Tag Archives: Darjeeling

Backpacking India: Darjeeling

India - Darjeeling Tiger Hill
Darjeeling is the famed British hill station and tea plantation centre. It is also a good base for trekking in the Himalayas and exploring Sikkim. As such, our time in town was split into three visits and by the last one we had finally got a feel for the city that vexed us on our first visits.

India - Darjeeling
We arrived in Darjeeling in the back of a shared jeep that winded up bumpy switchbacks and made me motion sick. We then spent an hour wandering hopelessly lost with our big packs on, trying to find the Vodafone store (to get a new simcard) and our hotel. Navigating in Darjeeling is extremely difficult. Maps fail to show the elevation or hidden staircases that connect the twisting streets. Even asking for directions, it felt like we were sent in circles, going up and down hills.

India - Darjeeling

Darjeeling is a fascinating town. It is perched on the top of a mountain, at over 2000 meters above sea level. It’s cleaner than the rest of India and many of the upper streets, like The Mall, are car-free. Local porters, with stooped backs and heavy loads strapped to their foreheads, are a common sight as they deliver packages to businesses.
India - Darjeeling

Even though the British are long gone, Darjeeling revels in Western culture more than anywhere else we’ve been in India. We heard more 80s soft rock than Bollywood tunes and the main shopping strip features a Glenary’s bakery, Frank Ross Chemist Shop, and Oxford book store, all of which look preserved from the 1950’s.

India - Darjeeling Tiger Hill
Darjeeling has amazing views of the neighbouring Himalayan mountains, especially Kanchengjunga (3rd highest in the world). Our guide book recommended getting up at 4 am and taking a shared taxi to the top of Tiger Hill to get an amazing view of the sun rising over the mountain. It seemed awfully early, but we set an alarm anyway. We layered up as best as we could (we didn’t pack a lot of warm clothing) and tried to leave our hotel. The doors and gates were locked tight and we couldn’t wake anyone with knocking. We thought of going back to bed, but instead decided to break out of our hotel. From an inner courtyard, we found a spiked gate that we were able to climb over without killing ourselves and escape onto the street. An hour later, after many Eagles and Bon Jovi tunes, we arrived at Tiger Hill which was packed with tourists. However, the sunrise views were epic as promised. At the time we didn’t realize how lucky we were, but every other day we spent in Darjeeling was cloudy and the mountains were impossible to see.

India - Darjeeling

The cool temperatures and mountain views were originally what attracted the British to the area. They loved coming here in the summer when temperatures in Kolkata were over 40 C. But in March, it feels more freezing than refreshing, and after our dawn adventure we realized we lacked the proper clothing for the mountains, especially for trekking. We spent our first day shopping for wool socks, sweaters, scarves, and mitts. We probably went a little overboard and now a third of my pack is taken up by a heavy fleece sweater and thermal underwear that will be useless in Kolkata and Delhi, but I might get to use them again when we visit the mountains north of Delhi in a few weeks.

India - Darjeeling
India - Darjeeling
Darjeeling has a great little zoo and mountaineering museum. The zoo is home to many endangered local animals, like red pandas, snow leopards, and Himalayan wolves, and is famous for its breeding and conservation programs. They also have a majestic Bengal tiger. The Himalayan Mountaineering Institute museum is co-located with the zoo and has a fascinating exhibit on Everest expeditions, including a lot of info about Tenzing Norgay, the sherpa that summited Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary.
India - Darjeeling

For our 3 year wedding anniversary, we splurged a little and got a room at the Little Tibet boutique resort. It was worth it for the romantic dinner, modern washroom with little soaps and lotions, and a comfy heated bed. You know we’ve been traveling for too long and staying in budget accommodation when free shampoo gets us excited.
India - Darjeeling

India - Darjeeling
A trip to Darjeeling wouldn’t be complete without a stop at a tea plantation, so we spent a day and night at a homestay at the Makaibari tea estate. We took the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway toy train down to Kurseong, which is as far as the train currently runs since a landslide wiped out the tracks further down the mountain in 2010. The train is slower than taking a jeep but a much more pleasant ride. Unfortunately my camera lens jammed during the train ride, so I only have a few cellphone photos from the tea estate. It’s a beautiful place. We went on a factory tour and learned how tea is made and what the difference between black, green, oolong, and white tea is – they’re all made from the same leaves but go through different rolling and fermenting steps. But the most informative and interesting part was staying in the home of a local family. Our host, Bomaka, cooked us meals and we spent time chatting with her and her kids about our lives and theirs. I even spent an hour helping her son with his computer science homework. I loved it.
India - Makabari Tea Estate
India - Makabari Tea Estate

Backpacking India: Singalila Trek

Singalila Trek day 2 - return to Maney

The Singalila Range forms a ridge of hikeable mountains along the India-Nepal border that offer awesome views of the Himalayan mountains including Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world (8598 m). We set out to do a 5-day trek from Maneybhanjang (near Darjeeling) to Phalut, but unfortunately didn’t make it all the way. 

India - Singalila Ridge Trek Day 1
India - Singalila Ridge Trek Day 1

The first day I was really slow going up the 11 km with over 800 metres elevation gain. That night I was so chilled and achy I couldn’t sleep until the wee hours of the morning. All night all I could think about was the 21 kms we had to cover the next day and the ascent up to 3636 metres above sea level. I was feeling better the next morning but knew I didn’t have enough energy to complete the day. We were lucky to have views of Kanchenjunga that morning before heading back down to Maneybhanjang. We were both disappointed about not making it to Sandakphu and Phalut, the two peaks with amazing views, but knew it was the right decision.
Singalila Trek day 2 - return to Maney
Singalila Trek day 2 - return to Maney
We weren’t in the national park yet so we could do the descent without a guide, at least a human one. We had three different dogs join us for different parts of the day. They were just village dogs that seemed to want a little company and a journey. They responded better to petting than treats.
Singalila Trek day 2 - return to Maney
This one was our favourite, we named him Charzing.

Singalila Trek day 2 - return to Maney

Tour companies will arrange all-inclusive Singalila Trek expeditions for around 3000 rupees per person, but we’re cheap and resourceful so we planned our trek on our own. We wanted to create a comprehensive guide to the trek for others to follow, but since we never made it past Tumling (near Tonglu peak), our knowledge is incomplete. But here is what we figured out. 

India - Singalila Ridge Trek Day 1

There are two standard treks out of Maneybhanjang. A 3 day-trek to Sandakphu and down to Rimbik or the 5 day trek that goes to Phalut. Phalut has 360-degree views from the peak (3600 m) so that was the trek we chose.
India - Singalila Ridge Trek Day 1
We took a shared jeep from Darjeeling to Maneybhanjang in the morning. Apparently it’s not a very popular route. There were three other foreign tourists going to do the same trek and no one else. After waiting for 30 minutes we paid for the remaing five seats so we could get trekking at a reasonable time. We ended up trekking with our new friends to help share the costs.

India - Singalila Ridge Trek Day 1

Most of the hike is in the Singalila National Park, which requires visitors to be accompanied by a guide. If you’re not using a private tour operator, you can get guides through the Society for Highlander Guides and Porters Welfare (link), whose mission is to preserve the park and create employment opportunities for youth. The cost is 1200 rupees per day, including food and lodging for the guide, no matter how big your group is. 

India - Singalila Ridge Trek Day 1

There are government and private lodges along the way, as well as snack, water, and lunch huts. We only stayed in one, which was lovely. We had our own room with three beds, lots of blankets, and a washroom (cold water and squat toilet) for 800 rupees. We spent most of our time in the main house with the other guests by the fire. 

India - Singalila Ridge Trek Day 1

Lunch was either chowmein or noodle soup for 50 rupees and egg could be added for 20. Tea and water were a little more expensive than usual, 15-20 and 30 respectively. The one dinner we had was amazing (although I didn’t eat much) – dal, rice, veg curry, potatoes, fried bitter gourd, egg curry, raw veggies, and apricot dessert – for 150 rupees each. Breakfast was porridge, Tibetan bread, honey, jam, and a boiled egg for 100 rupees.

India - Singalila Ridge Trek Day 1

We didn’t hire a porter and carried our own gear. We probably brought too much stuff. I would recommend packing lite – only bringing a few days of clothing, warm hat and gloves, and a headlamp. We rented down sleeping bags in Darjeeling for 80 rupees a day from Trek Mate. We didn’t need them in Tumling as there were plenty of blankets. We also foolishly brought snacks from Darjeeling that we could have bought at any of the tea stall that dotted the trail.

India - Singalila Ridge Trek Day 1