Tiger Hill is a favourite early morning destination for holidaymakers in Darjeeling. Join them at your peril. You will be jostling with droves of loud tourists impatient to get their photos taken against the backdrop of the Kangchendzonga Range. It is much more civilised to walk up and reach by late afternoon, catch the evening views and, if you aren’t in too much of a hurry, you may even opt to spend the night and catch the sunrise before the big rush of tourists starts.
If you have indulged in too much food and drink, this day hike will help you get trim. Mountaineers and trekkers, scheduled for the higher altitude treks in Sikkim, usually do this walk as part of their acclimatisation, and to get their bodies into a comfortable rhythm. If you have your kids along on the trip, don’t worry. Just rent a pony or two from the stables at Chowrasta, put them astride, and let them follow. They will happily play cowboy for the rest of the day. Besides walking on this pretty nature trail along old forests, you can even get a glimpse of Tibetan Buddhist culture.
Stop at the old Mag Dhog Yolmowa Gompa, built by the Ven Sangay Lama of Yolmo, during the First World War in 1914. Mag Dhog means to ward off war, and that one is dedicated to world peace. The interior of the monastery has murals depicting the Buddha in different forms and mudras, painted with natural mineral and vegetable paints in the Tibetan art style prevalent in the region. It houses ancient Termas, the esoteric, secret teachings of the great Tibetan Buddhist masters. You can stop here and buy Tibetan and Sikkimese handicrafts and religious objects from the monks.
Another interesting stopover on this trail is the ancient Buddhist graveyard, two turns before you reach the monastery. In the old days, Tantric lamas used to practise the Chod ritual where they would allow spirits to ‘feed’ on their bodies to gain greater tantric powers. This was done in the middle of the night at this graveyard. Good thing the hike takes you past the spot in broad daylight. Locals still believe that if you happen to walk past this route at dusk, evil spirits are likely to pounce on you! The tombs lie in an unkempt state, overrun by ferns and mosses, and the graveyard is full of beautiful, ageing Japanese pines (Cryptomeria japonica) and oak trees. You wouldn’t believe it when you see just how urbanised Darjeeling has become, but the woods of this area are home to a number of birds and animals. Look out for the endangered hill partridge, the broad-billed warbler and the white-tailed robin. Stinging nettles en route!
DISTANCE 13-14 KM TIME 5 HOURS
The hike starts from Chowrasta in Darjeeling (2,134m), going past the stables on the quiet but wide Tenzing Norgay jeep track, past the settlements of Toong Soong and Aloo Bari, with its old monastery. The greenery around Aloo Bari thickens and you enter a peaceful area away from the mad rush of Darjeeling. Along the route to Jorebungalow, you will pass a few small hamlets, inhabited by the Tamangs, Rais and Bhutias, who trace their roots to Tibet. Stop here for a meal of local food. Besides the ubiquitous momos, try the gundruk with rice and the sel roti with dum aloo.
En route, there are many spots where you can just lie down in the bright sunlight and enjoy the solitude, particularly Money Point, marked by a cheery little brook, 3 km beyond the Mag Dhog Monastery. Just before you reach the dingy, damp town of Jorebungalow, there is a trail to the right, climbing up for about 2 km. It ends at the Jalapahar Cantonment, a British Raj remnant, and the way to St Paul’s School. This area has been the training ground of the Gorkhas for centuries.
On returning from Tiger Hill, you can walk back to Darjeeling town via Jalapahar and catch lovely views of the Kangchendzonga, and the hills around Darjeeling, even the far away Kurseong, Mirik, and Sandakphu, and the distant plains of Bengal. From Jorebungalow, you can hike up about a kilometre to visit the Jathe Rinpoche Monastery, associated with the Nyingmapa school of Buddhism. Or carry on to Tiger Hill. From Jorebungalow, you have two options to reach Tiger Hill. The first is to walk up the motorable route, but the second trail will have you move further outside the town and into wilderness.
A couple of hours climb through woods will bring you to Senchal Lake (2,529m), located on a plateau. It is the source of drinking water for Darjeeling. The forest here is evergreen and wooded, with a mix of the many species of the rhododendrons along with remnant oak, bamboo thickets, ferns and wild orchids. Locals believe that the woods are enchanted. The forest spirit, called the Banjhakri, takes on different forms of animals and birds. Throughout the hike, one will come across miniature shrines devoted to the spirits of the woods. Just before finally climbing up to the top of the hill, you will come across a creek from where you can see the terraces of Tiger Hill and the ancient temples above. A few minutes later, the trail joins the jeep track, which glides up from Jorebungalow. Another easy kilometre and Tiger Hill is reached.
As one stands atop the Tiger Hill, one is absolutely enchanted by the panoramic views of the guardians of Tibet. The tallest is the Kangchendzonga, to the left, as is the road to Lhasa, the ice-covered Jelep La Pass into Tibet. The top of Everest forms a straight line to Tiger Hill, 172 km away. Chomolari, on the border of Bhutan, and the Yatung Valley are also clearly seen. The other peaks visible are Makalu, Pandim, Kabru, Siniolochu, Kothang, Janu, Pandim, Simvu, Kumbakaran and Ratong. Also visible from here are the great rivers tumbling into the plains of Bengal — the Teesta, Mahanadi, Balasun and the Mechi, all meandering southwards.
Take a few minutes to hike uphill to the cave temples, said to be dated from the Satya Yug. Here resides the guardian deity of Tiger Hill. Even though it is a shrine devoted to Shiva, people of all faiths claim this as home of their favourite deities. One cave is believed to have its exit 76 km away, in Siliguri! If you wish to see a sublime sunrise, camp overnight. There is abundant water and space in the grounds, to the right of the welcome gate. Early next morning, if you are lucky with the weather, hold your breath. You will see the most awesome sight of the sun gilding over the Great Himalayan Range. On your return, either catch a jeep taxi or walk to Darjeeling via Jalapahar.
By Tashi Tobgyal
About the Author: Born in Darjeeling, Tashi Tobgyal has always been a travel enthusiast. He has explored much of the Himalayas, including remote areas like the Mustang and Dolpo on the Nepal-Tibet border. His present work as photo researcher at Outlook Traveller Getaways keeps him in Delhi, but doesn’t prevent him from daydreaming about making a documentary on the salt-traders of Dolpo.