Darjeeling (India): Not just a cup of tea 4

The first thing I noticed when I entered the arrivals hall at Bagdogra airport in the state of West Bengal was the different faces to the India I’d seen before. India’s diversity became all too apparent. Had my driver not spoken in Hindi, I would have been convinced that I was in another country. Here, in the north east of the country, the proximity to the Himalayan mountains meant that many its people were of Nepali descent.

I was on my way to Darjeeling, the town made famous by its tea. Leaving the plains of India behind, we made a steep ascent into the verdant foothills of the Himalaya. A narrow, winding road followed the curves of the hills. Lining the road, little homes, many with flower boxes, hugged the cliffs. We were far from the city, evident by the simplicity of the homes. Closer to Darjeeling, the road followed the railway tracks, often not wide enough to allow dual traffic.

Darjeeling, seen from the station

Darjeeling, seen from the station

Darjeeling itself sprang to life in the mid 1800’s, when British experimentation found it to be ideal for tea plantations. What set Darjeeling apart, was that that the region produced a distinct and flavoursome tea, which has become widely sought after today. I learnt more about the tea making process on a visit to the Happy Valley Tea Estate, one of many estates open to the public. Surrounded by verdant tea plantations, the factory tour provides a fascinating journey of the camellia sinensis shrub all the way to the porcelain cup. By the end of the tour, I had a renewed respect for that simple drink.

Darjeeling tea estate

One of many tea estates in Darjeeling

Camelia sinensis

Camelia sinensis tea shrub

But Darjeeling is not just about tea. Its high altitude lends itself to amazing views. At the crack of dawn, I joined other tourists on the windy trek in the dark to the observation deck at Tiger Hill. The valleys were covered in mist, and thick clouds obscured the mighty peaks of the Eastern Himalaya, and India’s largest peak, Kanchendzonga. A brief break in the clouds provided a glimpse of the snow-capped mountains, but not nearly long enough to afford the pink sunrise that the crowd had gathered for.

A cloudy view from Tiger Hill

A cloudy view from Tiger Hill

The Himalaya are closer than you would imagine in this part of India, and the Himalayan Mountain Institute is a small but informative museum at the end of Darjeeling town. The large model of the mountain range is reason enough to visit, as it gives a sense of its grandeur. (It’s also where I learnt that Himalaya is a plural form, so adding an s at the end is superfluous.) The museum is alongside zoo for local species. A snow leopard eyed me curiously. But I didn’t see any tigers, both of whom were asleep (just as (wild) tigers eluded me on a visit to Ranthambore National Park a few years ago). It saddened me to see the black bear pacing up and down its enclosure. I’m not a fan of caged wildlife, so I didn’t linger at the zoo for too long.

Black bear at zoo in Darjeeling

Black bear at zoo in Darjeeling

Red panda at Darjeeling's zoo

Red panda at Darjeeling’s zoo

Darjeeling is also renowned for its mountain railway. The 80km Darjeeling Himalayan Railway ends in the town. Covering the full distance would take nine hours, so I instead opted for the one hour steam engine trip to neighbouring Ghoom. There’s something soothing about the hissing and chuck-a-chuck of the steam train as it passes alongside houses and the narrow road, often providing views of the valley below.

Darjeeling steam train engine

Darjeeling steam train engine

Being in Darjeeling after the rush of Delhi (read about it here) was relaxing. I spent some time on my hotel deck watching the changing clouds over the ever present Kanchendzonga and the green valleys below. If I had more time, I would have visited one of the heritage hotels for High Tea – it’s not just Darjeeling tea on offer.

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