Ging: Tea Trails in the Himalayan Foothills
Leaving behind the tourist-filled streets of Darjeeling and the lingering whistle of the steam engine of the Heritage Himalayan Railway, our car enters the Lebong Valley. It is a different world altogether. Dainty, colourful houses decked up with beautiful seasonal flowers replace the congested, listless hotels and resorts. The car takes the narrow, steep, winding road. It is late afternoon now. We gradually descend deep into the valley completely blanketed in fog. It has taken approximately three hours to reach the Lebong Valley from Bagdogra airport and Kiran, our driver, tells us that we have to travel another twenty minutes to reach Ging Tea House. In the dimly lit fog lamp of the car, only the road that stretches ahead is faintly visible and I choose to keep quiet so that Kiran can concentrate on navigating the serpentine road that leads to the bungalow itself.
I wait with bated breath and finally, Ging Tea House welcomes us into the whorls of its calm, blissful interiors.
The moment I step inside the bungalow, set up in 1864, I am transformed to the era bygone. The wooden floors, the lounge, the billiard table, piano and the fireplaces all narrate the story of the lavish lifestyle that the tea planters once enjoyed. A post-lunch solitary stroll amid cloud and mist brings me uphill and I see the tea bungalow floating on the ocean of clouds. I keep on gazing at the captivating sight but as rain sets in, I have to hurry back to the bungalow and take repose in the warmth of my cozy suite.
Watching the aimless loitering of clouds, I sip the Darejeeling tea and taste the deep-fried tea leaf fritters, a unique delicacy of Ging Tea House. A leisurely evening passes by. The bungalow looks magical lit up with old chandeliers in the spacious wooden lounge.
At dinner, which is an elaborate spread of kebabs and biryani, and ends on a sweet note with kheer (wet milk-based pudding), we get introduced to Anjum and Prashant, who will accompany us in our explorations of this 19th-century plantation.
The warm glow of the morning sun along with the chirping of birds greet me as I start my day with a leisurely walk on the lawn. The gazebo is the best place to enjoy the beauty that engulfs the bungalow. Dewdrops on the lush green stretch of tea bushes sparkle like diamonds. I choose to have my breakfast, an expansive spread of full English fare, right here overlooking the vast tea gardens.
Kiran is ready with his Bolero sharp at nine and we all venture out for the tasting experience in the tea factory. As the car moves forward I see a group of women with wicker baskets on their heads walking towards the garden. Their laughter and clamour fill the air. ”Plucking will begin soon. You can see the tea pluckers on our way to the river bed,” Prashant tells me. “But first we are going into the factory for a tasting session,” he adds with a smile.
In the Himalayan foothills these sprawling tea gardens that adorn the valley date back to the 19th century British colonial period when tea was first introduced as an experiment. Gradually, it thrived as an industrial crop and now Darjeeling tea is crowned as the “Champagne of Tea” across the globe. The huge machines inside the factory are the perfect emblem of the storied past. Prashant shows us how tea leaves are crushed, dried and packed in different segments of the factory and finally leads us to a small, elongated chamber. Anjum hands me an apron. “You will be the tea taster today,” she quips with a twinkle in her eyes. Brimming with excitement, I put on the attire and curiously wait for my job of the day. Andrew told me last night over dinner that I have to take a sip from each of the four cups laid on the table, roll it in my mouth and spit it out in a receptacle. I religiously follow the instruction. After I finish the four rounds of tasting, I choose the one with the subtlest flavor notes as my favourite and learn that this particular tea, harvested in spring, fetches upwards of Rs. 40000 ($600 USD) per kilogram!
After this wonderful session in the factory, our car proceeds further down to the river bed of Rangeet. Quaint little villages pass by. The road gets bumpy and narrower, hemmed with thick mossy forests of oaks and pines. It is a deserted road, with only incessant cricket calls as our company. After about 20 minutes of driving from the factory, we get out of the car and follow the narrow trail that goes down to the river bed. After a few minutes, I get the first glimpse of Rangeet River flowing serenely through a forested landscape that is breathtakingly beautiful. The pebbled riverbank, the turquoise blue waters of Rangeet and the dense vegetation on the opposite bank make up a mesmerizing canvas perfectly complemented by a lone angler silently perched on a small mound on the riverside, his long bait dipped into the waters.
After soaking in this tranquil setting for a while, lunch is served by the riverside — a scrumptious spread of rice, lentil soup and mutton curry, flavoured up with local spices. The dulcet glimmer of the afternoon sun glances off the crystal clear waters of the river and filters through the dense foliage as we retrace our way to the Ging Tea House. Some women are still busy plucking tea leaves on the emerald slopes. The day’s work is almost over. Dense fog slowly engulfs the tea bushes. I can see the Planter’s bungalow still illuminated in the last rays of the setting sun.
Cover: Ging Tea House dates back to 1864. Photo: Sugato Mukherjee
A Kolkata-based teacher, Bandita Mukherjee is an avid traveller. In her pursuit to dig deep into the diverse landscapes, cultures and customs, she has visited 18 countries and counting. But while she is thrilled to hike unknown terrains, explore cities steeped in history and understand the culinary scene of every new place she travels into; the nuanced textures of her native India is what she finds most exciting as a compulsive traveller. When she is not teaching or on-the-go, she can be found making her next trip plans, with a mug of fresh Darjeeling tea and her pet cat curled up by her side.