Tea Time in Darjeeling – A cycle tour in the Indian Himalayas

Cycle touring on main roads in Nepal and India was at times a tad suicidal, cyclists are an inferior beast who should just get out the way, no one here cycles for fun. However if you take a short detour off to the side roads then you can find some truly extraordinary adventures, like this short cycle tour around Darjeeling:
We caught a local bus from Kathmandu to the Indian border 200km east because Marion doesn’t have a bike with her and I didn’t want to ride this road, as you might expect these buses are not designed for people at 6ft 4in, they’re designed for chickens and old ladies. I physically couldn’t sit in the seats without my knees spread apart and precisely wedged in, it’s fair to say they quickly bruised. Twelve hours on this overnight bus seemed a good alternative compared to polluting the world and flying, however in that moment I would have happily taken any plane journey, ethics what ethics?

I did sleep a bit but I was regularly startled awake after recalling the haunting passage in the lonely planet: ‘there is one simple way to avoid serious accidents in Nepal: avoid local buses and never travel at night’.’ Well that was something we shouldn’t have read just before setting out! I mainly hoped my bike was happy being strapped to the roof. Sorry Kinesis I did look after the bike…. honest!
Finally the first rays of morning sunlight highlighted the remarkably tropical scene that was before us, people slowly rode bikes along the palm lined roads, off to work the now dry paddy fields.
We crossed the border and inadvertently missed the border control that was hidden in a random house off to the side, it didn’t appear to be the strictest border. The general rule was if you looked Indian or Nepalese you could just walk or ride your rickshaw across and foreigners had to make an effort to complete the formalities on both sides.

The next leg was catching a bus into the nearby city of Siliguri, where Marion could catch a Jeep up to Darjeeling. I refused the bus driver after he tried to charge me double for bags and bike, but finally we reached agreement. The conductor guy was then too lazy to tie my bike onto the roof, so it presented the perfect way to enter India for the first time in my life: yep by surfing the roof of a bus! I climbed up and with one arm on my bike the other holding on for dear life we set off. IMG_4595_result

It soon struck me that this wasn’t the best plan, firstly low wires were strung across the road disturbingly close to my face. Secondly the driver seemed to be intent on swerving and overtaking so dramatically that he could have been in a Jason Statham movie and didn’t care that I might fly off like an unknown extra. Jason Statham was probably driving the 500cc Tata Nano behind like a legend.

I survived the bus ride but only just, it was then time to get out the bike and off the roof as we headed up to Darjeeling, Marion caught a shared Jeep with the only two other tourists we had seen all day. The road zigzags its way up the steep sides of the Himalayan foothills and is a pretty brutal challenge for cycling, but if you like pain you’ll love it. The views were stunning with the Tiger infested Baikunthapur forest making way for lush green tea plantations and ridge top villages.

I stopped for lunch of Momos at a nice little cafe and then summoned the energy to keep going. The so called Cart Road soon merges with the affectionately named Toy Train. This narrow gauge mountain railway was built by the British in the 19th century and it’s still going strong. It uses a combination of ‘modern’ diesel locomotives from the 1960s or the old fashioned steam trains from over 100 years ago. In order to gain height at this gradient the tracks zig zag across the road which is a nightmare for traffic, who are forced to pull over in all the available space on a zig or zag section.IMG_5125_result
The road is stunning but hard work, the altitude changes from 200m to 1800m and it’s steep, not like those nice gentle alpine climbs but a leg bustlingly steep climb like those found in the UK, just many many times longer.
Well over halfway up and with the bulk of the climbing done the road passes through Kurseong a busy little market town with some fantastic sweet shops and road side samosa stalls – always good energy providers!
The final stretch to Darjeeling is a cruisy flatter road, with outstanding views and regular sweet shops. More importantly the first glimpses of the breathtaking Kanchenjunga peak (3rd highest in the world) soon appear and they will undoubtedly make your progress slow because of the unavoidable urge to take photographs!
Darjeeling itself is a rather busy place that might be unappealing at first, but soon its genuine charm unveils itself. The colonial era remnants lie in the full English fried breakfasts on offer to the great cake and tea at Glenary’s. The concept of a tea drinking hill station is so very British and it was fun to indulge in it walking the streets sampling tea and relaxing. We bought lots of tea from this chap in the picture below at the local market, he knew literally everything about tea and it was pretty cheap too, I highly recommend searching the market for him!
The first ever Darjeeling Cultural festival was also showing which made for some fun evening entertainment that varied from fashion shows to singing and dancing.
The next day the bike was locked away and we caught the toy train back down to Kurseong where we visited the Makaibari tea plantation and stayed in a workers home stay, I will write a separate blog about that though.
From Darjeeling the only way is down because the town is rather precariously perched on either side of a spiny ridge. The road down north takes in a few beautiful Buddhist monasteries and at the top there is a sacred Hindu/Budhist temple complex infested by many holy monkeys scampering along the prayer flags.
The other must visit location was Tiger hill, there’s no Tigers because they have been scared off by the 100s of tourists who witness the stunning sunrise views every day. Tiger hill is the only place that the sun gets a rapturous round of applause each morning just for doing its job. The spot offers unparalleled vistas of Kanchenjunga but also a sneaky peak at Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse.
Back on the bike I headed down towards Kurseong and raced the steam train on its daily slog, it was a bit one sided as the train only manages 10mph!
I turned off East towards the town of Kalimpong, the road here follows a 2000m high ridge past Tiger Hill and Senchal forest, it then maintains the stunning views of Kanchenjunga (the third highest peak in the world remember). It passed Tukdah Forest which was a bit like an organised monkey ambush, I rode through a dark forested tunnel where I started noticing more and more monkeys staring at me through the gloom, some halfway up trees others on the road side or even high up in the canopy. My first thought was to get the camera out because this is really cool, then the sinister smiles on their faces told me all was not well and an attack for my samosas was imminent. I jumped on my bike just in the neck of time as a flying screeching monkey fell from the tree. It was pedal hard time and get out into the sunlight!
The road passed yet another Darjeeling tea plantation where the slopes dropped away like a floating floor of green carpet framing yet another slightly different view of the snow capped high Himalayas.
Finally I left the ridge and a descent like no other began, 1800m of vertical was lost so rapidly that the road did loop the loops back under itself! It was all a bit crazy, my brakes got rather hot, my test of spontaneous combustion by placing a dry leaf near the disc produced instant smoke and even a smouldering glow. The brakes were still performing adequately but a rest was in order!
It was good fun but in the back of my mind was the climb back up the other side of the valley, after I reached Tista Bazar I was starting a 1000m+ ascent to Kalimpong, a road that again required a loop the loop to progress up the severity of the incline. It was fortunately in the shade and temperatures were pleasant so I just spun and looked out for Tigers in the dense jungle that surrounded me. The overloaded Jeeps passing with people sat on roof racks or hanging off ladders all glared back Indian faces of disbelief, “why is he cycling up here? There are buses he could catch?” The concept of exercising for fun is lost on locals and the many Indian tourists in equal measure. In a country where a pot belly is something to be proud of, wearing lycra and being skinny and fit seems such lower caste behaviour.
I eventually broke through the forest and reached the edges of Kalimpong. It was here that Marion and Cindy had caught a Jeep and been exploring various ancient monasteries, I searched for WIFI in order to pick up an email from them as to where we were staying. However it was hard to find WIFI in Kalimpong, I was reaching a mild state of despair that I might not see them when I just bumped into them on the street.
We stayed in a small little family run guest house. My bike was offered a garage next door which was fine, but the doors were not locked which was a concern on such a busy street. Inside there was no anchor point at all so I sought a guarantee that the door would be locked all day, to which the man took offence, saying if his car was OK my bike would be OK. I pointed out that my unlocked bike was a bit easier to steal than a car and I got frustrated he wouldn’t simply lock the door, so for the first time on the whole trip I pointed out the Titanium bike was worth a lot of money, something I had studiously avoided ever mentioning, I said it was worth more than his old Suzuki car so can he make sure it is locked. In hindsight this was not the right thing to say, because rather than seeing my bike as worth several thousand USDs he unfortunately interpreted it as me saying his car was cheap and worthless. He got quite angry, middle class Indians are rather materially proud men, I hadn’t intended any insult but he slammed and locked the garage doors and stormed off, at least it was now locked! Later I tried to reconcile by discussing how I liked his locally taken photographs on the walls and he calmed a bit!
Very oddly there was a restaurant on the rooftops, shapedlike a boat that was all set and ready for any biblical flood that may occur.
It was the last evening travelling with Cindy so we ate out at a small south Indian restaurant at 8.00pm by this late hour the town had shut down and was eerily dark bar a few street vendors, we also caught a sweet shop as they were locking the doors, Cindy persuaded them to reopen and sell us a few sweets to end our last evening together!
The next day Cindy headed off to volunteer and we were catching a night train to Calcutta. I would have liked to have ridden a loop up into the beautiful region of Sikkim but time was running out, I rode towards the border and got views across from above Kalimpong and this gave me an insight into the pristine ancient mountain kingdom, that still needs a separate permit to enter. The road above Kalimpong to Dalapchan ridge forest reserve offered fantastic views but at a price, the road was effectively bermed it was so steep, I had never seen anything quite like it, corners banked to the left then right! It was fun on the ride down, I even got a few whoops from locals as I drifted the corners and overtook mopeds!20141108050042_IMG_5901

From Kalimpong the road went downhill steeply before it extended out across the plains back to Siliguri, it passed several large forest reserves, home to Tigers and other large predators that one would rather not cycle into in the late afternoon gloom but at the same time I secretly hoped I might! I stumbled upon this monastery under construction and the kind young monks gave me a guided tour, they didn’t even seem to mind my lycra.
Marion unloaded the bags from a shared Jeep in Siliguri and we were faced with a dilemma of how to both get to NJP train station with my bike and how not to lose each other. The solution was hiring a cycle rickshaw for Marion! She took her bag and I had mine and the rickshaw rider was a good sport who was keen for a race! He warned us it was a 20 minute ride but at £1 it was worth it. Me with a 30 speed $4000 bike and his single speed rickshaw made by welding plain gauge chunks of steel made an uneven match but more importantly he knew where we were going, I had no idea. He also liked disobeying road rules and taking some dubious manoeuvres!

It was pitch black as we set off and under the dull orange glow of the street lights we nipped down alleyways dispersed pedestrians at night markets, it looked like a scene from the Italian Job if Italy was much busier and smelt of curry. The rickshaw was up on two wheels as we took sharp corners under a gigantic concrete overpass, and then ran red lights over a busy junction, it was a bit like the GTA computer game but on bikes. This was certainly the locals route and in this maze of dark narrow and busy streets if I lost him the chances of seeing Marion again soon were slim. After a while we left the city lights behind and a dark long straight road gave me the advantage as we rode side by side chatting. Finally the hustle and bustle of the huge NJP train station loomed, we had made it. I hopped of the bike and paid the rickshaw rider a 50% tip for the fun. I leant up the Tripster ATR and knew this was probably it, the final pedal turns of an adventure across 17 countries and countless miles, cycling, hiking and by local bus in Nepal, I remembered the countless people who had inspired me and hopefully those I had inspired in return. Cycling is a wonderful thing but in India I was happy to be catching a train with Marion to Calcutta. The next worry was if the train would take my bike or maybe I was a bit optimistic saying the cycling was over??

Any thoughts or questions?

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