Sunday, September 19, 2010

The trip begins!

T

oday is travel day and our destination is Darjeeling, the famed Indian hill station known for tea and the Toy Train.  Can't wait to get there!

The group gathered in the hotel lobby at 7:30a. I was so stuffed from the night before that I skipped breakfast so I was able to enjoy a bit more sleep.

Sanjeev had arranged for a 25 seater van to take us and our luggage to the domestic airport for our short hour and half long flight to Bagdogra. From there, we would transfer into three 4x4 vehicles for the remainder of the overland journey to Darjeeling and then eventually to Bhutan via Sikkim. Though located only about 100km from Bagdogra, the drive to Darjeeling would take us upwards of 3 hours depending on road conditions. I love road trips so long rides don't bother me at all.

The flight on Kingfisher Airlines was an uneventful one though I did cause a bit of ruckus at the departure gate when I was not allowed to board the shuttle bus because my boarding pass did not have the appropriate stamp on it. Security is pretty tight at the airport. Sanjeev stayed with me as we accompanied the guard back to the security line where my boarding pass was suppose to have been stamped but was not. Earlier, I had passed through the security check without my boarding pass in hand. After being patted down, I should have retrieved my pass from my backpack and had it stamped but it never dawned on me that I needed a stamp. So, it was partially my fault for not getting it done at the right time. Oh well. Luckily, we didn't hold anyone up as Sanjeev and I made it back to the departure gate well before the last passenger even boarded the shuttle bus.

Flying into Bagdogra, I could see lush green terrain. When we landed and exited the plane, it was hot and humid. For some reason, I thought we were going to be landing in the highlands and so I was expecting cooler temperatures but we were actually at the foothills so it was muggy. Ugh.



Liz and Marc.

Our 4x4's and drivers were already waiting for us in the parking lot. Sanjeev divided us up into groups and I ended riding with the couple from Canada. Liz is Canadian but her fiance Mark is actually Australian born. Both work for GAP! They seemed very nice and down to earth so I was certain I was going to enjoy the ride.
They both hopped into the back seat so I happily took the front passenger seat next to our driver Raju. With our bags stowed in the back, we hit the road!


It didn't take long for me to realize what Sanjeev meant about the road conditions. The roads are paved but are badly potholed (is that a word??) that it's slow driving to manuveur around the holes. The road conditions were this way all the way to Darjeeling. No wonder we needed 4x4 vehicles - we were basically offroading it on this trip.

While I had been hoping for a peaceful, quiet drive through rural India, my hopes were quickly dashed for the roads here are relatively crowded which means that the Indian driving etiquette of tooting your horn to announce your presence is commonplace here as well. If you are following another vehicle and you honk your horn, that means you want them to get out of your way so you can pass them. Of course, honking the horn also warns pedestrians as well as the occasional stray animal that you are coming upon them and that they sbould get out of the way or else they will get hit. There's a LOT of horn honking in India!

Driving in India would terrify me but Raju is used to driving under these conditions so no worries on my part. As he expertly navigated his 4x4 through the traffic, I took out my camera and started to take pictures of the world outside our car.

It wouldn't be India without the cows roaming the streets.

We are in Indian countryside so we pass through one little town after another. Rural India is poor - corrugated tin roof shanties make for houses and road side stalls. As is typical in many a developing country, towns are often littered with buildings that someone started to construct but never finished.

The sacred cow wanders freely in this neck of the world and we would pass by the occasional elephant and its mahout.



There were plenty of fields of green though I did not see any specific type of crop growing or animals grazing.

Along the way, we made two pit stops. One at a roadside shop so we could all buy some bottled water. 14 rupees or about 30 cents for a litre of water. What a bargain!

Our next stop was an unplanned one at a village market. Raju is the lead car so when he stops, everyone else does as well. We spent about 15 minutes wandering through the market which had fresh meat and produce for sale along with spices and herbs and stand or two selling typical household supplies. After snapping photos, I bought a small bag of Indian snacks that looked like a version of murrukuh to munch on. Nothing fancy but tasty enough.

Back on the road it was not long before foothills gave way to hills and we started to ascend up the mountains. The roads were narrow and still badly potholed. Raju slowly navigated up the hills and around each of the switchback turns. As we worked our way up the mountain, I could catch fading glimpses of the valley we left behind. 


Soon, we found ourselves in the fog that drapes the higher elevations of the mountains. We left behind the bright sun and were now travelling through mist and fog. We were headed into the clouds! 

Rain was falling gently.  It was a scenic but bumpy ride. :-)


Up and up we went and along the way, we passed through small hillside villages where the buildings seem to cling precariously to the hillside. On their other side, the buildings were lined up so insanely close to the edge of roadside that I felt like I could easily reach out and touch someone as we whizzed by.


As we passed through the towns, Raju did not hesitate to use that car horn to announce our presence :-)
Along the way, we also passed Raju's hometown - Sonada. He lives there with his wife and two young children. As we drove through Sonada, it was obvious this was his town as he returned many a wave and/or a shout out from a friend.

Then we arrived into Ghum and our first sighting of a railway station. We, of course, in the region made famous in part by the HImalaya Railway and its most famous train, the Darjeeling Toy Train. At 7407 ft in elevation, Ghum is the highest point in the 86 km long railway.

For a short stretch, we drove alongside the Toy Train. Looking forward to my ride on it!


A short 7 km drive from Ghum, we arrived into Darjeeling. According to Raju, about 100,000 people live in Darjeeling and by the looks of the crowds and vehicles cramming into its narrow streets, it felt like the entire town was out and about the day we arrived :-)


To say the streets of Darjeeling are narrow is an understatement beyound comprehension. What qualifies as a street here would barely qualify as an alleyway in a major US city. 4x4 vehicles dominate the roads here and if not for everyone being such patient drivers, I would imagine there would be a lot more dented cars and even worse, more injuries. Of course, there's a lot of horn honking here and Raju most certainly did his share of it!

We slowly chugged up the narrow streets and then Raju turned off on to what seemed like an impossibly steep, narrow and potholed street. He carefully navigated his car up the hill. At the top was our hotel.

It had been a long day's journey and I was looking forward to a shower, dinner and a good night's rest.  We have a long day ahead of us tomorrow!