Sunday, January 3, 2016

India - Unbelievable Sikkim

We had been looking forward to Sikkim for about two weeks and had been riding well over 1,300 km to get there, but now it was finally going to happen: our ride into Sikkim! We were joined by Vince and Karen on their big 1200 GSA and headed for the a chalet we had found on the infamous booking dot com. The plan was to stay there for a week or so and use it as a base to explore Sikkim. Emiel and Claire were to join us the day after, but of course as always it went differently.

Sikkim is portrayed as one of the world's last utopias, the accommodation we had chosen boasts views of the world's third highest mountain in the least populated state in India. Add to that a ride of only 110 km, which meant all the time in the world to get there, and we had all the right ingredients for what should be an enjoyable ride and good stay. What we found though was a ride through a badly congested truck corridor on winding mountain roads. Roads which were also badly broken up, covered in sand, mud, swamps and riddled with potholes and ruts... Not a good start then. A start which unfortunately became worse as we progressed deeper and deeper into Sikkim. The ride became so full for all 4 of of us, Vince and Karen on their BMW1200GSA were with us as well, that we needed all our attention to keep the rubber side down and the shiny side up. As a result we didn't take many photos, so most of the pics you'll find here are from the helmet cams.

After crossing the state border and the apparently necessary formalities, we rode into the former Kingdom and then... the road really turned to shit. Soon after it wasn't even vaguely a road anymore... All three bikes and riders were struggling on roads which were labelled as a National Highway yet resembled more of an obstacle course. We continued on until we found the point where a side road should have taken us to the chalet. Should have as the road listed on Google maps didn't exist. Vince's Garmin GPS with Garmin maps, showed the same road but also one a bit further south... which turned out to be a walking track up a cliff (see video). We found another road which turned out to be a dead end and asked a local tourist guide in a 4WD, who had no idea where it was either. Our free Openstreetmap gave us one other option much further south but as this road was only listed on our free Openstreetmap and not on the Garmin or the Google map, we doubted if this could be right.

Realising that we would be riding in the dark soon, on roads so bad that it had taken us 5 hrs in daylight to do the 110 km to get where we were, we decided to ride back to the last town we had rode through and take a hotel there. The plan had been to contact the accommodation from there, ask for instructions and arrive a day later. We had seen quite a few hotels along the way, so finding a room shouldn't be a problem... but then found that a hotel sign in Sikkim doesn't always mean you can actually sleep there too... Most of the time something called a hotel is simply a bar... We also needed secure bike parking, even more so than in the rest of India. Especially Vince and Karen's BMW was the continuous victim of people who just couldn't keep their hands to themselves and were literally pushing and shoving it around... even trying to climb on it! (Something which a friend of ours had experienced as well). The situation became nasty at some stage when the 'friendly' Sikkim locals thought it was funny to just deliberately pester them and tried to push the BM off the side stand...! The video below is what riding the main road in Sikkim was like...

We found signs for a homestay just out of town and followed it, only to find something which looked like a deserted asylum of some sort with, by the looks of things, a couple of former inmates still in charge. If there had been any intelligence to start with then it was most certainly left behind in the straightjacket. One of them walked around us in a big circle, avoiding eye contact, the other was on the phone to his doctor I guess. The doctor had apparently made his assessment via the phone and decided he didn't have straightjackets in our size and we thus couldn't stay.

By then the stupidity of it all seriously began to bother me. 'I can't take much more of this' I said. 'Where on earth are we? The loony bin? All we want is a room in a hotel, yet everywhere we ask we get this dumb blank look. Even sign language doesn't work here while the sign language for sleeping is pretty damn simple'. This had already started in the afternoon, when stopping at a petrol pump, opening the cap, stating we wanted petrol and full got the dumbest look ever invented. What else would we want in a petrol station? The only thing they sell is petrol, the cap is open, I pointed at the hose and then the tank, but even that didn't work!

We headed back further south, in the dark and over the same 'roads' with zero visibility, still positive we would find something along the way. Hours later it became clear our only option was to return back to where we were that morning. At least we knew there was a good hotel there with lovely people. Arriving there late in the evening, the staff at the Rajdarbar welcomed us and were as helpful as they had been before. They took all our gear up and meanwhile presented us with a cold drink. The manager confirmed that yes Sikkim was somewhat strange with naming a bar a hotel while you could not sleep there. The bikes were securely parked and out of sight and we enjoyed a good meal. Emiel and Clair happened to be staying at the same place and would have gone to the chalet the next day. Seeing us covered in dirt, our faces pitch black, bikes plastered in mud... they wondered if it would be such a good idea. Hearing our stories and seeing the footage of our helmet cameras made it clear this was crazy and they thus decided to give it a miss.

Despite what had happened, I was still undecided. Maybe we should contact them again and explain what happened. I still felt a bit shitty about not showing up there as we had said we were coming. By then we found out they also have a Facebook page, on which a totally different address is mentioned... and a link to another webpage, which has a map... which showed a different location again (without any roads to access it). I send an e-mail the next morning, explaining what had happened, to which the reply was astonishing. They claimed there must have been a network outage if we could not find it via the GPS... as if 7 satellites had stopped functioning at the same time or something. Not to mention 3 different mapping systems not knowing where it is, their own collection of websites showing different locations, which were now followed by different locations again... which were clearly wrong, as the town he mentioned was 200 km further to the east. Then a second email followed with different instructions to a different location again... You'd think that they might have put in an effort to make sure people could actually find their chalet... I guess that was too much to ask for.

With the benefit of hindsight, we think the free Openstreetmap on our own Garmin might in fact have been the only one which was right about which turn-off to take, might have been... What did it for me though was the line in his e-mail which read 'up to Joretang it is unfortunately a bit bad but trust me after that it is all good' We had just been on that road, it was not a bit bad, and north from Joretang it was a mess too, possibly even worse. We decided to stay an extra day in Siliguri and have a cleaning day as everything was plastered in mud and diesel soot (welcome to green Sikkim I suppose). It made me realise we would have to do this all again if we were to go back to the accommodation... We had already lost two days of the 7 planned, would need another two afterwards, which left just 3 days to explore Sikkim. At the same time we had not been overly impressed with what we had seen there either. I mean, it's nice but our own backyard in Tasmania is much more impressive than this, as was northern Pakistan, and China, and Kyrgyzstan, and the Canadian Rockies etc. Add to that the unfriendliness, the shocking roads, people everywhere you looked... and we decided to give it a miss. In Siliguri we had a good time once again and stayed away from the tourist places. We let the real India do it's thing, ate on the streets, enjoyed the small local shops, the madness and especially the vibrancy of it all. 

Visibility at night, when the dust is combined with darkness, gives riding conditions like this... 
Unsure on where to go next, Emiel placed something on Facebook, which resulted in a visit from two local motorcyclists, who gave us a host of info on where to go from here! How good is that? India is full of good people too! The next stop was going to be Darjeeling to visit a tea plantation and the tip to ride there via the scenic road to Mirik turned out to be a magic one... more on which in the next post!