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RoadNotes: Bicycle Touring Daily Journal
Sikkim, India Sept - Oct, 2011
written by Gretchen Howell


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September 15, 2011 Darjeeling to Teetsa
33 km, 2200 meters to 300 meters

We got started around 11 am, not bad considering how much packing had to wait till the last minute. Then we had to take pictures with the kitties. They had to be woken up from a nap so they were very sleepy and good when I stuffed them in my handlebar bag. Tim thought it was silly at first but then he had to admit that kittens on bicycles is pretty darn adorable.

Very exciting to be leaving, after all that time! It was sad to give up the comfort of having a semi-permanent place with wifi, but actually we were both glad to get going and not inclined to dawdle anymore. We took the back road to Ghoom. Some hills on that one. Every time my lungs started burning on the uphills, I though about how much uphill is coming up and how much I need to get in shape. It's going to hurt. The last little bit hurt the worst, next to the school that overlooks Ghoom. Then Tim went zipping down the hill past me.

 

We turned left onto the busy highway heading back to Siliguri and a few seconds later turned left again onto the unmarked, easy-to-miss road to Teetsa. For about ten kilometers it was a lovely ride. Still cloudy, a little cool, big views. We missed the farewell view back to Darjeeling but got a look at the Teesta river looking very tiny in the valley we're heading into. We passed some villages, everyone looking a little wonderstruck by the sight of us crashing through on crazy loaded bikes. Big stands of cedar trees, magnificently tall and straight. There were signs from a timber company to let us know they were planted nearly 100 years ago. I guess it was a British timber company back then. Some huge prayer flags, each as big as a sheet, dozens of them fluttering in the wind with the cedar trees.

Then we came to the part that the CGOAB journal described as “stupidly steep.” And it was, stupid steep. And rutted out with potholes occasionally. The rims on my back tire got screaming hot and my hands ached from desperate brake clutching. We had no choice but to stop frequently to let the rims cool. Tim's front brakes are still super squealy. He sounded like the steam train. We stopped in front of a little school to try to fix them. Some kids were saying their lessons inside, while two big-eyed little brothers gripped hands and stood on the stone wall nearby to watch us fiddle with tools. All in all, I think we descended over 1700 meters in just over 10 kilometers. Tim's steep-o-meter said some of the grades were 23%. All I could think is how much I didn't ever want to ride up that road. I think my bike would just tip over backwards.

At the bottom we spun into a switchback that curled around into a corkscrew. There was even a tunnel. Then we popped into the valley and rattled over a sketchy bridge with bike tire shaped holes. Tim told me “Just keep going, keep your speed up!” so I rode over it fast and made it without stopping or freaking out. In the little town I saw a guesthouse. We stopped and I followed a lady in to see a room. I'm out of hotel room scoping practice. I forgot to even ask about a bathroom. She took me upstairs to meet her husband, who sat in a wheelchair supervising some workers building the top floor of the building. He is Johnny and she's Jenny. There are lots of clever little mottos written by Johnny decorating the hotel walls. The mirror in our room says “Oh! I am so important and special. I did not know that.”

Dinner was in two parts. First we walked down the street to a little restaurant, tables too short for Tim to fit his legs under. They gave us each a little bowl of greasy soup, five chicken momos and a Hit beer. When we asked for more momos, they said they were finished. So we went back the hotel, where Johnny offered to cook us some veg fried rice. The bathroom in this place has a lovely view of the river. Nice clean bathroom too, I appreciate that. But the power has been out mostly, leaving us in the dark with a still fan. The brick wall outside our windows makes the room dark and hard to navigate. We have to get used to traveling again, in so many ways. I'm glad the first big climb doesn't start till tomorrow. One more easy day. We'll ride into Rangpo, over the Sikkim border and stop there. Only 30 km or so.


September 16, 2011 Teesta to Rangpo (26.2 km)

The power went off last night, meaning no fan, meaning no sleep. I was pretty wiped out in the morning. Lucky us, we had an easy day and were in no rush. We got out around eleven. Immediately we got onto the state highway and crossed over the river on a large bridge. Being on the highways meant more traffic but smoother pavement and not such steep climbs.

We have also entered BRO land. BRO might stand for Border Road Organization but judging by the slogans and signs, I believe BRO is so much more. I tried to take as many pictures as I could of the clever signs admonishing drivers to take it easy, but you can only stop so many times. Here are some I missed: “Dashing is Dangerous. Shooting rocks ahead. Inconvenience regretted.”

We stopped at a little roadside temple thingy and ate peanut butter and banana sandwiches. I bought two avocados but wasted one that wasn't ripe yet. Still a little concerned about leeches. I would love to camp or do something jungley, but there are bloodsuckers out there. So we perched on the edge of the base of a small cement phallic symbol and took our break.

Around two we rolled into Rangpo. I pulled out the Sikkim permit and took our passports into the office, leaving Tim to flirt with two little schoolgirls who'd been batting their eyes at me. Two more passport stamps later and I was back out. Tim said the girls wouldn't talk to him but only stood back having a good stare.

Once in town we started the hotel search. Prices in Rangpo are a little higher. The power was off so I found myself creeping up some darkened stairs in search of hotel staff. I came down to find Tim surrounded by a crowd of dudes. He seemed unscathed but a few minutes later he noticed that both his rear brake pads had fallen off. Seems the little pins had disappeared. He found them both on the ground but we still have to reattach them.

Finally settled on a place with lots of tight stairs. The bikes had to stay outside until the restaurant downstairs closed for the evening and then we could bring them inside. Actually, the room is decent (Avanti Hotel, for anyone interested) and the boys downstairs helped us bring up all the bags, not just the first load. The power came on after dark so we had an actual moving fan to sleep under, meaning I will get some rest tonight.


September 17, 2011 Rangpo to Gangtok (29 km)

We started out around 9am, early for us. The power had stayed on all night, meaning we had a fan and a good night of sleep. The river valley around Rangpo was pretty, full of little villages and bridges. The BRO signs continued. “Peep peep, don't sleep.” Soon after we got going, I realized that my shifter wasn't working properly. I could only use 2 gears on my cassette. We both assumed that someone at the hotel had monkeyed with my gears. We stopped, took off my rear bags and Tim started messing around with it. Definitely more complicated than a little curious night-time knob fiddling. Tim couldn't find the reason for my weird gears, but he managed to adjust my shifter so that I would be able to use my low gears on the hills ahead. We decided that it's probably a failing shifter cable that got frayed over the months of rain and disuse in Darjeeling.

It was overcast and a little rainy, good climbing weather. People were erecting temporary Hindu tents for some kind of celebration. They were box-shaped, covered with fluttering brightly colored sheets and pulsing with loud music. We stopped for chai and momos and watched the restaurant owner waving a stick of incense over the engine of his car. “It's a special day on the Hindu calendar. Not a holiday, just a day to celebrate.” Mostly it seemed that people were celebrating their vehicles, as most cars and trucks were decorated with lively streamers, strings of marigolds and balloons. The “Goods Carrier” trucks parked along the road were festooned smoking incense sticks. Usually I don't like incense but that truck incense had a really nice smell to it.

The NH31A highway follows the route of a crashing river and a number of hydroelectric projects. Why then are there so many power outages? We passed a number of industrial plants, factories that seemed to sprout out of the jungle. I saw two pharmaceutical companies, as well as a factory that makes tasty looking canned fruit called “Sikkim Supreme.” I also noticed quite a few schools; not only elementary schools full of little uniformed smiling kids that trotted alongside us, but also technical colleges and universities.

We made it to Ranipul, about halfway up the day's climb. We'd been told there were hotels here and since the rain had never let up, we were both soaked through and ready to find a hot shower. I pulled into one building with a hotel sign but it was a residential hotel with no office. Then we crossed the river into downtown and found a number of “Hotel Restaurant Bar” signs. Found out that that pretty much means “Bar” full of drunk dudes who fervently believe they can speak English. By this time, the road was steep and getting steeper all the time. We rode out of town, past a Resort Spa that looked completely out of our budget. By this time, I was pretty sure the lactic acid in my muscles was starting to dissolve my bones and soon my legs would be floppy tubes of gelatin.

Tim always says that he's not one of those bikers who must cycle every single inch. He says he has no problem with taking a cab or bus part of the way. He says that, but I'm not sure he's done it so much. While I was pushing for a cab, Tim said he'd rather pay for a night in an expensive hotel than take a cab. That was, until we stopped at another resort and found out it cost 4000 rupees a night (“It includes breakfast!”) My legs were dying a piercing death, and Tim hates riding in the rain, so finally I talked him into a cab. We found one with a roof rack, parked on the side of the road with a whole crew of eager young men who helped lift the bikes onto the roof. One guy even ran up to his house to grab some tie-downs.

It was five kilometers to the first hotel, five very steep kilometers. I maybe could have ridden that but it would have been extremely painful. It was another five steep kms to the backpackers' ghetto on Tibet road. I would have never made it this far. When I walked into the New Modern Central Lodge, the first thing I saw was a spanking new Giant Mountain Bike and I knew it was friendly place to stay.

Our room is huge and cheap but up many flights of stairs. We didn't get to meet the owner (of the hotel and the Giant Mtn bike) that evening but his wife hung out to tell us about Sikkim's small growing mountain biking scene. Bike clubs are finding trails and they're organizing the first mountain bike race. There are two bike shops in town so maybe we can pick up some extra brake pads. I have a feeling these downhills are going to chew through our brake pads about as fast as we can replace them.


September 18-21, 2011
Unrestful earthquake days off in Gangtok

Our intention was to take a few days off in Gangtok to repair my shifter, resupply our food and energy stores, and hunt down some quality paperbacks for my reading habit. Our room, atop a couple of exhausting flights of stairs, came with a hot water heater and a fantastic view with occasional glimpses of the elusive Kanchenjunga. This peaceful little break was rudely interrupted one evening by a 6.9 earthquake! Our room on the fifth floor shook scarily for about a minute. Tim and I stood in the middle of the room listening to the rumble and screams on the streets and waited to see if the building would crumble around us.

Down in the streets, travelers and locals gathered immediately afterwards to exclaim about the shake and ask for news. No news. No power either and soon, no water. After one day of no hand washing, both Tim and I picked up nasty chest colds. There were reports of numerous landslides on the National Highway. All the tourists at the hotel were stranded for a few days and we gathered around the bar to compare earthquake stories. Helicopters clipped up and down the valley. The Indian Army moved in to help dig out the slides which had isolated several small villages.

On our last day in Gangtok, our hotel completely waterless, Tim and I walked through town with both our water bags on a hunt for the precious liquid. Walking through the mall, we discovered a communal tap labeled “Free Drinking Water.” There was a great big water filter attached to three spigots and people were stopping by to take sips. We asked if it was safe to drink and then filled our bags. A little further on we saw people lined up with buckets to get water from trucks. So perhaps we weren't meant to take so much potable water, but no one seemed upset by us doing so. Our hot water tank had shorted out earlier, filling the room with stinky clouds of smoke, but I was happy to splash around with a few cups of cold water instead.

Besides this whole earthquake business, Gangtok was a very nice town. For one thing, there's a lovely walking mall. Wide boulevards with no cars, lots of benches and no trash. In fact, all of Gangtok seems remarkably litter-free and sidewalk-rich compared to other Indian towns. We found the Rachna Bookshop and met two more active mountain bikers. This town could be a real mountain biking mecca. A few of the outdoor stores sell a smattering of cycling parts, but most people get their bikes and gear from Nepal. There's a community of mountain bikers called Firefly that's full of new converts.

Tim took apart my shifter and figured out that the cable had somehow come unanchored inside the shifter mechanism. I have rapid-fire shifters, while Tim's are the simpler down tube shifters. No telling how that little knobby got loose inside the shifter housing. I'm back to the midnight monkey business theory. I suppose I could have figured it out myself but luckily I travel with my personal bike mechanic.


September 23, 2011 Gangtok to Rumtek 22 km
Down 700 meters and up 800 meters

We woke up this morning to find the water was back on and raining out of our defunct water heater. So much for the hot shower but at least we could flush the toilet before leaving!

The road out of Gangtok is drastically steep and potholed. Plenty of traffic to make it extra exciting. There were Indian Army personnel posted every 100 meters or so to help direct traffic, although their hyper waving arm motions were a mystery to me. Tim gave me a lesson on downhill riding; seems I've been doing it wrong all these years, which could explain why I'm faster on the flats than I am on downhills. So I tried keeping my pedals horizontal and my elbows bent and I guess I'm a little faster that way. Feels weird though.

Leaving town, we passed people with buckets waiting for water, another long line of people with empty propane cylinders. We saw minor landslides all over and men working to restore the spider webs of broken water piping. I wonder how many other people caught the earthquake chest cold we both have rattling around in our chests. Certainly our hotel was full of coughing. Having no way to wash makes you unhealthy.

As soon as we turned off the main road onto the road to Rumtek, the ride turned blissfully quiet. We followed the crashing river for a few miles, then crossed a little bridge and turned uphill. It was a tough climb, steep but not impossible and so picturesque. Every few miles we passed nice little “Sikkim Tourism” gazebos where we could take breaks or possibly camp. We had a nice view of Gangtok across the valley. A clean white bus stopped next to us and the older tourist ladies onboard gave us a round of applause. Now I wish we'd stopped to talk to them so I could ask for spare paperbacks. I could've picked up a couple copies of Eat Pray Love. Towards the top of the hill, we saw turn-offs for a couple of meditation resorts, complete with yoga, massage, wifi and five-star restaurants.

Further on we came to the Rumtek Gompa Complex, home of the Black Hat Buddhist sect. The Karmapa (spiritual leader) is meant to live here but can't, due to some mysterious Buddhism politics. The Lonely Planet says that this place can get annoyingly crowded by tourists, but since all tourists have fled the area after the earthquake (chickens!), it seemed like a good time to check it out. We took a room at the Sungay guesthouse, after checking in with the armed police at the gate. Why is there an armed guard at the monastery? Again, Lonely Planet: “There have been violent altercations, and an invasion, by monks who dispute the Karmapa's accession.” Wow.

While waiting for dinner, we met a monk who told us he walked through the mountains from Tibet to Nepal in 2002. To avoid the Chinese Army, his group had to walk in the night and hide during the day, cross huge snowy mountains, and go days without food. As a refugee, he has no passport and will probably never see his family again.


September 25, 2011 Rumtek to Rumtek 6 kilometers

Well, we tried to escape.

It's been raining nonstop for days. The sky cleared today, just after lunch, so we tried to make a run for it. Our goal was to make the mostly-downhill run to Singtam and get out of town while the getting was good. We paid our bill, loaded up the bikes, and said goodbye to the armed guards at the gate.

At first it was great. A pretty little road, zero traffic, perfect weather. Then we came to the first landslide. Three house-sized rocks had tumbled down onto the roadway. Still, it was possible to shuttle the bikes and bags through the mess. And the second slide, a mushy pile of mud and sticks. But before we dragged everything over the next two blockages, I thought I should reconnoiter around the bend. I left Tim guarding the bikes and ran ahead. Only to find two giant shifty piles of stones. Some local dudes were picking their way over the rocks and it looked extremely treacherous. I went back to tell Tim we couldn't make it. He didn't believe me so he went to look. Then we talked to the guys who were crossing over, who told us there were more slides further down the road.

Stupid earthquake.

We were both stomping mad and super disappointed. The whole ride up to Rumtek had been a waste of time, even though it was a nice town to visit. Now we would have to retrace our route all the way back the way we'd climbed up. And by the time we'd messed around with all those blocked roads, it was already too late to get started. Tails between legs, we went back to the Sungay Guesthouse and checked in again. Then we got drunk. The next day was another washout, with torrential rains all day long, sure to bring another round of landslides.


September 27, 2011 Rumtek to Gangtok 22.2 km

After our aborted attempt to reach Rabongla, and then another day lost to a huge day-long deluge, we're both feeling a little bummed about our trip. We've got a little more than 2 weeks left before we should be down in Calcutta getting visas for Bangladesh. This morning we decided to backtrack to Gangtok to renew our Sikkim permit and then head south to Singtam and take a different road to West Sikkim.

The white fluffy dog, who I've named Mr. Wiggle Pants, gave me a very enthusiastic goodbye. The guards at the monastery gate all came forward to say good luck to Tim. One guard with sloppy gun control was actually aiming at Tim's stomach while he said goodbye. Besides the gun targeting incident, it was a gorgeous riding morning. Just a little sad to be rushing down all the hills we'd ridden up before. No biker likes going back on the same road. Parts of the road were completely washed out from the previous day's rain. Already there were teams of local guys equipped with shovels and picks. Keeping the roads open must be a full time job during the monsoon.

Much too soon we were back on the National Highway and turned left to head back up the hill to Gangtok. This is the hill I wimped out on last time and talked Tim into taking a cab. And that was before I had a chest full of phlegm. This time I was determined to make it. I had to pull over to hack and hyperventilate a few times. Traffic was moving slow too and we spent quite a bit of time waiting for the line of cars and overloaded trucks to pull forward. I had no problem waiting, except when we had to stop in the full sun. After about two hours we finally pulled into downtown Gangtok. I headed towards the Modern Central Lodge (not to be confused with the New Modern Central Lodge, where we stayed before). The old Modern Central Lodge is more central, and I'd noticed before an enticing bookshelf behind the receptionist's desk. Too bad the rooms were so expensive! Even the dorm was 200 rupees a bed and the manager was especially determined to sell me on a 600 rupee room that was big enough for the bikes to fit. As much as I wanted at those books, I couldn't take it. Not only because it was overpriced, but also because I was tired, and I get pretty stubborn when I'm tired.

Tired doesn't actually cover how I was feeling. Maybe knackered is a better description.

About that time, Tim noticed his back tire was going flat and told me we should hurry up and find a room. So I could only stomp off for a little while before we looked at another room. It was 400 rupees, still more than we wanted to pay but a little more reasonable. Anyway it was closer to the Permit Office. After a mild pass-out nap, I walked up to the Foreigners' Registration Office, or FRO, and renewed our Sikkim permit. Very easy, took about 10 minutes. On the way, I passed the ropeway station. The skyway cable car system is closed for maintenance. I would have loved to go for a ride, but I guess an inspection after a major earthquake is not a bad idea.


September 28, 2011 Gangtok to Singtam 2 hours
27.5 kilometers down 1200 meters

This morning Tim worked on his rear tire while I went food shopping for oatmeal and noodles. Gangtok really has some lovely bakeries. I'm so glad their earthquake damage wasn't worse. The tall rickety buildings don't seem strong enough to have withstood that much shaking.

We left around 11 am. Traffic was, of course, awful again. There is quite a bit of street re-surfacing going on, necessitating big stinkpots of tar being warmed up on the side of the road over smokey fires. The road surface needs some new tar, it's rutted out and potholed everywhere. I'm pretty sure that the crap roads predate the earthquake, but perhaps the shaking made the roads worse so they finally got around to throwing down some new asphalt. In any case, there were a couple of bottlenecks to squeeze the line of cars. Add to that some bigwigs in fancy SUV caravans who had to skip to the front of the line and you get a whole lot of bad downhill traffic.

The route was mostly downhill. There were a few more landslides and flooded sections of highway. It was overcast with some slight rain but nothing bad. We ate cookies in a bus shelter near one of the colleges. The Teesta river was full and roaring, such a wild river. That was the nicest part of the route, being next to the river all day. We made pretty fast time and showed up in Singtam around 2pm.

Singtam appears to have taken a much bigger hit from the quake. We passed one hotel, said “Should we check here?” and then noticed that the lower floor of the building had completely buckled. Singtam is a transit center, stopping point for taxis and buses. It's a dirty dirty town. As I'm beginning to learn, that means that all the hotels are nasty and completely overpriced. At one place, a nice passerby gave me directions to a hotel entrance and told me “250, maybe 350 rupees.” The guy at the hotel took me up to a squalid little room, electricity and water “later”, dirty towel with handprints flung across a chair and muddy footprints on the bathroom floor. 500 rupees, he told me. “Really?” I asked. He stammered, looked embarrassed and took out his cellphone. I thought maybe he'd call his boss downstairs and say “Yeah, she's not buying it. Shall I give her a better price?” But no, he just took out his cellphone to fondle it a bit. So I left. We ended up paying just as much, but got a much cleaner room. This building does have some earthquake damage, big X shaped cracks on many of the walls. Now I'm grateful we got trapped by the last bit of monsoon in Rumtek. What if we'd had to wait it out in this horrible little town?


September 29, 2011 Singtam to Tarku crossroads
19.8 kilometers 1000 meters climb

One way to distinguish the hotel rooms in the valley vs. those in the mountains is the amenities. Rooms in the valleys have cold showers and fans. Rooms in the mountains have teeny tiny hot water heaters that provide a warm shower for approximately six minutes. One nice thing about a fan is that if you string up a clothesline directly underneath one, your clothes will be dry by morning. Even the hard-to-dry diaper part of the bicycle shorts.

The ride out of Singtam was a rough start. The road is very dusty, except for the parts that are flooded and smeared with squishy mud. We had to stop and wait at a few big washouts for army trucks and overloaded jeeps to pass by. There was a huge hydro project going in on the river which was pretty interesting to see. I know some water engineering nerds who would have been fascinated. After we crossed the river, there was a steep climb out of the river valley before the road settled into a gradual 6-9% climb. Not impossible at all, but a grind nevertheless. It was a sunny day and the views were getting progressively more awesome. Finally my chest cold was sounding less like a passing freight train.

Our guidebook said there were no guesthouses until Rabongla, and no restaurants along the way. This info proved to be a little out of date when we found a little restaurant and stopped in for fried rice. While I brought in our empty water bottles for the waiter kid to fill with filtered water, Tim tried to find out if there was any place for us to stay that night. The restaurant owner said there was. Some hip Indian kids touring on motorcycles said there was. A drunk guy invited us to stay at his house. So maybe there is a guesthouse or homestay somewhere around the crossroads, but we never found it. According to Laura Stone's book, there are two roads to Rabongla as well, but I only saw the one sign. Just after the crossroads, we came to a steep washed out section of rough road full of sharp tire-popping stones. Tim is a decent mountain biker and made it through, but I had to walk my bike. Fortunately the pavement started up again soon. It was nearing 4pm and with no guesthouse, or any sort of house, in sight we decided to camp.

We found a wide flat spot on the side of the road and pulled off. For the first time since New Zealand, I pulled out my sleeping bag and pad. Tim likes to make fun of my sleeping pad since it's more suited to car camping than cycle touring. I found it in a bush in the camping area of the hostel/halfway house where I survived a cyclone/earthquake combo one awful night. I like camping equipment with a story behind it.


September 30, 2011 Tarku crossing to Rabongla
17.7 kilometers 1000 meters climb 3 hours

Such a pretty morning! We woke up to snowcapped mountains in one direction, endless valleys in the other, and a huge waterfall splashing down directly onto the road around the corner. A few locals strolled by with machetes and baskets and stopped to ogle our piles of gear. I'm sure they could have survived a night out with a quarter of the stuff we had. One young guy offered us a handful of dried herbs, which may have been some kind of marijuana or tobacco. Since it was barely 7 am, we politely refused and he rolled up a newspaper spliff and wandered off in a cloud of smoke. I would have loved a shower in the waterfall, but the jeeps were starting to roll by so I settled for some discreet splashing.

Not a fast ride at all, but super spectacular scenery. Sikkim really is weather dependent. Just a week ago this ride would have been a misery of rain and floods. And you can see everywhere what a constant problem the monsoon rains are. The road gets washed out all the time. We passed slopes with waterfalls spouting straight out of the dirt above us, landslides just waiting to happen. We rode through barely-cleared mudslides. Streams had turned to rivers and leapt onto the road, carrying loads of slippery sharp rocks that were no fun to ride on. Tim's front panniers developed an annoying habit of falling off the rack. We're both carrying little baggies full of replacement Ortlieb clip-ons, but neither of us cared to do roadside repairs that day.

Lunch was roti and chapatti at a tiny roadside diner. A couple of little boys trotted alongside us (actually, more like a brisk walk) for a few kilometers, whispering observations about our bikes and waving to their friends. I'm sure we're not the first Western tourists to pass by, but we were a great source of amusement that day. We said hello to one group of kids and adults and got a roaring round of giggles in response.

We rolled into Rabongla before 3pm. It is a bustling, growing little town with plenty of guesthouses. We found a nice cheap room and explored a little. One thing about Sikkim, they like to have a drink or five around here. Bottle shops on every block and lower liquor prices than the rest of India. During dinner, a group of ladies at the next table were enjoying a couple bottles of Hit beer and had a great time flirting with Tim while my back was turned. Tim didn't seem to mind a bit.

Rabongla seems like a town that's up and coming. In one of the hotels, I found some snapshots of a Mountain Bike race that took place here in 2008. There is a large Buddha statue at the gompa in town. Buddha is undergoing a facelift and a complex of fancy buildings is being built around the statue. There's plenty of construction going on in town, I suppose in expectation of all the business that will be coming through once the improved Buddha is unveiled.

We stayed for a day to wash up our rather ripe clothing. Turns out it was a big day for laundry. I saw plenty of stuffed animals hanging out to dry. Dolly washing day.


October 2, 2011 Rabongla to Tashiding
33 kilometers down 1400 meters, up 500 meters

I had a little stomach ache last night and got very little sleep again, so morning was slow and a little grumpy. It always feels good to get back on the bike and get going. It started out cloudy and a little rainy but the clouds lifted by the time we were on our way out. The next little hamlet is called Kewzing, home of some important gompa or another. I think they have some kind of homestay program there where you can stay at the monastery. Just outside of town I had a little issue that required an emergency stop at a bathroom. We came to a little restaurant with a tourist SUV parked outside. Tim stayed outside to talk to some German men while I rushed inside. At the door to the toilet, there was an older foreigner lady. I hopped up and down a few times and said “Emergency!” in the universal sign for “Can I go first since I'm about to crap my pants?” The lady looked right through me and went into to bathroom first.

She took her time about it, too.

Tim said that the people he talked to were very nice and interested in our trip. I'm sure that lady was the one butthead on the tour. There's always one.

Business taken care of, I felt much better and we had a lovely downhill ride for the next hour. Very steep downhill. We had to stop several times to let our rims cool. As we plunged down into the valley, it got hotter and the crashing river at the bottom got louder. Finally we came to the crossroads for Yuksum and Tashiding, took the right hand road and found ourselves on a rocky washout. Tim could ride it but I had to push over most of it. The valley was pretty but hot, and we were both ready to eat. We found a tiny little store and bought some bags of stale chips. The boys there were covered with misspelled homemade tattoos. One brought us two plastic chairs so we could sit in the shade, but when I got up for a moment to take a picture of a duck, another boy took my chair.

Next we came to wobbly metal suspension bridge over the river. Tim was getting nervous about the heat and riding up out of the river valley. The valley walls looked mighty steep. Somewhere we picked up a crowd of pesky boys, who ran alongside us and poked at Tim's bags. There was a nice tall girl who tried to teach me some sort of Rock Paper Scissors game as she strolled alongside my bike. I would have liked for her to stay, but her brothers were too annoying so I stopped and told them they all had to go home. I was nice about it. Sort of.

The road out of the river valley was an unpleasantly hot climb, but soon it leveled out and got shady and turned into a perfect cycling road. Moss and bamboo and big mystery flowers. It was lovely. Just enough of an upslope (4-6%) to keep us riding slow and chatting and thoroughly enjoying the day. Not what we'd been expecting at all!

The last rise into Tashiding was a ridiculously steep little climb into the heart of the bazaar. I believe it was some kind of market day, as the one tiny street was full of people in their best clothes and town shoes. We pulled up at the Bluebird Guesthouse and sat for a good two hours, eating and watching the scene. There is an especially holy gompa down the hill, with some kind of sin-washing structure that I may be able to talk Tim into looking at tomorrow morning. If only we could eat some meat. All this climbing has made us both ravenous for protein but iffy power sources don't make for reliable refrigeration. Hard boiled eggs just don't cut it so we've both been stuffing ourselves with rice.


October 4, 2011 Tashiding to Yuksom 20 km

The road to Yuksom was unpleasantly steep. There is a hiking trail near the road, for people who want to trek between towns, and it is very picturesque, but the sun was really beating today. Just 5km into our ride, bumping over some rough pavement, an unhappy noise came from Tim's bike. One of the rails on his Brookes saddle had snapped clean in half. After some sweaty fiddling around, we managed to move the saddle back so that the broken pieces were held tightly together by the seat clamp. Good enough for now, as getting a replacement sent out seems a mighty daunting task. Maybe a welder or some Crazy Glue will be the answer.

We rode through some tiny villages. One has my favorite name, Thingling, which sounds like a creature from Dr. Suess. A few kids ran beside us asking “You give me one sweetie? You give me one chocolate?” Somedays I'd like to tell the tourist that goes around teaching kids to be beggars a thing or two. I think one naughty child may have lobbed a rock at us, but I couldn't tell which direction it had come from. It was a hot steep climb up switchbacks, but in the distance we could see a bridge beside a thundering waterfall. The road leveled out a little and we began passing waterfalls, each one more spectacular. Five in all!

The road wasn't great, but the long unpaved sections that Laura describes in the book had apparently been paved finally. We got to the turn-off to Yuksom, rode slowly up the last 2.3 kms to town. Yuksom is nestled in between the mountains, and doesn't have the snowy vistas of other Sikkim towns. But really it's a lovely little town. Lots of treks start off here, so there are plenty of cheap, charming little places to stay. There's no ATM or petrol station, even so we decided to stay for a few days in a creaky wooden hotel. We hiked to a little monastery, where I got a leech when I stupidly sat on the ground for 30 seconds. We also hiked to the grounds of the old palace where the first king of Sikkim was crowned. Mostly we sat around the table at Gupta's Restaurant to eat good food with lots of yummy yak cheese and drink Hit beer with other tourists.


October 7, 2011 Yuksom to Pelling 33.2 km

Before we left, Tim finally got around to changing his brake pads. Good thing, since they were worn down about as skinny as they could get without doing serious damage. While he was working, the kids at our hotel got so interested, they pulled out their old bike and fought over who would ride it first. When we left the sky was sunny and we whizzed down the mountainside for nearly 20 kilometers of downhill. I'm better at riding downhill now but you have to stay alert for sudden patches of bad pavement. We passed a couple more waterfalls, the most popular of which is called Kachenjunga Falls. It is a nice waterfall, but a bit spoiled by the hoards of tourist jeeps beeping and shoving to park directly under the falls. Not really how I like to enjoy nature, but I suppose things are different in a crowded country. We decided to skip Khecheopairi Lake, as it's described in the LP as being crowded till sunset. By the time we'd reached the bottom of the valley, it was beginning to rain so we held up in a roadside shelter and ate squishy bananas next to a beautiful crashing river. There were two bridges over the river: a modern cement bridge next to a defunct metal bridge. Over the river, the road started to climb again and it rained off and on for the rest of the day.

For the second time in as many riding days, Tim's bike had another major breakdown! This time it was his rear tire, the Continental Travel Contact that I'd brought all the way from New Zealand not even 6 months ago! A two inch long gash tore through the sidewall, just above the rim. As he replaced it with a folding spare tire, we puzzled over this newest equipment failure. How did that tear happen? The best we could come up with was that the rims had heated up so much on the many steep downhills, that somehow they'd melted through the rubber tire. Tim is now completely stressed out about getting replacements. Although we could both use a gear infusion, shipping to India will cost us 150% tax! We pondered this unhappy question as we climbed in the drizzle. Three 12 year old boys kept us company, well-behaved besides the plastic pistol one kept in his hand. They dropped off in a cute little village called Darap and we climbed on to Pelling. At least we're in good shape now, even as the bikes are crumbling beneath us, we're both up to the long Sikkim hills now.

Pelling is a tourist-filled town with majestic views of Kanchenjunga and little else to recommend it. Basically a couple of switchbacks covered with balconied hotels and inadequate sewage systems. In the morning you get a terrific view of snowy peaks but it clouds up by 9am. Our hotel room gets frigid cold and occasionally smells like poop. Actually, the whole town has a faint poopy odor. The ATM is closed and has been for several days. Out of cash, I finally made the 17 kilometer round trip ride to Geyzing, down 500 meters and then back up. The ATM I found there only spoke Hindi, so I pulled a young woman out of line to help me translate. When I got back to Pelling, the ATM there had finally opened! Tim spent a whole day working on his bike. He patched and super glued his tire back together, and, fingers crossed, that will stay together. He also took apart the MSR stove to clean out the gunk. We've been told by motorcycle tourers that the petrol here is low-quality and sometimes contaminated with crud, which explains why the stove has been running so poorly.

Even though we're not crazy about Pelling, we've lingered since after this our Sikkim trip will be coming to an end. Neither of us is in a hurry to get back to Siliguri and Kalkata.


October 11, 2011 Pelling to Jorathang, Sikkim, India
47 km down 1560 meters

This was a long day for us because one of Tim's panniers (bike bags) was stolen.  This long story and moved to its own page


October 13, 2011 Jorethang to Melli 27.1 kilometers

It was hard for Tim to leave without his bag. The whole time we were there, I kept expecting to turn around and find the bag sitting quietly in the corner.
Crap road leaving town. The river was nice but the road was crap. And then Tim got another flat. Not the tire this time, it was a big 'ole hunk of glass sticking into the tire. Tim has no spare tubes now, so he had to use one of my Presta valve tubes when the patches failed on his two old tubes. Somehow we're unable to fix flats quickly. It always involves several tries while red ants bite my ankles and the sun beats down.

We'd had aspirations of crossing out of Sikkim today but with the time setback, we decided to stop at Melli, just before the border. Nice little town. We were led around town by a crowd of uniformed school boys who took us to the various hotels. Settled on a clean place with a room on the first floor that we could roll directly into. So nice on a day when we didn't want to deal with leaving the bikes unattended for a second. We got momos and chowmein and beer delivered to the room, and I drove Tim crazy with my music. Tim prefers music from the last century and I've got an iTunes library full of bands he's never heard of. We listened to Traveling Two's podcast: an interview with two cyclists who'd had an entire bike with all the bags attached stolen in Bolivia. That gave me a big jolt of sympathy and the realization, again, that our loss could have been so much worse.

The days of being cool are over. We're back in the sweatbath region.


October 14, 2011 Melli to Siliguri 57.4 kilometers

This hotel is also the home of a school, the Sunshine English School. Early in the morning, small boys and girls in white and blue uniforms cluster in the courtyard below our balcony, playing patty-cake games and giggling at me whenever I appear. When the teachers arrive, the students line up in class order to sing an incomprehensible English song, chant a pledge of allegiance. (“I love my country, I love my parents.”) The kindergarteners cluster together at the left end of the courtyard, tiny and holding hands, while the nine year old boys whisper and point behind their hands. It is charming.

We leave in the morning glare and cross a bridge over the the main highway. We expect to see an improvement in the road pavement, yet it's only a bit wider, not smoother, and the traffic is faster than before. It's flatter than before and I begin the tedious business of learning to draft off Tim. It bothers me to not keep my eyes on the road directly ahead of me. I keep expecting Tim to brake suddenly, sending me crashing onto the sword point of the umbrella jutting out the back of his pack.

At a police checkpoint, I turn in our passports and inner line permit to be stamped out. And so ends our journey of Sikkim. Even if I had more time on my Indian visa, we cannot apply for another Sikkim permit for another 45 days. We've heard a variety of reasons as to why foreigners cannot spend more time in the tiny kingdom: protection of the northern tribes, watching for Chinese spies and missionaries, a wish to keep out foreign investors or drug-addled backpackers. The rules have loosened recently and will probably continue to grow more liberal.

Back on NH31A, we backtrack past the BRO highway signs that welcomed us into Sikkim. There are monkeys on the side of the road, sitting sentry on cement road barriers, chirping ominously as we whiz by. The monkey troops seem to cluster at sections of poor road surfaces. Some are maimed: a missing hand, a scarred face, barely healed traumatic injuries. Baby monkeys cling to their mothers' chests and peer cutely at us from between hairy arms. The older males are dog-sized and more menacing, lopping out into the road at us. I think people in cars must feed them. Great. Beggar monkeys.

The road is dusty. Mostly flat but with a few uphills to bridges spanning feeder streams. Twice, aggressive monkeys charge at us. Tim looked back to see two big male monkeys, teeth bared, charing directly at me on all fours while I bounced over the rutted street to accelerate out of their way. It's a false charge, that's what monkeys do, in hopes that you'll drop something shiny or tasty, but terrifying to see. They're fast little buggers. I'm sure I'm no match for a strong monkey and those mean little teeth would cause damage as well as a round of rabies shots.

Finally we come to a little town and stop for lunch, still shaken up by monkey encounters. “What happened?” ask a carful of businessmen. “Bad monkeys!” Tim explains. After a few plates of momos, we continue to the graceful Coronation bridge. There is a stall in traffic as cars line up to be blessed at the temple. Tim has a race with an autorickshaw. There are more bicycles now, a sign that we are back in the flatlands. Now I remember what it's like to go fast, cruising along at 20 kph and forcing myself to stay in Tim's draft. It's dusty but fun. Here too is normal India, not the tranquil green climbs of Sikkim, but noise and litter and puttering autorickshaws. We pass through Sukna Wildlife Sanctuary and a tidy Army base and then the outskirts of Siliguri swallow us up in diesel fumes and traffic mayhem. Tim likes to ride up to the cycle rickshaws, loaded with towers of refrigerator boxes, and ask the surprised drivers for directions. I wish I could snap pictures of this but it's all I can do to keep up and stay calm in the chaos. We're in the city now, no clue as to which direction our hotel lies. “That sign looks familiar, I think we're almost there.” Tim points at a red cross over a hospital. “What sign?” I'm about to tell him he's crazy when he yells, “Hotel Conclave!” and veers off to the right. He's right, and we nearly passed it by. We bump down the dirt road to our old hotel, past wandering naughty cows and Gangtok-bound jeep taxis, and check into the same room we stayed in so long ago, nearly five months now. How far we've come, the rainy months in Darjeeling, the ups-and-downs of Sikkim, the earthquake, the robbery, all our friends and day-long acquaintances. Fitting then, to be in the same room and eat at the same restaurant. So much has happened.

Later that night, I am attacked by tiny bed spiders. They don't bother Tim, of course, but I go itch crazy, cover myself with Tiger Balm, and sleep on the floor.

 


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