From the June/July 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveler
SITTING ON A SPLINTER-PLAGUED BENCH outside a cement-and-mud hut under a magnolia tree, I watch a young woman with a sad, unguarded smile bend to offer me a yellowing porcelain cup without a handle. A confused rooster is crowing at the late afternoon sun slashing light across manicured tea trees that cling to the hillside rolling down to the Rung Dung River. In the distance, the hills rise back up, capped by a jumble of buildings in varying states of decay. Darjeeling.
I raise the dirty cup to my lips. The woodsy aroma of tea pushes away the flowered scent of the air. The amber liquid slides into my mouth. Could this really be it?
High in the foothills of the Himalaya, at the northern tip of the Indian state of West Bengal, between Bhutan and Nepal, I am searching for the best cup of tea in the world. It started innocently enough. One morning at home in New York, I sleepily looked at the contents of the cup in my hand and wondered, “Where does this come from?”
Tea today is a $40 billion industry, making it, after water, the most popular drink on the planet. But there is only one place that produces what has come to be known as “the champagne of teas,” a distinctive light brew with a telltale Muscatel flavor: these slopes in eastern India. So here I am in Darjeeling.
The British arrived in this part of the Lesser Himalaya, ruled by the Gurkha of Nepal, in the 19th century and set up a military outpost. The area around Darjeeling quickly grew into a summer retreat for colonists who wanted to escape the heat of the plains. The climate proved ideal for cultivating tea, and an industry was born. A narrow-gauge railway (accorded World Heritage status in 1999) sliced through the mountains by 1881, connecting the village to the wider world, and Darjeeling grew. Political unrest came and went and has returned, with many locals striving to establish an independent state of Gurkhaland. Today Darjeeling maintains a precarious hold on itself. Its buildings balance atop plunging hills that give way to deep valleys or cling to precipices with nearly vertical drops. Narrow twisting lanes, far too small for the cars that now drive them, carve into the hills. Darjeeling feels like a battered, overtaxed Oz. Yet there’s a hardscrabble charm to the chaotic development, which spreads out from Chowrasta, the town’s square.
“Darjeeling was designed by the British for 50,000 people,” Darjeeling native Sailesh Sarda tells me over a pot of green pearl tea in Nathmulls Tea Room. “We have 250,000 residents now. This has become a concrete jungle. But it’s very cosmopolitan; people are happy. I would not give up this town for anything.” Sarda’s great-grandfather opened Nathmulls in 1931, and it’s been the family business since. “You go to someone’s home, the first thing offered is a cup of tea,” he says. “Conversation, connection, happens with a cup of tea.”
To get an idea just how in demand Darjeeling’s prime export is, the region produces roughly 9,000 tons of tea a year, yet thousands of tons worldwide are stamped with the label “Darjeeling.” A consortium has been created to protect the brand by establishing strict guidelines and growing areas where the tea must be produced if it’s to carry the pedigreed label.
While Darjeeling’s streets are crowded and much appears to be in some stage of decline, this is not the sweltering, swarming, jumbled India. It’s a high-country outpost with cool air that feels as if it has more in common, geographically and culturally, with nearby Nepal and Bhutan than with Delhi or Kolkata. Tibetan dress shops selling traditional goechen chupa sit beside Indian shops selling saris. Nepali is the lingua franca. Sipping a mango lassi and eating momo dumplings in a small eatery, a picture of the Dalai Lama hanging above the Tibetan man at the counter, I could be in Kathmandu. Yet Darjeeling is very much itself.
Each morning I pay a few rupees to a grinning woman named Jojo, who heats water over an open fire in a corner of Chowrasta, then hands me a plastic cup filled up with a murky brew that could melt steel. I return each day to sit on a wood crate and watch dogs that slept where they dropped rouse themselves as Darjeeling awakes. Nearby, stalls selling produce shake themselves into order. A rope thin man sells cigarettes, one at a time. The whacking of a butcher’s cleaver onto an ironwood stump, dicing up just throttled chickens, has stout women forming a line. Monks in Buddhist saffron colored robes sit five to a bench and whisper. The aroma of wood fires, tainted with the smell of horse manure and frying noodles, scars the crisp air.
Down in the lower part of town, off traffic-choked Hill Cart Road, Chowk Bazaar is throbbing at all hours. Coriander and turmeric, mustard and aniseed, wait in massive barrels. Muslim men hack apart carcasses of meat. Nearby, Bombay ducks hang.
“If this market is closed, Darjeeling is closed,” Ratan Lepcha, a small man with a big mustache, tells me from the stall where his family has sold tea for 80 years. “You must try the autumn flush; it is a strong tea, a complete tea, my favorite.” Everyone in Darjeeling, it seems, has a favorite. And with four major harvests per year, each producing very different grades of leaves that can be transformed during processing into black, white, green, or oolong teas, Darjeeling is a connoisseur’s mecca.
ONE AFTERNOON, not far from the monkeys that scamper around Mahakal Temple, on Observatory Hill, I find myself back in the glory days of the British raj, at the Windamere Hotel. Built as a boarding house for British planters in the 1880s, the Windamere is proudly stuck in time. In a cheerily dingy parlor, two women in lace aprons serve afternoon tea. Framed letters by long-forgotten dignitaries, fading photos of glassy-eyed Brits in silly hats sipping drinks on New Year’s Eve, and stained pictures of monks shaking hands with decorated military officers cover the walls. “We have restored, not renovated,” executive director Elizabeth Clarke assures me over a cup of first flush, the light and floral tea made from the first harvest of the season in March.
Down a hill on Nehru Road sits the Planters Club, once a meeting place for those in the trade. It’s a relic that maintains no pretensions of relevance. Musty carpets stretch beneath stuffed animal heads lining the walls of a billiard room that is empty save for an old man asleep on a sofa, wearing what looks like a leopard-skin pillbox hat—a specter of glory days long gone.
Little else about Darjeeling is so saddled by sentiment, and the tea trade is bigger business than ever. While town affords a nearly endless opportunity to sample every variety of the local brew, to get a true feel for Darjeeling tea you need to head to the hills, to the tea estates.
All of the 87 licensed tea estates here are a variation on a theme: rolling hills covered with millions of low, neatly kept tea trees. Women wearing head scarves or wide-brimmed hats stalk the fields, hand-plucking two leaves and a bud, then tossing them over their shoulders into the wicker baskets on their backs. Each will pick thousands of leaves during a 12-hour shift, day after day. The on-site processing centers are filled with long trays, rolling machines, and packaging sectors. Tea estates are micro-universes, with their own caste systems. They support hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people under the supervision of estate managers, such as Rajah Banerjee. A lion of a man with a mane of silver hair and dressed in a vaguely military uniform that implies a nod to the plantation days of British imperialism, Banerjee presides over the Makaibari Tea Estates. Born on Makaibari, Banerjee is one of the few owners who run their estates hands-on. But to hear him tell the story—and Banerjee is nothing if not a storyteller—he never intended for things to turn out that way.
During a visit home while at university in London, he was thrown from his horse, landed in a tea tree, and got back up with a white-light realization that his destiny lay amid the tea trees on the 550-acre estate. More than 40 years later, his passion for Makaibari and its teas is undiminished.
“Not all tea estates are equal; quality and quantity are not synonymous,” Banerjee pronounces. “Darjeeling tea is craft, not industry. The personality of each estate is reflected in the cup. You can taste it.” Banerjee was the first tea grower in Darjeeling to take his product organic. Part P. T. Barnum, part farmer, part aesthete, Banerjee is a Shakespeare-quoting enthusiast equally ardent when discussing life’s karmic balance sheet, Rudolf Steiner’s theories about the astral body, and the perfect soil pH for growing tea (4.5-5.5). He rambles at length about the spirit of Makaibari, the tranquillity and opportunity for reflection his tea offers, and his desire to bring it to the wider world, thus walking into a new era of peace for humanity.
It is a lot to ask of a cup of tea, but Banerjee’s charisma is undeniable, his passion infectious. Sitting in his office, sipping a subtle white tea under his forceful gaze, I find many of his grandiose notions not only plausible but inevitable. Once again, the lubrication of a smooth cup of Darjeeling leads to a surprising conversation and connection.
TO THE NORTHEAST of Makaibari, beneath magnolia and palmetto trees at the end of a blistered lane, the Glenburn Tea Estate offers what may be the softest landing in the Darjeeling hills. The airy guesthouse of eight casually elegant rooms set on a 1,600-acre working tea plantation has me lingering longer than expected. Glenburn is managed by an Indian “Indiana Jones” named Sanjay Sharma. “What keeps us going is the pursuit of the ever elusive perfect cup of tea. All of these tea trees, all the people working in the field, in the processing center—at the end of the day, it’s all about what ends up in the cup.”
What has ended up in my cup early one morning as I sit in my four-poster bed propped by overstuffed pillows is a strong second flush—made from the season’s second, June, harvest—plucked from some of the trees surrounding my bedroom. The infusion has a rich amber color, a woodsy strength, and a long finish. The shutters are flung open. The night is yielding its hold. The sky has been hazy for my entire stay; I haven’t had a single glimpse of the sacred peak Kanchenjunga and the Himalaya. But as the dark begins to scatter, the ridgeline of the famous mountain range asserts itself. I slip from my bed, cup in hand, and walk to the window. As the light gathers confidence, Kanchenjunga rises above the rest. I watch the glistening white of the world’s highest mountain range come into focus.
I take another long pull from my cup. The brew has just the right combination of astringency and smoothness. It’s difficult to imagine a more satisfying cup of tea than this.
Later in the day, bouncing along yet another heavily rutted single-lane track, my spine has had enough. At the crest of a rise, across from a vast tabletop of tea trees, relief presents itself. A simple wooden bench sits beside the road before a small cement-and-wood hut in the shade of blooming magnolia trees. It’s a primitive store operated by 26-year-old Bimala. She’s of Rai heritage, her people originally hailing from Nepal. I watch as she prepares me a plate of momos and brews me a cup of tea without prompting. The blush of youth still dominates her soft, open face, yet there’s a weary air about her. Work is scarce in the valley; with her modest shop she supports her parents, two brothers and their wives, and five nieces and nephews. They all share the small home just a few steps from her roadside stand. Her day, she tells me, starts at 4 a.m. She prepares simple meals and sells vegetables—potatoes, peppers, radishes, cucumbers; cauliflower is growing in the garden—though her best seller is a home-brewed rice wine. The business is a testament to perseverance, yet Bimala is thinking of giving up.
“The people around here get paid once a month,” she tells me, “so they buy from me on credit. Then they don’t pay.”
She invites me into her home. I scan the small, well-kept rooms, the hard-mat beds. We look at a faded photo of her grandparents. Beneath the house is an enclosure with two bony cows. The nearby pigpen is empty. “The pig died.” A hen sits in a basket, chicks scamper underfoot.
We walk back to her shop. As Bimala prepares more tea, she tells me an oft-told tale. It seems there was a boy, and a marriage proposal—but her mother is losing her sight, her father is ill. What would they do without her?
She refills my cup.
I’ve had finer tea, richer, more nuanced tea. But Bimala’s openhearted hospitality takes away any bitterness my chipped porcelain cup may contain. I’m reminded of something I heard early on in Darjeeling: “Tea is the people’s drink.”
Bimala’s father calls to her from the house; she silently withdraws. I sit and watch the clouds cascade down from the hills above. In time, Bimala returns, as silent as she left. She smiles her sad smile. Finally, she pours herself a cup of tea. She sits on the bench with me, and, side by side, looking out, we sip our tea in silence. The clouds dip lower, reaching the tops of tea trees across the road. Fog settles around us. I empty my chipped cup, Bimala refills it. As I raise it again, she raises her own. Our rims of porcelain touch—and she smiles again. This time the sadness is gone from her face; she is simply a beautiful young woman enjoying a simple pleasure.
The fog lifts as suddenly as it had descended, the sun pours down, the ground steams. Now I’m grinning too, sipping what is, without question, the single best cup of tea I’ve ever tasted.
Editor at Large ANDREW MCCARTHY developed an addiction to Darjeeling first flush during his stay. Photographer JUSTIN GUARIGLIA's latest book is Johor: Asia Latitude One (2011).