Wednesday, December 30, 2015

India - Riding to Sikkim

Travelling through Nepal was problematic, when we were in India. Even when we set all the political turmoil aside, which did result in violent protests in which quite a few people died, then we'd still had a fuel problem. Assessing the situation we found people in queues for 27 hrs just to get some fuel... But then things seemed to get a little bit better when India openly said it would no longer prevent trucks from entering Nepal... something they had until then always denied they did(!) With the blockade now officially gone, the truck drivers themselves said they didn't want to enter Nepal anymore. The fuel crisis thus went deeper and deeper from then on. Our last possibility to enter Nepal coincided with the Nepalese government's total ban on petrol for private and construction vehicles... which put a stop to our run through Nepal.

We simply could not afford delays as our Myanmar entry was on a fixed date, and therefore decided to reluctantly give Nepal a miss. We had been looking forward to Nepal for months, but the Myanmar trip was something which had taken months to organise and had been quite difficult to get right. If we would miss the entry date, because of fuel shortage or problems at the Nepal or India border, then we'd have to do it all again... and get a new Myanmar visa... all of which we didn't want. A friend of ours did cross the border, with a big tank DRZ400 on which in theory he could make it to Kathmandu and back to the nearest border again. Still, he couldn't go to the Himalayas as he didn't have the fuel, and yet all we wanted to see in Nepal was the Himalayas... it was the single reason for us to go there, and thus went to Sikkim state in north India instead!

Sikkim is a small area between Nepal and Bhutan and relatively unknown outside India. Getting there presented us with the usual problem in India: which route to take. No matter how good your map, on paper or in digital form, it simply can't tell you anything about the level of madness you'll find. Yet that is the decisive factor when trying to plan a route... As always, we left early and yet we managed to do a lousy 260 km in 8 hours...! The roads were, by Indian standards, fine. It was the sheer madness and hopeless congestion which reduced our average speed to 33 km/hr... and that average included sections where we could ride at 85-90 km/hr too. Part of the problem may have been some sort of 'take your tractor to work day festival' as we saw hundreds of the damn things decorated like a bloomin' Christmas tree clogging up the roads. For some reason there always seems to be some sort of festive day when we are on the road in the land of curry and paneer...

Talking of which, we wanted something to drink and thus stopped in one of the many small settlements along the way. Most of them aren't even on the map. They seemed virtually deserted at first but when we stopped... we found ourselves surrounded by people in no time...! We have no idea where they came from, maybe they live under the ground or something as they just seemed to materialise out of nowhere. It's good to be travelling with someone on a GSA in situations like this as it impresses the locals more than a Bonneville... so they all cling to the GSA and give us some room. Even Mike's XT isn't a match for the GSA as a crowd magnet.

Lunch was intended to be just a short stop, something to drink, a bag of crisps and then move on. Non of us wanted to stop in a town again and being swamped by bystanders, so we took a sort of road-side diner (Indian style) well out of town. The bikes were in the shade, there was plenty of room and we could sit in the shade too. All seemed well, until we realised non of them spoke English... ohoh, now what? We picked up some familiar words and managed to order egg fried rice... or so we thought. He then proudly showed me the menu with the prices... as if that would help in any way as it was all in Hindi... The owner asked me if we wanted paneer with it, or so we thought... You can see where this is going... But you're wrong! We did get the egg fried rice... which was probably the best egg fried rice we've ever had... and then arrived something Vince thinks he ordered... followed by a bowl of Dal for everyone... and another dish with paneer... and roti... and more roti... and more dal... and then another paneer dish... and then we pulled the plug as there was no way we could eat all this! At times like this, we love India. The people are so extremely friendly and accommodating. We could see the chef enjoying us eating, and clearly loving(!), the food he just made. It was amazingly good food, all of it. Considering the basic kitchen in which it was made it was unbelievable. We shared everything and ate for just 4 dollars each...

Trying to get some food organised in the evening, at the hotel which promised on the website to have English speaking staff, proved slightly more complicated... despite pointing at the menu and ordering an evening meal, nothing appeared even an hour later. It was supposed to be room service... When we asked when it would be ready, the reply was astonishing... they thought we wanted the evening meals at breakfast tomorrow morning... as if anyone would order that for breakfast!

Leaving early, when staying in a city, is usually the way to avoid the worst of the traffic. So we were on the road by 6.30 am and... ran into the biggest traffic chaos we had seen anywhere in the world! Forget New York, forget London and even forget Delhi... Patna is a mess. We were riding on the so called main highway but found ourselves riding through narrow alleys which were clogged up with everything you can think of. Even when we finally got out of town, we made no progress to speak of. Three hours later we had 'progressed' barely 40 km... We were covered in dirt, diesel soot and sweat. India is a dirty place. We stopped at a small roadside restaurant for breakfast but found the garbage heap right next to the tables... and the tabels covered in thousands of flies... so we had a bottle of water and continued. 

About 120 km out of Patna the road finally improved, traffic wise, I even selected 5th gear for the first time that day as our speed rose above 60 km/hr... wow! Of course it couldn't be that easy, were still in india after all :-) Just a couple of kilometres later we were all 3 airborne, including Vince's superbly suspended GSA1200, as the road was somewhat bumpy :-) The poor Bonnie found itself half a metre above the ground several times... Luckily the landscape had changed too, much greener and friendlier. We rode through banana plantations, found people living in houses made from straw and cars and motorcycles had been replaced with bicycles or walking. We were clearly in a much more poverty stricken area too, yet the incredible garbage mounts found in Patna were gone as well. People seemed to be putting in the effort to make something of their home, however simple it was. It was for me the most positive thing of the day. 20-Odd army checkpoints later we rode into Purnia where we got the distinct impression they had never seen a white man before... We were stared at like we came from Mars or something... which had nothing to do with the bikes or our bike gear as it became even worse when we later walked into town. People staring at us wherever we went which became pretty creepy at times... at the same time we weren't pestered by tuktuk drivers or pesky salesmen. We were just left alone... which was a welcome change!

Getting rupees out of an ATM proved another experience like nowhere else in the world :-) The problem was simple, I inserted my card and the ATM screen told me something in Hindi... So I went into the bank building (as ATMs in India are usually outside the main building), explained the situation to the security guard... who came with me to the ATM...! This is strange for two reasons. First, he left the bank, which thus had no security guard anymore...(!) and he carried a huge big shotgun with him...! He tried the card twice, then shook the whole ATM machine back and forth... upon which it suddenly worked in English...(!) He looked at me with a beaming big smile and said 'Ok?' It dispensed the cash, so yes 'Ok!' We found the Kaushaki hotel (N25.77056° E87.47671°) a good place to stay. Very helpful people, good rooms, secure parking and good food too! 

The road from Purnia to Siliguri is pretty bad in places. Not only congestion wise but also quite a few badly damaged road sections. Having said that it's a beautiful ride along tea plantations, with the Himalayas just visible in the background. We didn't find Siliguri that enjoyable as it's just another congested town where Indians behind wheels or handlebars seem to do their utmost best to run you over. But it's the place where you can get a Sikkim permit. 

Sikkim is a sort of autonomous state within India, with its own border and its own government. To enter it we needed a permit, a bit like a visa if you like. The procedure was simple, they just needed our passport and address. Unlike what we read there is no need for passport photos, copies of the passport or anything. The permit is free and can be obtained from the SNT office which is located at N26.72404° E88.41698° You can also find it in our GPS file on India, which can be found here. The permits took literally less than 10 minutes and the office is located 150 mtr from the hotel. Which brings me to the hotel (The Rajdarbar). The one we went to (Hotel Vinayak N26.72901° E88.41446°) seemed good and has secure parking but was fully booked. They directed us to the Rajdarbar with which they have an arrangement which will actually get you the room cheaper than when you book directly with them...!

Back to the Sikkim permit procedure. We have wondered many times why everything, and I literally mean everything, in India has to be so complicated. Only the night before we were once again amazed how much paperwork is involved in getting booked into a hotel for just one night. They needed copies of our passports and copies of our visa for India, we then had to fill in an A4 sheet full of questions which have nothing to do with our stay or were already mentioned on the photocopies they made... then our photos needed to be taken(!) followed by filling in all our details (including our fathers' name!) in a ledger... We simply got fed up with it as there is no need for any of it. Our visas have been checked at the border 11 times already, who my father is has nothing to do with me, asking for my home phone number is ridiculous as I'm obviously not home, there is no need for passport photos as they already have copy of my passport, it's non of their business where we came from or where we are going, in short it's utter bollocks. Checking-in can take more than half an hour because of all these forms, copies, dumb questions etc. One thing to understand though is that the hotel is asking for all this as they are required to do so by the Indian government. So we filled in everything but took the piss out of the system... just to make the process a bit more fun for us. Karen, Vince Mike and myself now all have the same father according to the ledger... and he is the lead singer of The Eagles... :-) Karen and I are married now, as are Mike and Vince :-) yet Vince is sharing the room with Karen and Mike stays with me... My phone number doesn't exist of course and according to the ledger I rode from Pakistan to Purnia in one day.