My maiden attempt with four friends to conquer the Old Silk Route on my beloved dhanno had ended in heartbreak and failure. But that trip had also given some precious memories that I shall treasure for the rest of my life.
A lot has changed in the three years. The carefree, irresponsible young banker-biker has transformed into a married responsible bazaar going Bengali babu. One of my dear brother Satyaki Sarkar had been planning to do the Old Silk Route after the Durga Pujas. He called me enquiring about information and suddenly I too felt like joining him. So me and wifey alongwith a few other riding brothers joined in too for the ride and then the preparations started.
Getting the permits and preparation :
Thanks to Sikkim Government, getting the permits of the Old Silk Route has now become way tougher than it was three years back when you just needed to submit the required documents and a form to get your permits at Rongli. It hardly took thirty minutes then but this time it took a couple of days as well as Rs. 300 each. An agent based in Gangtok helped us to get the permits done. A day spent at the mechanic’s and we and our machines were ready for our date with Jalep-La.
Every motorcycle enthusiast who has ever gone on a bike trip has felt the butterfly-in-stomach sensation the night before a ride and I was no exception. This trip was my first with my beloved and her enthusiasm reminded me of my first bike trip across Bengal way back in the summer of 2011.
Introducing the Riders :
Had no trouble waking up early thanks to Ladybird who hardly battered a eyelid the previous night. Me and wifey reached our rendezvous point with the others at Orbit Mall after seeking blessings from our parents and bidding goodbye.
By around 6.30 we were breezing down the highway with the cold wind battering against the wind-shield and three days of pure independence and relief from boring everyday life on our mind. Thanks to all the development works going on we reached Teesta Bazar skidding, slipping and off-roading at around 8 am and stopped for breakfast. Thereafter,we breezed non-stop charged by the heavy breakfast and crossed Kalimpong town within forty-five minutes.
Proud on our achievement we wasted another half hour clicking pictures and just enjoying before embarking further on our journey. We crossed Pedong and rode down through roads surrounded by quinine trees and reached Reshi. The roads were mostly fine apart from a few patches here and there. Reshi is the border of West Bengal and Sikkim and we had to register in the check-post before moving further. After clicking a few pictures and thanking the police personnel posted there we started towards Aritar. Enroute we filled up our tank at Rhenock bazar as there was no guarantee of petrol availability in the whole route before Gangtok.
We reached Aritar at around half past eleven. Aritar is famous for the serene artificial Lampokhari Lake. Surrounded by pine trees it is Sikkim’s only lake with boating facility. Cameras went click-click as most of us posed to get that one elusive shot for our Facebook profiles with the lake in the background.
It was almost one in the afternoon and our lunch at Padamchhen was now a distant fantasy. So we had tea and wai-wai at a stall beside the lake before bidding goodbye to Aritar and continued ahead. Rongli is a couple of kilometers from Aritar and we had to show our permits in the police station to get them stamped. We also needed to stockpile our medicines to battle cold weather hence a Laughing Buddha with his belly full of RUM was purchased.
Thereafter we cruised through the smooth bends stopping only to a couple of times to capture the beauty of nature through our lenses. Alexian continued with his photographic experiments as we all posed happily. Except a small halt at Lingtam to submit a copy of the permits and get the original stamped we rode non-stop with hunger propelling our engines. We reached Padamchhen at around 3pm and after another round of stamping and xerox submission at the checkpost we arrived at Hotel Tsu & Tsultim.
The hotel located at a top of a hillock provided a splendid view of the immense natural beauty. We dropped of our luggages at the rooms and were ready for lunch within five minutes. The food was nowhere near as good but everyone ate like it was some manna from heaven.
Any Bengali after a fulsome lunch needs a bhaat-ghum, be it a sarkari karmachari or a bad-ass biker. We were no exception but the wish to view the sunset was even more. So a few puffs and some leg-straightening and we were back again cruising towards Dzuluk through the narrow windy roads.
But sunset was not in our fate. By the time we reached Dzuluk it was dark and thick fogs had started setting in. With the sun down the air started turning chilly but it could not daunt our wish for a adda under the moonlit night. We parked at a nice bend from where the tiny village of Dzuluk was visible. We spent almost an hour in the freezing conditions chatting on varied topics ranging from missiles to motorcycles, China to yeti. After an hour the conditions got unbearable with the icy winds shaking us to the bones and it was time to get back to the warmth of the blankets back at our hotel room. While returning back we stopped at a tea-shop in Dzuluk. The warmth inside the shop and its jolly owners made us stay quite sometime there enjoying the moment. Finally we returned to our hotel and it was time for a barbecue party. Singing, dancing alongwith half-roasted chicken and rum made the night even more special and we partied late into the night.
The effects of the late night party was evident as all woke up pretty late with mild hangovers. After a heavy breakfast and bidding goodbyes to the hotel owner we cruised towards Dzuluk. Dzuluk is famous for its sharp 39 hairpin bends which is a delight for any biker.
We were no exception with each one trying their skills in the hairpin bends. Alexian was busy clicking us in varied postures with and without our machines. After spending almost an hour at a curve overlooking the hairpin bends we started for again for Thambi View Point. But our hopes of clicking pictures with the mighty Kanchandzonga in our background ended in sighs and dejection as a thick blanket of fog completely covered everything. Nevertheless, we still clicked our first proper group picture and were on our way to Nathang.
Nathang looks like a valley of dreams surrounded by mighty snow-capped mountains on all sides and contrasted by the colourful texture of the dried grass on the ground. A place hidden away from the modern world and where time moves at its own pace. Souti, who did not heed our warnings of wearing thermals was shivering. The road leading to Nathang is not particularly smooth and alongwith a steep gradient and slippery surface can be particularly dangerous for careless riders. We reached Nathang without any hitch at around 1 pm. The rooms were well maintained but absolutely freezing. The extreme cold conditions was unbearable at first but gradually we coped up with the conditions. An army truck while taking a bend accidentally brushed against Souti’s parked bullet damaging his rear view mirror. We had rice, sabji and omlette for lunch. After lunch Alexian, Priyanka and me went for a stroll on the outskirts of the village and took some awesome snaps of the surroundings.
A few kilometres from Nathang is the ill-famed Tukla valley and Baba Harbhajan Singh‘s bunker. The shortcut we took for Tukla Valley was a steep ascent rising straight up from Nathang. The ascent was too steep and more than once Dhanno seemed unable to take the load. But finally we reached the top and an incredible view welcomed us. We had a chat with two army jawans posted there and a dozen of photo-shoots before bidding them goodbye and moving towards Kupup.
Kupup is a tiny hamlet located among the mountains with Chinese outposts visible overhead. The Kupup Lake also known as Elephant Lake owes it name to the shape of the lake which bears similarity with an elephant when viewed from the top. We spent quite some time beside the lake enjoying the splendid beauty of nature as Alexian went click-click.
We reached Kupup and stopped by a shop for some tea. By the time we started back for Nathang the sun had set and the weather was getting freezing by the minute. It was an awesome experience riding under the moonlight except for the freezing icy winds. By the time we reached our hotel our hands were frozen. Souti was sick and it seemed he was hit by high altitude sickness. We spent quite some time trying to make him feel comfortable but his shivering did not stop. We arranged some more quilts for Souti but failed to stop his shiver. The freezing cold outside meant we were confined to our rooms as no one dared going outside. Only once did Biswajit and I go for a stroll outside and we were rewarded for our valiant effort in the form of a falling star. We spent our time beside the warm oven of a tea shop chatting with the owner about their daily life and experience chomping away wai-wai before having a nice dinner and retiring under the warm blankets in our hotel room.
A good nights’ sleep recharged our drained out batteries as we woke up pretty early. Souti was still unwell and Akash and Chandrakant were too cold bitten to venture outside. Hence Biswajit, Alexian, Priyanka and I went in search of the Eagle’s Nest bunker. The Eagle’s Nest bunker was an abandoned Indian army bunker atop a small hill overlooking the vast valley of Nathang. The army jawans posted nearby failed to guide us the way. After a bit of searching we were able to locate the bunkers atop the hill. A small steep climb and we were there – Eagle’s Nest bunker.
The view of the Nathang valley below and the mighty mountains in the background was spellbinding. The DSLR and compact cameras went berserk but . We spent a good amount of time there at the top with nobody but the four of us. Then suddenly we heard the sound of shelling nearby and Mr. Enthusiasm’s enthu evaporated. Biswajit was sure that the shelling was directed at us. We started back soon after dense fogs started engulfing the valley and view below.
Souti was still fast asleep when we arrived and he was still ill. We somehow motivated him to continue forward as lower altitude was the only solution for AMS. After a breakfast of warm chilly wai-wai we bade goodbye and moved towards Tsomgo and Nathula. Our first stop was at the famed Baba Harbhajan Singh’s bunker. I tried my luck in collecting coins from a wishing well just beside the mandir but in vain and my misery was amplified when a jawan collected a handful of coins in front of me within a minute. With my hand numb and my spirit down added with the taunts from everyone else I decided it was time to move on. After having prasad from the mandir we moved towards our next stop leaving a trail of awestruck tourists behind us.
We crossed Tukla valley and rode into Kupup. A small photo break at the world’s highest golf course and in front of the Jalep-La.
Lhasa was a mere 520 kms only. Thereafter, another episode of permit stamping and submission at the Kupup police checkpoint and we sped through the winding roads onto the Nathula gate enroute stopping by at the Harbhajan Singh’s Mandir and taking a click of the fabled Memencho from a distance. Our pride knew no bounds when two beautiful girls requested a picture with all of us. Akash was a bit more lucky as they posed on his bike for a few more clicks with him.
A bad news awaited us at Nathula gate. The guard on duty informed us that Nathula remains closed to tourists on Monday. We pleaded with him to allow us as an exception with whatever excuse we could but he stood his ground and told us to visit it the next day.
Heartbroken we started on our way back but more trouble awaited us. Everyone except Souti and me had started rolling forward when Souti discovered his bike had a broken clutch cable. We honked, shouted to try and call back the other guys but all our efforts were in vain as we watched them cross the mountains and disappear. I had a spare clutch cable with me but no tools to repair. We informed the guard at Nathula Gate to intimate his next checkpost to inform the guys about the bike breakdown. Then I pushed Souti’s bike and asked him to keep riding in a single gear till the next checkpost. We rode a kilometre or two when we saw the rest of our paltan coming back in search of us. Biswajit earned himself the Master Mechanic tag by displaying his skills in replacing the cables swiftly. Clutch repaired and hands cleansed we started towards Tsomgo Lake and reached by 3 pm. While my wifey took a yak ride and we captured the moments Biswajit & Chandra went ahead looking for food. The lunch comprising of wai-wai, maggi, bhujiya and mazaa was sufficient to sate our hunger. Souti too was feeling a bit better and by the time we left Tsomgo it was almost 4 pm.
The road after Tsomgo was great and we sped our way through trying to make up for the lost time but with the frequent Kodak moments break. A few kilometres from Tsomgo and it started drizzling. Alexian and Akash stopped by to wear their raincoats and after a few bends Chandra and Souti stopped too. Me, wifey and Biswajit thought that the light drizzle would stop and hence decided to move further ahead. The decision backfired as a few bends ahead it started raining heavily and drenched us before we could even get our raincoats out. With the sun set the temperature started falling swiftly and our wet clothes made it even more freezing. The roads turned from good to bad to no roads and with water overflowing over the roads it got even more riskier. A few kilometres through the rear backrest, to which our rucksack was tied, broke off. We stopped a few steps ahead to take stock of the damage. Souti and Chandra were yet to reach. Suddenly we heard a deep rumbling sound and saw a huge boulder roll down the hill and onto the road which we had crossed a few moments back. The prospect of a landslide meant we somehow sped off from that spot without wasting a moment. A few metres further ahead we found a shed as well as some habitat. We were fully drenched already but still took shelter under the shed and waited for Souti and Chandra.
Fifteen minutes turned to fifty minutes, dense fog covered everything and visibility reduced to zero, the rain was showing no chances of abating but there was still no sign of Souti and Chandra. Tension was mounting with each passing minute and the risk of a landslide further increased our worries. We sent word through passing vehicles to intimate our guys about the landslide prone area. After another fifteen minutes or so two headlights became visible in the distance. Souti and Chandra finally arrived and we breathed a sigh of relief. Chandra’s bike was a Pulsar and his weak headlight meant he had to follow Souti all through the bad roads. The rain had stopped already by then. We did not waste much time and moved towards Gangtok. The roads were in a sorry state hence we had to ride slow. We finally reached the city outskirts at around 8 pm. Gangtok boasts of good traffic rules but it is also a reason for panic among tourists on wheels like us. We had stopped at a gol chakki confused about which road to take when suddenly a guy in a Royal Enfield stopped by to ask if we were in trouble. On hearing about our confusion regarding which road to take he asked us to follow him. We reached our hotel in no time easily thanks to our biking brother. We checked in at the hotel and got refreshed. All our clothes were wet despite using raincoats. We planned to have a pizza party for dinner but Souti and Alexian ordered room service as they were too tired to walk anymore.
So me, wifey, Akash, Chandra and Biswajit celebrated with some pizzas at a Domino’s outlet.Dinner complete we returned to our hotel, had a few drinks and retired for the night.
The next day we had planned to visit Hanuman-tok, Ganesh-tok and a few other places. But the previous days experience meant we woke up pretty late and the sight-seeing plans were dropped. After a nice breakfast of puri sabji we started homewards. It took us almost 2 hours to reach Kirney bazaar where we had chicken rice, momo and thukpa.
Post-lunch we rode non-stop. But our smooth ride was halted by a huge traffic jam in Sevoke. It took us almost an hour to wiggle our way out of the mess. The ride was coming to an end with each passing kilometres and the wonderful moments all of us enjoyed in the past three days kept playing back in my mind. It was back again to the drudgery of boring normal life. Tomorrow was going to be a khoon choosle day.
Special thanks to Alexian Parker – Whose pictures I used in my blog apart from my own clicks and the wonderful profile shots.
Chandrakant for arranging the permits.
Biswajit and Souti for entertaining us all through the trip with their witty insulting game with each other and increasing our vocabulary knowledge.
Akash, for carrying my luggage back home after the backrest broke off.
My dear wife Priyanka whose enthusiasm and support made it easier for me to continue with my passion even after marriage. I now have a partner with me to ride out whenever I wish to.
Lastly, Dhanno for helping me complete my unfinished trip without any trouble. I hope to do more trips and forge memories with her.
Ride hard, Party Harder.