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Getting Up Close & Personal in the Mountains

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After a few weeks with the bustle and heat of the Indian plains we were ready to head to the cooler climes of the hills. We were already excited as our train approached NJP station as we could see hills in the background. A rickshaw ride followed by an uncomfortable 2.5 hour journey in a share-jeep (more like a bus than a taxi as people jump in and out along the route, or on and off since they also hang off the back…) we arrived in the sleepy town of Mirik. This small town has a lovely lake which we jogged around, we had our first sit-down restaurant dinner and actually had a bottle of Indian red wine! We got up before sunrise to go to a viewpoint to watch the sunrise over the mountains and see the distant snow-topped Himalayas in the morning sun, it was stunning. But we don’t need to say too much about Mirik, it was very different, clean air, clean streets, calm and quiet, hassle-free with lovely people and very refreshing (Polish people – it reminded us of Zakopane). But you don’t want to hear about just good stuff like that and what a great time we’re having watching Himalayan sunrises blah blah blah, you want to know the comedy in-between bits, as it is invariably the journeys that are causing us most strife.

After Mirik we were heading just 50km further along the road to Darjiling. We went to the jeep ticket stand, booked a ticket for the next jeep leaving at 1150, went to get our bags from hotel and strolled the 30secs downhill to what we thought would be a simple 2-hour jolt to our destination. Only the 1150 was already loaded up and then drove off without us, the driver muttering something, so the ticket guy wrote us a new one for the 1230 jeep and we stood around, still enjoying the lake views, waiting for that. We set off on time and it was roomier than the one we had taken up to Mirik and all was well for the first 400metres of our journey. Then passing cars were beeping at our driver and telling him something, we guessed there may be an accident ahead or police checks. It was the latter, but he had continued merrily so we assumed he would show his documents and we would continue on our way. He was speaking to the police a while, there was a bit of shouting, he was trudged up to the police station, turns out he had an expired licence and no log-book. We had to wait around a while and standing outside the jeep noticed the tyres were completely bald, this as well as the speedo not working, dodgy-sounding gear-box and driver with no licence was a great start, this in an ‘official’ share-jeep journey! Turns out the people and environment are different up here but not the transportation.

Half an hour and a 2000 Rps (£20) fine for the driver later, we were on our way again (so the police still let him drive with no licence, as long as he pays up). Journey continued fine, the usual stops to let people on/off and put goods on the roof to be taken somewhere along the route. We had the front two seats by the driver so were a little less squished than people behind but still a little uncomfortable. Then about half-way to Darjiling, at the Nepalese border, when the jeep was already full to bursting (about 17 people in an 11 seater), the driver stuck two bags onto our feet, ‘can live with that’ we thought, a minute later he indicated two other ladies are to get in and one can go next to us, hmm. So Rachel has to move half onto driver’s side with legs either side of the gear-stick so that the gear-stick whacked thighs on each gear change and ribs were squished so hard air came out when the wheel was turned, each of these being frequent as we’re driving in the mountains remember.

Anyone who fancies visiting Darjiling but enjoys personal-space, comfort and un-bruised ribs, it is possible to charter a jeep for these journeys for about 1800Rps (we paid 80 each), but we are traveling to experience how people live so had to do it the local way!

So we enjoyed the amazing scenery and tried to ignore our discomfort, which after a few Kms included both pins & needles and cramp… When we were less than 10 km from Darjiling we encountered a traffic jam, long row of jeeps, busses and other vehicles at a standstill. Turns out there are strikes and road-blocks happening. We had read that this happens frequently up here as there is a political fight to gain independence for a new state of Gorkhaland. The area is currently part of West Bengal and, whilst it’s not for us to involve ourselves in Indian politics, it’s not difficult to see why they feel they should have their own state. People here are generally of Nepali and Tibetan descent and so are very different to their other Indian brothers both genetically and culturally and do not really fit with the rest of West Bengal. Anyway, we’d read that the strikes were frequent but didn’t expect to encounter one before we even arrived! Another 20min or so wait before we were moving again and it was then very stop-start for the rest of the way, fortunately the lady sharing the front seat got out at that point. About 1.5 Kms from Darjiling, after having covered less than 50 Kms in around 3.5hours and not currently moving with no sign of let-up ahead, we took our bags from the roof and walked along the (famous) toy-train tracks. In the end the traffic started moving and our jeep overtook us about 1 minute from the end-point but never mind, we at least were not still sat in it! If ever there was a journey where the views were inversely proportional to the comfort, this was it.

Posted by TessAndRach 05:33 Archived in India Tagged darjeeling mirik share-jeeps

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