The first impression which you get when you enter the hilly town of Darjeeling is, ‘oops ..it is too crowded’! The beauty of the place starts sinking in much later, after you have settled in your place of abode- most probably a hotel /resort or some homestay.Homestays are increasingly emerging as a popular choice for middle class tourists particularly youngsters!
For me it was after getting up early next morning that I could witness the serene nature and beauty of the place. What strikes most distinctly in the picturesque natural canvas are the bright and bold colorful flowers! As the eyes slowly devour the natural beauty , you start to witness the typical pattern of ‘hill houses’, huge trees that seem to pierce the sky, greenary spread like a freshly drycleaned green carpet and most importantly outline of the mightly mountains beyond the clouds.
I reached Darjeeling via Bagdogra Airport. When the cab started from airport, within half an hour I was passing through the greenry of tea gardens and slowly my mind and body started ‘shedding off ‘ the stress and hangover of ‘metro life’. Within 20 minutes or so from airport the car actually start climbing uphill. As you go uphill, you relaise that the elevantions are actually quite steep! The condition of roads are not bad, but quite narrow and much steeper than the roads to Shimla or Lansdowne. You witness the steep and narrow roads after a while, however when you start climbing upwards you witness what Darjeeling is actually famous for- the tea gardens! From my car I could see several women with their ‘signature’ bags on tehir back returning home after their days work in the tea garden. I was informed that most of the tea gardens we were crossing were owned by large companies. When you pass through these these roads with tea plantation on either side, memories of all the stories and characters woven in tea garden of Darjeeling passes through your mind in a flash. Stories of love, stories of hard life of labourers , stories of deceit and exploitation, atrocities of ‘gora sahibs’ managing the tea estates and even those ‘hindi paperback style romantic’ novels where ultimately the love triumphed!
Comming back to the narrow roads. When you are moving up in your car you hardly see enough space on either side of tyour car, but the moment another car and sometimes even small trucks come from teh opposite side, miraculously there is enough space for both the vehicle to pass easily! Every time I go to mountains, I am amazed by the driving skills of local taxi drivers there, particularly when they use the back gear and hardly make use of the review mirror!
As you go towards Darjeeling another thing that generates your interest almost instantly are the ‘narrow gauge’ himalayan railway track. In fact if it is your first trip in this area, it takes a few moments before your mind can register that it actually is a functional railway track. This is because it passes through the road, often on one corner and sometiems in middle of road. You can see people actually sitting on the track. Vegetable vendors setting up their shops right on top of it and houses on either side- just a few feet away from the track-however, feet seeem like inches when you are loocking at it! It is only when you see the train actually making its way up, whistling and crawling slowly that you believe that the track is functional. You hear the whistle first, then you see the smoke and then the ‘Queen of Himalayas’ makes her majestic appearence – in hurry. It is definitely a joy to witness the train.
As you move towards your destination and pass through a few small towns you get a glimpse of life in this hilly terrain. You see fresh green vegetables being sold by vendors, children playing, houses of varied kind- each beautiful and distinct in its own way and nearly all the houses displaying varied species of colorful flowers!
Cold wind first struck me and I had to roll up my windows when we were crossing small town of Ghum. Ghum in a way is the gateway to Darjeeling. As you move ahead a few kilometers you get a first panormaic view of Darjelling. The huge buddhist monstrey welcomes the toursit as they enter the town. It stands tall and majestic but the moment you cross it you see the not so pleasant side of the town- the crowd, traffic and I even felt pollution hitting me as my car was passing thruough the market.
Darjeeling is unique in terms of its rich culture, history and artitecture. One can see the tibetian influence in all aspect of life. However, it appeared to me that it has also become a live example of negative impact of excssive tourism. Tourism is not bad, even I went there as a tourist but allowing people to enter the town using all kind of private vehicles- big and small- is choking the town. Such huge influx of toursit is also a challenge to the public utilities and the general infrastructure of the place.
You might meet people there who term this as a ‘hyped tourist destination’! However I feel this term emerges as a reaction to excessive crowd of people and vehicle and is not really a reflection on the serenic beauty of the region. Overall, the town is a great confluence of culture which represents India’s diversity and richness!