Thursday, December 11, 2014

Darjeeling Diary - November 2O14

In continuation of Sightseeing around Pelling.

Day-5 : Pelling to Darjeeling 
As I had mentioned in an earlier blog, Darjeeling was added to our itinerary at the last moment. The stay in Darjeeling was a fitting finale to our Sikkim trip and it was more of a relaxation destination for us rather than a whirlwind sightseeing trip.

We got up around 5.OO a.m. to watch from our hotel room balcony, the sunrise reflections on Kanchenjunga range. The sky was clear and the mountain range was visible even in the dark due to snow on them. At around 5.3O a.m., the first tiny reflection of sunrays fell on the summit of Mt. Kanchenjunga. Within a minute or so, the sunrays fell on the entire east face of Mt. Kanchanjunga and also on the top portions of adjoining snow clad mountains. I was expecting a golden colour reflections on the mountains. But it turned out to be orange colour. It was worth waking up early to witness the spectacular sunrise reflections on Kanchanjunga range. For us, it was like a trial run of watching the an illuminated Kanchenjunga range from Tiger Hill the next day. 
Mt. Kanchenjunga at sunrise in Pelling.

After a sumptuous and satisfying breakfast at a restaurant serving South Indian breakfast, we left Pelling at 9.OO a.m. for Darjeeling via Reshi and Jorethang. It took us nearly 3 hours 3O minutes to cover 9O odd kms distance due to bad patches of road in some places and also the traffic jams as we entered Darjeeling. Our hotel Bellevue was located near chowrasta where the vehicles were not allowed. So we had  to get down at the junction of Andrew Church and Bhanu Hall. From here, the distance to Bellevue Hotel was about one km. Some coolies came forward to take the luggage to our hotel but each was quoting a exorbitant charges for carrying our luggage over which they were arguing with each other. At one time, their arguments among themselves were about to be turned into the exchange of blows. So we felt that it was better to carry the luggage ourselves rather than get involved with their internal fights. 
On the way from Pelling to Darjeeling.

Rangeet River, a tribuatory of Teesta River near Jorethang.
After reaching the Bellevue Hotel, we came to know that there was no booking in our name. The receptionist felt that we might have been booked in another hotel by the same name, Old Bellevue Heritage Hotel which was located very close to Bellevue Hotel. To our surprise, even in this hotel, there was no booking in our name. To add to the confusion, the receptionist told us that there was one more Bellevue Hotel just about 1OOm down the Mall Road. All these hotels belong to one family but properties were split between two bothers. After talking to our Tour Executive at Gangtok, we were given the rooms in Old Bellevue Heritage Hotel. The confusion arose as there was last minute change in the hotel booked for us and both the Tour Executive and I forgot about Hotel Voucher. The room was clean and spacious with 24 hours hot water. But it was not worth its card rate of Rs.3OOO (including taxes).
Our room in Old Bellevue Heritage Hotel, Chowrasta.
Chowrasta, a relaxation spot.  It appears to be the most popular spot in Darjeeling.
After freshening up, we had a late lunch in Lunar Restaurant, a multi cuisine vegetarian restaurant which was located about 2OOm from our hotel on Gandhi Road. The food was excellent. In the meanwhile, the driver of the new vehicle from Darjeeling contacted me to firm up the timing for our next days early morning visit to Tiger Hill for watching the sunrise. We went to Darjeeling railway station which was within the walkable distance from Lunar Restaurant. We booked the next day’s 8.OO a.m. Joyride train leaving Darjeeling for Ghoom and back. Our ticket was waitlisted. However, by evening, all our tickets were confirmed. It was already dark when we returned to our hotel room. After dinner at  Hasty Tasty Restaurant located on a walkable distance from our hotel, we retired for the bed early as we have to get up at around 3.OO a.m. to be ready to be picked up by our driver at 4.OO a.m. for the next day’s  visit to Tiger Hill.  

Day-6 : In Darjeeling

(i)  Sunrise at Tiger Hill
We got up at 3.3O a.m. and by 4.15 a.m., we were driving towards Tiger Hill (1O kms) for watching the sunrise which was expected around 5.4O a.m. Our driver told us that the movement of vehicles to Tiger Hill started much earlier about 3.OO a.m. for those who were very keen to take vintage points for the best view of the sunrise. It took about 3O minutes to reach the outskirt of Tiger Hill Viewing Complex and another 1O minutes to reach the check point where ticket window for Tiger Hill was located. The problem which we realised later was that compared to the number of vehicles which bring tourists to Tiger Hills, the parking space is absolutely inadequate. So the vehicles start parking on both sides of the road. On the day we visited, the ‘tail’ of the parked vehicles on the road was  at least 2 kms long from the Tiger Hill car parking lot.  
When the movement of vehicles ahead of us remained standstill for some time, we got down and walked around one km to reach the check point where we had to buy tickets for entry into the Viewing Complex. There are 3 categories of tickets - Rs.1O ticket for the ground floor for viewing in the open, Rs.2O and Rs.3O for viewing from Level I and Level II respectively. The latter two categories are halls with chairs facing the north and with glass sliding windows from all sides. These are good only when one can reach quite early and occupy the chairs especially the front rows. The north facing chairs give the benefit of simultaneously viewing the sunrise on the east and its reflection on Kanchenjunga range located on northwest side. The latecomers will have to stand in the backside at the cost of the likely obstructions from other standing crowd and missing the simultaneous viewing of both the sunrise and Kanchenjunga. However, due to sliding glass windows on Levels I and II, the visitors are protected to some extent from the early morning cold and chilli breeze. We got the tickets for Level I. But all the chairs were already occupied forcing us to stand in the back.

The open viewing on the ground floor has one advantage. One can have the flexibility of viewing the sunrise from any makeshift vintage points, may be sitting on a wall, or standing on the top of the parked vehicles etc. But one has to be brave enough to face the cold weather and early morning chill.

At around 5.4O a.m., we saw the  glimpse of a rising sun.  Within a minute or so, the full round sun came into the view. The 1OOO odd crowds loudly cheered the sunrise. While we all could see the sunrise from our eyes, unfortunately, I could not properly shoot the event due to jostling of the crowd in the hall which was packed to the capacity. The glass windows with dust settled on the glass added further problem. So I hurriedly descended from the Level I to the open ground and took the picture of orange colour sunray reflection on Mt. Kanchenjunga range which was sandwiched between the two layers of clouds. The uniqueness of sunrise at Tiger Hills is that on a cloudless day, one can view simultaneously the sunrise and its reflections on Mt. Kanchenjunga range with change of colour from light grey to orange followed by golden colour and finally the snow white colour. The crowd was ecstatic and a few could be seen overwhelming with emotion.
A dawn scene of the mountains on the western side, shot from Tiger Hill.

A dawn scene of eastern side shot from Tiger Hills.
At the same time, the full moon was on a setting mode on the western side.
A section of a large crowd on the open ground eagerly waiting for sunrise.
The sun is about to rise fully at Tiger Hills. This was shot through dusty glass window of Level I of Veiwing Tower.
The reflections of sunrise from Tiger Hills on Kanchenjunga range.
Dali Monastery near Ghum.
We got into our vehicle parked about one km ahead from Tiger Hill around 6.OO a.m. and drove back towards Darjeeling. After visiting Dali Monastery  near Ghum on the way, we reached Darjeeling railway station at around 7.3O a.m. We had a quick South Indian breakfast in one of the restaurants near the railway station before returning to the station for boarding 8.OO a.m. Joyride train Darjeeling-Ghum-Darjeeling.

(ii) Joyride in Toy Train
When we reached the railway station, the two coaches of Joyride train were being brought from the side tracks to the platform by a steam locomotive. But the train was hauled by a diesel locomotive with only two coaches of First Class chair car which had a total seating capacity of about 48 seats. The cost of ticket is Rs.4OO per head for approximately 15 kms of journey to and fro Darjeeling. At present, there are three Joyride trains which depart from Darjeeling railway station at 8.OO a.m., 1.2O p.m. and 4.OO p.m. Due to limited seats, it is advisable to book the tickets in advance especially in tourist season.

Two coaches of Joyride train are being brought from the sidingby by a steam locomotive  to the platform of Darjeeling railway station. 

The Joyride train left Darjeeling at its scheduled time of 8.OO a.m. and chugged parallel to Siliguri road, sometime intersecting the road to avoid sharp curvatures. For most of the journey, the left side of the coach faced cliff side of the hills. If there were no hills, the residential houses and shops were almost in touching distance from the windows of the coach. However, the right side of the coach had valley view with Kanchenjunga range during most of the journey. At Batista Loop, the train halted for 1O minutes to enable the passengers to explore the flower garden and visit an Army Memorial besides enjoying the scenery of  Darjeeling town with Kanchenjunga range in the background. 
Joyride train at Batista Loop with Kanchenjunga range in the background.

Darjeeling town with Kanchenjunga range in the background seen from Darjeeling station.
 Ghoom station with Joyride train ready for a return journey. On the left is Siliguri road. It is me on the diesel locomotive.
After a 1O minutes halt, the Joyride train continued the journey to Ghum railway station which is located by the side of Siliguri road. The train halted here for 3O minutes to enable the passengers to visit the Darjeeling Hill Railway Museum which was located on the first floor of the railway station. The diesel locomotive changed the direction for a return journey. The Railway Museum is the repository of the history of Darjeeling Hill Railways and things associated with it. We took about 15 minutes to take a round of the museum and its displays.
Although the halt was of 3O minutes, the Joyride train departed after about 4O minutes as in the meanwhile a passenger train from Kurseong had reached Ghum and it was given a priority over the Joyride train for departure for Darjeeling. After chugging at a speed which may not have exceeded 2O or 25 kmph, the train reached Darjeeling at 1O.15 a.m.  
Old card ticket validating machine in Musuem.
 An old emblem of a British Locomotive Company.
On return journey, the Joyride train passes through Batista Loop without a halt.
I may add for information that those who do not wish to take the Joyride train journey can cover the Ghum Monastery, Darjeeling Hill Railway Museum and Batista Loop while returning from Tiger Hill. However, it is possible to do so only when an exclusive vehicle is hired for Tiger Hill and visits are settled with the driver in advance. Normally, visits to all these places should not result in extra cost as they are located on the way back from Tiger Hill to Darjeeling.
While returning from Darjeeling railway station to our hotel, we went to Nathumulls  which is a famous outlet for selling many varieties of Darjeeling Tea. We bought packets of a few varieties of Darjeeling Tea for our own consumption as well as gifts for near and dear ones.  After a short rest in the hotel, we had a good lunch at Lunar Restaurant.
(iii) Zoological Park
It was around 2.3O p.m. when we finished our lunch. Due to limited time at our disposal and also the fact that it gets dark here by 5.OO p.m.,  we could have visited  either  Botanical Garden or Himalayan Zoological Park. While the Botanical Garden was close to our hotel, Zoological Park was located about 2 kms from our hotel. Since we were in a mood to take a long walk especially when the weather was pleasant, we opted to visit Zoological Park.
A leisure walk of about 2 kms from Chowrasta via Andrew Church, bypassing Raj Bhavan and Shrubberry Park led us to the gate of Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park. In winter, the closing time for issue of tickets to enter the Park is 4.3O p.m. The ticket costs Rs.4O per head which includes a visit to Himalayan Mountaineering Institute Museum located inside the Zoo. The Zoo itself is spread over 6O acres, the largest among the high altitude zoos. There are around 15O species of animals and birds. But what made this zoo unique is that it is the breeding centre for Red Panda, Snow Leopard and Tibetan Wolfs. When we entered the Zoo, the light was already fading out. So we had to hasten our pace as we had also to cover the HMI Museum. Being a trekker, I was personally interested in it.  
Andrew Church, Darjeeling.
The Zoo is well maintained and there are sufficient spaces for wild animals like Tigers, Leopards and Lions etc. The first animal  we saw immediately after the entry was a black bear, looked more like a Sloth Bear who was playing with a broken branch of a tree . Then there was a Snow Leopard which seemed to be taking his evening brisk walk in the enclosure before he rested for the night in a cage. There are many colourful birds in the big cages. I saw for the first time, a white colour peacock. The most interesting part of our visit was the Tiger enclosure. It was a closing time and the Zoo staff was motivating a big Tiger from outside the cage to run along with him. It was more like a ‘hide and seek’ game between the Tiger and the Zoo staff. Finally, the Zoo staff made the tiger to run along with him to drive him into the cage for the night.

The twin floor HMI Museum called Everest Museum was very interesting. There were many mountaineering equipments and gears on display from those used by the earlier mountaineers like Hillary and Tensing Norgay to the modern ones. There are some replicas of Everest Expeditions with displays explaining the technical aspects of expeditions. Photograhy is prohibhited in the Museum.
Black Bear in Himalayan Zoo.

Himalayan Tahr or Mountain Goat.
Barking Deer.
All in all, it was a good decision to visit the Himalayan Zoo instead of Botanical Garden. The only disappointment was that we could not see Lions and Red Pandas as the Lions were ushered into the cages and it was already dark when we were to visit the other side of the Zoo where Red Pandas were located. A word of caution especially for senior citizens is in order here. All walks inside the Zoo involves ascending on the road on the one side and on return, a continuous descend. Some parts of the internal road involve steep climbs. It is advisable to carry water bottle.  We felt thirsty because of a long walk even under the pleasant weather condition. A minimum of 2 hours may be required to completely explore the Zoo as well as a visit to HMI Everest Museum.
We returned from Zoo by walk and at Chowrasta, we relaxed for sometime enjoying the ambience of the area. Chowrasta seems to be one of the most popular spots in Darjeeling with lines of shops and restaurants encircling it. There is also an open air podium for musical concerts.
Day-7: Darjeeling to Bagdogra and back home

Our flight from Bagdogra for Mumbai was scheduled at 16.15 hrs. Our driver was suggesting to us that it would be alright if we left at around 1O.OO a.m. from Darjeeling. To be on the safe side, we decided to leave Darjeeling for Bagdogra at 9.OO a.m. Eventually, we left Darjeeling at 9.3O a.m. after check out formalities at the hotel and also requiring walking up to the nearest road head at Andrew Church. Although, the distance to be covered was about 9O kms, it took us about 4 hours (including a tea break at Kurseong Tourist Lodge) to reach Bagdogra airport. After checking in, we ate the packed dry lunch at the airport which we had carried from  Lunar Restaurant in Darjeeling. The flight Mumbai at its schedule time.


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