India 2016 | Rickshaw Run, Day 11: Hello Darjeeling, I Love You. Won’t You Tell Me Your Name? — 14 April

I’ve found a favourite city. Her name is Darjeeling, located in West Bengal. Famous for her tea, Darjeeling along with Simla are two of the most famous hill stations in India, appropriately named for being cities on the side of mountains, famous getaways for the British elite during the time of their rule.

“Hello, I love you. Won’t you tell me your name?” — Jim Morrison

It’s 6:00 AM the next day after my birthday as I wake up with windows on both sides of our corner room from the Hotel Dekeling overlooking the beautiful hill station. Darjeeling was the gift from three days of brutal travel through the state of Bihar, after leaving the Taj Mahal in Agra on my brother’s birthday last Saturday afternoon. We are now in day ten of the Rickshaw Run, equal parts adventurous, equal parts rewarding, equal parts terrifying.

We will be leaving later this morning. I wish I could press rewind to yesterday this time. I close my eyes and I have…

After another dank and depressing (albeit funny) night, Derek, DaveRisner, Paul, Lisa, Anthony and I was driven from the hotel in Jalpaguri yesterday morning about 55 km westward back to Siliguri. From there, we took the 12 north (Aliparduar Road) to Darjeeling, a beautiful 60 km drive up the mountains. The way up took us a scenic two and a half hours, our driver not really paying attention to the landscape before us, half the time dangerously on his phone. That being said, he seemed to know what he was doing, far better than we would or could have done. Aware and cautious of the steep incline up the mountain, the six of us agreed the previous night that we would hire a driver to take us to Darjeeling, as opposed to attempting the climb ourselves. We correctly surmised the drive would be too treacherous, if even our rickshaw could even make the climb. (Sadly, we would later find out that another team had to end their race, choosing to crash onto the side of the mountain, as opposed to falling over the cliff, when the brakes of their rickshaw tragically stopped working. Many stories circulated, but one thing was certain – the girls would spend the rest of their time in India in the hospital, but fortunately were alive though with injuries.)

At the base of the foothills, early on our drive, the Jorpokhri Wildlife Sanctuary stood in the distance to our left while the Sepoy Dhura Tea Garden rolled up the hills on the right, after which the Sukhna Forest took over. The drive was already beautiful and we hadn’t even gotten to the best parts. Aliparduar Road soon turned into Rohini Road where we split the Rohini Tea Garden and the Selim Hill Tea Garden estates. Rohini Road was a massive series of switchbacks bringing smiles on our faces (as opposed to driving the switchbacks in Jodhpur ourselves just a few days prior at the beginning of our race — it was better to have someone else drive). Over 47 km past Siliguri, sitting over 4700 feet in elevation, the windy roads changed from Rohini Road to Hill Cart Road as we arrived at our first beautiful hill station of Kurseong, where we passed the first railway station of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, the historic “toy” trains built and in operation since the 1880s, which provided the nucleus of the town, which was also surrounded by various tea plantations including Castleton, Makaibarie, Ambotia and Goomtee.

Famous for religious sites (including Catholic churches, Hindu temples, mosques, Buddhist temples and monasteries), museums and natural beauty (Deer Park, Eagle’s Craig, the waterfalls at the Kholas), a part of me wished we had the time to stay in Kurseong for a bit. But instead we drove onwards. Passing more churches, bed & breakfasts, schools, banks, and markets, the colorful town gave us a glimpse into what our destination would be like. The air was wonderfully crisp, and smelled so very clean. While people did stare at us while we drove by, it wasn’t the same intrusive and intense stares we had grown warily accustomed to on our drive through the scorching heat of Bihar. The mountain towns in West Bengal were markedly different from the flatlands of Bihar, in every which way.

Still on Hill Cart Road, though it wasn’t as dangerous as Rohini because there were no switchbacks, it was still very windy. We stopped on the side of the road for a spot of chai. The shop we ordered our chai and biscuits was owned by an endearing and affable woman named Seema. She had an infectious laugh, though more giggle than laugh. Several dangerously steep steps down, I spotted a woman outside her house during the routine of her morning prayers. Everything about this moment was wonderful. I was with good friends. The air was the cleanest I’d breathed since arriving in India. The water was cold and refreshing, safe and clean. The sunlight highlighted the colours prevalent around us – spots of yellow and purple and orange and red dotting the welcome onslaught of green. All birthdays should start out like this, I thought to myself.

The next town (another 24 km from Kurseong and 6 km before Darjeeling) was Ghoom (famous for its War Memorial and monasteries), at which point Hill Cart Road split into two. Our driver took to the left (in this case the road more traveled) to Jalpahar Road. The Ghoom railway station sat at the highest point of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway at 7407 feet. (Another 5 km away, located another 1100 feet above, Tiger Hill stood, its vantage point where visitors could view on a clear day all of Darjeeling, as well as Kachanjunga (K-2), the third highest peak in the world and on some days even, Mount Everest, the most famous and tallest mountain in the world. Though we had grand plans to wake up before sunrise today to see K-2, that never happened. We would find out later, since Tiger Hill lives in the clouds that many come back disappointed not having seen K-2 or Everest.)

With only six km to go, Jalpahar Road turned into Jayal Road, driving downhill about 1000 feet in elevation to the heart of Darjeeling. And in some ways, that’s where my adventure yesterday began.

We were dropped off into the middle of the town, and it wasn’t long before we made our way up Gandhi Road upon the recommendations of a local to the rooftop restaurant at Keventers for a real English breakfast. Sitting at a table under an umbrella with the town laid out before us, Keventers served us loads of eggs, bacon and sausages. We ate like kings and queens, Paul eating the equivalent of several regimes. Just a block away, we decided to call Dekeling’s our home for the next day and a half.

Everything that happened next and for the remainder of the day and night was perfect.

Certain days and nights, you wish you could press rewind. Yesterday was one of those days, a magical birthday in Darjeeling.

And now we leave.

Sad face indeed.

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