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November 14, 2017, India

Mountain magic

Peaks, hikes, trains and tea keep Ted Davis busy in the town of Darjeeling in north-eastern India

Ted Davis

THE sense of being at the frontier is palpable in Darjeeling.

It is one of the last stops in northern India with any significant population before the Himalayas begin.

Ensuring that no one forgets this proximity is the impressive bulk of Kangchenjunga.

At 8,586m in altitude, Kangchenjunga is the third highest mountain on the planet, and it dominates the horizon on days of blue sky and sunshine.

With Darjeeling sitting at about 2,000m, there are plenty of those clear, bright days after the monsoon season, and our hotel had one of the best views in the city.

The Darjeeling Tourist Lodge has the advantage of a great, unobstructed location and a broad back lawn with chairs and tables for relaxing and taking in the mountain scenery.

It is a government-operated hotel, with attractive rates of about $50 per day. But there is no central heating, so be ready for cold rooms at night!

At least that is good preparation for the early morning excursion to Tiger Hill — probably the most popular tourist activity in Darjeeling.

The idea is to stake out a viewing spot on this ridge high above the city in time to watch the sun rise above the Himalayas.

This requires parking on the narrow twisting access road and hiking up the final 2km to the viewing area, in pitch darkness.

At the top are tea sellers and several hundred other sunrise seekers.

Those first rays are welcomed by whoops of enthusiasm by onlookers, many of whom have taken up positions on shaky rows of bleachers.

The warming powers of the sun at this height and latitude are impressive, and viewers can be seen shedding layers as they head back down the road to their vehicles.

All aboard!

With the whole day ahead, one touring choice after breakfast is an excursion on the famous Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR).

This railway station can be reached on foot from the Darjeeling Tourist Lodge.

The train first began operating in 1881 under British rule and continues running to the present day with the original reconditioned narrow gauge rails and authentic British-built steam locomotives.

The DHR was declared a World Heritage site by Unesco in 1999.

It costs about 1,250 rupees (S$26) a ticket for the ride between the Darjeeling station and the stop at Ghum.

Thus begins an experience defined by a chuffing locomotive, and a chorus of coal smoke and steam-driven mechanicals.

The narrow-gauge rail tracks run right next to the road that snakes through Darjeeling.

At times, shop windows are literally so close to the train cars that snatching a bag of chips from a sundry store rack would not be out of the question.

The track line finally emerges from the city and starts its climb up to Ghum.

The locomotive begins to puff with slower, more deliberate chugs as it labours up a steeper grade. More black, burnt embers fly back from the locomotive stack, catching photographers unawares as they lean out the open windows for a better shot.

At 2,258m, Ghum is the highest train station in all of India, and the highest anywhere for a narrow gauge railway.

Passengers disembark and take in a small museum that documents the history of the train before heading back down to Darjeeling by car.

Once back at the hotel, a shower to dislodge some of those coal embers from hair is a must.

Tea anyone?

For refreshments, there are places to get a nice cuppa.

A good choice is the Makaibari Tea Estate, a renowned tea grower and producer of fine teas located about one hour by car from Darjeeling.

Visitors get the chance to be schooled and entertained by the colourful owner of the estate, Rajah Banerjee.

He is the fourth generation of Banerjees to run the estate, which was founded by C.C. Banerjee in 1859.

In his riding breaches and jacket, Banerjee leads guests through the methods of tea harvesting and plant specialisation to yield various tea blends.

There is even a tea-tasting session, akin to wine tasting, during which guests swish and spit each type, finishing with the king of teas, Silver Tips Imperial Darjeeling Oolong.

Whew, what a tasty mouthful!

Heading to the clouds

But if mountains are the primary motivation for visiting Darjeeling, the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI) deserves a visit.

Darjeeling was chosen as the location for the institute, given that it is the hometown of Tenzing Norgay, the famous sherpa who accompanied Sir Edmund Hillary on his first-ever ascent of Mount Everest.

Over six decades, it has established itself as a famous training school for mountain climbers.

The HMI features a museum that documents the history of mountaineering in the Himalayas.

Visitors who aren’t necessarily climbers can get some insight into the logistics and demands of scaling these peaks, and learn about the historic high points of Himalayan mountaineering.

But those with a more committed mountain encounter in mind will want to sign up for one of the available mountaineering courses.

They can, for instance, opt for a short course (three to eight days) that focuses on Sport Climbing or Rock Climbing; or an Adventure course that runs from 10 to 16 days.

A 28-day Basic Mountaineering course is the most popular option and is offered from March to December.

Afterwards, the Himalayas, in all their snow-covered bulk, await just over the horizon from Darjeeling.

However, that is a story for another day.

GUIDELINES

I flew to Delhi on Singapore Airlines and from there, transferred to a domestic carrier to Bagdogra Airport, the closest to Darjeeling for passenger jet services.

From the airport, it is a three- to four-hour drive to Darjeeling, depending on potentially chaotic traffic and the condition of the roads.

The best time to visit is between October and March, after the monsoon season. Clearer but colder weather is the norm, with daytime temperatures in the mid-teens, dipping into single digits at night.

The Darjeeling Tourist Lodge is cheap and has a great location, but is run-down. An electric heater tries to fend off the cold at night. Meals though, are tasty, filling and inexpensive.

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