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.