The soft tapping on the door awakened me. It took me an instant to realize that I was not on the overnight train from Rishikesh with a towel wrapped around my face to keep out the stench of an overflowing toilet. And I didn't hear the irritating man in the compartment opposite who had spent the entire night yelling "Hello? Are you there?" every time he lost his cellphone connection.
Instead there were birds singing in the wild cherry trees and the smell of pine.
At the door was the watchman who had brought us to our cottage in the chilly pre-dawn hours after a 3-hour car ride from the Pathankot train station.
"Chai?" he asked, nodding sideways at the tea service tray he was carrying.
What else could it be but morning tea? My wife, Ann, and I were staying at Country Cottage on the Chandpur Tea Estate, a six-cottage lodge on a 50-acre tea plantation in the heart of the Kangra Valley in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh.
The valley is a mile high and mild in temperature, a onetime candidate for the summer capital of the British Raj. It is protected by the nearby Dhauladhar range, behind which loom the 14,000-foot peaks of the Western Himalayas.
We were meeting with Buddhist teacher Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo in two days, one of half a dozen female spiritual masters we were interviewing for a book ("Sacred Faces"). We had been traveling for two weeks and were gearing up for three weeks doing pro bono work for a pediatric AIDS organization. This was our only time to relax.
I took the tea tray to Ann, who was sitting at a low table on a veranda dappled in warm late-morning sun. It appeared to float over a sea of 3-foot-high tea bushes, relatives of cultivars first planted at Chandpur plantation by British growers in 1887.
Every so often we saw locals walking down the narrow country lane that bordered the tea hedges. It was shaded by flowering wild cherry, and white and pink clouds of petals fluttered over the road, adding dots of color to all walking under: soldiers from a nearby base, a shepherd with his cows, local Gaddi tribeswomen heading home, bundles of firewood on their heads.
Kangra Valley tea
It was November, between seasons, and the plantation was quiet, only the soft tock-tock of a carpenter at work somewhere in the pines. Plucking season starts in April, we were told, when workers come and handpick from the plants, harvesting "two leaves and a bud," the softest ends and a hallmark of Kangra Valley tea.
"A shoot that is soft is bound to produce a good tea," Chandpur owner Navin Sarin told us over an English-style breakfast of eggs, fried tomatoes and toast topped with homemade wild pear jam. "The older the leaf, the coarser the leaf. The more expensive tea is produced from the softest of the leaves. But the leaf can be marred by the tea maker himself."
The soil, altitude, rainfall and lack of pests here are ideal growing conditions for Camellia sinensis, the Chinese tea variety brought to the Kangra Valley by the British.
Although largely grown organically and worthy of a terroir designation, Kangra Valley tea has lost the prominence it once enjoyed as the winner of tea-tasting contests in Victorian England, beating out rivals from Darjeeling and Assam.
A devastating 7.8 earthquake in 1905 killed 20,000 people and destroyed most of the buildings in the area. The British plantation owners fled and international distribution ceased. Now the plantations are mostly locally owned.
I'm a self-identified coffee addict but during our weeks in India I became habituated to nonstop "cut chai" — boiled tea mixed with sugar, cardamom, ginger and masala spices. It is served in a half-cup "cut" tumbler because it's so strong.
You shouldn't dilute Kangra tea with milk and sugar, however. Sarin said that spoiled the healthful benefits. "Then it becomes just a hot drink," he said.
The British didn't bring only tea to Kangra. They also brought brown trout to stock the countless rivers fed by Himalayan snowmelt. The waterways also support golden mahseer, or Indian salmon, a legendary fighter that lives in cold, fast water. In February anglers from India and abroad flock here when the season opens. By summer, the melt has increased and the streams get cloudy with dust.
Then come the monsoons.
But now in November the weather was perfect, with just a slight morning chill that dispersed by noon. We set off to explore the neighborhood, following a lane to a level spot on the ridge called Five Houses — the smallest designation for a village. The Five Houses village was centered around a few shops selling snacks and basics, including a solitary copy of the day's English-language Times of India newspaper, reserved for a regular customer.
The view from here, in the saddle of the ridge, revealed the valley's breadth below: a breathtaking landscape of terraces, some planted, some fallow. Towering bamboo clumps rose in the elbows of ravines, while clusters of houses built out of wood, adobe and slate were sprinkled on both sides of a fast-running river. Far below, a mule train crossed a narrow footbridge and slowly climbed switchbacks leading to a pass in the mountains beyond.
Those mountains are the Western Himalayas, snow-capped and appearing as close as the San Gabriels are to downtown L.A. "Himalaya," Sarin had told me, means "storehouse of snow."
It was chilly in the shadows, and the thin parka I'd worn in Rishikesh wasn't going to be enough. So later that afternoon we headed to nearby Palampur's main bazaar
in search of a Himachal Pradesh specialty: hand-loom-woven woolens.
At the Dhauladhar Kullu Shawls shop — one of dozens lining the bazaar's main road — there was a little of everything: Kullu shawls, hats, mufflers, gloves, ponchos, tabi-style socks, stoles. The exuberant clerk slid out a pile of folded vests — "Gent's Coats" he called them — and explained the differences. They use wool from merino sheep, Pashmina goat, Angora rabbit and yaks. I settled on a reversible woolen vest, a hand-embroidered Kullu cap and a shawl threaded with rough yak wool — about $30 for everything and well worth it.
From the market we went to check out the Pathankot-Joginder Nagara train, a.k.a. the Kangra toy train, a narrow-gauge line that opened in 1929 and runs about 100 miles through the valley. The train, nominated for UNESCO World Heritage designation, is notoriously irregular but follows a track through some of the valley's most spectacular vistas. Tickets are about 20 cents.
The train rolled in two hours late, groaning and creaking. Less a tourist attraction than well-used local mass transit, it offers an affordable way to get from one end of the valley to the other. It's a local, stopping at every station, with hard bench seats, bars on the windows and people hanging out the open doors.
It meandered at a leisurely pace past rice paddies, bamboo thickets, rocky stream beds and ravines, and backyards where bundles of rice stalks were propped in trees, livestock fodder for later in the season. Throughout the trip the Himalayas were a majestic backdrop.
The next day, we left early to make a side trip to see the landmark Palpung Sherabling monastery, a half-hour drive up a bad road. The monastery sits in a ravine surrounded by pine and thousands of prayer flags, many faded and torn, others newly printed and still colorful. The road is lined with man-sized prayer wheels, and we passed dozens of monks, studying and reciting, ignoring the packs of monkeys in the trees.
From there we went to the village of Lower Mutt to see the nunnery established by Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, subject of the book "Cave in the Snow: Tenzin Palmo's Quest for Enlightenment." British-born and raised, she often speaks to Western audiences and has long advocated reviving an extinct line of Tibetan Buddhist yoginis.
More than 20 years ago she began work on the nunnery, a last request from her guru. It is the only nunnery in India to offer the same teachings and training to young women that have been given to men for a thousand years.
"Previously nuns were not educated, although some were great practitioners," she told us. "They didn't write books or found nunneries or have a voice. Nobody knows them because they were silent. For themselves that was fine — they were becoming realized and that was the important thing. But it didn't really benefit many others because they were unable to articulate what they had understood."
"A lot is changing," a nun said. "It's like the icebergs melting. We're looking for what is going to keep the traditions going. What does it matter if you call yourself spiritual or not? We are all looking for something inside to make us feel better. As the Dalai Lama says — to develop a good heart. Everyone we meet wishes for happiness and doesn't want to be hurt. When people annoy us, we want to be grateful to them for helping us practice patience."
I thought back to the annoying man with the bad cellphone connection on the train three nights ago. I was now warm, full of tea and in the presence of great soul.
I was grateful.
If you go
THE BEST WAY TO THE KANGRA VALLEY, INDIA
From LAX, Delta, Lufthansa, KLM, Etihad, Air China, Qatar, Cathay Pacific, All Nippon, United, China Airlines, China Eastern, Asiana, Air Canada, Turkish and Air New Zealand offering connecting service (change of planes) to New Delhi. Restricted round-trip airfares from $970. From New Delhi, Air India/Alliance Air has one flight daily to Dharamshala. One-way fares from $19. Palampur is about 25 miles away and can be reached by bus or taxi (about $25).
The nearest train station is Pathankot Cantt. From there to Palampur is about 75 miles, which takes about three hours over a hilly winding road. Cost by cab from Pathankot to Palampur is about $50.
To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 91 (the country code for India), the area code and the local number.
WHERE TO STAY
Country Cottage, a Tea Garden Resort, Chandpur Tea Estate, Palampur; (189) 423-0647, www.countrycottageindia.com. The cottages at this working plantation are private, cozy and quiet (busier during spring tea-leaf-plucking season). Doubles from $50. It also offers accommodations and restaurant service for drivers accompanying guests.
Holiday Home Palampur, Lohna Hills, Palampur; (189) 423-3522, (981) 619-7412, www.holidayhomepalampur.com. A former private residence that has been converted into nine en suite bedrooms, with an additional 10 in a new wing. Family-friendly and homey. Doubles from $20.
Himachal Heritage Village, Kandi-Thalla Road, Village Thalla, Palampur; (981) 679-9960, www.himachalheritagevillage.com. Four cottages each done in a different native style using local materials. Excellent birding, trails and views. Doubles from $75.
WHERE TO EAT
Sky Room Bar and Restro, second floor of the Grand Plaza shopping center, Scandal Point, State Highway 17, Palampur; (189) 423-6888. Vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes, mainly Chinese with some Indian and Continental choices. Entrees from about $6.
Taj Restaurant, Ward-3, Subhash Chowk, Palampur Bazaar, opposite the taxi stand, (189) 423-2944. South Asian, Indian, Chinese, big servings, good shakes, entrees from about $4.
Joy, Palampur Bazaar, (189) 423-0278. One of the oldest restaurants in town, vegetarian only, known for its papri chaat, a type of north Indian street food. Entries $2-$3.
WHERE TO GO
Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery, www.tenzinpalmo.com. Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo receives visitors by appointment only (email@example.com) from 2 to 4 p.m. Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. The nunnery is about 71/2 miles from Palampur.
Palpung Sherabling monastery, www.palpung.org.