Gilly and I have always had a great love of the mountains. Views of the craggy snow clad tops set against a bright blue sky always seem to have an uplifting impact. And the mountains don’t come any bigger than the Himalayas. So as we were in North East India we felt we had to seek out our first views of the Himalayas on this trip.
As we left Assam we were delighted to continue to be enjoying the two lane highway. However as we approached the state border with West Bengal lines of trucks were backed up blocking both lanes. We assumed it was something to do crossing the state border and needing to cross a weigh bridge. Not something we needed to do and as we didn’t fancy queuing up for hours we decided when in India we would just adopt Indian driving techniques and so set off down the wrong side of the carriageway. On reaching the front the policeman waved us through and clearly our driving practice was the norm.
Making good time we entered a small town only to join a long queue of vehicles going nowhere. I got out to explore and at the end of the queue found a group of women sitting in the middle of a junction. They were tea workers protesting over not being paid. As we were going nowhere we just had lunch and it wasn’t long before it cleared.
We could tell we were approaching the mountains as we entered a spectacular river valley. Although the road we were driving on was a main highway it narrowed considerably as it snaked its way up the valley. From our travels we are used to driving on narrow winding mountain roads. The big difference in India though is the amount of traffic on the road driving crazily up and down the road with their hands pressed on their horns trying to force you out of the way. You just have to shut all the noise out and get on with your own driving. We turned off the highway onto the narrow mountain road up to Kalimpong. The road up was only 12kms but it would take us an hour as it twisted up the mountainside. There was hairpin after hairpin one so tight it went over the top of the road below.
We thought the worst would be over as we entered the town but no we were wrong. Our challenge was now finding somewhere to park. The roads in the town were narrow, congested with lots of low wires everywhere. After a long day it was all becoming too much and we thought we should just turn around and reluctantly head back down, the only problem was there was nowhere to turn around. With the beeping of horns behind us we asked if anyone could help. A kind gentlemen told us to follow him up the road to a turning point. Relieved to find this we then asked if there was anywhere to park. The friendly local cafe owner told us to park on the verge of the turning point. Whilst it was not a flat spot it was a safe and secure spot for the night. Exhausted we headed a short way up the hill, found a guesthouse, had a lovely curry for dinner and collapsed into bed. But not before the owner, a big Beatles fan, had made us join him in a rendition of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”.
Initially we thought we would just head out early the next morning but on waking up early we thought after making so much effort to get there we should spend a day exploring the town so just after dawn we walked up the hill 3.5kms to the Gompa. The Gompa was set beautifully on the hill. Whilst we have seen a lot of Buddhist temples in South East Asia. Buddhism here is a little different reflecting Tibetan type Buddhism. But the real highlight was waiting as we walked around the Gompa. As we had walked up whilst the sun was shining it was a little hazy but as we rounded the Gompa there they were in all their magnificence, they may have been a way off in the distance but there was no doubting the mighty Himalayas. The view was dominated by Kanchenjuna, at 8,586m, the third highest mountain in the world.
Feeling wonderfully restored from our walk and the views we now needed breakfast. Fortunately a short way down was a cafe. Now just to choose which curry for breakfast?
As the girls were doing school in the back of the truck later that morning there was a gentle knock on the door. The friendly cafe owner was there with another person bearing gifts of chocolate, an instant hit. He was a journalist and wanted to do a short interview about our trip. When I asked him how he knew we were in Kalimpong he said photos of our truck were all over Facebook in town. The next day we were flattered to see an article on us in one of India’s biggest English newspapers the Telegraph of India. You can find it here if you are interested.
We spent the rest of the day exploring the delightful little town, looking for money (no success) and food ( a great success as the vegetables in the market were fantastic and we found some wonderful cheese).
We decided to make an early start the next day so as to get out of town and down the hill before the traffic started. We wanted to get closer to those mountain views so headed to the isolated mountain state of Sikkim. Sikkim is pretty cut off from the rest of India, there is only one narrow highway in and it is surrounded by China and Nepal. Because of political sensitivities foreigners need a permit to get in and even then you are restricted to certain areas of the state. Fortunately the permits are easy to obtain and we were quickly issued ours at the State border.
The main highway heads to the state capital, Gangtok but we wanted to get closer to those mountains so headed west trying to reach Pelling which is set on a ridge at 2000m. The road soon became rough and our average speed dropped even further. The first 40kms took at least two hours but the last 20kms looked like it wound straight up the mountain from the valley floor. After our previous experience we approached with trepidation. Fortunately the road surface improved but the road was still narrow making passing other vehicles coming the other way a challenging experience. About 7kms from Pelling is the small town of Geyzing. As we entered town it was market day and all of a sudden we were right in the middle of it with nowhere to go. It transpired we had missed the turn off just before to Pelling. The maps we have for this part of India are not very good and the signs virtually non existent. Now the problem was we were stuck in town again with nowhere to turnaround. With the “help” of lots of locals and the local policeman we pushed our way gently through town and were told we could turnaround about a km up the narrow road. Once out of town, exhausted from the stress, we pulled on the verge to have lunch. I wandered down the road and found the turnaround but also found a flat parking spot outside what I thought was a guest house and even better behind it was the most magnificent views of the mountains, result?
As we were having lunch there was a gentle knock at the door. It was the local policeman. He was worried we had not come back as he had been waiting to help get us back through town to Pelling. We explained we would give Pelling a miss and had found a place to park. Slightly bemused he shook my hand and wished us good luck.
On parking up we went to find the “guest house” owners. It transpired what we had thought was a guesthouse was part of a large private residence. The friendly owners said no problem, they were just finishing a family gathering for a puja and said there was no problem us parking on the flat spot and staying the night. They even invited us down to their terrace to enjoy the views.
We were told that the views from Pelling were even more impressive so the next morning we decided we would head up there. However we decided to leave the truck where it was and take a taxi up and then walk back down. And they were right, the views were fantastic and we had arrived just in time before some clouds came over as we feasted on some local momos and samosas. We had a lovely walk back down to the truck stopping at the local monastery and the ruins of the old royal palace.
Again the next morning we set off early to get through town before any traffic. We were heading for a campsite we had seen on the way up as we entered Sikkim. It was down in the valley on the river and we had seen people camping as we passed on the opposite bank. The road to it looked narrow but ok. Turning onto the road we were told we could not take the truck on this road to Darjeeling as we were too big. That’s fine we said we were not going to Darjeeling only to the campsite. As we approached the campsite there was a small town and yet again the road narrowed, parked cars made it more difficult and with all the traffic we were soon stuck again. We were told there was a bridge before the campsite and we would not be able to cross but the only turnaround was just before the bridge so we had to go through town to get there. With lots of horns, helping locals we managed to make it through and turnaround. On the way back I sent Gilly ahead waving cars aside so we could get back through.
Disappointed at losing a nice campsite we headed down the valley. We were heading for Varanasi but that was over 800kms away. There was nothing to do but set off on the long drive across the plains of India. We pulled in for the night at a fairly quiet petrol station. It was New Years Eve. Not the most glamorous place to celebrate it so we didn’t bother and tucked ourselves in early for the night.
The next day was another long drive through rural India. At least the roads between towns were pretty good although it was slow going through town as the markets spilled out onto the road. The highlight of the day was crossing the holy Ganges river, something we hope to see more of when we reach our next destination.