Pulsar 200NS across Sikkim | Gurudongmar Lake | Old Silk Route

Chandrajit Rudra

Tech Enthusiast and Blogger

There ain't any single word to describe my feelings that day. A myriad of thoughts kept overwhelming me throughout the night. When you are on the verge of doing something you are too unsure of, the dark past recalls itself to stop you from stepping ahead. Flashbacks from the accident at Goa kept haunting me. Trembling amidst those dark moments, I could still feel the warm blood flowing down my face and hear my friend's painful cries. It had been almost 4 years since that happened, yet it felt so yesterday. I struggled to get some sleep in the biting cold.

At 3:30 am, the alarm rang and though I was wide awake, I could not step away from the blanket. It took a few minutes to leave the warmth and comfort provided by the blankets. I had generally been the first in our group to wake up. Initially, I knew that a cup of tea could help me with a jolt start but the packaged trip we booked did not even care to provide a cup of tea for tourists who would start out in that weather. I wonder, how I agreed to sign up for a package tour, which I then knew would cost me the food and lodge part only!!! Weird world, it is.

The morning chores were too painful. After riding for the past few days, at some point you start getting annoyed at the bits of work you need to do before starting. But, when the passion stays above all these, its mostly some effort and time spent waiting for the excitement that lies ahead. The motorcycle cover was wrapped in a thin layer of ice which made a crumpling sound as I took it off. My room was 3 floors down and I had already brought my foot pump along assuming that the front tire would not have any pressure. There was no time and neither would it be of any use to check for the puncture today. Sumalya and another tourist took turns to help me pump up the front wheel till 30 psi. Looking back, I do realize how crazy I was to do a Gurudongmar ride on a punctured tire. The plan was to return back to Lachen, have lunch and head for Lachung the same day. So, I just packed in some essentials, first aid and warmees in my tank bag. The temperature as per Accuweather, was around -11°C. To my surprise, the "Black Beast" started after a few trials. It was the first time those wheels would be rolling at such high altitudes.

The car with a thin sheet of ice before starting

Its futile describing the condition of the roads after Lachen because there ain't any. The terrain full of rocks were manageable on straight paths but on extreme turns and slopes, it felt deadly. A few deep breaths, patience and effort were the key to roll on such areas. Numerous times, I could feel the stones slip away beneath the tire providing no grip, letting the motorcycle slip down dangerously, a couple of times too close to the edge. Probably, a pair of off-road tires would have been better but its not always economical to get the best rubber for one particular trip. Saddling did relieve a lot of pain but then again, how long can you stand on your foot pegs and cover the distance?

There were a few patches of black ice which were the most dangerous elements on the way. It was extremely hard to notice them in the darkness and at times, my motorcycle skidded completely out of the way while treading over these patches. My heart skipped a few beats as I noticed the rear tire slip away too close to the edge of the cliff.

I kept on rolling with numb fingers planning to stop at least after an hour. I did feel like using the warmees but even the thought of stopping and taking out my gloves scared the shit out of me. I tried to stay with the car behind me but it seemed too slow. Obviously, I can recall a few turns and patches where the width was so narrow that it made motorcycling uneasy. I wonder how the drivers pulled through them. North Sikkim drivers are in no way less talented than Himachali ones (especially Spiti). Of course, its the same Himalayas and the dangerous terrains at both places.

At one point, the road gets diverted in two ways and I did not know which one to take. Had it been some other day and some other time, I would probably have trusted my guts and Google Maps but better sense prevailed that day. I waited for the car to come and rolled ahead after confirmation. All through that time, I could not switch off my headlights. I was not used to such darkness amidst the harsh cold temperatures and being in such a remote place made it more eerie. In between, I did turn my camera on and off numerous times, but later I came to know that none of the button presses actually worked (probably due to numb fingers) and the battery had completely drained. Stopping after an hour, it was necessary to stretch my muscles a bit before riding again.

Stopping after an Hour

By this time, the tip of mountains around started reflecting faintly, indicating that the sun would provide the much needed warmth very soon. I took a few short breaks in between, occasionally taking off the leather gloves and placing my hands on the hot engine. On a normal day, the engine is hot enough to burn your hands but I could barely feel the heat on my palm even after gripping it for a few minutes. With dawn, I could have a better view of the roads and surroundings. It was a ride amidst the army camps. I knew that I had to submit my permits at the last check post but did not know where it was. As I crossed a Police check-post at Thangu, I had to submit the xerox copy of the Gangtok Police check-post permit. The terrain now was better. It was not like the curvy mountain paths that I rode across till now. Rather, it seemed to be a wide stretch of plain land running in between the valley. Of course, there were no roads but the light around let me see those black ice patches clearly now and I could ride across them carefully or try to avoid them, if possible.

Somewhere enroute Thangu

The car had sped ahead as I had been taking frequent breaks for the past few minutes and they halted for breakfast after Thangu. A few minutes later, the sun did shine brightly but the raw cold winds would never leave this terrain for sure. I got down from my motorcycle and stretched my muscles. It was a small hut where our breakfast was ready. A hot oven in the center warmed up the small room and created an unpleasant smoky mist around. But, the warmth was too endearing and almost everyone in the room were seated around it. The hot bread and noodles looked too good but I was not in a mood to have much food and I went with some hot tea and nutrition bars that I brought along.

During breakfast @ Thangu

The breakfast hut @ Thangu

Leaving behind the curvy mountain roads, most of the terrain after this continued to be like a wide stretch amidst the mountains. The wind blast here gets stronger and opening the visor even for a split second smacks you hard. As the sun shone on the plains directly, it became more comforting and the ride, although still harsh could be enjoyed well. Riding a few kilometers ahead, the gates of the last check-post arrive where you have to stop and submit the Letter addressed to the 17th Mountain Corps. They also wanted a xerox of the Gangtok Police check-post permit and even after I had 4 copies of that while leaving Mangan, there was none left now. All of them were submitted at the previous check-posts. Beyond, this point they are generally skeptical to leave solo riders alone. I convinced them that I had some friends in a car behind but I had to wait for the car to arrive and only then did they let me go ahead.

The other tourist (P.C. Sum's cam)

As I rolled towards the last stretch of my journey, it seemed as a place completely out of this world. It was like a vast cold desert with snow all around and a smooth tarred road surprises you here. Yes! After covering the monstrous way till now, it feels like a gift from BRO, to enjoy what you have earned. The distance from the last check post to Gurudongmar is around 20 kms and it was such an awesome and smooth ride. Of course, riding on a carb engine of 24bhp-200cc, revving did not offer much output. It felt like an extremely low powered unresponsive engine at this point. I am sure, people who ride here with a high bhp FI engine will enjoy this stretch much more.

Roads after the last check post (P.C. Sum's Cam)

I stopped at various points enjoying the snow and ice around. The road at places was so straight and awesome that you could ride hands-free at various places. And, then the point comes where a red board points you towards Gurudongmar Lake and you have to leave the sweet tar for some off road ahead. The tarred stretch ahead is restricted for civilians but maps shows that it takes you to Cholamu Lake which is actually the highest lake of India (200 m higher than Gurudongmar).

I took the off-road since I had no intentions to stray towards the Chinese border. By this time, my motorcycle was already fuming and I was skeptical whether it could climb the stretch. The off-road here is not that inclined but this is almost the highest part of the route. I tried revving it hard and though the engine gave its best, it could not pickup much speed. A few meters ahead it gave up completely. I was stranded just 260 m away from my destination. The smell of petrol was too strong as if it was spilled all around. I got down from my motorcycle and let it breathe for sometime. Carb flooding is a common issue with motorcycles such as these and I knew that this was coming. I was lucky that my buddy took me to this point. Revving hard at this point is completely foolish as it floods your carburetor with more unburnt fuel. I did switch off the fuel knob multiple times during the journey today in order to keep it going but guess work was hard at such high altitudes. I started it after sometime and it sprang back to life only to take me a couple of meters ahead and die again. And, this cycle continued quite a few times.

MotoVlog for the Part:

Chandrajit Rudra

Tech Enthusiast and Blogger
Sorry for the delay in posting... Have been extremely busy of late.. :(
Day 7 - Part 2 - Gurudongmar to Lachen

260m away from Gurudongmar when my Motorcycle gave up

I could have left my motorcycle there and walked uphill for the remaining hundred meters but probably, it was an emotion attached to my machine that made me push it as long as possible. I thought it would be an easy task considering that I had no saddle bags laden. But, when the engine finds it so hard to breathe, how well can I?

The air here is too thin to do such tasks. I pushed it about 10-20 m ahead and started panting. It felt as if my lungs could come out and start gasping for air outside. I kicked out the side stand and sat beside, letting both the engine and my body breathe. I stayed like that for 15-20 minutes until I started feeling better. I was foolish, trying to cover the distance like that. The 'Black Beast' was unable to take my weight and climb ahead. Now, instead of pushing it, I started the engine, kept the fuel knob closed and revved it slightly to help itself climb up, as I scurried along. We covered the remaining distance without any issues.

Gurudongmar Lake (24th November, 2016)

The ride till now was full of hardships amidst darkness & sub-zero temperatures, facing raw cold, fighting numbness and without even being able to feel my limbs and fingers for a major part of the journey. But, tell you what? It was all worth it. Every bit of pain and passion paid off. It was like a surreal mix of fact and fantasy - A Heaven on Earth.

I took a few photographs and spent a few minutes admiring the beauty. The majestic lake was partially frozen and the snow clad peaks around adored it like feathers on its cap. Finally, the backdrop of a uniform blue sky and the bright sun shining on each of them, added to the incredible glory of the scene. When you start getting lost in its beauty, straining your eyes towards each of the snow capped cones, looking deeper into the reflecting mountains, it becomes hard to leave that place and move ahead.Being told that staying here for too long could have adverse effects on your body, I dropped the idea of walking along the lake. Probably, that would also be too tiring for me after the ride. Maybe some other time, some other day! This was surely not the last.

Entry to the Sarva Dharma Sthaal

The Gurudongmar Parikrama

There is a shrine nearby, the "Sarva Dharma Sthaal" i.e. the house of all religions where you can find reverences paid by various ranks of the Indian Army. Since, I could not walk along the full length of the lake, I decided to tread down the steps, cross a narrow footbridge and take a stroll as far as I could. The moments spent there are clearly etched in my mind. After my friends arrived, we took a few snaps together. As I rolled downhill, I kept smiling knowing that one in my wishlist was done. Once again, it was time to enjoy the breathtaking ride till the last check-post.

At some point, riding on this stretch, I started feeling sleepy and completely dozed off once. This was a serious warning as loosing consciousness even for a split second on a motorcycle could prove to be fatal. Knowing that the lack of oxygen was inducing this, I shook my head and limbs rigorously to enforce consciousness in my body. This sleepiness also indicated a few other things.

I knew that my health had to take a toll after bearing the raw weather early morning. By the time I reached the last check post, I was shivering. My temperature was around 104 degrees. I had some meds I was carrying and took some rest at the well equipped army canteen there. They had a nice room heater and you could have some hot coffee and pakoras as well. Incidentally, a middle aged tourist wearing an oxygen mask was also being treated by the army. It is always advised not to stay at such a high altitude for long, although I did carry diamox and some required meds as a precaution. I'll probably make a pre-ride preps video and post later on. Another guy, probably 20 to 22 years old also suffered from asphyxiation but because of his own fault. I heard that on reaching Gurudongmar, he got over-excited and started running around.

Coming back to my condition, I would probably have to wait there for another 1-2 hours until my fever came down. But, Sumalya being along, I had the advantage of handing over the baton to him. He rode from the check-post back to Lachen. This fellow here had a couple of torn ligaments on his leg and dared to ride down with a knee support. Well, riders come in all shapes and sizes and then there are ace ones.

The plan for today was to reach Lachung by night. We reached Lachen by 2:30 pm and had our lunch. My fever was completely down but I knew I needed some rest. It is very important to know your health and give adequate breaks to your body in order to cope up with situations like these. When you push too further and cross that line, only the Himalayas get to decide your fate. My friends coaxed me to ride till Lachung, but I decided to stay back at Lachen. It was again one of the best decisions I had taken during this journey. Lachen faced a load-shedding that evening, like many other nights.

Vodafone left company ever since I entered North Sikkim and my camera & phone batteries were dead as well. The power bank blinked its last bar of charge and I had decided to save it. The sun had set and the temperature was dropping rapidly. I felt a shiver through my spine. I knew that the fever would haunt me throughout the night and popped in another medicine as a pre-emptive effort to stop it from overtaking me. The homestay where I was staying had 3 floors and 6 rooms on each floor. 17 out of the 18 rooms were empty. There were no guests but me. The homestay owner rather turned out to be a sick, non-cooperating person who did not even care to provide an emergency light or a cup of tea. Help was miles away and it is during these lonely sick times when you wish your mom's hand was on your forehead.

Way back in Kolkata, it had always been a busy life. Work and daily schedule had eaten up every day. Even a spare second would probably be spent checking Whatsapp/Facebook. There was always something to do and out here getting to do absolutely nothing was freaking me out. I could not go out in the cold and neither could I sleep with the fear of a stronger fever.

It was a horrendous night spent alone in darkness and cold. I kept fighting the fever with some more meds. As the last rays of light continued peeking through the windows, I took up a pen and paper and started scribbling.

Later on, when the meds gave some warmth, I took a torch and ventured outside. The shop beside the homestay was occupied by a few localites. The usual smoky air had filled the chambers inside but, it felt warm and welcoming. I pulled a chair and sat beside them, showing no interest of ordering anything. It felt so good being in a social place and not alone in the dark 3rd floor basement.

The owner walked upto me and asked, "Gaye nhi aap!!" (You did not go?) in his broken Hindi tongue. I explained him my condition which he reiterated to his friends in their local language. They asked me to join them at their table and offered me some chaang. While the owner took to his chores, one of the person at the table was a taxi driver who was pretty well versed in Hindi and English. He translated to his friends and back to me. I had a nice time chatting with them and enjoying the warm chaang.

Experiences gathered this day were worth treasuring and the mistakes I did and learnt are worth sharing. Sikkim still had a part left, the Old Silk route. And, neither would this be my last time to Gurudongmar! As I write this, the Donkha La beckons.

The Vlog for this part:

Chandrajit Rudra

Tech Enthusiast and Blogger
Day 8 - Lachen to Gangtok
The winding mule track seemed to be the only way to reach the last house of the village. A few children playing at the end of the path created some disturbance for the owners around. As they shooed the children away, I tried to lift my head which was still feeling heavy. Lucky to have the fever down last night, I was in no hurry to start for the day. The route had already been traversed 2 days ago. I was aware of the bad terrains and the best places to stop. A hot bowl of noodles and a cup of coffee were the only things that I needed now. My bones and muscles felt a lot weaker than when I came to Lachen. Obviously, it was the cold and fever that aided this weakness. However, it was a solo ride and I had to take every step cautiously. Riding solo, you have to give your best efforts to avoid any untoward incident. And, most often a solo ride coupled with an untoward incident on these lands brew a deadly cocktail.

A snap from the way...

I saddled up and started the ride feeling happy about the roads that were awesome when compared to the ride yesterday. Over the past few days, my outlook about roads had changed. The sun was shining brightly and the warmth coupled with the chilly winds spiced up the ride. The winding turns carved out of the mountains seemed to throw in a jolly feeling every time I revved up to cross them. And, as I rode along the valley and recalled every turn, I wished I could stay back there for a few more days. Quaint places like these are better when void of modern amenities. The second police check-post had arrived and just like the first one, I had to submit the piece of stamped paper. The hawaldar here made no fuss and had I not stopped to submit the papers, he couldn't have cared less. Roads out here are so lonely that you start feeling good at the sight of a person around. And, apart from that, the Teesta does accompany you for most part of the journey.
"You can stop anytime and stare at it for hours, trying to realize what would have happened, had you taken the course of this river." The Border Roads Organization was doing a tremendously good job here because at almost every 20 kms I could see a group of them building some part of the road.

And, then again, the condition of my front tire was never that good. The pressure was zero as usual in the morning and I filled it up till 30 psi before starting. The air was leaking faster this time and way before I reached Mangan I could feel that it had come down to zero once again. I had to use my foot pump again to continue as long as possible. There is no other option in places like these.

Also, in my mind I was totally unsure if I would head towards Gangtok after Mangan. I thought of heading straight to Siliguri and skip the Old Silk route, if possible. Yes, my health condition was that bad. But, I purposefully did not take any meds that day, to be sure that the fever would go down on its own.

A snap from the way...

Mangan is the edge of North Sikkim where a comparable civilization starts. It had markets, a petrol pump, school and quite a bit of population. I stopped by a roadside tire shop hoping, what could not be identified and fixed by more than 5 puncture repair shops across Sikkim, could be done by this guy. He was a Bihari who had migrated to North Sikkim in search of a job and used to visit his hometown once a year. Indeed, he turned out to be the puncture repair king in such a remote area.
He detached the rubber from the rim to inspect it completely and boy did the slime mess up with my tire. According to him, when the tire kept rolling, the slime was unable to seal the puncture well and when stationery it did not let the air leak which is why it became so difficult to detect the same. I would remain ever thankful to this person who put an end to a trouble that I dealt with every single morning.

The Puncture Episode...

The roads now were much better and as the saying goes: The world is round and we definitely meet again. A while after I met Amit Rana and Rajneesh whom I also met on Day 1 while coming from Kolkata to Siliguri. Need inspirations!! Well, Amit specifically was riding straight from Bangalore to Gurudongmar with a pillion!!

Meeting Amit and Rajneesh again...

I refilled at Mangan and started riding but I was still not sure if I would go to Gangtok or take the shortcut to Siliguri putting an end to the journey. At that point, where one road takes you to Gangtok and the other to Siliguri, the milestone read that Gangtok was just 30 kms and Siliguri, 130 kms. I was already tired and that milestone assured me to head towards Gangtok. The option to ride towards Old Silk route the next day was still open but had not yet been decided.

The day's ride was a pretty slow one. I had no hurry and knew exactly how much time I needed to reach the hotel back at Gangtok. I took things too easily and decided to park my motorcycle to watch a roadside cockfight. The next moment, my side stand slipped and I was fighting to get the loaded motorcycle back on its wheels. Petrol leaked from the tank while I struggled to get it up. On Day 2, I had a similar incident amidst darkness but after trying numerous times, I could pick up my motorcycle. Today, I was too weak. I didn't even feel like trying more that 2 or 3 times and would probably have left the motorcycle like that for hours, if someone did not come to help me. Lucky that it was bright daylight around and a person nearby became my savior. The clutch lever did bend due to the fall but I was lucky again, that it did not break off.

Thereafter, I reached Gangtok, replaced my clutch lever with a spare one I had, got my chain cleaned and lubed. The only thing left was falling dead asleep on the bed.

Oh yes!! Did I forget? My birthday treat was left and a 12 years old Chivas Regal did induce some chit-chat between the four of us (met Sumalya, Ipsita and Dyuti who returned from Lachung).