When you hear the word ‘Darjeeling’ the first thing that comes to mind is the tea. And for once it is true. If you are a tea lover than this overcrowded and commercialized tourist destination is for you. However bad your hotel may be, you can always find solace in a cup of tea at Nathmulls, Goodricks or Golden Tips (some of the few tea cafes in town).
How to reach?
The only way to reach this hill station is by taking a bus or cab from Siliguri (NJP). The cab usually costs Rs 200 per head and will take you there in 2-2.5 hours. The toy train used to run from the Siliguri station to Darjeeling station but is currently not operating. And to think that it takes a good 8 hours I think it was a good thing I found myself devoid of that opportunity.
My first step into the town and I begin to wonder why I had decided to visit the place. The view was of thousands of hotels clustered all over the town, tens of thousands of people clamoring on the busy Mall road and foggy skies. It was not a great beginning. But a few days in the city and I realized that while the over population has hidden the natural beauty surrounding the place, it is still there. A long walk away from the main market either towards the next town of Ghoom or towards the Himalyan mountaineering Institute and you will be surrounded by old trees, natural beauty, some derelict structures and a few beautiful ones too and for the first time you would feel like you are in a Hill station.
The main market area is the Chowrasta (four-way) and the mall road, an extremely crowded road with shops on one side and street vendors on the other. There are also the area around the Clock tower and General post office, which again is lined up with shops selling trinkets and artefacts and of course ‘chai ka saaman’. The Rink Mall (a mall) is in this area and so are all the ATMs.
Us pedestrians only knew of chai till we were enlightened by the tea gods of Darjeeling. Darjeeling tea, it seems is so delicate that it can be enjoyed only uncorrupted. Or in layman terms with no milk. “That is Assam chai madam,” one of the shopkeepers told me. Hubby dear, an ardent ‘Chai’ lover could not fathom the thought of drinking the boiled tea leaves without a dollop of ginger and sugar and the much necessary milk. “How can someone drink just boiled leaves?,” he asked me with questioning eyes. Thus we embarked on a three day journey through the many tea shops of Darjeeling, tasting the very expensive ‘Badamtam AV2’ to the cheap roadside lemon tea.
Knowing almost nothing about teas, I started out with the very expensive Chinese tea [giving you flavour of a pure chinese bush 🙂 ]. “Tastes like boiled ghaas,” said hubby dear, while he gave a lengthy monologue on the smell, taste and flavour of the premium Darjeeling tea he was having. You won’t understand much till you have indulged in at least 4-5 cups of different varieties of teas.
For those who don’t understand teas, here is a bit of a crash course:
• First flush is harvested in mid-March, and has a gentle, very light color, aroma, and mild astringency.
• Second flush is harvested in June and produces an amber, full bodied, muscatel-flavored cup.
• Monsoon tea is harvested in the monsoon is less withered, consequently more oxidized, and usually sold at lower prices. It is rarely exported, and often used in masala chai.
• Autumnal flush is harvested in the autumn after the rainy season, and has somewhat less delicate flavour and less spicy tones, but fuller body and darker colour.
We had the best tea in a small tea shop on The Mall road called Goodricke, the House of Tea. The tasting menu is much larger than the more popular Nathmull’s and Golden Tips and I found the staff also much more helpful in imparting some knowledge about tea, which I found lacking in the other two places. The others are more of tea boutiques with a pretty view, pretty furniture and pretty tea cups.
And finally, a paragraph needs to dedicated on the fantastic Lemon tea that is served in Darjeeling. Fantastic! So much so that I have had only one cup of coffee since i returned. As far as lemon tea is considered, don’t make the mistake of having it at a tea cafe. Instead have it at the roadside stalls, small restaurants and a very special place called ‘Hot Stimulating Cafe’. This cafe is located on Hooker Road (yes you read that right) on the way to the Himalyan Mountaineering Institute and next to the Srubbery Park. It also serves great momos and gives momo making lessons (For Rs 700) if you are interested.
Whether you like the idea of black tea or not, if you go with an open mind you are surely going to enjoy the experience. The place is full of tea cafes with varieties that are hard to find in the same place, especially with the metros filled with places which put a tea bag in hot water to serve a tea. The tea is also sold in these places along with beautiful tea sets and utensils.
Golden Tips Tea Cosy, Chowrasta and The Mall.
Nathmull’s Tea Cosy, The Rink Mall and Chowrasta.
Goodricke, the House of Tea, The Mall road.
Glenary’s Bakery and Cafe. A great place for breakfast, make sure you come in as early as possible. The place opens at 7 AM and offers a great range of breads, cakes, pastries, tea and more. I would recommend the huge English breakfast served with the delicate croissants. Also order a pot of Assam tea in the morning. Absolutely delicious!
Hot Stimulating Cafe. On the way to Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, on Hooker Road, is this lovely little cozy place with pictures of Bob Marley covering one whole wall. The Momos here are awesome! They even offer a Momo-cooking course! The guy who owns it can double up as your local guide, trekking along with you to some adventurous outings from Darjeeling.
Hotel Lunar. A great vegetarian restaurant which offers a great view and wonderful service. It is on the road towards Chorasta on the first floor. Order the chana masala over here. Wonderful and very different.
Kunga’s. An excellent Tibetan place, situated on the road towards the Chowrasta. It serves superb Tibetan food. It is very tiny so don’t be surprised if you see it full.
The Park. It is near the clock tower. The Thai cuisine is quite excellent. Try their Thai style rice noodle.
Keventers. This place with it’s awesome western delicacies and cool view.
The Street: The road stalls on one of the lanes on Chowrasta are a very good place to devour some excellent momos, rolls and tea. The first stall on the lane called ‘Jojo’s’ serves the best moms in town (in my humble opinion) and their masala chai is absolutely kadak. A must try.
What to see?
Kanchenjunga. There are a couple of places tp check out in this town. The most popular is of course ‘Tiger Hill’ which gives you the view of the Kanchenjunga range and a perfect sunrise.
Batashiya Loop. Batashiya Loop is a place where the legendary toy train makes a loop. There is a Gorkha martyar memorial here and also a landscaped park.
If you are the fit kinds then take a walk till the place (3.6 kms, about 45 minutes), simply by following the train tracks on the road from the Darjeeling railway station. As you walk away from the station, the scenery becomes flawless, the sky clearer and the natural beauty enviable. It is definitely worth the effort because you get to appreciate the natural beauty surrounding Darjeeeling and have a look at the tea gardens. There is also a beautiful monastery that comes on the way to the loop. Once there, relax, have a cup of tea and some momos and you can take a cab back for Rs 20 per head. There are no official cabs but just stop any car moving in the direction and it will drop you. Another way to get there is to take a train (10 am, 1 pm, 4 pm) from the station but you need to pre-book the tickets.
Srubbery Park. It is a park which is walkable from the Chowrasta. More than the park it is the walk towards it that will take your breath away. The roads are shockingly clean unlike the Mall road and the area is surrounded by greenery. The park itself is very pretty and cultural program performed daily during the tourist season and its opening time is 4.00 p.m. and closing time is 8.00 p.m.
If you want a touristy experience of the place then there are hundreds of travel agents and cabbies who would be able to take you around in the 3+5+7 view points. But that is not what Darjeeling is about. Surrounded by majestic mountains and tea gardens, this place is also dealing with daily water shortages which you as a tourist would never even know about. Walking up the hill, on the Zakir Hussain road, you will find that the hotels get cheaper but also a peculiar trend of hot water being given in a bucket or request. This area is thronging with foreigners, mostly bag-packers. Spend your time in Darjeeling not only roaming the crowded mall road but also these nooks and corners which offer quaint eating stops and a breathtaking view. Because if you are willing to explore, then Darjeeling has a lot to offer.