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Up into the hills: Exploring Darjeeling's Tea Estates

If INDIA were an acronym, in my dictionary it may look like this:

  • I is for imponderable, impassioned, inspired

  • N is for nonstop

  • D is for diverse, dreamlike

  • I is for inconceivable, illusive, incredible

  • A is for ardent, amazing, awesome

We left our 5* Great Eastern Hotel which sat in the midst of a very poor section of Kolkata. It was difficult to look out onto the streets around the hotel. It was about 38 and 100% humidity. Thank goodness we had A/C in our vehicles!

[caption id="attachment_2247" align="aligncenter" width="618"]rich in Kolkata rich in Kolkata[/caption]

[caption id="attachment_2248" align="aligncenter" width="623"]poor in Kolkata poor in Kolkata[/caption]

Our destination was Darjeeling by air from Kolkata to Bagdogra. Then our journey into the clouds began with our escort and teacher, Dr. Laskar from the Tocklai Tea Research Institute. We learned that distance is not measured in kilometers in India. It is measured in time. We had a 3 hour uphill drive to the city of Darjeeling. Approximately 20km was covered in a 2 hour period! We were met by Rajiv Lochan who took us to the first of a number of Darjeeling's tea gardens, Rohini Tea Estate. It was in this garden that I first heard about cloning of the tea plant. Rohini had been neglected for a number of years and has since replanted successfully to produce some very fine teas like the one I sampled at the market last Saturday. It was a FTGFOP-1 which means Fine Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe - a superior grade and my, what a smooth taste it has!

[caption id="attachment_2249" align="aligncenter" width="600"]Dr. Laskar explains cloning Dr. Laskar explains cloning[/caption]

We joined our hosts at the manager's bungalow for a very late lunch. We were adorned with gamochas (like a lei of sorts) and welcomed warmly.

Our first tour of a relatively small tea factory followed and cupping the several fine teas afterwards was a new and fascinating experience for me. I even learned how to use the spittoon!

[caption id="attachment_2252" align="alignnone" width="600"]mounds of processed tea mounds of processed tea[/caption]

[caption id="attachment_2251" align="aligncenter" width="300"]cupping with Rajiv cupping with Rajiv[/caption]

Well, a free evening in the city of Darjeeling did not happen. We reached the Sinclair Hotel after dark and after a rather hair-raising journey on hairpin curves and pot-holed narrow roads. Dinner was served late at the hotel and as we bid good evening to our driver, I wondered how I would survive the next few days in this mountainous, misty terrain with an altitude of 6700 ft. It was just plain scary! The hotel, itself was up a very steep roadway and as we disembarked the van, there were 48 steps to climb to get to the front door!

[caption id="attachment_2255" align="aligncenter" width="355"]Look up. Look way up! Look up. Look way up![/caption]

Sinclair HotelDarjeeling is a tourist destination - a city built into the steep slopes leading to the Himalayas. We had little time in the city itself. We were on a tea mission and remember - 20km took 2 hours. In the early morning of the next day we headed out to Thurbo Tea Estate for a tour, cupping and once again a wonderful meal hosted by the manager's wife. (I hope to share my food experience in a future post). We learned that managers working for the Goodricke Company based in the UK were transferred every 3-5 years. This was a bit hard on the 14 year old son whom we met that day in the garden. He missed his friends from their previous post.

[caption id="attachment_2259" align="aligncenter" width="600"]on route on route[/caption]


[caption id="attachment_2261" align="aligncenter" width="600"]Certification in many categories required protective garb Certification in many categories required protective garb[/caption]

Another 2 hours on the road and we arrived at Sungma Tea Estate, a property of Jay Shree Tea Company. The Darjeeling gardens of Jay Shree are Fairtrade certified where the producers share in the benefits of trade with the workers/ pluckers. The gardens are certified under the Rainforest Alliance, The Japanese Agricultural Standards (standards for the agriculture industry maintained by the Japanese Government), The Ethical Tea Partnership (aiming to improve the sustainability of the tea industry), USDA Organic certification (verifies that farm or handling facility located anywhere in the world complies with the United States Department of Agriculture organic), India Organic (certification mark for organically farmed food products manufactured in India) and UTZ Certification (sustainable farming and better opportunities for farmers) as well.

The superintendent, Anil, was fun and passionate and delighted to wine and dine us at his bungalow overlooking the tea-covered hills. He gave us flowers as we joined him in his gazebo. I will plan to serve samples of his Connoiseur's Organic Blend this Saturday at the market. I can't keep it all to myself! Darjeeling teas are so delicious!

Another 'free' evening in Darjeeling was spent on the road back to the Sinclair Hotel. My fears of our van slipping over a cliff subsided, I had no trouble sleeping. I was in love with India!

[caption id="attachment_2264" align="aligncenter" width="615"]At Sungma with our charismatic host At Sungma with our charismatic host, Anil[/caption]

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