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Saturday, January 19, 2013

On World Tourism Day, Angshuman Paul reminisces on a trip to the queen of hill stations, Darjeeling, where every view is worth toasting, With tea, of course...

It was a dripping-fresh monsoon afternoon when we reached the pristine town of Darjeeling, and we set about to explore this evergreen fantasy of a hill-town that is possibly still convalescing from political unrest but manages to remain an elegant enough destination to deserve the befitting ‘Queen of hill stations’ title.

Our first stopover was the delightful Gymkhana Club, and as evenings turn up quite early at any hill town, we quickly made our way to the epicentre of Darjeeling – the Mall Road, which as it turns out is a fantastic and fun location for watching the perfect sunset. The thoroughly tree shaded street is a stroller’s and jogger’s delight, offering panoramic views of the luscious mountain slopes all around. Then there’s this new crop of tea cafes, as yet another manifestation of Darjeeling’s tea tourism initiatives. “The zest of Darjeeling lies in tea and many tea-caf├ęs have come up in this city recently. This is adding to the beauty of this town; the confluence of tea and tourism is making Darjeeling more charming,” feels Deep Kalra, Founder and CEO of MakeMyTrip (India) Pvt Ltd. Be it in the time-tested Glenary’s Bakery or the many contemporary ‘tea junctions’ that have sprouted everywhere, you obviously cannot not taste tea when in Darjeeling.

Exotic flora and fauna await you in the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park, most notably the red pandas and the snow leopards, apart from access to the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. The final resting place of Tenzing Norgay, this training centre and museum celebrates the first ascent of the Everest accomplished by Norgay and Edmund Hillary, and is a treasure trove of mountaineering equipment, souvenirs and information. A true blue climbers’ galaxy, if you will.

A tour of the picture-perfect tea-gardens on the second day of our itinerary was up next. We chose Makaibari specifically for being the oldest of all Indian tea-gardens in northern India; it has been in continuous operation since 1859. Makaibari makes use of holistic practices that include Steiner’s bio-dynamics (a technique used in tea-cultivation ensuring optimum and sustainable utilisation of all natural resources) and a unique six-tiered permaculture, which has helped develop the habitat for an astonishing three hundred species of birds. “We offer hospitality to European tourists who have recently started visiting Darejeeling again looking to explore the environment of a tea-estate. The holistic synergy of tea-gardens in India is exclusively felt in Darjeeling,” claims Rajah Banerjee, the owner of Makaibari Tea Estates. Not a hollow boast that, as Darjeeling tea gardens are the only gardens in Asia which are known to have inspired 800 million marginalised farmers to become grassroot entrepreneurs.

Below the serene surface of this quaint Himalayan city are political fault lines that have flared up once in a while, leading to an enormous drop in footfalls. The clamour for autonomy by the local Gurkha community ushered some very dark days between 2007 and 2009, but hopefully the gorgeous town will survive it all including the looming urbanisation, and tourism-related overcrowding and sanitation issues.

A heartening aspect of the tea industry, we learn at Makaibari, is that the premium earned through fair trade tea sales contributes to the welfare and development of the community.

To accommodate the constant flow of visitors to Makaibari, there are now homestay options too, made available by local folks. “Tea tourism and eco-tourism would be the next big attraction in Darjeeling and we are a pioneer in this. The whole world knows Darjeeling as a tea-destination, then why not use it for tourism purpose?” says Banerjee.

On our way to Tiger Hill thereafter, there lay expanses of lush-green teak forests, the other capital ‘T’ associated with Darjeeling. Little wonder director Anurag Basu referred to Darjeeling as the town of 6 Ts: tea, tourism, teak, the toy train, Tiger Hill and trekking. In his recently released movie, Barfi, his adoration of the hill town has been clearly revealed in crystalline frames.

It was our last day in Darjeeling when we visited Tiger Hill, the perfect vantage point to land a sighting of the highest peaks in the world. Particularly at times of sunrise and sunset, the divine canvas around you comes alive in colours that take your breath away. Even though it was the monsoon season, we were made privy to a clear view of the Kanchenjunga (altitude 28,968 ft) as the sun came out. If you are lucky enough to get a crystal clear sky, Mount Everest is also visible. The monsoon months of August-September are fun but if the peaks’ peek-a-boo is high on your must-dos, then this is not the time.

The former summer capital of the British Empire, Darjeeling’s misty milieu has a befitting motif in the steam-spouting toy train chugging gently along – just like the days around here. Choose the season depending on what you wish to experience, but go you must to know Mother Nature at her motherly best.

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