I arrived in Kolkata to be greeted by the sub-continent’s worst taxi driver, who couldn’t find the hotel I specifically picked because it was right next to the airport. Up and down the ‘VIP’ road we went, asking other taxi drivers, Tuk-Tuk boys and bystanders where this place was. They all seemed to know exactly where, confidently pointing in different directions as Diwali exploded around us. Eventually we arrived at a cesspit down a dirt track with a man wielding a semi-automatic stood close by. To be fair, the review (the only review) on booking.com did say ‘disappointing’, so I guess I deserved it. The staff seemed surprised to see me, despite having booked online more than 24 hours prior, and they spent many minutes rotating a paper jotter on a desk to see if this would clarify the situation. Relaxing into Indian hospitality, I tried to ignore the taxi driver, who was repeatedly droning ‘RUPPEE, RUPPEE’ at me. Eventually I was taken to my putrid room, where I spent five hours fumbling around trying to build my bike like one of those experiments where monkeys have to work out what shaped holes to put the blocks in. Eventually, bike built but by no means road-safe, I fell into a fretful sleep, flinching every time a Diwali firework exploded, which was about every 30 seconds or so.
I was woken 4 hours later by a massive explosion, which turned out to be the last Diwali firework, and left without saying good-bye. I had no map and no real idea of where I was going. I’d bought a compass knowing full well that I didn’t how to use one, so instead relied on the locals’ ambiguous yet spirited directions and was soon wobbling my way along a deserted highway somewhere on the outskirts of Kolkata in 98 degree heat. Somehow I arrived at the correct train station, despite the efforts of many small children and goats and cars and buses who darted directly into my path as if that was fine. Buying a ticket was a typically Indian experience of being sent from one desk to another, to another to fill out the same information onto a series of forms that resulted, not in a ticket, but in a further 4 hour wait to see if I definitely didn’t have a ticket.
Sitting down to write my diary, I was immediately surrounded by boys and men who read each word as it was written, some nodding along approvingly as if to say ‘yes, my thoughts exactly.’ Soon they dispersed, leaving one young man with a brilliant white smile and wandering hands.
‘You have very nice handwriting,’ he said, his hand creeping a little too close to my leg. ‘Are you married?’ he continued, his pinkie brushing my knee. ‘No,’ I replied, wondering if this was just how Indian guys did things. Then he started playing with the hair on my knee. ‘Hair,’ he said. ‘Hair,’ I said, brushing his hand away without trying to be rude. ‘Yes, hair. Your hair is very nice,’ he said, his hand returning to my knee.
After a few brush-offs, I figured this was probably more a gay thing than an Indian thing but decided to just roll with it – I didn’t want to get into a fight on my first day. Then he said he was going to the wash-room but didn’t go, looking at me with very gay (not Indian) eyes. ‘I’LL SEE YOU LATER. THANKS VERY MUCH!’ I said, staying where I was until he got the message. Before he left, there was a split-second when he moved his head a little too close to mine and I thought he might go in for a kiss, but thankfully for everyone, he desisted and sashayed off to the bathroom.
Miraculously, both me and my bike eventually got on that train and were soon on our way to Siliguri on the Darjeeling Mail sleeper. After an hour or so of drooling, open-mouthed sleep, I awoke, rearranged my panniers and put my helmet on. There was no way I was missing my stop. So, jostling past sleeping families, hitting them in the head with my swinging panniers, I planted myself at the door and waited for the stop. ‘Where you go?’ came a voice from within a bundle of sheets that I hadn’t realised contained a human. ‘Siliguri’, I said. ‘Aaaaah, yes. 1 and a half hours more. Train late.’ Of course it was late. So naive to think it wouldn’t be late. So back I went, hitting the heads of the same sleeping people with my panniers to my seat, which had now been stolen by a smiling grandmother holding a small child. Instead of back-handing her (I would never do that), I consoled myself with a steaming hot milky Chai in a thimble-sized cup and watched India wake up through the window.
The train pulls in and I’m out the door like a rocket, my cycling shoes slip-sliding all over the platform as I scream ‘Bike, my bike!’ to anyone remotely official-looking. Mostly they had no idea what I was saying but one guy had the good grace to point me to the other end of the train, so off I shot to that end, screaming ‘BIKE BIKE!’ and waving my pink receipt around. When I got to that end, a man with a beret shook his head and pointed me to the end I’d just come from. This went on for precisely long enough to lose all of my pride, until at last I caught sight of my sturdy steed being carefully plucked from the bowels of a cargo carriage. Sliding to a stop, sodden and shaking, I limply held out the pink bike receipt and said ‘Bike. Is my bike.’ Success. I had bike. I was bike. Bike was me. Bike is us. Bike.
Soon I’m gliding through a tropical, dusty landscape with cows kneeling by the roadside and palm trees shivering in the hot breeze. Siliguri is a dustbowl but I find a nice hotel and get the most expensive room (five quid) before popping out for my first taste of Indian food (/parasitic infection). The mutton Rogan Josh was flavoursome but oily and tough, the Kashmir Naan was from Kashmir (the waiter told me that when I asked what the Kashmir Naan was) and the rice was fancy. On the way back, I stopped on a bridge to watch what I can only describe as an orgy of filth in the river below. Kids mingled with pigs snuffling through heaps of garbage, as a crowd of locals watched a JCB digger heaping a make-shift bank of mud in the middle of the river. Young boys stood on the the freshly heaped bank, their arms aloft, talking shite to anyone who would listen. Night-time brought an eardrum-splitting mix of train and truck horns mixed with a post-Diwali Diwali celebration from the disco literally next door.
The book promised that today would require a ‘marathon effort’. ‘You will drink ten litres of water,’ the author said. This, coming from a woman who spent 5 years cycling through all of the Himalayas, in every condition and elevation. Shit. And, to add to my anxiety, the blog of the book had had to reiterate just how steep the roads were, as some disgruntled westerners had evidently not done enough spin classes before coming to West Bengal/Sikkim. All of which added up to me being wide awake at 0430 wearing my cycling clothes, shoes and helmet, waiting for the sun to come up. At 0545, the day switched on like a light and I was soon charging out of town, the wind in my knee hair. In the wrong direction. Luckily, I realised my mistake before I got to the airport and was soon pointing in the correct direction – towards those big fucking hills over there.
Soon, Siliguri was a distant smear on my memory, as I flew low through towering, cooling forests and on through a military base riddled with monkeys and cheery -looking soldiers who would say ‘Goooood Maaaaawrning!’ as I sped past. At a tiny village called ‘Dudia’, the road ramped up to a laughable gradient (I did actually laugh), and decided to become severely pot-holed too. In my training in Scotland, I’d avoided using the ‘granny ring’ (easiest gear) but wasted no time in clicking down there. There’s no room for pride in the Himalayas. I was really feeling the 30kg of stuff I’d brought with me and discovered with newfound clarity how unnecessary most of it was. This, plus the four litres of water (‘You will drink ten litres of water….’) I was carrying slowed me down to a creaking, weaving wreckage of a man, emasculated further by the stream of rickety jeeps tearing past me, honking madly in triumph or sympathy – it’s hard to decipher the tone of voice of a horn. Easier to decipher were the expressions of pure incredulity on the faces pressed to the insides of the back windows. ‘Why?’ they seemed to ask. I had no answers at the time.
After three hours, I collapsed against a snack shack and fell into conversation with a local boy with impeccable English. Looking at my map, he told me I had 12 or 13 hours to go. ‘What?!’ I spat – I had expected to be there in 3. He did a funny Indian head nod-shake that makes you wonder whether they’re agreeing or disagreeing with you, and revised it to 8 or 9 hours. Unwilling to accept the idea that I would have to do this for another 8 or 9 hours, I simply shook my head and said no, it’s no possible – I left at 6. ‘Wow. Ok. 6? Really? Then you will be there in 2 hours.’ It seems my adrenalin had propelled me up the mountain at an unusual velocity. Allowing myself a momentary swelling of pride, I creaked off up the vertical slope and in the blink of a yak’s eye, was where I was supposed to be, but about 5 hours too early. Mirik was my oyster.
Mirik, 1500 metres higher than Siliguri, was a strange place around an uninspiring lake but did offer steaming hot showers, a magnificent Thali, including a transcendent black dahl, and of course, the requisite sound stage right outside my hotel showcasing the best (worst) of the local singing talent all throughout the night. Other highlights included a rampaging horse stampeding past a flustered family, it’s cock swinging all over the place, and a strange fruit like an avocado with short, green octopus tentacles growing from it’s skin that grew on the outskirts of town.
After another broken sleep, I was wide awake before dawn, clutching my stomach. It felt like someone had put a balloon into my gut and was playfully blowing it up and letting it down. My mega-thali must have been poisoned. Or perhaps it was the eight extra momos (steamed tibetan dumplings), the extra portion of naan, the two pots of Darjeeling tea, and the additional cup of milky, sugary, cardomom-y ‘Masala’ tea. In retrospect, it was probably sheer greed that gave me the cramps and resultingly bad toilet time but at the time, I was convinced it was the Indian food. As I rode off, I swore never to touch it again.
So out I went, gut wriggling and writhing and underslept, straight into a vertical wall of tarmac. Down into the bottom gear I went, down where I belong. The morning was serene – deep blue skies, cheery smiles and the faintest whisper of a breeze. Almost everyone I passed greeted me with a breezy ‘Goooooowd Maaaaaaaawrning!’, which brought an involuntary smile (they’re all involuntary) to my face every time I heard it. If I stopped in a village, I was immediately swamped by smiling, curious men wanting to know where I was from (nowhere knows where Scotland is but they gloss over it). One time I stopped in the middle of a dark, empty forest to change my t-shirt and from nowhere, ten guys on motorbikes had surrounded me, demanding more photos.
Soon I had reached the halfway point – a clustering of chai and momos stalls perched on a rocky outlook that looks directly into Nepal. Their mountains looked bigger. I bought some overly sweet Masala chai and vegetable (cabbage) momos and was then tricked into buying Malaysian almond toffees by a kid who assured me they were Nepalese. The little shit overcharged me by about double too but I’m over it. When I checked my phone, I had a text from my mobile provider informing me that I could top up as usual when in Nepal. It’s true to say that the lines between countries are very blurred around here.
Pushing on like the toffee incident never happened, I was soon in Darjeeling, at Hotel ‘Tranquility’ (it was opposite a building site patrolled). They very graciously let me keep my bike in my room and didn’t even make faces about my smell, though they were tellingly forthright with the instructions for the shower. After a bruisingly hot shower, I shuffled off around the steep, narrow streets to the apparently good but actually rubbish bakery for the worst apple pie I have ever had (it was salty). But there was the view. Ooooooh, the view. My first true panorama of the Himalayas, strung out along the horizon, crowned by a flowing, churning, cascading cloudscape. Storms here must be utterly terrifying. I remember thinking that there was something much greater than us going ont here. No wonder it’s so easy to buy into all the God talk – I’d pray to anything for deliverance from these monsters.