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Darjeeling Un-limited: When Local Service Is Best

  • Mika Santos
  • 2 August 2010

The Darjeeling Limited, albeit from only 2007, has already become a Wes Anderson film classic. Featuring Darjeeling and many other towns in India, the movie tells a tale of three brothers travelling around the country on the Darjeeling Express train searching for their long-lost mother. It’s a story of how one epic trip can turn into a journey of rediscovery – of the world, of relationships and especially of ourselves. It has also stuck Darjeeling, a name already well known for the world-class tea it produces, even more firmly in people’s imagination as one of India’s most promising destinations.

The Himalaya's Kanchenjunga massif

The Himalaya's Kanchenjunga massif is the third-highest mountain in the world and dominates Darjeeling's majestic skyline

Keeping up with Demand… Responsibly

There are a lot of things to see and do in Darjeeling. The cool climate and relatively small size make it a perfect getaway from the sultry temperatures and urban sprawl of India’s other major urban centres. Mountaineers and outdoor enthusiasts will love the numerous trails to and through the Himalayas that dominate the horizon, as well as the different adventure activities like river rafting and camping. For history, there’s nothing better than a ride on the famous Toy Train or a visit to the National History Museum, the latter of which also features the animals of the Himalayan region.

But, of course, there is so much more to Darjeeling than its list-topping tourist attractions.

As more and more travellers make the uphill voyage to Darjeeling, the semi-rural town at 2,134 metres above sea level has been had to adjust to increased demand. Fortunately, while the rising influx of tourists has created new opportunities for the local community, the need for responsible and sustainable development has not been lost in the rush. And one local tour operator, Tathagata Journeys, the whl.travel local connection in Darjeeling, has been leading by example. “Darjeeling is an eco-zone, so we need to be more careful about the environment, culture and local sensibilities,” commented Pravin Tamang, one of the company’s co-directors. “Culture and tradition demand respect and we need to work on it on a regular basis to reinforce this idea of being responsible.”

The historic Darjeeling Himalayan Railway is nicknamed the "Toy Train"

Nicknamed the "Toy Train," the historic Darjeeling Himalayan Railway is just 2 feet wide and approximately 86 kilometers long

Finding the Value in Connecting Locally

Doing their part to take care of their hometown, Tathagata Journeys’ team members work closely with the local community, passing on the benefits of commercial success and environmental awareness. They place a special emphasis on direct consultation and experimentation in developing travel products. One example is cooking classes with locals. Tathagata sees any possible missteps made by the home managers new to the experience of teaching cooking to travellers as part of a learning process that benefits visitors, hosts and local tourism as a whole. “We value the involvement and local experience that our travellers get, so it is a win-win situation for us all,” continued Pravin’s brother Navin Tamang, the company’s other co-director. “Travellers get to see the real Darjeeling and we get to learn from our experiences and contributions towards local tourism development.”

In line with their firm belief in local travel, Pravin and Navin established the Tathagata Farm, a remote organic Himalayan farmstay. Here guests are accommodated in a simple yet comfortable farm setting, where they learn about organic tea farming – an economic mainstay of Darjeeling. Travellers are encouraged to participate in the tea-plucking ceremonies as well as walking tours of the town.

Visitors to the small Himalayan state of Darjeeling can take part in visits to local village schools

Visitors to the small Himalayan state of Darjeeling can take part in visits to local village schools

To enhance the local and experiential qualities of time spent in Darjeeling, Tathagata Journeys encourages travellers to wine and dine at the local eateries. There’s a delightful mix of options made possible by Darjeeling’s Tibetan, Nepali, Bengali and Muslim communities, each of which has a fantastic cuisine. The smaller restaurants often make the best food and busier joints are usually the safest places to eat. Darjeeling is also full of excellent food stalls giving truth to the belief that eating with your hands makes the food taste better.

On every Tathagata Journeys Darjeeling tour, travellers are strongly encouraged to make friends with the people of the town. They are brought to local shopping districts, eat in the local restaurants and learn the secrets behind their world-famous tea produce. The Darjeeling Limited is no way to describe a visit to Darjeeling. The possibilities are actually limitless and, just as happens in the film, a simple vacation could turn into a life-changing journey of self-discovery. Isn’t that the best kind of travel there is?

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Mika Santos

Mika Santos is Regional Content Editor and Programme Development Manager for the WHL Group in the Asia-Pacific region. Born and raised in the tropical Philippine Islands, she loves the outdoors and anything to do with the ocean, from surfing and scuba diving to the laid-back lifestyle around it. She also lives to travel in her own country, around Southeast Asia and the rest of the world. She shares her love for the Philippines through photos here.
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agriculture, Asia, ecotours, food & drink, India, local knowledge, mountains, outdoors, responsible travel, South-Central Asia,

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