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Tea, a Train and an Epic Sunrise at a Summer Retreat of the Raj

Tea, a Train and an Epic Sunrise at a Summer Retreat of the Raj

Ever since I was a little girl I’d dreamed of going to Darjeeling. My imagination was captivated by this town nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas in the Indian state of West Bengal. Surrounded by lush, terraced tea gardens that extend across rolling hills, with the majestic snow-capped mountains behind them, Darjeeling is one of India’s most stunning hill stations, known as the Queen of the Mountains.

Originally set up in the 1800s as a summer retreat for British officials, it was leased to them by the Kingdom of Sikkim, and subsequently annexed to the British Raj in India. This history is still evident in its architecture and churches.

Darjeeling sits high above some of its neighbors at an altitude of 6,710 feet. I had visions of myself sipping tea amid the mountains, surrounded by natural beauty and tranquillity.

I visited Darjeeling for the first time in 2014 and it rained the whole time. For years I had longed to return and finally, in the spring of 2023, I made the trip again, this time with my father and sister-in-law in tow, spending four days. The plan was to explore Darjeeling itself, then visit Tiger Hill, famous for its sunrise; take in the tea gardens and the Batasia Loop, where the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway makes its famous 360-degree turn; and then to ride the train on its vertiginous climb through the mountains.

People all over the world associate Darjeeling most closely with tea — but little do they know that the fame of Darjeeling’s tea has come at a price, namely massive deforestation as the tea plantations have expanded.

Today, the population is largely immigrant and migrant workers keep the town’s tea trade flourishing. I learned a great deal about the history and culture of the tea industry from some of the town’s tea estate managers and owners. They explained how quickly the industry had grown and that their security teams kept a close watch over the laborers to keep production levels as intensive as possible. While we take great pleasure in enjoying our tea, it is always worth remembering how such enjoyment can sometimes come at the expense of other people.

Our first stop was the Chowrasta — or mall — the heart of the old town on the Nehru Road. It’s a lively, bustling place: home to a promenade where tourists and locals alike come to shop, eat or simply sit and take in the views. For me it was a great chance to people-watch, sitting with a cup of tea and listening to young people…

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