12th April Another early start, I rolled out of bed at 5.30 into a taxi for the airport for my flight to Calcutta, the base for my next trip to Goomtee and Okayti tea estates in Darjeeling. Landing in Calcutta, I was met by Ashok Kumar, the owner of Goomtee Estate in Darjeeling who had kindly arranged for me to check in to a hotel for the afternoon until my train – the Darjeeling Mail from Kolkata Sealdah to New Jalpaiguri, in the plains below Darjeeling that evening.
The first thing I noticed about Calcutta was the sheer number of bright yellow Austin taxis in the city. The city teemed with them, honking and swerving down chaotic traffic choked roads.
My experiences in Calcutta taxis are best forgotten -I had to keep my wits about me, but it did add to the adventure of the trip and helped me to sharpen my haggling techniques!Nevertheless, that afternoon one driver did get me to New Market, a huge market block opposite Curzon park, interspersed by crumbling old buildings for a reasonable fee.
The market block was packed with locals buying provisions for the forthcoming Bengali New Year – Poyela Boishakh. As a driver foolishly tried to navigate his way along a packed pedestrian street, he ran over a poor person’s foot, causing a huge scene as a shouting, remonstrating crowd descended on the car, banging on the windows and at one point rocking the car en masse. Eventually, local policemen arrived on the scene to clear and calm the situation. Needless to say, I didn’t photograph any of this, fearing that the overflowing anger of the locals might find an outlet in abusing me instead of the driver.After seeing this, I ducked into the market buildings themselves to poke around the stores. News quickly spread that there was a foreigner wondering around the market and I was passed seamlessly from one hawker to another in an operation so smooth that it must have been honed on many a tourist.I was passed from saree stalls to silk stalls, tea stalls to hat stalls and many more, enjoying the banter with the stallholders who on seeing that I was adamant that I was not going buy anything this early in my trip, were happy to pass me onto the next stallholder for his pitch.I finally escaped the basement stalls and emerged into the street, where I was pounced on by another stallholder, obviously not part of the same clique, but equally persistent. Eventually, after much back and forth, we agreed that if I could take his photo, I would visit his stall, with no obligation to buy. Here he is below, if you’re ever in New Market in Calcutta, I’m sure he’ll find you. He sells imported Nepalese Buddhist statues and silks which are really very beautiful.
That evening, I arrived at the enormous Sealdah station, ready to board my train, the Darjeeling Mail. When the train arrived I found my carriage and looked for my name on the lists, stuck to the side of the carriage at each end. I couldn’t see my name anywhere, began to panic and tracked down the Ticket inspector. In the meantime, sensing that something was amiss, I put my luggage on the train, thinking that even if I didn’t have a bunk reserved, I could at least find somewhere on the huge train to spend the night, paying whatever was demanded of me on inspection.
Once installed on the train, I thought that the ticket inspector would be reluctant to eject me. I thought wrong. On discovering that there was no confirmation of my booking on the train, the ticket inspector sent along two railway employees who unceremoniously turfed me and my luggage out of the train onto the platform. It looked like I wasn’t travelling to Darjeeling by train after all! 13th April The next morning I boarded a flight to Bagdogra, the nearest airport to Darjeeling, hastily arranged the previous night on the hotel computer.My first stop in the Darjeeling hills was Goomtee Estate. In a taxi, driven by an extremely smiley Mongolian, climbed into the misty hills, around winding hairpin bends and up extremely steep gradients. As we drove through the villages approaching Goomtee Estate, the driver was greeted by practically everyone we passed, he was obviously something of a local hero. Local schoolchildren even held out their hands for high fives as we passed, all smiling and giggling as they received a resounding slap from the driver as we scooted by.
The tea estates had begun only a few miles from the airport but it wasn’t until we had climbed to 4800ft that we reached Goomtee Estate, perched high on very steep slopes, with an incredible view. After dumping my luggage in the estate bungalow, I jogged down the hill to make the most of the remaining light of the day to take some photos of the lush green hills.That evening I met the manager of Goomtee Estate who gave me a little background on the estate. Established in 1899, Goomtee Estate has been producing some of the finest Darjeeling teas ever since. He told me that despite a long and painful drought that had reduced the amount of leaf available for production significantly, the tea that is being produced this year is of a higher quality than last year’s.Production of tea in Darjeeling involves long nights working in the factories, so I left my host to head down to the factory to oversee production. We agreed to meet up the next morning for a tour of the factory. I went to bed that evening hoping for a clear, sunny day the next day and set my alarm for 5am to make sure that I was down in the fields for sunrise. 14th April When I woke, the mist that had shrouded the mountains had cleared. I walked down to the fields below the bungalows and strolled around the gardens while the sun rose above the mountains in the distance.
It was a stunning sight and it was great to be able to see the tea bushes in clear light. Even though the drought had clearly affected some plants, the vast majority of the bushes were a lush and vibrant green colour with very healthy leaf and bud sets. After a hectic few days since my arrival in India, it was a very peaceful start to the day.
At 7am a steady procession of tea pickers with baskets on their backs passed me on their way to the fields requiring picking that day.
After they’d passed I wandered up to the factory for a quick tour. The factory was spotlessly clean and equipped with extremely well cared for antique tea production machines. Each year, all the machines are given a fresh coat of paint ready for a long season of almost constant use. In the next post, I’ll be going through the production process of Darjeeling teas.
Next in the series – Part 4– Okayti Estate, Darjeeling