The Kingdom of Sikkim only became part of India in 1975 and subsequently their state border is still treated a lot like an international border. We’d seen quite a lot of administrative overhead in many daily tasks in India, so we thoroughly expected crossing into Sikkim to be difficult. We pictured it eating up the remains of the day after we’d left Darjeeling. Instead, as we crossed the Rangpo River, the permit people did it all for us. They took our passports, took our photos with a webcam, printed out a form and we signed it. We had 15 days to enjoy Sikkim. Too easy!
That piece of the puzzle now complete, we needed to eat and look at the maps on the laptop. Alas, we couldn’t even find the first town on Sonam’s list on the map. Our guide book offered another town in that direction but Nickiy guestimated it would be dark before we’d wound our way over the hills to get there. So, instead, we headed for the state capital, Gangtok, which was clearly signposted all the way. Like Darjeeling, Gangtok is steep and confusing to drive through. The narrow streets quickly block up with traffic and finding the hotel street was not pleasant. The uphill queuing rush-hour traffic meant a lot of half-clutch crawling and it wasn’t long before the clutch overheated. I had bought the oil-resistant clutch, not the high-temperature one! All the hotels were full of other tourists fleeing from Darjeeling and finding a room was tricky. We eventually found another moldy bunker and settled in. A quick search up the road revealed a place to sit and drink beer. Still a novelty for us, we learned that Sikkim had no tax on their alcohol which pleased us more than it should. Later that night, crouched by the door on our wet, rising damp floor, Nickiy eeked out some internet and planned how to start our recommended loop of west Sikkim.
After a good lunch many miles west of Gangtok the next day, we decided to press on to the first guest house in a little resort town called Pelling (pronounced ‘pailing’ for some reason). This was our first taste of the variety of road conditions we would experience in the old kingdom. We had perfect tarmac, closed roads (guess your own detour), waterfalls, unsurfaced hairpins, gravel and some mud. When we got to the guest house, it was just bliss. It had valley views from our room, a balcony, hot water, food and books to read. Finally we could get some peace! We didn’t move for the next 3 days.
Next on our loop was Khechiperi lake, which is actually the Goddess Tara Jetsun Dolma’s footprint, don’t ya know? We parked up then Nickiy went in search of the homestay we were destined to stay at. She was gone a long, long time whilst I talked to the local pack of street dogs. Eventually she returned from her long trek up to the ridge above the lake and we discussed how one treks with a motorbike. I chatted up the local big-cheese at the adjacent police shack and he said we could park the bike next to his hut. This was only half the problem. We then had to carry two helmets, jackets, a 90 litre duffel and a 35 litre pannier up a steep narrow track through the forest to the homestay. We managed this with the bags balanced on our heads mostly. This was our first homestay in India and it was amazing. The owner (also Sonam) and her family fed us about 5 times a day and it was such a peaceful spot to relax and take in the scenery. Peaceful until you play cards with her children, that is.
We explored the lake whilst we were there and, hoping for a different route back to the homestay, we attempted to circumnavigate the lake. It was unclear which path to take and, as we were ruminating on our choice, we looked down at our bare feet. Covered in leeches, with more approaching from all around. We didn’t have the DEET with us, which was a major error. We couldn’t stop to take them off because we were surrounded by a Wembley arena-sized waving crowd of more brown carnivores. So we ran screaming back into the drier, open part of the lakeside and began coaxing each one off. Thankfully only one got through to blood, in between Nickiy’s toes.
After Khechiperi lake we continued clockwise up to a small town called Yuksom. Here more delicious homestay cooking awaited us, as well as some more monasteries. and amazing mountain views. It became to clear to us that we were at the tail end of the tourist season with regular rains and stories of landslides blocking roads. Our exit from Yuksom, after the homestay owners blessed us and the bike, involved a handful of these landslides. I thought I was doing ok, slowly snaking through these muddy sections balancing brake and clutch. But then we hit a long deep one, with roadworks and I figured it needed a little more speed. Bouncing from rut to rut we washed out and dived sideways into the mud. Stein went further over than usual and dug his mirror into the clay. The mirror didn’t comply at all and snapped off at the mount. The mount snapped, the mirror was fine. But the mount also held the clutch lever onto the bike.
So now we had a big problem. We had to get the bike upright (there were plenty of workmen to help with this). We had to remove the luggage and carry it out of the slime. We had to temporarily zip tie the clutch lever in place. I then had to adjust the clutch to work with the zip ties. Then I had to ride it out of the sticky slurry. We then had to bash the crash bar back into place with a large log and load the panniers back on. Then I had to ride to somewhere without using the clutch much. Bollocks! It then it dawned on me – I now had to order more motorcycle parts!
With some difficulty we found Sanu’s homestay in Tashiding and relaxed there for a blissful few days. With all the disorientating winding roads, it was strange to see villages just across the valley that it had taken us hours to drive from. Sanu sorted us out for food and local warm millet beer, thongba. We wandered up the hill to the monastery and admired all the amazing stonework the Sikkimese use for their buildings. There was a special pooja going on inside the monastery buildings; with plenty of chanting and almost-music being played.
Once ready to tackle the jerky gear changes once more, we left Sanu’s tranquil haven and continued clockwise on our journey. We finished our loop back at the village of Pelling in the same parking spot and the same room, but for a better price! We were becoming regulars!