Darjeeling tea tastes bitter when it steeps for more than three minutes. But unlike the tea, Darjeeling city unfolds with time: The longer you stay, the more charming it becomes.
Darjeeling’s famous tea grows on the high vertical hills of the Himalayas. Tea plantations cascade from the city like a lush ball gown and fade across the horizon. The city hangs – sometimes impossibly – from the side of a mountain and flows into the tea.
I did not fall for Darjeeling easily. To my fresh eyes, the city was gritty and growing sloppily upward. It smelled of diesel and coal and the narrow streets seemed dark and Dickensian.
Darjeeling has a softer side though. It was once a temperate mountainside respite for India’s colonial British rulers who hopped trains north to escape the searing summer heat of the lower plains.
There are original colonial homes and newer buildings that pay architectural homage to the city’s British influences. We stayed in a lovely old hotel/home, “more British than Britain” an English friend joked.
One lesson of many that I have learned in India: Stay in a nice hotel if you can. The best of this country challenges and charms its visitors to extreme degree; it’s almost necessary to wrap yourself in comfort at the end of a day. Where you sleep can tip the scale in favor of loving or hating a place.
Perhaps less known of Darjeeling is its close ties to Nepal and Tibet and its entrenched Buddhist heritage. Look to the horizon and you see Nepal and Sikkim, a sliver of land that lies between India and Tibet. The city teems with refugees looking for economic bounty or religious freedom. Buddhist stupas dot the hills and prayer flags string across valleys and cling to trees.
Darjeeling is also home to India’s Gorkha tribe. You may recognize the Gorkhas as a military unit that heroically served (and continues to serve) the British army. The Gorkhas are a Nepalese hill tribe known for their strength and warrior instincts. The British recruited the Gorkhas in the 19th century to serve the British East India Company’s army, and later the British army. A few years ago, Gorkha soldiers were permitted to retire in England, but many are still fighting for fair and equal pension from the British army.
Above the Tea and Temples and History looms Kangchenjunga, the third tallest peak on earth at 28-thousand feet or 8,586 meters. This is why we traveled to Darjeeling in November: to see snowy Kangchenjunga floating in blue skies. Most of the year clouds above Darjeeling block the view – but November, December and May are often clear.
And what a sight! Her earthly beauty and heavenly distance stole the show. Even the kids “got” it. On our first morning and first clear view, Eddie hopped on the hotel balcony shouting “Wow… Oh my God! Where’s Lala? Where’s Lala? She has to see this… LA-LA!!!”
And this is what he saw:
Our travel crew:
And Handsome Georgie:
Georgie doing “Gangnam Style” on the Nepal/India border, with one foot in each country: