India is a huge country, and as one of my friends told me, much changes as you explore it. As we’ve headed further and further north, here are some of the major differences we’ve noticed compared to the south:
* There are considerably more women out and about, and in general they are much more attractive (to Western eyes at least). Most of them are still wearing traditional dress, but we do see many in jeans and the like.
* There are less rickshaws! Today I only counted five the entire day! This is compared to the south where you could throw a rock anywhere and hit five rickshaws as it bounced around. On the other hand, people try to wave us down here for a ride in the day, where down south they all just looked at us funny because of my paint job.
* We’ve been seeing some occasional nods and head-shake “no’s” up here, a stark contrast to further south. The head wagging is still there but appears much less common.
* This may just be bad timing on our part, but it seems like wide-scale power outages are more common in the north. Aside from the two nights in Bhaneswar, we’ve had power outages in every city we’ve been in for the last few nights.
Day 9: forgot km, ~11 hours on the road
We started out expecting a smooth day with our newly serviced rickshaw and instead were unable to start it in the morning! After a bit of messing around using some tricks I had picked up from various mechanics, I was finally able to get it started and on the road after around thirty minutes of mucking around. A nerve-wracking beginning…
The day went very well from there as we made excellent time up the divided highway of NH5 until it became NH6 then forked off onto smaller roads. In one of this very low population areas we had our first near “incident” in India – we stopped for gas at a completely empty India Gas station with no one around. The attendant gave us our standard ten liters of petrol then wandered off to put 400ml of oil in and came back saying he had put a liter of oil in (way too much). We tripped out a bit but then he backed off saying no, 400ml… ugh.
He then proceeded to ask us to pay an exorbitant price, saying the oil cost 400+ rupees (it normally costs around 40). I politely explained that this was too high and we would not pay more than 600 rupees total (500 for the gas and 100 for the oil, which was way overpriced) and then he started asking for 700 rupees. At this point Tak got pissed and looked like he was about to start yelling at the guy (I think he may have yelled a little), but I stepped in and tried to settle things. We ended up paying 650 rupees and driving off with most of our pride intact, but the last thing I wanted to risk was an altercation here with a random gas station attendant – a few bucks is a price I’m willing to pay. Nonetheless we have decided to stick to more populated petrol stations in the future.
Shortly after lunch-time, about twenty km short of our destination (we made awesome time) I stopped to ask for directions and it died – and wouldn’t start again! I futzed around a bit and finally noticed that the spark plug wire that the mechanic had “fixed” yesterday was loose again, got it on tightish and we decided to keep driving the rest of the way to Mindapoor and try to get it fixed there.
A few minutes later I noticed a parts store on the side of the road and decided to stop there. Of course it turned out they were closed and we couldn’t get the rickie started again – but it just so happened there was a mechanic across the street! We sat in the shade with this cool older guy who appeared to be the block patriarch and messed around with a bunch of local children until the mechanic was able to dig up a new (to us) cable and get us all squared away, then we happily revved off to an early halt in a decent place in Mindapoor.
Mindapoor was a cool little town, but I crashed out early and didn’t really explore – was exhausted.
Day 10: ~430km, ~13 hours on the road
Yep, night driving again! Today did not start off well. In a nutshell, after 45 minutes of trying to get the rickie started I eventually traced the fault to bad current to the plug again and was able to re-fit the spark plug connector by shaving a bit off the wire with my knife to fix the problem. We also put in the “suspect” gas (that may have had too much oil) and I think it probably did because the thing drove quite poorly until we finally got new gas.
After that drama getting going, we wandered around through the back roads of India for most of the day before finally connecting to a slightly bigger highway to take us most of the rest of the way to Gangtok – all to avoid Kolkotta. I’m too exhausted after driving well over an hour in the insane night driving of India to really summarize much, but when you see the video of some of the small towns we drove through you will understand.
It was both sad (the poverty, dirt, and squalor were among the highest we have seen yet) and uplifting (the people were equally helpful and polite and many seemed very happy). I think at some point I’d like to spend some more time exploring these small roads and their small poor towns.`
(written April 6 @ 9:44PM)
Day 11: ~325km, ~11 hours on the road
Darjeeling! We’re now about five to six hours away from our final destination and we have a few days to spare thanks to making great time and having no major problems with our rickshaw. Today we did have one short problem with putting oil in the gas tank after filling it and not mixing properly, but I sorted that quickly using some of the techniques learned over the past few days.
We started off driving through an amazingly idyllic countryside with green fields, farmers checking their crops, and cute farm animals doing their work all under a layer of minor fog (we were on the road at 5:35AM). Our goal was to make the town of Siligiri, approximately 260km away, and pause there for the night before making the mountain run up to Darjeeling tomorrow.
The big surprise came about an hour into the trip – suddenly NH34 turned from a small country road crowded with towns and farms into a huge divided mega-highway! This was great for speed, but incredibly boring. I ended up pulling out my ebook reader and reading a book for awhile while Tak stormed us towards Siligiri.
We arrived way ahead of schedule, pulling into Siligiri just shy of 11AM. A quick consensus was reached – we would head straight up to Darjeeling and worry about lunch later. I took over driving and we made the hill climb up towards Darjeeling, arriving by 3:30PM. The drive up was absolutely incredibly, the scenery and views were fantastic, driving next to the “toy train” and making a game of passing it was great fun, but best of all were the beautiful people… The mixture of Asian features was a welcome change, as was the abundance of attractive women to wave at on the side of the road (we’re not at all creepers, promise).
We also ended up going through a bunch of hill towns just as school got out and thus got to entertain huge crowd of kids – it’s hard to describe this feeling, but watching a bunch of kids suddenly go crazy laughing and pointing as you drive by waving and grinning is a great feeling. I kept saying “everybody point at the crazy whities” and “laugh at the monkeys doing tricks for your amusement” but it was all in fun – we do look silly and loony driving this little piece of crap rickshaw up this barely functional mountain road and I’m glad they enjoy it because we do!
Darjeeling town was so crowded with vehicles and people that navigation became a nightmare, all while we drove around honking and grinning and waving at everyone. Eventually we were able to get our bearings and found the road of the hotel we were looking for, but no dice on the hotel. A guy on his motorcycle with his wife asked us in perfect English where we were heading, then gave us some directions but it ended up being a different place. Then we got some little kids on their bikes to show us another place, but it was empty and not the actual place (Dekeling Resort vs Hotel). We went to another place but they were full, and this guy on the motorcycle with his wife drove by again.
After telling him of our problems, he told us that he had a set of private rooms we could use for a thousand rupees a night. I was sold just by the randomness of it so we went to take a look – I was impressed! The bathroom was great, the beds were nice, and the view was AMAZING (though the walls needed paint, which twitched Tak a bit at first). Plus he had a garage to part our rickie in, so, done and done.
That night we went out to celebrate, ate something other than Indian food for the first time in 15 days, and consumed copious amounts of wine. It was a good day.
(written April 8 @ 8:26AM)