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India - Darjeeling

INDIA | Wednesday, 15 September 2010 | Views [574]


Darjeeling Tea

Darjeeling is 2200 meters above sea level and is a cool 22C.  We had to get our fleeces out, as we had just left Bodhgaya with 42C.  It rained most of the time we were there, and had to make sure we brought our umbrellas everywhere we went.  It could be sunny and warm, and then turn to pouring rain in a heartbeat.

Darjeeling is a more modern town, I think, largely due to the British influence from a century and a half ago.  It is much cleaner and seems to have its road system down to as good as it can get, considering it is built entirely on a mountain side.  Just like McLeod Ganj, buildings seem to be stacked, one on top of each other.  The buildings here are a bit more clever in that you can access various floors of the buildings from the various roads.  The bottom floor is usually an assortment of shops, accessible from one street level.  As you go up and around the switchback, you are now at a 3rd or 4th level of the same building, and accessed from the opposite side than that of the bottom level.  I have seen the very top level, from yet another switchback, used as a parking complex.

Some streets are so very narrow it is practically impossible for a vehicle to get through.  As a result, we have seen more porters carrying unbelievable packages via tumpline, across their foreheads, up and down the crazy steep streets.  I caught this one carrying an armoire.  I cannot believe the neck strength they must have, not to mention legs.  Most of these guys are actually quite small, too. 


Of course Darjeeling is world famous for its tea.  We went to, arguably, the best tea plantation in the entire region, as it is the sole supplier of #1 tea to Harrod’s in London.  The tea processing house was not in operation that day, as it was a Monday and there was no tea picked on the Sunday.  We were invited in to a quaint tea shop, situated next to the tea processing house, by a charming 70 year old woman, who was a tea picker at one time.  She was extremely knowledgeable and entertaining in her explanation about the different qualities of tea. 

tea service

Only the first 3 leaves of the bush are picked, with the barely unfolded center leaf being the prize of #1 tea.  All the tea is spread on large mesh platforms to dry, with fans blowing a mere 24C to keep the air circulating.  From there the tea is dropped into a roller, where it is rolled to break the leaf and stem to allow more moisture to escape.  (#1 white tea is done by hand)  The black teas are allowed to dry on platforms, where the moisture slightly ferments, causing the tea to turn black.  The green and white teas do not ferment. 

picking tea 

The tea is then sifted.  The finer, smaller, younger leaves fall through, and go on to be the finest tea.  Leaves picked in the spring (March – June) make finer tea.  The coarser leaves, leaves picked later in the year, leaves picked from older plants go on to make the #2 and #3 grades.   There are still 3 kinds of #1 tea – black, green and white; the White being the finer of the #1.

tea leaves  

It takes about 5-7 years before they can harvest leaves from a bush, but then the bush will go on to produce leaves for another 50- 60 years.  However, the younger bushes have the best teas.   The pickers are paid 62 rupees per day (44 rupees = $1).   They get bonuses for picking over their quota which is about 1 kilo per day.  They are also given a monthly allotment of tea, for personal use.  The tea house we purchased tea from was a co-op of pickers who choose to sell their allotment in order to make extra money.   The tea processors know they are doing this, but choose to turn a blind eye, as the money goes directly back to the pickers.   Considering these tea bushes grow on slopes that are in excess of 45 degrees, I have a whole new respect for tea and the pickers.

steep slopes  sorting tea leaves

Here in Darjeeling we had to obtain permits to go into Sikkim.  We didn’t stay long in Darjeeling, and decided to make our way to Gangtok in Sikkim.  We left in the afternoon and caught the last shared jeep out of town, as it was raining hard and apparently the drivers don’t like to go in the rain, as they can never tell if one of the hundreds of thousands of potholes is a huge one once it is filled with water.  5 hours and 90 km later we arrived.  Every time I rolled over at night, I felt like I had been beaten with a rubber hose.  My body was so sore from being tense the whole trip, being jostled and lunged about in the back of the jeep.  As we were the last ones, the only seats remaining were the 2 small ones at the very back that face each other.  There is only a ½ door on the back with a heavy plastic cover that suspends from the roof.  We had to pull the plastic cover to the inside of the door to keep the exhaust fumes from coming inside the vehicle.  In typical Indian style, every now and then a fellow would jump onto the bumper, fling his bag into the back with us, and ride for several kilometers hanging off the back of the jeep.  Then he’d bang the roof, the driver would stop – briefly – while the guy grabbed his bag from us and jump off.

acres of tea plants



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