14th October. 220km return: Siliguri – West Sikkim – Siliguri.
The plan today was to ride the 110km from Siliguri to our guest house – the Red Mud Chalets – located off the beaten track in West Sikkim, and relax there for seven nights. Aad and Mike were going to ride up with us, and Emiel and Claire would join us at the chalets tomorrow as they are travelling a day behind us, having stayed an extra night in Varanasi.
We left Siliguri about 08:00am from memory, negotiating the crazy congested traffic full of buses and trucks and rickshaws and tuk-tuks and cows, and passed through the military base on the northern edge of town before entering the forest, noting the road sign that warned of elephants and stressed that they have right of way over cars.
Shortly afterwards the road started to climb into the mountains, twisting and turning its way upwards, and this is about where the silly Indian driving started. In one spot the road had narrowed to just one vehicle width, and two cars had ride to enter the narrow section from the opposite ends and had become log-jammed in the middle. Traffic was constantly piling up behind both of these cars, blocking them in so neither of them could reverse out even if they wished, which probably never entered their minds as the common view seems to be that you should never yield on the road, as exemplified by a bumper sticker on a jeep we saw that read “Better to die than drive like a coward”.
Our nimble bikes were able to pick a track around the obstruction and we we able to continue up the mountain, leaving the mass of blocked cars and trucks behind us, and we were able to enjoy the roads without any other vehicles for a fair while.
We crossed the bridge at Melli, entering Sikkim state, and were immediately stopped by police at a check-point requiring us to check-in at their office, showing our passports and permits to enter Sikkim. Formalities concluded we rode away.
The road deteriorated as soon as we entered Sikkim and whilst the route we were taking appeared as a sealed highway on our maps, in reality it was more of an unmade track than a sealed road in many places. We bumped over the rocks and slid through the muddy sections, dodging oncoming cars and trucks we could barely see through the thick clouds of white dust thrown up into the air. Hairpin bends on the road often signalled a shallow water crossing, and in the infrequent moments we were able to steal a glance to the side we could see the edge of the track and then a long steep drop to the river far below.
Progress was slow and hot, and we stopped in Jorethang to get a drink of water. A crowd quickly formed around us and looked at us all quite inquisitively, though unlike our experiences down on the plains here at least people weren’t touching the bikes which was a pleasurable change.
Long sections of the road were unsealed, and many of these had been turned into muddy quagmires. I haven’t done much riding in the mud but the heavy GSA seemed to revel in the conditions, never deflecting from its course. We were stopped at one point by a road gang loading rock into a truck – there were many crews working on the road in different places, but despite their best efforts the road was still in an abysmal state. Aad was quite vocal about the condition of the road – he couldn’t accept how a country could either call the track a main road or let it deteriorate to the condition it was in. As he pointed out – Mike and Karen & I had the luxury of riding off-road capable bikes whilst he was on his Triumph Bonneville – less than suited to the conditions.
We pushed on towards the turn-off to the chalets – Mike had plotted the locations of both the turn-off from the main road and also the chalets themselves which were about 15km down a private road, but we stopped in Legship when we realised that we’d missed the turn-off. We back-tracked across the bridge and found a little rocky track disappearing behind some huts on the side of the road, and we followed this up into the hills for a few hundred metres before Aad stopped next to a stationary 4×4 and asked the driver if we were on the right road. The driver hadn’t head of the Red Mud Chalets, Aad wasn’t convinced we were on the right track, and none of us were keen on pushing up the track. Aad’s back was hurting already from all of the bumping and jostling on the main road, and I could visualise the condition of the track getting much worse – too hard to warrant taking our heavy bike two-up along.
Back on the main road I plugged Mike’s coordinates into my GPS and it took us to another spot on the road where a side road should have joined us, but there was nothing but jungle to the side. We stopped to chat about our situation, and as we were talking I saw some locals walking up the road and then disappearing into the jungle, climbing up a steep path that had been cut into the cliff face that the jungle had obscured. That jungle path was the side road my Garmin India maps wanted us to take, but that wasn’t ever going to happen.
It was now somewhere between 2pm – 3pm and we had been riding for about six hours, and the decision was made to abort our attempts to get to the Red Mud Chalets today and look for accommodation elsewhere. If we could get a phone signal or wifi we’d be able to get more accurate routing information from the chalets and try again tomorrow.
We returned to the first major town further down the mountain – Jorethang – and Aad and I went to check out some hotels whilst Karen and Mike guarded the bikes. There were lots of places in the local vicinity labelled ‘Hotel’ but none of them offered accommodation, and Karen had been busy chasing kids away from the bikes, so we remounted and followed a small track down to a resort that was signposted near where we had parked.
The resort was just a few km out of town overlooking the river, and it looked like an abandoned mental asylum from the outside. I went inside and tried to get some sense from the man wandering around the lobby but couldn’t make myself understood. A young woman came down a hall into the lobby – she looked quite stupefied. I went outside and reported my findings to the others and we quickly agreed to move on to another town.
My GPS showed a heap of hotels about 10km south so we headed there in the falling light as the sun was now setting, but when we’d ridden the 10km we were still in the deep jungle. When I rechecked the GPS it showed that the straight-line distance to the hotels was just a few km, but they were 140km away via road as they were on the other side of the river…. duh !!!
We pushed on to Manpur in the dark. Traffic was still quite thick on the rough roads and I was grateful to have the spotlights on the GSA as they lit up the rocky terrain and mud holes much better. In Manpur again Aad and I went scouring for some accommodation but the only hotel in town didn’t have any secure parking for the bikes. Not happy with that, and with Siliguri only about 50km further south, we decided to return back to our starting point where we knew we could at least get a room and parking.
We stopped again at the police check-post at Melli and signed out of Sikkim, and then started to battle the crazy traffic driving up and down the mountain in the darkness. The vast majority of vehicles here in India don’t have any working brake lights or tail lights, and it was a manic ride down the hill, dodging trucks and cars and potholes.
It was about 8pm when we finally arrived back at our hotel. We’d been riding for almost twelve hours and were all quite exhausted from the experience. We were absolutely filthy – we’d been riding with our visors up to try and see through the clouds of dust and our faces were black, and our riding gear was covered in dust and soaked with sweat. We unloaded the bikes and collapsed on the lounges in the hotel foyer, bags strewn around us on the floor.
Showered and changed into clean clothes we rejoined Aad and Mike in the hotel restaurant for dinner. We hadn’t eaten through the day and were famished, and our meal was especially enjoyed as we’d managed to ride out to Sikkim and return safely – even if at times through the day we’d faced some big obstacles.
Karen and I both agreed that whilst our off-road riding in Albania was the most extreme riding we’ve ever done – today’s off-road ride in Sikkim and back was a clear second choice. I can’t credit our bike enough – fully loaded and with rider and pillion it ate up the conditions. I’m sure the TKC-80 tyres also played a major part in keeping us upright throughout the day – the bike and tyres are the perfect combination for two-up travelling.