Since our wingnut decision to change our itinerary from China to India in Yangon, I’ve been anticipating our visit to Darjeeling. It’s located in Northeast India in the state of West Bengal just north of Bangladesh and south of Sikkim.
Darjeeling is primarily known for its contribution to the black tea market. For most people of the western world they know it because of the Wes Anderson film, The Darjeeling Limited. The following styles of Black, Green, Oolong, and white tea all come from the same plant grown here, they are just picked and processed differently. In the three days we’ve been here now I already feel so much more connected to the hot steamy cup that I sip from daily. I’d almost compare it to the microbrew market back home. There are different flavors, styles and blends for every palate.
Darjeeling itself is a town built upon the hillsides of the Himalayan foothills. There are 360 degree mountain views depending on which area of the hill you are on. While it’s been pretty foggy/misty for most of our days here there’s still an entrancing spell that Darjeeling casts upon its visitors regardless of the weather.
The food is diverse and there is much Tibetan influence here. Our favorite food is the “momo” or vegetable-filled dumpling.
I also saw my first real live red panda today too as well as wild monkeys in the streets and some sort of large panther-like kitty up in a tree napping. Red Pandas might be my favorite thing ever, except for Matt. I told him if he was hanging on the edge of a cliff next to a red panda and a pizza I would save him first, then the panda, then the pizza, and then the three of us would eat the pizza….priorities.
Darjeeling has everything from a zoo to train rides, and a museum dedicated to the first and many treks to follow up to the Everest summit that began here in Darjeeling. There’s also a plethora of restaurants, tea estates/shops to tour and taste, REAL coffee and the most delicious pastries due to British influence here in the early years of developing the tea estates in the area. There is something for every traveler here no matter your budget for accommodation and food preference. It’s touristy but more so domestic tourists than backpackers, all though we’ve met our fair share of good ones.
There just so happens to be a big nation wide dance contest here in the city square this weekend which has been its own brand of entertaining. It’s still fairly cool here this time of year but compared to freezing our butts off in Arunachal, this is more like October/November Wisconsin weather, not too shabby. Add a mysterious fog shroud to the setting and you’ve got Darjeeling. It almost has Harry Potter vibe to it, and it doesn’t help that we met a fellow backpacker that walks around in a long gray wool hooded coat. Some of the dark “nocturn” alleys make me wish I could just say “Lumous Maxima” and see my way through the shadows without the assistance of a flashlight at night.
We have one more day here to explore the area and culture which is more Tibetan and Nepalese influenced than Indian or South Indian which you can see in the food as well as the behavior. We met a few locals who said this is pretty much Nepal and talking to other backpackers who have come from the south, they agree this is a different world up here in the northeast.
Another place worth mentioning if you plan to visit Darjeeling is the Tibetan Refugee Self Help Center. It’s a compound slightly outside of town down the steep hill past the Dolphin Hotel approximately a 20 minute walk down and slightly longer for the ascent back up.
Thousands of Tibetans fled their homes when China invaded in the 1950’s and had nowhere to go. This center was built to house people who came to this area, as well as bring with them the traditional crafts and handiwork of Tibet and continue to pass them on to future generations of Tibetan people who also fled and are still coming to India.
They had a space dedicated to printing press, woodcarving, carpentry, painting, sewing, and my personal favorite was the wool spinning and carpet weaving building. They make all of their own fibers and dye them and turn them into woven fabrics, carpets and other wearable clothing items. Most are made of sheep wool and very cosy.
Upon seeing the fiber house with all the dyeing and weaving going on I felt a tug in my soul. I wanted to stay there forever. What an amazing place to visit that has helped so many people over the last 60 years and continues to house and educate orphans and refugees as well as the elderly. They also had a very informative photo display through several rooms giving a complete history of Tibet and it is current and up to date unlike many other museums we’ve encountered in India so far.
They have a showroom where you can also purchase items made there by the Tibetan people. That may have been the most rewarding place to pick up a souvenir in my mind. If it’s in your budget the carpets/rugs they make are simply amazing and all the money the show room generates goes back into the center continuing to help the people there as well as keep the center going for the future. Best place to visit in Darjeeling, hands down.
After we leave Darjeeling we’ll head a bit further north into Sikkim to finish up our tour of Northeast India. I can honestly say that even though we covered a small area there was so much we had to pass on for lack of time so we will definetly be back to the area. We loved it and would highly recommend a visit. The best time to come is in March-April for the first flush of tea or in autumn after the rainy season as all the flowers are in bloom and everything is very green.