After leaving West Bengal and Kolkata, the city of Joy after a beautiful time there, I have decided to explore the city of Darjeeling in what is considered one of the last Shangri-La (“Paradises”) of the Himalayas, the state of Sikkim. This very strategic area borders three very special neighbors, some of which I will visit in a few months: Bhutan (to the East), Tibet (to the North) and Nepal (to the West).
Padmasambhava (also known as the second Buddha) wrote that it is in Sikkim that the still undiscovered Gocha-La (“the bridge towards the New World”) is situated. It is supposed to be a mythic place where only happiness and serenity exist, disease and death have disappeared and one grain of rice could feed the whole population.
It is at the top of the first foothills of the Himalayas that the city of Darjeeling sits at an elevation of between 1800 and 2400 meters (6000-8000 feet). Darjeeling, at first, sounded very English to me. What's more British than a name for tea, right? Wrong. In fact, the name comes from the Tibetan “Dorjee-Ling” which means the "Place of Thunder.”
The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway
The best way to get to Darjeeling (and the most fun!), since 1881, is to take the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (also called the “Toy Train”), registered as a world heritage site by UNESCO since 1999. This two-wagon, one-engine train takes you from Siliguri in the valley to Darjeeling in 7 hours (an 80 km journey!).
What a crazy ride with loops and Zig-Zag! We climbed the mountain in pitch-dark fog (due to the monsoon), next to cars and through the middle of villages! I have uploaded a short video, which you can click here to see.
I also have a little photo album of the train here.
Tea in Darjeeling
As you climb towards Darjeeling you pass all the beautiful tea plantations. The English, in fact, rented the whole Darjeeling area to the raja of Darjeeling for $60/year, before taking it for free. They cleared all the forest and brought the best tea planting experts from China, as well as thousands of Nepalese to cultivate and harvest the precious leaf.
Tea is to Darjeeling what wine is to my country, almost a religion. So precious internationally was the Darjeeling tea that it was called “The Champagne of the East”. You will find spring harvest, summer harvest, late harvest (their “vendange tardive”), green, black, white, first flush, second flush, etc.
I learned that the best one, what we would call “Grand Cru,” is (take a deep breath) the “First Flush SFTGFOP1.” (!!!) Translation: First Flush Super Fine Tipi Golden Flowerly Orange Pekoe number 1. It comes from the very early spring harvest of the first leaves only. You can’t even find it in Darjeeling; it’s all exported to Japan and Germany.
Discover the full photo album of Darjeeling here.
The Tibetan Refugees Self Help Center
There is a very special place in Darjeeling too, which has nothing to do with Tea… The Tibetan Refugees Self Help Center.
The center was created in 1959 right after the Chinese invasion of Tibet. 650 Tibetans live here. There are many artisans (and a boutique that sells what they produce), homes, a school, an orphanage and a center for elderly people.
You can see more photos HERE.
As I was visiting the center, I could not miss all the messages asking for the liberation of Tibet, reminding me of the terrible suffering this population is enduring due not only to the invasion of their country, but to all the rules imposed on them
I will close this post reminding you that in May 1995, a six-year-old child named Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, was kidnapped with his parents in Tibet by the Chinese military. Since then there has been no news from him and no one has seen him again (he should be 24 years old today). This made him the youngest political prisoner in the world… Why? Because on May 14th 1995, H.H. The Dalai Lama recognized him as the 11thPanchen Lama, the 2nd highest spiritual leader of Tibet.
In 1996 China stated that the child was put under “protected-custody” at the demand “of his parents” (sic). China “nominated” a different 11th Panchen Lama and says the one H.H. The Dalai Lama has chosen is not the right one (but they still keep him in custody). No comment.
As I head to Dharamsala (“The little Lhasa” as Tibetans call it) at the end of July, I will keep in my prayers Gedhun and his parents, and will feel the utmost respect for the non-violent fight H.H. The Dalai Lama and his people are conducting. For more, watch this amazing short video interview.
Thanks for reading, happy Saturday!
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