India’s Northeast: Scenes and Scenery, August Edition

Frankly speaking, our performance in July – a measly 359 km – was pathetic.  Sure, we climbed Sela, the highest mountain pass (4200m) in the Northeast, setting personal records in the process.  Sure, we visited one of the oldest Buddhist monasteries in the world.  Sure, we got hugged to pieces at Jhamtse Ghatsal, a beautiful children’s community just across the river from Bhutan.  Sure, we spent ten days of quality time in Guwahati and even lent a hand in the movement for social change there.  Sure, we ate at either Pizza Hut or Dominos every day for a week in a row.  All nice accomplishments and experiences, but still…aren’t we supposed to be cycling?

(Photo Courtesy of Chris Buchman @ www.fromatobe.com)

Goal for August: 1000km or die trying.  Though it’s probably better not to make jokes about that, since between the risks posed by traffic, elephants, tigers, dysentery, and Chai overdose, India is definitely the sort of place that could do you in.

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Shaky’s ready to ride too.  Let’s do it!

(Photo Courtesy of Chris the Shaky Buchman @ www.fromatobe.com)

This month’s course: from Guwahati, where we had been hanging with our Indian cyclist friend Indrajit and waiting for spare parts, to Cherrapunjee, rainiest place in the world and home of the living root bridges (separate post), across the state of Meghalaya, quick (b/c illegal) pit stop in Bhutan (separate post), visit with Indrajit’s extended family in Siliguri, pickup of sweet sweet sweet merino wool care package from NEW SECOND SPONSOR KIND OF (separate post), and then up the hills of death (for our bicycles…again) to Darjeeling, the cloud capital of the universe, second only to that one storm on Jupiter that’s been raging for a millennium or two.  Let’s go!

Section the First: South, then halfway back North, then Westward, ho!

(PCoCB@fAtBe.com)

Things seen along the way include: plenty of friendly domesticated creatures.  (No more creamsicle Megabovines.)

(PCoCB@fAtBe.com)

Plenty of churches, steeples, pastors, congregations, and Jesuses.   The German and American missionaries meandered over here in the late 19th century and managed to convert almost all the Khasi people into Catholics, Baptists, and Seventh Day Adventists.  Also taught them how to make Banana Bread.  No joke, wait for the food post.

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A bit of sheer “what the f???” ness at Umiam Lake.

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The “both/and” combi-toilet: elevated squat and standard stool position both possible.

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Bold and unapologetic defiance of local environmental policy.

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Some rain and some muck.  Almost made me miss Arunachal Pradesh.

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It’s cool, just a little dynamite going off in five minutes.  Better hurry past.

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A stretch or two of real glory with hardly a pothole in sight.

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An unfamiliar landscape near Cherrapunjee, “the Scotland of India.”  Forsooth!  No mountains, no trees, no beach…just grass, rocks, sky, and a two degree slope downwards.

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Around Songsak, one of the best forest roads I’ve ever encountered.  20km of perfect pavement (that is, after the 3km of rubble), gentle ups and downs, constant shade, picturesque villages, and no cars at all thanks to the statewide Bandh that day.  I spent the whole ride in revelry, trying to recall all the other best rides I’d had.

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Locals heading home from church on a lazy Sunday in the West Garo Hills district.

(PCoCB@fAtBe.com)

Tomfoolery in the river.

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Chris above Elephant Falls, just outside Shillong.

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Breath-taking rice paddies

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Breath-taking forests.  This was one of those all-too-rare moments when I had to just stop cycling and stare for a few minutes.

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Breath-taking river beds

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More national forests

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The only elephants I spotted crossing the road were the ones a local showed me on his cell phone.  They looked massive…but then again the screen was only an inch across.

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Four cyclists, one bike.

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On a more serious note: it seems no province is without its problems.  Here in the Garo Hills district of Meghalaya, the citizens held a peace parade to protest the recent string of robberies, kidnappings, and even murders.

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The perpetrators of above crimes are said to be insurgents, blackmailing and threatening local business owners in order to gather the cash they need to do the things they do.  Clearly, they’re going about it the wrong way and have lost popular support.

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The local version of the march, which happened in villages all across the two (East and West) Garo Hills districts, was coordinated by the Catholic priests at the Church where I crashed that night.

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Less than a day’s ride away was the border with West Bengal.  Goodbye Christians, hello Muslims.  I don’t know if it’s a racial, religious, social, or economic thing, but it was definitely, undeniably harder to feel at home in West Bengal than in the Christian/Tribal/Mongoloid states.  People seem to stare more and smile less; they speak less English; their clothes are more ragged; I suppose they see far fewer tourists, too.   Whatever it was, I felt pretty uncomfortable…as well as being uncomfortable with my discomfort.

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That’s not to say there weren’t plenty of kind ones among them-  this young guy offered me a few coconut treats that his mother had packed him for his trip across the river.  Another one, named Saddam Hussain (above, blue shirt, behind my handlebars), chatted with me for the entirety of the ride across the Bhramaputra river and apologize profusely each time one more of his countrymen approached me and asked the same three or four questions before wandering off.

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The river had flooded a few days back after heavy rains, wiping out lots of crops.  I suppose it might have been good for the fishermen?

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Definitely not good for whoever lives here though.

Section the Second: MajesTEA

(bad pun, I know, but somebody had to say it)

Before we knew it, our tryst with the flats, with the Christians, with the Muslims, and with the river was over.  We headed back into the “hills” (nice euphemism…more like “slopes of doom”) on our way up to Darjeeling.

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Back to the mountains.  Not so much fun to ride in, but definitely a joy to behold.

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Tea gardens have to be some of the most beautiful places on earth.  I feel like it would require a 7th century Chinese poet to express everything properly – the uniformity of the bushes picked over by hand, the gentle curve of their tops as they follow the contours of the hills below, the winding walking paths that relive the visual monotony other monocultures suffer from, the shade trees that do the same, the smell of fresh humus composting underneath, and the GREEN!  Oh, the Green!

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Whether stared down upon from above or wandered about from within, tea gardens are indeed a glorious sight.

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That’s why we didn’t regard it as especially bad fortune when, in the middle of the steepest slope I’ve ever attempted, Chris’s chain snapped in half and we got waylaid for the evening.  As luck would have it, it happened to happen right in front of Makaibari tea gardens, one of Darjeeling’s prime organic producers.  What started off as a day cut short became a two-day break filled with tours, tastings, and even the CEO’s birthday party.

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The tea gardens have an interesting business model, something vaguely ancient, vaguely communist, vaguely benevolently dictatorial.  Most of the time, the workers live inside the gardens, that is, in villages contained within the area owned by whatever tea company.  Schools, restaurants, and shops are all housed within the tea garden area, though they don’t belong to the company.  Whoever isn’t working at one of these is probably employed somewhere in the tea gardens – men roaming the forest, maintaining the paths, manning the factories, women out doing the hard labor of picking through each bush by hand for the right leaves.

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Makaibari, in addition to being one of the few companies doing organic cultivation in Darjeeling, also follows fair trade practices and pays a “living wage” – the pickers earn $2 a day.

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The CEO of Makaibari, whom we met briefly, was very proud of the fact that only 1/3 of Makaibari’s land is under cultivation; the rest is forested and rewilded.  Wild-growing fruits and vegetables are picked for the workers’ consumption, downed leaves and branches are collected and used for natural fertilizer, and large swaths are left untouched to promote biodiversity.  Several species of near-extinct animals, including some freak bird with a three meter wingspan, make their homes in Makaibari.

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The women spend just about all day in the fields, eating lunch out of stacking metal lunchboxes stuffed with whatever they had prepared in advance.

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They also get bonuses if they manage to pick more than a certain amount (I think it was 8kg?) per day.  (But don’t face repercussions if they’re a bit short.)

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$2 doesn’t sound like much, but out here it’s enough to buy 2 dozen eggs, or ten pounds of rice, or a decent amount of beans and veggies.  Or three meals at a cheap restaurant.  Or a single bottle of beer.

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So, next time you’re sipping on a cuppa tea, remember where it comes from!

Section the Third: Ghorkaland

…which is the new name that the Ghorka (ethnic group from Nepal, large component of the Darjeeling population) are proposing.  That’s right, there’s a separatist movement here, too.

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After the knee-crushing insanity of the climb past Makaibari, we found ourselves in Kurseong, a fairly plain little town made charming by the train tracks running right through the middle of it.  This is the “toy train” that piddles its way up to Darjeeling at a speed only slightly faster than that of our bikes.  We know this because we raced it for a few minutes!

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Another day, another UNESCO World Heritage something.  Actually, I’m just happy to be back to reasonable gradients of seven degrees or less.

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Up above another layer of clouds…

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And in the distance, Mt. Kanchendzonga!  The world’s 3rd highest peak!  8600 some meters!  Our elevation was hardly topping 2000, but it was still visible some 70-odd kilometers away.  Freakish!  Unfortunately this would be our last view of it – the next ten days that we spent resting in Darjeeling were almost all overcast.  Perfect for lying around and not doing much of anything. Good news is, we had already passed the 1000km benchmark, so I don’t feel wrong saying that I deserved it.

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Darjeeling, to be honest, wasn’t that special a place. I suppose if you’ve been traveling around other major cities in India, like Delhi, Mumbai, Agra, Varanasi, and so forth, and all the giant landmarks of the Hindu civilization lying around the plains, then Darjeeling would feel quite different.  It is up in the mountains, with different ethnic groups, different scenery, different religion, different cuisine…but most of it was the same as we had been seeing on and off for the previous three months in the other mountainous parts of the Northeast, if with a more dramatic skyline.  That’s not to say we didn’t enjoy the calm, or the cool, or the KFC ice cream, but just to say that it’s not as unique as its status in pop culture  (thanks, Wes Andersen movie that I haven’t seen) would have it seem.

Still, the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute museum was pretty cool.  Did you know that when Sir Edmund Hillary summited Mt. Everest in 1953, he was either accompanied or preceded by Tenzing Norgay, a Nepali?  Did you know that Hillary probably couldn’t have made it without Norgay’s experience and expertise, even if Norgay could also not have made it without Hilary’s equipment?  It seems that the British newspapers mostly downplayed or downright ignored Norgay’s role until Hillary himself got so fed up that he unveiled this statue…45 years later.

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Also in Darjeeling: a zoo, with Leopards.

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And a Bengali tiger. 220kg of pure savageness, reduced to total lethargy by a cage and diet of already-killed stuff.

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And red pandas!  Face of a panda, body of a raccoon, color of a fox, walks around kind of wriggling like a snake…quite an odd little varmint.

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To be honest though, most of the “attractions” in Darjeeling paled in comparison to the sunrise.  Buddhist temples, zoos, pedestrian walking streets, old clock towers, bustling bazaars, knick-knacks and souvenirs…been there, seen all that.  But seeing the sun rise up from behind the monstrous Kanchendzonga – and the numerous other 7000m+ mountains that surround it – was new to me.  Or would have been…aside from this first morning, every other day was cloudy, may 4:30AM wakeups and window peeks utterly in vain.

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Still, can’t complain about starting your day with a half hour of silence and a view like this.  And then some hashbrowns and fried tomatoes whipped up by your homestay mama.  And then a nap.  Let it be so!…for the next ten days.

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Good morning, world!    Nice to be here.

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4 Responses to India’s Northeast: Scenes and Scenery, August Edition

  1. Andy says:

    More amazing sights.
    I was reminded of you as I trudged to the top of Mt. Fuji and enjoyed the sunrise.
    I hope you get caught up soon and have time for some more detailed posts. I miss your occasional philosophical writing.

    • Michael Roy says:

      Glad to hear that you’ve got a bit of international adventure in your life. Next time, why not take a trip to wherever it is I am? Man trip 2015 edition, baby!

      I’ll try to get fauxbosophical again sometime in the near future, just for you.