Sunrise on the slow road to Darjeeling (India)

Sunrise on the slow road to Darjeeling

Darjeeling was my next destination. Google said 12 hours, the locals said two days!! I departed Kolkata at 5.30am the morning after getting Boris out of customs. I wanted to get an early start and get some miles under my belt. Plus I had no idea what to expect from the roads. Exiting across the Kone bridge gave me a fantastic farewell view out over the city and then Kolkata was gone.

The highway north was in great shape as I made good time. I foolishly began to thing that maybe the roads weren’t going to be that bad. How wrong I was. As soon as I left the main highway to continue north towards Darjeeling the roads deteriorated into the worst roads I’d ever driven on. Four hours got me 200kms, the next eight hours I only managed 250km more. The term that comes to mind is ‘Would you like a little road with your pothole Sir?’

Packed roads heading north to Dajeeling (India)

Packed roads heading north to Dajeeling

By 6pm I was barely half way to Darjeeling. Feed up with the roads, the drivers and the obstacles I decided to call it a day at a truck stop at 6pm.  It wasn’t flash but they served food and beer. Not long after all the locals spotted the new boy and came over to watch. They just stare at you unless they speak a little english. Then they love to chat and won’t leave you alone. I popped the roof tent up and crashed by 9pm. I was shattered. It was a brutal introduction to driving in India.

Curious Indians (India)

Curious Indians

The following day I eventually made it to a toll road and from there the next few hours to the base of Darjeeling hills were quick and smooth. I was now in tea growing country and you could see the signs everywhere.

Views back down onto the plains above Siliguri (India)

Views back down onto the plains above Siliguri

The journey up into the hill was breathtaking as sunshine was overtaken by cloud cover. It was like floating up amongst the clouds. Before breaking through on the other side of the valley to spectacular views of out across the valley’s from Darjeeling. The long and winding road up through the villages in the cool air was one of the best drives of the journey. It made the pain of the previous days driving all worth it.

On arrival I call Wangchuk at the Cozy Nest Guesthouse. Not only did he come find me, and give me a place to sleep, he also found a spot for Boris as well. Anybody that has been to Darjeeling will know it’s not big and it’s not car friendly. I was shattered from two massive days on the road so I crashed early that evening. 20 hours in the car was following by 17 hours in bed recovering.

Wangchuk and me (Darjeeling, India)

Wangchuk and me
(Darjeeling, India)

Darjeeling Map (India)

Darjeeling Map

Central School for Tibetans (Darjeeling, India)

Central School for Tibetans
(Darjeeling, India)

Fully rested I ventured out to explore Darjeeling. This slightly mystical hill station with an alluring reputation for fantastic views, wonderful hikes, funky toy trains and delicious local tea was I place I’d been dreaming about visiting. I strolled up to the main square and found the mountain views were blocked by cloud. We were up in the clouds. A visit to the Zoo provided me a view of my first Royal Bengal Tiger, and the Himalayan Mountain Institute had a fantastic exhibition on the mountain range. On display was several pieces of Tenzing Norgay’s climbing equipment from the Everest summit, which as a Kiwi was of particular interest to me. Wandering through the streets involved conversations with curious kids, and while dodging the crowds in the bustling market area. Everywhere there were people running around yelling, horns blaring, and salesmen pitching their products. Conspicuous by their absence were the tourists. There just weren’t that many to been seen.

Tenzing Norgay Monument (Darjeeling, India)

Tenzing Norgay Monument
(Darjeeling, India)

Royal Bengal Tiger at Darjeeling Zoo (India)

Royal Bengal Tiger at Darjeeling Zoo

Wangchuk explained the situation to me later that evening. Gorkhaland is the name of region that includes Darjeeling and it wants to be its own state. Well, half the population seem to want this and half aren’t really sure. As a result strikes in the area have impacted tourism. My visit was fortunate to coincide with a break in the strikes, as the town returned to work only 10 days before my arrival, after a 5 week strike.

All aboard the Darjeeling Himalayan Express (India)

All aboard the Darjeeling Himalayan Express

Coral, Amber and me on the Toy Train (Darjeeling, India)

Coral, Amber and me on the Toy Train
(Darjeeling, India)

A visit to Darjeeling is not complete without getting the toy train to Ghom and back. At the station I met Coral and Amber from Israel and we took the ride together. It was a brilliant slow ride, stopping traffic and dodging trucks as we made our way through the hills. The cloud had begun to lift and the views over the hills improved. The 2 hour excursion is something I highly recommend. That evening Coral, Amber and I went for dinner and drinks afterwards to reflect of a great day of sightseeing around Darjeeling.

Views from the Toy Train (Darjeeling, India)

Views from the Toy Train
(Darjeeling, India)

Views from Darjeeling (India)

Views from Darjeeling

The morning sunrise on Tiger Hill was another highlight. I said farewell to my great host Wangchuk and headed for the summit of Tiger Hill with the masses at 5am. We were rewarded with a beautiful sunrise and an uninterrupted view of mount Kanchenjunga. The world’s 3rd highest.

Tiger Hill Sunrise (Darjeeling, India)

Tiger Hill Sunrise
(Darjeeling, India)

Mount Kanchenjunga (Nepal)

Mount Kanchenjunga

By 6.30am I was heading back down the valley to the plains on one of the most scenic drives of the trip.  I loved my time in the hills and was looking forward to returning later in the journey.

Views from Ghom (India)

Views from Ghom

Next on the list of destinations were Patna and Varanasi, and my first couchsurfing experiences in India.


The area has a strong Tibetan community which is different from the rest of India. They are far more open and friendly with passers-by. Happily smiling and waving without a thought. The hill-side station has wonderful views and is a great place to visit for a few days, but it is suffering from over commercialisation and the continuing political struggle for its own state recognition. Recognition that I can’t see coming in the future as the region is not united in its wish for independence. This has been going on for over 20 years and it could easily continue for another 20.

9 Responses to “Darjeeling – Hillside Stations, Himalayan Views, and Toy Trains”

  1. It reminds me good memories of getting lost in the tea plantations! I also loved this museum, I forgot that Sir Edmund was a kiwi!!!
    Seems you had a great time ! It is always a pleasure to read your stories and see your pictures ! I hope you can sing the Om Tibean Mantra by heart now !

  2. Biren Thapar says:

    I think after the hustle bustle of Kolkata ,this was a good change, climatically and otherwise.Darjeeling when I visited it was a clean city with fresh mountain air . Stayin at the Sinclairs was a great hotel. It had all the trappings of the former British Raj, with its Mall ROad et all. Your photographs have brought back a lot of wonderful memories of this beautiful hill station.

  3. Did you know that the Darjeeling railway is a UNESCO world heritage site? I’m sure you’d have noticed the sign at the train station.
    Do consider joining the GoUNESCO travel challenge to make your adventure year more fun :).

    • Biren Thapar says:

      Jon u seem to be finally heading for Simla.Since u r living life king size I would strongly advise u to visit two hotels in Simla- WildFlower Hall Mashobra and Cecil Hotel Chaura Maidan Simla. Both these hotels are managed by the Uberio Group. Cecil was the first hotel ever of the Uberio Group. Wildflower Hall is secluded at a ht of nearly9000ft surrounded by pine Forests. . It’s very exclusive and very expensive . Maybe a cup of Darjeeling tea in fine Bone china while u watch the sunset- it is ethereal!!and no visit to this hill station is complete without a sight of this hotel. I should know cause I have stayed there.A visit to the Naldera golf course along with its restaurant and Swiss Chalets are recommended as the rolling plains Might remind u of the South Island. And further one and a half hours away is the famous Chail palace the former residence of theMaharaja of Patiala now a beautiful hotel ..story goes the Maharaja beheld the beautiful daughter of the then Viceroy who was shopping in a big store. . He saw her bought the whole store with a caveat that everything inside the store would be his !! He was banished from ever entering Simla ever so he simply built another hill station on a hill opp. Simla !!!!!Happy stay in Simla

      • Biren Thapar says:

        And yes Jon, Chail also boasts of having the highest cricket ground in the world — purely for your info and should u go there have a mushroom dish in the wayside restaurant in the market!!!!!!!!!

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