Travelling to the North East for some high tea with the Renault Duster
Life is full of highs and lows. You embrace the highs and learn from the lows and these seemingly opposite nature of events somehow complement each other to make you a better person. But let’s not get philosophical because there’s a yin to every yang in life. Travel on the contrary is full of yins, and only yins. There’s no downside to travel – you gain so much, the only thing you lose is money but there’s also no better investment than travel. When we set out to find great heights with the Renault Duster, little did we know we’d cross high mountain passes, remote post offices, even more remote villages and possibly the world’s most remote petrol pump. India, we’ve realised, does not stop surprising us. There was one thing we forgot along the way – to stop and contemplate over a cup of tea. And that’s where this journey begins.
I remember the high tea parties during my first job. It was a reason to bring the office together every month over snacks and cold drinks (tea wasn’t even served). Milestones and achievements were shared, new employees were welcomed and at the end of the half hour everyone left happy. It didn’t matter if tea was served as long as the event was recognised as a quick meeting with friends and colleagues – something usually done over a cup of tea. We are social animals who’ve found plenty of ways to socialise but the most famous of them all is over a cup of tea. We wake up to tea, take tea breaks in the middle of work and road trips, even the ‘sutta’ break at work is accompanied by tea. Tea is India’s Red Bull; it’s everyone’s drink from the construction worker to the owner of the construction company, and made by the same person. For most, it’s just tea – no brand or quality comes in the way when the person making the tea has skills
“The Rs 40,000 tea is called the Golden Needle, after the colour it gets after oxidation”
Lately, though, artisan teas are capturing the imagination of the modern tea drinker. While most of India is still hooked to milk tea, the non-milk (okay, black) variety is gaining a lot of momentum on the back of different tastes they present. Before you confuse this for a tea magazine – for (tea) enthusiasts, by (tea) enthusiasts – let me narrow down the reason for this road trip.
Not your regular leaf
A couple of months ago, a batch of tea from a garden in Arunachal was auctioned for Rs 40,000 for 1.1 kilo. You read that right. And there’s no 100-year-old wine from a French vineyard mixed in it. It’s the highest ever bid for a kilo of tea and we just wanted to know the story behind it all.
Our road trip starts at a tea stall outside Guwahati airport for our morning cuppa. The midnight connecting flight from Pune ensured we were drowsy as we landed and the wait for our Duster at the airport was long enough for a quick boost of Indian Red Bull. We had barely woken up but Guwahati was well into its stride. The sun rises sooner in the East so we were chasing daylight as we set off for the Assam-Arunachal border. We had the new petrol CVT Duster, which was very convenient to drive through rush hour traffic. Out on the highway, North East roads are sparsely populated with vehicles. Our destination was the Donyi Polo tea estate on the border with Arunachal, a good 570km away. Google Maps will suggest the journey takes 12 hours, however you can make it in 8-10 hours, depending on the number of breaks you take. The road is excellent all through except in parts and if there’s one car to maintain speed on bad roads, it’s the Renault Duster with its great ride quality and high ground clearance.
No road. No problem
I’ve been driving the Duster for many years now, soon after its launch in India actually. I have driven every version of it, petrol, diesel, manual, AMT, AWD and now there’s this, the CVT petrol. If there’s one USP of the Duster, it’s the utter fearlessness of hustling it on a dirt road. It irons out everything with the kind of maturity you don’t expect in this segment. I’d say the balance in power and efficiency, the weight, the rugged monocoque chassis and supple ride still make it one of the top cars in India for long road trips. An adventure is always easier in a Duster; you’re never worried of anything breaking or going wrong.
Asian Highway 1 takes you to Tezpur and connects to NH15 as you make it across North Lakhimpur on the way to the state border. Road construction is still on in parts but it doesn’t bother us much. I’m a little surprised as we reach the tea estate though. We’re used to seeing tea estates on mountain slopes, this one however is on flat land. The only bit of winding road we drove on was when we exited Guwahati, something I wasn’t expecting on a drive here. Anyway, the estate doesn’t seem to end. We finally make it through the gates to be welcomed by a seemingly regular tea estate. Closer inspection and conversation with the manager reveals that they have, in fact, dived into the creation of artisan teas – teas made with a lot more effort than just plucking leaves. The Rs 40,000 tea is called the Golden Needle, named after the colour it gets after an oxidation process. It isn’t just that but the plucking of the Golden Needle that makes it so valuable. It isn’t the leaves but the bud that’s used to make the Golden Needle tea. These buds tend to break if not plucked carefully. You realise how the tea planters treat these speciality teas as art, and they take great pride in making them.
A new breed of patrons are cropping up around the country with an eye and a nose for high quality speciality tea as tea cafes open all around the country. India accounts for a fourth of the world’s tea production yet we’ve been restricted to a handful of types of tea until the recent past. But search online and you will find teas you’ve never heard of, and don’t be shocked because if wine can be made from a grape and yet vary in so many ways, why can’t tea?
The manager of the tea estate organised a tea tasting session for us where I sampled the Golden Needle tea. I’m no connoisseur of teas and I wouldn’t be able to really tell why it costs the money it does but just going by the passion of the man who created it, I’d give the tea that respect and maybe brush up on my tea knowledge. If we can move up the wine ladder, then why not the nation’s favourite drink?
And so we packed the Duster with plenty of samples to take back home and I’ve been trying different teas every day for over a week now. I know what oxidisation does to the tea and why plucking tea is an art when you care about the outcome. The Renault Duster is usually a star of every road trip but this time it was our silent partner. It faced no great challenges and the smooth petrol motor was unobtrusive enough to isolate us from the outside world. The CVT made the drive a breeze. And all the space meant we loaded up on enough tea samples to make us overweight at check-in on the flight back.
Sometimes you take a simple road trip for a cup of tea. That it’s not a regular leaf tea may be reason enough for this road trip.