Cup of tea?
Up and into the Himalayas. We were expecting cold and we were rewarded with freezing temperatures. The journey to Darjeeling was taken on what they call the toy train. A old steam engine with a narrow gauge that ambles it's way to the most famous hill station in India. So slow in fact that one of the perks of riding it is that you can jump out at any time, as long at you are not on one of the many cliff edges, run along side it, and jump back aboard. If you do the same journey by jeep it will only take three hours but as you may have read in almost all of our previous entries we love to take slow and laborious public transport. It takes 7 hours if nothing breaks down or 12, like our journey, if it does.
The views along the way are incredible . From sea level to almost 3000 meters above, passing small towns who's very roads accommodate the trains tracks. Watching an old steam train snake through what looks like the towns high street is a marvel in it's self then ploughing onwards and upwards through pristine hill ranges blanketed with tea plantations.
Darjeeling is a wonder of a town. Built on plunging hills, surrounded by glorious vistas, the houses and buildings are staked on top of each other clasped onto the face of mountains holding on of dear life.
Darjeeling has a very different feel to the rest of India that we had visited. The people are a heady mix of Tibetans, Nepalese, and North Indians. This and the winter weather make for a very relaxed place. Gone is the ferocious hard sell of goods, even the hustle and bustle of the main part of town is somehow still less hectic even if the crowds are of the same volume.
It was the wrong time of year to see the tea factories so our time was spent wondering around town. We did meet a old lady who was willing to let us sample her 3 second tea (that's how long it takes to brew it) and talk us through the history of the Happy Valley tea plantation from where the tea is grown. You can only buy this tea in Harrods in London or her shop...Or so we are told. And why is Happy Valley tea better than all of the other 80 tea plantations in Darjeeling? Because it's happy. We loved the explanation and the logic so we bought four bags.
The British. Suckers for tea.
Satisfied with tea it was time to move on to something harder. We had heard of a drink that was made from millet and served in a bamboo cup but asking around the tourist parts of town only drew blanks. Until we were lead down one of Darjeeling's many dark alleyways, one of the darkest and mugger friendly ones that I have seem in a while, and sat in what looked like someones kitchen. It was someones kitchen but it also doubled up as a bar for locals only. Were sat with the said locals who were surprised that a couple of tourists had found this den of iniquity. They turned out to be very friendly, if not a little drunk and stoned, and helped us through ordering and drinking this bizarre local drink. Fermented millet is piled into the bamboo cup then you poor hot water over it, leave it to soke and then drink it thought a metal straw. You can get about three hits from the same millet. Small tips like, "don't stir it or you'll get a very bad headache" , and, "we only know of a few people who went blind drinking it", were helpful and just the encouragement needed to finish up. I don't know how we always manage to do it but just finding out what the locals drink can lead to some interesting situations. Not all of them am I willing to detail on this blog.
Darjeeling has become one of our favorite places, not just for the tea and booze, but for the ambiance, the spectacle and friendliness of this cold but emotionally warm town. It was our first taste of the Himalayas and it's people and it's left us wanting more.