After a week of rest I rolled out of Tura and down through the last jungle roads of Garo Hills into the bright hot plains where mosques replaced Baptist churches and north-east India changed again.
I rocked up to Philburi that afternoon and was put up in government employee lodging thanks to a mate from Tura. The next morning I hauled my bike onto a leaky little wooden boat with a dozen other people trying to get reach the ferry to Dhubri.
All I knew about the Phulburi-Dhubri ferry was that it sunk a couple years ago (300+ people drowned) and that taking it would cut out 600km of densely populated plains from my route. Because it was the end of the dry season sandbars blocked what would otherwise be a single boat ride across.
We shunted against a sandy bank after the first short trip and the passengers snaked along the white soft sand, drawn out ordered by fitness and load. There was a full cast of society: toddlers to grandparents and businessmen to laborers, some excited by the journey and others with dulled commuter expressions. Other streams of people joined us from different directions and our group grew with each short boat trip across from one sandbar to the next until we were about 200 strong. The sand was mostly too soft to roll the bike so I dragged it along, a few teenagers pushed with me on the last stretch when the ferry came into sight.
It didn’t make sense, the ferry was floating 100 feet out in the water already half filled with passengers but then I saw a gangplank/ladder leaned against the roof and into the water. The first people were taking off their sandals and wading into the brown still water while I wiped sweat from my eyes. I watched the teenagers who’d helped me, they took a straight line and got as deep as their chests before clambering up. The idea of getting my bike up that plank was so unreasonable that I was excited to try it. I took off my shoes and waded in. I managed to follow higher ground than the people ahead of me and only got as deep as my waist, somehow keeping the bike from getting deeper than the bottom of my panniers. Because the plank was only a foot wide getting the bike up could only be a 2 man job. One of the crew climbed down and grabbed the handlebars. He attempted to haul the bike alone, which made it almost fall off, while I tried to get hold of the rack and get my shoulder behind the back wheel. I imagined losing my footing and flopping like I was making snow angels in the air and splashing below to everyone’s amusement. That didn’t happen. We hauled it onto the roof with a few grunts and after handshakes of congratulations from the teenagers I flopped down exhausted. The last person onboard was an old lady who’d been last to each boat. She stood bent double just before the water waiting. A man with a toddler already on his shoulders scooped her up in his arms like a baby. She came up the ladder with him smiling at all the attention and then spent the ferry trip playing cards for money.
Off the boat in Dhubri it was a relief to be mobile after the hour long semi-circle, faces too close to mine, leaning in to look at my eyes, I felt like a caged exotic animal. The crowds in the Assam and West Bengal plains were a new level of curiosity. They massed suddenly anywhere and I struggled to keep cool with all the attention. I’d stop at a shop, grab a drink, and the place would be jam packed in less than a minute, phones in my face with flashes going off and an effort to get out the door. Even on a rural road I’d stop with nobody in sight to check the map and then I’d hear a car stop, doors open and close, excited voices, and more cars and more doors; looking up there’d be a dozen people around me in less than a minute.
The same day as the ferry, after too many circling crowds and going 30km the wrong way, a man introduced himself as Jayanta Goswami and quietly asked which way I was going. He suggested a change because there were ‘ISIS’ that way and an hour later I was in his home having a meal. He taught school up the road and had a soft, polite demeanor. He reminded me of Jaromir Jagr but without the mullet. The family and I went to the market to get food for dinner as a storm came in. Jayanta walked off in the bustle to buy something while I waited with his wife and daughter in an unlit section where people were hurrying past to get home before the rain started. Wherever we stood we’d get in the way and I could see his daughter getting anxious. I gave her my phone with the flashlight on and she clung to it with both hands, shining the light at worried passing faces and continually checking her mom hadn’t moved from her side. It was a strange, tense time waiting for Jayanta with his wife and daughter in the dark, the storm making a racket on the metal roof. Eventually he appeared and we all hustled back to their house with the thunder hammering and lightning flashing the palm trees being thrashed by the wind into view. They were such a sweet family it’s hard to write anything about them that’s not mushy nonsense. In the morning they got a harmonium out and their landlord played on a drum and the families sang while two young girls danced and then they waved me off and another episode of generosity ended.
A few days later I found myself cycling down a road with tea plants on both sides with just the bright colored umbrellas of women working in the plants poking above to show they were there. It was like I’d shifted scenes in a dream and just like that the plains and swarming crowds were behind me.
When I saw the bases of the first mountains I was as excited as that first day cycling away from the airport hotel in Tokyo. Through the claustrophobia of the plains I’d used the idea of the mountains as an escape and a place where everything would change. I decided to take the back way to Rangpo (the Sikkim border town where foreigners get Inner Line Permits – ILPs) and had a 40km climb to a town called Lava. Despite hyping the mountains up in my mind for a week they beat whatever expectations I had.
I’d stop for snacks and shop owners would point to houses so far up the mountain that it seemed impossible the road I was on could go there, they’d look at me and shake their heads smirking. Trucks kept stopping at the top of the steepest sections waiting to watch me ride up, I was good value entertainment barely making it and they’d laugh and yell when I’d eventually ride past. One Sumo with no passengers did that 3 times and became my marker of tough bits to come.
I arrived in Lava pouring sweat without a shirt on, people staring at me in parkas under umbrellas with a cold rain starting. Lava was another planet. Prayer flags, and faces that looked Tibetan, an enormous maroon and gold monastery, it was literally a town in the clouds and I’d never seen anything like it.
The road out of town was the second best of my life (Route 251 in the Japanese Alps keeps the crown). After a 5km climb it leveled out and sloped down along a ridge with a river so far below my only reference for distance was looking out from an airplane. It cut off the ridge and snaked along smooth new pavement around hair-pins on cliff edges, through dark tunnels of trees, villages rushing by with a blur of amused faces and pot plants and bright colors. It was 40km of that, with the road sometimes poking out from the trees with a flash of a view – dark green mountains dwarfing what I was descending from, tops hidden in the haze. I got my ILP at the Sikkim border in a few minutes and sat down in Rangpo with images of what I just saw on 100x speed in my mind. I watched two monkeys climbing up a pink apartment block like mini King Kongs and couldn’t have been happier.
On the last 12km climbing to Gangtok it felt like someone was rubbing coarse sandpaper against raw skin on my thighs. It’d been uncomfortable for a couple days but nothing like this. The road was busy and I’d get smoked out by trucks changing gears beside me. I got a room in a BnB above a bookshop and checked myself out. Without too much detail it was bad: chafing plus aggravated heat rash plus the beginnings of infection.
After 3 days it hadn’t healed but I didn’t want to lose momentum so I took off to see how close to the China/Tibet border I could ride. With a storm looming dark above me in the afternoon I tried to get a roof to pitch my tent under. A man running a new restaurant insisted I stay in his spare room instead. He was an interesting dude. He worked at a 5 star hotel in Kolkata for a long time making good money as a chef but hating the lifestyle, so one day quit his job, gave all his savings away to monasteries and charities and decided to start fresh. He taught me about Sikkim, it’s history and politics and gave me a book on how Sikkim became another Indian state instead of an independent country like Bhutan. A group of teachers turned up and they got the karaoke going as I went to my room. The speakers were against the thin wall and they went all night but it didn’t matter. After a day of riding the rash had gotten much worse. I spent the night squirming around trying to find a position that didn’t make me want to rip my skin off. By the time I arrived in Mangan I couldn’t walk properly and decided to not cycle again til it was gone and I was totally healed.
After a week of reading with no pants on I had a fresh layer of skin and a revised route to take me back south then west. 6 nights worth of storms caused landslides that made the roads north of Mangan impassible which was gutting because I’d managed to get a permit taking me farther north than foreigners are meant to get without a tour group.
The rain came earlier that first day riding post-rash and was cooling to ride in until it really unleashed and the road started going downhill. Where the pavement had been washed away there were really rough sections now hidden under the rising water, the trick was to spot the bouncing trucks hit them first and try to slow down in time. Traffic picked up close to town and everyone was in a hurry. I blended in with the trees and road with my big forest green raincoat and got pushed to the shoulder a couple times with trucks either unable to see me or not caring. For a while I could barley see the rain was so heavy, the road was steep and my brakes too rubbish to stop, I had front and back brakes squeezed full still doing 20kph. Luckily there weren’t any drastic turns and I freewheeled into town just as the rain stopped.
I expected bigger climbs than I’d been getting and had started to think I wouldn’t get anything massive after missing out on the far north. But then I took the road to Ravalang. After what I thought was 2 hours I looked at the map and saw the road I was taking with more switchbacks than I’d ever seen. I counted 78 the way I planned to go. It was one of the hardest climbs I’ve ever done, the traffic was light and it wasn’t raining or cold but the gradient was punishing and the surface deteriorated badly for long sections. Around lunch I unclipped my left foot and stopped by a rest shelter. Something moved by my foot and I looked down at the head of a brown cobra. In less than a second it slithered off, it’s body seeming 12 feet long but probably only half that. I hadn’t moved, and stayed still looking at the bushes it had gone into. A young boy had been watching me ride up the hill and came down to tell me how poisonous they are and that there’s no anti-venom around. We hung out for a while, him telling me about tourists coming through his village going to Pelling, where they were from and the words he’d taught them, while I stared at the bush where the cobra had gone.
I’m in Pelling writing this, that rash from hell is back but I’m debating the pros and cons of cycling over to Yuksom which is the western limit before needing to turn back on myself and going back into West Bengal. Either way, Yuksom or not, my cycling in Sikkim is basically finished.
I’m going to miss the people up here, the young Nepali stoners and the chilled tiny Sikkimese never taking things seriously. The storms every night became reassuringly routine. I had imagined getting deep in north Sikkim pitching my tent on glaciers, sneaking past checkpoints to reach roads higher than I’ve ever been, and turning myself into a better climber. That stuff didn’t happen, I hardly camped and spent more days reading than cycling but I’ll never forget that road down from Lava or that climb to Ravalang. It was a wash with good luck and bad, my laptop broke but I got a free chain, I had a brutal rash but I had a week to rest, I managed to get a permit but then the roads were impassable, it rained every day but I only got caught out once. After writing that out it seems like less of a wash…
Unbelievably we have less than 50 days left in India and I still haven’t gotten past the north east. I’m going to skip ahead with a bus and hit Kolkata and then take a train further south to visit my cousin and figure out where to ride with the time that’s left. This country is bloody enormous.