After our lovely train ride, we finally found ourselves in Darjeeling and it honeslty felt like another country. Not only was it freezing, but the people look completely different (basically Nepalese or Tibetan) and the mountainous landscape was completely new for us.
We got a room at the simple but clean Andy’s Guesthouse and shelled out the extra rupees for a space heater for our room—well worth the money! The best part about Andy’s is the rooftop observatory where you can see the Himalayas (although they look very tiny from there) on a clear day, which we did the following morning! We had a fine dinner that night, many restaurants serve Tibetan food and I had a warming bowl of thukpa (wide noodles in soup). As we exited the restaurant around 8:30 pm we realized that the town was shutting down for the night—it was getting really cold and I guess everyone just hunkers down and goes to sleep after dark!
The next day we explored Darjeeling, which is a very cute town. I’ve heard it can get quite touristy in summer, but because we were there in the off season things were pretty quiet. We made our way up to Observatory Hill, which is a hill (duh) near the center of town with a few Buddhist shrines and stupas on top and a sacred cave below it. The entire hill was covered in colorful Tibetan prayer flags and the shrines were also very vibrant. After some more wandering we ended up getting some tea at the Sunset Lounge inside Nathmull’s, a tea shop. We decided to be fancy and ordered a cup of white tea (the most expensive kind of tea) and their deluxe black tea. The white tea came in a champagne glass and the black tea was in what looked like a brandy glass! The tea was good, although we’re not connoisseurs or anything…
After warming up we decided to walk down to the Happy Valley Tea Estate. It was a much longer walk than we anticipated, although we should have realized from the name Happy VALLEY that we would have to walk all the way down! When we finally arrived a man quickly approached us and asked if we wanted a tour. He explained that because it was winter there was no work going on in the factory but he could show us around and explain what happens, so we agreed. First he took us to the fields, which were a bit bare due to the season, but there were still some leaves growing and a few women weeding and pruning in preparation for the spring season. Inside the factory we saw the drying tables, as well as various machines for drying and separating. We learned that all teas (green, black, white) come from the same leaf, it just depends on how long it is dried for (green the least amount of time, black the most). We also learned that the women who work there have certain quotas depending on their age: young, unmarried women are expected to pick more kilos per day than young married women, who must pick more than older women. All the women get paid per kilo and they live on the estate’s property during the season.
After our tour we mentioned that we might want to buy some tea. The man explained that all of Happy Valley’s tea is sold to Harrod’s in London (in fact there was a large Harrod’s sign at the entrance), but if we wanted to taste it and maybe buy some we could go to his friend’s house. His friend’s father is apparently some head honcho of Happy Valley and gets to have some tea. And then his son…sells it in some sort of black market scheme? We weren’t sure what to expect, but we agreed and ended up in a small home with an elaborately decorated sitting room. We were shown three different varieties of black tea, all of different quality. Then he made us a pot of the supposedly best one, but again, it just tasted like a fine cup of tea to us! We did learn that you are only supposed to let the tea steep in boiling water for about 5 seconds though. In the end, we decided not to buy from him because it was just too weird! We paid for the cups we drank and headed back up to town. We walked back up a slightly different way and while the uphill was a bit exhausting, we did get to walk through several local neighborhoods and see kids playing badminton, apparently very popular there. When we got back to town we headed back to Nathmull’s and bought some tea to bring home from there.
That night we went to dinner at Glenary’s, a sort of New England lodge-type restaurant with a nice fireplace and white tablecloths. We had eaten breakfast at their cafe downstairs that morning and had read good things about the restaurant. We got very excited when we saw some real comfort food on the menu: macaroni and cheese and fried chicken!! We hadn’t seen this type food on offer in a very long time, and the cold weather made us long for something rib-sticking. We didn’t expect much, but we were pleasantly surprised! The mac and cheese was certainly passable and Manor claims the fried chicken is the best he’s ever had!
With full bellies we went to sleep very early because the next morning we got up around 4 am to see sunrise on Tiger Hill. One of the most popular activities in Darjeeling, it’s the prime spot to see the magical Himalayas. We made our way via flashlight to the clock tower in town where jeeps are waiting to make the half-hour drive to Tiger Hill. Once there, you are offered the option of standing outside to await sunrise or you can pay a little more and go inside the observatory. Due to the fact that it was freezing cold, we opted for the indoors and sat down to wait for the Himalayas to show themselves. Luckily, although the actual sun was covered by clouds, the Himalaya side was completely clear. As the sun rose, they turned a gorgeous pink and were truly majestic. It will come as no surprise that of all the pictures we lost when our camera was stolen in Delhi a few days later, I was the most sad about losing these. But I do have a pretty good imprint of it in my mind, and I feel very happy that we got to see something so special.
After getting back to town we ate some breakfast and then took a much needed nap! Later, we walked to the zoo, where they supposedly have baby leopards, only to find out it was closed on Thursdays. Oh well! We needed to get back to the airport area for our flight the next morning, so we took a shared van down the mountain to Siliguri, which I can confidently say is one of the worst cities in India. The hotels are all on the pricer side and the one we stayed at was pretty depressing. It’s amazing what a new coat of paint could do… We did manage to find a location of our beloved Bhojohori Manna for dinner, but the food was definitely not as good there as it was in Kolkata.
Many people were surprised to hear we were going to Darjeeling in the winter, but if you can stand the cold and have some layers to pile on then I highly recommend it. Many people who go to Darjeeling in spring or summer complain of it being too touristy, but in in the off season it was quite charming.