Sipping Darjeeling tea in the clouds
Stop two on my India Tourism-sponsored road trip was three nights in Darjeeling, known as the “queen of the hill stations,” and home of the “toy train” and of course the “champagne of tea.”
I have long wanted to visit Darjeeling and when I was researching and planning my trip, I had also set my heart on getting up at 4 am to drive from Darjeeling to Tiger Hill to watch the sun rise light up the great Himalayan range on my 50th birthday. Luckily for me, both India Tourism and nature cooperated.
I stayed in a Hotel and in the morning I went up to Tiger Hill, March 8, the weather was clear. After waiting in the cold half-light for 30 or 60 minutes, the sun suddenly burst into view in the east, everyone clapped and shouted and the white Himalayan mountains in the west — especially the massive five-peaked Kanchenjunga — started turning various glorious shades of gold and rose as the sun cleared the horizon and climbed into the sky. It is indeed one of nature’s greatest shows on earth and I felt a good way to mark a milestone birthday. I felt truly elated watching this spectacle, it was a dream come true.
Seeing this sun rise from Tiger Hill was on my must-do list; and so was seeing Mount Everest. I saw it the morning of my birthday, and was lucky enough to see how it dominates Darjeeling’s horizon, but then it disappeared into swirls of mist and cloud for the next six days that I was in Darjeeling and Sikkim. I never saw it again. Apparently, the mountain people say that the mountain chooses who it reveals itself to, so I feel blessed to have seen it at all.
From there, my amazing guide Paras suggested we wait until the crowds leave and walk part way down Tiger Hill, which is located within the boundaries of a nature reserve. We got to see the mystical mountain (Kanchenjunga) from various lovely spots and visited a very old and sacred hillside temple dedicated to the goddess Durga.
I felt very moved as the women and the Pandit welcomed us whole-heartedly into the ceremony, and I could feel the sacred spiritual energy of this small, venerable temple that clings to the mountainside facing Kanchenjunga. I thought to myself that this simple temple, set in a natural environment and deeply imbued with sacred energy, suits me so much more than the big, bustling and famous temples.
From the time I was about three years old, my grandmother, Nana, and I used to have tea parties. She bought me a plastic tea set when I was about three; and a china set when I was about seven or eight. Stories and tea went together, and they have both become important to me. I grew up to become a writer and a tea drinker (a tea lover!). So going to Darjeeling was a kind of pilgrimage for me in several ways.
Darjeeling is a special place because of a serendipitous meeting of location and history. Situated way up in the Himalayan foothills, it is presided over by the mighty massif Kanchenjunga. The British discovered that the elevation and conditions were precisely suited to the cultivation of tea, so they began importing tea plants from China and slowly but surely established a thriving tea industry. Even to date, Darjeeling retains the flavour of the colonial past and gives the town a historically rich texture. The “toy train,” which runs on the world’s smallest gauge — it’s ancient steam engines pull two tiny blue bogeys — still runs between Darjeeling and Siliguri.
I took a joy trip on this train, riding for about an hour from Darjeeling down to Ghum. To be honest, though it was very slow and I was occasionally sprinkled with soot from the charcoal-powered steam engine, I much preferred it to the bumpy road. For me, going to Darjeeling really was all about the tea, so I was thrilled to visit my first tea garden. Paras and our driver Ashok made our way through the narrow, crowded winding streets of Darjeeling to the outskirts of town. Darjeeling has become a sprawling city that seems to cling precariously to the side of a mountain. You are always traveling either up or down, and there’s a world of difference between being in the crowded market areas and the many tea gardens that stretch out in every direction covering many hillsides for miles and miles.
In a very short time we reached Happy Valley tea estate, one of the oldest and highest-elevation tea garden in Darjeeling. First I toured the factory, which is basically a functional museum. All the equipment is vintage and seems to be in perfect working order as tea is processed here during the season. Then we went around back and walked out into the tea garden, which was one of the absolute highlights of my stay in Darjeeling.
While in Darjeeling I was very privileged to meet and interview a number of remarkable people. The first was the Mother Superior of Loreto Convent School. Darjeeling is famous for its many outstanding schools, but I was keen to visit Loreto because of its long history in India, Irish connection and because it was Mother Teresa’s order before she left to start Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta. I went from Loreto to the Missionaries of Charity house and orphanage and spoke to two beautiful nuns who told me they take care of about 45 adult women who have nowhere else to go. Walking through the compound, I noticed that many of them seemed to be mentally disabled, though very friendly and warm.
So, I had a busy two-and-half days in Darjeeling, but still had lots of time to relax in my fireplace heated room and on the breathtaking terraces, to shop for tea, to walk the mall and to drink tea, of course. From Windamere I went to Sikkim … but that’s another entry for another day … and then came back to the Darjeeling area (to Kurseong) for my last day in the north-east. In Kurseong, I met the “king” of Darjeeling tea, and drank tea with him while sitting in his drawing room in the shadow of an enormous stuffed Bengal Tiger his grandfather had bagged. But that’s another story!