Solo #motorcycle ride to #Sikkim

Tripoto
8th Nov 2019
Photo of Solo #motorcycle ride to #Sikkim by Don Das
Photo of Solo #motorcycle ride to #Sikkim 1/1 by Don Das
Arriving at Siliguri

Beauty, peace, freedom. If I were to choose three words for my trip to Sikkim, I would choose those. I had been planning this trip for more than a year. And what a trip it was. The timing couldn't have been better this year around and everything just fell in place. And the best part of this trip was that it was a solo motorcycling trip.

It all started by me sending the motorcycle by train till Siliguri and boarding the train to Siliguri. I met a Bengali family, in the train and watched cheezy Govinda movies on the husband's phone all the way till Siliguri. I arrived at 3.00 am and off loaded my motorcycle without any incident. I had some trouble in finding petrol, but not much. I had booked a lodge, I went there, spent the night and it was mostly uneventful.

Photo of Siliguri, West Bengal, India by Don Das
Day 2

In the morning I took the motorcycle to a mechanic nearby for a quick checkup. There were a few knick knacks that I got fixed. My ride to Gangtok started late morning. The beauty of Sikkim began with the Teesta river flowing with me all the way. The curvy roads through the forest with trees and greenery all around. I stopped for a late lunch at Rangpo as soon as I entered Sikkim. The small restaurant was strategically located at a curve, providing a beautiful scenic view of the mountains and the tantalizing Teesta river. Late in the evening I arrived at the Club Mahindra resort in Gangtok where I had already done my booking. Beautiful resort, comfortable, with the balcony facing the most scenic mountains I have seen.

There were three places I wanted to see in Sikkim.

1. Lachen -> Gurudongmar lake,

2. Lachung -> Yumthang -> Zero Point

3. and Nathula Pass -> Zuluk.

I needed permits to go to these places and I found out that no help will be provided to me at the resort around permits unless I hire th. I will have to ask around. I just had one day booking at the club mahindra. And 2 days later. I was hoping I will cover most of Sikkim in between, rest 2 days and then go back home. Fate had other plans for me.

The weather was pink, I was tired, I ordered a local chicken recipe and didn't realize when I went off to sleep.

Day 3

Next morning I found out that I would require all my documents in order and have to submit them before 1.00 pm and only then would I be able to go the next day. I had to spend the night at Sikkim. I booked a homestay and the owner of the homestay (Mani) would arrange for the permissions. But for that I needed my motorcycle's Pollution Under Control (PUC) certificate. And I had forgotten to get it. There was only one PUC center in Gangtok which was closed on Sundays. I didn't want to waste the day so I did some research. Found out that there was another PUC center in Rangpo. I took my bike and raced down 50 kms and found out that's closed on Sunday too. Nothing could have been done. So I called up my Mani from my homestay and he suggested that instead of wasting the day I should visit Namchi and Ravangla (Rabungla). Now interestingly if I hadn't raced down to Rangpo, I would have taken a very different route to these places from Gangtok and I would have completely missed out the curvy road through the forest. It was almost as if fate wanted me to go experience the serenity. I had lunch at a local restaurant there and the lady at the restaurant wouldn't stop talking. She talked about her brother who is in the Border Security Force and her house in Lachen and so many other things. Interestingly you don't need a bar license to sell liquor in most parts of Sikkim. This was one such place. I went back to the homestay after visiting Namchi and Rabungla in the evening, it was chilly around 10 degrees celcius, I had a nice chicken dinner and slept off contented.

Day 2: Serenity from Rangpo to Namchi and Rabungla

Ravangla also known as Rabong La

Photo of Ravangla, Sikkim, India by Don Das
Day 5

Day 5: Quaint and Quiet Lachen

The Quaint village of Lachen

Photo of Lachen, Sikkim, India by Don Das

I woke up bright and early, had my bread omelet and coffee, cleaned my helmet visor, tightened my brakes and left for Lachen. I talked to the homestay and he kept most of my luggage in the locker room. I carried the bare minimum. I had found out that the last petrol pump was in a place called Mangan. I was supposed to fill my petrol tank to the fullest there and then cover Lachen, Gurudongmar, Lachung, Yumthang, Zero Point and come back to Mangan. I knew one tank wasn't enough so I bought to empty 2L edible oil cans for 60 rupees, washed them, filled them with petrol and tied them to the motorcycle. I geared up by wearing my inner thermal jacket and off I went. The river Teesta was always there with me. The mountains were ever so beautiful. The roads were horrible. Scenic, serene but horrible to ride on. I reached Lachen in the evening. I found a homestay. There was no mobile signal. The owner of the homestay in Lachen had a BSNL mobile phone. I asked him to share his hotspot for a moment so I could share my arrival and homestay details with the family. Then I went for a walk down around the Lachen village. Small quaint village, with no people out on the roads. It was less than 6 degrees celcius and everyone was in their houses or small shops. There were small shops that had a common design. A small fire in the middle with a wooden chimney. And usually a kettle on top of the fire always. Everyone would sit around the fire and warm water would be offered to anyone who entered the shop. Old Monk was always available in every shop if one was too cold.

I could already feel the lack of oxygen. But I was a big man. I walked around for a while talking to the local people, eating a little snack here having a little tea there. Then I went back to the home stay, had my dinner. The room was very comfortable with two thick layers of blanket. I slept.

Day 6

Day 6: Beautiful and Ruthless Gurudongmar Lake

Photo of Gurudongmar Lake, Sikkim by Don Das
Photo of Gurudongmar Lake, Sikkim by Don Das
Day 7

Day 7: The beauty of Yumthang and Zero Point

Photo of Yumthang, Sikkim, India by Don Das
Photo of Yumthang, Sikkim, India by Don Das

On our way back we stopped for lunch. The system is the bread and butter that I had bought in the morning, I have to give it to the shop owner, which by the way is by now frozen in the cold. They heat it up and put omelet on the bread and give it back to you. Best bread omelet you have ever eaten in your life. We enquired about Yak meat. It was too early. The yak come back when the winter picks up towards end of December. I bought a few souvenirs. We rode back and were back to Lachung before 3.00 pm. We shared phone numbers and bade goodbye. I took the rest of the day off.

At night, it was again freezing cold. I took my hip flask and climbed the stairs to the restaurant. Simple chicken dinner and some warm water with old monk. As I had my dinner, we talked about local politics and how the sarpanch of North Sikkim rules the area like a king, how the people have come to accept him as their leader and how things are perhaps better than democracy there. Simple thoughts and beliefs of the people of the village. Interestingly, the Yaks are not branded with hot iron or anything. People just recognize their yaks by their faces. There is also a designated person living in the mountains who is called upon to resolve any conflicts that may arise around the ownership of the yaks. Interesting conversations about a simpler life. I was still thinking about how different life is on the mountains once I was back in the room as I drifted off to sleep.

Day 8

Day 8 and 9: In Gangtok

Photo of Gangtok, Sikkim, India by Don Das
Day 11

Day 11: Muzaffarpur, Bihar

Photo of Muzaffarpur, Bihar, India by Don Das
Day 12

Day 12: Swagat nahi karoge hamara

I woke up next morning, packed up and checked out. I was cleaning my helmet visor, tightening the brakes, tying my luggage (the works every morning) when the security guard at the hotel came over and gave me a salute expecting a tip. I gave him some money and he started small talk. He asked, me where I am going. I said "Banaras". He said, "ok". I was hurt. You see all these days, whenever I told someone where I am from and where I am going, they would be astounded, surprised, shocked even. But this security guard said "Ok". I thought, he probably doesn't know where Banaras is. So I repeated, "Banaras, Uttar Pardes", in a Bihari accent. It was the security guard's turn to be hurt. He said he knew where Banaras is. He said the Kashi Vishwanath jyotirling temple is in Banaras and then he started speaking a long and complex shlok in Sanskrit that named all the 12 Jyotirlings and where they are. Kashi Vishwanath in Banaras, Somnath in Gir, Mallikarjun in Srisailam and so on. And he said that whoever speaks the names of these Jyotirlings every day will have their sins washed off. He was a brahmin by varna and by knowledge. Security guard was just his job. Sometimes the most unlikely mundane people will shock you and teach you respect.

I rode on and entered Uttar Pradesh. The tea had a lot of sugar in Bihar and UP and so did the people's tongues. They would welcome you and talk to you like they know you for years. Soon I entered Banaras and I sent a text to Amit, "Swagat nahi karoge hamara…" He didn't know I was coming. He was pleasantly surprised.

Day 13

Day 13 - 16: Marriage at Village Amihit, Jilla Jaunpur, Banaras

Photo of Banaras, Uttar Pradesh, India by Don Das
Photo of Banaras, Uttar Pradesh, India by Don Das

Day 2: Arriving at Gangtok

Photo of Solo #motorcycle ride to #Sikkim by Don Das

Next morning I found out that I would require all my documents in order and have to submit them before 1.00 pm and only then would I be able to go the next day. I had to spend the night at Sikkim. I booked a homestay and the owner of the homestay (Mani) would arrange for the permissions. But for that I needed my motorcycle's Pollution Under Control (PUC) certificate. And I had forgotten to get it. There was only one PUC center in Gangtok which was closed on Sundays. I didn't want to waste the day so I did some research. Found out that there was another PUC center in Rangpo. I took my bike and raced down 50 kms and found out that's closed on Sunday too. Nothing could have been done. So I called up my Mani from my homestay and he suggested that instead of wasting the day I should visit Namchi and Ravangla (Rabungla). Now interestingly if I hadn't raced down to Rangpo, I would have taken a very different route to these places from Gangtok and I would have completely missed out the curvy road through the forest. It was almost as if fate wanted me to go experience the serenity. I had lunch at a local restaurant there and the lady at the restaurant wouldn't stop talking. She talked about her brother who is in the Border Security Force and her house in Lachen and so many other things. Interestingly you don't need a bar license to sell liquor in most parts of Sikkim. This was one such place. I went back to the homestay after visiting Namchi and Rabungla in the evening, it was chilly around 10 degrees celcius, I had a nice chicken dinner and slept off contented.

Day 4: Old and Mystic Rumtek Monastery

Old Rumtek Monastery

Photo of Solo #motorcycle ride to #Sikkim by Don Das

I woke up, had a nice cup of coffee and break omelet and left with my documents. I got the PUC done at the PUC center. There was this girl named Neha who worked for the owner of my homestay. I met her at the market, she collected my documents and went off. I had the day to myself, so I decided to go visit the Rumtek Monastery. It was an hour drive, I had heard. I would get to the monastery around 11.00 and back at the homestay around lunch. I had thought I would probably either walk around at MG Marg or spend the rest of the day relaxing. I fired up Google Maps and spent the rest of the day lost in the mountains. Google Maps sucks in Sikkim. No regrets though. I saw how they do farming in the mountains, experienced the people, the food the culture. I reached the old monastery around 3.00 pm, there was a monk chanting and playing a cymbal and a drum while he prayed. Quite an experience…!

There is also a new monastery, by the way, which is a tourist spot. It is the old monastery where the actual prayers happen. Nothing to see in the new one. I reached the homestay late in the evening. It was chilly and was getting colder. I had a spicy local recipe of mutton with roti.

I had received the documents and the permit to go to Lachen, Lachung and Nathula. I made copies lots of copies. There was another guest at the homestay. He was also on a motorcycle and was coming back from Lachen. I wanted to talk to him about his experience. I was especially concerned about the petrol situation. There are no petrol pumps up in the mountains. He came late in the night. I had a talk with him. He had had a panic attack on his way to Gurudongmar because of the lower levels of oxygen.

As I lay in bed later, I decided in my head that I am big and strong and will manage the lower levels of oxygen. I decided I won't get a panic attack. It was getting colder… I drifted off.

The thing about Gurudongmar Lake is the conditions and here's the conditions. There is no road for 40 kms. No road. So what is there? There are rocks. Rocks on which you need to ride your motorcycle. Rocks that are not fixed in the ground. Rocks that move around. So you could land on a rock and it could move and you could lose balance. But it is not just the rocks. On one side there is the cliff. If you fall off, nobody will even find your body. I mean nobody can and nobody will even try. Your cold dead body will rot and animals will feast on it. But it is not just the cliffs. There is very little oxygen to work with and considering you just rose 9000 feet to Lachen and were going to rise another 9000 feet the next day, there is no chance in hell that your body can acclimatize. But it is not just the roads, the height and the darkness. It is cold. So cold that your bones shiver. And it is not just that. If you want to get to Gurudongmar, you need to wake up at 3.00 am and ride at 4.00 in the morning when the temperature is subzero. And that's thing about Gurudongmar lake. I left at 4.00. It was dark, cold, no roads, no visibility and the big man was now aware how big he really was. Bouncing and turning and shivering and stopping I soldered on. The only respite was the small shops with the fire and the kettle every hour or so. There was a lot of military movements and I was overtaking tanks and that's when I hit my panic attack moment. Ok it wasn't much of a panic attack but close to.

There was a stream that was passing over the road and this was a common sight on the mountains. And the water had started freezing so it was a bit slippery. I had experienced the slipperiness of the streams so I was careful and slow. But this time I couldn't control the motorcycle. I kept my foot on the ground but the motorcycle kept slipping and the same motorcycle that I ride everyday just felt so heavy that I had to slowly lay it on the ground. I can't call it "fallen" because it hadn't really, but I had to pick it up now. That required muscle exertion. And that required Oxygen. After a great effort, as the stream was slippery and the bike kept slipping when you try to lift it, I was able to raise it, but by that time was panting like I had run a marathon. The lack of oxygen does that to you. The air goes in and out, but the lungs are starved. At a time like this if you panic, your heart beats faster which means more oxygen required and you don't get enough so you get more scared. Luckily I had talked to the rider yesterday and I knew better. I put my motorcycle on the side stand and went and sat down for a moment closing my eyes. I breathed long and deep breaths and slowly recovered. Does make you think though. Something as simple as oxygen that we constantly breathe all our lives, how we take it for granted.

The lake was beautiful. Blue water, mountains capped with snow all around. But you can't stay there more than a few minutes. The lack of oxygen gets to you. I saw some people who had come there in a car faint. Others had headaches. Mine didn't start until I was half way down but once it hit, it was worse than a migraine. I went to the homestay in Lachen and and the owner gave me a dispirin. I took a small nap and I was better.

I was supposed to get to Lachung and it was already afternoon. I had to leave in a hurry I took the two cans of petrol that I had filled at Mangan and filled them into the tank. Packed my bags, bade goodbye to the homestay owner and left. The road was again, beautiful, scenic but ruthless. There were potholes everywhere and it was a climb down so I had to be even more careful. It started getting dark and I was getting tired. It was dark and quiet with absolutely no traffic and in the dead of the night I saw a red spark light up. It was two riders smoking a cigarette. I stopped and had a chat with them. One of the riders' names I remember was Amit. The other I don't remember. They were from Siliguri and had been riding with me since the last two days. I didn't notice but they noticed me. They were there at Gangtok, Mangan, Lachen, Gurudongmar and finally here. They told me about Lachung, about Yumthang and Zero Point and how I should plan the rest of the trip. There was some amount of planning until now but most of it was ad hoc. Every morning I would wake up and decide what to do. And that's what I intended to do the rest of the trip.

I reached my homestay at Lachung. The owner of this homestay was the same as the one at Gangtok. He had made the arrangements. I took a hot shower changed and went to the restaurant with my hip flask filled with old monk. There was a 19 or so old boy working there named Prakash who was actually from Rabungla. Simple boy trying to make a living. I asked him what time I should leave if I wanted to go to zero point. He said the roads are not that bad, and that I can easily get there and come back in 5 hours. But people usually leave early at 5.00 am. I was tired, I had done Gurudongmar today. I wanted to sleep. I told him I will be waking up late, I won't need breakfast till at least 8.00 am. It was cold… freezing. He gave me warm water to mix my old monk with. I had a simple dinner. I slept… like a baby.

I woke up late. Freshened up and went to get my coffee and bread omelet. Bread omelet is the standard breakfast in most of Sikkim. I was leaving when he suggested that I carry some bread and butter with me. He said you don't get a lot of food up in the mountains. Also, my gloves were not for such freezing winters so I should buy some locally. He said they are expensive and that I should have bought them at Rangpo or somewhere. I enquired and found out they were 450 rupees. My gloves that were not for such extreme winters, were 6500 rupees. The concept of "expensive" varies from place to place. I bought them and the bread and butter. The gloves were nice. Completely protected me from the harsh winter winds while riding. Rather comfortable. I rode. My first stop was a small natural hot spring. I didn't walk up to the spring, but I went into one of the small shops near the highway for a cup of tea. When I came out of the shop, I met Amit. The guy I met in the dead of the night yesterday. I was surprised because people usually leave early. I was more than 4 hours late. Interestingly he was too. His partner had taken ill and couldn't ride today so he got delayed. We rode together to Yumthang valley and then to Zero Point. We talked, and had tea and smoked and took photos.

After Gurudongmar I came to Gangtok. Weather was comparatively warmer. 6 - 8 degrees. I had my reservation at the club mahindra for the next two days in Gangtok. I took my luggage from the locker room in the homestay and moved there. It is a beautiful resort. Probably the best Club Mahindra property I have been to so far. The two days weren't very happening. I had decided to relax and spoil myself. There was no signal, so I was almost disconnected from the rest of the world. There was no signal in Lachen, Lachung either. Went downtown to M. G Marg (where there was signal) and walked around a bit. Came back, slept some more, watched TV some more and the two days zipped past.

Day 10

Day 10: Nathula Pass, Zuluk and Rangpo

Photo of Solo #motorcycle ride to #Sikkim by Don Das
Photo of Solo #motorcycle ride to #Sikkim by Don Das
Photo of Solo #motorcycle ride to #Sikkim by Don Das

I packed up and checked out on Day 9. The plan was to go to Nathula Pass and then to Zuluk via the silk route and stay the night. Next morning I would leave for Siliguri via Rangpo. I had a train from Siliguri to Varanasi where I was going to meet Amit for his brothers' marriage. So no need to come back to Gangtok. I decided to meet the guy at the homestay (Mani) one last time before I left. I went to the homestay, had my bread omelet and coffee one last time, cleaned my helmet visor, tightened my brakes and off I went. The ride to Nathula Pass was pleasant. Border Roads Organization (BRO) had done a good job. The roads were winding, but no potholes, etc. like the other roads that I had experienced so far. Nathula Pass, if you ask me, isn't really as scenic as the other places that I had visited so far, except for Tsongma (Changu) lake. And there was a crowd. A huge one. I had fans. People were astounded that I am doing the ride solo and that I have come all the way from Hyderabad. They took photos with me.

From there I left for Zuluk and entered the most scenic place I have ever seen in my life. Better than Yumthang. Better than Gurudongmar. Better than Lachen. You can see the winding roads below you. And then those winding roads run into the clouds... Below you... Yes at this point, you are above the clouds... While I was riding down on Silk Route, I would ride into the clouds and come out of them the other side. And no traffic. Not a soul. A quaint tea shop perhaps, where I would stop and have tea, but that's about it. It is an experience that cannot be described. It is an experience that cannot be had even if you go there by car. You have to be there in person and you have to ride. I took photos and even they don't do justice. Indescribable happiness.

I reached Zuluk and it was too early in the day, I could have retired for the day, but I decided to ride on. After Zuluk, the road to Rangpo and Siliguri is not pleasant. We are back to Sikkim roads which have more potholes on the road than roads. After an arduous ride, I reached Rangpo. It was already sun down and I decided to find a place to stay and spend the night. I didn't want to ride in the dark and I was tired. I found a place near the Teesta river, had dinner and slept to the sounds of the flowing Teesta.

Bright and early I woke up, packed up and checked out. Rangpo is the last city on the West Bengal - Sikkim border. I bade farewell to Sikkim and left. The Teesta flowing right next to me almost all the way till Siliguri. I had saved a day the train was day after tomorrow. I could have stayed back at a hotel today and tomorrow and left by train the day after. But what's the fun in that…! I stopped for tea and cancelled my train ticket. It was still wait listed so I didn't lose much money. I decided to ride on. I crossed West Bengal and into Bihar. Around lunch time I stopped at a dhaba and decided to have lunch. Now all these days I was in West Bengal and Sikkim. The people there were very nice. Now I had entered Bihar. While I was having lunch inside the dhaba, my motorcycle was outside, loaded with my luggage. I was a little worried so I seated myself so that I could get a view. There were a few people I saw who were looking at my motorcycle intently and then turning back and looking at me. I finished my lunch quickly and went out. The people were still looking. While I was cleaning my helmet visor and tightening my brakes, I asked one of the guys, "Puchiye, kya puchenge…", with a smile. He said, "Kahaan ka motorcycle hai, TS registration wala…?" I said, "Telangana State… Hyderabad ka motorcycle hai…" turns out they were just curious. There was no malicious intent. In my travels I have learnt that people are generally intrinsically good. We just stereotype them and assume things. If it is Bihar, you better beware. And that's what's going wrong with the country today. But I will ramble about that some other day.

I was planning to stay over at Darbhanga, Bihar that night but the highway was big and straight (not winding) and it was an absolute pleasure finally riding on such a big highway. Another thing worth mentioning, that I encountered was smoke. Farmers were burning their crops all over and there was smoke for more than 250 kms. It was a sight to be seen. Not a pleasant one, but a sight nonetheless. I crossed Darbhanga early in the evening, so I kept riding on. The next big town was Muzaffarpur. I reached there a little late in the evening. Found a hotel there and stayed the night.

The day I reached Amihit, which is Amit's village, in Jaunpur, Banaras, it was his cousin sister's marriage. His brother's marriage was a few days later. That night was a little busy for him. I reached, freshened up a little and walked around his well decorated house eating, gulab jamuns, chats and other stuff that you eat at weddings. But soon I was pooped because of all the riding that I had done. It was late in the night too. So I slept off. I woke up next morning after the bidai and the next few days were relaxed. I had the most interesting experience there.

Everyone there does datoon of the neem tree. No toothbrush and toothpaste. Those things are available, but people prefer the datoon. Amit is the eldest brother and there is a lot of respect for elders in UP. All the younger brothers would be at his beck and call. Food would be served in your hands, you don't have to move a muscle if you don't want to. One of the younger brothers would go milk the cow. Then tea would come and the three days were very relaxing. It was a family of armed forces. Members of the family had been in border security force and the police force. I got to handle a custom rifle for the first time in my life.

The simplicity of the village life. Three of us went to a saloon to get a hair cut and ended up getting a head massage and a facial. The total cost was 60 Rupees...!

I met Chaudhury Sahab there. He was Amit's friends from Hyderabad. We drove down in a car to Triveni Sangam and took a boat ride. Saw the sangam of Ganga, Jamuna and Saraswati.

Then Naresh, Sudhanshu, Varundev and a few other friends came over a day before the marriage and we had some fun together at the wedding. There was a campfire night after the wedding, a few goats were bought and cut and we had mutton. There was some drinking and a lot of laughing.

Day 17: Back to Hyderabad

Photo of Solo #motorcycle ride to #Sikkim by Don Das
Photo of Solo #motorcycle ride to #Sikkim by Don Das

I loaded the motorcycle on a train and sent it by railways to Hyderabad and took a flight back home. It was a trip that is notched up in my brain forever. I don't think I will ever forget it. There was absolutely nothing that went wrong. Everything was good from day 1 till day 16. Every single day was an experience that changed me.

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