Darjeeling was once the hill-top retreat of the British Raj, says Martin Symington; now it’s a cool, tea-cloaked basecamp for fine hikes amid the highest Himalaya
The pre-dawn was frosty and silent as we stood on a whaleback rock just above the trekking lodge at Sandakphu, waiting for sunrise. A string of tiger-toothed crests stretched across the horizon, gradually lightening from black to silvery blue.
Kangchenjunga, the world’s third-highest mountain, had been a pervading presence since we arrived in Darjeeling five days earlier. But from here we also had unbroken views to pyramid-shaped Pandim in Sikkim, and to the Nepal/Tibet border peaks of Lhotse, Makalu and Cho Oyu – world-ranked numbers four, five and six respectively. And, to the highest of them all, the summit known in Nepali as Sagarmatha.
“This is the place where Colonel George Everest figured which one was nearest to the sky,” whispered Tenzing, our trekking guide. Hmm, I wondered. We had been avid about ascertaining which one was Everest, because Everest is Everest. But from here, its peak appeared as merely one among many; some looked as if they might be higher. So wouldn’t it have been the same for the bushy-bearded Surveyor-General of India, if he really did stand on this spot in 1856?
I should have had more faith. Because suddenly that distant peak alone caught fire. For a fleeting moment we watched shafts of golden light flare up from its icy crown while all around was shadow. Kangchenjunga and the rest of the range followed shortly, their outlines igniting in order of elevation before glowing shades of pink and peach inched downwards across their snowbound faces. During the minutes it took for day to break over the Himalaya, we gasped repeatedly. Tenzing said people always do that.
Sandakphu was, at 3,636m, the highest point on the Singalila Ridge, which my wife Hennie and I were trekking on our trip to Darjeeling. This is a classic Himalayan trail that’s been hiked since the times of the Raj, and can be tackled in various ways depending on how strenuous you want to make it.
We chose a six-day, two-sides-of-a-triangle itinerary. We would start at the low-lying village of Mana Bhanjang; climb to the rugged ridge and follow it south-north along India’s border with Nepal; then turn sharp right at Phalut, tracing the southern edge of Sikkim down to the roadhead at Rimbik.
Aptly, our journey had started with a flight to Kolkata (hereafter Calcutta, which is still what most Indians call the capital of West Bengal). I say aptly, because the city is an indelible part of Darjeeling’s story. As the administrative headquarters of colonial India until 1911, Calcutta was home to thousands of officers, civil servants, merchants and their memsahibs who could not hack the oppressive heat and humidity of summer.
So in 1835 the British cut a deal with the Chogyal (the religious and temporal monarch) of the independent Himalayan kingdom of Sikkim. The Brits would lease an area in the south of the kingdom, where some reconnoitering soldiers had stumbled on the Buddhist monastery of Dorje Ling in an area of spellbinding scenery and alluringly temperate climes.
In return, Sikkim would get British protection from hostile neighbours, such as the Gurkhas of Nepal.
By the end of the 19th century, a narrow-gauge railway had been hewn out of the hillsides to carry large numbers of Calcutta’s British residents from Siliguri at the foot of the Himalaya, up into the clouds for the summer. Meanwhile, a standard-gauge track had also been laid across the plains of West Bengal. This is still the line used by the Darjeeling Mail, which eases out of Calcutta every evening, to rumble through the night on its 13-hour journey to Siliguri.
We shared our First Class compartment with the affable Mr Kuldip Choudhary, proprietor of a Nepali-language newspaper distributed throughout Darjeeling. Mr Choudhary explained: “The political issue, which is imperative to a comprehension of Darjeeling, is that this region is only included in the state of West Bengal because of the British connection. The longing of many of our non-Bengali readers is for a new Indian state: Gorkhaland.”
Ah, Gorkhaland. As it happens, we had all read The Inheritance of Loss, Kiran Desai’s stirring novel set in Darjeeling, which won the 2006 Man Booker Prize. The story deals with this very political unease; at the same time it exquisitely evokes the misty magic of Darjeeling and should be on the reading list of any traveller in the eastern Himalaya. Understandably, its tone is not particularly sympathetic towards the British.
We woke up among paddies, palms and pineapple plantations with a backdrop of mushrooming mountains as we chugged on across the plains to Siliguri. From here we were driven by jeep across the River Teesta to start an ascent of more than 2,000m on the three-hour drive up to Darjeeling town.
‘Ride smoothly over my curves’ pleaded a saucy road sign, prompting Deepak, our driver, to remark with a grin: “I regret this will be impossible. After the monsoons we say that there are not potholes in this road… instead we have only some road with our potholes!”
In fact the surface was not all that bad. What astonished us more was how suddenly the Himalaya reared up from the plains, with barely a foothill by way of foreplay. We corkscrewed up, first through jungles of bamboo, quinine trees and creepers, while monkeys scuttled along the roadside. After about 1,000m the vegetation opened out into hillsides of low, flat-topped bushes; tiny dots moved slowly among them – women with baskets on their backs, plucking glossy leaves of Camellia sinensis, the high-quality black tea synonymous with Darjeeling.
However, it was a first glimpse of Kangchenjunga – a teasing peek-through-the-clouds – that whetted our appetites. We checked in to the tea planter-style Windamere Hotel, where Raj-era rituals (cucumber sandwiches on the veranda, coal fires in the bedrooms) are assiduously maintained.
But while there’s still a market for colonial nostalgia, Darjeeling has mostly shirked the air of the hill station. Nowadays, Indians make up the majority of visitors to this city of 100,000 Nepali-speaking Gurkhas, Sherpas and Sikkimese, joined by Tibetan refugees and Bengali traders who have swarmed up from the plains to cash in on the tourist market.
The narrow-gauge railway no longer runs all the way from Siliguri, though little diesel locomotives pull children to and from school on one or two short sections. Additionally, each morning a little blue steam engine, one of the reconditioned originals built in 1891, lets off a shriek and sets off at barely jogging pace, carrying tourists on the short ride up to Ghoom, India’s highest station. We hopped on, of course, and it was a hoot.
This merry mood contrasted strikingly with the first day of our trek, when we woke to an electric storm and a deluge like stair-rods from heaven. Late October is supposed to be peak trekking season – dry with clear skies. “This can never be a promise,” said Tenzing gravely on our jeep trip to the starting point, as we watched black clouds erupting over Kangchenjunga. We spent the afternoon on a gruelling, muddy ascent through primeval tangles of trees and roots clotted with moss, while working hard at keeping our peckers up.
We need not have fretted. Soon after our arrival at the ridge-top Shikhar Lodge at Tumling, the clouds dispersed in a fiery collusion of gold and copper. And there again was Kangchenjunga in all its icebound glory, honouring us with a sunset appearance. Trekkers’ spirits soared that evening as we sat on a wooden bench under a sooty ceiling. We dined on lentil soup, curried vegetables and Sikkimese Hit beer while warming ourselves on charcoal braziers.
I have already mentioned how Kangchenjunga was a pervading presence. Over the next few days we were to discover, by degrees, how this vast, five-peaked hulk projects a powerful spirituality. At times the mountain looked like a cluster of icebergs afloat on a sea of cloud; at others it seemed inexplicably menacing, like a troubling dream.
We trekked for between five and eight hours each day. Tenzing led the way, while our pair of porters would set off ahead with our kit bags, which would be waiting at the next lodge when we arrived.
The trail was varied. We flowed across high meadows strewn with wild gentians and yak bones, then occasionally squiggled down into valleys blanketed with rhododendron trees. Thankfully there was no more rain, though from time to time the snowcapped Himalayan backdrop would abruptly disappear when a fist of mist smacked us.
For much of the way the ancient ridge-top yak-herding route is actually the national border between India and Nepal. The track also forms the boundary, on the Darjeeling side, of Singalila National Park. This wildlife sanctuary protects Himalayan fauna such as red pandas, Asiatic black bears and clouded leopards, though sightings are rare. As it is a conservation area, little habitation or construction is allowed, which is why three of the trekkers’ lodges we stayed at were built just outside the park, a few metres into Nepal.
You do not officially enter the country so you need neither a Nepali visa nor Nepali rupees. Nevertheless, the hamlets where farmers eke out a living growing buckwheat, cardamom and apples were reminiscent of trekking in the Annapurna region. Typically, they mix Hindu and Buddhist cultures. At tiny Jobari, for example, we paused to pay our respects at a temple where offerings had been left to Shiva and Hanuman, the monkey god. A little further on we stopped at a stream diverted to turn an eternally chiming Buddhist prayer wheel.
That evening, in Kali Pokhari, we were offered yak-meat momos and grainy home-brewed barley beer at the Chewang Lodge. I recommend both delicacies only because of my conviction that most things should be tried once. Tenzing partook gustily, assuring us that both would be useful fuel for the next day’s stiff climb up to Sandakphu.
It was on this ascent, and still in sight of Kangchenjunga, that Tenzing, who is 26, eventually told us that when he was nine years old it had claimed the life his father. He was blown off the east flank in a blizzard while on an expedition with the Tibet Border Police. We already had an inkling how this mountain is feared, held in awe and revered as sacred. In Tenzing’s case, it was an intensely personal sort of reverence.
Kangchenjunga was not climbed until 1955, two years after Everest; even then Brits Joe Brown and George Band turned back just feet from the icy summit – where Lord Shiva sits in eternal meditation – out of respect for local sensibilities. Or out of fear, perhaps? For similar reasons the government banned all ascents of the mountain’s highest peak after Sikkim became part of India in 1975. However, permits to climb it from the Nepali side can still be bought. Evidently, even sacredness has a price.
Beyond Sandakphu, snatching glimpses of Everest became our constant quest. After our dawn epiphany we felt powerless to resist its allure, the more so because it spent most of its time coyly hiding under pillows of cloud.
Hennie and I recalled how we had last seen the mountain from the Tibetan side in 1986, as backpackers hitching rides on Chinese trucks as we crossed the plateau between Lhasa and Kathmandu. (Weren’t we lucky? Nowadays, such a journey is impossible.) “Everest looks about 4ft taller now,” declared Hennie, for some unfathomable reason.
Tenzing joined in the discussion eagerly. We noted how 25 years is ages, even in geological time, when the Indian Tectonic Plate – which created the Himalaya by crashing India into the Eurasian continent about 40 million years ago – is still travelling northwards at about 15cm a year. And Everest is rising at about 5cm a year. So, just over 4ft (1.2m) in a quarter of a century…
More amazingly, a similar calculation would mean that the mountain has soared skywards by over 7.5m since George Everest had his revelatory moment in 1856.
The descent from the ridge was even steeper than the climb on the first day. We plunged down through tree ferns, giant bamboo and thickets of wild marijuana. In places, the knee-straining paths have been hacked into staircases for pack ponies carrying supplies to the remotest settlements.
Our final night on trek was at the lower, warmer village of Raman in a fecund valley of golden barley, apricot orchards and patches of watermelons. We stayed at a lodge next to a small Tibetan Buddhist temple; through a window we could see terrifying tantric deities with bulging-eyed heads looking out in all directions.
This was the only place where we were alone, without other trekkers. The lodge’s old diesel generator spluttered out before we had finished our supper of lentils and beer, and our own torch had died the previous night. So we spent the evening sitting on our balcony watching the darkness deepening, and wondering where the pinpricks of light across the valley in Sikkim ended and the stars began.
Keep track of Darjeeling's iconic railway line
For rail enthusiasts the Darjeeling Hill Railway – affectionately known as the ‘Toy Train’ – has peerless appeal. It is partly the glorious Himalayan setting, and partly the ingenious feats of 19th-century engineering. The railway was built between 1879 and 1881 and now has UNESCO World Heritage status. Although only 50 miles long, it climbs an astonishing 7,000ft on its way from New Jalpaiguri (the station for Siliguri) on the plains of West Bengal, to Darjeeling. The gauge is just two feet allowing the line to wind up into the mountains, over bridges and through tunnels, gaining height through a succession of loops and reverses.
Sadly, these days the train cannot be relied on as a means of reaching Darjeeling. When I was there, for example, a combination of landslides, blockages and other problems meant that only a few short stretches were operational. Nevertheless, diesel engines do still pull first and second class carriages along tracks which in places share the road with motor traffic.
Additionally, there is a daily tourist joyride from Darjeeling up to Ghoom, the highest railway station in India. Some of the original 19th-century locomotives have been reconditioned and painted Thomas the Tank Engine-blue, to puff and hoot through villages pulling their camera-clicking cargo at jogging pace. The two-hour return trip includes a ten-minute photo stop on the spectacular Batasia Loop, and half an hour in Ghoom where a museum dedicated to the railway has some evocative pictures dating back to the construction era.
The author travelled with Mountain Kingdoms on a 13-day tailormade itinerary including three nights in Calcutta, one night on the train, three nights in Darjeeling and five nights in lodges on trek. A similar trip would cost from £1,945pp based on two sharing, including accommodation in Calcutta, most meals, private jeep transfers, guide, porters, national park fees, train fare from Calcutta and air fare back, but not international flights.