Ridin' easy in Sikkim
Tourist?” enquired the guard at the West Sikkim border post. “Yeah, going to Pelling,” I answered tiredly and sat down on the steps of his booth as he noted down the registration number of my Yamaha Enticer. My head was clogged up with a persistent cold, not helped by muggy, sticky Kolkata, doses of highway truck exhaust and two days of misty chill. At this moment, I wanted to be home in bed, not 2,500 km away.
Besides, it had been a surprisingly taxing 24 km from Darjeeling this morning. The incredibly sharp, steep and narrow descending hairpins had taken me two hours to negotiate. Of course, I’d stopped a few times for pictures amidst contoured green slopes, dotted with women plucking tea leaves, but these halts hadn’t helped much. “Don’t worry,” said the guard, a touch sympathetically, as he waved me by. “Now that you’ve entered Sikkim, it’ll be better. The roads are excellent, you’ll be in Pelling in forty-five minutes!”
Having learnt from experience that the only distance-time estimates to be trusted are those from truck or jeep drivers, I carried on. Six days after leaving Mumbai, I was now finally in the little mountain state of Sikkim. I came up to a main road running across, and stopped two small schoolgirls to confirm the way to Jorethang, the first town of any size on this route. They looked blank but smiled twinkly smiles to compensate. It turned out to be a couple of minutes away, over a bridge wreathed in prayer flags and the blue-yellow-red tricolour of the ruling Sikkim Democratic Front.I stopped for lunch at an evolved tea-stall, letting the warm noon sun seep into me while rotis and cabbage were warmed up. An SDF manifesto on the wall promised to make Sikkim the ‘Switzerland of the East’; a shop wall opposite bore the optimistic-in-hindsight scrawls ‘Best of luck Indian cricket team’ and ‘World Cup 2003 winner India,’ a testimony to the binding nature of sport.
Not thirty years ago, Sikkim was a kingdom under a ‘treaty of accommodation’ with India, not the 22nd state of the Union. The history books describe the 1975 merging as the choice of a people (especially the Nepali settlers) dissatisfied with the rule of Chogyal Palden Thondup Namgyal. But Barbara Crossette’s So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas, which I was reading, spoke instead of a well-plotted takeover by the Indian government, paranoid after the Chinese attack in 1962, with the intent of gaining control of this strategically positioned region. In any case, it was a non-violent transition, and a generation later, a deed done and gone by; today Tendulkar and Co are the favoured party.
I got back on the winding road to Legship, through creased green Himalayan foothills with the Rangit river hissing by below. It instantly reminded me of the Kullu Valley in Himachal and the Mugling-Kathmandu stretch in Nepal. It is, after all, geographically the same belt. Serenity reigned as I maintained a steady, easy pace on the Enticer, watching the road sway between the buckhorn bars like a half-sedated snake under the tines of a catcher’s fork.
The population of Sikkim is all of 500,000 – put together some of the bigger housing societies in Mumbai and you’ll get that figure – which explained the infrequency of sighting people. I had undisturbed opportunites to sit on rocks, breathe the hill air and gaze at cascading step-farms, just resting, relishing the clarity of calm. The lyrics of nature’s song were peppered with the ellipses of cricket-chirps and squeaky cries of babies from distant huts. On one occasion, past Gyalshing, I climbed a tree to take a top-angle picture and ended up dozing on a forked branch for ten minutes, I kid you not, only waking up to the voices of passersby – father to presumably inquiring little village girl: “That’s a tourist,” (much like one would say “That’s a chimpanzee...”)
By early evening, I was approaching Pelling, passing lone houses with small flower gardens and SDF flags, and rows of tall prayer flags on poles silhouetted against the dipping sun. A gaggle of little Sikkimese girls, none over three years old, hazarded a shy wave or two; their mother figured I was not a kidnapper and smiled at me brightly. And you’d know that women in this country by and large do not smile at grubby strangers in alien-like motor-cycle gear. Though every human being has latent kinship potential, ‘friendly Indians’ is by and large tourism-spiel. But here in rural Sikkim, as in Ladakh, it’s more often pleasant fact. I think the mountains teach you to reach out.
Pelling turned out to be nothing more than a few descending loops of road crammed with hotels, grandly differentiated into Upper, Middle and Lower Pelling. This formerly insignificant village has recently hedged all its bets on tourism, offering proximity to Pemayangtse monastery, the Yuksom trek,and panoramic views of the highest peak in Indian territory, the benevolent, omnipresent Khangchendzonga.I checked into an anonymous hotel halfway down, and walked back up to a small, cosy-looking eatery in Upper Pelling. The ‘five magnificent treasures of snow’ that spike up to eight and a half kilometres skyward were by now unseen, dressed in dusk’s dark pyjamas. Under the emerging needlepoints of distant suns, I ate furnace-fresh noodle soup on a chilly rooftop.It was barely eight in the evening as I headed back, hands in my pockets and a monkey-cap trying to keep my earlobes at human temperatures, under the needlepoints of a billion distant suns. Five or six youth walked ahead of me, one or two rather drunkenly, the strains of their uninhibited attempts at singing fading as their fit, hill-bred legs increased the gap. Pelling was out for the count (no doubt it woke up early); there was only the undersea silence of the night. I would soon head to bustling Gangtok, where ninety per cent of Sikkim’s 270,000 annual visitors go, and drown myself in the familiar brambles of urbanity. But for now, I was alone with my thoughts, and 2,500 km from home seemed just the right distance.
Unless you’re from Kolkata, or perhaps Patna or Guwahati, you should consider freighting in your bike by rail to New Jalpaiguri, 125 km from Gangtok and a long way from other metros and B-cities. Popularly known as NJP, this twin-town of Siliguri (an equally nondescript place) is the jump-off point for the West Bengal Hills, Sikkim and Bhutan. Some popular trains are: from Mumbai, the Dadar-Guwahati Express; from Delhi, the North East Express; from Chennai, the Guwahati Express. Siliguri has a better offering of hotels than NJP, we found the 2-star Hotel Heritage (0353-2517510) on Hill Cart Road great value at Rs 300/400.
Riding to Gangtok from Kolkata is a 750 km, two-day affair up the NH34 via Murshidabad and Maldah. Our route started from Howrah, so to avoid the chaotic Cal traffic we headed out on the NH2 towards Durgapur, turning off at Panagarh onto a smooth SH via Morgram and Nalhati. This joined the NH34 a little before Umerpur, in turn 80 km from Maldah, both places you can spend the night at, in ordinary accommodation. Through Raiganj, Kishanganj and Islampur the road gets progressively worse because of four-laning work, but then you pass through the chicken neck, and soothing green tea estates come up to save the day about 50 km before Bagdogra airport. Siliguri is another 12 km from here, and now you have a choice: straight to Gangtok, via Darjeeling, or via Darjeeling and West Sikkim.
We rode the latter route, starting with an unhurried 80 km to Darjeeling. The wooded, quiet road starts winding within a few kilometres, only the occasional jeep or LCV passing by. The Darjeeling Himalayan toy train chugs up too, the tracks criss-crossing the road, so be careful; also, in a couple of places the rails protrude above the tarmac and can catch your wheel. Small villages dot the misty hillside, the biggest towns being Kurseong and Ghoom (the highest station in India). Darjeeling is a crowded little hill-station packed with hotels – the Hotel Bellevue and Pineridge come recommended as midrange stays (Rs 500-700). Points of interest include Tiger Hill, old Raj-era buildings, and half a dozen gompas, plus adventure activities like rock-climbing and white-water rafting.
To enter Sikkim, you can continue to Jorethang (23 km but two steeply winding hours away) or backtrack and do the conventional thing via Teesta Bazar and the western entry point of Rangpo. The Jorethang route leads to Legship, Pelling and Yuksom; the Rangpo road takes you to Gangtok/Rumtek, Phodong and Yumthang.Jorethang to Pelling is 53 km, a scenic three-hour ride running along the Rangeet River Valley to Legship. From there you take the left to Gyalshing and keep on. At Pelling, stay at Hotel Kabur (03593-50685), the first as you enter, affordable at Rs 200/300 and with a pleasant restaurant. Pemayangtse Monastery is a twenty-minute walk, and Khecheopari Lake an hour’s ride away.
To get to Gangtok (120 km), backtrack to Legship and take the left towards Tashiding and Ravangla. However at the time of writing, the road was under repair in a lot of places. You rejoin the NH at Singtam for the final 36 km blast. Gangtok itself is quite the same as, say Manali or Kodaikanal, but bigger and with an unmistakeable North-Eastern flavour. Hotels – over 100 of them – range from Rs 250 budget places to the top-end Tashi Delek for ten times as much. Besides adventure activities, you can visit the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology and the Rumtek and Enchey monasteries, and take a jeep to Changu Lake and the Indo-Chinese border at Nathula.