Indian Observations

Words and Photography by Lisa de Speville


I’m tired and yawning. Even after spending most of the day with my head against the window of our minibus, asleep. Behind me, my four companions are still dozing. It’s dark outside and we’ve been in the vehicle for four hours. We leave Delhi early in the morning to travel to Agra, a 200-kilometre trip that takes an agonising six hours. The return journey is not dissimilar.

Day and night the single-lane road between the two massive cities is congested; the volume of traffic is inconceivable. We share this road with camels pulling large tractor-trailers of produce packed twice their height, vying for a place on the road with tuk-tuks—motorbikes bearing one to four people—buses, cars and bicycles.  People live in shacks on the road’s verge.

I briefly spot a body, covered by a glittering cloth and watched over by candles. No people are around it; and we pass by too quickly for me really to gawk. I spend the rest of the trip alert, looking for another as we slowly make our way back to Delhi.

The real reason for my visit to India is not to trawl the cities as a sheltered tourist in an air-conditioned van—although I do end up doing a bit of this. I have come to complete the 5-day, 160 kilometre Himalayan Stage Race (HSR), a race run in the Himalayan foothills below Kanchenjunga. Each day participants run measured distances, staying overnight near the stage’s finish. The race is mostly run within the Singalila National Park, 28km from Darjeeling on the India-Nepal border, where the mountains, trees, open spaces and few inhabitants are in stark contrast to the bustle and chaos of the overpopulated cities.

HSR, now in its eighteenth year, is organised by a colourful character, Mr C.S. Pandey. Rumours circulating the race camp whisper that Pandey is ex-military. High ranked. Special services. He worked for the President. Certainly his precise organisation, dedicated troop of event marshals, evident connections to the Indian army, government and tourism ministry support the chatter.

Pandey’s English is fluent, touched by a melodic accent. His sense of humour is well developed, his vocabulary is expansive (have you ever heard anyone use the word ‘bifurcation’ to describe a fork in the road?), and with each day’s race briefing I have cause to giggle, pinching my nose to silence my laughter. But not all of the event’s seventy-odd participants find Pandey funny, especially the British contingent. Pandey’s militant style seems to rub them up the wrong way.

Pre-race we are accommodated in the mountain town of Mirik, 50 kilometres from Darjeeling. Known for its lake, tea estates and monastery, the town is a pleasant introduction to India. We fly into Delhi and straight on to Bagdogra, past Mt Everest en route. Buses then haul us up a terrifyingly narrow and winding mountain road to Mirik. The day spent in the town before the run is indeed our first contact with India.

The race itself starts in Manebhanjang (muh-nee-buh-jhan), a village that lies as the gateway to the Singalila National Park. At 2150m above sea level, the village is only slightly higher than Johannesburg. I had been cautioned by a friend about the massive descent on the Day 3 stage; but received no warnings about the immediate ascent at the start. Two-hundred metres along the road I was walking up the steep switchbacks.

From here we climb into the clouds, covering 38 kilometres on the cobbled road, to reach Sandakphu (sun-duh-poo). At 3636m this small village sits atop the highest peak in India’s West Bengal state. The day is long and our calves scream for mercy. That night we feast on soup, rice and dhal before retreating to our hostel beds. Morning brings with it stage two, and we hope for Pandey’s promised sighting of Kanchenjunga (8856m), the World’s third highest mountain.

Rising at 4.30am, we braved the early chill to be rewarded with the mountain’s massive face. In the soft, clear light, she glistens and her distant neighbours, Everest, Lhotse and Makalu, are visible. She keeps us company until clouds creep up from the forested valleys below.

On the return route, Pandey emerges from the mist giving me, and the old Japanese runner, a bear hug. “Nature is your assistant today,” he says, referring to the inspirational view we’ve had of Kanchenjunga and the other mountains. “See, yesterday I said everything would be covered in cloud by 10.30am. Now my job is done and you have seen the mountains.”
Day 3’s stage takes us down, down, down to the warmer valley and I heed Pandey’s early advice to watch my footing on the uneven trail so as “not to be breaking your knees”. Although the stage is listed as marathon distance (42 kilometres), I’d bet on it being closer to 48km. Pandey takes a little teasing on this point. “We have measured it by bicycle, by foot device … but you can be sure it is two to three further,” Pandey tells us during the stage briefing.
“Miles or kilometres?” a runner asked, to laughter from the audience of competitors.
By the end of Stage 3 we are out of the high altitude zone and have only two short and fast road running stages left to complete.

Day 4’s route takes us away from the National Park and through small roadside villages where locals watch, sometimes clapping.

The people are friendly, especially if greeted with “Namaste”. 
One fellow shouts, “What country?” 
“South Africa,” I reply, impersonating a cricket batsman. As I run on, their laughter continues behind me. 
The final few kilometres of Stage 5 are blissfully downhill. We finish where we began five days earlier, on a road lined with Indian flags waved by local school children. The 160 kilometre course has taken us full circle. 
There’s good reason for the event’s high finishing rate and participant enjoyment. Pandey’s organisation is outstanding. The environment through which you run is breathtaking, the meals are delicious (and vegetarian friendly) and the villagers welcoming. The stages can be walked and Pandey accommodates runners who want to skip a stage to make a comeback the following day. I can tell of no falls, tragedies nor scary situations in these mountains. That said, village toilets are terrifying and best avoided.

The next day we are back in the air returning to Delhi and the waiting, lecherous taxi driver whom I met on my arrival. “Friend, friend—you’re my friend,” he says, leaning across the seat to try and hug me. On my first journey he’d suggested that I give him $50 on departure and that he’d like my digital camera too. The city and its people are very different from in the mountain areas.

One thing ‘my friend’ did knowingly suggest is that our departure for Agra should be before 5am the next morning. But we left only at 7am; thus a six-hour trip (each way) to see the impressive Taj Mahal. The classic photograph of Princess Diana sitting on a bench with the Taj Mahal in the background and no other visitors in sight bears little resemblance to my photograph, which shows hordes of people covering the grounds, paths and open floors. The marble buildings, intricate handcrafted inlays and decorative relief carvings are of course features you can appreciate only when you are there.The Taj Mahal is a mausoleum, not a palace, built in memory of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan’s favourite wife Mumtaz Mahal. She died giving birth to their 14th child. Mumtaz wasn’t Shah’s one and only. She was one of four wives and some 750 concubines ... The next day, a Sunday, we travel from this World Heritage Site to another in Old and New Delhi. The monuments and buildings we visit are fascinating; but sadly our whirlwind tour does them little justice.

Back in our air-conditioned vehicle we squeeze down narrow streets, staring at vendors plying unfamiliar vegetables, chickens in cages (killed and gutted on the street) and raw meat lying on tables. Crowds move down alleys like an endless conveyor belt; yet our guide says these Sunday streets are quiet. On this outing we are spectators, watching the people, streets and traffic through the vehicle’s windows. We don’t mingle with the masses, soil our shoes in the filth that litters the streets, nor barter in markets.
Where I felt comfortable in the mountains, welcomed by friendly villagers, I am saddened and overwhelmed by what I see in the cities. I now understand what a population of 1,2 billion people means, and I witness smoky pollution so severe that the sun appears to be nothing more than a hazy blob in the sky. As a government, how do you cope with implementing and improving sanitation, utilities, refuse removal and housing for millions and millions? In South Africa we have only 49 million to worry about. 
I will return to India without hesitation. There is so much to see and learn about this country and its history, which is so foreign to my own. And now that I’ve seen the Himalayan Mountains—in person—they remain a lure.

For more information visit India’s Ministry of Tourism, Himalayan Stage Race and Mr J.P. Shaw at Incredible India (Craighall Park, Johannesburg) on (011) 325-0880.