‘Hey! I didn’t expect to see another traveler for weeks. Especially not crazy bike guys’. Jiles blurted out as John and I sat drinking tea and feasting on puri at the tiny chai stand on the fringe of Moreh town. Jiles, a 21 year old, six feet six, Belgian hitchhiker was crossing the border from Tamu in north western Myanmar to Moreh in Manipur, heading south to Mizoram. ‘We thought the same until eight o’clock this morning- we met a French couple in Tamu. Seems like a popular crossing for travelers’ I offered. Jiles would be the first backpacker we encountered in the lesser traveled regions of North East India, but not the last.
Towards the end of January I arrived in the sleepy hamlet of Cherrapunji, frequently the wettest place on the planet. I’d been recommended to visit by a number fellow travellers to see the living route bridges. I checked into By The Way hostel, had a shower, then sat on the steps outside the long, narrow building chatting with Heprit, the Robbie Coltrane lookalike owner of the place, trying to get a steer on the best place to eat. Hagrid, I mean Heprit, was evasive because a previous guest had complained about the food last time he made a recommendation. I persevered, gleaned the required information and was just about to set off when a couple of hikers appeared in the cool grey dusk. It was Jiles and a French vegetarian called Thomas.
The next night we were invited by Cracker to join the annual feast; a heady mix of Masterchef and X Factor; the evening promised to be full of surprises. To begin with a carnival float was driven around the tiny village with a procession of excitable young children bouncing along to traditional folk songs with a heavy bass thrown in for effect. In the back of the small black pick up truck carrying the sound system were a pair of black hairy pigs. We completed a lap of the town in less than forty minutes, the truck was parked up in the community hall car park and the pigs were led one by one round the back of the building. On a two by one metre corrugated metal sheet each pig met a bleak end; a long steel rod, something like a thick coat hanger was pushed up through the belly into the heart, ending the pigs life in a matter a squealing seconds; it felt like a lot longer stood a few feet from the action. Once expertly butchered the meat was put into cold storage for the night, ahead of preparation the next day. Thomas filmed the whole thing to remind himself exactly why he doesn’t eat meat.
The winner of the children’s music contest for me was a young Khasi girl that in an expected move bust out with a fully choreographed routine to Rage Against The Machines classic ‘Fuck You I Won’t Do What You Tell Me’. A punchy selection for an eight year old. The actual winner though was a more conventional hit; the champion 11 year old chanteuse took on Adeles ‘rolling in the deep’. The high notes just beyond reach for her tender lungs at this early stage in her career. Well done that teenybopper. Special award for effort goes to Jiles for body popping the worm in front of an enthusiastic crowd.
‘Shall we just try a bit if everything then come back for seconds of our favourite?’ I suggested. ‘Great idea my man, let’s do it’ Jiles concurred. We were ready to eat; the feast before us beckoned seductively; it was time to taste the pig. ‘I think the third dish is worth another go, the first one maybe not. The other rice too- this ones a bit rich’ Jiles said hungrily. ‘So you don’t like the brain?’ Said the stern lady with the ladle. ‘It’s ok, just a bit unusual for my taste. This next dish is the best for me. What’s in this rice?’ I asked. ‘It’s made with the pigs blood, that’s what gives it the colour’.
The road to Lava
‘Looks like you guys are doing something exciting’ I shouted from the third floor of the New Moon guest house in Alipur Duar. It was Aga and Jack, we’d met very breifly at the feast in Cherrapunji. ‘Today we go to Siliguri to sell the scootees then Gangtok. Our biggest day yet – 240km’ blazed Jack, a man on a mission at 8am on a Tuesday.
The roads had become increasingly frantic with the most unpredictable of traffic, I was beginning to feel just a bit nervous about the driving style of West Bengalis. I decided to get off the main drag and cut across a mountainous side road to the summit of Lava; the Jewel of West Bengal. As I approached the climb I ran out of daylight and began the usual search for a campsite. I sat down to eat a few plates of momo, asking the owner between mouthfuls if there was a quiet corner I could pitch up my tent. ‘You stay with me. My house. Come’ squeaked the young lad. After a brisk bucket wash I sat on the edge of the kids bed and, sharing no language whatsoever, the mime act turned to mobile phones and music, each taking a turn to play a song on my portable speaker. We established that my child host would like to have my music collection, so we set about transferring my tunes from a memory card to his phone.
I slept well that night, waking at a perky 4:30am to a bright eyed boy staring directly at me. It was only mildly unnerving. I dozed off for an hour more then finally got up. I reached over for my phone, having left it plugged in to charge overnight, to find that my young friend had been perusing my photo album. The photo that had captured the prepubescents imagination was a topless black and white close up of a friend from San Francisco. I showed this to the boy once again with a smile to infer that he had excellent taste but also to indicate that he’d been busted. He blushed bashfully and abruptly left the house for school, presumably to tell his mates what a great pair of tits looks like.
The road to Lava was a corker, a brief stop at a village to smash chai and samosas and to entertain yet more locals with the humble explanation of my simple cycle from Vietnam to India, then endless switchbacks into a cavernous wedge between two mountains before a breathless pedal over the ridge round the apex to yet more incline to the far away summit. Viewed from a helicopter or air balloon the topography might resemble a close up of an elephants foot. The deep ravines between the bludging hillside like the gaps between the creatures massive toes.
One night in Lava was scarce enough to say much about the town, add to that sub zero temperature to prevent yours truly from venturing out and I’ll say little and less about the place itself. The next morning though the whole character of the place changed. From a bleak mountain top doused in icy mist to sublime alpine forest curving in dense waves high up above the town; the whole aspect of this hill station was charming; nothing to fear from its relative high rise neighbors of Gangtok or more imminent Darjeeling. A beautiful place was this.
Gangtok the capital of Sikkim
Off the back of the climb to Lava I was in confident mood to defeat a second summit in as many days. I felt strong. Coming off Lava was the stuff cycling dreams are made of; the sort of vista you see on TV travel shows; a river cascades down between a vast, deep valley, trees of all varieties: alpine, deciduous, tropical reach high into the sky, framing a view of such geographic diversity that it’s hard to comprehend all within sight. The road weaves through this dense woodland toward the heavy rush of the widened river below. It’s a rip roaring, high speed blow out before finally plateauing into sumptuous, long curves that lead slowly back up into the next valley and the opposite aspect of the picture just consumed. A joy of epic proportions, made doubly euphoric for the gift of a slow motion replay and the slow grind upwards.
Sikkim is the smallest, cleanest and perhaps the wealthiest of all Indian states. A deal made with its King many years ago ensures that the once independent kingdom retains some if it’s natural advantage. Three of only four casinos in India reside in Sikkim. To enter the splendour of this state you are required to fill out an Inner Line Permit- quickly and easily done at the border. The overwhelming memory for me climbing up this huge mountain was the final slew of almost symmetrical switchbacks. Reminiscent of childhood scalextric; huge straights leading to smooth, predictable bends pitched at regular welcoming gradients; the final top tiers were layered tight one on top the next like an asphalt wedding cake.
After a very quick call in on the Tourist Info Centre I had the address for the only hostel in town. Pedalling the bike slowly up the steepest part of Tibet Road weaving between much erratic traffic, under great pressure from grinding out a rhythm, the chain snapped. Small sections of links scattered across the road, the main length of chain slithering away down hill like a wounded snake, the bike stranded like a stricken vessel way out to sea. I picked up the ruins of my drivetrain, hoisted the bike up and pushed slowly, finally to the big dorm on Tibet Road.
Over a bowl of Thukpa, I met Alex, a David Brent soundalike bedecked in oversize rainbow stripe woolly jumper with token red knitted beanie. Alex was a nice lad and we shared a laugh or two until Jiles walked in beaming his rictus grin to steal the show and the conversation. Three meet ups in as varied circumstance as ever likely to conceive. The ‘untouched’ North East indeed. Predictably then, next afternoon Aga and Jack arrived to complete the gathering. For variety we chatted with the Indian Bill Oddie; a Scouse twitcher named Mike who’d been living in India on and off for twenty five years; such was the joy of our gang that we made a day trip to Mangan to visit a Buddhist temple high up in north Sikkim.
The Darjeeling Unlimited
After a restful four days in Gangtok it was time to descend the pristine roller coaster bound for Teesta and the hefty, much talked about climb to Darjeeling. Mike had warned that it was particularly steep at Teesta, tough even for a motorcycle and that it would be best to go via Siliguri. Having heard all that sort of talk before I decided to chance it. The ride was sublime. Another day of green, blue and black. Trees, rivers and a thin black line to guide me. Approaching Teesta I considered a sumo to expedite my arrival and a proper cup of tea, bravado though got the better of me and I pedalled slowly onwards and upwards. In all my years and journeys never has aby climb started with a set of shorter, steeper, more intense switchbacks than at Teesta; the profile from the map at close up with the blue directional line made the road look more akin to a slide a waterpark than a motorable highway; the crowning of this section was the helter skelter finale complete with tunnelled top loop. Beyond this intrigue the road became wall and much too much after the distress of Tibet Road. I faced the music and sat off on the wall to contemplate my decision, my options and mentally tip a wink to Mile for being spot on.
While I sat musing the subject of long distance cycling and why I repeatedly choose to put huge mountains between myself and a bed for the night, a Austrian couple on an Enfield pulled up to chat. Complete with dreadlocks and ayervedic tinctures the pair had just bought the bike for a trip south. When I met them again (obviously) weeks later in Hampi both were skin-headed having symbolically burnt their wigs high up in the Sikkimese mountains. Happily the tinctures were intact and were given me as rejuvenation after a bout of severe sickness and dehydration.
After a long while silently cursing my foolhardiness I flagged down the tiniest vehicle in West Ben-Gal (say it slowly to the tune of the Pet Shop Boys classic West End Girls..), the bike sticking out the side sliding doors on both sides, we made it halfway up and stopped for a brew. Rinchin, the driver lived nearby and this was his last stop- nothing could persuade him to drive the whole way. At four thirty, no sumo was available to drive a beleaguered cyclist and his overweight bike to the summit, still some thirty kilometres away. As dusk came, light beginning to fade I made as if to camp back at the foot of the climb- I’d concede my progress and try again first light. Rinchin, generously, rather than see me wheeling off in the growing darkness, took me home to stay at his place. And what a place! Buried deep in the tea estates that cover the mountainsides is a tiny community of families. Small wooden homes dotted amongst the finest tea in all India. Not only did Rinchin share his families hospitality that evening but also gave an insight into his hopes and dreams for the future, for his son, Riddim. Education is the gift he’d like to provide for the next generation. A fine and noble thing indeed. I woke next morning in the modest guest quarters, a large wooden building with huge windows, with the most satisfying view one could ever hope to see- a bright sun rising in a clear blue sky over Darjeeling Unlimited.