A quick update after a rather hectic week!
The best-laid plans are no match for Very Severe Cyclonic Storms, so we have found out. On October 12 Cyclone Phailin made landfall in the Southern Sate of Odisha, leading to the evacuation of nearly a million people in Odisha and Andra Pradesh and affecting weather conditions all the way up to the normally clear October Himalaya skies around here. The non-stop rain we suddenly found ourselves in made the already rough mountain terrain surrounding us even rougher, which has taken its toll on our motorcycle and schedule. We are now in Gangtok, Sikkim, still shivering after a 5-hour ride from Ravangla through pouring rain on slippery, muddy trails this morning. And our bike is being repaired for the sixth time since Pokhara.
A few days ago we crossed back into India at Panatanki in West Bengal. This time we sailed across the border without realising we were already in India, then had to backtrack into Nepal to actually stamp out. From Panatanki we drove up to Siliguri to spend the night – this was bike repair stop number two after Kathmandu, where they hadn’t had the time to fix the engine and the steering.Siliguri is one of those many Indian cities one has never heard of yet turns out to have half a million inhabitants and be bustling with activity. Positioned right in between Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan, and also serving to connect Northeast India with the rest of the country, Siliguri is in fact a major commercial hub and the central transit point for travel in the region. Despite this cosmopolitan air however, when we told people we were headed to a place called Myanmar that’s just the other side of those Northeast states, they had no idea where we were talking about. This scene has been repeated several times in dealings with Indian officialdom when they ask where we got our visas – our reply “your Embassy in Myanmar” invariably draws a confused frown and a request for us to write the name of the country down for them on whatever form they are filling in.
Mobile again, we headed from Siliguri back up into the hills towards Darjeeling. We took the old Hill Cart Road up (a most fortunate effect of my erroneous navigation as I informed Andy) sweeping up through old forests and tiny yet lively and colourful villages before emerging back out into the open to be greeted by what is now called the ‘Toy Train’. During the time of the British Empire a railway connected Calcutta and the base of the Himalayas in Siliguri, from where carriage services were available over Hill Cart Road. A few years later, a steam tramway was built along and across Hill Cart road, called the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. This train still runs today as the ‘Toy Train’ and like tea has become an integral part of Darjeeling’s identity (it was declared a World Heritage site in 1999). Zigzagging across its tracks and even overtaking the train itself just outside of Kurseong felt like rather essential Darjeeling experiences indeed.Following a day of exploring Darjeeling’s old planter houses, colonial clubs and churches – and of course a few nice cups of tea – we then ascended into the more remote territory of the former kingdom of Sikkim. Sikkim is truly a fascinating little corner of India. It is said that in the 8th century AD, Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava) introduced Buddhism in the area of what is now Sikkim (as well as in Tibet and Bhutan) and predicted the era of monarchy that would arrive in Sikkim centuries later. In 1642, Phuntsog Namgyal, a desendant of an Eastern Tibetan Royal family, became the founder of Sikkim’s monarchy and was consecrated as the first in a line of ‘Chogyals’ (priest-king) that would rule Sikkim right up till 1975. After Independence in 1947, Sikkim’s population rejected joining the Indian Union, and Nehru agreed to a special protectorate status for Sikkim, whereby India would control its external affairs, defense and diplomacy. However, the last Chogyal made himself so unpopular that riots in 1973 eventually led to a formal request for protection from India. In 1975, a referendum led to the abolishment of the monarchy and Sikkim became India’s 22th State. Its distinct Buddhist culture (despite a now majority of Hindu Nepalese immigrants) remains present though, and foreigners require a permit to visit. Because of Sikkim’s history of independence from India, and also with an eye on China, Delhi has poured quite a lot of money into Sikkim’s infrastructure, health, education and housing. But whilst the numerous road signs announcing this or that government sponsored project or scheme were hard to miss, the effect of all that money on the roads was less obvious to us.
Bike repair stop three took place at the convenient location of a deserted forest right between the tiny towns of Melli and Jothnegar where somehow our battery wiring managed to cut itself in two leaving us unable to start the engine. Thankfully in India there’s normally always someone around who can fix an Enfield so I hitched in to Jothnegar to find them, leaving Andy to babysit our lifeless bike.Patched up, we managed to make it on a whole half an hour before we again spluttered to a halt. This time though we were on a steep rocky trail halfway up the side of a ravine with darkness about to fall and the temperature rapidly dropping (the beginning of Cyclone Phailin’s effects). There seemed to be nothing for it but to abandon the bike. So we unstrapped our bags and managed to hitch a ride on one of the last jeep-taxis going up to the mini tourist hub of Pelling, with no clear idea of how we were going to get our bike back.However, as is also often the case in India, the jeep driver turned out to have a brother who was a mechanic. After some discussions it was agreed that he would head down the next morning, fix the bike and ride it to our hotel in Pelling. The fifth bike-repairing stop the day after is probably our favorite, as this time it was touring New Delhi Pastor Samuel and another local priest who divinely appeared around the corner as we were sitting beside the road clumsily trying to reattach the exhaust that had somehow fallen off. The combination of Pastor Samuel’s shiny shoes and a roadside rock did the trick for getting it back on, and after a forced overnight in Ravangla due to nightfall and bad weather, and this morning’s cold and wet ride, we are now here in Gangtok, waiting for our back brake to be repaired!Misfortune, over-ambition, karma, Ganesh’s wrath… whatever it is that has made the journey rather challenging over the last couple of days, boring or unrewarding it certainly hasn’t been. Some people thought we were slightly crazy to head off on a trip like this without having in-depth knowledge of the mechanics of an Enfield. But the number of people we have met willing to help, and the many ways in which a solution can eventually always be found, has certainly raised our confidence in humanity’s goodwill and resourcefulness. To Sikkim’s distinct culture and beautiful chortens we will definitely return some other time, then probably without bike!