The plains of Assam were waiting for us once we had made it down the mountains and out of Arunachal Pradesh. We knew that cycling in Assam would be more of an intense experience! With a population of 30.9 million people Assam is hugely more populated than most of the states we had been cycling in until now and we had already had a short introduction before we entered Arunachal. In Assam we would be crossing many tea estates and tiger reserves until we reached West Bengal and Darjeeling which is famous for tea and its colonial heritage.
From Tawang we had arranged a Sumo to bring us, Mojo and Isaba down from the mountains to the plains. We were a little bit nervous about it all because we would be safe in the care but Mojo and Isaba would be on the rooftop with our bags and we didn’t want any flying bicycles. We were backtracking most of the way down to Bhalukpong on the edge of Arunachal and Assam. The ride was intense, took 12 hours and by the time we arrived in Bhalukpong we were well shaken up. A few hesitant moments on the ride happened when our driver was underneath the car because we were making a trail of oil and he was trying to fix it with a plastic bag and half an hour later the car wouldn’t start so everybody had to push! And this in winding mountains with not a lot of space and steep drops next to the road. We were happy to finish the ride and to see that everything was okay with Mojo and Isaba. We decided to stay a day in Bhalukpong to rest and do some laundry but the town did not have a lot to offer.
Glad to be on our bikes again instead of in a car we were on our way. The first 20 kilometres military men were standing along the road in camouflage clothing observing us as we rode by. The highlights of our days were people asking us for selfies, where we were going and we also found some quiet small roads through town and villages. Going from east to west we crossed many rivers which have their origin in Bhutan and China. There weren’t always bridges, most of them we could cross cycling but there were a few that were too deep so we had to get off the bikes and push them through. Although it had been raining most nights, monsoon season hasn’t started yet, luckily so the rivers were crossable.
By chance we passed a Don Bosco school and having heard reports of other cyclists being invited in we decided to ask. We were warmly welcomed by father Francis and father Alu and given a room. In the evening we had been asked to have an interactive session with the students. In this case the school was a seminary, so the students there are being educated to become missionaries. We talked with the students about our journey, about different cultures, ways of communication and about Europe. It was a nice interactive session.
Father Francis recommended us to visit another school the following day in Dimakuchi. Without knowing it we had passed the school and the nearest lodging would be a tea estate. We entered the tea estate, asked at the office if it was possible to stay and were said “no problem” and told to wait. But… by now we know in India if you are told to wait chances are it might not work out anyway and that was the case here. After being shown the tea factory we were told we couldn’t stay because of the safety situation with regards to the state political election which was due soon. We decided to backtrack to the school and ask there. The welcome was very different from what we experienced at the first school in Sirajuli but we could stay for the night and we made sure to have an early departure.
The tea factory was interesting to see from inside and the smell of tea was amazing. The process is mainly done by machines. By the time we were guided through it was the end of the day so we didn’t see any fresh leaves processed but we saw the dry tea streaming out of the machines which was an interesting sight!
Our road had been taking us through beautiful tea estates with popping green leaves on the tea plants. Workers were picking tea leaves and always it was a hustle and bustle of people. On one tea estate it is possible that 5000 to 15000 people work there. A huge amount of people! We had been taking back roads which had been quite slow because of gravel and mud. This did give us the possibility to meet with true Assamese people who live in the villages and see their lives. Here there were more agricultural fields and rice fields and the tea estates had disappeared for a while. At one point we had waved to people at a house and all of a sudden we heard somebody coming from behind and it was a young woman on her bike who was so excited to see us that she had darted after us and of course wanted a selfie with us. It is not often that we are asked by a woman so naturally we made some time for that 🙂 The terrain was flat so on good roads it would be possible to make good progress. So we decided that the following day we would try to follow the main road and make some kilometres after departing from Pathsala where we stayed the night.
The main road was a two by two lane road which was not very interesting. It was fast and luckily a lot of parts were still under construction but constructed enough for us to take parts of it that were not yet open for traffic. We pushed through and decided to ask in Serfanguri for a place to stay for the night. Sun was going down and there wasn’t any lodging and the police were a bit nervous again about upcoming elections. A principal of the school was called and while he was showing us where we could sleep a police escort with three armed police men was standing outside. A good nights’ sleep and we were on the road again after a short detour. It was Saturday before elections on Monday and during the morning we could feel a buildup of traffic on the road. By 10 o’clock every petrol station we passed had a group outside which were rallying for their political party and we were passed by many many men on motorbikes with a bit of a grim atmosphere. We were happy when most traffic turned south before Alipurduar while we turned northwest. The road changed from 4 lanes into two connected lanes and everything changed.
From here on the vegetation changed again, it became more forest and also tea estates returned for a while. We had the choice to follow the main road or take a smaller road through Buxa tiger reserve to Hasimara and were glad we took the last because the scenery was nice and it was more quiet. It should be possible to see elephants and if you are very very lucky a tiger, we only saw some monkeys and cows. Still it was nice and quiet cycling and the stay at Green View Lodge in Hasimara was not too hectic. We had been in reach of Bhutan for a while now but now it was really only 15 km away and we were thinking of heading to the border. We were asking ourselves: “what will it bring us?, Why would we want to cycle to the border?”. Traveling to Bhutan is very expensive because of visa and obligatory guide. We decided not to detour and just carry on on the way we were heading.
The moment our road went north the road changed and it was mountainous immediately. The roads in Assam and West Bengal had given us wings and we did 370 kilometres in 3 days! We asked in the village Kalijhora if we could stay anywhere and luckily a shopowner said we could stay in his building. The next day we would have to climb 2400 meters to Darjeeling. Luckily we didn’t know then what we know now…
We woke up early after having been plagued by mosquitos during the night. The first part was gradually up and down along the Teesta river which has been dammed. The hydro electric power is being sold by West Bengal to Nepal and Bhutan. We came to our turnoff and the road just rose steep up the side of the mountain. We were expecting the steepness to gradually be reduced but it just stayed like that. After a short burst of panic after 400 meters of ascending survival mode was turned on and we pushed on step by step. We ascended 100 meters at a time, took a deep breath and continued. Mungpo was a great rest stop and a bit further up the hill we passed a school with a shop and the students were so very happy to see us and just couldn’t stop waving. The road was quite beautiful although a lot of our attention went to the crazy steepness. We still enjoyed the quiet and views it gave us. By 16:00 we had crossed a town named 3rd mile and were not sure to push through to Darjeeling. Luckily by now we had crossed 2200 meters and Darjeeling was a bit down so we made it into town. We decided to stay a few days in Darjeeling for some good food, cooler climate and social times so put some effort into finding a place to stay and were comfortable enough at Hotel Long Island on top of the hill with a great view and friendly people.
We feel good in Darjeeling, the air is fresh the people are friendly and we are not the only westerners around which makes traveling life easier sometimes. We are thinking very much about the next steps because Kathmandu is so very close and we need to make some decisions soon and are not so much ready for it. We are ready for a change but we don’t know yet which way to go. So we relax, read, write, walk around and talk with like minded people and slowly we expect the pieces of the puzzle to fall in its place.