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Sunrise at Tiger Hill, Darjeeling – freeze and hike for the golden reveal

A trip to Darjeeling is incomplete without a visit to the highest peak in the Darjeeling hills, the Tiger Hill. The sight of the rising sun from beyond the mountains and the orange blush it paints on the Mt. Kanchenjunga is a sight that is unparalleled.

They say that human brain is divided into two halves. The right half is responsible for all creative things and imagination where as the left dominates logic. I thought it was all theory and had little to no practical relevance. However on a chilly December morning, I could feel this difference as one part of my brain was painting silhouettes of a sun rising out of darkness in the midst of foggy hills, where as the other was trying hard to convince me to continue sleeping under the cozy blanket.

It was December 23, we were at Darjeeling, the quintessential hill station in west Bengal. Today we were supposed to go to the Tiger Hill to catch a sunrise. Since we had to beat the sun that day, meant we had to leave for Tiger Hill at 4 AM (yes AM).

My alarm rang at 3:30 AM, my sleep was gone in an instant but I simply wasn’t able to convince myself to come out of that warm blanket. Even thought I was not sleeping, I involuntarily had snoozed my alarm for the 4th time. Left brain saying ‘let it go, it’s just a sun rise. Sleep’, right saying, ‘get up, it will be the best sunrise. You can sleep as much as you want later?’

Finally my right side won the fight; I reluctantly kicked my blanket aside, pulled my bag and started looking for my brush. I came down from the hotel to the road to see the sleepy faces of my friends. We were in a group of 12 and right now all of us looked like we were zombies standing on the road. None of us can truly be qualified as awake. Some of us were clever enough to buy winter gloves the evening before and the rest were trying hard to conceal their exposed hands inside the pockets of their jackets. Our cab came 10 minutes late, but as soon as it was there everyone jumped in, the driver put the car in the first gear, I turned on the heater and off we went.

Table of contents:

Tiger hill – The place.
Tiger hill – Trekking in the dark.
The Sun Rise and its affect all around.

Tiger Hill – The Place

Tiger Hill is located 11kms (6.8 miles) from Darjeeling town. It’s the highest point in Darjeeling hills at an altitude of 8482 feet (or 2590 meters).

One can go to Tiger Hill any time during the day and soak in the Himalayan atmosphere, but it is the sunrise that attracts most tourists to the hill early in the morning. And by most tourists I mean everyone in Darjeeling. Quite literally all the cabs of the area were rushing towards the same direction, jam-packed with people.

As we neared the Tiger Hill, the traffic was getting denser. Trail of tail lamps from cars ahead of us could be seen making a near vertical line due to the steep gradient of the hill. It looked like a ladder made out of red tail lamps reaching towards the sky. It was quite evident that there was no way the car could reach the top of the hill in time for us to catch the sunrise, thus our driver told us to get down, start walking towards the top and give him a call once we come back.

Tiger Hill – The Trek

As soon as I came down I blamed myself for turning on the heater in the car. It was so good inside that now it feels like someone dumped me in the middle of ice cold waters. I could feel how Jack must have felt when Titanic went down leaving him to shiver his way to death. The temperature must be hovering around 0 °C, with a faint wind blowing. We all were from Odisha, which has a hot tropical climate, this simply was torture.

Have you ever tried to brisk walk on slippery surfaces? Try it. It will give you a whole new outlook of human anatomy. The pathway leading to the hill had lot of foliage which had accumulated dew overnight. That dew had turned to frost owing to the sub zero temperature. At points where there was no frost I was walking will full pace, then all of a sudden my foot will fall in a patch of grass that had frost on it, and I would slip. To prevent myself from hitting the ground I would try to balance out the slip with my other leg and arms or anything I could land my hands on. Muscles from all over my body started to raise questions on why I was subjecting them to this.

Frost accumulated on grass. Picture taken after the sun was out, but this gives a pretty good idea of what I am talking about.

We trekked for about half an hour to reach the top of Tiger Hill, the flash light from our cell phone was the only source of light for the entire duration. By this time our group of 12 had split to smaller factions, owning to different walking pace. There was no way we could find each other as it was still pitch dark and there was little cell phone reception on top of that hill. The small faction I was in started a frantic search for a vantage point which would provide a clear view of the sunrise.

You might be confused from the above statement as Tiger Hill is the highest point in Darjeeling, then what was causing a disruption in getting a clear line of sight? Well it’s not the geography of the place but the tourists those had accumulated there. Any direction we looked we could see at least 3 rows of people standing between us and the edge of the hill. It was like the whole population of Darjeeling and some surrounding hills had decided to party on that small piece of rock. Last time I had witnesses such a large crowd crammed up in one place, it was inside a Kolkata metro train in rush hour. The demographic was also varied. There were kids as small as 2 year old and older folks who could be well into their 60s, everyone clamoring to get to a better place from where to get the uninterrupted view.

There is an observation building on the hill but that was under renovation (or expansion). The two floors were standing on stilt but that didn’t deter people from scaling it up. Many fortunate souls had found place on the stairs of that building and they could afford to sit while waiting for the sun to rise. Rest all were damned to stand till they drop. We tried and used all our crowd maneuvering skills to get ourselves to position from where we could at least get a good view of the sun rise and its affect on Mt. Kanchenjunga. They say on a perfect day, the orange tint caused by the rising sun falls on the mountain in such a way that it looks like gold dust spread on the snow. I have been imagining the picture in my head since last evening.

There were shops on top of the hill selling woolens, souvenirs, and most importantly coffee. Noting could beat having a cup of coffee on top of the tallest hill of Darjeeling in a cold winter morning. Although I am a ‘chai’ person but there I must have gulped down 2 or 3 cups. More than drinking the coffee it was more relieving to just hold that warm cup in my palms. The warmth was all that was needed.

The Sun Rise and its affect all around

In a few minutes the dark sky had turned to a shade of purple, indicating the arrival of the Sun. We were now able to distinguish faces and only then I realized that our group of 4 was actually a group of 3. One person was running around with us since some time and we didn’t know him. He also looked as confused and went away looking for his friends.

First sign of an imminent sun rise.

Within a few minutes the sky started picking up more light, the purple shade started to morph into various colors of dawn. The sky was taking the colors of red, violet and orange, in perfect harmony. Mt Kanchenjunga was now starting to get visible. It was the first aurora which got reflected in the snow covered peak of Kanchenjunga like an orange blush. The sight was breathtaking. Sun had risen like a small orange ping pong ball in the eastern sky. The visual was something I had only imagined in my dreams but watching it in person was a completely different experience. My left side brain was thanking my right side now. I hope my words could describe the beauty.

The first rays of the sun falls on Mt. Kanchenjunga and paints it Orange.

Technology still has some distance to go. The picture in no way does justice to the true beauty of a snow capped mountain painted orange.

The sun was now in a hurry to rise turning from a small ping pong ball to a big orange, spreading its light all around. I realized that the moment will be over now in matter of seconds. The towns underneath was becoming visible, I could get the glimpses of Darjeeling spread across the hills. The atmosphere was just perfect. Imagine a cold winter morning, with a hot cup of coffee in your hand and in front of you a mountain changing color with every passing moment. Only thing playing spoil sport right now was the clamor in the background caused by the million tourists who had gathered there. Can’t complain much as this is exactly what being at a touristy place means.

Slowly Kanchenjunga, the entire Tibetan mountain range became visible. We could now see the beautiful layers of overlapping valleys and small towns at a distance. The increment of visibility also allowed for us to find our long lost friends amidst the crowd.

Layers of valleys of Darjeeling
Town as seen from the top of Tiger Hill

The treat was over and the crowd started to disperse. We started our descend from Tiger Hill stopping for pictures whereever we could. It could be said without doubt that the pain and agony of scaling the mountain in the dark and waking up so damn early in the morning has paid off. It is true that we had to endure a lot, all leading up to witnessing something that lasts for such a small time. Perhaps that is the beauty of a moment- it passes away while the memory lingers in the mind. Tiger Hill is not overrated; it’s just too small to host so many tourists, leading to chaos. All in all it was a great start to an eventful day ahead.

6 replies on “Sunrise at Tiger Hill, Darjeeling – freeze and hike for the golden reveal”

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