Category Archives: Travel

ON THE BANKS OF DONAU

Chances are that you would not have heard of Ulm, a mid-size city in Germany. I had not, till a nephew of mine had gone to study in the University there. I had imagined it to be a nondescript small town. When I visited this place, I was pleasantly surprised to find there the tallest church spire in the world, the beautiful Danube (Donau in German)flowing by its side and the most crooked house in the world, schiefes haus, dating back to early 1400 and now restored as a hotel. Ulm is also the birthplace of Albert Einstein.

Ulm is an hour and a half away by train from Munich. It lies at the edge of Bavaria, in south west Germany. It is one of the twin cities on either side of the river, with Ulm in Baden-Wurttemberg and Neu-Ulm in Bavaria. Like most German cities, Ulm has a hauptbahnhof – the main train station – which connects to other cities and adjoining countries too like Austria and a good network of trams and buses within the city.

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The Old Town, with its cobbled streets, the Town Hall and numerous restaurants and cafes with outdoor seating is a charming place and I spent the first evening here. The town hall or Rathaus as it is called in German, is a wonderfully preserved building , covered with bright murals and featuring a 16th century astronomical clock.

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Rathaus – town Hall
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The facade of the Town Hall with the astronomical clock

Strolling in this area, you can take in most of the important places in Ulm – the church (Ulmer Munster), the butcher’s gate, the most crooked house and a walk along Donau.

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Ulm Munster

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The Ulm Munster is one of the most imposing structures. While the construction began in the 14th century, the current structure was fully completed only in 1890. The top of the steeple,which as of now is the tallest in the world, can be reached by climbing 768 steps.  Needless to say, it offers an amazing view of Ulm, the Danube and Neu Ulm across the river. The final stairwell to the top is a narrow spiraling staircase. one has to climb single file here and it is recommended only for those who are really fit. The interiors of the church  are awesome.

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The stained glass windows depicting biblical themes date back to the 14th century.

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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is known to have played the impressive main organ of this church.

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Main organ of Ulm Munster

Though I visited several churches in the following days, in Munich, Vienna, Bratislava, Slovenia, Basel and Amsterdam, I found the Ulm Munster having an unmatched grandeur and spent some time again in this church before leaving Europe.

Across the road from the Munsterplatz (the square in front of the Munster), is the quaint marktplatz, the cobbled square encircled by the Town Hall (Rathaus),  the pyramid shaped library and restaurants with the fountain known as fish tank at its center. The fountain also dates back to the 15th century and was used by fishermen to keep their catch alive on market days.

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Fish tank – the fountain at the center of marktplatz

Leaving the plaza in front of the town hall and walking through the butcher’s gate, you come upon the Danube.

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Butchers gate
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Donau – The Danube

The river, as such, is not enticing at first sight.  It flows quietly between straight banks and looks more like a wide canal rather than a river.

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But that could be because I was viewing it with eyes that have seen the rivers in India, the wild tumultuous rivers originating in the upper Himalayas and rushing to meet the plains or the wide rivers coursing through the plains to empty themselves into the sea. But the beauty of the Danube flowing through Ulm is enhanced by the green grass on either side, dotted with trees, which at the time of my visit had the russet hues of autumn and there are benches and cycling/walking tracks all along.

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It was an autumn morning and in the long walk I had along the river, I came across old couples taking a stroll, mothers pushing the prams with their babies covered in warm clothes, sprinters, joggers and cyclists.

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There were also ramblers like me, stopping now and then to watch the ducks or sit on a bench for a while. Occasionally, a rowing boat would smoothly, silently and swiftly glide along the river, the arm and leg movements of the rowers well synchronized.

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And of course the fall colors of the trees are a sight to behold, with the hues ranging from russet to golden yellow to flaming red.

 

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If you are in Ulm, keep some time for a long walk along the Donau.

Fishermen’s quarter is a scenic part of old town, with half timbered houses and flower pots on the window sills.

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Blau river,  flows through this part of the town into Danube.  The most crooked house in the world, Schiefes haus,  is also situated here. It is now converted into a hotel.

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Schiefes haus – the most crooked house in the world

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A visit to Ludwigsfelder Baggersee is also recommended. It has a serene lake with lovely grassland meadows around it, There was not a soul in the autumn afternoon that we visited but it seems this place is crowded in summer with swimming and other water activities.

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lake at ludwigsfelder baggersee

I spent my last evening in Ulm by visiting  the interiors of the Munster again and taking a long walk in  the grasslands around Kuhberg fort, from where you get an aerial view of Ulm and of course, the Munster.

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Ulm Munster as seen from Kuhberg

The river and the Munster are compelling reasons for visiting Ulm.  Make it happen during your next visit to Germany.

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WITNESSING A TIGER KILL AT RANTHAMBORE

We had a tiger sighting in zone 3 of Ranthambore National Park within the first hour on the first of the four safaris that we had booked. We counted ourselves as lucky and happily clicked photographs as the tigress Arrowhead walked past our canter, unhurried and unmindful of our presence. Arrowhead is one of the daughters of the tigress Krishna, who in turn is a daughter of the legendary tigress of Ranthambhore – Machli. As Arrowhead moved farther and farther away, we watched her contentedly while waiting for the canter to reverse and move on to other parts of the zone.

 

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Arrowhead – credits Arun Chengappa

And suddenly, we saw stealth in her gait, trying to find cover behind the broken branches of the dead trees that were strewn around in that area. In an instant, many of us realized that she was stalking and were able to locate the object of her interest. IMG_2489

It was a wild boar, sitting alone in the middle of a marshy area, facing the other way and unaware of the predator closing upon him.  The atmosphere electrified as we realized that we were about to witness a tiger kill or at least an attempt to kill. The tigress did not waste time and charged. It was too late for the wild boar which started fleeing only at the last moment. The tigress reached the spot in two seconds, overshot and turned back with unimaginable speed and agility and pounced on the boar, holding it down and trying to choke its windpipe. We had a clear view despite the distance as the kill was made in an open area and we could see the boar struggling and the tigress also struggling to pin it down.

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The tigress made no mistake of releasing its hold till all signs of life ended and this took almost ten minutes.

It is very difficult to describe what I experienced then. Awe certainly, amazement definitely. Sorry for the boar but great admiration for the tigress. Also a sense of gratitude and humility that we were allowed to witness something which establishes the law of nature.  The killing and what transpired subsequently were indeed the rarest of the rare events which one witnesses in Indian jungles.

We expected the tigress to carry her prey farther from us into the thick jungle on the other side. While the kill was witnessed by people in our canter and in two more jeeps, almost all the jeeps and canters that were in that zone congregated in that area as word must have spread around by then that there has not only been a tiger sighting but that there has been a tiger kill. The tigress got up, surveyed the area around her, picked up the lifeless boar and, to our amazement, started walking towards us. She clearly wanted to go back from where she had sauntered in, on the other side of where we were.

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The boar was heavy and the tigress Arrowhead was tired after the exertion of the kill. Every time, she could walk barely a few steps before she had to put the boar down, picking it up again after a while.  At one point , she stumbled a little and at another, she took a short leap to clear some hurdle in her way. All the while, she kept coming closer and closer, but changed her direction several times which made the jeeps and canters to regroup to provide her sufficient gap for the cross over.  We had the closest view when she put the boar down again at the side of the track, between a jeep and a canter.

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credits- Amit Raj Jain

She picked it up again and made a dash across, tail up in the air in panic.

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The final dash to the other side – credits Amit Raj Jain

By then, all that we wanted was for her to cross the line of jeeps and reach her chosen space and feed on her kill in privacy.  Soon she was out of sight and we returned a subdued lot as what we had witnessed had impacted our senses in a strange way.

There are several national parks that can be visited over the weekend from Delhi but Ranthambhore National Park in Rajasthan should be on the top of your list. It is an overnight train journey to Sawai Madhopur, which is on the New Delhi – Mumbai rail route and is the town adjacent to the park. The theme “tiger” is present everywhere in the station(which incidentally is very well maintained and clean) – wall murals and paintings, metallic silhouttes of tiger on the station name board and on the facade of the building.

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Sawai Madhopur station

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There are no forest rest houses inside or even adjacent to the park and all types of accommodation ranging from the luxury hotels to budget hotels to mid range ones are to be found only at Sawai Madhopur. So you can stop thinking about contacts in the forest department for booking a forest lodge, which you may be compelled to do for a visit to Jim Corbett National Park or Bandhavgarh National park or kanha National park.

For jeep and canter safaris, booking has to be done online, with photograph and identity proof,  not just for Ranthambore but for all the National Parks in Rajasthan. So, you must book your safari first before finalizing the plan to visit this park. The park is divided into 10 zones and a fixed number of jeeps and canters are allowed in the different zones. Zones 1 to 5 are the most popular as chances of tiger sighting are quite high here. Entry and exit of each vehicle is registered and the safari time is adhered to – 6.00 to 9.30 in the morning and 3 to 6.30 in the evening.

There is an impressive fort inside the forest with a temple, which is visited regularly by the local population.

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Ranthambore fort

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The road from the main gate of the park to the fort is about 3 kilometers and you would come across people on bicycles, bikes and on foot too. Tigers have been spotted on or near this road, with no untoward incident.

There are several lakes and other water bodies inside the reserve.   The three famous lakes are Padam talao, Rajbagh talao and Malik talao. All three are beautiful in their own ways.  Padam talao is the largest and Jogi Mahal is located at its edge.

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Padam talao with Jogi mahal

Jogi mahal has seen better times.  Originally a hunting lodge for the royals, it was converted into a forest rest house. A stay at Jogi mahal overlooking the lake Padam talao teeming with wildlife and birds must have been awesome. Sadly, it is closed to the public now and seems to be in a sorry state of disrepair.  Soon, it would be nothing but a ruin, devoured by the jungle.  One can spot wild boars, sambhar deer, spotted deer(chital), crocodiles and a wide variety of birds in and around these lakes.

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one of the lakes in the evening light
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Seemingly indolent, but alert
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the stark beauty of the lake and the jungle

 

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spotted deer

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Lakes teeming with birds and deer
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photo credit – Arun Chengappa
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Sambhars wading in the lake

 

 

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Sambhars – alert and watchful

I end this piece with snapshots of the sisters Arrowhead and Lightning and the tigress Noor in different moods, captured during the other safaris.

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Wow! what a beauty!
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Arrowhead in a pensive mood
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Lightning walking past our canter
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Tigress Noor right on the jeep track
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Noor sitting contentedly on the side of the road

 

 

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Lightning settled down in the tall dry grass waiting to ambush
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Lightning with a grimace

THE LESSER KNOWN UPPER ASSAM(Part I) – Dibru Saikhowa National Park and Maguri beel

Skipping the standard Northeast tourist circuits of Guwahati-Kaziranga-Shillong and Tawang-Bomdilla, we landed at Dibrugarh airport one fine afternoon with a rough plan to explore  regions in Upper Assam and parts of Arunachal Pradesh around it. Apart from Dibrugarh and Tinsukia, which are major cities of upper Assam, I had not heard of most of the places in that region till Google opened the windows (is it a pun?) to the information available on the web, some in great detail and some very sketchy. Roing, Tezu, Dehing river, Dibang valley, Digboi (ah! I know that place), Dibru river, Margherita, Lohit river, Patkai rainforest, Maguribeel, Dibru Saikhowa national park, Myudia, Mehao, Miao…….Phew!

There is so much to see in upper Assam and the experiences are so varied that you cannot put them all together in a single article. So, what comes in Part I? The one which had the greatest impact on my senses – the birds of  Dibru Saikhowa National Park and Maguribeel.

Dibru river, a major channel of Brahmaputra

Dibru Saikhowa is a national park as well as a biosphere reserve.  In fact, it is one of the identified biodiversity hotspots, that is, a region with a significant reservoir of biodiversity and at the same time, is threatened with destruction, having lost a significant portion of its original habitat.

Dibru Saikhowa is unlike the other National Parks of India – you don’t have jeep or elephant  safaris, forest lodges and not even beaten tracks. Dibru Saikhowa has two villages situated deep inside the forest – Dhadia and Laika. For tourists in general, the park is explored only from the boats cruising on Dibru river, a channel of the mighty Brahmaputra. You reach Guijan, about 12  km away from Tinsukia, from where the cruises start. Om boat house is a well-known cruise operator, a day long cruise costing Rupees 1250 per person, including breakfast, lunch and snacks on board. The cruise vessel seems to have been taken straight out of a fairy tale book, with colorful tiny cabins and deck chairs.TSR Watermark - 330

Egret taking a free ride on the drifting branch

You cruise over the Dibru for a while, looking out for the occasional dolphin or an egret perched over a drifting branch.

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After a while, the boat docks on a sandy stretch of the saikhowa forest, deck chairs and sun umbrellas are offloaded and arranged on the shore and the tourists gingerly disembark and lounge around, make themselves comfortable, taking in the scenery and the refreshments. If there is anything overtly touristy about this whole trip, this is it.

Tourist trappings

They could have arranged for at least a short hike in the forest, with permission from the forest authorities, to get a feel of the flora and perhaps get a glimpse of the wild feral horses for which this is a natural habitat.  However, after relishing the tourist trappings, we cruised further along narrower channels in a smaller motor boat, and we could see many more birds.

Cormorant drying its wings

Cormorants and ruddy shelducks are in plenty. The latter, also known as Brahmini ducks, swim, waddle and fly in pairs. During the breeding season, the male is distinguished by a black ring on its neck.

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Ruddy shelduck or Brahmini duck – photo credit Rashmi Panda

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Ruddy shelducks swimming in pairs – photo credit Rashmi Panda
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This is why it is called snake bird – photo credit Rashmi Panda
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A darter caught mid flight – photo credit Rashmi Panda
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A flock of cormorants

The great cormorants and darters (also known as snake bird) are commonly sighted in dibru saikhowa.

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bar headed goose on flight – photo credit Rashmi Panda

After about two hours, the motorboat heads back to where the cruise boat is docked and it is time for lunch on board. It is siesta time thereafter and the cruise ends at guijan just when the sun sets. It was a spectacular sight and we just gazed at the setting sun, the golden hues it spread on the river and at the blazing sky.

The sunset on the Brahmaputra is one of the  most soothing sights that I have experienced.

All through the cruise on dibru, we kept hearing about Maguribeel and the excellent bird sightings that a canoe trip can provide. Beel in assamese means lake with marshy areas. Maguribeel is on the south bank of Dibru river and is connected to it by a system of channels.

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Maguribeel

This place has to be visited early in the morning to see hundreds of local and migrant birds.  It is a kilometer or so further ahead of Guijan and if you are based in Tinsukia, it would take just half an hour to reach Maguribeel. It is a shallow lake with a thick network of weeds forming the bed and the canoe moves noiselessly  through the lake, skirting the marshes which throng with bird life. The white wagtail, a common winter visitor to Assam, is spotted easily but very difficult to photograph as it keeps flitting. I was eventually able to photograph it on the shore after getting off the canoe.

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white wagtail

You see a wide variety of birds on maguribeel – purple moorhens, teals, yellow wagtail, open billed storks, black winged stilt, pied kingfisher, night heron and many more which we could not identify.

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Yellow wagtail
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Bar headed goose
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Open billed stork
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Purple moorhen – photo credit Rashmi Panda
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Black winged stilts
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Night heron
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Teals
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Stilts – photo credit Rashmi Panda
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An all women fishing team on the maguribeel

I was truly satiated with an hour spent on Maguribeel but for avid birdwatchers who would like to make several trips on the beel watching and studying the birds, there is a Kohuwan Eco camp with lodging facilities which arranges for boat trips too.

I present these black and white beauties as a finale to the memorable time spent at dibru shikhowa and maguribeel.

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Black and white (cormorant and heron) – photo credit Rashmi Panda

 

TEA, ANYONE? The magic of Makaibari

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When we decided to make a trip to Kurseong and Makaibari, reactions were predictable. Many had not heard of these places, some thought it must be an inaccessible place somewhere in a remote corner of the north eastern part of India and the ones who knew its location, presumed that we would be halting there for a day before moving to Darjeeling for a full-fledged vacation. But, try Kurseong as a holiday destination and you would be pleasantly surprised by what it can offer.

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Kurseong is a quaint hill town, perched roughly midway between Darjeeling and Siliguri. This is one of those way-side places that you pass through on your journeys but rarely remember its name, much less choose it as a destination.

You can reach Kurseong by road or by rail, both running together for most of the stretch, with the narrow gauge railway line criss-crossing the road at every bend. But if you take the train, be prepared for a slow journey – almost double the time.

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Darjeeling Himalayan Railways, started in 1881 and still fully operational with most of its original features intact, has been conferred a World Heritage status by UNESCO and has several unique engineering marvels – the Batasia loop, the Z elevations at a few stretches etc.

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But then, I will be digressing if I go into that in detail. So, look at this road or rail journey through rose-tinted glasses, with visions of Rajesh Khanna crooning “ mere sapnon ki rani kab aayegi tu” (the queen of my dreams, when shall thou come – an evergreen hindi film song shot on this locale) 

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Kurseong would look picturesque from across the hills, but certainly not so if you are standing on the main road near the Railway Station and the market place. Take a look.

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But, move away from here onto the upper lanes through churches and houses with pretty laced curtains on the windows and flowers blooming in tin pots on window sills or onto the roads leading to the tea gardens, the hill town and the valleys engulfed by mist and you will feel very differently about this place.

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The obvious place to visit, while at Kurseong, is the Makaibari tea estate. The long leafed Darjeeling tea is known to tea lovers all over the world for its distinctive flavour and you can see how it is grown in Makaibari tea gardens and processed in their factory, which was set up in 1859. Unlike other tea gardens of Darjeeling which have been taken over by multinationals, Makaibari is still with the same family for four generations now. Also, Makaibari tea estate was the first one in the region to adopt organic tea growing and has been a trend-setter.

At Makaibari, great emphasis is laid on the plucking standards – smallest shoots comprising two leaves and a bud are plucked by hand and women are preferred for the greater dexterity they have.

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It is hard work indeed, as 22000 such shoots have to be plucked to get a kilogram of tea. Plucking starts early in the morning before the overnight dew evaporates.

At the factory, the plucked tea leaves go through the process of withering, rolling, fermentation and drying. The green leaves are evenly spread on huge troughs, through which hot and cold air is blown in a regulated manner so that moisture is removed slowly in about 15 hours.

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The withered leaves then go through a roller machine which twists and twirls the leaves gently without breaking them. The rolled leaves are then spread in a thin layer in a cool and humid room for 3-4 hours to allow fermentation. The fermented leaves then go through a dryer with regulated temperature.

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Almost all the machines at the Makaibari tea factory have the “Brittannia” marking: These had come from England a century ago and are fully functional even now.

The tea leaves then go through the final steps of sorting, grading and packing.

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Makaibari produces the world’s most expensive tea, “silver tips” – which is plucked under a full moon. Visitors are taken around the factory and the process of making Darjeeling tea is explained. There is also a museum which traces the history of the Makaibari tea gardens and displays the milestones achieved over the years and other testimonials.

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While at Kurseong, take time to visit the churches and the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway museum, watch the train move through the crowded market place with the people going about their business just two feet away from the track and taste the excellent momos at West Bengal Tourist Lodge.

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Also, skip Darjeeling if you want the magic of kurseong and Makaibari to linger.

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