Our next stop on our trip was Darjeeling, a town in Indias’s West Bengal state, in the Himalayan foothills. Once a summer resort for the British Raj elite. We flew from Kolkata to an airport 65 km (40 miles) from Darjeeling which is operated as a civil enclave at AFS Bagdogra of the Indian Air Force.
Located in the state of West Bengal, the city is located on a ridge in the Himalayan foothills at around 6800 feet of elevation and part of the Mahabharat mountain range. It’s famed for the distinctive black tea grown on plantations that dot its surrounding slopes. Its backdrop is Mt. Kanchenjunga, among the world’s highest peaks
One interesting and historical activity we experienced was the “Toy Train” . This famous attraction is part of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR) an important transport link from the hills to the plains below. It is a narrow gauge rail track that is two feet wide built in 1879. The DHR was the first example of a hill passenger railway. The train runs alongside Hill Cart Road – the narrow, steep and winding route into the mountains. At several spots the track crisscrosses the road. The DHR is listed as a World Heritage Site declared by UNESCO.
In addition to the famous tea it produces, Darjeeling is home to the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park. Chelle and I won’t usually visit a zoo viewing them at best as necessary evils, however Padmaja Naidu is remarkable for it’s Red Panda and Snow Leopard breeding program. The zoo is located at an average elevation of 2,134 meters above sea level and is the largest high altitude zoos in India. Some of the rare and endangered species in the zoo are snow leopards, red pandas, Himalayan Salamanders, Tibetan wolf, Himalayan mountain goat and Siberian tigers.
We woke up at 4am one morning to join the caravan of jeeps, which can number nearly one hundred vehicles full of tourists headed to Tiger Hill. A can’t miss opportunity to watch the dawn light break over a 250 km (155 mile) stretch of Himalayan horizon. The panoramic view includes Mt. Everest, Lhotse and Makalu. The skyline is dominated by Kanchenjunga the third highest peak in the world.
While on the Toy Train adventure I had the honor of spending time at the Gurkha War Memorial located just outside Darjeeling at the Bastasia Loop garden. Known as some of the most skilled and fiercest warriors in the world, their extraordinary history extends from the 1815 defeat of the British Invasion of Nepal to their contributions in Afghanistan in 2010.
I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to visit the Tibetan Refugee Self Help Center. It was established in 1959 following the Tibetan migration from Lhasa and was the former home of the thirteenth Dali Lama from 1910-1912 during the first Chinese invasion of Tibet. The Tibetan families that reside at the center sell handicrafts that support their mission. Additionally, 14th and current Dali Lama has visited the center in the past. The museum on the property was fascinating for any history buff and as a Buddhist I was pleased to contribute to the center’s mission.