Tea hills and colonial railways

Darjeeling is the pearl of teas and the Darjeeling region is a hidden gem where only a few westerners find their way to.

Michael and I are both tea lovers and enjoy a good cup of black tea, especially if it is Darjeeling tea. We knew, that the region can also offer some stunning landscapes and views of Himalayas, so we decided to put this place on our list and to pay a visit to the Indian far north. It was only natural that, when we are already in the area (hahaha… India is huge), we could also go to Darjeeling and witness ourselves how the tea grows and have a few cups. J Then there was the debate on how to get there… See… you can either fly 2 hours or you can get there by train after approx. 17 hours. So lazy as we are, we chose the flight option. From Delhi we flew to Bagdogra airport and got ourselves a Taxi to Darjeeling. When we organized the taxi, we were told, it would cost around 35€, which is completely outrageous for the 20km from the airport to Darjeeling – we couldn’t know, it’s a 4 hour drive… We’re not sure whether the driver had a Taxi license or a driving license at all, but he must be very experienced on that road, because as the rain started pouring, he did not switch on the wipers (as they didn’t work), no no.. he has put some sort of soap on the windshield and continued driving (we couldn’t see a thing!) As we made our way up the hills (Darjeeling is up in the mountains at an altitude of 2200 m) the fog was getting thicker. The light was occasionally switched on and off – you couldn’t see 2 m in front of you and your only way of letting others know that you were coming was a short “beep” with your honk. The driver was casually making his turns here and there driving without seeing the road. As you can see, we still made it, but the journey was long and bumpy. After 4 hours driving, we finally arrived in Darjeeling. Boy, it was cold! After Agra and Jaipur where the temperatures were around 30°C, Darjeeling was a shock.

The hotel, as any building we have encountered in India, had neither heating nor insulation. And to make the freeze perfect, instead of walls there were nets between the bathroom, the room and the floor outside – for “ventilation”. You can imagine that the outside temperature met the inside temperature. We asked for additional blankets and for a heater which we both gladly got. Everybody in the hotel was wearing outside clothes inside as even the restaurant was cold.

Michael and I stayed in Darjeeling for four nights to relax a bit, get away from the hustle and bustle of the big cities and to enjoy the view. And indeed, Darjeeling is a quite relaxed place compared to Delhi. One can walk anywhere without being approached by any sellers and/or taxi drivers at all. Still the sound of honking is lingering in the air and can be heard anywhere. Unfortunately nature made a different plan for us and thick fog clouded our view… we couldn’t see any mountains, not even the other side of the city.
As we couldn’t enjoy the natural wonders, we decided to embrace the British colonial heritage of the region and walked to a hotel serving afternoon tea with sandwiches, scones and a feeling as if one is sitting somewhere in the center of London. We were the only guests in a colonial-styled room with wide sofas and a fireplace. We’ve spent a very warm afternoon with a lot of food and great locally grown tea- a very good way to spend a bad weather day and to feel important. 😀

On the next day, we had to get up in the middle of the night (it was 3:30 am!) as we were going to Tiger Hill, the highest point of the region, which is known for great view on Himalayas and even a chance to see Mt. Everest if the weather conditions are good. We asked the driver to pick us up at 04:00 am to be there before the crowds- as the place isn’t too big, everyone is going to the same attractions and they tend to be overcrowded. When we arrived (we were indeed amongst the first ones), the most striking was the amount of stars we could see with the naked eye. It was the first time, we could see the Milky Way with our own eyes! Jaw-dropping! On the top of the hill, there is a structure, similar to an amphitheater to facilitate all visitors. But instead of getting a seat there, we asked a local guide, where the mountains are going to appear and have set up our tripod in that direction. We froze a lot while the sun was lighting up the sky slowly and the crowds kept arriving steadily so that the space around us became completely crowded. But the most interesting thing was, that all the visitors were looking at the sun rising up at the horizon and we were the only ones who enjoyed to see the peaks of the Himalayas with the third-highest mountain (Kangchenjunga) on earth being dipped in warm red light (time-lapse video to below) 🙂 This sunrise totally paid off for waking up in the middle of the night and once we were back at the hotel, we got another couple hours of sleep.

Up again, we walked to the railway station of the famous Himalayan Railway, which has been installed by the British in the 19th century and hasn’t been changed since. The steam trains were indeed impressive, but as we followed the train tracks by car in the morning and knew, that we’re not going to see any of the landscape again (darn fog! L ), we decided not to waste time and money and went to an other colonial-styled café / restaurant for lunch and afternoon tea, which we again enjoyed in full. The Glenaries also offers a phantastic view of the mountains and the tea gardens below if the weather is any good… we enjoyed the tea.

We had one more attraction on our list – the Darjeeling ropeway. It’s a 30 minute ride downhill (ca. 1800m elevation) and you can also enjoy passing by tea gardens and the view on the Himalayans in the distance – on a clear day… At least we could see the tea gardens.

Over the course of the days, we accumulated some debt on our room bill, which for some reasons couldn’t be paid by credit card and as our cash reserves were melting, we had to organize some fresh cash. Normally this isn’t an issue, there are ATMs in the deepest jungle and in the smallest village. But Darjeeling was special… Some months before our visit, the Indian government decided to fight corruption by devaluing some of the most common Rupee-bills. From one day to the next, old bills were not accepted anymore and people lost huge amounts of their under-the-pillow-savings. But the second part of the disaster was, that the government didn’t prepare enough of the new bills and therefore there was a shortage of cash at the banks all over the country. We didn’t face this issue so far until now. In Darjeeling most ATMs were only working for a couple hours per day and were notoriously out of cash! This went so far, that Michael walked to every ATM in town to check whether they had some cash and after being told, they would have cash in the afternoon did that a second time with no luck. The only bank in town, which seemed to have cash was the state bank and there was a queue of around 400m to get any. Luckily we knew before, that it is recommendable to bring some US dollars in cash, just in case and our hotel was more than happy to accept our dollars, which saved Michael from queuing up all day with the rest of the town in the hope to get enough cash.

Early morning on the next day, we packed our backpacks and drove down the mountain roads towards our next destination – Nepal!

Oh, and here’s one for the tea lovers among you, we have to crush your world: Darjeeling is quite a small place, there are only a few tea plantations, which are really located on the mountains. So chances are very high, that your Darjeeling tea comes either from the plains below Darjeeling (best case) or from somewhere completely different.

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5 Replies to “Tea hills and colonial railways”

  1. Dear Alice and Michael,,

    again, exciting report and stunning pictures.

    The best of luck for your onward travelling.

  2. Marvelous Alice and Michael 🙂

    I enjoy reading your experiences.

    It’s only text (and a lot of nice pictures) but it feels like i am there as well when reading through your pages…

    Enjoy life over there!

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