Darjeeling was my next destination. Google said 12 hours, the locals said two days!! I departed Kolkata at 5.30am the morning after getting Boris out of customs. I wanted to get an early start and get some miles under my belt. Plus I had no idea what to expect from the roads. Exiting across the Kone bridge gave me a fantastic farewell view out over the city and then Kolkata was gone.
The highway north was in great shape as I made good time. I foolishly began to thing that maybe the roads weren’t going to be that bad. How wrong I was. As soon as I left the main highway to continue north towards Darjeeling the roads deteriorated into the worst roads I’d ever driven on. Four hours got me 200kms, the next eight hours I only managed 250km more. The term that comes to mind is ‘Would you like a little road with your pothole Sir?’
By 6pm I was barely half way to Darjeeling. Feed up with the roads, the drivers and the obstacles I decided to call it a day at a truck stop at 6pm. It wasn’t flash but they served food and beer. Not long after all the locals spotted the new boy and came over to watch. They just stare at you unless they speak a little english. Then they love to chat and won’t leave you alone. I popped the roof tent up and crashed by 9pm. I was shattered. It was a brutal introduction to driving in India.
The following day I eventually made it to a toll road and from there the next few hours to the base of Darjeeling hills were quick and smooth. I was now in tea growing country and you could see the signs everywhere.
The journey up into the hill was breathtaking as sunshine was overtaken by cloud cover. It was like floating up amongst the clouds. Before breaking through on the other side of the valley to spectacular views of out across the valley’s from Darjeeling. The long and winding road up through the villages in the cool air was one of the best drives of the journey. It made the pain of the previous days driving all worth it.
On arrival I call Wangchuk at the Cozy Nest Guesthouse. Not only did he come find me, and give me a place to sleep, he also found a spot for Boris as well. Anybody that has been to Darjeeling will know it’s not big and it’s not car friendly. I was shattered from two massive days on the road so I crashed early that evening. 20 hours in the car was following by 17 hours in bed recovering.
Fully rested I ventured out to explore Darjeeling. This slightly mystical hill station with an alluring reputation for fantastic views, wonderful hikes, funky toy trains and delicious local tea was I place I’d been dreaming about visiting. I strolled up to the main square and found the mountain views were blocked by cloud. We were up in the clouds. A visit to the Zoo provided me a view of my first Royal Bengal Tiger, and the Himalayan Mountain Institute had a fantastic exhibition on the mountain range. On display was several pieces of Tenzing Norgay’s climbing equipment from the Everest summit, which as a Kiwi was of particular interest to me. Wandering through the streets involved conversations with curious kids, and while dodging the crowds in the bustling market area. Everywhere there were people running around yelling, horns blaring, and salesmen pitching their products. Conspicuous by their absence were the tourists. There just weren’t that many to been seen.
Wangchuk explained the situation to me later that evening. Gorkhaland is the name of region that includes Darjeeling and it wants to be its own state. Well, half the population seem to want this and half aren’t really sure. As a result strikes in the area have impacted tourism. My visit was fortunate to coincide with a break in the strikes, as the town returned to work only 10 days before my arrival, after a 5 week strike.
A visit to Darjeeling is not complete without getting the toy train to Ghom and back. At the station I met Coral and Amber from Israel and we took the ride together. It was a brilliant slow ride, stopping traffic and dodging trucks as we made our way through the hills. The cloud had begun to lift and the views over the hills improved. The 2 hour excursion is something I highly recommend. That evening Coral, Amber and I went for dinner and drinks afterwards to reflect of a great day of sightseeing around Darjeeling.
The morning sunrise on Tiger Hill was another highlight. I said farewell to my great host Wangchuk and headed for the summit of Tiger Hill with the masses at 5am. We were rewarded with a beautiful sunrise and an uninterrupted view of mount Kanchenjunga. The world’s 3rd highest.
By 6.30am I was heading back down the valley to the plains on one of the most scenic drives of the trip. I loved my time in the hills and was looking forward to returning later in the journey.
Next on the list of destinations were Patna and Varanasi, and my first couchsurfing experiences in India.
The area has a strong Tibetan community which is different from the rest of India. They are far more open and friendly with passers-by. Happily smiling and waving without a thought. The hill-side station has wonderful views and is a great place to visit for a few days, but it is suffering from over commercialisation and the continuing political struggle for its own state recognition. Recognition that I can’t see coming in the future as the region is not united in its wish for independence. This has been going on for over 20 years and it could easily continue for another 20.