A visit to Darjeeling often devolves into a quest to see the eternally elusive Kangchenjunga. And for the hordes of summer tourists rushing for the fleshpots of the Mall, much along the way is missed. Take Kurseong, for example. The ‘land of the white orchid’ is known to most Darjeeling-ers for two things — the toy train loco shed, and tea gardens. The former lies in the middle of the town, so a perfunctory photograph can be taken from the car. The latter lies all around, up and down the misty slopes, thousands of square feet of neatly ordered rows of small bushes. Again, a photograph or two from a moving car, and the tea gardens are deemed ‘done’.
It’s a pity, but in some ways it helps Kurseong. For all its squalor and bad roads, Kurseong doesn’t begin to approach the mess that Darjeeling is. The latter has grown so indiscriminately and with such poor planning, that apart from the immediate vicinity of the Mall, none of the old charm remains. As a child growing up in Calcutta, I was a frequent visitor to the Darjeeling hills — almost once every year — but my last visit was a good 14 years ago. So when the chance came to go to Kurseong and stay at a beautifully renovated old English country house surrounded by tea estates, I didn’t need much persuading.
If there’s one thing that defines the Darjeeling hills, it’s the mist. Caught between the hot plains of north Bengal and the frigid snows of the Kangchenjunga massif, the hills are a veritable cloud factory. So, quite suitably, I made my way up the steep curves of the Pankhabari road through thick mists, past tea gardens that are seared into the tea-loving Bengali’s imaginary — Simulbari, Longview, Ambootia, Makaibari. Soon after passing the large old Makaibari factory, built in 1859, my car rolled into Cochrane Place.
This stately pile was once the home of a certain Percy John Cochrane, a Member of the British Empire, and a magistrate in Kurseong. Called ‘The Hermitage’ back then, much of the building as it decade ago, and in 2004 the Arora family opened the newly-restored property as a unique boutique experience, a dainty distance away from the harum scarum of the Great Darjeeling Holiday.
The resident manager, Ravindra Kang, greeted me when I entered, along with an old, sweet cocker spaniel, Chuggy. A quiet-spoken man, Ravi embodies Cochrane Place: warm, friendly and unobtrusive. The hotel itself is a museum of a signature mix of the Raj, tea and local tribal culture. Every possible nook is filled with interesting bric a brac and objets d’art. Flowing ivy covered the façade and a little toy train engine doubled as a doorway leading to the many-stepped garden behind the hotel. The first thing I did after getting to Cochrane was to have a delicious cup of first flush. This was immediately followed by a stick massage at the hotel’s spa. A unique local treatment, not only do you not need to take your shirt off — it’s a dry massage with no oil used — but you also have the pleasure of transforming into a percussive instrument for about an hour. Which is what I became, under the benign ministrations of masseur Rajesh Pradhan, who wielded two short sticks to spectacular effect, literally beating my knotted muscles into shape. Once the pummelling was over, he took a few rollers and soothed out my mildly traumatised back and legs, leaving me pretty much floating up into the ether.
One of the other humble joys of Cochrane Place is its excellent kitchen. While going through the menu, I was intrigued about something called Rainbow Rice. When I asked the manager of the restaurant and resident tea blender, a flamboyant Bengali called Laltu Purkait, about it, he recommended it vociferously, along with a slightly modified colonial recipe called Mrs Framgee’s Chicken. When it arrived, rainbow rice was a delicious tricoloured layering of spinach rice, lemon rice and tomato rice. I walked around the hotel a bit to digest my dinner, taking in the paintings of the Hungarian artist Hugo Scheiber beside the spacious lounge while sipping some, er, tea. And then sleep, in the four-postered comfort of my room Chomolhari — most of the rooms in the hotel are named after famous peaks in the eastern Himalaya.
If tea is god in these hills, then Kurseong is the shrine. And sandwiched on a ridge between rolling slopes of tea bushes, Cochrane Place embraces the exquisite beverage. The hotel’s restaurant is shaped like two gigantic tea kettles, snout and all. Inside, the hotel stocks some of the finest teas of the region, from the Makaibari first flush and the Silver Tips which cost a king’s ransom, to Oolongs and green teas. Laltu is quick to point out that his primary job is to make art with tea. He then goes ahead and does so, a little performance on the counter that’s lined with tea samples, decanters and a kettle. Apart from the carefully calibrated cups of Darjeeling tea—there are subtle but crucial differences in the time taken to brew each cup, according to the tea’s nature and flavor —the paan tea and the passionfruit tea were some of the finest and most imaginative brews I’ve had anywhere. And well, that was the general pattern of my stay at Cochrane: wake up to a strong second flush or muscatel, breakfast with a richly flavourful first flush, and any choice of green teas, oolongs, silver greens and bai mudans through the day. Tea is so much a way of life here that one day when I asked for coffee at dawn, I felt distinctly guilty.
A few days later, we went down to the Makaibari for a tea estate walk. Billed as an organic tea company, this heritage tea garden is where some of the finest teas in the world are grown, including the famed Silver Tip Imperial, the most expensive tea in the world. Sandipan and I headed down to the factory gates and were greeted by a fresh-faced boy Chirag, our guide. We continued down the road through Makaibari village and then turned left down to the slopes. This was tea picking season, and work had already started, with clusters of pickers working their way methodically down through the rows of tea bushes, each one crowned with delicate light green tea leaves. The Makaibari estate faces the north Bengal plains and thus gets plenty of moisture. It was a misty, humid day, with stray clouds flowing up the slope. The tea gardens here are expansive, and far away to the left I could see the gulley that separated Makaibari from its neighbour Castleton. The first flush had already been collected, and the leaves that were being picked in front of us would go into the second flush.
Makaibari is quite an innovator. While most tea gardens choose to sculpt the entire area — in this case it means entire hills — to grow only tea bushes, at Makaibari, the tea bush is one part of a multi-tiered tree system. We even spied a couple of coffee trees! Deer and other animals regularly come up from the lower forests, and before work commences at 8 am, is a good time for wildlife enthusiasts. In fact, Chirag told us, many photographers and birders come for guided walks to Makaibari for precisely this reason. Tea estate walks are gaining in popularity with visitors here, and soon we joined another group consisting of a mother and daughter duo from Mumbai and an American backpacker. They’d come to know of the homestays that the tea estate runs in two of the seven villages in the area, and had come to spend some time there, learning about tea, eating fantastic Nepali meals, enjoying the syncretic Buddhist-animist-Hindu culture of the area and going for local sightseeing trips. Watching them giggle with delight at some new turn of the estate, it was clear that the pattern of tourism in these hills was slowly but surely changing.
And indeed, there is much to see in Kurseong. For starters, just a few hundred metres up the ridge from the bustle of the town lay a thick and unbroken range of pine forests stretching all the way up to the eminence of Tiger Hill above Ghoom. A part of the old, thick forests that used to cover these slopes before the British came with their tea bushes, the wooded ridge above Kurseong — called Dow Hill — is home to ferns, firs and giant blue pines standing impossibly tall with their heads in perpetual mist, which are a sight to behold. We drove up to St Mary’s Grotto one day, an open-air shrine in a natural cave in the middle of the forest. From here a roughly motorable road runs up past the forestry department complex and a vast old Victorian boarding school, which today is a training centre for forestry officials, to the top of the ridge. Dow Hill is notorious for its hauntings. Often considered one of the most haunted areas in the country, there are tales of headless men, shimmering women, footsteps of dead boys in the Victoria School and much else. While I did a circuit through the forest path, I saw no headless man; however, once when I slipped on some moss and fell, the sound startled some large animal in the undergrowth, surprisingly close by, which hurtled away at an astonishing speed. What I saw instead were youngsters out for walks, lovers kissing behind the shelter of their bikes, and local villagers going home from work at the end of the day.
When we arrived, the eastern Himalaya was reeling under an intense spell of pre-monsoon storms. For much of the time, a heavy mist hung over everything. For the rest of the time, thundershowers and high winds and driving rain were the norm. Despite this, we made some nearby sorties, primarily to two Vajrayana Buddhist monasteries. The first, Sonada, seemed much changed from when I’d seen it last. Although the main shrine was shut, denying us a glimpse of the famous mummified statue of the Vajradhara lama, it was pleasant to walk around the large establishment, checking out the different shrines, and tiptoeing through sacred groves, eerily still though only a few metres above the road. The other monastery was the one of the Tamangs in the middle of Kurseong town. We got there just in time for the evening prayers, performed diligently by a clutch of young monks aged7 to 16, under the watchful eye of the Sakyamuni and murals of tantric deities. The blare of the toy train’s fog horn could be heard from the monastery. These days, the trains do just four daily commutes, two up and two down — sporting brand new diesel engines. The old steam engines are now the sole preserve of joy ride trains operating out of Darjeeling.
Despite Kurseong’s many charms, I really wanted to visit Darjeeling. Ravi was only too happy to help, finding us a car and a driver. He also advised us to take the scenic route, through Mirik and past the Indo-Nepal border town of Pashupati. The day of our journey began with a heavy downpour. We left for the drive anyway, and made swift progress via the Rohini road down to the Simulbari tea estate. Crossing the Balason river, we started climbing again, first through thick sub-tropical forests and then past the tea gardens of Tingling and Singbulli to Mirik. Only, it was raining so hard that all we could see of Mirik were impressionistic sights of children rushing to school, some poor wet dogs running by the lake and plenty of tacky West Bengal Tourism signposts.
As we climbed further up into the forested ridges, more tea gardens began to appear. First came Okayti, and later the highest of the tea gardens in this district, Gopaldhara. The border town of Pashupati, when it came, was one long rain-induced traffic jam, and some tantalising glimpses of Buddhist monasteries. We were quite high now, and the wind started blowing at almost gale-like speeds, tossing the high pines around in an alarming fashion. Thankfully the road on this stretch is probably the best in the region, so at least our car made steady progress. The storm showed no signs of abating as we drove past Ghoom and rejoined the Hill Cart Road to Darjeeling. Soon enough, we were trundling up past the built-up mess of the Queen of the Hills.
Getting off the car near the Planter’s Club, my thoughts—and Sandipan’s — were on food. So we wasted no time in polishing off large quantities of ham and bacon and sausages at Keventer’s. Then, in pouring rain, we headed for the Mall. Darjeeling was packed with tourists, despite the severe weather. The usual throngs of Bengalis were clogging up the main drag, determined to party, now that the elections were over. Walking around Observatory Hill, after a brief sortie to see the Mahakal temple and monastery, I was surprised to see that the weather was actually clearing, though I still dared not hope for any sight of Kangchenjunga. If you’re in Darjeeling wishing for a glimpse of its most famous view, perverse fate would ensure you’d never get it. However, the sight of clouds breaking up made us linger.
We parked ourselves at one of the view-points and waited. The closer it got to sundown, the clearer the sky became. Soon we could see the snow-covered knees of the great massif, even as a deathly black pall hid the peak’s proud summits. Tourists and locals began to gather in dribs and drabs. From them I learnt that it hadn’t been this clear in over a week. Then a shaft of westering sunlight pierced the gloom, setting alight thickly forested hillsides across the Rangit valley in Sikkim. The gigantic Padmasambhava statue above Namchi looked like a wee white ant. Kangchenjunga , meanwhile, continued its grand unveiling. The Bengalis around me were getting excited. One man called his father in his hotel and exhorted him to look out the window now. A woman was saying, “Oh! How beautiful! We went to so many places, still didn’t see the mountain!” Her cousin piped up, “We even went to the Pelling helipad!” A child pointed at Sandipan and earnestly asked his father, “Why did we buy that TV? Why didn’t we buy a camera, like uncle’s here?” “Look, look, rainbow, rainbow!” screamed an excitable young man, pointing at the gorgeous alpenglow that was lighting up the sky above the summit. Just as the sun set over the Singalila ridge, the peak was finally clear of clouds, sunshine like spun gold on that proud head. “How do we know that this is Kangchenjunga and not some hoax?” a wife asked her husband. He looked at her wearily and said, “If you think this isn’t Kangchenjunga, well, what can I say?” Their two children started singing the national anthem loudly.
The nearest airport is Bagdogra, 38 km from Kurseong. Daily flights connect it to New Delhi, Kolkata and Guwahati. One-way flights from New Delhi to Bagdogra are for about Rs 4,000. New Jalpaiguri is the nearest railway station. One-way taxis from New Jalpaiguri and Bagdogra to Darjeeling are for Rs 1,900.
Where To Stay
Cochrane Place(from Rs 3,050 plus taxes for doubles, suite Rs 5,200 plus taxes, +91 9932035660, cochraneplacehotel. com), just on the outskirts of Kurseong on the Pankhabari Road, is a renovated English country house. A large and charming hotel surrounded by legendary tea estates and boasting of period furniture and comfortable rooms with views of the Balason valley, and on clear days, of Kangchenjunga.
The Deluxe rooms are situated in the original wing of the building, and the rooms are named after peaks of the eastern Himalaya. The beds are made of Burma teak, and even the single room is immensely spacious. There are 9 Deluxe doubles and 1 Deluxe single room. The Family Suite is also in the original wing and there are 3 of these. The new wing has 15 standard double rooms and 3 Standard Single rooms. The restaurant Chai Countryoffers delicious Anglo-Indian, Nepali and experimental cuisines. Also try the blended teas.
The hotel offers site-seeing tours as well as tea estate walks. It will also take care of your transportation needs.
The Makaibari Tea Estate runs charming homestaysin some of the nearby villages (Rs 700 doubles including 3 meals, makaibari.com).
What To See & Do
Visit the Makaibari Tea Estate and factory. Visit Dow Hill and the zoo and St Mary’s Grotto. There are excellent forest trails here. If you have the time and are feeling adventurous, you can also do a day trek all the way to Tiger Hill. Other sights include Giddapahar, the Railway Museum, Eagle’s Craig, the Tamang Gompa and the Kunsamdoling Monastery run by Buddhist nuns. You can also visit Mirik and the many tea estates near it. You could also visit the Sonada and Ghoom monasteries en route to Darjeeling.
Each of the tea gardens has excellent outlets on the estates, which sell tea. A great one-stop shop is the legendary Nathmulls in Darjeeling. Also visit the Oxford Book Store on the Chowrasta for books on the region and the oldest shop on here, Habeeb Mullick And Son, for exquisite Himalayan curios. The Darjeeling-Ghoom toy train joyride (with the old steam engines) costs Rs 270 per person.