In my mind there is only one way to climb up to Darjeeling and the foothills of the Indian Himalayas, and that is onboard the toy train. The tiny blue carriages, pulled either by a steam engine or a diesel locomotive, patiently chug their way around hairpin bends, over bridges and through tunnels, carrying students and day-trippers, businessmen and mendicants, all with their thoughts fixed on Darjeeling, the colonial hill station that has given its name to some of the world’s finest teas. As you ride, your nose is stuck permanently to the window glass; it is impossible not to be transfixed on the emerald green valleys and swirls of misty cloud unveiled beneath you.
Tudor-esque Town in the Foothills
The town of Darjeeling was founded by the British in the mid 19th century, and it turned quickly into a regional center, as much a part of England as it was a part of India. Even today, St Andrew’s Church, the clock tower on the Mall, several mock Tudor residences, and the gently decaying Planters’Club stand in testament to Darjeeling’s colonial heyday.
Though the architecture is fine, and the town’s many hotels pleasant places to relax, the main attraction of Darjeeling is not the charming urban area at all, but rather one or more of the famous tea gardens clinging to the surrounding hillsides. The mountainsides are steep and prone to landslips, but the terroir - the mineral content of the soil, the altitude, and the cool, moist climate - are ideal for growing tea, so much so, in fact, that teas grown here in Darjeeling are often called the Champagne of teas. When the Darjeeling first flush, the first tea of a new year, is picked, it sends shivers of excitement to connoisseurs around the world.
Tea was first planted in Darjeeling by the British in the 19th century, and the vast majority of the bushes are camellia sinensis sinensis, the Chinese variety of tea. Nepali laborers were brought across the border to work in the newly built tea gardens, and their descendants still inhabit Darjeeling today.
One of the oldest tea estates still working is Makaibari, close to the village of Kurseong. The latest owner, Rajah Banerjee, is the fourth generation of his family to run the estate, and he invites visitors to see what is, in many ways, a model tea estate. Banerjee is a passionate campaigner for organic and biodynamic farming practices, and Makaibari was the first tea estate in the world to be given the Fair Trade label, in recognition of the involvement of all members of the local community in the management of the estate.
"I fell in love with the beauty of the landscape, the rich diversity of flora and fauna, and with the fact that environmental sustainability and community empowerment were acted upon..."
I first came to Makaibari in July 2008, and straightaway I fell in love. I fell in love with the beauty of the landscape, the rich diversity of flora and fauna, and with the fact that environmental sustainability and community empowerment were acted upon, not just talked about, by everyone I met. Every household had at least one cow: the milk fed the children, and the manure either went on the fields or was put into a bio-digester to generate gas for cooking.
Numerous varieties of plants grew between the tree bushes, providing shade for the tea pickers, natural mulch for the bushes, and binding the otherwise avalanche-prone soil together. Butterflies and birds fluttered overhead as I walked through the tea garden and somewhere, always just out of sight, slunk the endangered Bengal tigers that have made the protected jungle of Makaibari their home.
"Picked from the tea bush before the leaves have fully unfurled, when the bud is still coated with a silver-white slip of velvet, the white tea is the purest, freshest tea you will ever drink."
However paradisiacal the scene, at the end of the day it is the taste of the tea that matters: rightly or wrongly, it is the tea that travels to the furthest corners of the earth, not the people and their stories. I once described a white Darjeeling tea as the nectar of the gods, and I stand by that description. Picked from the tea bush before the leaves have fully unfurled, when the bud is still coated with a silver-white slip of velvet, the white tea is the purest, freshest tea you will ever drink. The liquor it produces is a soft, pale yellow; the delicate fragrance is of the pollen in Darjeeling’s flowers. And the taste? Let’s just say, it is time you tried a cup. Brewed for three minutes, no more, no less, the sweetness on your tongue is followed by faintly earthy tones, just like dew-covered grass on a morning in spring.
About the Author
Sophie Ibbotson is a British tea aficionado who has travelled more than 20,000 miles overland in pursuit of the perfect cup of tea. She is the co-founder of the Tracing Tea project, and regularly lectures and writes about tea in all its varied guises. She has published in Newsweek, the Financial Times, the Sunday Telegraph, and five travel books for Bradt Guides. She received her graduate degree in Oriental Studies from Cambridge University.
Want to Experience Tea Culture, Production and History? You can join one of Sophie Ibbotson's 10-day Tea Tours in Assam, India: Nectar of the Gods - Assam Tea Tour - April 2015
Learn More About Darjeeling: You can read more about visiting Darjeeling from Darjeeling Tourism, and the unique practices of Rajah Banerjee and his tea planters are explained more fully on the Makaibari website.
Image Credits: Main Image by Srijan Roy Choudhury, Inset Image by Arnold Zimmer (used under 123RF license)