A ride through the Himalayan Clouds

This trip is dedicated to Priya.

It was all started on the earlier SUV trip to Meghamalai during mid of May, when we all walked some 16 Kms from Highwavis (in Tamilnadu) to the last accessible point in Meghamalai. We were all sitting and chatting like anything and about anything. There a girl named Priya asked me, “Navanee, shall we go to North East like Uttarakhand?” My mad intention to travel is less known to anyone or more precisely I less share.! The moment she asked, my inner traveller was on and my mind incessantly started thinking of travelling to North East. I started talking with potential like-minded people and posted a status in FB in order to make a team to go to North East of India. In the meantime, Priya also sent me some vague plans to Uttarakhand and nearby states, but nothing close to execution level.

After Meghamalai, there was an another SUV trip to Western Ghats during mid of August, where we friends in 5 cars drove 2500 Kms and we enjoyed some virgin waterfalls in deep forest. There I met Mr.Ram, became good friend of mine. When we were chatting about the upcoming trips, he asked “Shall we go to Bhutan next month?” I must say it was a perfect time. The immediate question I asked was “when to when?” He immediately sent me the itinerary mail and rest of the plans made. The plan was to start from Chennai on 20th of September and to reach back Chennai on 7th of October. Since the plan is to explore Sikkim & Bhutan by Motorbikes, the motorbikes were parcelled from Chennai to New Jalpaguri by train, before couple of days from the event date.

Window seat.

Window seat. 😉

On Day 0, not all the participants have met at Chennai Domestic airport; few were to take another flight after couple of hours from our departure. We all, including Mr. & Mrs. Ram, Mr. & Mrs. Chandru, Mr. Balu, met at airport with all our bike gears, winter gears and other luggage. As usual, in any flights, the talks end up with baggage. While few of us standing in the boarding queue for screening, as expected we were informed that helmets were not allowed to carry either in hand luggage or in usual baggage. After all the explanations to the ground staff about our travel plan, finally they agreed to put all the helmets together into one single baggage. Suddenly, someone gave me a big plastic bag to put all the helmets. We put all the helmets inside that plastic bag, which got screened for safety and successfully sent off in the belt. Thanks to the ground personnel.

After successfully located our seats and further took off, it’s breakfast time – I have ordered veg sandwich & Aam ras by Paperboat. The sandwich was brilliantly packed in a triangle shape with two different types of bread sandwiched with boiled corn, tomato, cucumber, and pudina paste. I enjoyed both the sandwich and mango juice and we end up fighting with Chandru for the last drop of the Mango juice from the packet. Still the taste of that Aamras is in the tongue. Nowadays, scouting in the supermarkets for the paperboat aamras, if anyone has idea do let me know.

We reached Bagdogra around noon, we took a car to reach New Jalpaiguri Railway station, so that we can take our Motorbikes. We all collected our bikes from the station and fixed few accessories and other minor fixes, those were purposely removed while sending it off from Chennai. The moment bikes were ready, it started raining. We reached Siliguri and found an accommodation for the night stay.

Rumtek Monastery

Knowledge transfer!

The roads were all wet, slippery, mud filled, landslides all the way till Gangtok from Siliguri. Enroute we visited Rumtek Monastery and stayed that night in Gangtok. Next day morning, it’s Monday, all the government offices were open and we went to the Home ministry office to get the permits to visit North & East Sikkim. The whole day spent in the office to do the formalities, the formalities are to submit our identities, bike documents, personal photographs and to fill the form. After the signatures from the officials the letter needs to be sent out to all the border officials. We received the permission letter by 3:00 PM, after that the letter needs to be submitted to the police department, where they will issue the actual permit document. Coincidentally they closed the counter exactly at 3:00 PM and now, we all were forced to stay again at Gangtok.

Oblivious

Oblivious

Day – 3 September 23

Early Morning it was very cold outside, me and Suresh went to police department and successfully got the permit without much hassle. But they have given permit only to North Sikkim and told us to come back to get the permit for East Sikkim. The police personnel have full right to deny or issue the permits even if the home department has issued the recommendation. After having the basics fixed, we were ready to hit the road.

Gangtok stadium.

It was a good shot – Gangtok stadium

Our plan is to reach Lachung for night stay, so the next day morning, we shall be able to reach zero point from Lachung. As planned, we were able to reach Lachung by late evening, despite the landslides and bad roads! Fine roads are not there at all, some formations were there though. We found a small lodging on the en route to zero point and fortunately the managing people were able to provide food to all of us. The temperature was around 4℃, in the room needless to say all of us folded ourselves inside the mattresses, blankets, and bed sheets, literally whatever available there appearing as bed material. Some went to look at the village at that time, unable to roam and they came back immediately. We took small break and went for dinner, filled our stomach and hit the bed, because early morning we have to head to zero point. Only if we start in the early morning, we will be able to reach the zero point and come back safely.

The next day morning we woke up, had tea, snacks and started our bikes. I must say, the roads are interesting one, curvy; laid alongside the Teesta river, often streams were crossing most of the times. The forest was appearing like Avatar forests, clouds are coming out like smoke between the pine trees and I really have no idea how to capture that magnanimous forest and the beauty of that place into a frame (May be only video, if you have an opinion do let me know). We reached Yumthang, had tea & snacks and further proceeded. We reached Zero point around 11:30 AM. Due to the altitude it was difficult to stay even for some time. I had to lay down for some time to bring back my body to normal. There was not much to see at the destination zero point but the journey was stunningly wonderful. I must say worth going again. All the way Indian army’s bunkers helped couple of team-mates to regain normalcy. We took the same route (no other route anyway) on return, stopped at Yumthang, refuelled ourselves with hot noodles, woi-woi, tea and reached back to our stay at Lachung around 4:00 PM. Our plan is to reach Lachen from Lachung and stay over there for the night.

Landscape aka Portrait.

Landscape? Portrait? well who bothers.?

But once we reach the stay at Lachung from Zero point, we all were exhausted and unknowingly everyone was on the bed. Then what, we ordered snacks and ordered dinner as well. Next day early morning, we started from Lachung and headed towards Lachen. Since the distance needs to be covered for the day was less (due to the bunk previous day), we thought of reaching Thangu for the stay, a small village before one heads to Gurudongmar lake, in the idea that there will be some lodging.

On the way, the only vehicles crossing us were army’s. All the jaw dropping bridges have constructed by Border Roads Organization. All the roadways are fully covered by mist and the visibility dropped to 2-3 meters. On the way one army officer’s vehicle had overtook us and stopped few meters ahead of us. An officer got down from the gypsy and asked us the details of the trip and all. We introduced ourselves and had explained all the trip details. He stated that he is also heading to Thangu. After he started, all the way there were heavy downpour and we reached Thangu around 5:00 PM. There were very few people around, including an Indian army’s transit camp. We scouted for a stay and found only one room. We were informed that all the available hotels (only two were there anyway) were occupied by the road contractor’s staff, who were laying road from Thangu to Gurudongmar it seems. We were left to occupy in that one room. It was fun and difficult together, few of us stayed in a classified place.! 🙂

Bhutan bike trip

That’s Mohan & Suresh.

Thangu was badly cold around 1℃. We had tough time staying there. Next day morning we started to Gurudongmar lake, few stayed back at Thangu itself. The whole way towards Gurudongmar is cold desert and we have seen only some Military camps and vehicles there. We felt the pinch of cold even after we wore Inners, Thermals, Jeans & Multiple Tees, Jerkins, Rain coats, Gloves and woollen socks. Both sides of the road were full of snow topped mountains. We were informed by the militants that due to altitude, we all should be careful about our physical activities. A clear “no” for any physical activity as our body may have not acclimatized properly. After showing our permits at the army control points we were allowed to proceed further.  We reached the lake at an altitude of 17,100 feet, one of the highest lakes in the world. The lake was stunningly beautiful, worth all the pain we faced throughout the way. We took some photographs and we left the lake as soon as possible as we were warned that after 12 noon there will be sudden climatic changes.

The team who reached

The team who reached Gurudongmar.

We reached back Thangu afternoon and started heading towards Lachen and the idea is to reach Mangan for stay. Once we reach Lachen, North Sikkim got completed. But there was some surprise to us when we reach Lachen, yes two bikes were down. Another two bikes were ahead of us and it reached Mangan – the planned destination!. All the way it was raining and it was difficult to find a mechanic to fix the punctured tyres at the time of 8:00 PM. Suresh went to find a mechanic in a nearby construction site where he told to wait for some time. The other punctured vehicle was 5kms away from us and one bike went with air pump to bring the handicapped bike for the night stay. The plan has to be modified as we 5 bikes have stayed at Lachen in an under construction Gurudwara. All the shops in that small village were closed by 8:00 PM and I was sitting at a shop at Lachen with one broke down bike till 10:00 PM. I was given a small space to sit by a Tibetan grandmother in that shop cum house (She came to Sikkim when she was a kid with her parents and settled with the shop. Her sons are working as engineers in that nearby construction site). So kind of her, served me a hot tea as well. While I was sitting alone on the street; one man came to me, introduced himself as Upadhyay (working as a teacher in the school in Lachen) and asked me about our whereabouts, tour plan and all.

Upadhyay asked me about the stay for tonight. I said I really have less idea about that. And he continued, “Here is a Gurudwara where you can find a place to stay, there are no other hotel options as this is a small village”. He took me to the Gurudwara, introduced me to a Sikh man as “Ye lokh poora Chennai se aaya uva he bike pe, gumnekiliye. Inlogh ka dho kaadi karaab huah hei, abi raath ke liye reheneka thoda mushkil padra he. Aap kuch kar sakthe he tho acha hei”. The Sikh man’s face was calm, peaceful, with a mild smile one can easily understand that something he will do for us. He said back to Upadhyay “teeke”, and Upadhyay left. I asked him any possibility for something to eat for 9 of us, the time was 10:30 PM. He did not utter a word. He took me to the verandah where we were supposed to stay, the kitchen and explained me about the food. Enough rotis, vegetable sabji were there, he gave me the kitchen key and shown me where the plates, glasses, drinking water everything a stranger might be looking for. He told I need the key at morning 4:00 AM, coincidentally myself and Suresh need to leave early to Gangtok to avail the east Sikkim permission. All of our friends came after a very tiring day; we had all the rotis there, filled our stomach and hit the floor. Next day is Saturday, if by any chance we miss to take the permission, than we would be forced to stay at Gangtok and a day would be waste.

Bhutan bike trip-157-4

Day 7 – September 27th – Saturday

Me and Suresh woke up at 3:45 AM, despite the body asking rest, gave the kitchen key to the Paaji and offered a big thanks to him. That time also his face was calm, mild smile in between the beard and mustache, strong. We met our remaining friends at Mangan, informed them that we will be availing permits and asked to fix the bikes and come soon. We had shown ourselves at the police department office in Gangtok at 8:00 AM. I must say here, Suresh is an excellent rider – One needs to sit calmly and enjoy the curvy roads, ascent, descent, rain, mist the beautiful views, whatever mother nature offered us and I did it well. 😉 Without much hassle we got the East Sikkim permit, since we met that very police officer earlier for our North Sikkim permit. In Gangtok, we freshen up at the very same hotel and had our breakfast, reached the entry point where the road needs to be taken for Nathula pass, Zaluk and out of Sikkim by Silk route!

The police officer at the entry point informed us that we won’t be allowed since the time is up, as the tourists are allowed to Nathula pass only till 2:00 PM. We explained them that we are not going till Nathula, we are passing by Nathula, proceed further and won’t be coming back on this route. Upon hearing this, they let us allow, once again all our 7 bikes were together at this juncture. After riding the ascent, rains and landslides, we all met at a small village before Gnathang valley and the plan is to reach Zaluk. At Nathula, we were blocked again for the same reason which got cleared after explanations. It is around 5 Kms ride inside the sensitive area. All the way there was military vehicles movement, their camps everywhere. Since we informed everyone to reach Zaluk, three bikes were ahead and we four bikes are behind. It was after 5:00 PM, suddenly mist surrounded everywhere, the visibility was less than 2 mts, the temperature is fastly decreasing, another 50+ kilometres and some 96 hairpin bends to reach Zaluk seems highly not advisable. When we had tea, one man from Gnathang valley told us that he having some stay arrangements in Gnathang valley where we may stay.  At this juncture we are forced to stay at Gnathang valley and there was nothing more to do. The three vehicles went ahead of us around 10 kms and they did the same, they found a small stay, where they spent that night.

Milky way

Milky way

We seven people have stayed; they made chapati and vegetable curry for our dinner. The sky was brilliantly clear where one can see our galaxy with naked eye with some effort. Thanks to Chandru for waking me up to look at the sky. The above is the photograph I manage to take without even tripod in the numbing cold. Next day morning, our plan is to reach phuentsholing, the Bhutanese town which separating Bhutan and India. Myself, Suresh & Mohan in two bikes started backwards to Nathula. (We three are the only bachelors in the team, so we were able to start quickly. Not that we are unmarried, we are married but we were permitted to roam around alone ;-)) Since we came this long we thought we are not afford to go without visiting Nathula. Nathula pass is a very sensitive and highly restricted place, no cameras, mobile phones and electronic gadgets allowed to be in possession. After the formalities and permit verification, we were allowed to visit the border place. We have seen the chinese military there on the other side watching on us and vice versa. It was a really long ride from Nathula/Gnathang, given the road conditions and the weather. But nevertheless all the brave souls started, catches up the other 3 bikes which were ahead of us the previous day, beautiful hair pin bends, waterfalls mist infested roads, negotiating every bends and the descent from some 15000 feet to somewhere close to 650 feet in one day is an awesomeness. The whole ride was decent with jaw dropping views all the way down to Rishi. We had Lunch at Rishi in a small Grocery shop, Chips, Noodles, woi-woi, egg omelets etc, etc.

The ride started again from Rishi – Lava – Nagarkatte. Once we reached Nagarkatte around 8:00 PM, it was plains thereafter, but we have to go through some elephant infested forests now. After we filled our stomachs and fuelled the bikes, the mad ride started again. All of us were cruising like anything, since for the past 8 days we rarely shifted to the top gear and this time we seen a wonderful highway, it was really wonderful, everyone was trying to close the throttle. We reached Jaigaon at 10:30 PM, the border town of India, where we found a hotel and hit the bed.

The Team and me-6th from left in blue and red. ;-)

The Team and me-6th from left in blue and red. 😉

Day – 9, September 29th, Monday.

Everyone was badly tired. Since I have the habit of waking up at around 6:00AM, regardless of what time I hit the bed the previous night or how exhausted I was on the earlier day, I took the bike and went to the tourist enquiry centre in Phuentsholing. (Jaigaon and Phuentsholing is only separated by a gate, an Indian national no need of any permits to visit Phuentsholing) Had the information collected I came back and freshen up, our friends all woke up and few of the bikes needs to be fixed for minor things. Myself and Suresh went to the Immigration centre of Bhutan to avail the permits, after availing the permits we had to get permits separately for our vehicles in a nearby transport office. All the process have completed and we were ready to hit the road by 4:00 PM. Our original plan is to reach Paro, but again as the time passed by, we were unable to ride due to the quick drop in temperature and we were forced to find a stay at Tsimasham, a medium sized village on the way to Paro city.

Unable to find a big accommodation for entire group, to get accommodated in one place, we took rooms in different hotels but they are nearby only. We spend some time with the hotel owner’s son talking about their lifestyle, their culture bla, bla, with the help of beer(s) obviously.! Next day morning we had good breakfast and headed to Paro. We reached Paro around noon itself, few started a photo walk and few started for looking a nice restaurant. Since our plan is to visit Taktsang monastery aka Tiger’s nest the next day, we had enough time to roam around Paro town. Suresh and Mohan went to look at the routes to reach the monastery in advance. After lunch, we came to know that they have lodging also; we spoke with them and decided to stay there. The hotel was right on the main street itself. The next day morning we have started to the Monastery after having breakfast. We kept our helmets, Jerkins at the small shops at the foothills.

Tiger's Nest

Taktsang Monastery

There are horses which can take us to the monastery which we felt inappropriate, what is the point in not trekking and visiting a place by sophisticated means? We started our trek, it is a good hike and the trek lasts for 5-6 hours to reach the monastery. By the time you start hiking and up, you might start to sweat (It may not happen in Jan – April, Bhutan would be covered by snow by that time). We would have reached early if we planned in advance for breakfast or at least if we made our mind that there is no breakfast. But since we had all our time to have breakfast and started, we reached the monastery around 1:15 PM and we had to wait till 2:00 PM. Once the lunch break is over we visited the place, it is one of the must visit place in Bhutan, brilliantly constructed at that height and interesting wall paintings. On the way there is a restaurant, somewhere halfway between the land and monastery, where we had coffee and snacks. It was a wonderful spent day. We head back to the hotel and started to Thimphu for the night.

We reached Thimphu around 9:00 PM, despite everyone informed us that finding a room for stay would be difficult, since some festival is under-way-we were able to find a hotel for our stay. The next day we saw a South Indian restaurant and we all were mad about our food and rushed in, filled our stomach with our native land foods, after all who won’t love their native land foods? We have to extend our permits for east Bhutan, which have been done at the Immigration office there. We roamed on the Thimphu streets, especially on the temporary streets made with shops due to the celebrations. Ram bought a painting. I tried buying some handicrafts, but my wallet doesn’t allow me to do. 😉

Monastery

Monastery

We started from Thimphu and headed to Bumthang, thinking of reaching it for stay. The ride was good on the curvy roads, ascent as well. But by the evening closes we had to give up due to the temperature drastically comes down and makes us to halt. At around 8:00 PM we were standing at a village(Wangdue) with very few houses and a shop. We forced to stop there, because in another 15-20 Kms there is a pass named Korila pass, which we were sure we won’t make it. We asked tea from the shop, which they served. They were also strangely looking at us, where are these mad people going by bikes at this time and where they are going to stay? With all these questions in their mind they asked one by one. We told them in Black and White, we need some place to stay tonight. They also tried calling the school principal thinking that we can be accommodated there in the school. The school principal pitched in to the shop and explained that there is nothing to cover us as it is a plain hall. The situation there is like; none of us could go outside of the shop. We were thinking what to do? In the meantime, the guy living dead opposite to the shop asked us “I have two small rooms as my family went to their parent’s house – will you be able to make it in that room?”. Without even a second thought we went and had a look, stayed there for that night. He gave us enough blankets, his kitchen to cook and helped making food for us. I was not in a position to had food as I was badly affected by the chillness. I just laid down in one of the room with the one of the blanket he gave to us.

Religious signs

Day – 13, October 3rd – Friday

Next day morning we started heading to Bumthang, and we reached there around noon, after scouting for long time we found a decent and economical hotel for our stay. The town was neat and surrounded by monasteries. Since we have to leave and cover a long distance, we left from there. From the shop, I have bought two handmade wwoollencaps for two kids at home. Before we start from Bumthang, we have fixed our bikes, which need some maintenance for obvious reasons. Our plan is to reach Trashigang via Mongkar for stay. As planned we reached Mongkar around 7:00 PM, must say it was a mad ride between the pine forests, rain, sunshine, numbing cold. But we can’t stay there in Mongkar, as our plan is to reach Trashigang around 90 Kms from Mongkar. We already rode around 200 Kms for the day. We did not give up; started riding and reached Trashigang. Enroute we met a Bhutanese Forest ranger who offered help to find a place to stay at Trashigang. It was worth noting here, because we reached Trashigang around 10:30 PM, the whole town was sleeping by that time. But one man was waiting to receive us, supply food and to show our stay. Aren’t we the lucky people? Thanks to that Gentleman.

Layers

The never ending ranges.

We had our breakfast at Trashigang and started immediately towards Samdrup Jongkhar. I remember it was around 150 Kms. The road were not good for half way, after that it was really nice and well laid roads and that too in descent, where we enjoyed the ride. Actually the road starting from Trashigang was being laid and the second half till Samdrup had been laid well. When we 3 bikes reached Samdrup around 6:00 PM, we had informed that one bike is down with puncture. From the Samdrup check post we sent the air pump by a ongoing truck, thinking that the bike can be brought down on its wheels. We were warned not to go from Samdrup to Guwahati (We have booked air ticket from Guwahati on 7th October) we found a stay at Samdrup. The broke down bike came by another transport, since it was getting dark and in that region there were no civilization at all. Surprisingly our friends have collected the air pump from that truck driver while coming. Finally we all reached Samdrup had food and rest.

The next day morning we started to Guwahati. On the way, one of my friend, Mohan bought an Assamese Knife, I have no idea why he bought that Knife!. When I asked he simply said as souvenir! We reached Guwahati a day in advance, now time to parcel our bikes back to home. We went to GATI and parcelled the bikes, will be home delivered they said and they did. We reached back hotel around 8:00 PM, now no bikes. We called a taxi and that gentleman took all 7 of us in his Wagon R and dropped us at the hotel.

Buddhism

Religious signs!

Day 17 – Oct 7th – Tuesday

With all our machines been packed, it was an ordinary day. We woke up in relax and the only job left for us is to reach the airport and catch the flight. We had breakfast and went to ATM to withdraw money for the hotel settlements and all. We were staying 2 kms from the airport, so we asked manual rickshaws to pick us from the hotel. When we reached airport by manual rickshaws with all dirty clothes, dirty shoes, Gumboots tied to our luggage, everyone was looking at us strangely. It was quite a sight, I should say.  😛 In flight I have ordered two paperboat this time. 😀

We covered some 2500 Kms in 15 days. All over the trip, there were few fall, few injuries, few tiffs, few managements, few plan changes, few wonderful relationships, few beers, few tough times, few U turns, few stretches, few shrinks, few speed breakers, few pains, few breakages from the bikes, but aren’t this trip worth all this?

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