Exploring Darjeeling

The schedule was quite clear for Friday. Tiger hill was out of question as I did not want to travel long distance by a vehicle on a road, whose conditions were not very clear. The Kurseong to Darjeeling experience was still fresh. HMI, Zoo and Tea estates were on my mind and wanted to buy few warm innerwears and sweater,as I had grossly underestimated the cold while packing my bags in Mumbai.After having the real feel of the cold out here in Darjeeling, got to be really prepared for the cold at Sandakphu, which was at 12000 Ft and had high probably of snow there.

My running nose was now frozen and now I had slight headache as well, which made me a bit nervous as jammed nose can be a real pain in this cold. But then I was quite positive that I would feel much better, once I move out of the room into the sunlight. The peculiar Darjeeling Bulbuls were dancing on the fence and their tweets made me happy. I was again out to explore more of Darjeeling.

On the way at the market met Vikram who probably was waiting for me :). He promised me that he would take me around every possible place and I can spend as much time as I want. The quote was 1000 rupees for a day. It was not at all a bad deal, as I had whole day to spend and wanted somebody to really guide me to places.

Vikram had this peculiar sweet nature and enthusiasm to treat the tourist as a guest and give as much information as possible. The deal was closed at Rs. 900 and we were all set to explore Darjeeling in Vikram’s comfy i10. I was sure that, it won’t be possible to cover all the places on feet and desperately wanted a local to talk to and understand the place more. Vikram was fitting the criteria best.

Our first spot was Natural History Museum, which did not have any entry fee and was undergoing a major overhaul. The very first section was on butterflies and moths with 1000s of specimen on display, while a botanist was working on them with a thick book on butterflies, as she added notes to her laptop.

A japanease guy seems to have trafficking many of these beautiful specimens and was caught red handed providing a good amount of room for NHM to expand its butterfly section. The stuffed heads of wild buffalos, wild boars and huge horns of deer and goats were quite an attraction, especially their size. These animals must have been really enormous. Few of the preserved skins of bears and tigers shot down during British rule, were on display.

The squirrels had many variations here and the interesting one was a flying squirrel. I could spot a flying fox as well. The renovation was still underway and few of the sections like birds and fish were work in progress. I had quickly wound up rest of the sections to make enough time for few of the other interesting spots.

The Zoo and HMI took most of my day and seeing those lively animals in their natural habitat is quite fascinating. Although the wild forest is their best home, they still had more freedom, compared to few of the other zoos, with tiny cages, I had visited in past. There was ample space for each animal and the surrounding created was close to natural.

The sight of leopard, snow leopard and black leopard was the most fascinating part. Although in captivity, these animals retained their natural elegance. There were umpteen numbers of pheasants from golden to silver and the colours they exhibited were both attractive and catchy.

Cages for these birds did look a little tiny. However a big cage would not replace their open skies and thick jungles. Apart from pheasants, parrots and cockatoos took the second place in terms of popularity and colours.

A huge area was preserved for a Himalayan bear and took the central place in the zoo. The fox, wolves, goats and deer of different types made the zoo really versatile and although not very huge in terms of area the zoo gives good exposure to most of the Himalayan variety of animals.The panda was one more attraction. I was told that this zoo has bred red panda and then sent to its natural surroundings.

HMI gave good introduction to the Himalayan mountain ranges , the expeditions done till now, with lot of focus on the first successful expedition by Sherpa Tensing and Edmond Hillary. The museum has very good collection of instruments and cloths used then and now. It has a miniature model of Himalayan Mountains right from Kashmir to Arunachal Pradesh covering Tibetan Plateau, Nepal, Sikkim as well as Bhutan.

The institute has all kinds of mountaineering courses conducted right from 15 days adventure camp to more advance trainings. The life size statue of Sherpa Tensing stands outside the main building to remind us of the glory he brought to all of us, by capturing the invincible. The HMI seem to have got government patronage as well.

The zoo and the HMI are in the same campus and charge only Rs.40 as the entry fee. The thickness of the well preserved forest around and the huge, tall threes makes you feel good and admire the effort.

Now was the time for the famous Darjeeling ropeway, which is part of many of the romantic Bollywood movie songs. The Rs 150 ticket takes you down to Tukvar and back. This ropeway was probably the longest I had ever seen and gives good view of the surrounding mountains, valleys and tea estates. The Kanchanganga peak is right in front while the Namchi Temple of Sikkim is seen right across the river Tiesta. The cute tiny villages and the wide spread of lush green tea estates gives a feeling of bliss and admiration. The ropeway, although quite old, seems to be well maintained and is in a very good condition.

Met three young flying officers of Indian air force. Jigden is from Darjeeling while Joyel and Sandeep were from Kerala. The charm, pride and dignity of well trained officers from Indian air force was apparent and it was good to connect with them.

The hot and healthy Momos served in a dish made out of dry leaves was a perfect lunch and the lady serving the Momos could not help but ask how come you are travelling alone. I did try my best to explain her that I was on a trek and not a family outing here.
Women seem to form a considerably large work force here as shopkeepers and vendors while men are busy driving tourist vehicles to make their living. This does obviously give a two sources of income to the family and also strikes the balance of sexual equality.

Vikram pointed me the Mera Naam Joker fame St. Joseph school and also gave good amount of knowledge on Eskus, a local vegetable used as a filling for Momos. Eskus seems to be the most versatile vegetable right from its leaves to roots being part of the everyday diet here. The fruits which looked like tiny pumpkin, are also used in few recipes while roots being most pricy and useful. They looked more like Sweet potatos (Rataloo) to me.

The last stop of our trip was Kanchan View tea estates. Going down the valley and feel being part of this ageless tradition as well as business of tea cultivation was amazing thing. Costumes were available on rent to resemble the ancient traditional tea workers picking tea leaves. For many of the honeymooners this was something to enjoy and preserve as a memory.

The tea was on display and sale at the shops alongside the valley and allowed tasting and purchasing. I got a KG of tea for Rs.230 here, which I assume to be a very good deal.

Vikram gave some more knowledge on tea and how Darjeeling tea is distinct. The Darjeeling tea is much natural and not converted to finer granules and is famous for its flavour rather than the color. Its popular by the name of the respective tea estates and tea from estates like happy valley never see the face of any Indian shop and are directly labelled with Harrods, London.

It was an interesting day, spent on getting to know Darjeeling more and understanding its culture. Next day I would report to Sandakphu’s base camp to embark on yet another interesting journey full of adventure and natural beauty in the lap of Himalayas.

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