Red panda/Mt Kanchenjunga Photo ©Ingrid Booz Morejohn
A short hop, skip and a jump (actually a short flight with Kingfisher Air from Calcutta to Bagdogra near Siliguri in West Bengal) will take you to the foothills of the Himalayas, the tea plantations of Darjeeling and the precipitous roads that lead up to the mountain state of Sikkim. Sikkim has the smallest population of any state in India and is only slightly larger than Goa in size. From north to south it's maybe only 100 km long but because you drive for hours and hours along winding roads with switchback turns the feeling is of a much larger place. Arriving in Darjeeling from the flat Bengal plain the contrast is enormous. Hot, dry flatlands rapidly turn into tea fields and then the up, up, up begins. Along the way you will probably bump into the World Heritage steam "toy train" and make room for it to arduously pass by. You will rapidly overtake it again as it is very slow!
We took a minibus in the rain from Bagdogra Airport and after 4 hours we arrived in Darjeeling, no more the quiet hill station of Raj days but now a bustling market town and center of the local tea industry. Here and there amongst the new concrete buildings old Darjeeling can be glimpsed, sad and droopy but still charming none the less. Old evergreens like the Windamere Hotel and the Elgin still keep up appearances and an Afternoon Tea at one or the other of these is a must. Darjeeling tea is a wondrous brew, all fragrant and light and delicious, not at all as dark and robust and powerful like Assam tea. Tea is sold all over the town, but the best is probably found at Nathmull's.
Darjeeling, like Gangtok, is all ups and downs. After a while your feet start longing for something flat to walk on! A good town walk is up to the Padmaja Naidu Himalyan Zoological Park (to see the red pandas, Indian tigers, Himalayan newts and cloud leopards), then on to the Himalayan Mountain Institute to pay your respects to Tenzing Norgay and look at the museum that honors Mt Everest and mountain climbers. (Paddy visited Darjeeling in the 1950s and remembers sitting as a small boy in Tenzing Norgay’s lap. He and his brothers were then presented with ice axes by Tenzing and Paddy can still remember his warm smile and laugh.) After the museum you can continue up to the walk around the top and hope to get clear views of Kanchenjunga (above). The Big "K" is the world's third highest mountain at 8586 m and is a stunning sight visible from Darjeeling on clear days. (Everest can only be seen from Tiger Hill). Continue through the monkeys grooming themselves in the late day sun and you’ll wind up just about right for Afternoon Tea at the Windamere!