Monday, January 08, 2007

India Travels #2: Darjeeling, India: Land of Yaks, Tea, and Rickshaws

Monday evening, January 8th
Darjeeling, North India, between Nepal and Bhutan in the foothills of the Himalayas

Yesterday we took a short flight from Delhi to West Bengal and then hired a taxi for the three-hour drive into the mountains where the old English Hill Station of Darjeeling is nestled along a thin ridge overlooking the Himalayas.

Nothing could have prepared us for the drive....starting in the flats we made our way past tea plantations where some of the world's most esteemed and labor-intensive teas originate past small villages, rickshaws, buses, bicyclists, cows, chickens, and goats. Although I had been prepared for crazy driving in India, it was difficult not to wince at every large army truck or commercial vehicle which came roaring towards us on our side of the road before a last minute swerve out of the way. Within an hour, our driver nearly hit a cow and then a military guy riding a bicycle.

We ascended several thousand feet through a thick forest of banyan trees, giant stalks of bamboo, ferns, flowering lantana, and strange looking cedar-like trees. Just a couple of feet from where Mom sat, the one-lane road dropped precipitously out of side on mountains steep enough to safely base jump off of. We took the hairpin turns at high speeds with our driver honking on each turn in case we came head on with another truck, which happened a lot.

As the sun set, we could see miles across the valley to the other mountains and even caught a glimpse of the snow-covered Himalayas along the Nepal/Indian border.

Our hotel is quite cheap and incredibly clean and spacious. Only $10/night with hot showers but no central heating. We're quite lucky with the weather as it's the coldest month of the year but the skies have mostly been quite clear. Darjeeling is perched along a narrow ridge and the rooftop of our hotel boasts an awesome 360 degree view with early morning peaks at Everest, Llotse, and Kanchengjungma, three of the tallest mountains in the world. It's incredible to believe that only a few years ago we were just a few miles from here on the other side of Everest in the base camp. The people here are Buddhist and look more Tibetan/Nepali than Indian. Their skin is lighter than Indians and they have the almond-shaped eyes and high, wide cheekbones typical of other Himalayan cultures we've come across. They also speak Nepali here instead of Hindi.

There are only a handful of other Westerners here, most of the tourists to Darjeeling this time of the year are Indian tourists from Calcutta hoping to see snow and experience a little bit of mountain culture during the holidays. Indian families strolled across the plaza last night eating freshly popped popcorn, bundled up in their wool hats and scarves.

This afternoon we serendipitously ran into a couple of guys who have taken place in a race across Delhi. It seems that some eccentric English guy thought it might be fun to propose zany races around the world like say, driving a rickshaw (basically a three-wheeled metal box that runs on a pretty small vw-like engine meant for the cities) from Kerala, in the south of India, 3000 kilometers to Darjeeling.

It seems we've stumbled onto the finish-line of this international race. Apparently 35 teams entered it only ten days ago and the winning team--"The Rajasthani Raiders," whom we had lunch with, were two young guys (cousins) from the Midwest! (WHOOO!) They had friendly competition with the Brits but were finally a little peeved at being called "wankers" one time too many by Captain Chaos' team ( and decided to just go balls out and win the whole damn thing.

Doing the impossible, they started the race late, bought a rickshaw and completed the 3000 miles in record time: eight days! The second team to come in, the one headed by Captain Chaos, a travel agent from London, thought they'd won it until they came across the Yanks in the pub.

Tonight, several of the teams are meeting up at one of the only bars in town here and have invited Mom and I to come celebrate with them. We enjoyed hearing stories of their rickshaw breakdowns and a treacherous stretch of road called "Craters of the Moon" where whole rickshaws were swallowed up by trenches in the poorly maintained mountain roads just south of Darjeeling.

After lunch, Mom looked over at me and asked with her mischievous Mama Chihuahua smile, "You wanna do one of these races with me?"

Heck yes!

In the meantime, we've made arrangements to go on a 6-day trek along the Nepali border through the mountains and villages near here. We'll have porters and two guides who'll be cooking for us. They told us they'll be bringing along some "inner blanket" as well.

"Inner blanket?" mom asked our guide.

He made a motion of drinking alcohol. "You know to keep warm inside," he laughed.

We're packing tonight, partying with the teams of mad-rickshaw racers at the local bar, and then heading for the Nepali border tomorrow to start our trek.

More to come....after our trek we plan on heading to Rajasthan, home of the Rajaput warriors and Maharajas....

much love,
a little cold, stuffed on Masala Chai, and happy-
Rachel and Mama Chihuahua