India - Part 2 - Journey into the Hills

Here is part 2 of the continuing saga of my trip to India's tea estates. Check out part 1 here if you missed it!

We woke up with the sun to the honking of car horns that heralds morning in Kolkata. Headed out into the unbelievable heat again and headed to the airport for another plane ride. A quick jump up into the air and back down again and we were in Bagdogra in the Darjeeling district.

Darjeeling is a region in the hills at the base of the Himalayas in Northern India, along the border of Tibet, which produces absolutely stunning tea. Darjeeling tea is often called "the champagne of tea." Probably the most well known tea they produce is what's known as "Darjeeling Second Flush." This is a black tea with a very distinct flavour that no other region can replicate. It has a rich floral taste with a musky flavour known as "muscatel" (reminiscent of muscat grapes).  It's quite astringent, which means it dries your mouth out a bit while you drink it. It's produced in the late spring during the second plucking of the tea bushes of the year. We just happened to be in the region while some estates were producing this tea. We'll go into greater detail about these "flushes" and what they mean for tea in a future blog post.

And handful of beautiful, freshly processed Darjeeling tea.

And handful of beautiful, freshly processed Darjeeling tea.

However, as we would learn on our trip, Darjeeling produces so much more than just this single type of tea. Second flush might be their most famous type, but there is an amazing variety of stunning tea being produced in Darjeeling. Delicate white tea, surprising green tea, and my personal favourite: Darjeeling first flush. Everywhere has something different going on.

We headed straight for Rohini Tea Estate, right at the base of the Darjeeling hills. This was the first tea estate I’d ever visited and it was a great introduction. This estate is experimenting with all kinds of interesting things. They had tea plants that could be harvested in January (which is not normally tea plucking season) and some Japanese cultivars they were using to produce some teas that tasted quite a lot like Japanese sencha. It was great to see the creativity they were putting into their tea, trying all kinds of neat experiments. We were treated to a lovely lunch at the owners bungalow and then we all piled back into a bus for our journey up into the famous Darjeeling hills.

Our group at Rohini Tea Estate Photo credit: Shabnam Weber (www.theteaemporium.com)

Our group at Rohini Tea Estate

Photo credit: Shabnam Weber (www.theteaemporium.com)

Darjeeling is located at 6700ft above sea level and our little bus had to climb all the way up there, one switchback at a time. The roads are so steep that they are textured so the wheels can grip without sliding backwards. We later discovered that each of these bumps is a small rock that is tapped into the fresh tar with a hammer, one by one, all the way along the mountain.

Darjeeling is located in the lesser Himalayas and on a clear day you can see the more famous Himalayan mountains like Kanchenjunga and even Everest. However, we were not blessed with clear weather on our trip. It was misty and rainy, but still incredibly beautiful.

We woke up the next morning hoping that the mist would have cleared, but no such luck. This wasn’t a bad thing though. The thick mist made everything feel quite magical and we bumped along to Thurbo tea estate in our little bus. The roads in Darjeeling are very different than in Kolkata. The hills are steep and the roads are very narrow and winding, with most buildings right up against the road on either side. You could buy a snack without leaving your car if you wanted to. This means that sometimes there just isn't enough room for two vehicles to go along side by side and this leads to some incredibly complex maneuvering and traffic jams as everyone tries to get where they're going. Pedestrians are often in danger of being squished up against a building as two large SUVs try and go by, but everyone seems to have a lot of patience about it all.

On the way we passed by the Nepalese border, which was exciting for me. I've always wanted to visit Nepal. Perhaps someday.

Most tea factory visits follow a similar pattern: A tour of the fields, a tour of the factory, and a cupping of the estate's teas. At Thurbo we started with the factory and got our first taste of something we would be getting pretty familiar with: silly outfits. Tea factories take cleanliness seriously, and part of this is that you have to wear a certain outfit every time you enter one. This usually include a paper hat, giant white lab coat, and paper shoe covers. Sometimes it also includes a face mask. We all got a pretty good laugh out of how ridiculous we looked, but this would become our new normal.

Our stylish factory outfits. From right to left: Shabnam, Gabriella, Katherine, me. Photo credit: Gabriella Lombardi (www.chateaatelier.it)

Our stylish factory outfits. From right to left: Shabnam, Gabriella, Katherine, me.

Photo credit: Gabriella Lombardi (www.chateaatelier.it)

Fashionable and hygienic plastic booties. These will be all the rage next fall. I can feel it.

Fashionable and hygienic plastic booties. These will be all the rage next fall. I can feel it.

Ready for the catwalk.

Ready for the catwalk.

When we arrived at Thurbo, the mist covered most of the fields, but when we came out of the factory, the mist had pulled away and we had the most stunning view over the fields and across to Nepal.

Rolling fields of tea, stretching across to Nepal, still shrouded in mist.

Rolling fields of tea, stretching across to Nepal, still shrouded in mist.

The road got even worse on the way to Sungma tea estate and as we got closer to the estate itself, the road barely existed. We were quite remote and we were lucky enough to see a deer as well as a young boy herding about 20 baby pigs.

Our group at Sungma. From left to right: Peter, Debbie, Katherine, me, Shabnam, our host Anil, Louise, Gabriella, Dr. Laskar, Wanda Photo credit: Gabriella Lombardi (www.chateaatelier.it)

Our group at Sungma. From left to right: Peter, Debbie, Katherine, me, Shabnam, our host Anil, Louise, Gabriella, Dr. Laskar, Wanda

Photo credit: Gabriella Lombardi (www.chateaatelier.it)

Sugma was lovely and the manager, Anil, was incredibly passionate about his work. We were quite exhausted by the time we arrived, but meeting Anil perked everybody up. We sat out in his gazebo overlooking the hills as the sun started to set and Anil captivated us all with his conversation. Even though we were all tired, we ended up staying long after the sun had gone down.

Anil spoke a lot about finding joy in your work and how tea is a way of helping people. This was something I would keep hearing as we travelled through India. That there is no point in doing something you don't enjoy. It is a waste of your time and talents. It is better to find something you like to do that can help others and to do it as well as you possibly can. Work hard, but be happy. At the time I was considering leaving an industry that I found draining and unrewarding and I was trying to find a way to connect more with the world, and I found Anil's words very inspiring. Obviously I took his words to heart because I never ended up going back to the entertainment industry and decided to make a go at this instead. So far, no regrets.

Next week: I find paradise on earth and meet some monkeys.