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Darjeeling in winter

Darjeeling's Seasons -
High and Low

By Rhoderick Chalmers

There are only two seasons in Darjeeling - high and low, or more often just ‘season’ and ‘off-season’. Despite the disruption caused by political instability in the 1980s, Darjeeling remains economically dependent on the crowds of tourists who flock here in spring and autumn. For the two seasons each come twice a year and high summer and winter will find the hotels, lodges and guest houses equally as abandoned as they are packed for their four months of peak business. Founded by the British in the late 1830s as a ‘sanatorium’ which soon became a fashionable hill station Darjeeling has in some ways changed little in the last century and a half, yet in other ways has reinvented and reasserted itself.

Whatever the season, the best place to start is Chowrasta. Or stop, for that matter, because the inviting benches that ring the wide promenade offer perhaps the finest opportunity in India to simply sit down and watch life go by. In season you may have to wait for a seat but you’ll be offered a tea or coffee by one of the wandering vendors almost immediately. And seeing as wherever you’re staying in this town you’ve almost certainly had to walk uphill to get here you may well be glad of the sticky-sweet energy booster. In anything but the hottest months it will also take the chill out of the morning or evening breeze.

Of course Chowrasta normally smells but that’s not the fault of the town street-sweepers. Chowrasta is the assembly point for the Tibetans’ ponies that offer visitors the chance to make a slow, and decidedly unadventurous, horseback tour of various sights along a well-plodded circuit. They’re just the ever-present foreground to an eclectic mix of buildings ranging from fast-food joints catering to the Indian tourist market to long-established (and eccentric) shops such as Habeeb Mullick’s curio emporium and the Oxford bookstore. On the northern side the ground rises to the Observatory Hill viewpoint while to the south the main drag of the Mall (strictly speaking Nehru Road, but the old name is still in use) descends gently towards the busier parts of town.

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