Explore Kolkata & West Bengal
One really unmissable part of the Darjeeling experience is the early-morning mass exodus to Tiger Hill to watch the sunrise. This can easily be combined with a visit to the old monastery of Ghoom, and the huge monastery at Sonada on Hill Cart Road towards Siliguri.
Jeeps and taxis packed with tourists leave from Clubside in Darjeeling around 4am each morning, careering 12km through Ghoom to catch the sunrise at TIGER HILL. This incredible viewpoint (2585m) on the eastern extremity of the Singalila Range provides a 360-degree Himalayan panorama, with the steamy plains bordering Bangladesh to the south, the Singalila ridge with Everest beyond to the west, Kanchenjunga and Sikkim to the north, and the Bhutan and Assam Himalayas trailing into the distance to the northeast. From left to right, the peaks include: Lhotse (which actually looks larger than Everest); Everest itself; Makalu; then, after a long gap, the rocky summit of Kang on the Sikkim–Nepal divide; the prow of Jannu in Nepal; Rathong; tent-like Kabru south and north; Talung; Kanchenjunga main, central and south; Pandim; Simvo; horned Narsing; and the fluted pyramid of Siniolchu. As the sun rises from the plains, it lights each one in turn; not yet obscured by the haze of the day, they are bathed in pastel hues.
In peak season, up to 150 Jeeps leave Darjeeling daily, transporting more than two thousand people to the viewpoint in good weather. A Jeep tour with brief stops at Ghoom, the Gurkha War Memorial and the Batasia Loop, organized with one of the operators around Clubside, will cost Rs800 per vehicle or around Rs80 per seat, less off-season. The viewing tower at Tiger Hill provides a warmer but often crowded space to see the sunrise from behind glass: it costs Rs40 for the “Super Deluxe” top floor (including coffee), Rs30 for the floor below, or Rs20 for the viewing platform in addition to the Rs10 vehicle fee. The energetic can opt to walk back from Tiger Hill visiting the gompas of Ghoom on the way.
Singalila treks: the Maneybhanjang–Phalut trail
Singalila treks: the Maneybhanjang–Phalut trail
The single ridge of the Singalila Range rises near Darjeeling and extends all the way to the summit of Kanchenjunga. Unfortunately, although some longer trails have been opened in Sikkim, there is no provision yet to link them to the initial lower sections of the ridge to Sandakphu (3636m) and Phalut (3600m) in Darjeeling District.
Easily accessible from Darjeeling, the later stages of the Maneybhanjang–Phalut trail provide magnificent views of the higher ranges; lightweight expeditions are possible as there are trekking huts and simple food stalls along the way. Several organizations arrange porters, from Rs250 a day as well as guides, as part of all-inclusive packages; amongst others, Trek-Mate in Darjeeling will rent equipment (sleeping bags Rs30 a day, plus Rs1500 deposit). The best time to trek is after the monsoon (Oct & Nov), and during spring (Feb–May). It gets hot at the end of April and into May, but this is an especially beautiful season, with the rhododendrons in bloom.
Maneybhanjang, a small town and roadhead 27km from Darjeeling, is the usual starting point for the route, with the finest views found along the Sandakphu–Phalut section of the trail while trekking north. The Forestry Department levy a fee (Rs150 [Rs100], cameras Rs50) to enter the Singalila National Park, and one has to take a guide. Local guides (Rs300–Rs500) and porters are cheaper, but there have been reports of unreliability due to drunkenness and lack of proper training – Darjeeling agencies are more professional. Foreigners are expected to register with the police at Maneybhanjang and border guards posted along the route are vigilant in checking papers. Taking an early taxi to Maneybhanjang from Darjeeling enables you to start the trek the same day, otherwise you can stay in the basic Kanchenjunga (Rs300 and under) amongst others.
The normal route
Assuming you start from Maneybhanjang, the first day begins with a sharp climb to Meghma, then eases to the hut (Rs300 and under) at Tonglu (3070m). One variation bypasses Tonglu to Tumling where there are lodges like the Shikara (Rs301–500), but most strong walkers should be able to press on to Gairibas, or to Kalipokhari where there are a couple of lodges including Sherpa (Rs301–500).
From Tonglu head on to Kalipokhari and Bikhebhanjang. The trail then rises steeply to Sandakphu (3636m), which has a trekkers’ hut (Rs300 and under), and lodges like the friendly Sherpa Chalet (Rs301–500).
The panorama opens out as you leave Sandakphu, and the trek follows the ridge to Sabarkum. There’s no shelter or food here, but if you drop down to the right for thirty minutes to Molley, you’ll find a trekkers’ hut (Rs300 and under).
Retrace your steps to Sabarkum and continue along the ridge to Phalut (3600m), where there is a trekkers’ hut (Rs301–500). The panorama from here is particularly impressive.
Either retrace your steps to Sandakphu, or follow the trail from Phalut via Gorkhey, which has a trekkers’ hut (Rs300 and under) and the Shanti Lodge (Rs300–700), or on to Ramam (2560m), home of the welcoming Sherpa Hotel (Rs300 and under), and several other lodges. An alternative is to descend from Sabarkum to the pleasant riverside village of Sirikhola where accommodation is available at Goparma Lodge (Rs301–500)
The final day leads to Rimbik (2286m); check with locals before setting off as the route is confusing. In Rimbik there’s the warm and cosy Sherpa (Rs301–500), where they’ll help arrange bus tickets to Darjeeling; alternatives include the Sherpa Tenzing (Rs300 and under) with shared baths, hot water by the bucket and good food. Rimbik is a roadhead served by buses and Jeeps (6–7am, noon–1pm) heading to Darjeeling, or you can set off by taxi or on foot to the idyllic Karmi Farm near Bijanbari (Email bookings only; wwww.karmifarm.com, e[email protected] Rs501–700), overlooking the Ramam river valley with vistas of West Sikkim. The farm makes an excellent base should you wish to do the trek in reverse.