“You would enjoy every moment of your stay in this quaint town; be our guest.”
An afternoon long-distance call had me thinking. I had heard of Kurseong, but where? No, not in my geography class; certainly not. I kept raking my memory and then remembered. Ah! A postcard from a friend who had moved to the hills with the man she loved; the driftwood that came in a large parcel and the Lepcha jewelry that arrived each birthday. And yes, there was the tin of hand-rolled tea that I had bought at Harrods in London; it burnt a hole in my pocket but the flavor of that tea from Kurseong still lingers, it still feels like ambrosia from heaven. So that’s Kurseong and that sultry afternoon I was ready to fall for some temptations.
But the temptations weren’t ending, not yet; they were pouring from Jennifer Kapthing’s handheld phone. Jennifer? The gregarious manager of Cochrane Place, Kurseong’s finest boutique hotel, was tempting me further—with a view of the snow-bathed Kanchanjunga from behind the chintz curtains; the Buddhist monastery where tonsured nuns sun-dry magenta rhododendrons and serve Tibetan tea with a dollop of cream; the tea factories where one could get suffused with the scent of fresh organic tea; the tiny bazaar where one could rub shoulders with chaos as the steam rail engine hissed on the tracks; the St. Mary’s trail where large ferns unfold from hirsute buds …
Well, with so much in Kurseong, even an ascetic would get tempted; is it any surprise then that an ordinary mortal like me fell for it? So one bright spring morning I landed at the Bagdogra airport looking around for a placard that had my name. Kurseong would prattle about tea, I had assumed that much, but that even the placard would be shaped like a cup-saucer was way beyond my imagination.
But at least the placard was there and Ayung Shatsang soon took charge as we raced past the crowded city streets to take the Pankhabari route that requires drivers to have special permits. As the pony-tailed chauffeur maneuvered one jagged bend after another and the car climbed roughly 5,000 feet above sea level, I could understand the permit bit. Not many can swerve safely on the one-way macadamized road flanked by mountains on one side and deep valley on the other. One blink, one wrong move, and the car can easily slide down hundreds of feet into the gorges. If you are faint-hearted don’t look askance, look straight, and listen to the tea tales that Shatsang spins. On the one-hour drive from Bagdogra to Kurseong, I picked more information about tea than an encyclodpedia could have offered.
Laden with information and curious about the place that takes its name from a white orchid, I got off at Cochrane Place to first notice what looked like a shell of a rail engine parked in the courtyard of the hotel. Intrigued, I walked up only to realize that the shell carries a staircase in its belly and leads to the restaurant called Chai Country. Interesting! But that was just the beginning of interesting things that fell my way.
In the wood-paneled lobby there’s an interesting seating arrangement—a large pine log has been shaved to accommodate cushions. As you walk past, you notice the mahogany piano, the antique gramophone and an ancient lantern with turquoise glass. Up the ramp that has been thoughtfully done for the physically challenged, miniature Hungarian nib drawings and birds painted on olden louvers catch your attention. All the 12 rooms are named after the peaks of Kanchanjunga—there are large windows without grills, you can feel the Tibetan carpets under your feet and cane and mahogany furniture add that old-world charm. Not here the modern paraphernalia of an air-conditioner or a power-guzzling geyser—the hills provide more breeze than one would need for a stretched summer and before you can blink, from the tap flows hot water through the gas geyser.
When in Kurseong, remember to surrender your itinerary to Dhiraj Arora, a trained financier and owner of Cochrane Place—he will walk you through the hills, show you the best sunset, run down the hilly terrain with you to the tea gardens, cool your beer in the river as you enjoy a picnic in the Balason riverbed and even pick a rudraksh for you at the ancient Shiva temple. When you are done with all this, you might want to sit out in the wicker chair and hear the dragonflies strum a tune. And then you will wish that moment to morph into eternity …
The first evening was earmarked for St. Mary’s trail. It is a long walk in the forest where large ferns and pine grow in abundance. The breeze is pristine, pollution unheard of, and there is no other soul walking around. You have the entire world to yourself; you walk lazily, wait for the sun to go down the pine, and kneel at the statue of Virgin Mary at the grotto where the holy water flows from a natural spring and candles burn eternally. At the grotto you even have the god to yourself—you can sit as long as you want, for there is nobody else waiting for a moment with divinity. However, the walk up can take your breath away—literally! I huffed and panted, stopped every five minutes, and it took me so long to get back that Ludo, the chauffeur, came looking for me; he thought the grizzly bears had had me for supper.
In Kurseong, wherever your eye goes you see tea shrubs looking conceited about their leaves and buds that are diligently hand-plucked by humans. (I insist “humans” because in China monkeys are trained to pluck tea leaves and for some simians it is family business, they have been doing it for generations!) They are collected in wicker baskets, then taken to the factory for withering, rolling, drying, grading, and packaging. As I stood in the midst of the shrubs, learning to pluck (and being chided by an old woman for picking up thick leaves) I tried sniffing around for the aroma of tea. There was none; but when I walked further away I could feel the trace of tea in the air.
I was not wrong, not too far was Ambootia, one of the largest organic tea factories in the area. The tea that you buy in Harrods is actually hand-rolled in this factory, its leaves picked from the 966 hectares that the tea estate comprises. Anil Bansal, the general manager, was generous enough to let me into the factory where green leaves pipe down from a chute into gigantic machines, and mounds and mounds of tea leaves are turned by spades and hand-rolled for the curls. From plucking to packing—it all happens within 24 hours.
If men in shorts and sola toupees were drying tea leaves, not too far rhododendrons were being dried in a monastery. A narrow cobbled path takes you to Kunsanum Doling monastery, where live seven Buddhist nuns, away from the world but praying for its peace in the sanctum that is replete with idols of Buddha in various avatars. The entire place is tinged with red—the robes that the nuns wear, the rhododendrons that grow wantonly, the red of the walls and the biscuits wrapped in red that were offered at the altar.
In one corner sat another nun molding mundane clay into exquisite pagodas to be sun-dried and offered during special prayers. When I smiled, the nun held my hand, gave me some clay and the brass mould, and taught me the art of rolling and pressing clay meticulously. She giggled when at the first attempt instead of a pagoda I probably made a toad, but when I finally got one right, she smiled, patted me, and offered special Tibetan tea as a perk.
Tibetan tea? I assumed it would be just a tad different but when I walked into the nun’s kitchen to lend a helping hand, I learnt how elaborate tea-making could be. As the tea leaves simmered in the aluminum pot, rock salt and sugar were added, but when she threw in a dollop of homemade butter and mixed it with a wooden churner, I wasn’t sure whether it was tea that we were waiting for or a soufflé. She kept peeping into the pot to check the color and finally served tea in whisky glasses. Sitting in a monastery drinking tea out of a whisky glass seemed funnily anomalous, but it was utter delight to be entertained by giggly, gracious nuns.
You might write quires and quires about Kurseong, but you cannot go home without a trip on that famous Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. This is no ordinary train, it is the famous blue train that hisses between Darjeeling and Siliguri on a gauge track that is barely 2 feet wide. Perhaps it is the last steam engine that still chugs and it is all of 125 years old. The train was the brainchild of Franklyn Prestage, an agent for Eastern Bengal Railway who took eight years to submit a plan to Lt. Governor Sir Ashley Eden. Work began on the loops and switchbacks cutting through the spurs of the Himalayas hills in 1879 and two years later the locomotive and its three coaches puffed through Darjeeling. The final cost: roughly Rs. 60,000 per km.
The steam engine is a fascinating experience—you can see the fireman shove coal into the tender, the driver adjusting the brass valves, the engine hooting, the locomotive hissing, the engine spewing clouds of steam and coal dust adding a sheath on the tree leaves. And when the train stops at junctions for a boiler refill, you can jump off, have a cup of tea, indulge in a debate, probably go for a haircut and then jump back. So leisurely is the pace that it takes nine hours to cover a distance of 88 km (55 miles). You can hurtle down the hills in a car and reach Darjeeling in an hour but the train ride is an experience you would not want to miss. The sight from Ghoom, the highest railway station in the world, is stunning.
And as if these temptations were not enough, there is the food at Cochrane Place—from nearly forgotten Anglo-Indian cuisine, to Nepali and Tibetan dishes. It is not just about the food though, it is pretty arty too—you could have boiled eggs that look like penguins, mangoes that seem to wear laced skirts, curry in stout bamboo containers and chicken in coconut shells. Of course, there is tea that is served in champagne glasses and chang (millet brew) that you can quaff out of humungous wooden tumblers.
If you are fortunate and the scientist-industrialist pair of Anuradha and Arun Lohia is at Cochrane on an extended sojourn, you could have homemade flax-seed bread; Anuradha makes the world’s best bread. The next best thing is to enjoy a picnic on the bed of Balason river and if highs give you the kicks, you can walk on the ancient creaky suspension bridge that was once an appendage of the hydroelectric station. The bridge rasps and trembles perennially but that’s where the kick stems from.
So much happened in Kurseong in four days that I learned to redefine “temptation”—in Kurseong it was no longer a Biblical fallacy, it was a way of life, a beautiful way of life.
Preeti Verma Lal has worked as a journalist in India and the United States. She now lives in New Delhi, freelances for several publications, and runs her website:
By air: You can fly to Bagdogra; Cochrane Place is a 90-minute drive by road.
By rail: You can take the train to New Jalpaiguri Station, which is connected with major cities of India. Or, you can take the famous Darjeeling Hill Railway train and steam through the beautiful countryside until Kurseong station.
By road: You can take a bus or taxi to Kurseong from neighboring towns and cities.
Cochrane Place offers station and airport pick-up.
WHERE TO STAY
Cochrane Place. Phone: 91+354 2330703, 2330709, Cell: 91+99320 35660.
THINGS TO DO
• If you are interested in farming, go to Saint Alphonsus Social and Agricultural Centre (SASAC) at Sepoydhura where Father Abraham S.J. has stirred a revolution with his square-meter gardening concept that has changed the lives of hundreds of families in the neighborhood. You can also buy hand-woven jholas, scarves, and cell phone bags there.
• On the way to Sepoydhura, stop at the place where Mother Teresa is said to have found her calling in life.
• If you like visiting museums, go to Forest Museum, Railway Museum, and Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Museum.
• You can plant a tree in your name at the War Memorial garden.
• Look out for beautiful driftwood that can be turned into table bottoms. Look out for them when you leave Bagdogra airport and head towards the city.
• Pick up Lepcha silver jewellery; Cochrane Place also stocks them.
• Buy organic tea at Ambootia or Makaibari tea shops. It would cost you a fortune if you buy the same tea in Harrods, London. Ambootia makes special tea for Harrods.