The road to Darjeeling is fucking stunning. The days of travel leading up to it (if fading in and out of consciousness during a raging fever can be consider ‘travel’) had been marked largely by worry and depression but, as we rounded a turn to catch our first glimpse of green on the twisting road to the former British hill station, my joy came right back to me. I was delighted to find that it hadn’t gone too far.
My spirits continued to rise as we did. As we cleared the first town at the mountain’s base mist rolled up through the long trunks of the shadowed forest below to crawl lazily across the road before us, shining silver in the afternoon sun. Its rays broke through the canopy above in slivers that created for us the illusion we were riding through thin walls of light. The roads began to twist and turn and rise at alarmingly sharp angles and steep degrees but I don’t remember feeling afraid or nervous. . .just highly, unwaveringly focused as I struggled to negotiate the 350 lb bike, intent on not stalling out in the middle of one of the hairpin switchbacks, relieved to no longer be in a hospital or hotel bed with sickness wrapped around me like a thick, clammy blanket.
We drove past tea fields that met our eyes like an image torn from National Geographic; steeped, green hills arched up the mountain’s side, heavy bands of material cutting across the weathered skin of the worker’s foreheads to steady the baskets held at their backs. We continued on past sharp, jagged grey rock, lush, green valleys and dense, shadowed forest.
I don’t know if tigers ever prowled these woods but I can easily imagine it – their feline eyes peering hungrily from between the tall trunks and hanging mist, the camouflage of their stripes hiding them among shadows created by overhanging branches and the surrounding shrubbery. I picture one leaping from the woods without warning; the white of its teeth and the flash of its claws before it tackles me from my bike.
As I’d done often during my time in India, I longed to be able to photograph while riding, to will my eyes to capture each scenic view in a format I could later share with others. For those familiar with Transmetropolitan (a fantastic read for anyone into graphic novels), I wanted Spider’s glasses.
As we climbed higher the weathered tracks of Darjeeling’s miniature ‘toy train’ began to appear at the road’s edge. Colorful prayer flags edged balconies and hung from scattered flora, their worn, tattered edges flapping in the cool breeze. I took a long, deep breath of the rich mountain air. This was a far cry from the smothering heat of the dusty city we had just left behind. The frustration and helplessness that had weighed heavily on me the last several days melted away to be carried off by the crisp mountain breeze. With each of my five senses fully engaged by the lush beauty of the surrounding environment, I’d no attention left to spare for trivial things like worry or doubt.
I did almost lose consciousness upon arrival. Equal parts pride and relief flooded over me as I climbed from Hrithik to stretch my legs but something else flooded over me as well – nausea from the vertiginous ascent. As a cute French hippie with epic dreads attempted to chat me up, I felt my legs begin to weaken beneath me for reasons that had nothing to do with him. I abruptly excused myself to try and find a toilet in which to vomit or possibly pass out in. Funny how making an abrupt altitude climb of 2000 metres while recovering from a severe bout of dysentery will cause you to feel faint.
A toilet was located, as was a hostel in which to stay once the nausea had passed. Ironically, it was the same place the Frenchman from earlier was staying, so we were able to belatedly finish our conversation.
Though the catalyst had been Siliguri, it was Darjeeling in which the final decision to cut bait and head home was made. And if it had to be anywhere, I feel beyond fortunate that it was there. I’d be hard pressed to think of a better place to have ended my Indian journey than in the fresh mountain air and lush, tranquil beauty of the hospitable hill station and its surrounding area.
That evening, Pete and I spent some time sitting out on our room’s balcony, watching an electrical storm dance silently across the sky in the distance. Perched on the side of a mountain as we were, the tiny pinpoints of lights made by the scattered towns and farms dropping away into the valley below created for us the illusion that we were looking down upon the stars as opposed to existing beneath them.
*This post is about travels that took place in Darjeeling, India on April 19 of 2012.
*The full photo set from Darjeeling (the last of the photo sets from India) can be viewed over Flickr here, or on the Facebooks where you’ll find me as Krys C Wanders.