In May, we were lucky enough to spend 3 days and 2 nights in the Darjeeling region of West Bengal, India. Our accommodation was at Goomtee Tea Estate where we stayed in a gorgeous old bungalow, full of unique vintage furniture pieces, a delightful reading nook, resplendent entrance hall and a generously proportioned bedroom that opened out onto a lawn, complete with badminton set! To top it off, we could have all the garden fresh Darjeeling tea we could possibly consume, at any time of the day at the ring of a bell, how decadent!
The grounds surrounding the bungalow were lovingly maintained, with several gardeners tending to the estate each and every day. The views were nothing short of spectacular, changing throughout the day as the mist and sunshine took turns in taking centre stage. We were fed the most amazing vegetarian food in absolute abundance. The flavours filled your whole mouth, leaving you wanting more. A highlight was the tantalising dessert of Gulab Jamun. Without a doubt, these were the best I’ve ever had. A gorgeous golden colour, the outside decorated with silver, and the inside a burst of sweet syrup exploding into your mouth. I usually find Gulab Jamun suffocating, but these were just little balls of perfection.
On our first afternoon, we were taken on a tour of the plantation, walking through the property for a couple of hours, meeting workers, learning about the plantation and picking tea leaf. On face value, it seemed like plucking two leaves and a bud from the tea bush should be a pretty straight forward exercise. Not so! The first challenge was actually visually identifying the two leaves and a bud configuration in amongst all the other leaf. Second was smoothly and swiftly snapping off the two leaves and a bud without damaging the leaf nor ending up with half the stem under your finger nails, and then finally, blindly tossing the hard won two leaves and a bud into the basket on your back. And all of this in a timely manner in order to hit your weight target for the day!
The estate workers and their families reside on the estate in colourful bungalows dotted on the edge of the plantation. The estate has a school for the children and an infirmary for the unwell. There was a wedding planned for the day after we were leaving and while it was unfortunate that we were going to miss it, we were able to see how everyone came together to decorate, cook food and prepare for the coming nuptials, it really was a village celebration.
On our second day, we went for a visit to Darjeeling Town itself. This ended up being a hair raising 3 hour drive on narrow, winding roads, filled with cattle and pedestrians. Vehicles overtook each other on blind corners, seemingly oblivious to the steep, unforgiving countryside that fell away beneath the road’s edge. The brightly coloured houses of the villages we passed through were precariously perched up the steep hillside adjacent to the road, as if peering into the valley below.
Darjeeling town itself is a mixture of highs and lows. It has, the locals tell me, become increasingly polluted, dirty and crowded with traffic, of all varieties. However, on the upside it is a complete melting pot of cultures with the influences of neighbouring countries and regions visible everywhere from the variety in dress, through to the food being served at the many roadside stalls. The more touristy zone has vehicular restrictions so it is easier to navigate through this upper part rather than the lower parts of Darjeeling town. As with many tourist areas however, one needs to be wary of the inflated prices of ‘handmade’ scarves and pashminas. When shop owners get wind that you are Australian they will proudly claim that their products are sold in Myer and David Jones (!!!) but that here in their shop you will be able to buy them at only a fraction of the price….! Better deals are to be found further up the hill, in outdoor roadside stalls.
Jason braved the street food stalls and tried some chicken momos. He survived to tell the tale, proclaiming them to be the tastiest momos he has ever eaten!
On our way back down the hill, we couldn’t resist stopping in at Glenary’s bakery. Here we enjoyed the views over Darjeeling, some more tea and some delightful western style cakes, a Red Velvet Cake and a Hazelnut Torte. While we took refuge from the sun by choosing a window table indoors, there are outdoor tables that would be perfect for warming up at during the cooler months. Glenary's is a must do on any trip through Darjeeling.
Alongside the road to and from Darjeeling Town runs the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, a narrow gauge railway also lovingly known as the ‘Toy Train’. The railway is UNESCO world heritage listed and runs from New Jalpaiguri to Darjeeling. Services are mostly diesel but there are a couple of steam driven services too. More information on the railway can be found here: http://www.dhrs.org/.
We also toured the Himalayan Museum which features many items from various Mt Everest expeditions. Conveniently, the Himalayan Museum is located within the Zoo, and although it is small, our visit did provide an opportunity to get quite close to some rather large cats!
We spent the next day on Goomtee and toured the factory and had a tea tasting. The factory was quite a small operation (compared to what we eventually encountered in the later stages of our tour), but this was certainly to be expected in the Darjeeling region where output is much lower than other tea growing regions in India (and hence the higher prices Darjeeling tea can command!).
We were also fortunate enough to be visiting the estate at the same time as the Managing Partner Ashok Kumar. He recounted many fabulous stories and also explained some of the challenges facing the future of the tea industry. He was kind enough to let us interview him on camera, something that we will definitely be sharing in the future so stay tuned for that!
All in all, our Darjeeling stay was nothing short of spectacular, with warm and generous hospitality and the endless tea served to us at Goomtee the highlights of this part of our tour. Should you have any questions about our travels don’t hesitate to drop us a line