During my visit in Darjeeling town, I was privileged to attend the festivities organized for the visit of Lama Jhado Rinpoche at the Tibetan Refugee Self Help Centre. This was probably the most memorable occasions of my Indian trip. I was made to feel welcome, even though I was clearly the odd one out. Very touching and with really nice Tibetan people. A clear sense of festivities in the air…
From Jaigaon, I took a private hire car to take me to the Darjeeling town. Due to some unforeseen changes in my itinerary, I missed the town on my first ride through Darjeeling area. From what I had been told, I knew Darjeeling was worth seeing but nothing prepared me for the drive. First, it was getting dark and driving in India after dark is not for the faint hearted. It is simply scary. Lights are not necessarily used and if they are, they blind you due to constant flashing of long beam or badly adjusted lights. Some trucks had no lights at all and many buses had no tail lights. They just appeared from the darkness, as did pedestrians, cyclists, goats, dogs and cows. I was lucky to have a very alert driver. The last 40 km to Darjeeling was unbelievable. Hairpin after hairpin climbing the hill on a road barely wide enough for one car. Going up we tried to gather speed and I thought I was with the local version of Juha Kankkunen. Darjeeling is up on a hill and the area is very beautiful. In an Indian way, mind you. Unfortunately the day was cloudy and I missed some of the most beautiful views. I spent the day visiting a few remarkable places though. Apart from the usual Buddhist temples and the zoo, the most impressive place was the Tibetan refugee self help centre. I happened to be there when they were expecting an important Lama Jhado Rinpoche to come for a visit. He shares Dalai Lama’s visit schedule and when there are double bookings, he takes the one that Dalai Lama can not make. A highly respected person, this was very clear. The self help centre was very touching and the Tibetan people were very warm and welcoming. Their history was displayed with pictures, newspaper clippings and other historical displays. I was offered tea, both Butter Tea (Tibetan origin with yak butter and salt, similar to Bhutanese butter tea) and the usual sugar tea. A bowl of rice was also offered. I followed the ceremonies and actually shook hands with the Lama!
A visit to the only tea factory and plantation within the actual Darjeeling town was an educating experience. I saw how the factory runs and had a tea tasting. Tea is actually not something native in India but it was brought in by the British from China.
Now I know the difference between the black, green and white tea. I can reveal that they all come from the same tea plant. There are no separate black, green or white tea plants. The factory was called Happy Valley and the supply Harrods of London as their only distributor in the UK. Naturally had to buy some to bring home. Darjeeling town is a sight in itself. The streets are steep so narrow that many corners were actually three point turns. Cars were not able to turn withing the normal turning circle and had to wiggle they way at corners.
The other peculiarity is the narrow track steam railway from Siliguri to Darjeeling. They only use steam locomotives and it looks like a toy train. The track follows the road, crossing every now and then. Hisss and puff! In the evening I was in the town of Siliguri packing my riding gear and getting ready for my early morning taxi ride to Bagdogra airport and my flight to Delhi.
A great riding trip across Nepal, Darjeeling, Assam and Bhutan was now done. Countless memories, hours of film and thousands of photographs to go through at home. Wondering where the next biking trip will take me – Someday!
Crossed the border to Assam from Gelephu, Bhutan. After passing the Bhutanese and Indian immigrations, I was ready for a stretch of rural roads leading to the main highway across the Indian side. This was a 200+ km dash to Jaigaon and handing over my war horse of the past week. Coming to the highway, I saw some commotion before the crossing from which I joined the road. A truck was sideways on the road and people were yelling and making elaborate hand gestures. This was some kind of a demonstration but I did not go over to check what it was about. Learned my lesson in Nepal and was aware that something could happen near the border areas.
This is a dual highway NH 31c joining from NH27 with a green area in between the two sides of the road. One might think that each side is used for one direction, but that would be a mistake. Both sides are used for both directions and there are bits missing of the road, even a few bridges, so you need to read the local’s driving to find the right lane. At times the other side was only used by pedestrians and cyclists and some local traffic. Something in the back of my head told me not to stop anywhere where the crowds were gathering. Truck stops, restaurants, etc. In few places there were demonstrations with men trying to run towards me but they were late for stopping me and I just twisted the throttle to ride past then as fast as possible. The road was wide enough and they were usually preoccupied with the cars they were stopping. These guys were yelling and armed more often with flags and pamphlets that with sticks and stones. At this point I had lost contact with my Bhutanese friends and only later I learned that they were actually a little scared on my behalf. After all, I had Bhutan plates on my bike. When we were reunited, Namgay stick his finger between my ribs and said “Get off your bike!”. The area has recently had some kidnappings and they had imagined all the worse eventualities that could happen to me. The reunion was made even merrier!
In Jaigaon I handed the Royal Enfield back to my local hosts and bid farewell to Karma and Namgay. Many fond memories were made in a few days.
Traffic intensifies as we come closer to the border. The actual border is almost invisible as Nepalese and Indians do not need a passport to travel between the two countries. It would be very easy to miss the border controls / immigrations altogether. To visit the offices you actually need to take a side road, not like what I am used to. Offices are clearly signposted but the signs compete with a million other signs! The formalities are simple an quick. There are really no other tourists at this land crossing. Just a million locals. This time we are on a taxi, since I had to leave my bike in Nepal. The simplicity of the crossing may be misleading and the queue of trucks on the Indian side of the border, waiting to get into Nepal, is long. India is very loud and colourful from the first moment on. The traffic is unbelievably chaotic. The hotel was not too hard to find and my Bhutanese guide Karma delivered my new bike, a virtually new Royal Enfield Classic 350cc with only 2000 km on the clock. My Nepalese bike was a 500cc classic but I do not expect the 350 to fall much short in performance (not possible). A few small fixes – powering the gps, etc and the bike is ready to go. So am I.
Jungle and Tea Plantations
Once out of the city of Siliguri in the morning, the ride through the tea fields is almost a serene experince. Jungle and tea fieds alternating. Jungle with monkies and bendy hillside roads and tea fields with long straight stretches of road.
Once in Madarihat we go straight to the pre-booked hotel, Jaldapara Tourist Lodge, only to find out that they had no booking and were full. The fact that I had their email thanking for the booking, did not mean it was confirmed!! This was explained by a very loud and unpleasant guy who clearly wanted to be seen and heard. Eventually we managed to find a room at Jaldapara Inn near by and a beer was well deserved. Here service was impeccable. One guy actually took a bicycle and rode to town to get me a beer! One slightly confusing thing is the time difference between the three countries. India is 15 minutes behind Nepal and Bhutan is half an hour ahead of India and 15 min ahead of Nepal. Explains why I was 15 minutes early this morning and my 9 o’clock meeting tomorrow is actually 8.30. Hope I got that right!
This is only my first India sector, another one follows when I return from Bhutan to Assam and ride back to Darjeeling. Tomorrow I am meeting my guides at the Bhutan border at 8.30 AM, which means that I need to be on the bike 7.30 AM for the Bhutan section of the trip. Exciting!
Leaving the home region of many of the brave British Gurgha Brigade soldiers in Dharan, Nepal, the plan is to enter West Bengal, India on October 27th. Heading towards the night stop in Bagdogra, India, the distance from Dharan is around 125km. There is however, the border crossing to India, which may take some time. I will be entering India in the District of Darjeeling and this is also the time to prepare myself for a lovely cup of world famous Darjeeling tea. This time the visit to india will be only two days before entering Bhutan. I will return to india from Buthan to Assam during the final leg of the motorcycle tour, riding back to Bagdogra.
… that elusive day we keep putting good things off to…