What is a Shared Taxi in Sikkim and Darjeeling?
Although there are some public and private buses plying between the major cities and towns in Sikkim, Assam, and the Darjeeling and Kalimpong districts of West Bengal, they often prove to be insufficient. Also, if you are venturing out to not-so-big towns and quaint villages, you are not going to find any buses plying to those routes. However, please note that if you are planning to explore the remotest areas of these mountainous regions, you will not even find a shared taxi and your sole option of travel will be booking a reserved car. In fact, Darjeeling town is the capital of the Darjeeling district of West Bengal, and is one of the most sought-after tourist destinations in the state; but buses to and from Darjeeling are pretty rare. Nevertheless, booking a reserved car is a matter of money. That is why Shared Taxis are the preferred means of transportation for most of the local people. These are usually Tata Sumo or Bolero cars where you can just book a seat or two (depending on your requirements) instead of reserving the whole car, and travel with other fellow-passengers, like a minuscule bus.
Advantages of traveling in a shared taxi in Sikkim and Darjeeling
There are several reasons why the locals, and many budget tourists and backpackers, want to take the shared taxis instead of reserved cars. Let us see what are the advantages of using a shared cab instead of reserving a whole car.
1. Shared taxi is the frugal way of traveling
Well, it saves you money. And a lot of it. For example, if you want to book a prepaid taxi from Bagdogra Airport to Darjeeling, the cost for a hatchback will be around 3000 rupees, and for a minivan (like Innova) or a sedan, it is going to be roughly 1000-1500 rupees extra. In fact, outside the airport, you will find a line of private taxis eager to take you to Darjeeling, Gangtok, Pelling, or wherever you want. If you happen to be there in the tourist season, you need to negotiate a bit as most of the drivers will try to shell out as much money as they can from your pocket. Shared taxis, on the other hand, usually have a fixed rate. In the tourist season the rate increases a bit, but you get a proper receipt most of the time and don't need to negotiate. Even the locals will be paying the same fare as you. And how much do you need to shell out? Siliguri, the gateway to Sikkim and the North-East, is about 10 kilometers from the Bagdogra Airport. If you take a bus the fare is Rs. 20/-, and if you take an auto-rickshaw (or simply 'auto', the local name for what is known as 'Tuk Tuk' in many other parts of the world) it will be around 50 to 100 rupees, depending on how well you can negotiate. From Siliguri, a shared taxi to Darjeeling will be less than 200 rupees in off-seasons, and in the tourist season, about 250 rupees. So, what is your total cost if you are traveling as a couple or with a family of three to Darjeeling from Bagdogra? The auto fare will be same irrespective of the number of people traveling so let us assume it is 100 rupees. The average shared taxi fare is Rs. 200 per person so for three people it will be 600 rupees, or at most 750 in the tourist season. Thus, you can reach Darjeeling without spending even Rs. 1000/-, saving at least a couple of thousand bucks required to book a reserved vehicle. In fact, this is the prime reason why almost all locals, and a number of budget travelers, prefer to take the shared taxi to a reserved car. In fact, for me, this one reason is sufficient enough to always take shared taxis wherever available because that saves me several thousand rupees per trip, often enough to plan another backpacking tour!
2. You get a company.
Traveling alone in a reserved car in a long, winding mountainous route can be utterly boring, more so if you are a frequent traveler. The scenic beauty around you would not be as exciting as it was when you traveled for the first time. Sometimes, even first-time travelers begin to feel bored after an hour or two, when the scenery around you becomes repetitive. You won't risk talking to your chauffer much, because that could lead to distractions and ensuing disasters. And the winding roads will not even let you take a nap in peace. Dozing off in boredom, you wish you had some lovely people around you to converse. Instead, if you were traveling by the shared taxis, you had company. You would have lovely locals and other travel enthusiasts like you with whom you could start a conversation or two, if bored.
3. You get to know the locals.
As a frequent traveler to Darjeeling and Sikkim, I have started to pick up some of the local languages (mostly Nepalese), and it is fun to listen to the local co-passengers conversating among themselves. Although I do not understand them fully, I am mostly able to grasp the central idea. And that gives you a whole new experience: you get to know the place and local culture better, and almost have an insider experience. You get to know news and adages, jokes and miseries. You experience a priceless camaraderie. After all, a trip should always be more than hopping around a few attractions and taking photographs.
4. You get to see places out of your itinerary.
This is for most people a disadvantage of preferring a shared taxi to a reserved cab, but for some others, this is a boon in disguise. Since shared taxis ply between popular places, you may not always get a direct cab to your final destination. You need to break your journey twice or thrice, sometimes possibly more than that, often taking a little detour, and seeing new places on the way. For example, if you want to visit Pelling in Sikkim, you might not get a direct shared taxi from Siliguri, more so in the off-season. Your best bet will be to travel to Jorethang, and then take another to Geyzing. From Geyzing it is a steep upward journey to Pelling, which takes roughly half an hour by another shared cab (the last one is mostly a hatchback). Similarly, if you want to go to Ravangla from Siliguri, you should first take a shared taxi to Namchi and then another to Ravangla from Namchi. Such break-journeys and small detours often take longer durations, but you get to see new places out of your itinerary, free of cost.
5. The drivers are really good.
This is just because of their sheer acquaintance with the road. Since the drivers of shared taxis drive up and down the same road every day, sometimes even twice a day, they really know the roads well. Imagine if a driver is doing business for 25 days a month, for 10 years on an average (some of them have 20+ years of experience), that means a minimum of 3000 round trips. With that kind of experience and expertise, you get to know almost every pebble and every pothole on the road. Accidents still happen, but the occasions are rarer compared to privately operated vehicles.
Disadvantages of traveling in a shared taxi in Sikkim and Darjeeling
Every good thing comes with some downsides, and alongside the pros, there are some cons of the shared taxis as well. Let us see what problems you can face if you want to travel in a shared taxi instead of a reserved car in the Darjeeling-Sikkim area of the Eastern Himalayas.
1. Shared taxis can be really overcrowded.
Since the fare of the shared taxis are comparatively very less, the driver makes up the loss by cramping as many passengers as possible. In a Tata Sumo, taking 10 people is the norm (2 with the driver, 4 in the middle row, and 4 in the back seat). This can become really crampy at times – though I personally like to travel in such an overcrowded vehicle when the weather is really wintry and chilly outside. There is, however, one way to reduce your discomfort – to book an entire row for you or your family. For example, if you are two adults, with or without a kid, you can book the entire middle row of a Tata Sumo, thus getting the space entirely for yourself, still shelling out less than what you would have to spend for a reserved car. If you are travelling solo, your best bet is to book the two seats for yourself in the front seat, beside the driver. However, in order to get a preferable seat, you might have to reach early in the taxi stand. Sometimes, you may not get your preferred seats in the car that is scheduled to leave first, and instead, book your tickets in the car next in turn. This should not be a problem in the more popular routes with regular taxi services, but you should be careful trying this in less popular routes. If you leave a car because of the unavailability of your preferred seat, you might be stranded there for the day as the next car may be canceled for want of passengers. Usually, taxis ply before 3 pm in the afternoon, so if you are starting early, you will have a better choice and the luxury of time by your side.
2. Shared taxis can take time.
Unless the route is very popular, shared taxis usually do not leave unless full, as there is no certainty of getting passengers on the way. In popular routes, and in the tourist seasons particularly, the cabs get full really fast. In all other cases, a lot of waiting may be involved. Of course, if you want to wait for less amount of time, you always have the option to pay for the unclaimed seats yourself. But if you want to travel in a frugal manner, make sure you are not short of time.
3. Shared taxis may not be available for all the routes.
Not every place will have an option to travel by a shared taxi. Also, as already discussed above, you may not always find direct communication between point A and point B. You might need to undertake break journeys, and without a good understanding of the map and the routes of that area, you might find yourself a bit lost and puzzled.
4. Not having a car at your disposal.
Reserving a car means having a car at your disposal all the time. You can take rest stops whenever and wherever you want. In longer routes, shared taxis do offer rest stops, but only in predetermined places. Also, if you want to stop by a wayside fountain, or want to wait a bit and admire the beauty of a particular place, having a reserved car is always a better idea as the shared cab is not going to wait for you.
So, reserved car or shared taxi in Sikkim or Darjeeling?
What I personally do is, for point to point traveling I always look for shared options, while for local sightseeing I usually prefer a reserved car. For example, if I am traveling to Gangtok, I would take a shared taxi to reach the city from the Siliguri plains. The next day, while doing local sightseeing, or if I am going further uphill into more remote areas like North Sikkim or the Silk Route, I would reserve a car for the entire tour and have it at my disposal round the clock. I shall judiciously decide when to adjust a little to save some money, and when to prioritize comfort and convenience to enjoy and relish the new experiences to the fullest.
So, what is your opinion? Would you take a shared taxi or travel by the reserved cab in the Eastern Himalayas? Let me know in a comment below!