Darling Darjeeling: Dispatch from Project #100DaysInHimalayas

West Bengal’s hilly district has fine tea and people.  
Darjeeling West Bengal
Darjeeling’s temperate climate inspires rich varieties of fern, magnolia, rhododendron, orchid, and pine such as these mist-clad dhupi trees. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

Toy trains, excellent tea, and impressive views of four of the world’s highest peaks. Darjeeling’s trademark charms are surpassed only by the niceness of its people, found wildlife photographer Dhritiman Mukherjee and Bollywood composer Shantanu Moitra on the West Bengal leg of their #100DaysInHimalayas project. Between February and December 2016, the duo will make a series of trips in the Himalayas covering reaches running from Kashmir to Arunachal Pradesh, and into the neighbouring foothills of Nepal and Bhutan—and they’re taking National Geographic Traveller India along for the ride. Their latest dispatch is from Darjeeling. For centuries, the cool hill station at the foothills of the Himalayas, has been favoured as a health resort for its brisk weather, first by the British, and then by tourists across India and the world. It’s predictably lovely and laid-back, except on some days as this twosome found out.

Ice, Ice, Baby

Darjeeling Mall West Bengal

This lady on the Mall asked why hailstorms can’t happen more often, Moitra recalled. “People buy bhutta (corn) when they’re happy; my sales are more,” he remembers her saying. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

When Moitra and Mukherjee visited, Darjeeling was reeling from an unexpected hailstorm that caused an hours-long traffic jam. “It was white, covered in 3-inch ice,” said Moitra. As soon as they checked into the hotel, Moitra recalled, “Dhritiman said it’s time to take photos now.” The hail had dented cars and smashed holes in roofs and windows. “That’s the difference between us,” Moitra says. “I say, ‘There’s chaos outside, let’s stay in.’”

Outside, they found a town making the most of the bizarre weather. Life was at a standstill and people were playing with the ice in the streets. It was lovely but Dhritiman was surprised with the number of international food-chain outlets. “The Mall Road now has CCD and KFC,” he said. At the very least, they should “blend with local culture; use Lepcha- or Gurkha-style design for the interiors.”

Hitting The Right Note

Tea plantation Darjeeling West Bengal

Visitors at tea plantations in Darjeeling can enjoy nature walks, tea plucking, trekking, river rafting, and even a round of golf. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

For Moitra, each place they visited came alive with the locals they encountered, and the stories they had to tell. At their colonial-era stay Cochrane Place in Kurseong—famous for birding and tea estates such as Makaibari—Moitra discovered that the hotel’s singer honed his craft on the road. A taxi driver by day with dreams of being a musician, the singer picked up playing the guitar from his church group, bought his instrument at a pawnshop, and expanded his repertoire by asking the Indian and international tourists he ferried daily to play their songs off the car speaker. “I suddenly remembered my college days, when I was not trained in music but I just enjoyed singing,” said Moitra. He was so impressed that he made a recording of the musician before leaving.

A World Without Pandas

En route to Sandakphu, West Bengal’s highest point, they met a tea-stall owner in his early 30s, who was involved in conservation efforts for the endangered red panda, native to the Himalayan forests of this region. The high school graduate had moved to Dubai to fund his kid’s education but returned two years later when he “realised that family is more important than money,” Moitra said. Deciding that he could just as easily put in the taxing 16-hour work days to develop his village, he started conservation work and joined in community initiatives such as coaxing locals to keep off alcohol and save up for solar panels to help their kids study at night.

Toy train Darjeeling West Bengal

Colonial-era toy trains cut through the steep Darjeeling hills. They now run under the government-owned Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. Photo: Dhritiman Mukherjee

Mountain Lessons

On their return from Sandakphu, Moitra and Mukherjee shared their jeep with a father and his sick child whose smiles and conversation showed no sign of the gruelling ride and the desperation at the remote access to a hospital. “The Himalayas have a really surprising happiness quotient,” Moitra said, who puts it down to the local philosophy: not to fight the elements but accept life as it comes. “The Himalayas teach me to stop complaining, and life will be better.”

Keep posted for updates from Mukherjee and Moitra, as this mountain bromance yields stunning photos of the Himalayas’ stark beauty, and stories of its charming people. Missed the previous dispatches? Read more on #100DaysInHimalayas.

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    Saumya Ancheri is Assistant Web Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She loves places by the sea, and travels to shift her own boundaries. She tweets as @Saumya_Ancheri.

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    Dhritiman Mukherjee is as elusive as the animals he photographs. His photographs have appeared in National Geographic Traveller, The New York Times, Lonely Planet, WWF, UNESCO, Birdlife.

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