Raxhaul, Bihar. Tuesday 22nd November 2022
Sikkim was my next destination, land of mountains and tea. I was more than happy to leave that crappy border town hotel and hit the road. It took me a couple of days to make up the distance eastwards that I’d lost by having to backtrack westwards for the border crossing from Nepal, but eventually I arrived in Siliguri, West Bengal, and the gateway town to Sikkim.
Sikkim sits almost entirely in the Himalayan foothills and includes Kangchenjunga, India’s highest peak and the third highest in the world. Its other key feature is that much of the state borders with Chinese Occupied Tibet, which means the security forces hold sway here. Although it was included in the British Raj, and became part of India at the time of Indian independence, it had a Monarchy up until 1975. Anti royalist riots had taken place in 1973, leading to a referendum in which the Monarchy was abolished, and Sikkim became India’s 22nd state.
The security situation required that I do some planning as to what kind of permits I needed in order to visit all the nice places I had on my list. Some where so close to the Chinese border that they were completely off limits to foreigners. Others were in Prohibited Areas, and so needed a special permit for each of them. But most of Sikkim was regarded as a Restricted Area anyway and required a Restricted Area Permit, otherwise known as an Inner Line Permit. I prefer the second name as it has a slightly more adventurous sound to it.
With plans made I left Siliguri and was stopped at Melli, where I obtained my ILP. I had to go into one office to fill in forms and provide copies of my passport and visa.Then I took that nicely stamped form to another office where they issued me with the permit, valid for thirty days. All for free. Easy, peasy. Then, after a coffee break at a conveniently sited café, I headed up into the hills, destination Pelling. What was in Pelling? Hills, views and an old Buddhist monastery. It seemed like a good place to start.
It sits up at 1800 metres so the road, inevitably, was mostly upwards. At first it followed a river and provided some stunning views down into the steep valleys. The river below was green and deep, giving an aura of something both majestic and relentless. The road was rough in places, quite often with a stony surface, almost certainly not helped by the passage of trucks. When I came to Pelling it just seemed to be a row of huts so I carried on to Upper Pelling, where I found a couple of guest houses run by two brothers. Fortunately one had a vacant room. It was dark by now and on the way up the rough track I’d bashed one of my panniers against a jutting out rock. I knew I had some repairs to do now. It was quite cold at night so I had to dig out the warm clothing, tucked away in one of my panniers.
I’d planned to walk up to see the old monastery but when I got up next day I wasn’t feeling too great. I did go out for a walk but just couldn’t face the steep hill leading up to it. So I decided not to bother. Instead I spent my time wielding knife and cable ties to repair the strap that the rock/pannier interface had torn off.
When I left Pelling I had a plan to get to Gangtok, Sikkim’s capital. I’d discovered that I had to go there to get a Prohibited Area Permit. On the way was a place called The Buddha Park. The photos posted on Google Maps made it look worth stopping there. It was on the top of a hill, unsurprisingly, and opposite the entrance was a café. Also unsurprisingly, I needed a coffee. When I went to pay the owner the Rs50 price I offered her a Rs500 note, asking if she had change. She said No and that I must have it. I knew she was lying and I showed her the total of Rs40 in small notes, tucked in my wallet. Rather than go without the Rs10 she totally lost face by opening the draw next to her knee and giving me the change I knew she had all along. I was amused, although I don’t know what The Buddha might have made of it all.
The park was beautifully laid out, with steps down to a central area where fountains sprayed their pretty patterns. There was a small Buddha statue in the middle of them and, whether by accident or design, the sunlight shining through the water spray created a rainbow arc right over it. It looked very spiritual, even to me.
Another steep set of steps took me up to the temple, finely decorated on the outside. Inside the walls were covered in typical temple artwork, with paintings illustrating various scenes from Buddhist stories. The Buddha statue that sat on top of the temple was massive, in contrast to the one inside, which was quite small. But with everything painted gold, it all came across as very impressive.
Here’s a little tale that The Buddha would probably have laughed at. I have a mixed relationship with Google Maps. One the one hand I’ve rather come to rely on them as they do such an excellent job, not only of directing me to my destination, but of providing huge amounts of useful information. And as they’re interactive, people can upload photos and make comments about them.
But on the other hand the software can also be so focussed on the shortest and quickest route that it sends you off down tiny roads, which might theoretically save four minutes but which take you onto roads you don’t really want to ride. As I came down out of Pelling it directed me to go left, down a steep track, which I suddenly saw had been covered in loose earth and rubble. It probably looked worse than it was but rather than take a chance I turned the bike round and went back onto the main road. Having wimped out I now found I had an extra 12kms to ride, along a road that was undergoing a major upgrade. Rough, muddy and crowded with slow moving trucks, I felt the short cut couldn’t have been worse after all.
So next time Google offered a ‘better’ route, I took it. As I turned into the road I should have been alerted by the fact that there were two trucks parked there, almost blocking the road. But I carried on, feeling I owed it to Google to keep going. The road became a track, but that was OK. It went past a few houses, sitting among the trees. By now it was more like a path, which promptly took me down over a rock step, about 200mm high. I remember thinking, “I’m glad I’m not going to have to ride up that!”. But sure enough, the path narrowed even more until I couldn’t get through. Fortunately I was able to turn around and, with a bit of determination and a bruised knee, I managed to get back up that rock step at the second attempt. Back out past the houses, where I stopped for breath and told the woman there that I’d got lost. She neither understood nor cared.
Once in Gangtok I eventually found the permit office. The policeman there told me I needed to obtain the permit via a travel agent, also stating that I needed to go with at least one other person because I’m a foreigner. But he said the travel agent should be able to arrange that. I parked the bike and walked into the pedestrianised town centre. It looked really nice, with a wide area that had shops on either side and with flowers and seats running down the middle. Busy with people and generally looking modern and attractive.
I chose a travel agent from among many on offer and made my pitch. A pleasant young lady confirmed what the policeman had said. I was unable to go on my own. I was unable to go on my bike anyway. I’d have to use a car with a guide. I didn’t ask how much that might cost because I simply wasn’t going to do it, even if she could have found another person. Even so, she got on the phone to an official who, after asking her to look at various items of my documentation, confirmed what she’d told me – no go solo! So that was that. Time for coffee and cake.
After some consideration I decided to head north and upwards, to a place on my visit list called called Lachen. The photos on Google Maps mostly showed people playing in the snow but it looked like it was worth visiting and didn’t need the extra permit. It was too far to reach with the time I had left and after some riding I found a homestay. The narrow, twisty road had wandered along the side of a hill with mossy, damp rocks on either side, surrounded by sub tropical vegetation. It had the aura of taking me to lost places.
The homestay was run by a guy who spoke excellent English, as did his wife, brother and father. It was good to be able to sit and chat with them over coffee. Sumir’s wife works for the state forestry organisation while he and his brother look after the farm. They only grew rice and vegetables this year due to lack of labour. But will plant coffee next year. They have plans to create a series of rice terraces, similar to Tegallang, in Bali. That place is a huge tourist attraction, which they’d like to emulate on a smaller scale. Goats and chickens are also part of their produce. The evening meal was, by contrast, vegetarian.
I was invited to sit with them around their evening mini-bonfire and we chatted. Sinhul told me that Sikkim’s main language was Nepali, which surprised me initially but also made geographical sense, given that Nepal is just to the west. That’s the only language that children learn unless they go to a private school, in which case they’ll learn English. But not Hindi, which may seem odd but is quite a common situation. I really enjoyed sitting and chatting with the family, answering their questions about England and the other places I’d visited.
Night time was chilly at this elevation – 1,300 metres or so. So next morning I was glad to be able to join the family, sitting in the sunny corner of the courtyard, and drink tea, made the English way. Sumir was telling me that they have problems with Himalayan bears killing the goats and chickens. They’re quite small, so are not a danger to humans. Life is definitely different up in the Himalaya.
After breakfast I carried on towards Lachan. The road was good at first, following a milky blue river, down in its valley. But once I’d rejoined the main road back came the road construction crews. Because of the way their trucks break up the surface, and with all the water that’s around, some of the sections become really slippery and difficult. I always feel at risk of losing grip and dropping the bike. So how do you think I felt when a young lad on a small sports bike, dressed in standard Indian riding gear of jogging bottoms and flip flops, came charging past me like he was out on a Sunday ride? Inadequate is the word!
I had to stop several times while diggers, having torn out the side of a cliff, loaded the rubble up into trucks which took it away. They were partly making the cliffs safe, partly widening the road. But it gave me the opportunity to practice my slow control riding and obstacle avoidance skills as I followed the trucks away.
After a while I came to a police checkpoint and discovered that I had misunderstood the information I had about Lachen. It was very definitely in a prohibited area and I was told, once again, to go to and get a permit. An opportunity to practice my 180 degree turns then, followed by my coffee searching skills. Thus fortified I headed back into the trenches to do battle with the roadworks once more.
Feeling a bit fed up with the lack of success in my explorations, I cut the day short a bit. I found a homestay off the main road, hidden up a track in the middle of a tea plantation. The family made me very welcome, with tea, biscuits and and a good room.
The plantation is organic, as is the food the family grow for their vegetarian meals. Their stove uses wood, which made the dining area a bit smoky, but it was all in keeping with the lifestyle. None of them worked on the plantation but the father and mother mostly worked their land and milked their one cow. The rest of the family worked for the state government. A very bucolic lifestyle and nice people with it.
Soon after leaving the homestay I stopped at a viewpoint, looking out across a tea plantation. There was an array Buddhist flags there. A local guy started chatting to me so I asked him to explain the different colours to me. It goes like this: blue represents the sky; white for the clouds; red for the sun; green for plants; yellow for land. I’d seen lots of white flags along the side of the road as I rode around this area.
This estate was the Temi Tea Estate and a bit further along was the entrance to the factory. I paid for a tour round it, where I was shown how the plucked leaves are dried, rolled, chopped and packed. A lovely smell too. I’d visited a tea factory somewhere else on the trip but I was quite happy to do it again. At the roadside was a stall where I had a cuppa made with tea from the Temi estate.
I mentioned that the plantation is organic. In fact, all agriculture in Sikkim became organic between 2003 and 2016. They’ve banned polystyrene containers throughout the state and discourage the use of plastic bottles. It was the first of India’s states to take these steps.
Refreshed, I carried on with the ride, arriving in the town of Namchi. I had two temples to visit, one Buddhist and one Hindu. Samdruptse was the Buddhist one, up on top of a hill, naturally. But unusually, no steps to climb, apart from into the building. If I said I kind of missed climbing up hundreds of them, would you believe me? No, I didn’t think you would. In fact the road up to it did the climbing, ably assisted by my bike.
There was a large Buddha sitting on top of a fairly modest building, but with some nice looking mouldings around its base. A great view out across the valley from up there. From one of the shops nearby I bought a set of Buddha flags, which I strung across the handlebars of the bike.
On the opposite hill sits Char Dham temple, dedicated to the Hindu god Siva. It’s much bigger than the Buddhist one but is also centered around a large statue placed on top of a temple building. Around the inside wall of it is a series of bas relief panels, telling the Siva story. A smaller temple next to it was covered in those bright figures that tell the Ramayana story. An impressive sight, and I’m sure the town thrives on the tourist income they both bring.
Having failed to get up to the special places I’d aimed for, there was nothing else to do other than to head back to West Bengal and aim for Darjeeling. Being a famous hill station, this town is obviously up a hill. The road went down, from 1,500 to 400 metres. Just as I was about to cross a river a police checkpoint hove into view. There, they relieved me of my Inner Line Permit and stamped me out of Sikkim, instructing me to “Come back soon”. A nice thought but not much chance, sadly.
Once over the bridge I was in West Bengal. The road soon started going up – and up – and up! Over a distance of 20 kilometres it rose 1,600 metres. It was seriously steep and I had to take most of the eleven hairpin turns in first gear. It being a minor road the surface wasn’t too good either. It was very challenging. A real mountain road. Once I got into the town it didn’t take too much searching to find a hotel, with a space to park the bike. A bonus on these narrow, steep streets.
I went for a short walk, to find a beer. When I came back, at 7pm, I ordered food. After much messing about it finally arrived at 10pm, and was barely warm. I was not impressed! Being at 2,300 metres, it was freezing cold in my room but I still managed to sleep well enough. Darjeeling is not a warm place at this time of year.
In the morning, after another hotel failure in delivering the breakfast I ordered, I walked down some steep roads and alleys to the bottom of the town. And here I found a gem in the form of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, also known as The Toy Train. It’s another member of India’s UNESCO World Heritage collection of narrow gauge railways, this one running up the hill from New Jalpaiguri (Siliguri), eighty eight kilometres back down the hill. It was completed in 1881 and passes through seventeen stations on its way up. It opened up the area for development, enabling that whole hillside to become one enormous tea plantation. You might even be drinking some of the area’s produce while you’re reading this.
You all know by now how much I love a railway so, as you can imagine, I was in my element. The station had been preserved pretty much as original and some 1920s steam engines were still in use. When I walked across to the engine shed I counted seven inside it, and with two out on passenger runs, that meant nine had been preserved. They used diesel locos for the mundane work, leaving the steam engines to haul the happy tourists.
There were two engines at the platform, one of each type. I was able to watch the steam loco shunt up to the carriages and get connected up. The engineers were messing about with the firebox, getting it ready to roll. Fiery clods of coal were laying between the rails where they’d been dragged out of the firebox and dumped. The engine was steaming nicely, the crew were ready to go and the whistle was shrill. I watched as the train left the station, full of happy passengers.
The road up to Darjeeling is called Hill Cart Road, a nice reminder of transport as it was before the railway was built. The line runs alongside it for most of its journey. Because of the steepness of the gradient it uses loops and zigzags to help it along, resulting in the line crossing and recrossing the road a total of 155 times. There’s no gates for stopping traffic, hence the need for the very loud whistle, used enthusiastically by the drivers. It gives “popping out the shops” a whole new risk factor.
To me it’s fascinating to think how something as mundane as a railway, built 140 years ago, can bring about so much change to an area, and so much benefit to the people who live there. If you want to read more about it, the Wiki link is here.
With my steam train appetite now sated, I walked back up the steep roads to the top area of the town. Here there’s a pedestrianised square, with plenty of shops and cafés to tempt the tourists. It reminded me of Shimla, but on a smaller scale. There were TV screens at one end, presumably to watch the Men’s World Cup. Given that most of the games were on during the evening, Indian time, it must have been freezing out there. I did wonder how popular it is.
What was popular with me was the coffee and cake I had for lunch before walking around the monastery that occupied the hilltop. Visitors couldn’t go inside it so I enjoyed the views down into the valley instead. There were some statues alongside of it, here and there, one of them of a famous Sherpa. On the way back to the hotel I called into the Tibetan Museum, which described that country’s history. I hadn’t realised its size – 2.5 million square kilometres, mostly of sand, rock and wind. It’s been occupied by China since the mid 1950’s, with much of the Tibetan people now exiles from their own country, many of them in the North of India.
I didn’t trust the hotel’s room “service” that evening. Instead I found a multi cuisine restaurant, where I had a pork sizzler, a rare meat to find in India. It was quite an up market place, with a guy playing the guitar and a chef who wore a chef’s hat. Another rarity. But at least the food arrived when I expected it to.
I left Darjeeling after a successful hotel breakfast – defined as getting what I asked for. The road climbed up to 2,500 metres before it headed down hill. It was very strange to be riding alongside, and constantly crossing, the railway track. Sadly, I didn’t meet a train. I so much wanted that photo of a train chuffing past the local shops.
Back in Siliguri, after finding a better hotel in a better location, I located the Royal Enfield workshop and was surprised to find them open on a Sunday. I’d been getting some notchy gear changes lately, so I asked for that to be looked at. In the end they replaced the clutch, the leaky front fork seals and the worn front tyre, as well as the normal service. It all came to a “massive” £127, and £37 of that was for the tyre. India is a very cheap place in which to run a motorcycle.
I took a little jaunt down to a place called Cooch Behar. There’s a big palace there that I’d been told was worth a visit. And it was. It was built by the local Maharaja in 1887 and is rather like Buckingham Palace in that it has a very long frontage either side of the main entrance. The total length is 120 metres, so it’s no surprise it looks magnificent. It’s built in the Italian renaissance style with lots of arches along the front, looking like windows but with no glass in them. The back of it was equally impressive, as was the museum inside it. Oddly, it sits on piers, nearly 1.5 metres off the ground. Some carvings of Indian gods were worth seeing. They’re always very detailed and the skill involved amazes me. It was well worth coming down to see.
I went back to Siliguri for a night before turning westwards to head for Delhi. Almost 1,400 kilometres riding to do and I expected a straightforward run, but with one tourist type diversion. Well, you’ve heard all about those best laid plans? Mine definitely “ganged aglay”.
I headed out of Siliguri towards Delhi. That road eventually joined NH27, one of India’s main highways. And that road had plentiful interruptions for roadworks. These create a lot of dust so they send a tanker along to wet the road and keep the dust down. So far, so sensible. Until, that was, I came to a point where a worker was waving a red flag at me because a truck was manoeuvring across the road. I stopped but the guy in the car behind me was going too fast. Not at all sensible. He slid into the back of my bike and over we went, to the right, with the bike landing on my ankle.
People rushed to pull me out, which didn’t work until they’d obeyed my signals to lift the bike off my leg. Then I was able to stand up. The driver had got out of his car, clearly worried about what had happened. I had been following this car at one point and I’d noticed that he liked to ‘press on’, as the saying goes. He was relieved that I seemed to be uninjured. The collision was at a very slow speed, fortunately.
By now I was berating him for driving too quickly, poking him on the chest at the same time. He pointed to the road and said “Slide”. I poked him some more and said “Too fast for this!”, pointing to the ground. But I was able to walk and didn’t think anything was broken. I checked the bike and the only damage seemed to be to the number plate light. I didn’t want to get into the hassle of claims or anything so berated the driver one more time, got back on the bike and left.
End of story? No. A few kilometres further along the road I started to feel a bit woozy. Coming down from the adrenalin rush, I suppose. I couldn’t fight it off so I pulled into the side of the road and stopped. I tried to get the bike on the stand but to do that I have to lean the bike over to the right a bit. You can guess what happened. I didn’t have the strength to hold the bike up so over we went, with the bike landing on my foot – again! But this time my toe was on the ground and the bike was resting on my heel, so no further damage thanks to my stout riding boots.
Once more, people rushed over to pick up me and the bike. They sat me down in a chair and a policeman splashed water in my face to revive me. That worked, and the cup of chai they brought me worked even better. I sat there for an hour, sending a lad across to get me another chai. For once I didn’t mind the sugar it had in it. Eventually I felt good enough to ride so carried on, grateful for the kindness of the ordinary man.
I found a roadside hotel, one of those that are sited next to busy main roads. The owner saw my limp and treated me to a cup of tea. I was able to walk reasonably well, although tackling stairs was a bit tricky. The ankle was nicely swollen but I had no pains that suggested a broken bone. I could get around on it and that was good enough.
Next day I found a Royal Enfield workshop, hoping to replace the damaged light. They didn’t have one so I diverted off route and found another workshop. They didn’t have one either – I wasn’t surprised at this – but they realised that the light wasn’t missing, it had broken off its mounting and was shoved up behind the mudguard. They set it back up and glued it back together. All was good. They refused to take any money, saying it was their honour to help me. They even gave me chai. Wonderful people.
Over the next couple of days I just rode, decreasing the distance to Delhi, hour by hour. Indian roads can be entertaining places. It was the sugar cane harvest and there were plenty of tractors around, usually towing double trailers loaded up with the crop. It does seem strange, but on Indian dual carriageways the slow moving vehicles use the outside lane, it being easier to make steady progress away from the hurly burly of life at the edge (of the road).
As I came to a junction there was a knot of traffic caused by a truck having driven into the second trailer being towed by a tractor. I think the tractor had pulled across the truck’s path as it headed for the outside lane. They were nicely entangled. My immediate thought was, “Good luck sorting that lot out, sugar.”
Then I had a funny old day. It had been recommended that I visit Katarniaghat National Park, home to elephants, tigers etc. When I left the hotel they didn’t bother to charge me for the previous night’s meal or that morning’s breakfast. I didn’t mind at all. But I did mind the fact that someone had taken a bottle of water that I’d left on the bike. Win some, lose some, I suppose.
I headed out to the park, along pastoral roads, where life can be seen as little vignettes of action, never to be fully understood by the passing traveller. Past the park entrance and across a bridge over a wide and fast flowing river. The road narrowed down, going through dense woodland. A little bit spooky, thinking about what might be lurking in there. Could my bike out run a tiger? Fortunately the theory didn’t get tested.
Of greater concern, briefly, was when I got stopped at a checkpoint where I was emphatically reminded about the 30KPH speed limit. The smart looking officer took the details of my bike and wanted to look inside some of my bags. That was a first. But then it all got friendly and selfies were exchanged, so everything was alright. The creatures with teeth aren’t all hidden in the trees, it seems.
But it was a lovely ride through the thick woodland, cool and laced with earthy smells. When I came to the main entrance there were lots of jeeps parked up, waiting for the coachloads of tourists. It was clear that the only way to visit the park was in one of them. I’d seen signs pointing to a guest house complex nearby so I went to check it out.
I asked a very smart guy, in a uniform and a hat, if I could stay there. He said he needed to find out. So I waited around. Another guy brought me a coffee and showed me the accommodation, which was in wooden huts. Eventually the man with the hat came back and told me the the price, per night. Rs12,800 for bed and breakfast! I asked whether that included a jeep tour? No. He wasn’t surprised when I declined the offer, especially when it would have been Rs5,400 for an Indian. That price would have been OK if it had included the tour. I knew it wouldn’t be cheap, but that’s just crazy. I wonder how many people actually pay that kind of money.
On the way back out of the park I stopped to tell my friend at the checkpoint all about it. He sympathised. I had been looking at another park, Dawdra NP, but I knew it would be any different, and it was too far to get to and then find a place to stay. So I went back to town for the night.
Was all the effort of a 210km round trip worthwhile? Yes, it was. The ride to the park was on single carriageway roads. The ride through the enchanted forest was very good. There was a narrow gauge railway running alongside the road, just for tourists, I think. The interaction with the people was a bit different to the norm.
After all that the next task was easy. Get to Delhi. It was a bit over 500kms away and I knew it would take more than one day. I didn’t get any breakfast before I left so I stopped for brunch on the main highway. It was notable simply because all the cooking staff there were wearing mesh caps. They looked very professional. The place was super clean and the food was nice. A surprise to see such professionalism at a roadside dhaba.
My hotel that night was on the edge of a town and had no food. It meant a 1.5 kilometre hobble into the town centre, and even then I struggled to find a place. But after I’d eaten, the owner, having noticed my limp, offered to take me back to the hotel. I was grateful for that. My ankle wasn’t especially painful but it was sore and very swollen.
The next day I finished the journey into Delhi, joining the merry throng into the city. I followed another bike onto an express way, passing the sign that said “NO MOTORCYCLES” on the way. India, huh! A friend had told me of a secure place to leave my bike while I was away, and of a decent hotel close by. Once I’d settled in I took the bike round there. The fee was Rs100 per day. I was happy with the set up. It was a secure yard and the bike would be parked right outside the office, next to where a couple of workers slept. I would put my cover over it as well.
With the bike sorted out I was now free to book a flight to Thailand, to spend a warm and restful Christmas with friends. Eating British food, drinking Thai beer and playing pool. Luvverly!
I was a bit disappointed with my trip to Sikkim. Although I’d enjoyed all the places I’d visited, and the people I’d met, I was put out by not being able to get to the far flung corners I’d hoped to. I regard the restrictions imposed on me by the authorities as unnecessary, albeit that they’re supposedly for my safety. Sadly, there was nothing I could do about it.
But the one aspect of the experience I really did enjoy was the confirmation of previous discoveries as to how diverse the states in India can be. A state that uses the language of another country? How bizarre, you might think. But not really. It’s the same in the south of India, where the state of Tamil Nadu shares its language with Sri Lanka. And it’s a reminder that people’s movements across the centuries had nothing to do with borders drawn in the modern age. A comforting feeling, in many ways. The Sikkim Wiki page is here.