The misty tea estates, rolling languidly in the hills of West Bengal, were the first destination of my solo backpacking in India. Before I even moved to Ahmedabad, as an avid tea-lover I had always wanted to go to Darjeeling. My original plan was to continue on to the other 7 states in Northeast India. Northeast India is a somewhat mysterious region that is often exoticized in Indian tourist promos as home to ‘rare’ tribal histories and ‘rich’ or ‘untouched’ village life – like a perfectly preserved anthropology textbook. While the cultural, ethnic, and religious diversity of the Northeastern states is incredible, the oversimplification of the region as unanimously ‘tribal’ and ‘untouched’ doesn’t do justice to the striking modernity of Gangtok, or the complicated political wars and land disputes with China and Nepal. The general narrative portrayed in modern Indian media is the Northeast as a region full of revolutionaries and border instability, warring ethnic groups, underdeveloped villages, and communist sympathizers. Interestingly, this March during elections the right-wing BJP party made sweeping and unexpected wins in the states Tripura, Meghalaya, and Nagaland. In Tripura this ended 25 years of Communist Party rule, and video footage of bulldozers tearing down statues of Lenin were all over the internet. Though the entirety of the Northeast isn’t in turmoil, it certainly is experiencing rapid changes on multiple levels. This sort of environment isn’t the most conducive for solo backpacking, but not entirely impossible.
Timing, reliability, and weather are not factors that are predictable in the region. The only mode of transport between cities is by shared jeeps which leave whenever they feel like it, along winding, terrifying mountain roads. After weeks of somewhat frustrated research, that plan shifted to only exploring West Bengal à Sikkim by jeep through the Siliguri corridor, and finishing off with some trekking around the base of Mt.Kachenjunga – the third highest peak in the world. While doing a full-tour of the Northeast is potentially possible in 2 weeks, I didn’t want to risk it. Darjeeling and Sikkim sounded like an OK compromise to me.
Tea estates, preserved relics of British colonialism, are iconic in West Bengal. While the lowlands of Calcutta have a long history of writers, poets and academics due to their early contact with colonial administration, hill stations are a different world. The Bengali Renaissance reached the upper classes of Calcutta, but the highlands were (and remain) very stratified from the metropolitan reality. These mountainous regions are populated by ‘Ghorkas’ – ethnic Nepalis. After the Anglo-Nepalese War in the early 1800s when the British Empire gained former Nepali territory, a vast amount of Nepali Ghorkas found themselves to be living in West Bengal. When I arrived at Makaibari Tea Estate in Kurseong, I was totally oblivious to this history, and was surprised to find that my homestay family were Hindus who didn’t speak Hindi, and also ate meat, defying some prevalent conceptions about what Hinduism ‘is’ or ‘isn’t’.
Of the numerous tea estates spanning the hills, Makaibari is ‘one of the best’ according to my Darjeeling tea-expert friend Harsh. Certified fair-trade and organic, Makaibari not only produces delicious tea, it also runs numerous social supports such as a library, health clinic, day care, and the homestay program I was participating in. All the employees of Makaibari lived in small clusters of houses across the sprawling estate. Through their homestay program, I stayed with a family, sharing all my meals with them, and during the day went for a factory and tea garden tour, with a tea tasting afterwards. Unfortunately, my stay was filled with heavy thunderclouds blowing across the valley – after all, the word ‘Darjeeling’ means land of the thunderbolt. I spent a lot of time inside devouring Tagore’s ‘Gora’ with the family dog and grandma, who didn’t speak a word of English but ensured I was constantly full of tea-biscuits and steamy Darjeeling tea in the damp weather. I still managed to wander the tea planting hills and learned about the different variety of plants, the climate, labour relations and their links to market. All tea is derived from 3 plants: camellia sinensis (often referred to as Chinese), assam, or a hybrid of the two. The only thing that differentiates green, black, oolong, and white tea is the fermentation process. Once they are picked, all leaves go for ‘withering’, where they are left on a mesh screen overnight to partially dry. After that, leaves will be left to oxidize for different periods of time before rolling and drying, depending on both the type and quality of the tea. Black tea is oxidized the longest, then oolong, and green tea, while white tea is immediately baked to stop oxidization. And yes, ‘tea bag’ tea does come from the dust on the factory floor…or, from ‘CTC’ tea, where the leaves are immediately crushed, torn, and curled into small pellets or flakes. CTC tea is cheap, convenient, and gives your cup that quickly brewed reddish-gold colour. Unfortunately crushing the leaves homogenizes the different flavours of various regions, plants, and quality. While CTC makes up the vast majority of tea production, some people travel all the way to Darjeeling in March and April to taste ‘first flush’ Darjeeling tea. Picked only at the very beginning of spring each season, first flush is a mild, fresh, and sweet black tea that fetches a high price – and I was just in time for it! I was surprised to learn that the lowest-paying job was tea-picking – a domain entirely filled by women. No matter the weather, they pluck individual leaves by hand for 8 hour days, climbing up and down the steep hillsides, earning just over $2 a day. I thought more about what a ‘fair-trade’ designation really means, and how much of that is a structural label, versus how those values reach labourers. There was a lot of time to contemplate over a cup of tea…
From Makaibari estates I squeezed in a shared jeep to travel further into the hills and see the actual town of Darjeeling. Once a quaint hill station steeped in British traditions, Darjeeling is now a cramped and sprawling city. Only English boarding schools and posh cafes like Glenary’s remain as relics of the British-high society past. Being in the Northeastern most part of West Bengal, there are stunning views of Mt. Kanchenjunga from Darjeeling – the third highest peak in the world. Or so I’m told, as the perpetual rain continued day after day. Rainy season doesn’t usually come to Darjeeling until late May, but climate change seemed to be shifting the monsoon patterns not in my favour. I still walked up and around the winding, slippery hillsides, trying to see as many temples, shops, and monasteries as possible. Darjeeling is home to many Tibetan Buddhist refugees, who walked over the high mountain passes southwards into Sikkim and West Bengal. India has proudly granted political amnesty to Tibetans since the 1950s. The Dalai Llama escaped in disguise into India, and his spiritual and political headquarters are in India. Unfortunately the Tibet Museum in Darjeeling, while excellently curated, was a fairly apolitical portray of tribal and rural life in Tibet. Still, the Tibetan and eastern influence was unmistakable in Darjeeling – in the architecture, hidden temples, and the plentiful momos – delicious steamed dumplings! Besides avoiding being trapped in the monsoon, my biggest goal was to arrange all my permits to cross the border into Sikkim.
Crossing into to Sikkim as a foreigner involves a range of archaic permits to be filled out, signed and stamped at multiple offices, and then carried to a border official and stamped again when you enter and exit the state. Much to the chagrin of my fellow jeep passengers, we had to stop at the border as I ran across the highway in the downpour with a fistful of permits! I thought that was the worst of it…but it turns out that all the most breathtaking locations in Sikkim are entirely closed to foreigners. That includes the beautiful lakes and mountains in the north, as well as the Silk Road, and the famous border between Sikkim and China. Even to go to Lake Tsomgo, a holy lake barely a 2 hour drive from the capital of Gangtok, required separate permits, a tour guide, and a private jeep for the whooping price of $200 CAD! Every challenge has a silver lining, as this requirement created a friendship-by-necessity with Lily from Germany and Jo from England. We met in the ‘hostel’ (a vast overstatement) which was actually a family’s 2 bedroom apartment with plywood partitions to make ‘rooms’ for a monopolized price…
Gangtok is incredibly clean and infrastructural developed, but the market for backpacking is non-existent, and restrictions for foreigners and prices inflated by 10 times are a norm. Luckily, Lily, Jo and I had no issues walking around 20 kilometres in one day to avoid the crazy taxi prices, plus, we saw a lot of nature along the way…though to be honest, we were bummed we couldn’t see the ‘real mountains’. Gangtok also (supposedly) has a beautiful view of Kachenjunga and the Indian side of the Himalayas, none of which we were able to see due to thunderstorms. After a bout of severe food poisoning, cold and thunderous rain, and 2 days of walking the whole of Gangtok, Lily, Jo and I were very ready to plan our next steps in Sikkim. Based off a recommendation, my plan was to head into Western Sikkim to Yuksom, a small village in the foothills with many arduous and simple treks branching off from it. Lily and Jo both decided to join, and some brush of luck brought us the 2 coziest homestays of my whole travels in the Northeast. In Yuksom, we had a private garden cabin complete with a meditation and yoga loft overlooking the flowers and swings. It felt good to get Gangtok out of our system and we were reluctant to leave.
Much to the disappointment of local trekking guides, we of course did not have the time or money to make a 2 week trip to Kachenjunga base camp, but we did set out for a 2 day monastery and lake trek through the villages. Following some incredibly descriptive directions written down by an enthusiastic Israeli couple, we set off through the hills. I personally think it was a miracle we didn’t get lost, but we did get followed by dogs and attacked viciously by leeches! When the ground is very damp, leeches crawl out of the low underbrush and grasses, reaching for your ankles, and even making it through the mesh of my running shoes and halfway through my sock! When we reached our hidden homestay at the top of the highest ridge around the lake, the family laughed at our leech-fearing eyes and gave us a mound of salt to dry them right up. They immediately brought out a steaming pot of tea and pile of fresh mint leaves to accompany the brew. We hid from the rain in the veranda with steaming cups, trying to imagine what the view might have been…it almost didn’t matter, because that evening we were served the best meal I had tasted in months. Everything was grown in their garden, from the beans to potatoes, spinach, and plentiful fresh herbs which flavoured every dish. Fate was on our side, because it was that exact evening, after weeks in Sikkim, that we FINALLY had a view of Mt. Kachenjunga. It was the strangest glimpse of the towering peaks: just before midnight, the snow covered cliffs reflected the shimmering moonlight, and we were awe-struck by the surprising nighttime glory.
That unexpected glimpse of Kachenjunga was a perfect way to wrap up my final days of adventure in the Northeast. My visions of this corner of India, so coloured by beautiful fiction like Lahiri ‘s ‘The Lowland’, Desai’s ‘The Inheritance of Loss’, and Tagore’s ‘Gora’, folded together into something completely unexpected, but in the end appreciated. After all, that’s how it goes in India, doesn’t it?