We had driven for so long that the chaos of Indian traffic had become the new normal. Another dusty Indian highway stretched out before us. Myself and Stephen were leading, with Mabel close behind. An Indian man on the side of the road was lumbering along, walking on his hands, both his legs had been amputated. He scurried out into the middle of the highway right in front of us. Clearly looking to get hit and be given some money. I swerved left around him and Louise swerved right, then we gracefully pulled back into line after we passed him. None of us reacted, just another day in India.
We stayed in towns that would barely count as truck stops, deep in rural India. In one hotel I complained that there was a gecko in my room. I was told, ‘No sir, the gecko keeps the cockroaches away.’ I was happy with that answer, I named it Marty. As we continued down the endless desert highway we were surprised when suddenly a lone glass building appeared on the horizon. We pulled up, clearly looking out of place with filthy Rickshaws outside what looked like a brand new 5 star hotel. We went in to ask what the price was, the concierge spoke perfect English and quoted us the same price as the filthy hellholes we had been staying in. We were very confused and asked why the hotel was there. ‘To serve all of our customers to our very highest ability. And you are our very first customers.’ Still suspicious that we were in a mirage we paid for our rooms and headed into the restaurant for a 5 star meal. Taking advantage of the perfect English John asked what it was that we were eating and I shouted, ‘No, never tell me what I am eating in India!’
After two weeks in the blazing heat of India, we slowly started to wind up the mountain roads. Every mile we rose was a little more respite from the sun. The roads were hewn out of the rock and snaked around the mountains, climbing ever higher. The signs informed us that we owed our respect for this miraculous feat of engineering to the Border Roads Organization. Every few miles there was a hand painted sign and every one of them rhymed. ‘For safe arriving, no liquor in driving.’ ‘Safety on the road is safe tea at home.’ ‘It is not rally, enjoy the valley.’ Eventually we reached Darjeeling, a name that had always struck me as mysterious and adventurous. Endless tea plantations lined the roads on the way into town, they were then replaced with stalls and trinkets. The steep streets almost seemed to be stacked on top of each other, reminiscent of the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. Due to most of the state taxes being spent on Calcutta, there is a movement to break away from the state and form a new state called Gorkhaland.
We parked up at a hotel and headed to Joey’s Pub. Sitting inside the door were Phil and Vicky from Sikkim the Head. There was the usual shouting and hollering when you see another team and then we asked then how their trip had been. They had taken a route up through the middle of India and they had hated it. Right in the middle of India there had been terrorist attacks. They decided it would be safer to drive through the night to get out of there. Just after sunset they came to a fallen tree blocking the road, it had the air of an ambush so they accelerated around it. Ten minutes later they came to a group of heavily armed teenagers blocking the road. They all carried AK-47s and not one of them could have been over 14. Phil and Vicky asked what they wanted but they didn’t speak any English. They waved some Rupees at them but the leader shook his head. Phil and Vicky were terrified. They had no option but to wait. After a few minutes a police officer appeared. He explained that the children worked for him, they were stopping people because there were bandits ahead. The road was not safe so he invited them to sleep in the police station for the night.
We pushed on the next day and headed for Gangtok and the finish line. Gangtok is in Sikkim, a region in India that is between Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan. The proximity to these countries has heightened tensions and a separate visa is needed to enter Sikkim. Most teams made it to the finish party, with a few still out in the wild.
One of the last teams in were a team named ‘The Wrong Way Up’ They had planned a north route across the top of India using the super highway. Having trouble finding the super highway and being blocked by a river they asked the local villagers what to do. The answer was to drive into the river and wait. A large canoe showed up and the villagers lifted the Rickshaw onto the canoe. It did not fully fit so one of the guys had to hold the Rickshaw in place and the canoe was rowed across the river. It turns out the government prints the maps and puts in highways when they are announced, even if they are never built.
The first team in were from New Zealand. They had sped through India in 9 days and had to wait a week in Gangtok. Louise asked them what they thought of India and their answer was dirt, poor people and filth. I had to restrain Louise from attacking them. At the party they were awarded the tiniest trophy possible. Everyone enjoyed that. India is truly a life changing experience. Book your flight.