I finished up the last post with a hearty breakfast on our arrival into New Jalpaiguri. It was amazing to watch chapatti being made for the first time – seeing it browned on the pan and then tossed on the flame to puff up like a blowfish – and they really taste best when they’re so fresh they’re still hot. I did watch curiously though, as he picked the first one from the flame and marched outside with it (instead of towards a hungry me), and proceeded to toss it onto the roof. A gift to the gods I presume, whatever one it is that brings you wealth, fortune, and customers.
After a very close encounter with a man with metal prongs gesturing to clean my ears for me, and then following it up with an actual attempt, we took off up the hills to Darjeeling, and not a moment too soon! The dry scenery quickly changed to green and staggered tea plantations and forest. The road was in fairly bad shape with as many potholes as corners which made the cramped environment of our shared cab all the more difficult to enjoy. We were sat four in the boot of the jeep, across two narrow benches and four more across the back seat. The driver and the front passenger would make 10 people in total – something we’d discover was actually quite a light load in Indian terms.
Three hours of bliss saw us arrive into the hill station town of Darjeeling known globally for it’s tea and British-raj occupancy. The change in altitude had us scrambling for extra layers and we struggled our way about the town in search of a place to stay – no mean feat as it was the beginning of a festival week.
We delved into the food scene discovering such delights as aloo paratha (a potato filled thick fried chapatti), samosas (deep fried potato amazingness) and chaats (chickpea and samosas in a masala sauce), all typical Indian fare. Often earmarked as a dodgy area due to occasional political disturbances between the local Ghorkas and Indian control (more about this below), Darjeeling was not quite so quaint as I’d expected. Large buildings perched on the hill side sat along narrow winding streets harbouring a multitude of loud, speeding, smokey jeeps. But walk 10 mins in any direction and the place was surrounded by hills and tea plantations: a breath of fresh alpine air amongst the characteristic chaos of India.
We awoke bright and early the next morning in order to catch the sunrise from the top of Tiger Hill, and by bright and early I mean it: the receptionist woke us at 3am – an hour and a half before we were supposed to meet downstairs. Towards the top of the hill was a mess of jeeps towing other tourists – foreign and national alike – and it started to get light before we got there. It turned out this would not be a day for success stories, and as we rolled on to the top, so did the clouds, and we never saw the sun that day. Home for a nap before venturing out again to try momos (small steamed dumplings, popular in Nepal) for the first time, and onwards to check out a tea plantation.
The closest tea factory to the town is the Happy Valley Tea Plantation and one of the few that give you a tour of the facilities. At the bottom of the track leading down, just before the factory itself, is a tiny shop. As we approached, a lady came out to see if we were there for a tour. Assuming that she – or someone affiliated – was the guide we followed her inside to wait with another couple. She demonstrated her vast knowledge of tea and encouraged us to smell a variety of different ones before showing us how to brew the perfect three-second tea. The accompanying story told us how the workers are exploited and paid so little that they combine all their tea allocations together so that this lady could sell it on their behalf (secretly, of course), at the high price of ₹250 ($5 – what an outrage..!) a bag.
I fell hook, line and sinker for this story. And as I suck at saying no to guilt-ridden propositions like this one I walked out of the shop with a bag of Happy Valley Golden Sunshine Orange Magic Three-Second Tippy Tea (or something to that ridiculous effect) in my hot little hand, a warning not to mention my purchase to the actual factory workers, and a sharp, stabbing sense of my own stupidity.
The factory was interesting though. I had no idea that black, green, and white tea came from the same tea plant – it’s just a matter of which leaves you use and how they are then processed. Or, come to think of it, that there was a white tea at all. Mind = blown.
Another place worth mentioning in Darjeeling is the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. We didn’t make it before it closed for the afternoon but it was set up by Tenzing Norgay (the Sherpa, and climbing partner of Sir Edmund Hillary) to encourage mountaineering as a sport in India. It houses a museum with climbing artifacts, a memorial to Norgay and also a school for mountaineering training and education. Norgay retired to Darjeeling after his climbing career, which has a large Nepalese and Sherpa community.
Darjeeling, though picturesque, is not always peaceful. There is a long standing battle between the local Gorkha community and the West Bengal and Indian Government to form their own state: Gorkhaland. The local Gorkhas are originally from Nepal and share a different entho-linguistic base to the rest of West Bengal, and recently (in fact, just a month or so before we arrived) there was an assassination (between opposing Gorkha party members) and a series of strikes and protests (although, this is actually a regular occurrence).
Much of the food here, then, is understandably different to that of India, focusing a lot on the dumplings and soups of mountainous Nepal. Likewise, the people are different too. The Nepalese dress much like Indians in colourful saris, and more commonly in the colder areas; the punjabi suit or salwar kameez, however the people look different. They have the slanted eyes common to the rest of Asia and rounder faces, but the darker complexion like that of Northern Indian people rather than their Chinese neighbours, often with the freckles and rosy cheeks common to the Tibetan and Sherpa ethnicities*. It’s a real mixed bag.
Luckily no strikes were scheduled for our appearance in Gorkhaland/Darjeeling and we were able to leave in another cramped and swervy shared jeep on route to the North-Eastern States!
*Yes, Sherpa is an ethnicity and not a job description as Westerners often believe. They come from the high Himalayan mountain regions of Nepal and surrounding areas.