Sweet spot for a cuppa

LIZ LIGHT
Last updated 05:00 22/06/2014
DARJEELING
Reuters

DARJEELING: Tea pickers at work in a tea garden in the Himalayan town.

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It's 4.30 in the morning; moonless with a clear, star-spangled sky. I poke the ice on top of a puddle with the toe of my shoe until it creaks and cracks. It's freezing cold.

My hands are in gloves, gloves in jacket pockets and breath is steamy. The taxi to take Laura, my niece, and me to the top of Tiger Hill arrives.

Indian tourists go to Tiger Hill, a high-point 15 kilometres from Darjeeling, to see the sunrise but the real stunt, for me, is in the opposite direction, in the west where the Himalayas glow pearly white in the dark dawn.

Khangchendzonga, at 8598 metres the world's third highest peak, is a giant gleaming saw-toothed silhouette between earth and sky.

The sky slowly lightens, changing colour from Indian ink to icy blue.

Khangchendzonga is trailing wispy clouds from its highest peaks and it's clearly windy and horribly cold on her jagged flanks.

Soon the sun creeps down the Himalayas and touches us, the Indian crowd claps and cheers at this daily miracle, and thousands of fluttering prayer flags festooned between trees and poles make a bright mosaic. It begins to warm up.

Women sell cups of hot milky chai from thermos flasks and this is sweetly warming, too. The sun brightens Darjeeling while we sip our cardamom-fragrant tea. We decide to walk back to town.

It's the slowness of walking that delights, being in a place rather than whizzing through, and to see details, smell the smells and greet the locals.

From Tiger Hill we follow the road to Ghoom; there is forest on the side of the road, with low wooden houses snuggled into sunny spots, and hoarfrost and puddles still frozen in the shade. Often the forest pulls back to reveal the Himalayas, white and blue now, and framed by Buddhist prayer flags, sending their blessing on the breeze.

From Ghoom we follow a walking path where the land drops steeply into a wide valley so homes are vertical constructions perched on poles and clinging to the hillside. They have the world's best views; tea bushes cover the hillsides like a shawl of emerald velvet and the Himalayas in the distance.

Darjeeling produces a quarter of India's tea including some of the world's best brews. It was brought here by the East India Company in 1835 to destroy the monopoly China had on producing tea and it has flourished ever since.

After walking 15 kilometres we deserve a treat; high-tea at Kenilworth Hotel. High-tea is expensive, in a town where a plate full of Tibetan momos washed down with chai costs 50 cents, and is probably something only tourists do. Nonetheless we scrub and dress-up and stroll through the Mall on our way to Kenilworth.

The Mall, the ridge-top heart of town, is where one strolls, sits, chats, has a pony ride and peruses the shops. This area is in a semi-English time-warp, despite Indian independence from Britain 65 years ago.

Besides bringing tea the East India Company attracted Brits to Darjeeling, fleeing the stifling heat of Calcutta, and this became the summer capital; cool, fashionable and blessed with stunning scenery.

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The shops are of faux-Victorian, Tudor or English-country style and many are heritage buildings. St Andrew's Church and the Gymkhana (the town's sports centre) are at one end of the Mall and the regal, stone town hall, complete with a clock that plays the same ding-dong tune as Big Ben, is at the other.

Kenilworth is part of that history, with comfy leather couches, chessboards at the ready, a piano waiting for a tinkling and high-tea with a three-tier cake-plate crammed with baking.

The tea is fabulous, the strawberry jam is good but something has been lost in translation with the scones. The fruitcake isn't great either. Never mind, it's the ambience and the living history we pay for.

We linger in shops on the way back through the Mall, some selling jewellery - silver with semi-precious stones - and others selling woollen shawls.

An enthusiastic salesman opens numerous folded shawls with a flourish, motor-mouthing about their beauty and ours, spreading them around our feet and halving the price in a flash when I query it. It's too hard-sell and we leave tiptoeing through waves of colourful cloth.

Down the hill a quiet gentleman in a tidy shop shows us what we ask to see, quotes reasonable prices and refuses to bargain. Deal done; we leave warmly wrapped in wool, a wise purchase because as soon as the sun goes the temperature plummets.

Big Ben wakes me, dogs bark, horns toot and the little steam train that connects to Kurseong whistles its way along the mountainside, not showing off but warning people of its presence. The railway line is built on the edge of the main road and doubles as a footpath.

Everyone loves steam trains and when I find the train it's surrounded by a bunch of men, leaning forward and tinkering with vital parts. A carriage is moved into position over the pit; this involves shunting, hooking, unhooking and changing points.

Men leap into the pit, fiddle with the carriage's underbelly and then, after more shunting, points-changes and whistles, it is back with the others and the train is ready to go.

The affectionately named Toy Train made its first journey up from the plains in 1881 and still manages a daily service to and from Kurseong.

It's a much-loved working fossil; the fireman glows as he shovels coal into the firebox, the engine driver enjoys being a star and others delight in having maintenance to do.

The train, the Mall, heritage buildings, little Big Ben and crowded, cobbled paths zigzagging up the hill give Darjeeling an appealing old-world ambience.

The thousands of hectares of tea that surround it and Khangchendzonga in the background place it beautifully in Himalayan India.

With a shrill toot, swirl of steam and a trail of smoke the train chuffs away. I smile as I walk up to the Mall; Darjeeling is sweetly endearing.

Fact file

Getting there Cathay Pacific flies into Kolkata and Delhi, see cathaypacific.co.nz. From these cities there are direct flights to Siliguri on local airlines (Go India, Spice). Taxis and share-taxis leave Siliguri for Darjeeling regularly.

Touring there Liz Light, who made the first of many visits to India 30 years ago, is leading a 15-day World Expeditions tour, Handcrafted Textiles of Gujarat. The tour, which starts in Ahmedabad on December 1, costs $4390 per person. For more details, see worldexpeditions.co.nz.

- Sunday Star Times

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