Vacation, 2200+ Kms motorbike tour in Northeastern India and Bhutan

Travelogue: 2200+km motorcycle road trip in Northeastern India.
August 2010

All photos are here (feel free to use them as you please). GPS plots and GPX files are also available. If you need them please drop me a line.

The plan

After having done the Manali – Leh trip (North India) two times, we thought it was time to give the Northeastern part of India and Bhutan a visit on a motorbike. I had read so many travel blogs about the beauty of Sikkim, Darjeeling and India’s neighboring country, Bhutan.

So, the plan was this. I would fly into Calcutta in West Bengal, India from Hong Kong and my friend Prashant would bring his own motorbike from Mumbai to Calutta by train. I would be renting a motorbike in Calcutta and we would start driving from there.

The execution:

Booking a plane ticket to Calcutta was simple enough. I used www.makemytrip.com which I would highly recommend. Very easy to use website for good deals. I got a ticket from HK – Bang Kok – Calcutta for HKD 3800.

The motorbike rental turned out to be a much greater challenge though. Having scoured the internet and having called many, many shops, we realized 2-3 days before the trip that getting a rental motorbike in Calcutta would be extremely difficult. The backup plan was to buy a second hand bike for 10 days and sell it back to the same shop we would buy it from for a discounted price. We weren’t sure if we could pull this off.

And this is what really happened:

20th August 2010

Took Thai Airways to Bang Kok. The airport in Bang Kok felt like it was located on some rice field. Thai rice immediately came to mind. The flight was to land at 2.30pm and my next one to Calcutta was at 4.30pm

At the Hong Kong airport

A runway strip is somewhere around the corner from those rice fields

After the plane landed, I looked at my watch. It read 3.30pm. I was beginning to worry. I only had 1 hour to change flights. Somehow I thought I had two hours between flights. Suvarnabhoomi airport is massive. Walking from one end to another is like doing a Maclehose stage 1 hike. After I got out from the plane, I rushed to the transfer desk to get the boarding pass for the connecting flight to Calcutta. It was supposed to be on Kingfisher Airlines. The walk took forever and I was walking at top speed (7kmh!) My watch read 4.15pm by the time I reached the Kingfisher check in counter. Lady at the counter didn’t seem bothered that I was late. She gave me my boarding pass in a very calm and serene manner. I attributed that to her being Thai and I knew that even hardcore demonstrations in Thailand can be very peaceful (I am referring to the red shirt, white shirt saga). Her next sentence was puzzling.

“Please be at the boarding gate at 4pm”, she said in her soothing voice.

“But, it’s already 4.20p”, I shot back.

At which point I was taught that there is a time difference of 1 hour between HK and Thailand! I was a bit too early!

I didn’t think much of Kingfisher initially but the flight attendants quickly changed that opinion with their girl-next-door looks. CEO and Chairman Vijay Mallya appeared on the in-flight TV proudly announcing that ¡§he had personally hired every crew member¡¨ of Kingfisher Airlines! I am sure he worked overtime hiring those pretty flight attendants!! He also claims that he wants to hear of every passenger’s experience flying Kingfisher and we may email him at chariman@flykingfisher.com.

The food on Kingfisher was very good. Chocolate cake for dessert was excellent.

Arrived in Calcutta in 2 hours. I hate cities and landing in Calcutta did nothing to change that. It’s just another city full of traffic jams, pollution and noise. India is full of contrasts. You see luxury cars on the road, but either side of that road also highlights the poverty that is so conspicuously visible. Looking at people lead such a hard life for extremely low wages diminishes any problem that you think you may have.

Anyway, so got to the cheap hotel we booked by taking a prepaid taxi from the airport. I asked the bellboy and the hotel guy about renting a bike. Both did some quick research and told me that that sort of thing does not happen in Calcutta. Big problem.

Prashant was supposed to be coming in on 21st August and he is supposed to have his own bike. So, with the rental option looking slim, the buying option was the only hope.

21st August 2010

Cigarette smoke filled the room early in the morning. I got a bit pissed off and tried sealing all windows but the window latch was secured using a rope that seemed to have loosened. I wrestled with it for a few moments and then gave up.

Got ready at about 8am and decided to sink in with the local surroundings and shun any touristy look. Meaning looking a little disheveled, unshaven and wearing nothing that would give a I-am-a-tourist look. Got off the elevator and walked the streets of Calcutta. The local crowd saw right through my disguise. All eyes on the street were on me and I was accosted by several salesmen peddling all kinds of things to me. Hotels, taxis, food, etc, etc. So much for an unshaven, disheveled disguise! I remembered the time I was in Inner Mongolia. The locals there hadn’t seen a tourist ever and they were all staring at me like I was some sort of alien! But in Calcutta, I am not supposed to be getting those stares as I am Indian!

The bike search gained momentum when I called Yellow Pages and got a few numbers from them. I worked the phone vigorously but half of those numbers didn’t work and one guy spoke in Bengali. I couldn’t get a word. So, I decided that the best course of action was to wait for Prashant whose train was to arrive at 1pm.

As I was waiting for Prashant to arrive, I entertained myself by watching cable television on the state-of-the-art TV provided by Hotel Oriental.

Hotel Oriental – INR 1000 a night and a prehistoric TV

I remembered how my late grandfather had a similar TV back in the 1980s.
It was especially fun to watch the Chinese movie Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon with a Hindi voice over.

“You have to kill Jade Fox and report to the headquarters” Michelle Yeoh told Chow Yun Fat in a mixture of Hindi and English! It was hilarious!

Anyway, when Prashant arrived, we immediately set off to Wellington Street to hunt for motorbikes and honestly, I wasn’t having any hopes of getting one by this point. Since I now had company, I dared to put my guard down a little and starting looking everywhere to absorb the local environment. I have to say, in terms of traffic, pollution and noise, Calcutta is probably the worst of all the 4 capital cities in India (although I have not been to Bombay yet). Calcutta has a nickname apparently. It’s called the City of Joy!! Yeah, right! Only if one experiences joy in intense traffic jams, noise and pollution…

So, we stopped at a 2nd hand dealer’s place and Prashant got to work in his flawless Hindi while I acted as the occasional sidekick. The guy flatly opposed any idea of renting out his bikes so we asked him if we could buy one and resell it to him at a discount 10 days later.

Intense negotiations followed. After departing with two hours of time and more importantly, INR 39,000, we had ourselves another bike! We were the owners of a Pulsar 150cc 2008 model bike which the seller agreed to buy back at INR 36,000 10 days later assuming there was no damage to the vehicle.

The motorbike expedition was to start on 22nd August 2010.

Warning message outside Hotel Oriental – practicing non violence!

22nd August 2010

Calcutta to Malda – 348Kms

So, we set off at about 7.30am after tying the bags to the bikes using ropes. The plan was to drive from Kolkata City to Nadia and from Nadia to Malda. The distance from Kolkata to Malda is about 350km.

My Pulsar with the bag tied using ropes at the back

I couldn’t wait to get out of Kolkata. The first 70km of the drive was in the city and that involved navigating through narrow streets, stopping every other minute because of some odd traffic signal and being constantly harassed by the guy behind you who keeps honking for no apparent reason.

After that the landscape thankfully changed. We were on NH34 (National Highway # 34) and it was much greener than before. The roads were great and the greenery was a welcome relief.

Greenery after the first 70kms

Food place

India is a true democracy and that applies to the National Highways as well. The highways are shared by all and sundry and each has his/her constitutional right to use the highway as he/she pleases. For instance, the highways are shared by:

a) fish cart / tricycle drivers who drive at about 5kmh and carry all sorts of goods at the back. These goods can be anything from plain and simple vegetables to extra long, steel poles that stick out from the back of the tricycle for miles and miles! If you drive into them, you end up stabbing yourself with steel rods!
b) mad cyclists who drive holding only 1 side of the handlebar, and swerve left and right randomly. They are completely oblivious to anything else that might happen in the universe – especially to the the guy behind desperately honking for way
c) truck drivers and state buses that flash their headlights and come honking nonstop from the opposite direction in a blaze of glory
d) cows, goats and sheep who have the right of way on the national highway. They come and go as they please and no matter who you are, you are expected to stop and let them through safely

So, that’s why driving on the highways in India is so much fun!
We drove for about 10 hours with several breaks in between and covered 350km in one day.

At one point, we were at a bridge called Farakah bridge which is very close to the Bangladesh border.

Malda, our destination for the day, was like a ghost town. We reached at 6pm and the place seemed shut except for a 2-star hotel that offered us accommodation at a cost of INR 1050.

Malda

The toilet in the room was interesting.

Is it Western? Is it Indian? No, it’s Indian-Western!

23rd August 2010

Malda to New Jalpaiguri – 288Kms

Woke up to the noise of drops of water hitting the back of the aircon. That could only mean one thing. It was raining outside! We decided to wait for the rain to subside a little so left at a leisurely 9am.

It started to clear up as we were driving, which was a welcome relief. The landscape now changed from a dry ghost town kind of look to one of lush green rice fields and jute plantations that filled either side of the road. The air felt crisp and refreshing. Roads were fabulous. This is exactly what I had expected and hoped for from this vacation. Driving started to feel like a real pleasure. Breezing through the greenery, smelling the fragrance of plants and throttling away to glory!

Greenery

We reached NH 31 after driving some 150kms. NH 31 is much, much better than NH 34. The roads are divided into separate partitions for incoming and outgoing traffic. My bike easily touched 80+kmh on most parts of the drive and we stopped for lunch at a gas station/restaurant in between.

NH31

Gas station/restaurant

Destination for the day was New Jalpaguri – a city in the far east of West Bengal. About 70kms before reaching, the skies started roaring and I started feeling the rain playing drums on my helmet. So, had to stop at a gas station to wear a 7-11 poncho.

Stopping at the gas station to escape from the rain

We initially thought it best to wait for the rain to subside but soon decided to continue nonetheless as there were no signs of that happening. I had an interesting chat with the guy at the gas station. He gave us some tips about Bhutan and on how to get there and also dropped the fact that Darjeeling (hill station about 100kms away) was closed. I asked him why. He told me that some guy murdered a very important person and was apprehended. Apparently, during interrogation by police officers, he asked to go to the bathroom and made an incredible escape while relieving himself (the gas station guy thinks he was allowed to escape). In order to re-apprehend him, all ways in and out of Darjeeling had been sealed. Sounded like some movie plot. Interestingly, the guy also gave me a Bhutan 101 lesson. Apparently, since it’s sandwiched between India and China, both places regard it as an important and strategic geographical location. So, India chose to be responsible for Bhutan’s defense and has build the roads there. Similarly, China has also showered Bhutan with incentives. Bhutan, just by virtue of its location, gets pampered because it sits between two rivals.

The roads to New Jalpaguri in the final 40km stretch were terrible and it felt like I was driving on the surface of the moon. There were infinite potholes, many of them fairly deep! The stagnant water from the rain made it tough to predict the depth of the potholes!

At about 6pm, we reached New Jalpaguri. The place felt like an old, busy town.

New Jalpaguri – first impressions

Got into a hotel that charged INR 850 for a double room. It was pretty decent and gave us a view of the city.

Hotel Del Pretom in New Jalpaguri (weird name)

24th August 2010

New Jalpaiguri to Phuentsholing in Bhutan – 128Kms

Woke up at about 5.30am and noticed that history repeated itself. It was raining but this time much, much harder than before! And the result, yet again, was a delayed but definite start at about 8.30am.

The idea was to get into Phuentsholing which is the border town in Bhutan, about 120kms away from New Jalpaguri. The drive to the highway that leads to Phuentsholing from New Jalpaiguri can be summed up in one word – BUTT-BREAKING! Craters in the moon would be shallow compared to the the ones on this road. The first 70kms felt like I was riding a donkey. No suspension, no speed and a pain in the butt (literally).

There were some scenic stretches though especially one where the road was flanked by tea plantations on either side. That was beautiful! The air had the fragrance of fresh tea!

Tea plantations

The rain turned to drizzle and eventually (and thankfully) stopped.

Before reaching Phuentsholing, there’s a place called Jaigon in West Bengal that we had to cross (it’s only about 3kms from Phuentsholing). Jaigon is on the Indian side whereas Phuentsholing is on the Bhutan side. There are two permits required – exit from India (Jaigon) and entry in Bhutan (Phuentsholing). The Indian side entry was simple enough. Prashant had to ask the good fellows at the immigration office who were watching some Bollywood movie to sacrifice a bit of their time for official work. They generously agreed and that was the end of that. Took about 5 minutes. You need a photocopy of some proof of identification and you’re done (either passport or voter ID or driving license). Now, we were set to drive into Bhutan. There was an archway that read ¡§Welcome to the Royal Republic of Bhutan¡¨ and we drove in and promptly got stopped by the Bhutanese guards.

Welcome to Bhutan!

The guards asked us to to get an entry permit from a nearby building. Prashant went with a copy of my passport, his PAN card (tax card) while I guarded the luggage and bikes. He returned unsuccessfully. Apparently, Bhutanese guys are sticklers for rules and regulations and the regulations say ‘No passport, no permit’. Prashant didn’t have his passport with him. The next step was for us to drive to the Indian embassy in Phuentsholing and get some sort of proof stating that he was Indian. I found that kind of funny. We were already in Bhutan territory and driving there but were asked to return to get an entry permit! I was told that the permits were only needed in Thimpu and Paro, so technically, we could drive and stay in the Phuentsholing part of Bhutan without any permit. I found that quite weird!

So, as we were driving around Bhutan, I started forming my first impressions. I have to say, I was IMPRESSED! The place is relatively much cleaner and -this is the part I like most- you see girls everywhere! They seem to outnumber the males easily and many of them were very pretty! The women were wearing some sort of traditional Bhutanese attire, the skirt is like the one that Singapore Airlines flight attendants wear, except it’s typically only one color. Guys tend to wear a plain skirt as well. Reminded me of the Scottish kilt! There was no honking, no mad overtaking and a profound respect for rules! I got told off for taking a U turn on the main road! In India, such things are as common as night and day!

Anyway, so, we drove to the Indian embassy and the guy there gave us a bit of a runaround (we had to get copies of whatever documents Prashant had – PAN card, Driver’s license, etc). He then issued something to certify that Prashant was Indian. We then had to take this back to the entry permit guy who eventually gave us each an entry permit.

Indian embassy in Bhutan

Now that the entry permits were done, we had to get permits for the motorbikes. The office that issues them looked like a huge museum. We went there only to be told that the opening hours were from 7am to 3pm! Weird timings!

After driving around Phuentsholing to take a brief tour of the city, we checked in into hotel Centennial 2008. They charge Nu 1000 and this, by far, was the best hotel I stayed in so far during the trip.

One thing struck me about Bhutan. It’s the ladies that seem to do all the work there! Most of the hotels/shops I saw were lady operated.

The buildings seemed well maintained and uniform. We drove to the top of a little hill expecting to find luxury resorts/hotels but instead spotted a nice looking general hospital! As Prashant pointed out, had this been another part of the world, there would be a hotel or a resort instead of a general hospital at such a premium location!

The hospital!

Bhutan – first impressions

The currency (1 INR = 1 Nu)

Our Bhutan hotel

The plan for August 25th was to drive to Paro/Thimpu after getting a permit for the motorbikes at 7am in the morning

August 25th 2010

Phuentsholing to Thimpu – 173.5Kms

So, getting up to keep the 7am appointment wasn’t too hard although we ended up being 30 minutes late. We showed up at the RTO (Road Traffic Office) at 7.30am. We went up hoping to find the motorcycle permit guy but instead found a security guard who told us that the permit guy had gone for breakfast and would only be back at 9am! Here’s my question: why publicize that you open at 7am if you really begin work only at 9am??

Well, anyway, we then had to go back to the hotel, have our own breakfast and then return to the RTO office to get our motorbike permits. Here’s where we experienced Bhutan bureaucracy at its best!

The RTO office – visitors are requested to come wearing the formal dress!

We had to go walk up and down 2 floors and shuttle between 6 different counters multiple times in order to get a permit! There were so many steps involved that I am still confused about the actual process! One thing stood out though. If the local Bhutanese want any work done in a government building, they have to go wearing the local attire. (I mean the pretty Singapore Airlines skirt outfit).

2 grueling hours later, we had official permits to travel to Thimpu and Paro! This was a big accomplishment! But our starting time was now really delayed. We could only leave at 11am.

At about 11am we left the hotel in Phuentoshling and started driving towards Thimpu which was 175kms away. The first 30 kilometers or so were just captivating. We were driving through the hills and it was really like driving through a beautiful forest. The views were spectacular – waterfalls, beautiful tall trees and so much more greenery. Taking the helmet out, I could hear the sound of birds chirping. .

The scenic route to Thimpu



The roads from about the 30th kilometer was quite awful. They were muddy, slushy roads damaged even more because of the recent rains.

Got to be careful and drive on 1st gear here!

We had lunch at a Bhutanese restaurant en route. I ate their famous local dish made out of chilli, cheese and potato. It’s called Ema Daksi. It pretty much involves mixing hot chilli with cheese. A contrasting combination that tastes quite good!

Restaurant en route – very nice people in Bhutan!

Bhutanese food (Ema Daksi rice) – the chilli/cheese/potato combination is on the right

This ¡§artist¡¨ wanted to be noticed! So here goes

The roads turned out to be excellent about 50kms from Thimpu. We could finally drive at 50kmh+ and reached Thimpu city at about 6.30pm.

First impressions: very impressed! No honking anywhere, traffic was smooth, city seemed very peaceful and drivers actually cared about us motorcyclists and even gave way on occasion! It was like driving on a private road!

Welcome to Thimpu! People speak English/Hindi/Bhutanese and are very, friendly




We checked into a hotel that cost Nu 650 and had a sumptuous dinner including the local beers (11000 and Hit).

Local beer

The streets were peaceful, there was lots of activity and people seemed to be happy! I am buying into the whole GNH thing now (Gross National Happiness index). That’s one of the ways the kingdom in Bhutan measures the country’s success!

26th August 2010

Thimpu to Paro – 113Kms

The idea was to go to Paro from Thimpu (60kms away). We left at around 10.30am after fixing a few minor problems with the bikes and started this 1.5hr long drive.

Paro was the best place on this trip so far! Beautiful, unspoilt, green and peaceful. I fell in love with the place as I was driving into it. Lush green fields, amazing architecture of buildings, well educated, law abiding people who typically speak English/Hindi/Bhutanese and a country where smoking is highly discouraged. This place would be the ideal place for anyone who loves nature and the environment.

Pictures speak a thousand words. So, here’s more of a Bhutan 101 and Paro 101 in photos:

Bhutan – National dress (Bhutanese *have* too wear them when entering government buildings!) This is what the dudes wear – kind of like the Scottish kilt

This is what the gals wear – the pretty Singapore Airlines flight attendant outfit as I call it

The capital city – Thimpu

Local movie ad: the ladies typically wear conservative attire

Drive to Paro – loved it! Greenery everywhere


Outskirts of Paro city – beautiful river runs through the city

We checked in to a hotel on the outskirts of the city at a cost of INR 1000. Best hotel on the trip so far. It was surrounded by green fields and you wake up to the smell of fresh grass!

Hotel 3kms from Paro

Next stop was a visit to a place called Dgukgyekdzong (no, I am not pushing all keys of the keyboard at random and, no, that’s not a Russian name either!) It’s a fort built back in the day to defend Bhutan in a war with China.

The fort




After visiting the fort, we drove straight down to the main city for souvenir shopping.

Paro city

Miss Bhutan ad!

Souvenir shopt

Bhutan has some really expensive cars and bikes!

When in doubt, go for a chiekcn

Welcome to the land of the thunder dragon!

Unfortunately, this sojourn in Bhutan/Paro had to come to an end soon as we were all set to leave the county on the 27th and head for Sikkim in India.

I was feeling a bit sad about leaving Paro. There is some awesome hiking there that I really wanted to do. The trails are unspoilt and would be a hiker’s paradise. But, due to time constraints on this trip, have to return for a visit to The Land of the Thunder Dragon!

Had to sleep a little early as we had a long drive ahead of us to Silguri after exiting Bhutan through Phoentsholing.

27th August 2010

Paro to half way to Sikkim – 252Kms

So, got up at 5.30am and looked out the hotel window. The fresh smell of grass and the view of misty mountains freshened the senses in no time! I was wishing I could bottle up that fragrant air to use it up for stressful times in the future!

View from the hotel window

We left at 7.15am for what ended up being one long drive! It was probably the most strenuous drive of the trip so far.

Although I was not too happy about leaving Paro, we had to do so anyway in the interest of seeing Gangtok in Sikkim, India.

The recent rains covered the terrain with more slush than usual – and that’s a lot. So, a good part of the 160km drive from Paro to Phuentsholing was spent on 2nd gear! We reached Phuentsholing at about 3pm. My butt was half broken by this time! Riding a motorbike on slushy roads filled with potholes is like riding on a wild donkey for 6 straight hours without taking breaks.

What made the drive enjoyable despite the potholes and the 2nd gear driving was the view! It was drizzling and the mountains were wrapped in beautiful bandages of mist. The experience was surreal. It was also very, very cold! I had to put on a 7/11 poncho to increase body temperature.

Mist covering the mountains


Lunch spot – it’s got a view of a dam and it’s a hotel so let’s call it Hotel Damview!

After returning to the Bhutanese border town Phuentsholing, we filled up gas with the remaining Bhutan currency (gas is 8 bucks cheaper there) and crossed over to the Indian side.

All kinds of vehicles honking irritably and continuously, headlights were blazing from the opposite direction, state buses were zooming on the roads like a Formula One car again. We had to be back in India!

The drive from Jaigaon (Indian side) began at about 3.30pm.. Our destination was Silguri but we started losing daylight after 3 hours of driving.

In the end, we had to check in to a lousy highway hotel at about 7pm to stop for the day. We were about 60kms away from Silguri.

The hotel was the worst so far on the trip. 300 bucks a night. Rat in the toilet, unsafe feeling and a love hungry old dude in the next room who appeared to be having ¡§fun¡¨ with some lady who was probably engaging in the world’s oldest profession!

28th August 2010

Hotel Highway to Gangtok – 150Kms

Gangtok in Sikkim was the destination for the day. We were eager to get out of Highway Hotel so started driving at 7.30am and expected to drive for around 5 hours to cover 150kms.

Leaving Highway Hotel! (Thank goodness)

Gangtok is in Sikkim, India. It’s called the Switzerland of India. The roads initially were alright but as we approached the 50th kilometer, we were told that because of landslides, the main highway was inaccessible to motorbikes. We had to take a diversion.

The best way to describe this diversion is (again) butt breaking/ass busting! I was watching National Geographic the other day and saw a program called Extreme Sports. It involved some daredevils running mountain bikes on steep ridges and also riding straight down them! It was a needless, senseless adventure – that’s what I thought to myself. What we did today was almost the same! Driving down motorbikes on steep slopes that fall at a 60 degree angle and riding up slopes on narrow roads, competing with 4-wheel drives coming at us from both directions – it was an adrenalin rush! Parts of the drive were harder than anything else I had done before and I had to ask for Prashant’s help on one particular slope! I was just too scared to attempt it!

Many hours later, we reached Gangtok, tired and with butt-bruises. Sitting on a motorbike and driving through roads that seem to be made of speed breakers and lots and lots of big boulders tends to be a pain in the butt!

Gangtok looked pretty good but not as good as Paro. Paro set the benchmark. We got into a decent hotel and started to ask around regarding tourist spots.

Gangtok – First Impression

Hotel in Gangtok

Only authentic Chinese restaurant in Gangtok! – Must be as they serve Shark Fin soup!

The consistent message we got from everyone was that no motorbikes were allowed in Lake Gurudongmar or Nathu La pass or Tsong Mo lake. Some guy told us how two people attempted something only a week back and paid with their lives. Those roads are apparently very, very susceptible to landslides.

We then had to ask around for arranged tours to North Sikkim and got the reference of a guy called Tshering (+91 9593771303). He said he could get the permits for us (special permits are needed as the place borders with China) and would drive us on a 4-wheel-drive to Lake Gurodongmar and back for a cost of INR 9000.

29th August 2010

Gangtok to Lachen – 127Kms – done on a tourist taxi

So, the consistent motorbikes-are-not-allowed answer brought a bit of disappointment. The choices in front of us were: (a) take a cab at a cost of INR 9000 and go to Lake Gurudongmar near Lachen (b) take a cab for INR 7000 and go to Youmtang valley near Lachung.

The travel tour guy told us that (a) came with a caveat. The roads may or may not be open and there was no way of finding out for sure until we got there. He would not refund any part of the money in case the roads weren’t open and we would have to pay all the money upfront. He also added that (b) was a boring choice as there was not much to see in the valley during early September. October/November was the real tourist season.

Well, being a natural risk taker, I voted for (a) and Prashant went along with the choice. The travel guy showed up at about 8am in a ¡§Free Tibet¡¨ tee shirt. Very catchy – I’m sure the officials in China would have admired his outfit. Anyway, so the guy came to collect our passport size photos and proof of identity and we left the hotel at 10am.

First stop was to the Gangtok market which reminded me quite a bit of Bhutan. Smoking was strongly discouraged everywhere and the place looked quite neat and tidy and was bustling with activity.

Gangtok Market

We got into our tourist taxi for the day (a 4-wheel-drive Tata Scorpio) and were on our way to North Sikkim. I felt like a real tourist in a taxi! Started missing the motorbiking already. I even doubted the permit stories I heard about motorbikes not being allowed.

The destination for the day was Lachen. Gurudongmar Lake is about 65kms from Lachen. We asked many guys on the way if they knew whether the route to Gurudongmar was open. We got the kind of answer that you get when you ask politicians questions regarding sensitive events. They can “neither confirm nor deny”. The answer almost seemed random. In between, we saw some sign at one of the permit points that said that the path to the lake was open but then another permit office gave us quite a grim story. They claimed the path was not going to be open for the next 10 days!

I let those thoughts rest and started admiring the scenery that unfolded beautifully as I looked out the window. The greenery started to remind me of Paro. North Sikkim felt like the real Switzerland of India – it was lush green and full of green forests. There were so many mammoth waterfalls on the way and the water rushed through them with intense force and velocity.

North Sikkim

7 Sisters Waterfalls

Nature!

Traffic stuck on dangerous slopes. Biking would have been tough but possible

We eventually reached the beautiful town of Lachen at about 6pm. Lachen felt like a small, friendly town in the lap of nature. We had to show our permits there and that’s when we heard final confirmation regarding the road to Gurudomgar and it was bad news. The 10-day story was correct. Apparently, the roads were blocked by large stones on the way and there was no way of crossing on any vehicle.

Lachen town

The new plan then was to visit a couple of monasteries in the area and eventually head back to Gangtok.

30th August 2010

Lachen to Gangtok – 131Kms – done on a tourist taxi

woke up to fresh, crisp air in Lachen. This is what I love about high altitude places. You feel very close to nature.

Lachen early in the morning

Cow ready for its morning business!

That starting time was 7am and instead of visiting the munch anticipated Gurudongmar lake at 5500m, we were driven to a monastery which is Lachen’s largest. After that, we had to go back to Gangtok.

View of Lachen town from the monastery

The Monastery

Look at Mr. Man’s photo on the building! In Bhutan and Sikkim, a photo of Mr. Man is supposed to ward off evil spirits! Especially put up during construction

Sitting in a car with a camera felt very touristy and I couldn’t wait to get back on the motorbike. I was determined to find out the truth about the motorbike permit story. Despite consistent answers regarding no permits being issued for two-wheelers, I was still a little skeptical.

The drive down to Gangtok was beautiful though. Some very enchanting forests lie in between.

In the lap of nature


I’ll have to credit the phenomenal guys who have defied death to build these high altitude roads. It ain’t easy! These guys also have a great sense of humor. The BRO (Border Roads Organization) has several projects to its credit. Project Himank in Leh (Indo Pak/China border), Project Dantak in Bhutan (India is responsible for Bhutan’s defense), Project Swastik in North Sikkim (Indo Tibetan border) and many more.

Some of the signs they have put up bring a smile to your face. I saw these signs:

“Do not mix drinking and driving

Go slowly on my curves

Speed thrills but kills

Safety on the roads is safe tea at home


BRO Building roads until midnight in high altitude under tough conditions


There was a huge hydroelectric power project on the way. These guys actually managed to block the flow of water by building a makeshift dam to start working on dry land. The water is instead diverted through a tunnel they built to produce electricity.

Power project

Another attraction on the way was a lake which is supposed to be some kind of a miraculous lake as no one has been able to find the source of water to this lake. No one knows how the water exits the lake either. Apparently, Buddhist monks worship by this lake 2 times a year.

Lake


We eventually reached Gangtok at about 3.30pm.

I wanted to bring closure to the whole permit situation and was wondering what we could have done better with the advantage of hindsight. So, we went to the tourist office and the guy there confirmed that motorbikes were allowed to go up to Lachen and even Lake Gurudomgar provided the roads were open. What we should have done was to go straight to the market area when we drove into Gangtok instead of staying at a hotel on the outskirts. Information could have been more accurate then.

The advantage of hindsight and postmortems is that they allow better actions to be taken in the future. With the knowledge of permits and how to go about getting them, we now knew that we could get permits to go to Lake Tsongmo instead which is about 40km from Gangtok. So, the plan for the next day was to be at the permit office at 7am and get the permits done. In the afternoon, we would be leaving for Rongpo (border point between West Bengal and Sikkim) to begin the long return journey to Calcutta on the motorbike.

31st August 2010

Gangtok tour + Gangtok to Darjeeling – 136Kms

So, I was pretty excited about the whole learn-from-hindsight-and-apply-lessons-learned-in-the-future thing.

We set off as per plan to get motorbike permits for Tsomgo Lake at 7.15am in the morning. The tourist office gave us a form to fill which we had to take to the official permit office.

Prashant went in to talk to the permit guy while I was guarding the bikes and the luggage. The conversation between Prashant and the permit guy went something like this.

Prashant: We need permits for two vehicles please (TN and WB number plates)
Permit guy: But we only give permits to the SK number plate cars
Prashant: No probs, we have two motorcycles, not cars
Permit guy: Motorcycles???
Prashant: Yup
Permit guy: You wanna die?? Are you crazy?
.
.
.

All in all, it turned out that the guys we spoke to at the travel agency were correct! The permit guy was not going to let us go anywhere on a motorbike. He told us that the routes were too arduous for a motorbike and that we would have to be suicidal to even attempt it.

So much for hindsight! So, plan B was to hit a temple and a wildlife sanctuary.

Hanumantok (Hanuman temple)

The zoo/wildlife sanctuary followed an ¡§immersion exhibit¡¨ type display of wildlife meaning that the animals were supposed to be enclosed in ¡§their own natural habitat¡¨. That pretty much means that you need ultra zoom lessons, long distance vision and a great power of observation to spot animals! As hard as I tried, the black Himalayan bear was nowhere to be seen in its large habitat but I did manage to see quite a few other animals.

This zoo followed an ¡§immersion exhibit¡¨

Leopard not Def Leppard

Some Lazy Red Panda

An owl graced us with her presence. She came flying and sat right on the trail

We bid goodbye to Gangtok and Sikkim at about 2pm to start the longish return drive to the so called City of Joy (Calcutta). First intended pit-stop for the day was Silguri.

Driving back admiring the views

Road trouble. Wait, stop and drive though the slush on gear 1!

But then, we saw a signpost that indicated that Darjeeling (hill station) was only 40kms away, so we decided to go on an extended drive.

The drive up to Darjeeling was simply spectacular. In 40Kms, there’s a 2000m altitude gain and excellent views on either side of the road – beautiful tea plantations, tall forests and oxygen rich air that mountains are so famous for. I loved the drive and it felt great to be back on a motorbike!

Drive to Darjeeling – fantastic! Highly recommended!


We lost daylight at 6pm and were about 15km away from the city. Mountainous weather took over and it started to drizzle and the drizzle slowly changed to rain. Misty weather ensued and daylight turned to darkness. Driving under those conditions was an incredible feeling. There were hairpin bends, potholes on the road and the headlight from the motorbike beautifully lit up the mist!

We reached Darjeeling at 7pm or so.

1st September 2010

Darjeeling to Tiger Hill and then to near Raniganj – 240Kms

Darjeeling was an unexpected stop. It was a spur of the moment decision to drive to one last mountain on this trip. But having driven to Darjeeling, the next best thing to do was to buy Darjeeling tea and visit Tiger Hill. Tiger Hill is a place 2600m above sea level and one is supposed to get an excellent view of Mount Kanchenjunga (its height is only slightly shy of the mighty Everest).

Tiger Hill. The guys here want their on state called Gorkhaland. You’ll see many ‘Welcome to Gorkhaland’ billboards

And this is what we saw: (plenty of clouds and mist)

After driving 16km to Tiger Hill from Darjeeling Town

It was cloudy. Got a Hong Kong like view of the mist! But at least took a photo of myself

From Tiger Hill, the mammoth return trip to Calcutta began. First stop was a drive back to near Silhouri and then to Malda which is around 330Km from Darjeeling. We managed to leave Tiger Hill only at 12pm and had a leisurely lunch at 2pm near a beautiful tea plantation where we bought more tea.

Drive back from Darjeeling. I love the trees

This is the Toy Train. It takes 8 hours to reach Silhouri. The tracks crisscross the roads

A tea plantation factory

Goodbye view of Darjeeling

That bit of laziness meant driving in the dark which we did until 7.30pm. We had to stop 80km from Malda because of safety issues. Driving at night on Indian highways is not the safest thing to do!

2nd September 2010

Raniganj to Calcutta (425Kms)

One day and 400Km is what we had to cover. It was going to be the longest drive on this trip!

In order to prepare for it, I got up nice and early at 5am and we were on the bikes by 5.55am! Earliest start of the trip!

An ass-busting, bum-breaking ride began and I was accelerating wherever possible like a man with a mission!

We must have covered over 60km an hour at our fastest speeds and the drive in the beginning from near Malda to Farakah (near Bangladesh border) was enjoyable. Lovely greenery and jute crops filled either side of the road.

In between, the skies turned black and it started raining super heavily. 7/11 poncho came to the rescue (sort of). When driving at 80Kmh on a highway, the poncho tends to fly! The plastic starts flapping so hard that it feels like firecrackers are going off on either side of the ear!

The farmlands slowly started disappearing at about 5pm and the usual potholes in the road started to feel more like craters created by falling asteroids. On top of that, people were driving as though honking was compulsory. I knew what all that meant – we had to be in Calcutta.

In all fairness though, the New Calcutta (Saltlake city) looked pretty impressive. It had the whole works – excellent highways, swanky buildings, opulent malls and so on. As we started driving into Old Calcutta to resell my motorbike, the Calcutta I was hoping to leave for good started to make an unwelcome reappearance. The national anthem in this part of Calcutta has to be the sound of traffic air horns. There is not a moment where you don’t hear one or the other vehicle honking!

We reached Park Circus station at about 6.30pm and dumped the luggage into a hotel called Hotel VIP Continental (INR 1300 double room).

The next big task was to get my motorbike sold. We went to the shop where we bought it for INR 39000 and the owner (Sultan) was a perfect gentleman. He honored his word and bought the bike back for INR 36000 (3000 less like he told us 10 days back). So, the total rental cost for 10 days was only INR 3000.

The plan for the last day of this trip was to visit Sunderbans (a pristine, protected forest/wildlife sanctuary) in the South of West Bengal, 107kms away. Since I no longer had a bike, this was to be done on a tourist taxi (again).

3rd September 2010

Calcutta to Sundarbans and back – 279Kms

Getting into a tourist taxi is not the most fun thing to do in the world. And getting up at 4am in the morning isn’t fun either. But, we had to do both in order to make it to Sundarbans and back on time. I started to miss my motorbike already.

Sundarbans are the largest mangrove forests in the world. Getting there from Calcutta isn’t quite that simple. It goes like this:

a) Drive 107kms to a village
b) Take a boat from that village to another one
c) Take a tricycle from this other village to yet another pier
d) Take another boat from there to the Sundarbans forest

The first boat

The village

Sundarbans

Sundarbans forest is supposed to be a wildlife sanctuary and it’s a natural habitat of the famous Bengal tiger. Our tour guide told us that the chances of seeing tigers were slim but I guess we already knew that. In an area that occupies well over 2500 square meters, how is one supposed to spot a tiger (of which there are only 240) and that too, in peak daylight? That’s like trying to find Bill Gates in one of the rooms of his houses by pure chance!

The mangrove forests

We did see a crocodile though and it swam not too far from our boat! It felt like I was some kind of National Geographic adventurer.

The croc. Crikey!

The sun was blazing outside at 40 degrees centigrade and it took a lot of energy away from the body. After spotting the crocodile and a few spotted deer, we returned to the pier to commence the return journey.

The return journey took about 2 hours and some intense exposure to non stop honking.

4th September 2010

So, 13 days disappeared sooner than expected and it was time to return to the hustle and bustle of home sweet home. Kingfisher and their pretty flight attendants to Bang Kok and Thai Airways to Hong Kong.

Shoulda woulda coulda

This trip was fantastic and the driving was phenomenal. 2200Kms+ on a motobike. India and its diversity never cease to impress. With the advantage of hindsight, I think we should have done this:

a) Leave in October instead of August
b) Spend 2 more days in Bhutan (Tiger’s nest on one day and a drive to the Bhutan-China border on the other)
c) Get the permits to Sikkim 1 day before and do Lachen, Gurdomgar lake, Lachung, Yumdang valley and North Sikkim on a motorbike, not a tourist taxi!


Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,