Darjeeling is all about tea estates covered in clouds; white mountain tops in the distance and tasty tea. If you enjoy at least an occasional cup of tea, it’s definitely worth to visit the Indian paradise of tea in West Bengal, Darjeeling! It’s the place to see how hundred year old tea bushes grow, how locals pluck the leaves and it gradually becomes the tea we all know.
Sometimes travel plans can be drastically influenced by the availability of cheap tickets. India was not on the list of those countries that I wanted to see next. But almost a year ago I saw very attractive airfare to this exotic country and decided that now is as good as ever. Initially my plan was actually to go to Sri Lanka, as I have been dreaming of seeing a real tea estate for a long time. But I soon realized that getting from Delhi to Colombo is not that cheap and it might be even cheaper go there directly from Riga! Are there any tea estates in India? Of course! The world famous Darjeeling and Assam teas are from India. Due to various reasons Assam was not an option this time, but majestic Himalayan Darjeeling became my top destination in India.
Darjeeling is located 2042 m above sea and it’s easiest to get there if you fly to Bagdogra military airport (95 km from Darjeeling). Looking at the short distances between the cities here one might think that everything can be seen in a few days’ time, but just the road from the airport takes more than three hours. We start at the sunset and can only imagine the abyss right next to the road. There are a lot of cars on the road, at times it is only one and a half lanes wide, and you do get the occasional bus driving in the opposite direction. After monsoon the roads are washed out and at every turn the driver is honking to make sure there isn’t anyone driving in the opposite direction. Sometimes the traffic stops, the mirrors are carefully folded in and somehow the cars manage to get going. My companions sitting at the road sign admire the Milky Way and lightning in the distance, but I mostly see the side of the mountain, at times just few centimeters from the window. It’s the middle of September and monsoon should have finished (even weather forecast promised this just a week ago), but it’s raining still.
When we finally reach Darjeeling, it’s chilly. The roadside shops (more like – booths) sell nice cashmere shawls and you can clearly see it’s a whole different world than in Bagodgra. Just a few hours ago opting for jeans did not seem such a good choice at +32°C, but now at +15°C it feels just right.
You can see that locals are different here, faces are not the same as in Delhi, more Mongoloid. It’s also not so crowded, but still, there are a lot of them. Buildings are close to each other, slopes are covered in tiny houses that look like they were built on top of each other, ten stories high. As it turns out later, regular two-three stories tall buildings are not finished right away, families move in and continue construction as they grow bigger.
We stay at the RJ Resort, which seems to have grown deeper in the ground, as the reception is located on the last floor of the house, next to the road. Beautiful valley with Darjeeling on the slope is right outside our windows and many more villages are seen below. When I read the reviews about this hotel I knew that I can expect damp towels and bedsheets, and there were mentions of stains. Unfortunately it’s all true, but according to the reviews it seems that it is the case for all hotels in Darjeeling.
Our hotel package includes breakfast and dinner, and the hotel manager immediately asks if we are ok with spicy food. He says we are the only Europeans staying here but they will try to make something milder for us. In the five days that I spent in Darjeeling I found out that the only edible I like in India is bread – puri, roti, naan. I can manage also some beans and the sweet porridge for breakfast. Of course rice too. But the rest, especially the only meat they serve (chopped chicken in sauce) is so spicy that I just cannot manage even one bit. I am also not too happy with manager’s decision to make us come for breakfast as soon as possible, so he calls us every day at 8 am. At dinner we find out that the mild food unfortunately is too mild for the rest of the guests. Restaurant will be serving spicier food from now on. In the two weeks I spent in India I never got used to the food. When eating in India I often had the feeling that what will happen, will happen. For example, when I saw how brown water was leaking through the ceiling in the dining room or heard our companions telling how they saw a bowl of dirty water on the floor where dishes were being washed. Luckily, we did not run into any serious health problems and did not need the tons of medicine we had with us.
We wake up at four o’clock in the morning. Loud music is blasting and someone is signing. Is it going to be like this every day?! Later we find out that it was because of the beginning of the Ganesh festival, which I had thought that is not widely celebrated in West Bengal, but it is.
We spent the day exploring the city and riding the world-famous Darjeeling Toy Train. It is on the list of UNESCO world heritage sites, was built between 1879 and 1881, and tourists can still ride on a real steam train. Buying tickets is the same hassle as for other Indian trains, even if you do it online.
We arrive with plenty of time to spare and observe the vegetable market on the tracks, men carrying large and heavy items tied to their heads and stray dogs. At first the train station is quite empty but later more and more people arrive, but it doesn’t seem that they are planning to go anywhere. Finally a train arrives and we see the only other white tourist group during the whole Darjeeling visit, about 10 seniors from Germany. The only other non-Indian tourists are Japanese.
Finally also our train arrives. The carriage just stands there empty and everyone is looking at it, but there isn’t anyone to check the tickets. Finally we decide to get it. The train is full, other passengers are from India. A very loud guy from Bangalore decides to be the leader of our group and starts walking around with a smartphone, recording video with our answers to the question where are from (no one has heard of Latvia before). Later he decides to clap his hands and sing a bit. The train is also the first place where we encounter Indians wanting to take pictures of us. A few ask; others just take pictures of us with their ipads or smartphones. We feel like we are an exhibit.
Every few meters the train crosses the road, so it keeps on honking for nearly two hours while the journey lasts. There are two stops, Batasia Loop, a monument for Indian army and Ghoom station, the highest mountain station in India. It’s raining quite heavily, so we don’t get to see the famous views. Just at times we get a glimpse of the opposite slope. The train doesn’t stop for long and takes off without warning, so a few people end up running behind it.
It clears up in the afternoon and we try to find a better view of the city from the top. It’s also getting much warmer than before and we finally leave our coats at the hotel. There are “temporary” temples build all around the city and music is blasting. We also go to the Observatory hill, where Shiva Mahakal temple is located. “Durjay Ling” means “Shiva of invincible prowess, who rules the Himalayas”, which makes you think about the origins of the name “Darjeeling”.
We also meet a troop of monkeys with some really tiny ones there too. The leader seems aggressive and is not letting the young ones to the food (locals leave some behind for them). Visiting Indian girls, when seeing the monkeys, start to scream and run away, with clear disgust in their faces. We do find the monkeys charming and stay a while taking pictures. We are already leaving when a guy sitting on the bench next to us vomits all over the place. Other Indians leave the place even quicker than we do. Too much brown lumpy stuff?
While we went to the temple you could see quite far in the nearest valleys, but furthest peaks were covered in clouds. At one point something white shines in the distance – is it true – snow? We are hopeful for the next morning, when we have planned to go see the mountains at the sunrise. Although it keeps on raining every day until we leave, we do get lucky the next morning!
Kanchenjunga at Sunrise
We wake up around three in the morning to be on time for the sunrise at the Tiger Hill viewing point. It’s located a few kilometers outside the city and offers views of the surroundings from 2590 m height. The driver is racing through the city, this time no honking as its still night. Seems he thinks we might not get the best spots so we need to hurry up. But we are on time for the sunrise and can appreciate visiting here off-season, as one can only imagine how many people show up here in November. Mornings can be very chilly, so we have taken hats, scarfs, gloves and thicker coats, but today it’s quite warm, so we don’t need so many layers after all. Depending on the type tickets, you can view the sunrise from observatory’s first or second floor, or enjoy the view from the regular platform. Our tickets are for the inside, but observatory has glass windows that haven’t been washed in a long time, so we decide to stay outside. With the first rays of sun the heavenly Kanchenjunga peak starts to shine. It’s 8586 m tall and is the third tallest peak in the world. On a clear day Mount Everest can be seen here too, although it’s 172 km away from here. Unfortunately it’s cloudy on that side of the sky and we don’t get to see it.
With sun raising the scenery is out of this world. Shining snow covered peaks in the distance, layers of clouds in the middle and Darjeeling seems to be almost as under the water. Most of the people take pictures of the sunrise, which is to the right from the peaks. They finally notice the peaks and start rushing towards the spot we have been standing the last ten minutes. My task is to stand next to the tripod and protect it from unwanted movement from the crowds (yes, we are the crazies trying to get the shot of the century at every spot!). At times it’s not easy, as people again start to approach us asking for pictures, even seeing that we are busy. Families with toddlers and teenagers, single men, all asking the same question “One snap please?” We feel uncomfortable and refuse. It’s never the locals, asking this question. The only locals here are the tea ladies, offering a cup of warm beverage (for free to those holding the observatory tickets) and the drivers who took us here.
The sun is already high and we are still taking a few more pictures. Our driver comes looking for us, as almost everyone has left. We stop at Batasia Loop once more and this time the view is really worth it! There is plenty of time till the first train arrives, so tracks are covered in scarfs, gloves and hats for sale. I buy two packs of tea and we go on to visit the Buddhist monastery. Those in Ghoom are crowded with other morning tourists so our driver takes us to the Dali monastery, which is closer to Darjeeling. It’s almost seven o’clock in the morning and everyone at the monastery is awake. Some young buys are still brushing their teeth, others, covered in robes, are walking somewhere. It’s forbidden to take pictures inside the building, but outside the monastery is grand. I later read about Buddhism more and find out that some monasteries let the monks leave and return to monastery up to three times in their lives, and some even allow for seven! I also notice other monks in the city, dressed in red jackets and sports shoes, using their iPads, smartphones and digital cameras. Is it true that they live from donations?
We spent the whole day walking in the city. Visit the Darjeeling Mountaineering Institute that has an interesting exhibit on the first ascend to the Everest, and see the local animals in the zoo. There we are again part of exhibition, as can hear “one snap please” a few more times. We also wanted to ride the cable car, so we go to the station in the very morning just to find out that it’s not the long queues we should have been afraid of, but strike. Cable car is closed and no one is sure when is it going to be open again. Looking at how safe it looks, some of our friends are quite happy we don’t end up using it.
Evenings are the time to sit down on the hotel roof terrace and see the sunset. Clouds turn pink and yellow, lightning strikes in the distance and at times electricity disappears in the valley. We have some tea from the room and beer from the hotel and plenty to talk about – what to do on the next day and what has surprised us the most so far. It’s a good feeling to sit down and relax after a long day of adventures.
One of the most exclusive ways how to enjoy tea is staying at a tea resort. Darjeeling has 78 tea gardens that have the right to grow and produce “Darjeeling” label tea. The prices at the estates per night differ a lot, the famous Glenburn Tea Estate is 400€ per night, so we look for something a bit more affordable. It’s also possible just to visit the estate without staying the night. Since seeing how the tea grows is the main reason for visiting India, I opt for the full package. I find Singtom Tea Resort, which has only started to work in hospitality business this season. They offer to enjoy everything around tea for “only” 120€ per night. This includes the stay, breakfast and dinner, afternoon snacks, unlimited tea drinking, hiking tour, tea plucking, factory and tasting tours. Hiking in reality means the opportunity to walk on your own in the tea gardens.
It’s pouring the night before we leave for Singtom. The same travel agency where we booked the jeep for Tiger Hill (Gupta Travels) provides us with a car and driver for journey there. The roads are very steep, very narrow and very washed out. No signs indicating the direction of the estate, but luckily, on every crossing there is a local, who points our driver in the right direction. We are well ahead of check-in time, so the rooms are not ready yet. Greeted as the first ever tourists from Latvia we proceed to drink tea and walk in the tea gardens. Finally I get to see how tea grows! These bushes were planted during the British times, and a bush can grow for as long as 150-200 years. You can start plucking tea leaves when the bush reaches 4-5 years of age, so these gardens will have to replant theirs soon. Naturally tea bushes don’t grow here, they were brought here by the British, who thought that fertile soil and the right weather conditions will make this place perfect for tea. It is really true! But you won’t see so refined tea growing and drinking traditions here as in China.
It starts to clear up again and we decide to walk down to the river. Just a few minutes out the door and it starts to rain again, so we stop and wait under the bamboo trees. A cloud covers everything around us, but it stops raining. Locals notice us, but don’t say anything, just stand and observe as we keep on climbing down. Only fifteen minutes of walking downhill (and it’s still very far until the river) turns into an almost hour long climb back. The views are surreal – at times we see the opposite slopes with more tea gardens and tiny houses in the distance. It gets very hot suddenly, so we take off our jackets. Few minutes later it starts to rain again. Although the manager of the estate promises to take us to the river later, during the two days there we never manage to agree on time, as every time he “has to ask about the car”.
We eat breakfasts and dinners at a large family style table. First breakfast is agreed for 8:30 (for which we even set our alarms in order to not to be late). It takes us two more hours to get something to eat. Although we arrive at the dining room first, the Japanese couple living in the other room is seated and served before us and they keep on instagramming everyting they see and can’t finish eating. When we ask for the tenth time when are we finally going to get something to eat, the manager offers to seat us next to the Japanese. They finally get the message and leave. Unfortunately it’s the same during the dinner time so we sit with growling stomachs and wait for them to finally finish their meal. Japanese have ordered the most expensive room in the resort, so they are not made to wait.
After RJ Resort the servings seem tiny. When all the plates arrive we are surprised to see so little food for four people. Seems more like a serving for one. But the food is so spicy that you can’t eat much anyway. Tea resort is also the first place in India we come across a cockroach, so we already start making disinsection plans for when we will return home.
When we went for a walk the other time, we saw a football field. Someone was fixing the net covering half of the field towards the steeper slope (we started to wonder – what would happen if the ball flew to the other side?). A tournament was going to take place here soon. A DJ arrived, some cables were taken down from the tea estate and a small booth with snacks opened up by the road. The snacks were very small packs with something dry in them. I couldn’t tell the packages apart, as same size packs in the city had washing powder in them.
In a few minutes the entire slope is covered with spectators. At times it’s raining heavily and the game turns into mud ball. Then a cloud covers the field in such a deep fog than the opposite side of the field cannot be seen, and it’s just a bit bigger than the usual sports hall indoors! This must be some local championship, as there are multiple teams playing. Of course, four of us and a tele lens attracts attention. A few times the ball disappears in the tea garden on the side (no net here, question answered!) It just vanishes in the fog, but soon a new one is used.
After some time the rain is too much and we decide to head back to the resort. We sit down at the dining room and drink tea, liters and liters of tea. Some beer appears as well, with tags “for sale only in Sikkim” (nearby state). We enjoy the evening and observe the clouds entering through the door (which stays open all day long). At times the rain stops and we peek out to see the game still continues. Then it resumes pouring.
Tea Plucking and Factory Tour
On the next day we are getting ready to go to the gardens when we realize one of our jackets is missing. It was left on the couch and now is nowhere to be found. The manager asks us five times if we haven’t left it in the room. No. At last is found in one of the staff rooms, neatly folded. Off we go!
We are taken to a spot in the tea garden where the local women are working plucking the tea leaves and collecting them in the baskets. They pick around 8 kg of leaves per day and work 6 months a year, when it’s the plucking season. Men stay at home and watch the children, as there isn’t much other work. Tea plucking is considered to be a well-paying job, but we aren’t told how much it pays exactly. Local women are very shy and in a hurry – its lunchtime and they need to bring the baskets back to the factory. Meanwhile our jeep has broken down and wouldn’t start. We have the time to notice the tires – no protector on them left at all. This worries us, as it’s been raining during the night and we still have to drive up the hill on washed out roads. Somehow the driver finally gets the car going and we are packed inside it, Japanese in the very back of the car, where it’s too little space even for them. It’s India; you have to accept the things as they are.
Later we go to the tea factory where leaves are dried, sorted, fermented, steams and rolled. It’s not too clean according to European standards, dried leaves are swept off the floor with sand and dust, and put back into the mix. I’m glad that tea is made with boiling water.
We are told that two leaves and a bud are the optimal amount of leaves for tea. The best ones are used for black tea and harder ones for green one. I ask several times if it’s really the case, as it was my impression that green tea is more premium quality. This estate doesn’t make white tea, which is considered to be the best. The difference between black and green tea is also in fermenting, which is only done for black one. We also get to taste three types of tea. When we want to buy some, we find out that 200 g cost nearly 30€ and no smaller packages are available. When I ask why it’s cheaper in the store and not in the place where it grows I’m told “so it is.” He promises to give some finest quality samples for free. Those unfortunately turn out to be in the paper bags for a single cup. The teas we saw in the city shops are grown in Darjeeling, then taken to Kolkata or other big city for packing and then brought back for sale. I’m glad I bought some nicer tea in the Golden Tips store in Darjeeling, it seemed a bit pricey then, but after seeing the estate price it’s ok.
The management of the hotel suggests staying at least four days at the resort to fully enjoy the experience, but we don’t have that many free days. It also seems that you can manage to see everything in two days, if you are persuasive enough about getting what you have paid for. The factory is just 10 minutes away, but we were not sure that we would get the tea tasting until it got dark in the last day, as we were alone in the house, with cook bringing us samosas but not speaking a word of English. It was well past the agreed time of the tour, no one came to pick us up then, but finally, two hours later we got the tasting tour as well. At this point we were happy that the way back to Bagdogra is arranged via Gupta Travel.
On the last day we again get to see the amazing snowy peaks, just as in the morning when we went to the Tiger Hill. They can even be seen from the terrace at the resort. If not for this clear morning, we wouldn’t have had a clue of the views from here. It has been raining again during the night and the furthest corner of the football field has slid down, cars drive around it with some difficulty. At six o’clock in the morning we see schoolchildren dressed in uniforms walking to their schools. Schools in Darjeeling are famous since the British time and children from all around India come to study here. For the tea garden children’s its a few kilometers distance every day.
We leave and again have plenty of time to think about what India is like. Not just about dirty forks or towels. About cars that tend to break down (after taking us to the airport the driver proceeds to change a wheel). About weather that sometimes disappoints. But all of this allows to experience a bit of the real, unpolished India. And we do realize that the worst is yet to come. People in Darjeeling are kind and don’t disturb us. The weather and mountain air is pleasantly cool (although full of coal smoke). True dirty & smelly India we will see in Kolkata, which is next on our list.
- RJ Resort was booked via Agoda.com. Singtom was booked through their website and paid via PayPal. I’ve read this is common in India, but I wasn’t sure until the last day that we will have someplace to stay.
- A jeep for four from Bagdogra to Darjeeling costs around 1800 Rs. A bigger car will cost 150 Rs more, but it’s worth to take. Taxis can be booked at the pre-paid taxi counter at the airport. We used these counters in all airports, but you still have to be careful, as one in Delhi tried to scam us and give change from 100 Rs and not 500Rs.
- Price of tea in Darjeeling was from 65 Rs to 1500 Rs for 100 g. You can buy tea in Bagdogra airport too, second floor, both before and after security.
- 3-point tour (Batasia Lopp, Tiger Hill and Buddhist monastery) costs around 1000 Rs. Part of the money needs to be paid to the agent, the rest goes to the driver. We also left tips. All bookings in Darjeeling made through Gupta Travel, where we simply walked in from the street.
- If you fly in India, everything that looks like a tool, has to be checked in. We had small instrument the size of a match to screw on the plate for the tripod with us, it has flown all around the world with us, but here it was not allowed to be taken in hand luggage. I wonder what can you do with it in the airplane that it is so dangerous? 🙂
- At the time of booking the tickets all airlines in India had 15 kg allowance for checked luggage and 6 kg for hand luggage. They put all of the items together on the scales for our travelers group, so didn’t care if someone had a bit more if others had lighter bags. Delhi-Bagdogra with SpiceJet cost roughly 50€, Bagdogra-Kolkata with JetAirways 8 € (meal included!). The latter was a much better experience as every passenger even had individual entertainment system (Food and luggage included!). Riga-Delhi-Riga was 145€ per person, but this was an error fare and if you see something for 300€, it’s already a very good price.
- Toy Train ticket was roughly 1000 rupees, purchased via cleartrip.com Tickets sell out quickly and should be purchased in advance and not on the spot the day before.
- In Darjeeling center we walked everywhere. Form souvenirs bought only tea, but you can also buy scarfs, but since I am not an expert in cashmere, I cannot distinguish between 150 Rs scarfs and 700 rs scarfs.
- Few things that apply to every place in India – have your own toilet paper, brush teeth only with bottled water, ask for tea without milk in advance, as it might come by default.
- When flying domestic in India they might ask to show the purchase credit card at the counter. Not sure what happens if you can’t present it, but better take it with you.
As always, all of the pictures are our own and 99% of them were shot by my husband Jekabs Andrusaitis, check out his Facebook page!