Darjeeling - Our Cup of Tea
Aug 16, 2008
|It was early morning when we arrived in New Jalpailur (NJP), the gateway to Darjeeling. Making our way through the train station was more difficult than usual as the beggars, taxi touts and jeep drivers seemed more desperate and tenacious here than elsewhere – probably because it was the slow season and tourist numbers are down.
Darjeeling is about a two and a half hour jeep ride from NJP, and almost all the distance seems to be in altitude. NJP has an altitude of 171 meters above sea level, whereas Darjeeling is over 2100 meters above sea level. There are a few different ways of getting from NJP to Darjeeling, but after weighing our options, we decided on a private jeep. Other options include the Himalayan Railway’s diesel train (but it takes 9 hours), or a public bus (but coming off an uncomfortable night train, we didn’t feel like messing around with taxis to the bus station or the slow and cramped bus). Plus we had been advised to avoid taking Indian buses whenever possible. So we ended up in a tattered old Tata jeep. Tata is an Indian car company – it’s been in the news recently for its $2,500 car, which will be the world’s cheapest automobile. The Tata jeep couldn’t have cost much more, and it resembled an ancient Land Cruiser made out of parts that don’t quite fit together properly. But a private jeep is the fastest way to get up to Darjeeling, and renting it ourselves ensured that we would have a comfortable ride and that our bags would be in the trunk instead of on the roof, where they would be vulnerable to the monsoon rains. A lot of the Tata jeeps had red maple leafs painted on the hood or windshield, but we never did find out why.
Our driver took a short cut just outside of NJP and we soon found ourselves driving through an army base/tea plantation. This must be the only army base/tea plantation in the world. We wondered whether the tea plantation was a cover for the army base or vice versa. Very tricky, those Indians.
Leaving the army base/tea plantation the road suddenly inclined at a dramatic 45-degree angle and stayed this way for the next hour. The hills became foothills that, in turn, seemed to stretch greater and higher. I’m not sure whether to describe these hills as mountains, since they are not rocky and are covered in vegetation, but they are higher and bigger than any foothills we’ve ever seen. Appropriate I guess though, since these hills are the gateway to the Himalayas.
The scenery during the drive was beautiful – we passed lush forests and rushing waterfalls. As we gained altitude, the vegetation went from palm trees and tropical flowers to ferns and evergreens. We drove up through several weather systems; alternating between cloud, blue sky, cloud, fog, cloud, downpours, and more cloud. We passed layers and layers of cloud cover – whenever we thought we were finally through the cover and would be bursting out into the blue sky, we simply saw more cloud cover above us. Each time we passed through the clouds the windows would fog up and completely obscure the windshield. The driver must know the road like the back of his hand. Or else he is the luckiest guy in the world as he avoided lethal drops, landslides and deadly switchbacks while driving blindly and wiping the fog off the windshield with one arm out the window. We’ve included a picture of our view through the front windshield during one of the foggy periods.
The road was really only wide enough for one vehicle, and was often washed out or littered with rocks and mounds of dirt from recent landslides. Whenever we came across another tattered old Tata jeep carrying people back down the mountain, one of us usually had to reverse until we found a spot wide enough for the two vehicles to pass.
Strangely, the higher we went, the bigger the towns grew and the more development we saw. At first we passed small individual houses, cafes, guesthouses or general stores sometimes lined the side of the road. The roads were so narrow that half of the small structures would sometimes hang over the sides of the bordering cliffs and have to be supported by stilts. After a couple of hours we started reaching some villages and towns. We passed a train station in one town, and soon we shared the road with train tracks that snaked over the road from the outside to the inside and back out to the outside. The tracks are for the famous Darjeeling Himalayan Railway steam toy train, a UNESCO World Heritage Monument that dates back to 1881. The train takes passengers from Kurseong to Darjeeling and back and is the oldest of its kind in Asia. We followed its two-meter wide tracks all the way to Darjeeling. The air became cool and wet, which was a great relief after the oppressive heat of central and eastern India. In fact, Darjeeling could get fairly cool at night, to the point that we had to bundle up in sweaters and jackets.
Even after our first glimpses, we immediately loved the city. Darjeeling, nicknamed Queen of the Hills, is famous for its spectacular scenery, its tea plantations and its role as the starting point for the earliest Mount Everest expeditions. The British arrived in 1828 and understandably fell in love with the climate and the amazing vistas. In true Imperial British fashion, they forced the Kingdom of Sikkim to ‘voluntarily’ cede the Darjeeling area and merged it with colonial India.
The city of Darjeeling runs along a mountain ridge, and descends down both sides of the ridge for a little ways before the dwellings and narrow streets give way to tea plantations and the thick rain and cloud forests. The slopes are so steep that the streets are basically built on top of each other like a series of switchbacks. The fastest way to change streets is to use the narrow alleys and staircases between the streets, rather than follow the street until it switchbacks up or down. The guidebooks give varying population numbers for Darjeeling that range from 120,000 to 350,000 inhabitants. It is incredible to think that this many people live up there. It’s like driving up to the top on a secluded mountain road and coming across a city roughly the size of Saskatoon.
But Darjeeling’s size is deceiving. Despite the population numbers, Darjeeling has the feel of a small mountain town. This may be because most of the buildings look like wooden chalets and there are no really big structures or developments. This ‘small town’ feeling may also be caused by the winding roads, steep hillsides and cloud cover that obscure most of the city from view. During the rainy season, the cloud cover and fog also creates a feeling of being insulated. It was kind of a cozy, secluded feeling that we welcomed.
However, the downside is that the cloud obscured most of Darjeeling’s celebrated views. Although we could see down to the valleys below and enjoy the incredible views of the surrounding foothills, we could not see the Himalayan peaks that remained hidden in the monsoon clouds. During any other season we would have seen Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world, towering over the landscape. At least two times a day we went like pilgrims to the lookout points to try to catch a glimpse of the Himalayan peaks. We never did see the immense snowy peaks of the Himalayas, but we never left disappointed with the vistas that presented themselves.
Darjeeling’s citizens are mostly Gorkhas/Gurkhas, who were brought by the British from Nepal to act as labourers on the tea plantations. The Gorkha culture is still the prevalent culture of the area, and includes a unique style of dress, language and a blend of Buddhist and Hindu beliefs. As a result of their influence, the Darjeeling area has a different feeling and flavour than the rest of India. The Gorkhas were recruited and used by the British army, even after Indian Independence, and have a reputation as fierce and capable soldiers. They are a proud and independent people – the Gorkha flag, with the legendary Gorkha knife, is a common sight throughout the city. Since Indian Independence, the Gorkha Liberation Front has struggled for an independent nation state. Although the Darjeeling Gorhka Hill Council, a semi-autonomous political body, already governs the area, the Gorkhas continue to demand greater autonomy. They routinely hold strikes, demonstrations and protests in support of this cause. We woke up one morning to the cries of “We want Gorkhaland, Gorkhaland, Gorkhaland!!!” We made it to the town square in time to see a large group of marchers and protesters, with flags, banners and signs, making their way through Darjeeling’s snaking streets. For the rest of the morning, most businesses were closed in support of the march. But by the afternoon, everything had re-opened again with no resulting tensions or concerns between the Indian and Gorkha populations.
The city itself has a very British feel to it, undoubtedly due to the colonial past. It seems like it was more of a British settlement. We passed old clock towers, Anglican churches and colourful cottages and houses resembling those one would see in Devon. And, of course, there is the tea connection. High tea is still a draw for most of the area hotels. Darjeeling is also somewhat of an education hotspot. There are numerous boarding and private schools in the area. In the afternoon, the streets are filled with groups of kids, all in various school uniforms, returning from school to their dorms.
We stayed at Alice Villas. It was a nice little place with old rooms and a sitting area with big windows where we could watch for the Himalayan peaks that never showed. Our room had a main sitting room with a little fireplace, and a loft upstairs with a bed and TV. We were happy for the TV and the Olympic coverage, but were soon disappointed to see that the Indian channels continued to broadcast only the archery, shooting and badminton events. Who knew there were so many shooting and archery events? And are they even really sports? We should have them replaced with something that Canadians are good at – like lacrosse or extra trampoline events.
The next morning we enjoyed a breakfast of porridge of Darjeeling tea, both served with steamed milk and sugar. We discovered that the Darjeeling workday is shorter than most, with most restaurants and other businesses open only from 10:00 am to 7:00 pm. After breakfast we set out for the Padmaha Naidu Himalayan Zoo and the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute.
The mountaineering institute was founded in 1954 and has provided training for some of India’s leading mountaineers. There are courses that an average person can take as well. Within the complex, the Everest Museum traces the history of some of the famous successful and unsuccessful attempts to Everest’s summit. There were great pictures and interesting displays of old gear used by the climbers - including some of Hillary and Norgay’s equipment. The Institute also has a shrine and small memorial commemorating the spot where Tenzing Norgay was cremated. He lived in Darjeeling for most of his life and was the director of the Institute for many years. The complex was very interesting, inspiring and a definite ‘must see’.
We then continued on to the zoo. It was established in 1958 to study, conserve and preserve Himalayan animals. Although neither of us usually likes the idea of zoos, we both really enjoyed this one. The animals are housed in large forested areas and they appeared to be treated well. The zoo has India’s only captive Siberian tigers. We were also able to see Himalayan black bears, red pandas, snow leopards and Tibetan wolves. The zoo also has a successful breading program for the red panda, which really looks nothing like at panda at all. The strangest thing about the zoo was the monkey exhibit. It seemed useless, since the same type of monkeys are running wild throughout the town.
Darjeeling doesn’t have much of a nightlife. We searched for the recommended pubs in order to have a drink or tow, meet some other travelers and get a break from Olympic archery coverage, but we found most of them boarded p and shut down. Glenary’s, in particular, was one that we were looking forward to since it was said to provide decent meals, good company and lots of travel advice. But the doors were bolted and the windows broken. We went to Joey’s pub one night. It’s Gorkha owner had apparently spent one year in Britain and wanted to create a British pub in Darjeeling. We can’t fault him for trying, but the damp, dark place wasn’t particularly inviting or comfortable. They did have Carlsberg on tap though, so some bonus points for that. So most nights were spent back in our hotel room reading books, watching archery, and finding other ways of procrastinating instead of writing our travel journal.
Although the nightlife wasn’t great, we found that the restaurants were excellent. We enjoyed delicious Indian meals at Hotel Lunar, a vegetarian place, and Park Restaurant. Park restaurant had the best tandoori chicken. We also enjoyed eating breakfast and enjoying the local tea at numerous little cafes and restaurants.
We woke up very early one morning - 3am early – in order to make the jeep journey to the Tiger Hill Observatory. This is supposed to be the best place for views of the big Himalayan peaks – it offers a 250 km view of the Himalayan horizon, including Everest, Lhotse and Kanchenjunga. We went so early because that is when the cloud cover is supposed to be the lightest. And people always seem to make a big deal out of the sunrise. We don’t know why - sunsets are way better, and don’t require waking up very early in the morning. Tiger Hill is 11km south of Darjeeling, but is another 300 meters higher in altitude. We got there just before 5am and were excited to see something…anything. Besides paying for our transportation, we had to pay an additional entrance fee for the park. There is another entrance fee to use the observation tower, a fee that increases with the level of the tower. The higher you want to go, the more you have to pay.
It was still very dark, and we only paid for the park access and were therefore unable to go into the tower at all. We just sat in the car in the parking lot and drank sweet milk tea from old lady vendors that wandered the parking lot with kettles and paper cups. And we waited. We saw only darkness. “The darkness will soon fade,” said our guide. So we waited some more. The darkness faded. We saw only fog. “The fog will soon fade,” said our guide. So we waited some more. The fog faded. We saw only cloud. “This cloud will not fade,” said our guide. So we left.
We must have sat in the car at Tiger Hill for almost three hours. At the worst point, we couldn’t see our hands in front of our faces. At best, we probably saw only 20 feet down the road. Definitely not the 250km view we were expecting. Very disappointing, but it was rainy season, after all.
After a brief nap, we came up with a new plan. If we couldn’t see the mountains from Darjeeling, we would just have to go closer to the mountains. We looked at our schedule and decided that it would be possible to fit in a 2 or 3-day trek. Darjeeling is supposed to be one of the best places to book these treks, so we went off in search of a travel/guide store. The first guy we talked to told us that the mountains were closed, but he would be happy to take us for a two-day hike through forests. How can the Himalayas be closed? We didn’t realize they kept business hours. A walk through a forest really didn’t appeal to us, so we went searching for another guide. We were told the same thing – the mountains are closed. Lazy mountains – don’t they ever work? We finally talked to someone with a larger English vocabulary who told us that all the trails go through a national park, and that the national park is currently closed to visitors because it is the red panda’s mating season. Park officials don’t want tourists ruining the mood. So the trek was out of the question. I guess we just weren’t meant to see the Himalayas this time.
We could only stay at Alice Villas for three nights because the hotel was booked up for the Independence weekend – booked by Indian parents visiting their privately schooled children. We moved to the other side of town to Andy’s Guesthouse. Andy’s is a nice, clean, no frills kind of place that was half the price of Alice Villas. The rooms don’t have TVs though, so we missed some of the pivotal Olympic archery rounds. Regardless, we really liked this guesthouse and wished that we had stayed there from the start. We also found a nice little three-table café just up the street that we really enjoyed as well. The café was filled with books and we were able to exchange some of our old books just in time for the next train ride to Delhi.
On our last full day in Darjeeling, we hiked down to the Happy Valley Tea Estate for a tour of the tea fields and the processing plant. Happy Valley is the sole provider for all Harrods Darjeeling teas and there were a lot of Harrods signs along the road down to the plant reminding us of this fact. It was August 15th, India’s Independence Day, and the town was very quiet. We had gotten lost trying to find the plantation earlier in our stay, but we were able to make it there this time. The Plantation is right at the edge of town, and is surrounded by houses on top, houses off to the side and forests below. The views of Darjeeling were awesome. The air was damp and cool and smelled of tea. We walked past the rows of tea shrubs and saw only one lone worker hunched over, picking leaves.
We arrived at the processing plant but found it closed because of the holiday. We noticed a little chalet/café/store at the end of the road and an older lady invited us in for a cup of tea. She told us that she would explain the whole tea-making and tea-drinking process to us, including the apparently famous 5-second tea, and in return we could buy some tea from her if we so wanted. We settled in to the little living room in the chalet and our host put four bowls of dried tea leaves in front of us. She then explained why the Happy Valley tea is superior Darjeeling tea (organic, no chemicals, etc.) and that there are different qualities of Darjeeling tea depending on what part of the tea leave is used.
The best of the best is the Super Fine Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Piko Number One, which uses only the tops of young tea leaves. This tea is so good that it only has to steep for 5 seconds and it can be reused again within days. Of course, we were then given the opportunity to buy the Super Fine Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Piko Number One directly from our host. She explained that, while the Happy Valley Tea Estate pays their tea pickers very little (around one dollar a day), the workers are allowed to take a certain amount of tea home for their own use. Instead of taking the dried tea home, the workers give it all to this lady, who then sells it for them to tourists who come looking for the Estate tour. Essentially, they competing against their own employer by stealing their employer’s customers and selling them their employer’s own product. Genius! We had to get in on that action, so we bought three bags of the Super Fine Tippy Flowery Orange Piko Number One. At least we think it is the Super Fine Tippy Flowery Orange Piko Number One, but can you really trust people who take their own employer’s product and compete against them by selling to the employer’s own customers on the side? We don’t think so either.
We woke up early the next morning in order to book our tickets on that night’s train from NJP to Delhi. We got Second Class tickets on the evening train, but we paid a little more than we wanted to. Returning from the train station, we came across some kind of religious ceremony in the square. There was a small parade of dancing people with drums, flags, and painted faces, while others had formed a circle around some golden urns filled with palm leaves. We never did find out what was happening.
Andy’s Guesthouse was nice enough to hold our bags for the day and let us use the bathrooms even though we had checked out that morning. After haggling over the price, we then booked another tattered old Tata jeep to take us from Darjeeling back down to NJP so we could catch the night train. This ride was frustratingly long. There were traffic jams for the first hour and a half – usually caused by two vehicles trying to pass when the road was to narrow. Of course, before they had a chance to reverse and find another place to pass, a line of vehicles had formed behind them, blocking the way back. Total gridlock. Lots of shouting, honking and waiting ensued. This happened continuously. Fortunately, we gave ourselves a lot of time to make our train.
Unfortunately, we gave ourselves too much time to make the train, and had a couple of hours to kill in the NJP train station. Train stations in India are generally not fun places to hang out, and this one is no different. We did, however, find a waiting room for upper class passengers. This made us feel quite special… until the toilet overflowed in the woman’s washroom. We nervously ate a vegetarian thali dinner from the station’s cafeteria – and worried of what the food might do to us while we are on the train. As you can imagine, the train’s facilities are not the nicest. But we were facing a 24-hour train, had missed lunch, and did not have any groceries for the train. So we had to eat something.
Rebecca had another nervous moment when the police and police dogs came in to inspect all the baggage in the upper class waiting room. We were suddenly worried that maybe the 400 grams of Super Fine Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Piko Number One would turn out to be some other type of Super Tippy plant product common to India. Fortunately, the dog just left a pool of drool on my bag and moved on.
We got on to the train and, wouldn’t you know it, were immediately served dinner. It turns out that our tickets include the cost of meals, which explains why they were more expensive than we anticipated. We were relieved though, because we had started the 24 hour train ride without enough food or water and had hoped to buy some along the way. No need for that anymore. The food wasn’t great, and even included ice cream for dessert. We were also happy to see that we had the whole compartment to ourselves.
We left Darjeeling in high spirits. Our stay in the mountain city had left us feeling relaxed, refreshed and ready to take on the challenges of India once again. The past couple of weeks in India had really roughed us up and burnt us out. We really enjoyed our stay in Darjeeling and we easily concluded that it was our favourite place in India. It was not as hot, dirty, poor, or as hectic as where we had been, and it was just what we needed after working our way up Eastern and Central India so quickly. We’ve actually started to like India again. Imagine that?
I just wonder how long this new appreciation will last…