Yesterday around 3PM Tak & I arrived at the final destination for the Rickshaw Run, turning over the keys to my rickshaw and ending this leg of the journey. It really was a bittersweet ending, but not for the reasons you might expect – I think that stopping 90k from the finish in Darjeeling for so long felt too much like an ending for me. The entire day of driving I was filled more with trepidation at the idea of a last minute breakdown than I was elation at nearing the end – it didn’t help that our rickshaw was slowing shaking itself apart, with the clutch plate nearly destroyed and the brakes practically not functioning.
Days 12 & 13: Exploring Darjeeling
Darjeeling was not at all what I expected, perhaps because I knew very little about it. It was certainly the most interesting place I encountered in India (though of course I only explored a small portion of the sub-continent), with amazingly helpful and kind people. There was certainly a tourist vibe with many Westerners around, but the locals participated in everything and the mesh was really wonderful to experience. I spent most of the time just relaxing and enjoying Western food for a change, and didn’t explore everything Darjeeling had to offer.
The first morning we went off to find a place mentioned in Tak’s Lonely Planet called Sonam’s Kitchen, supposedly having fantastic western-style breakfast. It turned out to be a poster boy for the “Lonely Planet effect,” being completely full of westerners all wondering where the locals were… This is one of the main reasons I almost never use guide books myself and instead usually ask the locals (we did this for the rest of the stay and found some great places). The breakfast and coffee was quite good, however – not nearly as good as the breakfast we had the next day at a cafe under Glenaryes though (within which I spent most of my time in Darjeeling it seems).
We discovered this cafe after breakfast and spent most of the morning sipping Darjeeling tea and playing around on the internet. I edited a lot of video but have been trying for ages to upload new bits unsuccessfully, the internet connections I’ve encountered in India just seem to be too spotty.
After a day of relaxing and wandering the town, I retired for an early sleep. The next morning we expored more, walking over 15km around town and visiting many places, including the Darjeeling Zoo! I was really excited about this, as it has an excellent reputation and is home to the largest captive population of Snow Leopards and Red Pandas in the world. I was really disappointed to find that only one Snow Leopard was in a “display” area and his place was very dirty – the dust that is everywhere in India during the dry season had turned his coat to a dull brown.
We did get to see a tiger in an amazing habitat, except it had no water! Water is very scarce in Darjeeling, with trucks constantly bringing it up the mountain – I guess they could not spare any for the tiger. Or maybe Indian Tigers don’t like water? The wolves were cool, as were a few leopards though one was clearly OCD, pacing his cage constantly. A black panther was chilling in the corner of his cage looking quite beautiful, and a large asiatic black bear was OCD pacing his habitat as well. In general all the habitats were quite large and had little nooks where the animals could escape the crowds – aside from the dust, I was quite impressed.
The highlight of the zoo was definitely the Red Pandas, however. They had multiple habitats for them, many of which were obviously “display” habitats similar to a typical zoo in the US – fairly bare trees, none higher than ten or twenty feet, everything located so you can see them exploring. They were all in pairs and all looking quite happy and I had the always pleasant honor of seeing red panda tongues.
The biggest habitat, however, completely blew my mind. It looked like they had simply built a wall around a huge chunk of forest, with trees at least forty foot tall and tons of vegetation. It is certainly the coolest zoo habitat I’ve ever seen, though we had to search and squint for ages until we finally made out the fur of a few red pandas sleeping so far up. Definitely cool.
After that I spent most of the day putzing around town while Tak went off to a tea plantation. I got a bit sick in the evening (I think some turned milk perhaps) and went back early to read and sleep… all in all, a completely relaxing two days in Darjeeling.
Day 14: ~96km, ~5 hours on the road… END!
It took us a long time to leave Darjeeling in the morning, spending time with Sartok (I may be spelling that wrong) and his brother and mother whose hospitality we had so enjoyed in Darjeeling. Eventually we completed all the ritual goodbyes and photo taking and Tak started driving us out of town for our final stretch!
Partway out of town, we took a wrong turn and drove way up a hill the wrong way. When we turned around, Tak wanted me to drive the rest of the way – ostensibly because he felt I deserved the honor since it was the last day, but really I think I was being a bit of a back seat driver and maybe giving him too many “tips” about driving downhill and was pissing him off a bit. Sorry Tak, I was excited!
Either way, off we drove. The downhill from Darjeeling was as expected – steep, steep, steep. We caught up with Rob & Tim of Lock Stock and One Smoking Rickshaw (whose rickshaw was ironically smoking madly the entire day) and continued on our route, waving and smiling and laughing with everyone who saw us drive by. At one point I stopped to answer nature’s call, and when I started again the brakes were gone! The pedal went to the floor with no response at all.
I had already warned Tak that in such an emergency I would probably try to stop it by grinding against the wall of the mountain and not to put his arms/legs out if I did, but had thought this warning to be extraneous. Luckily I spotted a big mound of dirt on the side of the road before we gained much speed and rammed the rickshaw into it, driving slightly up it then rolling back down to a rest. As we waited a bit for the brakes to cool, Rob & Tim caught up to us and the four of us enjoyed some crackers and peanut butter on the side of the road while giving our brakes a break (hah!).
From there on out the brakes held up, though a little mushy, and we finished the downhill and went flat out on a long straight stretch. We encountered a few other teams that we knew and all pulled over to pow-wow on the side of the road, great fun. It was there that we heard the first recent news about Adam & Malena – they had passed the Aussie team about an hour before, barreling up the mountain at full speed! It was fantastic to hear that they had made it, I’m really glad and can’t wait to catch up with them… the stories on their blog are hilarious.
Around 30km short of Gangtok we arrived at the Sikkim border and I jumped out to get my entry permit stuff done, which the Adventurists had really helped out with (completely different experience than South America) and all we needed to do was walk up to a building and pick up the final paperwork. While doing this, a bunch of teams jammed up and when we left there were around eight of us in a caravan… for a short while.
You see, our illustrious rickshaw Snail is actually not slow at all – in fact, he’s consistently been faster than anyone we’ve caravanned with and we are always holding back to stay with other teams. With the finish line less than 30km away, we decided to wave goodbye to the caravan and I hammered the throttle home for the rest of the trip, giving Snail his head completely in a bid to make it to the end before he fell apart.
Bless the little guy, he did indeed hold together. With the clutch plate scrabbling and making the screams that only tortured metal can make, we raced up the final 10km hill in second gear, screaming at people to get out of our way and smashing over speed breakers at 20kmh to avoid slowing down and losing our momentum. I could feel the rickie starting to die, the engine starting to give out, and I had to keep it at very high RPM or it would stall. Finally, it died. Less than 7km to the finish line, Snail gave a final grunt and turned off.
Would this be the end? I got out and made one final prediction - “I hope it’s just out of petrol.” It didn’t make sense, we should have tons of petrol, but maybe, just maybe, all that high load high RPM uphill driving was tearing through petrol considerably faster than before? We filled it up with the last three liters in our jerry can and Snail roared to new life! It had been consuming petrol at over twice the normal rate going up those hills!
With full power on tap again, we tore up to the finish line and met Matt from the Adventurists only to be told we weren’t done yet! A quick photo up, then a drive up the steepest hill of the day – I made Tak jump out and push to get us up the final thirty feet, which we barely made. Then around a corner and up to the Bamboo Grove Hotel, with all the locals lining the road cheering as we honked and screamed our way to the end.
Now, how the hell do I get out of here?