Thursday, May 8, 2014

Bad-Ass Motorcycling in the Himalayas

From Darjeeling I went further north into the most northern state of Sikkim.  Since shared jeeps are the only
transportation in these parts and the fact that you have to make arrangements a day in advance for each hop, I thought taking a motorcycle would offer more independence for a spur-of-the-moment itinerary.

I found an outfit that would rent me a motorcycle and provide all the protective gear necessary.  Actually motorcycle rental is not legal in India, so I was provided with papers saying I was buying the machine and taking it out of the country.  If I was asked, I was supposed to say I'm buying it.  The other issue is that only a 500cc bike was available called a Royal Enfield, an unruly hog of a thing.  The cycle was housed several miles out of town and I had to go there the day before to prove that I could ride the thing.  Of course it had to be worked on for an hour first because it wouldn't idle and was very difficult to start.  The next day I returned to pick it up for the excursion, but still it had to be worked on some more.  They gave me a tool kit and extra spark plugs explaining that I'd probably have to change them since the bike couldn't adjust the air mixture for altitude and the plugs would foul.  I really began to wonder what I was getting in to when they also packed a spare clutch cable.  Was I really going to have to repair this hunk of metal on the road?  As it turned out I was indeed going to the "end of the road" where services were nonexistent for motorcycles and barley so for humans.

The motorcycle was too big for me and I realized at the first stretch of rocky, switchback road that this thing was in a power struggle with me and it wanted to be the boss.  We wrestled each other for many miles when I also realized it may be silently  plotting to hurt me.  On the very few sections of road where I could get it into 3rd gear, it simply refused to allow a downshift to 2nd, it always went into neutral and required a quick upshift stab.  When stopping for a rest, it took a very long time to persuade it to go into neutral and starting from a dead stop on a steep road required the finesse not normally in the repertoire of a rider with an automatic transmission history.  The roads were bad enough, but added to that were sheer,
precipitous cliffs always on one side of the road or other.  At one point I ran the bike into a pile of rocks when traffic from behind came so close I could reach out and touch it.  I bent the leg guard and the gear shift lever, which gave me an excuse to beat on the beast and straighten things out a little.  A second nearly disastrous situation came along when a fully loaded gravel truck squeezed me nearly over the side of a
sheer drop.  I was completely stopped and made a  quick wish that the truck wouldn't hook my handle bar sending me on a flight to heaven.  The third and final scrape was when a car approaching from behind actually sideswiped me scraping the motorcycle leg guard.  I surprised myself by whispering "Oh, God, Oh God".  I could see that I left a long scrape in the paint of the car as it went merrily on its way.

My solution to feeling a little overwhelmed by the motorcycle was to just not ride it much.  I spent a couple days in Pelling which had really good views of khangchendzonga, the third highest peak in the world.

Another  thing to note about the roads in Sikkim, is that they have no names or numbers and have no signs at intersections.  I finally found a map, but it looked like a 5 year old child just drew squiggly lines from one town to another, rather useless because there were many more roads than were on the map.

Leaving Pelling I figured out which of the 5 intersecting roads to take and drove sort of aimlessly for over 6 hours for what was supposed to be a "couple" hours drive to the town of Yuksom at the furthest northern point one can drive.  I settled into this cozy little village for 4 days happy to leave the motorcycle in the hotel parking lot for travelers to admire.  I became somewhat of a celebrity when folks found out I was "ridding through" Sikkim.  Apparently it is not a normal thing to do.

In Yuksom everyone goes about their business singing.  I could never figure out if these were temple chants or songs or just what they were, but everyone young and old were doing it.

I upgraded my hotel in Yuksom and paid about $25 and it was well worth it.  I had a TV and could take meals in my room if I wanted.  Even with the electricity going out quite often, I enjoyed my comfortable digs with a candle when necessary.  I took many walks during my stay and found many things that would have been overlooked if I had been on a more aggressive schedule.  This town was the original capital of Sikkim and the stone coronation throne still exists where four Abbots from Tibet, Nepal, and elsewhere came together to found the capital.

The majority of people here are from Tibet and Nepal with others mixed in.  I read that there are 11 languages spoken here, none of which is Hindi.  Everyone was so friendly saying "namaste" in greeting and the children trying out "How are you"?, then following me chatting and playing as we walked.  I met several trekkers starting out on a very well known 8 day itinerary up to a pass with views of a large section of the Himalayan peaks.


  1. Daniel ... I must admit I am impressed with your sense of bravado & am so glad you survived the "oh my gawd" moments on the road as well ... I'm not sure I could follow in your footsteps traveling alone but you give me some hope that I might actually survive such an adventure.

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