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.
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.
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