By Rita Cook
Photography by Guillaume de Vaudrey
It’s not what I expected and for a moment I was thinking back to all those descriptions I had read about Darjeeling.
I think first: tea, which is just a small percentage of the charm here.
I know to expect old world lure with a colonial feel, but it’s more. Just a spot of the British still hanging in the corners of this old city.
I’m also fascinated at the mere ride up to the 6,710-feet that I climb in the car to get to this place above the clouds that has been calling my name for years.
As the road winds perilously to the top I am looking out the window to see on the one side the Darjeeling Himalayan Railroad train (also a UNESCO World Heritage Site) blowing its black smoke. On the other side the local inhabitants, some warming themselves with small coal fires in tiny pans, on the edge of the mountain.
When I finally reach my destination I am remarkably enchanted.
The city is often referred to as the Queen of the Hill Stations. The name actually means Land of the Thunderbolt.
It’s not what I expected at all, but I actually didn’t know what I was expecting.
If you listen closely in the morning you can hear the Buddhist monks chanting, just one more appeal of the place that is like no other I have visited in my travels.
It tastes good, it feels good and the tradition there is worth the trek to the top. In this case, I feel I am at the top of the world.
And the top of the world likes me. Here’s how I know.
First off I am in the Himalayan Mountains.
Second of all, I get to see Mt. Everest and I am told it is an unlikely sighting.
That sighting actually came after an early morning wakeup when I am nudged from the hotel as the dew still sets on the leaves before sunrise. It is my second day in Darjeeling and I am off to Tiger Hill to watch the sunrise over the Himalayans. Sometimes the clouds ruin the show and you don’t see a thing. Not so for me, I saw Mt Kanchenjunga first, the third highest peak in the world.
In order to see this stunning show you must not only get up at the crack of dawn, but then take an SUV ride to the top where Tiger Hill is situated. The day I was there was a festival going on so the place was crowded. But seeing the mountaintop just peak her head out of the clouds to say hello was enough of a reason to rise and shine early. Gold, red, orange and pale yellow, this mountain is proud and she shows you why with the stunning morning display.
If it is a clear day (and it was when I was there) you can even see Mt. Everest looming in the background like I did. He is definitely waiting to hear some applause from the crowd for showing his face.
It was one very lucky morning I assure you.
Also while in Darjeeling I will suggest visiting the Batasia Loop of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway line – also known as the war memorial overlooking the mountain range.
You will then want to visit the Ghum Monastery really named Yiga Choeling Monastery sitting at about 8000 feet. It follows the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism and there is a 15-foot statue of Maitreya Buddha in the monastery.
I visited the Tibetan Refugee Centre with a nod to Tibetan arts and crafts. In fact, the Tibetan Refugee Centre showcases the fine arts and crafts from the Tibet folks who have moved to India to find work and home.
Other highlights in Darjeeling depending on your interest might be the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park and the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute and Museum. Both are highlights however, do not forget to stop and taste the teas since scarcely can you go anywhere in the world and not think of Darjeeling due to the tea’s popularity.
Heading to Glenburn Tea Estate on the outskirts of Darjeeling it was a rough ride. Glenburn is also home to boutique hotel that was also all dolled up for the holiday season when I was there. There is actually 1600 acres of private tea estate on the property and all sorts of activities to enjoy. But the most relaxing way to spend the time was how I did one afternoon when visiting with tea (of course) and snacks just lounging and daydreaming.
As I mentioned, it was the Christmas season in Darjeeling when I visited and I was staying at the Windamere Hotel. The place was magical in that it felt like I had crossed over into an earlier time. Coal fireplaces in the room to warm the feet, white-gloved waiters at all three meals and holiday decorations from another time. That and guest who informed me they have been coming every year since forever to celebrate Christmas at this oldest colonial hotel in the Himalayas.
The hotel came out of some old British Raj buildings built back in the 1880s. Today the property consists of a series of houses comprising suites and cottages. There is a wellness center and the world famous DHR club. In the dining room the dinner and lunch are five-course affairs and the entire feeling is a throwback to colonial times that is hard to find these days.
From Darjeeling we took a totally different path to a part of India in the state of Sikkim. The city we stayed in was Gangtok. While it is not certain what the name Gangtok means, most believe it is “hilltop.” It is the capital city of Sikkim and it sits on a ridge that overlooks the Ranipool River at 5500-feet. You can also get another glimpse of Mt. Kanchenjunga from the west part of the city.
Rumtek Monastery on the outskirts of Gangtok City was built under the direction of Changchub Dorje, 12th Karmapa Lama in the mid-1700s. Much history has been seen in the walls of this monastery and it is worth a trip to visit. It was rebuilt on the decision of the 16th Karmapa when he came to Sikkim after fleeing Tibet in 1959. He found it in ruins, but was convinced this was a monastery that needed to be revived.
Also in Gangtok is the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology, a world renowned center for Buddhist philosophy. This is the world’s largest treasury of old Tibetan books and manuscripts on science, medicine and astrology.
A final stop before heading home must be in Kolkatta, formerly known as Calcutta. This city is the “City of Palaces” and was the British capital until 1911. Located at the tip of the Ganges delta the name changed from the popular Calcutta in 2000 to the spelling Kolkata. Kolkata is said to be derived from the name Kaliksherra or the seat of the goddess Kali.
And then, there is Kali. She is the goddess of this city and her temple is at once mystifying and frightening. I have been to the temple of Kali now in Kolkatta a few times, but the sights and sounds will never cease to surprise. Normally I am the only westerner there and that means many stares as I make my way around. But Kali is a strong goddess in India and I endure what is going on at the temple in order to understand what this city is made of underneath.
The original Kali Temple here was said to be built more than 350 years ago. This temple is a great pilgrimage site of Hindus and is located at Kalighat by the side of Tolly’s Nullah as a reference point, you will need it since Kolkatta is huge.
When I was there I got a bit overwhelmed by the fact that in front of the actual temple in the temple compound there are people taking their goats inside for sacrifice. It’s a great honor for the goat, but even without seeing the sacrifice you can hear the goats outside yelling before the head is cut off.
Kali is the goddess of destruction and transformation and she is bloodthirsty. You can see that as you enter the temple. I followed the drops of blood all the way to the temple door and took my shoes off before entering . As you pass the large Kali statue you are blessed given a mark of red on the third eye while walking through.
For me, the feeling of Kali engulfed me while I was in the temple compound, intense and strong with the colors and smells and sounds that rang in my ears for days following.
You will also be able to visit the Mother Theresa Home for the Dying near the Kali Temple compound and there is an orphanage. If you are interested Mother Theresa’s Missionaries of Charity is located nearby with a small museum.
Other musts include the Flower Market under the Howard Bridge, but arrive early. Check out Befur Math, which is an enchanting temple founded by Swami Vivekananda and the Indian Museum all Italian style architecture and the largest museum in the country. Inside you will find art, archeology, anthropology, geology, zoology and industry.
Each destination you choose to visit in India will be unique with its own energy, flavor and smiling faces of the people. Smile back and embrace this culture in order for it to embrace you and I promise you will find you must return again and again.
For my nonstop flight to Delhi from the United States I flew Air India. This airline has several gateways but I chose San Francisco. The timing did not line up correctly for me so I spent the night at the wonderful Westin San Francisco Airport. Some airport hotels are boring, but this one stands out.
For one thing there was a $10 million renovation done with a new design. The new design combines relaxing yet invigorating elements creating an environment ideal for business and leisure travelers. The arrival experience was welcoming and the hotel’s public space, restaurant and lounge flow seamlessly into the meeting room layout.
The lobby was renovated and fits in well with natural elements including a soothing water feature and a new stone fireplace.
For eating, the hotel offers several dining options. The upgraded Runway Café is ideal for families on their way out to enjoy the sights as well as the business traveler on the go. The Café is a full service coffee bar offering both, items prepared to order and freshly packaged meals for expedited service. The Grill & Vine Restaurant serves three meals daily. The restaurant menu features delicious, locally sourced and sustainable meat and produce. The lounge is active and welcoming and feels very much part of the lobby ambiance.
The new Westin San Francisco Airport guest rooms have a wonderful richness that is noticed the moment you arrive. Expanded doorways open the entries to natural light. The warm woods, textured fabrics, contemporary sconces and mixed metal finishes, used in the 397 rooms, welcome and delight. Neutral tones are mixed with environmental greens and blues, creating a serene surrounding. And don’t forget about the Heavenly Bed and Heavenly Shower to complete the experience.
The Westin San Francisco Airport 1 Old Bayshore Hwy, Millbrae, CA 94030