GARDEN of FABLES
Discover India|November - December 2021
On the fringes of Darjeeling, Kurseong is home to India’s most expensive tea, the world’s first tea factory, and a mystical natural phenomenon.
ADILA MATRA

THE FOG IS SO MILKY and dense that the valley and mountains disappear in front of my eyes. I am at the quaint Makaibari Bungalow, sited beside the world’s first tea factory and estate by the same name in Kurseong, an hour and a half from Darjeeling. The original bungalow, more than 100 years old, burned down in an electrical fire in 2017. The refurbished structure retains some of its old-world charm—there are hand-woven Obeetee carpets in every room, wooden floors that creak under your feet, and a fireplace to remind you that winters are chilly here.

I hear a clamour down the hall—the workers are shouting at each other. I set down my first cup of green tea of the weekend and walk towards the hallway. The chef, his assistant, and the cleaning lady are struggling to shut the wooden front door. My travel partner, Stuti Jalan, also pops her head around the door of her room. “They are trying to keep the fog out,” she smiles.

In Darjeeling and the surrounding area, the fog floats low and thick, blanketing regions in a flash and affecting visibility. Scientists call it advection fog. “It is a pity,” says Jalan. “I wanted to spot the Kanchenjunga. It is an other-worldly sight.” I, on the other hand, am preoccupied with the eerie fog phenomenon. It carries both ominous and romantic dispositions.

And so, I am a little disappointed when it clears after lunch. The estate manager, Sanjay Das, is at the door to take us on a drive around Makaibari. The tea estate spans over 60 ridges and 550 acres of Kurseong, or in effect, as far as your eyes can see. In 1988, it was certified as a fully organic tea garden. Das is as good a storyteller as he is a driver. And even though the trail is bone-shaking and steep (Makaibari is the steepest tea garden in the district of Darjeeling), I crane my neck and cock my ears from the backseat for the origin story of this iconic tea estate, whose patrons include Queen Elizabeth.

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