On tea and trains in Darjeeling

We got to Darjeeling from Kathmandu by almost all modes of transport. We took a plane to Bhadrapur, then a taxi to the border town. After getting departure stamps from an immigration shack, we crossed the 1km international Nepal/India border bridge on foot (!) and hunted down another unremarkable immigration shack for international arrival stamps. We then took a shared jeep to Siliguri, and another shared jeep to Darjeeling. The whole affair was long, cramped, sweaty, and I thought we might die when the shared jeep was stationary in traffic without any breeze, morphing the jeep (there were 11 of us in there…!) into some sort of stiflingly hot human battery farm.

Having left our hotel at 6.30am, 13 hours later we were overjoyed to finally reach Hotel Dekeling in Darjeeling, which was so wonderfully cosy and old school kitsch. I can’t recommend it enough – the owner even gave us a pack of tea as a departure gift!

Set in the foothillls of the Himalayas, Darjeeling is frightfully scenic. With soft undulating hills nestled in tall pines and tea plants forming the backdrop of the valleys, it is a gorgeous mix of winding roads and intermittent (and very  Surrey-esque) colonial architectural surprises. We were running out of time on the trip before our booked flights, so our time in Darjeeling had to be used efficiently. Speed travelling. Luckily I had a 13 hour journey to think about what I wanted to do there… Highlights included:

The Darjeeling zoo – set in a forest and featuring incredibly rare, endangered animal such as the Himalayan Snow Leopard (known as ghosts of the mountain because years can pass without a sighting. For a period of time people weren’t sure they existed) and the adorable red panda.

Darjeeling Himalayan Railway toy train – if you aren’t into the concept of this, you’ll probably hate it. But I’ve been obsessed with visiting Darjeeling and taking this train ever since I first saw one of my favourite movies The Darjeeling Limited. The toy train route is not in full service due to disrepair from landslides a few years back, but you can do a two hour round trip from Darjeeling to Ghum which even stops so you can have a peruse of the railway musuem. The experience is like no other – weaving through shop fronts, forestry and houses, crossing the road intermittently much to the dismay of all the drivers. All the while the train is pooting and tooting along, billowing steam and spurning coal (I found it in my hair for days).

Take a look around a tea plantation – Darjeeling is the highest area for growing tea in the world, and is famous for its delicious tea. We went to the Happy Valley Tea Estate (supplier to Harrods) which you can just walk to from the centre with ease. You walk right amongst the plants and pickers, who move fast and with dexterity through the shrubs, tossing leaves into baskets on their back. You can also take a tour around the factory to see how the process works.

Afternoon tea at the Windamere Hotel (no I didn’t spell that incorrectly, but once upon a time some else probably did) – set in a glorious British style hotel drawing room with photos of a bygone imperial era, 2 hours of a hot Darjeeling brew and scones is a lovely way to experience those high altitude tea leaves in action.

Picking up presents – what would a trip to Darjeeling be without buying a kilo of tea? We headed to Nathmulls, the most famous tea seller in Darjeeling that has been operating since the 1930s. They are so popular that an enterprising individual has made a carbon copy of Nathmull’s in the main square, though don’t be fooled, it has no association to the real deal and none of the decades of family knowledge.

Darjeeling is the place to go for tea-lovers (NB. coffee-lovers should probably stay far away).

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