’10 Days in Darjeeling?’😳 It’s not worth it!’ That’s what we heard from those who had visited the place. However, it goes without saying that we had spent 5 days in this Queen of Hills & another 5, in its purlieus.
Of course, the naysayers weren’t wrong! For, Darjeeling is indeed a filthy, crowded, congested & noisy place..But why did we stay so long??
Before putting forth my final views about Darjeeling, let me take you to the infamous Land of White Orchids — defamed due to ghosts on prowl. And true to what we had read & heard, our scenic drive to Kurseong was worth recalling.
The day dawned bright & sunny in the plains of Siliguri but the lustre was soon dimmed by overcast skies that released their payload while we were picnicking on the banks of the Dudhia.
Now, if you, like me feel, that the rains are benisons from the heavens, then yes, it was a beautiful, cloudy, chilly day, as we sat watching the raging rapids of the Dudhia, frolicking about & crashing on the hardy rocks.
Dudhia is just an hour away from Siliguri, where we had sojourned after landing in Bagdogra from Mumbai. Siliguri was too summery for comfort, but the weather changed dramatically! Was that a presage to what was to come??
The blue skies suddenly took on a greyish hue & the accompanying zephyr had begun to cast its magic spell. The drops hadn’t touched base but the sweet petrichor had already begun to engulf our senses.
The blue mountains, the silvery waves, the grey skies, the surrounding lushness, the heady fragrance of wet earth & the nip in the air, were all so intoxicating that we eagerly looked forward to the ensuing climactic change.
A bridge running overhead, divided the river into right & left wing.
So, we didn’t want to leave the place without partaking of the beauty from the other side as well.
Charmed by the stoic mountains, a wandering mist found its way to the peaks & remained still, perhaps checking out, perhaps courting the hulking Titan!
And together, the two made for a bewitching sight.
Having conquered the hulk, this flimsy veil soon formed a cloud cap, but only to philander once again. The meandering river gushed forth —unmindful of the bold congress!
Voyeuristic larks emerged from their shelter & flew across the skies — jubilant & chirpy, having partaken of the brief rendezvous.
To be having elevenses on the riverbanks, is certainly not commonplace. So, that’s what we did; perched ourselves on the rocks & began munching food.
Within moments, dark clouds gathered force & descended upon us as drizzles with a vengeance, creating ripples in the stream, drenching the hills & laving the boulders & forcing us to seek cover.
It certainly was a memorable afternoon. However, Kurseong was calling. A good 3-hour drive brought us to Kurseong. Kurseong, maligned & thus feared, kept us intrigued. It was a wet yet sunny day & the wet foliage & barks looked refreshingly inviting.
However, as we inched farther, there were different elements at play. Nimbus clouds began to congregate & conspire to conceal the Sun.
The drizzles hastened their pace & a milky mist appeared from nowhere & besieged us. It was as if we were stepping into no man’s land…
If you’re a nephophilic like me, you’d understand the heartsease that comes with having your head in the clouds.
And the plot began to thicken..
We had entered the ghost town of Kurseong!
Silhouettes of trees & spires cleaved through the mist & stood dour & eerie.👀Running in tandem were the toy-train rails —last vestiges of a bygone era.
We were booked in The Kaizer Valley Hotel.
The Kaizer Valley Hotel, this charming little property’s claim to fame, is that its owner is none other than Actor Mithun Chakraborthy’s son-in-law!
It was only when we strayed into the lobby in the mezzanine floor & sighted a picture of the hero, that we learnt about this. Despite its celebrity connection, the inn was a modest yet haimish one, overlooking the valley.
When the veil of mist was lifted, the vale below stretched far, in its verdant glory.
Houses huddled together but the vastness of the open space & the wispy clouds that canopied the rolling tea hills were so intoxicating that I stood awhile trying to capture the scenery in my mind’s eye.
Yet, the outdoors beckoned; the Sun had appeared once again. Wanting to make hay while the sun shone, we strode out for some sunshine. Giddapahar View Point was a good 20 minutes away. But the walk was well worth our time & efforts.
Following us everywhere, was the Kurseong-Darjeeling rail line.
The tract wore a desolate look.
There was not a soul in sight & the only sounds were those of our footfalls.
Colourful colonial villas stood on the borders of the tract & the only signs of life were the dainty alpine blossoms on the veranda.
We passed by stately domiciles & Victorian era schools with gated entrances. The pathways seemed to lead to unknown precincts. Where were the residents? Where were the students??
Nevertheless, it was an enchanting evening. Far away from a neurotic city, we were in an interesting place, in the lap of Nature with only the passing mist for company. Time stood still & there was a quiet contentment.
It was only 5 pm & the Sun had cast its golden glow on the western horizon & the lucent light had spread over the emerald hills.
A series of sinuous steps took us to Giddapahar View Point. There was nary a soul in sight; not even a passing vehicle!
As we ascended, the fog clouded our view & the valley below remained wrapped in brume.
The mist was so enticing that we decided to mingle with it.
A steep strip led to a deep glen. It was getting foggy & chilly; like an out-and-out scene from a Bollywood horror flick!
The Earth & the sky were busy between the sheets of milky mist😉
We tried capturing ourselves in the little light that was still available.
And amidst the evening mist that was hiding & seeking us every other moment, we huddled together & posed.
At night, in the coziness of our inn, we read & spoke about this ghost town’s various haunted nooks. Kurseong & Dow Hills are synonymous. Dow Hills with its infamous formidable forests, is definitely Kurseong’s chief drawcard.
Early next morning, we first drove to Ambotia Tea Gardens.
There’s something really intriguing, mysterious & romantic about the hills. Driving through tortuous bends, we reached Ambotia Tea Estate.
Ensconced in a valley in Kurseong, this sparsely populated tea-town has a few quaint homes in its fringes. Despite the sunny climes, the locals were indoors & thus we had the entire tea gardens to ourselves.
There were unknown paths, leading to perhaps uncharted terrain. They were certainly beaten byways but we felt as if ‘we’ were blazing the trail..
The winter Sun embraced us in its cozy warmth & the ensuing hygge was simply inexplicable! For a while, I wondered what it was to be a village belle, to be wandering along the winding paths, to be inhaling salubrious mountain air, to be sipping the purest of tea, to be cozing with the trees, to be resting in the gentle grass with birdsong for the ears.
We halted at places only to soak in the pervading peace.
Save for the woodnotes of crickets, there was no other & that deepened the mystery.
The Dow Hill Park with its alpine posies, is verily a pretty place.
Unfortunately, a few unruly juveniles in holiday mood were marring the beauty with their exasperating merrymaking.
However, the inner recesses of the park were still — still.
That these deep dark eldritch woods should hold something so angelic, came as a surprise!
Even as the dainty blooms kept us enticed, the woody leviathans made their ghostly presence felt!
What a contrast! On one side of the fence was the impenetrable Dow Forest —spooky & Cimmerian & on the other —the charming glade with mirthful blossoms!
At last, quite excitedly, we set foot into the forest.
Luckily, the youngsters went their way.
When we entered the precincts, we immediately sensed that there was something very arcane about the place.
Snaky tracts led to stony stairways that seemed to lead to backstairs secrets, perhaps deeply buried in the penetralia of this mysterious forest.
It was the perfect place for a soulful Shinrin-yoku (forest bathing, as the Japanese call it).
An uncanny silence greeted us. Yet, every tree had a story to tell!
The blooming understory had seen it all, heard it all & now, was pregnant with backstories of humans who had once inhabited, of star-crossed lovers, of whodunits, of buried secrets & skeletons in the closet!
Strangely, there was not a single chirruping bird, nor a howling beast! The only sounds were those of the cricket & the susurrating leaves, each time a mist billowed past.
Supposedly, it’s this grove that hosts headless humans, red-eyed ghosts, screeching souls & wandering babes!
Even as we stood watching in awe, wisps of mist billowed overhead & eventually enveloped us. A thrilling chill ran down my spine! The scene was literally from a Hindi horror flick…Yet, the heartsease was profound! 🤗
Perhaps it was the notoriety associated that forbade people from visiting the place. Perhaps it was a ploy by forest authorities to keep vandals at bay. And yes, the trees were devoid of unsightly blade marks of hearts & arrows. Whatever it was, we were thankful for the solitude. But surely, the place isn’t for the faint-hearted.
For, there was certainly an air of mystery that hung about.
The woods were lovely, dark & deep & so, we inched further into the woodland & the last traces of sunlight were getting wiped off. It was only 2pm.
Surely, there’s something endearing even about wandering revenants, dispirited spirits & plaintive stories.
Whether these are for real or a figment of human imagination, is not the question. But the dead do add a dash of wonder & awe to the otherwise mundane lives of the living…
Believe me, I for one, do believe in their existence & I’m grateful too, to some who’ve served as guiding beacons.
While our son rambled farther into the weald, we paused awhile, allowing the ambiance to embrace us.
Finding a spot for quiet contemplation, I settled down to meditate. Hoping that the forest nymphs had heard me implore, I awoke exchanging blessings —blessings that this sylvan paradise would remain pristine & out of reach for most.
We had clambered up far beyond the hamlet & had to descend to the foothills. We were out of the woods.
Outside was the same old park with the charming posies. And behind us —the stygian, magnificent jungle. We were glad that we had embraced the dark side…😌
I was reminded of the words, ‘Into the forest I go, to lose my mind & find my soul’…
After sampling savory momos & ginger tea at a village home, we left to explore Kurseong’s other hidden gems.
‘If we listen from the mind of silence, every birdsong & every whispering of the pine branches in the wind, will speak to us’ –Thich Nhat Hanh