The bus billed itself as a ‘Royal Sleeper’ but it was neither. Certainly not regal except perhaps in someone’s crazily exaggerated perspective, nor conducive to rest.
It arrived at 6:00 pm but it was still an hour late in leaving, finally getting going around 8:30 pm. And after I had been subjected to the obligatory foreigner surcharge of twenty rupees (only a few cents, but it’s the principle… ;-) , by those whose responsibility it was to load to bus, in order to get my bike on top of the bus. Maybe it’s a good thing that I hadn’t complained about the extra payment; my bike was at the back of the load and on top rather than underneath a variety of other boxes, crates and suitcases. And the arc formed by part of the front wheel was visible through the tarpaulin covering everything so I could tell from the ground that it was still where it should be (and had not, for instance, been unloaded off the other side of the bus as quickly as it had been loaded in front of me).
I must admit to feeling a bit frazzled by the time the bus set off. There was lots to recognise in India from twenty years ago. But it is still a bit of a shock, hanging around a filthy bus station, hot and tired, nowhere to sit down, grabbing just enough to satisfy my hunger from a roadside stall. I certainly didn’t want to eat much; the bathroom situation is another thing for me to grow accustomed to. I’ll settle down in a while; I’ll have to get used to this. Although, hopefully, most of my time will be in the calm of the countryside, not in the frenzied atmosphere of one of India’s busiest and most notorious cities.
The sleeper part of the bus’s description was a row of bunks running along each side of the bus, above the seats. They were slightly narrower than the two already narrow seats they were above so I’m glad I’d taken the ticket seller’s suggestion of a double berth. This voyage into the unknown was exciting enough without sharing my double bed with a stranger. And I had room for my baggage: a large pack containing both panniers, a day-pack with most of my clothes and a bag for my cameras and laptop.
Before the journey started, the driver and his crew of helpers spent too long performing puja – praying to one of the many gods for a safe and successful trip. I didn’t need to be reminded of the daily carnage on India’s roads and how my particular team were putting themselves in the hands of their gods. Nor is it reassuring, in a country where most are fatalists and believe that the moment of their death is determined at the moment of their birth, that in the event of some potential catastrophe evasive action is either unnecessary or ineffective.
I suppose the journey itself was not so bad. It was hot but I had a window by me so I could get a breeze. I couldn’t see the road ahead but it felt like we were continually lurching sideways to overtake or back into our own lane when something large was bearing down on us from ahead, all accompanied by load blasts on the horn. (A conservative estimate of horn use would be about thirty percent of the time.) Through my window I could see the heavily-laden trucks we were struggling to pass. See them? I could have reached out and touched them. I also had the opportunity to look into the cabs of the trucks we were passing: slack steering that had to be continually adjusted to maintain a fairly straight course, bleary-eyed drivers with the same penchant for applying the horn, bits and pieces held together with string and tape. Nothing too reassuring. The overnight traffic consists mainly of old (state of the Ark) trucks and well-dented buses.
We had our first break, for dinner, at a scruffy roadside cafe after a couple of hours. I passed on eating. Another stop around midnight at another – similar – cafe. One at around four in the morning, in the middle of nowhere, where we men stood in a line down the side of the road urinating. I don’t know what the few women on the bus were supposed to do. Then a stop for breakfast (Thanks, but ‘No thanks’). In between these breaks, I laid on my back, side or front, with my eyes firmly shut and tried to sleep. And I may even have managed a few minutes here or there. Not for long, though.
Sixteen hours later, we came to a halt at the side of the road in Siliguri. I wasn’t sure whether this was our final destination or just to let off some passengers but the bus was being unloaded. Packages and boxes were tipped off the side. All the other passengers seemed to have left. My bike, probably the most accessible piece of luggage on top of the bus, was the last to be lowered (thankfully) to the ground. A large man handed over my bike and demanded one hundred rupees. I had expected something like this and had twenty ready for him. After a moment’s indecision, he accepted the twenty, grunted, and turned away.
(My daughter Andrea made the same trip a couple of years ago, although without the benefit of a double sleeper. She had the window seat in three seats containing four passengers – a mother and two children. With the window seat, she had something to lean against and could sleep, she said. Tough cookie!)
Now what? The train up to Darjeeling left at 9:00 am, although a couple of passing taxi drivers told me the train was cancelled due to a landslide. I had heard about the landslide but that had been six months ago and I assumed it would have been fixed. It was really hot standing by the road; did I really want to find a hotel here in Siliguri and head to the train station in the morning just to see if the train truly was cancelled. Everything with public transport was complicated by having a full load of baggage and a bike that was not yet quite ridable after getting it flight-ready. Just then, a jeep passed me and asked where I was going. “How much to Darjeeling?” I asked. “Too late” the driver said “Need more passengers.” “How much just for me and that bike over there?” “1600 rupees” “That’s a lot of money.” “For you, 1500 rupees!” “Deal!” And with the bike taking the room usually allocated to seven passengers and me in the front passenger seats, we set off on the three and a half hour drive (90 km horizontal and two km vertical elevation gain). Before leaving town, we stopped for diesel and I fuelled up, too, on a couple of samosas. And a packet of Oreo cookies!
The usual road follows the narrow-gauge railway line and has, presumably, a fairly steady grade but this road was closed by the landslide that also closed the railway line. The route we took was steep, very very steep and windy, rising quickly from the plain through tea plantations and almost vertical hillsides. It will be a challenging ride down on the bike, brakes all the way, narrow road with large drops from the edge, lots of traffic. Possibly not the best place to learn to ride my new bike with a load on.We were soon in the clouds, mist turned to rain, and still the road went up. After a couple of hours we reached Kurseong and joined the original route, and the railway tracks. We passed three separate trains (two steam-powered ‘Toy’ trains and one diesel locomotive) moving slowly along at little more than walking pace. Another hour-and-a-half, crossing the tracks perhaps one hundred times, and into the traffic-snarled horn-blaring narrow lanes of Darjeeling. In the rain and cloud. Not paradise, certainly, in these conditions but a few minutes walk, pushing my bike and carrying my various packs, wheezing uphill unused to the elevation after two months at sea-level, brought me to Andy’s Guesthouse. Quiet. Clean. Hot water. Bed. Perfect.