Monday, November 24, 2008

a well deserved respite

We were dreading the long ride from Varanasi to the Sikkim. I had read an online account of a Westerner that had taken his Enfield on the trains so we decided to look into it. Not surprisingly, the logistics coordination turned out to be almost as laborious as the ride. The shopkeeper from whom I had purchased a kurti said his dad had an Enfield shipped by train so we consulted with him. He told us that we would need to purchase a passenger ticket then get a separate luggage ticket (LT) from the parcel office. He wanted us to use his travel agent, but when we learned that the price for the passenger ticket was 3 times the going rate and that the guy didn't have an actual office we could visit we politely declined. One of the local money changers said that it would be in our best interest to do our ticket purchasing at the actual train station where we could talk to both the ticket agent and the parcel office. There are at least 4 train stations in the vicinity of Varanasi, but he advised us to use the main station as they had a dedicated tourist booking office.

The next day we rode over to the Varanasi train station. We wanted to catch a train from Mugul Sarai station (15 km from Varanasi) to New Jalpaiguri, which is the closest cargo drop point on the line to the Sikkim. The Varanasi parcel office advised us to get our passenger ticket, then head over to the Mughal Sarai parcel office to drop off our bikes a day in advance of our departure. We followed their advice then made our way to Mughal Sarai. The parcel office manager said that bringing our bikes on the train would be “very troublesome” because Varanasi was not the initial loading point and that the train was primarily “for passengers not cargo”. He repeated this several times which we took to mean there was no way in hell we were getting on the train to New Jalpaiguri, so back we went to the Varanasi station.

Our options were to backtrack to Delhi or head SE to Kolkata (actually Howrah station) then ride/take a train north or ditch the train idea altogether. We opted for Kolkata as we were already familiar with the city and there was a hotel we liked. The Varanasi parcel office said that they would have room on the Howrah line the next day and told us to show up 6 hours before the train left. We canceled our Mugul Sarai-New Jalpaiguri tickets and booked new tickets to Howrah, for which we had to pay 600 Rps (~$15) extra because they had already sold out of the tourist quota.

We arrived at Mugul Sarai at our scheduled time and the parcel office told us that they needed copies of our bike papers and that we needed to drain the petrol out of the tanks before we packed them up for transit. I headed off to copy the registration papers while Jascha attempted to get the petrol drained. This took over an hour, but he managed to sell it all for 600 Rps. As I was completing the paperwork for shipping our bikes I noticed that the place from where we were renting (documented on paper as a sale/buy-back) mistranscribed the registration number (i.e. license plate number) for one of the bikes. I was hoping the office wouldn't notice, but of course they did. I had to explain several times that the engine number on the registration papers matched the sales deed and the registration number in the registration papers matched the license plate, but that the registration number on the sales deed was erroneous. They finally let is slide. The packing man carefully wrapped our headlights and seats in burlap, cardboard, and cushioning material secured with various bits of plastic strapping and we rolled our bikes into the parcel office. The whole process took ~2.5 hours.

After a lunch of thalis at one of the local stalls we sat around the train station and killed time by watching the people and monkeys. The train finally road rolled in and the passengers rushed on (I have no idea why given that the train didn't leave for at least 30 minutes and our trip would take at least 13 hours). The seating arrangements were posted outside of the car and were no longer consistent with the printed tickets. This resulted in a number of heated discussions amongst the passengers, including myself.

Jascha and I had booked upper bunks so about 2 hours into the trip we decided to sit up top to avoid the crowds. At almost every stop vendors and beggars would board the train and make their rounds. We had a fitful night as we crammed ourselves around our baggage and I awoke in time for the vegetable cutlet vendor. At the Howrah station we had no idea where to retrieve our bikes as there were multiple parcel services in different buildings. Luckily, I saw one of our bikes being wheeled out. After filling out more paper work, we were sent to another parcel office to inquire about shipping our bikes to New Jalpaiguri, but the passenger seats were full. By this time it was after noon and it seemed unwise to start riding to the Sikkim given our lack of sleep and afternoon traffic. We headed back into Kolkata and visited our favorite kati roll stall.

At 6:30 am we set out for Malda, ~350 km from Kolkata. The ride was uneventful, but long (10 hours). The hotel recommended by the guidebook had been shut down by the government, so we stayed next door. We ate at food stall down the way and paid the tourist price of 60 Rps (~$1.25) for our mutton curry with egg and roti. The next morning we got an early start again and headed north to Gangtok. A few hours into the ride my bike abruptly lost power and I had to pull over. We called one of the guys that runs the Enfield rental company, who told us to check the fuse and if it was blown we could replace it with a wire. We found a spare fuse in the toolkit and set off.

Soon we were in tea plantation country, but much to my dismay my horn completely stopped working. In India a horn is as essential as brakes. Jascha used the multimeter we purchased in Patna to test the horn relay and horns, but we couldn't find the problem. A young Panjabi guy on a tricked out bike stopped to help us and ended up taking us over to an auto electrician. It turned out the horn was out of adjustment. He and his friend bought us chai, soda and biscuits. We paid the electrician 130 Rps ($2.70) and departed.

We passed through Siliguri and a wildlife preserve. The only animals we saw were ever ubiquitous cattle. As we neared the Sikkim the terrain changed drastically and our pace slowed as we rode twisty mountainous roads overlooking a wide blue river. We hesitated to stop and take picture lest we be accosted by the roadside macaques. We noticed that the frequency of agro drivers dropped significantly, which was good as nightfall was approaching. Rangpo marked our official entry into the Sikkim. The border patrol waved me through, but I had to turn around when Jascha was stopped. We registered with the foreigners' office while the border officers had a good laugh about the Kolkata taxis contorting Jascha's now barely attached pannier frame.

We reached Gangtok, which is built on the side of a large steep hill. Fortunately, the kinder gentler traffic paradigm prevailed. The houses were far better maintained than in the other regions we had visited and there were fewer street dogs and no cows. We also noticed a higher percentage of Enfields. I had booked a pricier (than our usual) hotel called The Hidden Forest Lodge, which is fairly far off the beaten path. As usual we struggled to locate our hotel and had to call for directions. The owner's husband and son met us at the gate and had dinner waiting. The craftsmanship of the place was far better than anywhere I had been in India and the surrounding gardens and orchid nursery were well maintained. We knew that we would have a hard time leaving.


Neal said...

love it. sounds like 1 part exhausting, 1 part exhilarating.

Hello Cozy said...