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