It took a lot of searching to find a man who could find a car for me to drive from West Bengal to the Himalayas. By that time, I knew it wasn’t something to be undertaken lightly. It seems there are no cars for hire in Kolkata, a city of 4.5 million people. So two men made the 1,500-kilometre journey from Delhi to the Siliguri airport to hand over our Toyota Innova. After an exhaustive examination of tiny flaws in the paintwork in the interest of a substantial insurance excess, Richard Dunwoody, my co-driver, took the wheel and headed cautiously for the hills.
John Bridgen, the man who organised the expedition, specialises in setting up classic rallies and I, as the navigator, confronted a GPS route navigation system with pre-recorded waypoints; I couldn’t operate it so we used the guidance manual provided instead. “Exit from the airport and turn left” seemed clear enough until I noticed that the arrow beside it pointed to the right. Many men would scream at a female co-pilot who couldn’t tell left from right, but Dunwoody, a former champion steeplechase jockey, Polar explorer and professional photographer, isn’t one of them.
As a dual Grand National winner, he had nerves of steel. On the road to Darjeeling, he’d have to prove he hadn’t lost them. It was instantly clear that driving in India is about sharing tight spaces with other road users. The lorries are a monumental challenge, often totally blocking the motorway, but the real test is the tidal wave of humanity, perched on bullock carts, wobbling on cycle rickshaws, herding baby goats, thronging around in Premier League-sized crowds. By the time you’ve factored in things you really can’t hit, such as elephants and sacred cows, there’s often no place to go.
As darkness fell, undipped headlights fought with unlit vehicles for the right to skid over the historic railway tracks that share the mountain road to Darjeeling. Hieronymus Bosch’s vision of hell came to mind, but Dunwoody stuck with it heroically. Five hours and 93km later, we drew up outside the New Elgin Hotel, one of several summer residences owned by the former Maharajas of Cooch Behar. The welcome from the staff and the pair of fluffy white Russian Samoyed dogs was warm, though the resident terrier didn’t conceal his doubts. On the plus side, we hadn’t missed dinner.
In the morning, we appreciated His Highness’s eye for a great view. The historic property stands on elaborate terraced gardens with lawns, bright flowers, swinging sofas and loungers that are hard to leave. Likewise, the hotel itself is a microcosm of an era when rulers of princely states favoured colonial interior decoration. The New Elgin has retro sitting rooms with polished Victorian furniture, gleaming brass, occasional tables with little lamps and lashings of red brocade upholstery. In the dining room, men in red uniforms stand guard over rows of silver tureens containing curry choices. In the corridors, period photos conjure up a bygone era.
At first light, I’d had my initial sight of Kangchenjunga obscured by cloud from my wood-panelled eyrie. The world’s third-highest mountain, part of a massif with five peaks higher than 8,450 metres straddling the Sikkim-Nepal border, is only accessible to sanctioned expeditions, but it provides a regional focus for trekkers and photographers. Visible from all the hill stations we visited, Big K would tantalise us with tangled ice glimpsed through swirling fog as we tried to capture it in the clear. Photographers take note: if you want a perfect image, go in January.
Given the Elgin’s location in a maze of alleys unsuited to motoring, we were glad that Darjeeling is best explored on foot. In the mid-19th century, the British developed the “Queen of Hill Stations” as an escape from the searing heat of the plains. At 2,000 metres, the air is fresh and the sunny slopes in the surrounding countryside are ideal for tea plantations. Inevitably, Darjeeling developed its own colonial club culture: the Planters hosted the tea barons, while the Gymkhana catered to escapees from Kolkata’s summer monsoons. Today the clubs, dust thick on fading memories, remain open for business far beyond their sell-by dates.
Darjeeling’s must-do is the “Toy Train” that makes 8km circuits twice a day to Ghum, the highest station in India. The vintage British steam engine puffs along the top part of the Unesco World Heritage, 86km, narrow-gauge railway, an engineering marvel built circa 1880 to transport potatoes to the densely populated lowlands. It makes a photo stop at the floral Bastia Loop, where a statue celebrating the Gurkhas’ contribution to Indian independence in the 1940s stands silhouetted against the Himalayas. Ironically the area is now at the heart of the continuing crusade for a separate Gurkha state.
On the 95km ascent to Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim, I bit the bullet and took the wheel. As I eased the Toyota into the Darjeeling gridlock, I hooted imperiously, as instructed in the Bridgen guide for virgin motorists in India. Did the Red Sea part? Not a chance. I drummed my fingers as I waited to force my way into a tiny gap. The expedition would be character building at the very least.
Many believe my passion for self-drive is insane. Mexico City, Vietnam and camping with lions in Africa don’t feature on many lists of motoring musts, but there’s no denying the freedom that comes with your own keys. With more than a billion citizens, India is not short of chauffeurs, so forbidding foreigners to rent cars for as long as possible made sense. However, when it reinvented itself as a modern nation, the restriction had to go.
The obvious plus is independence from the restrictions that come with employing someone to do something you can do yourself, but there’s also the pleasure of travelling round a country as you would if you lived or worked there. Indian drivers are great – efficient, usually English-speaking, often charming – but for a passenger, a journey like this would mean very long hours staring at the view. For us, each day was a treasure hunt. With no proper road map, we followed GPS waypoints backed up by dodgy instructions in the manual to places with minimal traffic. Bridgen challenged us with the kind of routes rally drivers love, twisting high above valley floors lined with trees and fantasy ferns cascading onto the pitted tarmac. We got lost, but what’s wrong with a magical mystery tour? Dunwoody would often claim motion sickness for the joy of getting back behind the wheel.
In the past couple of years, pioneering self-drivers have started tackling the entry level Golden Triangle route between Delhi, Agra and Jaipur, with its long sections of dual carriageway. Most hire the iconic Ambassador workhorse, which is based on the 1956 Morris Oxford and barely changed since.
In Kolkata, where they still roll off the Hindustan Motors production line, grey ones carry government officials and yellow ones operate as taxis. The Amby was the star of my original plan, but the Himalayan itinerary was said to be beyond its capabilities. The Toyota Innova people carrier, ruggedly built for the Indian market, didn’t look like a mountain car, but chugged along without complaint, no matter how bad the surface.
After six hours on the road – as usual, rather more than we expected – we arrived at the Nor-Khill, our second Elgin hotel overlooking Sikkim’s football stadium. Gangtok has a broad pedestrian main street with flower beds down the centre, a cable car that provides dramatic overviews and trekking offices eager to sell permits to anywhere you might want to visit, even to areas that are classified as restricted and protected by the Indian government. With the car at our disposal, we wound our way up to the centre for Buddhist studies at Rumtek, the Karma Shri Nalanda Institute and the Temi tea plantation, the road looping through 15km of neatly ranked bushes interspersed with flowering cherry trees.
Two days later, we visited the Tibetan monastery at Lara on the 72km route to Kalimpong, a busy hill station with easy access to great treks. After a couple of nights at Silver Oaks, another hotel with matched Samoyeds in the niche Elgin group, it was time to head down to Kolkata, a three-day, 730km journey on a trunk road built to British specifications circa 1900 and barely improved since. The manual said NH34 would have toll sections and it did, the charges totalling 41 rupees. Even in India, that doesn’t get you very far, nor necessarily very fast, as we realised when our progress was blocked by a bullock cart and a belching lorry approaching us from the wrong side of the dual carriageway.
After two long days interrupted by an overnight at Siliguri, we took a day off to visit Murshidabad, the capital of Bengal from 1705 until 1757. The peaceful town is a surprising melting pot, a conglomeration of mosques, temples, tombs and “gardens of delight” crowding the banks of the Ganges. The nawab’s Hazarduari “1,000 door” Palace, built in the Italian style in 1837, is an atmospheric museum, its echoing rooms displaying more than a dozen huge paintings of the same nawab strutting his stuff in the ornate fashions of the day. Kolkata families, lavishly blinged and dressed in peacock hues in the run-up to the Diwali festival, suggested that tastes have barely changed in 150 years.
By my game plan, Kolkata, a city where traffic could barely move, would be the ultimate driving challenge. What I didn’t know was that cycle rickshaws, tuk-tuks and bullock carts are banned in the interests of a modern image and pedestrians have the option of walking on the pavements. Not many take it, but the upshot of regulation is normal Middle Eastern or European gridlock – exasperating but too familiar to cause alarm.
Having come so far miraculously unscathed, we refocused on the finishing post, turning into the Sonar hotel with joint sighs of relief at excesses uncontested. The men who’d brought the car were eager to reclaim it, but the total absence of damage was a cause for obvious distress. After a microscopic inspection, the leader recklessly endangered his tip by demanding US$100 (Dh367) for “valeting”.
The Sonar, built around fish ponds thick with lilies and designed to conjure up Bengal’s peaceful watery outback, provided enough world-class lobster and steak on its teppanyaki grill to convince us the adventure was over. But not forever. When Bridgen sets up a classic car rally in Sikkim, I’ll have inside knowledge on my side. Maybe an Amby could make it after all.
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