The Land of the Thunderbolt
“Careful of the tracks!”
Ankit twisted on his blacked out Indian mountain bike and called to me. With his attention momentarily diverted, the mountain bike's front wheel caught the silver runners at a too acute angle and skated left beneath him. He caught himself with an extended leg and stayed upright.
I hit the rails of the ‘Darjeeling Himalayan Railway’ (‘DHL’) at right angles and passed safely. I was wise after a similar mistake had sent me sprawling into the road in Germany's Freiburg two years previously, on a ride from London to Venice.
We are in the outskirts of Siliguri, West Bengal. A few kilometers overhead but lost in India's winter fog is exotic, slightly mystical, Darjeeling. This name is a confluence of two Tibetan words, ‘Dorje’ meaning ‘thunderbolt' and ‘ling’ meaning ‘land’ - ‘The land of the thunderbolt.’
This is my destination, although my knowledge regarding Darjeeling is sparse. I know its the last word on tea, although I am not really a tea person. Indeed, when Ankit pointed out the squat leafy tea bushes grown in huge swathes of fields around us I realised I had been cycling through plantations for several days already without realising it.
I also know its name features in a Wes Anderson title. When I mentioned this film to Ankit he literally cried out in frustration and covered his face with his hands. “That film has nothing to do with Darjeeling! It is not even filmed in West Bengal!” After a quick Google investigation we found he was right. It was shot in Rajasthan, a state on the opposite side of India which is incomparable in every sense to West Bengal. Wes Anderson and myself then are equals in that we know nothing of the place. Instead we are drawn for reasons hard to define, the somethin-somethin mystique that surrounds the name.
Given my limited knowledge of the place, my reasons for going there perhaps lack focus. To reach Darjeeling I had to cycle north instead of south, away from Myanmar. The effort it would require to reach by bicycle is formidable. Darjeeling lies well over two thousand meters above sea level and my Dad suggests its road map looked like overcooked spaghetti.
But I wanted a change of scene. The previous month had been spent on the agricultural plains of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Enjoyable and easy cycling, but with limited access to wild camping and nature. The jungles surrounding Darjeeling contrastingly accommodate wild elephants and red panda's. The nearby Jaldapara national park is home to one horned rhinoceros, Leopards and Bengal Tigers.
I was also yet to visit a colonial hill station. On arriving In India I quickly realised I knew next to nothing of Britain's near two hundred year involvement and one hundred year ruling of this subcontinent. The English education system is a master of self flattery and more interested in teaching those events in which Britain generally comes off well. I have been taught the details of World War Two almost every year since early teen-dom. Contrastingly, those events of equal historical importance in shaping today's Britain about which we should be less proud, such as the shameless exploitation of India and associated atrocities, are sheepishly shrugged off the syllabus. Accordingly, over the previous months I have mounted an educational rear guard action in colonial history and thought seeing a hill station would be a worthy detour.
I left Ankit, my friend and host in Siliguri, at the entrance to his computer science university and pushed on solo into thick lush jungle. A yellow sign emerged from deep green foliage to my left, “elephant crossing point, protect your precious life”. By historical standards and the numerous times I have seen elephants in India trussed up and painted for the fancy of tourists, I thought that following an encounter, the elephant is far more likely to lose its precious life than the human.
|Ankit and I in Siliguri|
Twice that day I was overtaken by a labouring train, the second time only grudgingly after a commendable race of several kilometers. It is the tourist off-season here in the mountains but Darjeeling benefits also from domestic tourism. Indians peered quizzically at me as I was finally caught and bypassed. It was a role reversal of the trains opening years from 1882. The native lounges in the comfort of the carriage, the Britisher labours up the ancient cart track alongside.
These historical roles were such because it was the British who were migrating to the Darjeeling sanatorium in the summer, away from the baking gangetic plains. The surrounding tract of land, thirty miles long and six miles wide, had been gifted to the East India Trading Co. by the Raja of Sikkim in 1835. In exchange he was given a rifle, a double barrelled gun, two shawls and twenty yards of broad red cloth. In 1878 a steam tramway was proposed to reduce the import costs of commodities such as rice and decrease the costs of exporting British controlled commodities like tea.
The stations dotted along the line could not have looked more out of place among rich jungles and rural hill villages. In the town of Sukna, one of the first stops out of Siliguri, the brick fronted, chimney wielding, sloped roofed station might have come straight out of rural England. Directly opposite was a forty foot high statue of the Hindu human-monkey deity, Lord Hanuman.The day lengthened as I pushed in and out of the saddle to alternate the muscles in my tangibly fatiguing legs. I had climbed more than one thousand five hundred meters over fifty-five kilometers. It was the tail end of winter and by 4.30pm the temperature at this elevated altitude was rapidly decreasing with the fading daylight. It had become my custom in India to stop for a tea at this time. On the plains this would be an wince inducing shot of boiling, sugary milk, with the barest hint of tea. In the worlds tea capital I had higher expectations.
|Sukna train station|
|Lord Hanuman opposite the Sukna station|
The old hill cart road, which pre-DHR would have guided a stream of bullock carts and porters between Sikkim and the Gangetic plains, was now speckled along its length with indications of the area's booming tourism industry. I pulled up alongside a tea shop the size and shape of a single-car garage. A single round wooden table with four matching chairs stood in the fore and on the right was a pine counter. Stacked well above head height on every wall was a fantastically colorful array of teas. Black teas, green teas, spiced teas, ‘Masala' tea, ginger, berry teas, all proudly bearing the ‘Darjeeling’ hallmark.
From behind a curtain at the back emerged a short, stocky man, wrapped up against the cold in a north face fleece and a woollen beanie pulled low over his black eyebrows. I was still bare armed. Even in the Himalayan foothills people seemed to be less accustomed to the cruelties of the cold seasons than we who struggle year by year through the winters of Britain.
Batsa had a kind, round face, and smiled as he indicated to one of the chairs. I sat and he asked me what I'd like. I am no tea expert and said whatever he would recommend. He bustled into the back for a few minutes and returned with a cup of ‘Autumn flush tea' from ‘Mim Garden', a plantation I had apparently passed earlier that day. Usually he would sell it by the pot for ninety rupees, or £1. He said he would make me a cup for forty five but later would only take thirty.
He spoke perfect English, although his native language was Nepalese. A quick glance at an atlas might give a preliminary indication as to the conflicted past of Darjeeling. Bordered on the north by Tibet, on the west by Nepal, on the east by Bhutan and to the south by India, the region has been the subject of a continuous tug of war for centuries.
The most notable historical conflict was between the Gorkha's of Nepal and the then independent kingdom of Sikkim in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. During the latter years of this period vast swathes of present day Sikkim including Darjeeling was controlled by Nepal precipitating a large scale Nepalese migration into Darjeeling and the surrounding areas. It was only with the conclusion of the Anglo-Nepal wars in 1815 that Nepalese rule ended and Darjeeling in its entirety was returned to the independent rule of the Raja of Sikkim.
During a different conversation a few days later I learnt that these historical conflicts and migrations have left extensive ethnic, cultural and language differences between the Indian ‘Gorkha’ population, who speak Nepalese, and the Bengali speaking southern regions of west Bengal.
I had decided to prolong my stay in the mountains to ride east through the towns of Kalimpong and Lava. Truth be told, I just wanted to visit a place called ‘Lava' and was prepared to tackle a second two thousand meter climb to do it. Unfortunately Lava had distinctly less molten rock than I was hoping and no volcanic eruptions seemed likely. I later discovered on Google that this was on account of the nearest active volcano being Japan's Mount Sakurajima, exactly 4118.34 kilometers away. I paid an uncomfortable price for my ignorance and the following night I would wake up repeatedly with cramp in both legs.
It was on the southward descent out of the mountains the following morning that I stopped at a roadside restaurant for a Nepalese breakfast of noodle soup, or ‘Thukpa’ and met Arpit.
Arpit was the restaurant owner, a young entrepreneur hoping that the recently built highway on which I was descending would extend the Darjeeling tourist bubble to the neighbouring valleys. Like Batsa, Arpit identified as Indian Gorkha and spoke Nepalese.
|The descent out of the hills|
Arpit told me about the movement for an independent Gorkhaland, referring to Darjeeling and its surrounding regions, which began in 1907. Since the inception of the movement various political and social groups have taken up the baton. Unfortunately the struggle has occasionally turned violent. In 1986 and 1987 general strikes shut down Darjeeling for 200 days. On 27th July 1986 protestors clashed with the Police in nearby Kalimpong and thirteen people were shot dead.
In 2017 demonstrations turned violent again following the announcement that schools should give compulsory Bengali language lessons in Nepalese speaking hill regions. Initial protests were successful in making the classes optional but the issue re-ignited the independent gorkhaland movement. Following the unlawful shooting of three protestors by police, a 104 day complete shutdown ensued. The movement is ongoing and is, for the moment, peaceful.
The high point of the Siliguri-Darjeeling line is found six kilometers before its termination in ‘Ghum’, where the station has been converted into a DHR museum. I arrived in time for its official opening at 10am but early for its unofficial opening time, 11amIST (‘Indian stretchable time’). The inconvenience caused by India's not-quite-parallel time dimension was compensated by the excellently organised and maintained museum.
|Ghum railway station|
|The Ghum DHR museum|
My imagination had fashioned Darjeeling as a town of the clouds, an exuberant colourful hybrid place where the boundary between wilderness and civilization are blurred. Where traditional techniques are used to gather naturally grown tea which is sold in leaf wrappings to locals and the more intrepid explorers alike. I knew it was an unrealistic fantasy, but I was disappointed by quite how far the reality fell from it.
Darjeeling held none of the lightness and charm of the colorful villages which preceded it on this unique railway line. As I shimmied down the final descent from Ghum to Darjeeling the weather closed in. A thick grey fog mingled with the heavier vehicle pollution of this final destination and the air seemed to turn a dark translucent grey. The narrow streets were grubby and congested with tuktuks and tourist jeeps, which at one end of town dominated an four hundred meter stretch of road for parking. Scrappy and disrepaired buildings stacked and stacked on top of each other, scrabbling it seemed with broken and blackened fingernails up the mountain side. The place had no room to breathe.
After two thousand meters of climbing I had arrived, but immediately wanted to leave. I couldn't, though, without procuring some signifier of my efforts to reach this lofty summit. I pushed my way into the pedestrian marketplace. It was reminiscent of the bazaars of central Asia. Open sacks of grain, rice and wheat sat open in front of narrow, shallow stalls, packed largely with sweets, biscuits and tobacco. The lane itself was rarely more than a meter wide, and taking a loaded touring bike through was akin to navigating the HMS Belfast through Camden lock.
I found a tea stall and a young man showed me how to sample tea before buying, by taking a fistful and blowing four to five hot breathes through it. The resulting aroma gives a faithful profile of the tea. I picked two black teas and a green for less than £1 each and was on my way.
Darjeeling's redeeming quality was it's train station, or more specifically, the adjacent ‘loco shed’. Here the beautiful B-Class locomotives are stored, thirty-four of which gave served on the DHR throughout its history.So the oft outed paradigm of the journey being better than the destination rang true for my tour of West Bengal’s hills and Darjeeling. Racing the toy train through lush jungle and past ‘elephant crossing’ signs will linger brightly in my memories of my journey. These few days have made me all too aware of the privilege it is to travel that road. It is a privilege that has too often been taken for granted by foreigners, in a manner which has resulted in hundreds of years of discomfort and conflict which continues to this day.
|B - Class locomotive|
|B - Class locomotive|
|B - Class locomotive|
|B - Class locomotive|
Therefore, I am deeply thankful to the locals for giving me the opportunity to see this beautiful part of the world and for their kindness and hospitality.