The Indian Monsoon may conjure up images of intense flooding and relentless downpours, but it can also be the perfect time to visit...
The small hill station of Darjeeling has become world famous thanks to the many tea plantations that surround it. In the high season (Oct-Nov; March-May) the town’s chaotic web of steep lanes heave with tourists trying to escape the heat of the Indian plains. During the summer monsoon however, the town turns into a peaceful mountain getaway - prices are slashed - yet the views and activities are as sublime as ever.
The perfect time to visit Darjeeling is in mid September. Although a few days may be affected by persistent drizzle, breaks in the clouds reveal a serene and unique landscape. From Observation Point or nearby Tiger Hill, it is possible to look down on the lush plantations and be mesmerized by the snow-capped Himalayan peaks on the horizon. If the views should be lost to cloud, the town itself has many things to keep visitors entertained. The Happy Valley Tea Estate offer guided tours of their processing hall and a history of tea in Darjeeling. Although most picking is done in the spring, it’s still possible to glimpse the workers filling their baskets with succulent green tips. With visitor numbers low, the guides are unhurried and may even give visitors unique access to areas of the site and offer free tea tasting. Guides work for tips (30 Rupees) but a walk around the fields is free and encouraged.
Back in the town itself, Victorian architecture stands out from the warren of lanes and markets. Darjeeling abounds with stout stone edifices, clock towers and churches. Many of these old relics were built in a Scottish style, indeed the view of St. Andrew’s church on a misty day is more Inverness than India. The crowning glory of Darjeeling’s colonial heritage has to be its tiny station and active steam train. One of the few remaining steam services in India (if not the World), a plucky little locomotive puffs down to nearby Ghoom and back once a day. These 250 Rupee joy-rides are a must. The route winds down the mountainside along 2ft-wide tracks and the views from the original seated carriages range from majestic to hair-raising. Cascading streams are at their most impressive but bring the added danger of mudslides and rockfalls. These are frequent at this time of year so allow a few days to be sure of a clear route.
One sure way to avoid the delays of rockfalls is to take matters into your own hands – or feet. Darjeeling offers a variety of well maintained treks and day-hikes. For those adventurous souls, the Singalila Ridge Trek offers unbeatable Himalayan views from the pristine environment of Singalila National Park. The 83km trek can be done over 5 days (Guide: 350 Rupees per day), but many visitors opt for a less strenuous day-hike of the first stage (14km). Good maps of the routes can be obtained from Darjeeling’s Gorkha Hill Council’s office in town.
Those less serious hikers can also enjoy the fresh air without too much effort. Darjeeling is surrounded by dozens of nearby Buddhist pagodas and stupas. The best of these is less than 1km from the center of town. Bhutia Busty Gompa is peaceful and offers an excellent vantage-point for views of Khangchendzonga, India’s highest mountain. The monastery itself houses an ancient copy of the Tibetan Book of the Dead which can be viewed by permission (just ask nicely).