Heart to Beat #21 West Bengal

Published at December 14, 2018 at 1:00 PM

After Nepal our route runs through the northeast of India. We continue to cycle to the east in the direction of Myanmar and we will cross the Indian states West Bengal, Assam, Nagaland and Manipur. At least that is the plan, you never know. Plans change continuously and detours are made easily. Northeast India is connected by a narrow corridor to the rest of India and is therefore relatively isolated and according to Wikipedia “relatively far from the Indian consciousness”. We are very curious what this means “in real life”.

When we cycle into India over a narrow long bridge we are sent back to Nepal because the stamp of the Nepalese authorities, that we officially left the country, is missing. Call it a kind of check-out. At the second attempt, with the stamps in our passport, we get in and are directed where to report to the Indian immigration office for the “check-in” stamp. Between a complete chaos of tuktuks, trucks, rickshaws and untold market stalls, we finally find the office. It turns out to be an oasis of peace and we are the only foreigners who have to report. However, the necessary paperwork needs to be filled in again, our passports are scanned and photos are taken. An official exchanges (of the record) our few remaining Nepalese rupees for Indian rupees and, in retrospect, uses a reasonable exchange rate.

After these formalities we really get into India. The chaos of the border continues for a few kilometers. After a while the market stalls and bicycle shops change into corrugated sheet eateries (all of them are marked as “hotel” but none rents rooms) and many, many parked trucks. We suspect that the bridge that forms the border crossing only opens in the evening hours for truck traffic, in order to prevent it from silting up during the day.

We cycle through the state of West Bengal which apparently spends a lot of money on infrastructure. The road just looks good. There is considerably less dust, especially because of the good asphalt. We cycle safely on the meter wide shoulder. New bridges and viaducts are being built and we see the foundation for toll booths. A little further into the country, six traffic signs alert about an elephant crossing but unfortunately there are no elephants crossing at that moment. We doubt if it is used…

As we expected the first villages offer us big crowds and chaos. Our first impression is that India (or at least West Bengal) is more developed than Nepal. But, also in contrast to Nepal, we also see the first examples of poverty, which may be extra striking because you also see Indians who apparently pretty well and drive around in a big car.

From the border it is still 35 kilometers to Siliguri, our intended place to stay. Harry has suffered from his Achilles tendons for a few days and has been inflamed on the left. The inflammation has ensured today that his ankle is painfully swollen. But finally we reach Siliguri, a city with (estimated, because it is not exactly known) almost 1 million inhabitants. The overpopulation in this city is tangible with all our senses. We courageously make our way through the chaotic and wholly honking and tripping traffic.

To give Harry’s ‘elephant’s feet’ a rest we book an extra night in OYO 3078, part of the chain of Indian OYO budget hotels. If the swelling still persists, more nights will be booked… In the end we watch almost all Harry Potter films in our room on the small TV with movie channels, spread over a day or four. English is the general language here in India and that therefore the films are intelligible to us. Certainly not everyone speaks English, on the contrary, there are about 200 languages ​​in India.

In Siliguri we buy a SIM card so that we can consult the internet on the way. According to the sellers, AirTel offers the best network in northeastern India and the card is activated in no time. The ticket with 1.4 GB per day, is valid for 28 days and only costs € 7.50. We can make progress! Goodbye Vodafone, too bad you did not want to support us properly during our world trip. This means that we have to purchase a SIM card with a different telephone number in each country. Bit awkward, but it is. It is nice to have internet on the road. Our current telephone numbers are listed on our website (see contact).

After these four forced rest days we can no longer sit still and cycle to the north in the direction of Bhutan. The tendon is not quite right yet, but the swelling has disappeared. If it does not go well with the ankle we could stop after 30 kilometers. If things go well we can cycle through and do 65 kilometers.

Once outside the city we cycle for miles along military grounds and barracks. In the 80s and 90s it was still very restless in northeastern India because of all kinds of separatist movements and the Indian government has probably decided to establish a considerable military power in the relatively quiet state of West Bengal.

After a distance of 20 km we encounter a railway crossing with closed barriers. For reasons unknown to us, the crossing is closed well before the train is approaching. There is a row of cars for the crossing barriers and we cycle past the row to stand in front. We are approached by a man from Bhutan. He speaks excellent English. His wife also comes to stand with us and shares a bowl of fresh pineapple. We have a chat and say that we would have liked to cycle to Bhutan but that a visa is linked to a spending requirement, which exceeds our daily budget. The man agrees and tells us that a visa needs to be shown that the visitor spends at least $ 250 per day. His wife adds that a visit is possible by booking an all-inn package: transfers, accommodation, guide, etc. For long-distance cyclists, a visa is therefore virtually impossible. We chat a bit further, make selfies and exchange email addresses. After a quarter of an hour (!?) the train comes passing by and fortunately the barriers immediately go up.

There is no bridge (except the railway) over the wide river valley and to get to the other side we have to cycle to the foothills of the mountains north. Thanks to the rail transfer, it is extra busy with traffic. The border with Bhutan is only a few kilometers away. The river is now “caught” in a deep valley. After a short climb we see the high Coronation Bridge. Around the bridge we see a lot of monkeys. We will continue to look at it. They seem playful, but we are a bit on our guard. If a male ape interferes with a female, another male will attack and we jump aside to stay out of the line of pursuit. Once back on the bike, one monkey jumps to us with bare teeth, but he also quickly retains. We now know how to handle dogs, but what do you do when a monkey attacks you?

It goes pretty well with the ankle and we decide to keep carry on. We are going east again. On the left are the mountains of Bhutan and on both sides along the road, endless tea gardens. We are near the city of Darjeeling and – if we continue to cycle through these gigantic tea gardens the next day – it is not difficult to imagine that the whole world is drinking tea from this region: so much tea, so much tea . O, yes and occasionally bananas.

Close to the Gorumara National Park alongside the Murti Rivere there are a whole series of resorts. Despite a large direction sign, we can not find the budget resort OYO. A little further is Resort Wagtail. The owner doesn’t speak English. Via a helpline we understand that he can not rent rooms because of something with the police. He makes a call and books a room in the nearby Resort Dooars. When we arrive, the people talk to each other and decide they also do not have a room for us. They advise to go to the more upscale neighbors of the Murti River Lodge. At the reception we are told that because of restoration work no room is offered. A bit strange, because overal there are hardly any visitors around all these resorts. On internet we see that Trimurti resort can be booked and we cycle to it. We are finally warmly welcomed in a brand new resort and for very little money we get a beautiful room with bed linen and a kettle (Yes! Once again Nescafe coffee!). Only downside is that the room is also housing a colony of mini ants, but they do not do much harm and commit ‘harakiri’ massively in the bathroom.

The next day we cycle through the Chapramari Wildlife Forest and (like our dear friend Annet) the song ‘The lions sleeps tonight’ comes to mind and we loudly put in an A-weema-weh. The score in terms of wild animals: a number of monkeys and a deer. Then we cycle to the Jaldapara National Park and check in at the Jaldapara Wild Hut. Unfortunately it is not possible to cycle through this National Park. The area can only be visited on the back of an elephant or with a jeep tour. There are late afternoon and early morning tours to book. On the internet we read that very sporadically wild(?) elephants can be seen and that rhinos are driven by people on work elephants to lookout towers so that visitors can take a picture. We choose not to accommodate such a visit. The next day we cycle through Buxa Wildlife Sanctuary. Here, however, traffic may continue. The counter for the number of monkeys is still running high, but we do not see other wild animals. We can not imagine that there are many wild animals: the national parks and reserves are simply too small and there simply too many people (also in the reservations).

After a short stage we stop in the town of Alipurduar where we meet Christoph from Germany. He cycled behind us from Kathmandu and was alerted on the way to a Dutch couple in front of him. Behind Christoph a 18-year-old Briton is cycling. He has not yet met the British guy in person despite the fact that they do have contact through internet, but finally he does meet us. Christoph lived and worked in Bangalore for some time and from Varanasi he left by bike heading to Bangkok. It is wonderful to share stories with Christoph and we hope to meet each other again. Big chance, because we are heading in the same direction.

The road after Alipurduar is boring. A lot of rice, dual carriageway with two lanes in each direction, flat, lots of traffic and lots of honking. In the village of Chakchoka many fully loaded trucks are parked on and next to the road. We do not fully understand why, but it’s close to the border with the state of Assam. We leave West Bengal behind. In Assam the quality of the road deteriorates enormously. Would that be the case in all of Assam? We will let you know in our next blog.