Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Return to the Himalaya Part II - or - The Roadways of the Indian Himalaya

On my first visit to India, we traveled a good bit in share taxis.  I explained the system in my blog entry "Get Me to Gangtok" - and while it can be a crowded, uncomfortable and gut-wrenching experience, it certainly gets the traveler closer to the local culture than anything else will.  (Literally - 12 people to a seat in basically a's intimate.)

Because Lamdik Eco Ventures met us at the airport, however, we had a private ride into the mountains this time.  The 6 of us, plus Binay and two drivers climbed with our massive pile of gear into 2 SUVs for the 8 hour ride from Siliguri to the start of our trek at Lake Khecheopalri.  The route is only about 152km (95 miles) - but with the twisting mountain roads, long stretches of dusty road construction, and border check points - it's a marathon adventure for guides and travelers alike.  Our private cars were certainly more comfortable than the share taxi system, and there was less overall confusion.  

It's still, though, an E ticket ride, for sure!

Here's the most accurate map I could find in India of our route to Khecheopalri (on this map spelled Kechopari).  
From the Sikkim Road Atlas - Red numbers indicate kilometers

 Mapping in this part of the world is clearly spotty - though Google has done a pretty good job of getting the roads in a little more precisely.  The "close up" shows a little better what the roads between these dots really look like.  

Google Maps version...3h 48min, eh?  Maybe in an airplane...

About 50km of road near Legship - now that's twisty!
Driving in India is more of a profession than a hobby...and those that do tend to be very good at managing their vehicles.   They know EXACTLY where each of their 4 corners are, and they get within fractions of an inch of each other frequently.    Whether it's 3 cars passing each other on a single-lane road, trucks passing buses passing motorbikes near a 200' drop off on a curve, or a parking lane packed so tight that even the chickens can't get between the cars - it's all a dance that is both terrifying and amazing. There are few lane markers, fewer signs and almost no lighted signals.  If you don't already know exactly where you're going and which road to take, well, I imagine you'd end up driving in circles or worse. And then, there's the horn honking (again - refer to my earlier blog for more on that!).  It's exhausting, even when you're only sitting in the back seat! 

I'd tried to prepare my fellow travelers for the nature of the roads we were going on, but even I was surprised at how rough they were.  Evidently, there had been some massive landslides the year before, causing massive damage to a number of sections of the highway.  The resultant road construction areas were hot, slow and terribly dusty.  We wanted to windows down to cool the car, but the dust was so bad, we wanted to roll them back up.   Most of the places on the road where we saw people actually working, it would be in gangs of just 4-5, filling in holes, breaking up rock or filling steel cages with stone to prevent erosion.  However, there was one spot where a massive effort was being made.  Dozens of people were working - almost exclusively with hand tools and baskets.  The lack of safety equipment, protective barriers and even signs would have made a risk-management officer in the US turn white.  
Workers repairing the road in sandals and skirts
Waiting for the one-way traffic to pass the workers
Such a contrast to our own highway construction projects:

One more video for the day - starting with watching the workers, then the traffic driving by them SO close!

We stopped in Melli to get our passports and Inner Line permits checked, entered into the ledger and stamped.  Then we drove up the road a short way to Jorethang where we stopped for lunch.  The group asked me to order, since I was most familiar with the local cuisine, and we ate family style.  The food was good - full of ginger, which helped to ease my stomach a bit - but the Dramamine I'd taken earlier still had me feeling like a total zombie.   Note to self: while prevention of motion-sickness on these roads is important, it is also important not to drug oneself to the point where the trip becomes a blur for days at a time.  
Stopped in Melli with our drivers and 1 of our 2 rides
Wall sign in Jorethang
Love their cargo carriers...
Like many buildings, this one (our restaurant) wasn't entirely finished yet - or is it?
So we get back into the car and blurrr....we're pulling into the Family Guest House Trekker's Hut at Lake Khecheopalri just after dark.  The hut is small, clean and very basic and the tea they served us at the upstairs sitting area was hot and refreshing.  They sent us back to our rooms for about an hour to re-pack our things into our trek bags (some of our belongings would get shuttled to Yuksom where our trek would end).  The explosion of gear in these tiny rooms was somewhat overwhelming, so I was extremely happy when dinner was announced and I could escape the chaos for the quiet of the dining room.
Our lodgings in Lake Khechuperi
Yay!  Time for tea!
Dining room at the Family Guest yummy!
The food was amazing: delicious soups and momos (forever a favorite now!), vegetables and rice.  Binay would have us on a strictly vegetarian diet for the next 14 days, but no one had any room to complain.  Dinner at the Family Guest House was the start of a wonderful trend of filling meals and gracious hosts that Sikkim is so good at delivering! We went off to bed anxious for the next day, our first day of trekking.  It was billed as a giant hike from 5000' to over 10,000' in one day.  I hoped I'd be able to sleep, but with the drugs still in my system, I might have been more worried about whether or not I'd be capable of waking up in the morning.  

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Return to the Himalaya Part I

Khangchengdzonga 2012

When I returned from my adventure in the Indian Himalaya in 2012, I had many jealous friends.  Jealous of the trek, jealous of the fact that I had time to do the trek, and jealous that I had the confidence to just "head off" into a place so foreign.  They ooh-ed and aah-ed over the photos and were amazed at my tales of the beauty of Sikkim and the warmth of the people I met there.  They wanted to go.  

Some of them even thought I should "lead" them there.

I scoffed.  Too much work, too far away, too much money... No way I said.  Not a chance.  Only a crazy person would agree to lead a group of head strong, independent adults to such a wild and unexpected place.

And so it was that I found myself on a steep, narrow road clinging to the slopes of the Himalayan foothills, crammed into the back seat of an Indian taxi once again, jostling back and forth as the driver navigated potholes and insane motorcyclists.  This time, instead of being shoulder to shoulder with strange Indian men who smelled of curry and Paan, the car was full of 6 Arizona hikers, all of whom were looking to me to tell them what was going on and how to best negotiate their way through this very strange country. You think trekking in a foreign country over dangerous terrain is scary, try being in charge of other people doing just that.  Gulp.  Then it starts to hail at 14,000' and...

I'm getting ahead of my story just a little.   

First, we've got to get to Sikkim.  In my last posts, I never really explained where Sikkim is.  If you're anything like I was prior to planning the first trip, you might well think I'm talking about a spot just to the left of the moon.  Well...luckily I tried to explain it to the traffic engineers I was working with just after the trip.

You start with a big map map showing where to find India (I'll give that most of you got this far)...

 Drill down a ways in the vast sub-continent to find the tiny but critical state of Sikkim.

And then, looking at Sikkim, you can see how it is bordered by Nepal, Bhutan and China.  The border with the Chinese is what makes the whole state of Sikkim a secure area.  

So we're heading for Yuksom - the once capitol of a mountainous state which was it's own sovereign nation from the establishment of their royal dynasty in 1642 until they became an Indian state in 1975.  The culture is highly unique from that found in the rest of India and more closely resembles that of Nepal and Tibet - in fact, many of the same tribes are found still thriving within its borders.  

Sikkim's claim to fame for tourists are it's amazing mountains and it's vast rhododendron forests - both of which we intended to visit.

We being...
From left to right: Mitch, Ivanka, Rocky, Binay (our guide), Nancy, myself and Debbie
 ...just the most intrepid bunch of Arizona backpackers you'll ever meet!  I had 5 others sign up for the trip, and through nearly 30 hours of travel and a brief hotel stop in Delhi, we made it to the airport in Bagdogra, West Bengal, India where we were to meet up with our guide operator, Binay.

There's a whole story to why I picked Binay Limboo and his excellent outfit Lambdik EcoVentures...but I'm going to save that for another post (maybe one that's not already so crammed with boring text).

Binay met us at the airport, performed a traditional welcome ceremony which included colorful scarves and intervention with the government official for our Inner Line permits.  He pretended not to be amazed at the sheer quantity of stuff we brought (but we knew he was) as he loaded it onto the jeeps and took us to a hotel in nearby Siliguri.  

Finally free from the confines of an airline seat or the back of a taxi, we decided to hit the streets and take in some of the sights and smells of India.  For everyone else, this was their first visit to India - and for some, it was really the first time they'd ventured into such a completely foreign environment.  Siliguri is not for the faint-hearted tourist...where we were, there were no self-guided tours or gift shops.  We were seeing real life in this bustling city, and it was a real eye opener!

View from our hotel window of a light industrial area of Siliguri

Big Tatas...

I always wish I could start cooking dinner when I see the produce here

Think of it as a local convenience store without the glass windows

Cow keeping median grass down

Bicycle cargo

These gentlemen were excited for their photo op

Says it all, doesn't it. 

Follow the walking billboards.
After our tour on foot, we returned to the hotel for dinner and some instruction from Binay.  I was pretty sure my body had no clue what time it was, but I fell asleep quickly anyway - probably from sheer exhaustion.  Tomorrow, we would leave the flat lands behind and head into the mountains.  This time, instead of a random taxi, we'd be in Binay's vehicles - on our own schedule and with a little more room to enjoy the ride.  

Little did my fellow travelers know that we were about to embark on the most terrifying portion of the whole trip: the roadways of the Indian Himalaya!

--to be continued--