Looking to escape the crazy and overwhelming cities of India, we headed north to Darjeeling, one of India’s most famous hill stations and world-renowned for its tea production. Despite an incredibly stressful and frightening three-hour Jeep ride up and down curvy, potholed roads damaged by recent earthquakes and landslides, we’re glad we made the effort and what we found upon arrival was the perfect respite.
I think we expected Darjeeling to be smaller and less populated due to its location, but we ended up enjoying its streets and markets that bustled during the day and fell silent almost as soon as the sun went down. We stayed in a charmingly cozy attic room which we were assured would have had breathtaking views of the valley, but for the seasonal fog obscuring everything in the area. We wandered the winding and hilly streets on the outskirts of the city for a few days, and found enough small surprises to get India back on our good side (though this region of India has more in common with neighboring Nepal, Tibet, and Bhutan than the rest of the subcontinent).
We discovered a love for Tibetan food–most notably momos (dumplings) and all kinds of delicious and warming noodle soups–which was available in almost every restaurant in the city. Wanting to learn more about the famous local tea, we tried to visit the Happy Valley Tea Estate, but somehow couldn’t quite find the main entrance as we wandered through the tea bushes planted into steep hills below the town. We ended up in a woman’s living room learning about different grades of tea and tasting some of Happy Valley’s (supposed) finest. She claimed she worked for the tea estate, but looking back, we aren’t sure she did. In any case, she was a bubbly and enterprising lady, and we enjoyed our cup of tea with her.
The city’s microclimate–some combination of its altitude, wind, and rainfall–causes a relatively small tea yield, but also make it some of the world’s most prized (and most expensive). Some say that the region’s absolute finest leaves, referred to as muscatel, are affected by the annual migration of huge clouds of green flies which eat the young leaves, causing them to turn yellow and produce some sort of chemical antibiotic that enhances the tea’s delicate flavors. The pageantry surrounding tea tasting is just as complicated and pretentious as that surrounding wine, and while we can’t claim to distinguish between first- and second flush, or most of the myriad other distinctions drawn by the professionals, we enjoyed tasting some of the world’s best, and tucked a bit away to take home with us.
The region’s location in the foothills of the Himalayas are another of its claims to fame. Most notable perhaps is that Tenzing Norgay, half the duo claiming the first ascent of Mt. Everest in 1953, called the city home. We took a stroll through the Everest museum, housed in the headquarters of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. We took the obligatory early morning Jeep ride to nearby Tiger Hill to view the sunrise over the Himalayas; if you’re lucky, on a really clear day you can see Everest, sitting less than 200 km northwest. Due to the weather we could only see the tips of a few mountains (including Kanchenjunga, the third tallest mountain the world at a whopping 8586m) rising above the fog, but that was enough of a tease to make us decide to head north to Sikkim after we left Darjeeling for more mountains.