Darjeeling: Queen of the Hills
The one land that all men desire to see, and having seen once, by even a glimpse, would not give that glimpse of the rest of the world combined.
-Mark Twain on his 1st visit in 1896
I love the hill stations of India. Darjeeling, set at 2,128 meters, is no exception. Started by the British as a sanatorium in the 1800’s, members of the East India Company used it to escape the summer heat of Calcutta. My trip would accomplish much the same.
The district of Darjeeling has 450 km of international borders with Nepal, Sikkim (part of India), Bhutan, and Tibet, plus Bangladesh nearby. The Gorkhas first controlled the area which explains why Nepali is the lingua franca.
Looming in the distance, on a clear day, the world’s third tallest mountain, Kangchenjunga, looms large.
In Twain’s time it took two weeks to make the journey from Calcutta to Darjeeling, negotiated by boat, palanquin, and pony. Today the area is dominated by the four T’s: toy train, tea, timber and tourism.
The 80 km long Darjeeling Himalayan Railway was established in 1881 runs from Siliguir to Darjeeling on a narrow-gauge rail. This sloooow train takes 8 hours to make the total run,lumbering at 10 mph. It’s much more of a tourist ride or for rail enthusiasts than functional since shared jeeps are the fastest way to get around.
Before the train, local Hindu inhabitants worshiped rocks as deities. With the advent of the train, carved statues and idols could be imported.
Perhaps the most famous aspect of Darjeeling is it’s tea production. This is the only place in the world where the blend of climate, elevation, and soil type produce it’s famous “muscatel” flavor. The tea industry started here when one Dr. Campbell planted Chinese tea from Kumaon in 1848. His instincts were to be correct. Today there 148 tea gardens in operation. The lush jungle also contributes significantly to the economy with its timber production.
Tourism is a big business. In my opinion this is one of the most enjoyable parts of India I’ve visited, but tourist numbers are not really that large. Most tourists probably head for the Taj Mahal (check my picture!), the beaches of Goa, Bombay’s glitzy shopping and so on. But its a real shame to miss the cool, green hills of Darjeeling.
- Darjeeling: Truth and Beyond by Sanjay Bisway and Sameer Roka