OF SHERPAS, SAHIBS,
AND JOLLY GOOD TEA.
A short history of Darjeeling in the last days of the British Raj,
the introduction of tea from China, its ensuing success as a popular strain,
and a sortie into Sikkim and Solu Khumbu in Nepal, with some talk of Tilman.
Darjeeling’s history is inextricably intertwined with the introduction of tea to western civilizations. The British brought tea from China, and developed plantations in Darjeeling, in the foothills of the Himalaya, and within clear sight of Kanchenjunga, the world’s third highest mountain. And today, Darjeeling tea is still considered to be one the finest on the market.
With Nepal off limits at the time, Darjeeling became the base for many of the early expeditions to the Himalaya, up until 1950. While Everest was the ultimate dream, other 8,000-metre summits too were on most wish-lists. There was a need for porters to carry the rations for these expeditions and, given their hardy background, the Sherpas were picked for the job.
Originally from Tibet, the Sherpas moved to northeastern Nepal during the 1600s, and settled down in the Solukhumbu region — home to Mount Everest. Many Sherpa families migrated to Darjeeling, which had developed as a retreat for the British in colonial India, and took to lugging loads and palkis (palanquins) in the hill-town.
On an expedition to Sikkim in 1998, we had the good fortune to have, as our local guide, Jamling, the younger son of Tenzing Norgay, that most memorable of Sherpas who, for the first time in history, stepped onto the summit of the world’s highest mountain, Mt. Everest, with Edmund Hillary on May 29, 1953. Jamling also introduced us to some of Darjeeling’s most renowned Sherpas, including Dorje Lhatoo, and Ang Tsering Sherpa, both of whom we interviewed.
Ang Tsering, pictured above, was then the only surviving member of George Mallory’s fated attempt on Everest in 1924, and whose legacy as a climbing Sherpa also included rescue attempts on the tragic German expedition to Nanga Parbat in 1936 when so many climbers and Sherpas lost their lives.