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