I am telling selected days of my five month Voyage from the UK to Japan from last year. This week I was travelling from Varanasi to Kurseong, Darjeeling
Day 70, Sunday 16th October: Varanasi
Varanasi, the holiest site in Hinduism, a cultural centre of India and a centre of pilgrimage. It is also another tourist trap, so I am determined to make the most out of it while avoiding the worst. I arrive on the overnight train at midday. It is less than two miles to the hostel, so I decide to walk, clearly having forgotten what the climate is like when you are not in the mountains. The streets are larger than in Shimla, but it is still tricky for two full sized cars to pass on all but the main thoroughfares and the now familiar tendency of shops and home life to encroach on the streets makes them even harder to navigate. The main roads are a constant traffic jam, slower than walking pace, and the side roads are slowed further by the presence of cows, at every turn. Just as this is the spiritual centre of north India, it is typical of its highs and lows. By the time I reach the hostel, I am sweating buckets and totally exhausted.
The hostel is a European style backpacker’s hostel, unlike the old-style hotels I have encountered in India so far. It has a series of dorm rooms and a communal area on the top floor, covered only by a corrugated-iron roof. I eat, then head out again, as I never like to waste an afternoon.
I am warned by my guide book that Varanasi is worse than Agra for touts, pickpockets and frauds, so I am on my guard. However, their heart doesn’t seem to be in it today, and I walk unmolested through the streets towards the river. This is the river Ganges, the holiest river in India and the centre-point of the city. Lining it, are the ‘Ghats’, manmade steps down into the water, above which stand temples and great houses and at their foot are either boats or people. Despite being a murky brown, people regularly bathe in the river and that is what I mostly find. Pictures I have seen of the city show these Ghats thronged with people, but I have picked a good time and they are clear. I walk down the riverside, with temples on my right and the river on my left, taking in the panorama of this holy city. Pollution hangs thick in the air which, mixed with the earthy-coloured bricks and brown water, gives a sepia tone to the whole scene. It is not a European image of a holy city and it is certainly a world away from Amritsar. However, I can see its beauty, even as I doge rubbish and step through the mud going back, with the sun setting behind the temples.
Day 72, Tuesday 18th October: Varanasi
Booking tickets on Indian Railways is a nightmare, I am reminded. My philosophy of not worrying so much doesn’t really work, as I am running out of days in the country, so I need to catch a train out of the city tomorrow. Stress, blind panic and anger at PCs is all solved by booking a ticket through an agent, at a cost. Getting a good agent, and not at the last minute, it definitely the way to do it. This battle, and the need to relax afterwards, means that we don’t leave the hostel till 5pm, but we are going to do what we came here for.
We are taken down to the Ganges, where a local man with a boat is waiting. The five of us have to step over several other boats, but we get to ours. Around us are great vessels with loud engines; ours is a man with two oars. This is perfect.
It is evening time when Varanasi’s Ghats come alive. This is prayer time, and there is no better way to see it than from the river. Floating out in the sunset, we see people assemble by the waterside. Some temples are blaring out music, others preaching, a few are just the people chanting, one even has a brahmin performing with fire. Each temple and home is lit up, the riverbank is made up of dozens of different scenes, each with its own unique character. India is home to so much diversity and a snapshot of it is on display here: each group showing their individuality and on a spectacular scale.
And then I spot the cremations. The ‘Burning Ghat’ is where millions are cremated and their ashes are put in little vessels and floated down the river. Each vessel has a small flame on it, so from a distance it looks like a line of tea-lights. We are returning up the river as they float past us. For many Indians, this is the ideal send-off from this life.
Day 76, Saturday 22nd October: Kurseong, Makaibari Tea Plantation
The room is still sort of under construction, there are no curtains, and so the rising sun acts as the perfect alarm clock, unfortunately at 5.45am. Ruben, Janine and I eat breakfast together, then they catch a taxi off and away, going deeper into the mountains. I have to pack too, although I’m not leaving yet. The toughest bit of the task is to combine my two toilet rolls into one to save on space. This takes a surprisingly long time.
At 9am, the tours of the plantation begin at the grand factory gates. I am given the full safety and hygiene equipment, including shoe covers, hair net and face mask. However, when the latter breaks, the guide is not bothered and I don’t get a new one. Around the factory, I see the dehydration and fermentation processes. There are also the sifting and sorting machines, hammering away in a reassuring but not entirely necessary way. After a cursory inspection, I find out why they seem so old fashioned: LONDON, ENGLAND and similar letters are stamped on them in a font that cannot have been used in the last hundred years.
My guide around the factory confirms that they are still using the machines bought by the founder of the plantation, a local Indian, over a century ago.
Across the yard, I am shown to the plantation offices and up to their little museum. Tea tasting was promised, but obviously nothing is happening yet. I walk around reading about their pioneering place: first organic tea, first fair-trade tea and so on. They are very proud to be Indian and modern. There are newspaper articles about the plantation, all their awards and prestigious visitors, as well as details about their tea. From several articles, I read about the current owner, an eccentric sounding man known as ‘Raja’ who is the fourth-generation owner of the place. He is responsible for the move to organic tea, embracing biodynamics (a holistic practice invented by a German called Rudolph Steiner in the 1920’s with roots similar to homeopathy) and fair trade. The articles even describe what an odd man he is. After seeing several pictures of him, it hits me why he appears to familiar: he is the man sitting in the office next door who I’d walked past in my tour of the room. When I glance to double check that it is indeed the same man, he gets up and comes over to talk to me.
Suddenly I am facing Raja Banerjee, a tall man by anyone’s standards, who is wearing his infamous horse riding gear: knee length boots, a military jacket and a belt around the chest. He speaks to me in perfect English, showing his time living in London.
‘Where in England are you from?’, he asks
‘Oxford’, I reply, slightly star struck despite not having heard of this man fifteen minutes ago.
‘Which college?’ he asks back, without hesitation. He interrogates my past and then asks me my opinion on his techniques. Any attempt to point out that he knows more than me is brushed off.
‘I am an expert of nothing’, he declares, almost proudly.
He strikes me as the archetypal family firm owner and bullish businessman: loud, confident, critical. I imagine he is hell to work with, but is greatly respected. A group of Japanese tourists appear, representing his biggest customers. Raja sits down with them and invites me to join. He goes through the history of his organisation, the logic behind his tea growing and stories about who he is. He is a great believer in stories to help people remember, so everything is a story. Before the tea tasting can begin, he tells another, the story of the seasons: when the cold of the winter makes the plants sleep and how the thunder comes in March, bellowing over the hills bringing torrential rain. This is what gives Darjeeling its name: literally ‘Land of the Thunderbolts’. This wakes up the plants and the first flush leaves grow. Raja goes through each of the seasons and the leaves they can grow as well as his own developments. He claims he is lucky to have worked out how to make green tea using the plants in the wet season and how he found the best place in the hill side to increase its quality. It took him 5 years, again he calls it luck.
We are taught how to taste the tea, he commands to Japanese to be less polite, as they need to slurp and spit to do it properly. I am given first taste of each and he points to me every time the British come up in a story. Despite the fact that everyone else in the room is a valued business partner, and I am just a backpacker, he treats me with equal respect. At the end, he asks us each in turn what our favourite tree is and commands us each to go home and grow one. He claims that if every one of the 7 billion people on this planet planted one tree, global warming would be solved! I was left with the impression of a visionary, but an off-the-wall one. A sort of Willy Wonker of the Tea world.
From the plantation house, I go down into the fields with some of the growers. Here they show us ‘biodynamics’ in action: plants that repel insects, trees that shed their leaves to improve the topsoil and how mixing in tea plants with other things, in their natural environment, helps them grow and helps the valleys of Darjeeling. This is holistic agriculture in action. It also makes it a beautiful place to walk through. We are joined by a biology student from Sweden called Anna, who is staying here for three months, and we chat about her work and my travels as we explore the fields and valleys. The scenery is so vertical, and yet somehow there are forests and fields in amongst the sheer cliff faces. It is a clear and warm day and the walking is relatively easy. It is a vision of paradise, and it is filled with tea.
At the bottom of one of the valleys, there is a small stream and a hut with benches. We are told that this is where the tea pickers come for a break at the end of a long day’s work. Anna and I immediately find a spot by the river and dip our feet in the water. The river is clean, for India, but she is worried about pollution around the country more generally and that even this mountainous corner is not safe. I reassure her that India is improving, and that this state, West Bengal, is ahead of the curve. It is some walking later before three minibuses bounce off the road and into the grove where we stop for another rest and the Japanese gladly accept a lift back. Anna and I could easily walk back, but without the guides would be lost, so we accept.
My time in Kurseong and the Darjeeling region is coming to an end. I have a flight to catch from Kolkata, so I have a final meal with the family, thank them profusely and pay them for my time there. Before I leave, I stock up on Darjeeling tea, enough to get me by for some months.
The journey alone down the mountain is not nearly as nice as going up. I can now taste the pollution which I am no longer used to. In Siliguri I get a cycle rickshaw to take me over to the station. He smokes, grumbles and shouts at passers-by, then tries to rip me off at the end. After the kindness of the mountains, it is a depressing return to the realities of city life. The station too is a difficult place to be: hot, humid and reeking of the human excrement. I find a seat in the waiting room and read to pass the hours till the delayed train arrives. It has been a wonderful, almost dreamlike time in Darjeeling, but now I have to move on, to Kolkata and off into the next phase of my journey: South-East Asia.