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Archived International Travel Highlights

A Journy to the Shangri-La of Tea: Darjeeling

FlowersIt is hard to sum up all that my senses have been absorbing over the last few days.  I write this from Darjeeling, the hill station and tea capital that I have long dreamed of visiting.  The images I have attached convey something of the unique character of this location as well as its breathtaking beauty.  Known as the queen of hill-stations, it is 2134 metres or 7000 feet above sea level.  It was given to the East India Company by the King of Sikkim in 1835.

It took some getting to, mind you.  A ten-hour train ride (overnight) from Kolkata/Calcutta, then a four-hour jeep ride from Siliguri.  The ascent from the plains was rapid and before long we were reaching for our fleeces, after the oppressive pre-monsoon heat of Kolkata.  We rode the switchback turns, but on a couple of occasions had to wait patiently in traffic jams in small towns as the jeeps negotiated the narrow roads.  At one point the famous narrow-gauge 'toy train' overtook us, and that travels at walking pace!   The wait gave us a chance to view the hundreds of school children, so spruced up in their various uniforms, heading to school in the early morning. 

Our jeep driver took the back road into Darjeeling which was a little hairy in places, but offered spectacular views.  It allowed him to drop us right at the hotel rather than lower down in the town, in which case we would have had to avail ourselves of porters to carry our bags up—as vehicles are not permitted on many of the roads.  The hotel was a welcome sight—decked out in Buddhist flags and surrounded by a delightful English garden.  The Tibetan owner is a special assistant to the Dalai Lama.  The 17th century building has magnificent views over the mountainous landscapes, as well as the bustling pedestrian mall where street hawkers ply their wares from pashminas to garish toys for children, and tourists contemplate the Tibetan and Indian arts stores, and decide which of those turquoise necklaces and silver bracelets they will go home with.

View of the mountains in the early morningEven though April and May are purportedly the best months weather-wise, the sunny mornings are often compromised in the afternoons by swirling mountain mists and cooling rain.  But apparently this type of weather is just what people come for as an escape from sultry city heat.  But if you want to see the mountains, you have to get up early and take the popular loop walk to espy the majestic snow-capped peaks.  I must admit to being somewhat obsessed with peak-watching.  It is almost like a game—deciding whether it is a mountain or a cloud, amidst the ambiguous, shape-shifting effects of high-elevation weather patterns.  I am pretty sure by now that I have seen the summit of India's largest mountain, the magnificent Mt. Kanchenjunga.  It is only a few hundred metres smaller than the king of all mountains, Mt. Everest. 

Others are clearly less fazed by being in sight of the Eastern Himalayan range, and the four highest peaks in the world!  Elderly residents walk around the loop manipulating their prayer beads, well-to-do vacationers from various parts of India stroll in family or peer groups, many unable to switch off their cell phones, children take pony rides, and the local Tae Kwondo youth group do their morning stretches at the viewpoints.  There are fewer Western tourists than I expected—many of the younger ones look like they have come ready to stay in this mountain paradise.  Let's not forget the monkeys who dance among the trees ready to swoop down on unoffered treats.  Approaching the temple in the woods, there are beggars who appear in the morning hour, eager to relieve you of your small change.  For a scholar of religion such as myself, with a particular interest in the relationship between religion and conflict, it is exciting to find shrines and temples in this area where Buddhism and Hinduism overlap and merge.  The influence of Tibetan Buddhism is strongly felt, not just in the imagery but also in the ubiquitous pictures of the Dalai Lama and Free Tibet publicity in monasteries, shops, and on vehicles.  Our trip to the Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Centre, founded in the late 1950s, was very enjoyable and instructive.  One can watch the elderly women spinning the wool and the younger women making the world-famous carpets.  And yes, I did order one but it won't appear for a year because of the backlog!! 

View of Monestary and mountains tea plantation

A visit to Darjeeling would be incomplete without a tour of a tea plantation.  We trekked down through the town, through the winding streets of buildings perched on the steep hillsides, to the Happy Valley Tea Plantation.   This is one of the largest and oldest (104 years old) of the 80+ tea plantations in the area.  The drying equipment set up by the British is still functioning.  Owned by a Bengali businessman it is a major supplier to Twining's.  Gandhi advocated the boycotting of tea which he saw as a tool of colonialist exploitation.  Many present-day Gandhians still don't drink tea.  Happily, conditions for workers are much improved, and there is a move to organic production.  Tea-picking and preparation is still hard graft—whether is it picking the young leaves, lugging several kilos of leaves up the steep hills to the factory for drying and rolling, or pruning acres and acres of tea bushes.  We did some tea-tasting afterwards and bought some of the finest tea available—the Supreme Fine Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Picko 1.  Our hostess would not let us go until we had mastered the name!

We also went to the zoo and the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, where you can see the tomb and statue of the famous Sherpa, Tenzing Norgay, who was the first to reach the summit of Mt Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary back in the 1950s.  I learned from the exhibition that one of the reasons that ascents were not attempted before then was because it was believed that humans could not go above 22,000 feet.  It was amazing to see what limited equipment they had back then compared to modern-day climbers.  As for the zoo, it was probably as interesting viewing the humans viewing the animals.  Despite the signs begging people not to incite or disturb the animals, several Indian children felt compelled to make a range of strange sounds.  Only the yak refused to budge.  We got good shots of the mighty Bengal tiger, but the snow leopard and the red pandas (which are not pandas) really stole the show.  Another popular family activity was dressing the children up in Nepalese costumes for photo opportunities.

teashop in DarjeelingThis short travel account would be incomplete without some mention of food.  When you see the variety of ethnicities in this area, you might imagine you are in for some delights.  Our favorites have been Tibetan momos (or vegetarian dumplings) and chili relish, together with lovely noodle soups.  I was not too keen on the Tibetan butter tea, but could see the nutritional value of this in the depths of winter.  The Indian food is consistently good wherever you eat from the humblest café to the bar of the five-star hotel.  The marsala tea washes everything down so well.  I must also mention the ayurvedic therapist who appeared in our hotel the other morning.  That evening I benefited from his skilful unblocking of my (jet-lagged) energy flows that evening.  At $15 an hour it was hard to turn down! 

This is certainly one of the most fascinating and magical places I have ever visited, full of contrasts and such beauty.  It also reeks of history—the old colonial buildings at every turn are a reminder of the British Raj.  Now they are occupied by the (predominantly communist) West Bengal government.  My wonderful travel companions, Rebecca Klenk and Dan Klingensmith (on Fulbright from Maryville College), and son Aaron (nearly 7), who have increased my learning and understanding of the region and India more generally, go on to Sikkim, and I return to Kolkata overnight—staying in the famous Ramakrishna Mission—before heading on to the next stage of my trip, Bangkok.

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