I am eating peanut butter straight from the jar with my hands. It’s not my finest moment but my body needs fuel: I have just cycled 20km at an altitude of over 2,000 metres. It is worth it, though. Around me is a thick pine forest under clear blue skies. In the distance I can see the Himalayas, notably Kanchenjunga, the third-highest mountain in the world.
I am testing out Darjeeling’s new cycle-only path, which runs through Senchal wildlife sanctuary, one of India’s oldest nature reserves. Darjeeling is reportedly the first hill station in the country to get such a trail, and it is a welcome escape from India’s diesel-belching vehicles and tooting horns.
The route, opened by the local authority at the beginning of January, runs from near Jorebunglow, south of Darjeeling, to Chatakpur, a small eco-village resort in west Bengal. Access to the trail costs about £1.20 a head for foreigners, half that for locals.
Cycling is growing in popularity among Indians, with dedicated groups of bike lovers springing up in Delhi, Mumbai and other cities. Lalit Pradhan, park ranger for western Senchal, says the path was opened in response to growing interest from both national and foreign tourists.
Our guide, Dawa Lama from Darjeeling-based Ashmita Trek and Tours, says: “The new generation of Indians like cycling for the health benefits, and also because it’s good for the environment.”
The route up to Chatakpur is not for the faint-hearted, though. The gravel path quickly becomes quite rugged and I find myself navigating large rocks, which is particularly tough when going uphill and at altitude.
When we arrive at Chatakpur, we are greeted by a friendly dog, warm hospitality and hot tea: a typical Darjeeling welcome. There are two guest cottages, set up by the forest division, each with two double bedrooms, and bathrooms with geysers for hot water. Tourists can come and relax, or seek out local wildlife including red panda, barking deer and clouded leopards.
Villagers open up their houses, too. Bal Bahadur, who runs Dhanmaya Niwas homestay, says the village now gets plenty of new visitors – in peak season, around 30 people a day. In summer, most of their guests come from India’s cities to escape the heat. International guests, on the other hand, tend to come between September and March.
“The cycle route is great,” Bahadur says. “I don’t like cars and motorbikes coming here: it’s bad for the animals. But bikes are environment-friendly. More tourists also mean more money to improve local infrastructure and provide bins.”
After an hour’s rest, it’s time to get on our bikes and ride back to our Darjeeling hotel. My legs are heavy and my hands aching, but at least it should now be more downhill than up.
• Bike hire, guide and access to Senchal wildlife sanctuary costs about £25pp through Ashmita Trek and Tours. The cycle path is closed during the clouded leopard breeding season (June-August)