“Do you think we will be able to spot at some waterfalls?” I asked Pema, our Bolero driver.
“Hah,” said Pema, letting out a guffaw in much the same way Dayanidhi Maran guffaws every time BSNL sends him a bill of Rs. 1199 for his personal mobile.
The night before had been spent googling the words ‘adventure’, ‘spontaneity’, ‘Sikkim’ and ‘marriage counseling during vacations’ not in any particular order. But when nothing ‘spontaneously’ leapt out of the pages, external advice was called for. Ram, in his travel desk avatar, handed us a bundle of tourism leaflets that, from the looks of it, had been printed by Guttenberg himself during his experimental years. For the benefit of the readers who think that anything east of West Bengal is China, Gangtok is in the southern part of Sikkim, the tiny little appendage that you can spot on India’s map that holds together the northeast with the rest of the country. All the information contained within the leaflets suggested that for that time of the year, East Sikkim promised to be the ideal destination as it was accessible, safe and unbelievably pretty. So, we obviously decided to go to North Sikkim. A taxi service number was rummaged out of some obscure tourism blog off the internet, calls were made to seedy sounding hotels en route, and bookings were done.
Pema, our taxi driver picked us up from the hotel at 7 am. He was a cheerful, 15 year old version of Ram (the hotel guy, not the militant). But as long as he was good behind the wheels, I didn’t really have any issues whether he had an actual license or he had sketched one out for himself.
‘Sirjee, I stop here for five minutes. Road is danger. I pick up brother. He drive difficult parts,’ said Pema, smiling sheepishly, by way of earning our confidence. Brother, a just so slightly older looking guy, came and took the front seat beside Pema, and we finally started off.
One of the first things you’ll realize on your way to North Sikkim is that the darned road keeps disappearing every couple of turns. It is as if someone stretched the road across the mountains to such an extent that tears had started appearing in regular intervals, now occupied by knee-deep mud, stones, and puddles. Further into the journey, as we left the city and started our real ascent into the hills of North Sikkim, it also became clearer why Pema had found our yearning for waterfalls amusing. The first time we spotted a waterfall was something like this:
‘Hey, look over there – a small waterfall!’
‘Hey, it’s not so small, actually!’
‘Hey…er…are we driving through that thing?’
‘Hey look, I peed in my pants.’
Seen those SUV Ads where they show frustrated corporate chums trying to make up for their disastrous appraisals by driving their brand new 4x4s into rivers and gorges while blabbering about reclaiming their life and what not? Well, all of them could very well have been shot in Sikkim.
There truly is no greater motivation to reclaiming one’s life than having water pound down on you from an angle threatening to push your car into a 1000 ft gorge. Having your driver slow down the vehicle before crossing the waterfall for a small pep-talk from his brother adds that extra zing to the situation.
‘You can do it, Pema.’
Pema, eyeing the water with determination, revving up the car.
‘You can do it, Pema!’
Since there was a waterfall every half hour or so, this scene repeated itself many a times.
The road was very steep. On several occasions, our car would go halfway up a cliff, and then after some vigorous braking, clutches, hand brake, accelerator, and what sounded like, ‘Brother, what do I do now?!’, the car would come skidding down, veering right to the edge of the cliff. A few words of encouragement from elder brother, and a second attempt would follow. On one elevation that proved particularly adamant, the brother turned around and said, just in case we were concerned or anything, ‘No 4×4. Hehe. Else, 100% success rate. Normal car very difficult. Heh.’
Sometimes, passersby were recruited to sit in the car till we got over the hump. Apparently, an under-loaded vehicle didn’t get enough traction to climb up. I was glad we figured this out so early. Now, all we needed to do was to wait for around 10 people to walk past every time we reached a steep turn.
Around 3 hours into our journey, Pema stopped the car. ‘Sir, you ask ATM? Last ATM.’
We hadn’t gotten any cash. And since the place we were going to was unlikely to accept cards, we’d asked Pema to stop at an ATM. We must have driven past around 10 ATMs in Gangtok itself, but Pema clearly had his heart set on Melli, around 35 kilometers from Gangtok. The fact that the famed Yuksom breweries was located here had nothing to do with this, of course.
Melli, in Nepali, means ‘the place where the dead are cremated.’ This name, we soon found, extended to ATMs as well. There was just the 1 ATM in the town, and it was unwilling to dispense anything other than an aura of morbidity.
‘This hasn’t been working since last month, sir!’ pointed out a mildly amused passerby.
Now this was a bit of a problem. There was no way we could go back. We didn’t have any cash on us, and we knew that the chances of our destination hotel accepting credit cards was the same as Pema starting to use conjunctions in his sentences. That’s when the same helpful passerby, who’d momentarily stopped to explore how we’d deal with the ATM machine dilemma, directed us to the SBI branch on the other side of the hill.
This only mildly comforted us; having no active SBI account or credit card, an SBI branch wasn’t an ideal place for deliverance, but the thought that there was this substantial reserve of cash housed somewhere in the premises of that decrepit-looking building on top of the hill made us hopeful. But fifteen minutes later, as we explained our dilemma to the branch manager, that last strand of hope too seemed tenuous.
‘So what you are basically saying is that you don’t have an account with us?’
‘And you don’t have an SBI credit card either?’
‘And you still want to withdraw some cash?’
Here, the branch manager paused to give us time to string together our responses and discover the flaw in our reasoning.
‘My dad has an SBI account,’ I said.
The branch manager tilted his head a bit, as if trying to find an angle from which that piece of information would be deemed relevant.
‘Actually, I have an SBI account that has been inactive for the last 5 years, so if we can get someone to transfer some cash in, we can, may be, withdraw it here.’
Now this isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. Firstly, my account was not active. Secondly, getting someone to transfer cash fast enough would be tricky. And even if that part was taken care of, withdrawing the amount here wasn’t going to be easy as we didn’t have a cheque book. But suffice to say that over the next half hour, a lot of frantic phone calls were made, finally a deposit was done about 600 kms away in Guwahati, and the branch manager, now with a distinct halo over his head, mercifully allowed us to withdraw the amount. We finally walked out of SBI with Rs. 5000 in cash, and resumed our journey.
Compared to the last leg of our journey, the initial bit seemed like a pram-ride. The roads were narrower, disappeared much more frequently, and seemed to go up into crazy elevation-loops just for the heck of it. Now, being from the northeast, I’ve done my fair share of hill travel, but this was in a league of its own. Visibility was already very low; add to that a mild shower and trucks trying to push past a road that seemed barely adequate for one vehicle. If this wasn’t enough, the road had no tarmac – so the drive felt like being in an ice-skating rink with banana leaves for shoes.
‘Sir, last month, Bolero fell down here,’ said Pema, as he brake-swerved around a curve, stopping for a while on the very edge so that we could peer into the deep gorge and onto the temperamental Teesta river hundreds of feet below.
On a couple of other occasions, Pema would suddenly stop the car, announce something like ‘Sir, no road,’ and go away for a walk. And sure enough, looking ahead, we would see a mountain of rocks where the road was supposed to be. Apparently, this was a regular affair. On some of the spots that were known to have avalanches regularly, excavators were positioned on either side just so that they could clear up the road fast.
‘How come these things don’t fall on top of the cars?’ I wondered. Nature must have noted this down, for she chose to give me a rather long explanation on the way back.
At around 9 PM, Pema stopped the car and announced, ‘Here!’
I looked outside. It was raining heavily, but since there didn’t seem to be anything out ‘here’, I assumed he probably needed a comfort break. The poor guy had been driving for a long time, and if that polythene bag that had mysteriously appeared in our car after Melli was what I thought it was, he must have been in considerable pain by now.
‘Ok,’ I said.
‘Ok, I understand. Go!’
‘No, here!,’ he said, and noticing my alarmed expression, quickly added, ‘Lachung!’
I stared at him for a couple of seconds before realizing what he was saying. Apparently, we had reached the place where we’d planned to stay that night – Lachung. The brochure had this photograph of a sleepy, Scottish looking town. I suppose that guy holding what looked suspiciously like a bagpipe should have alerted me, for looking out of the window, all I could see was darkness, and the faint light from a bulb from some 200 ft away. I came out of the car, and kept looking around. The occasional lightning helped get a better perspective of what was around. Nothing, basically, barring a handful of huts, and a more permanent looking structure right in front of us. There was a sign on the house which read ‘something‘hotel.
A minute of polite knocking and three of vigorous banging on the door resulted in a man appearing at the front door. I introduced myself to him, but when that failed to get any expression of comprehension, I left Pema’s brother to do the talking. Pema’s brother started off with what sounded like an introduction; but soon the But after sometime, when what should have been a short introduction started sounding more and more like a negotiation, I had to butt in and ask how long we were supposed to stand soaking in the rain.
Pema’s brother hesitantly asked, ‘Sir, booking. Who done?’
‘I did. Why?’
‘Sir, he says no booking.’
‘Huh? But they confirmed over phone that rooms are available…’
‘Rooms are still available, but emergency booking charge…’
‘I don’t give a damn about the extra charge. Just let us go in, for God’s sake,’ I shouted, and then added, as an afterthought: ‘How much is the charge?’
‘Sir, he…er…asking Rs. 8000.’
Standing there, the four of us took turns abusing the hotel guy, but the rain made it difficult to carry this on for too long. Pema and his brother took this entire episode as a personal insult; for whatever reason, they seemed fond of us, and said the way the hotel guy behaved spoke very poorly of Sikkimese hospitality. They asked us not to worry and that they would find us another hotel.
After about ten minutes, we’d driven through the entire town twice. We didn’t find any hotels. In fact, there were barely any houses. Just ‘adventure’ and ‘spontaneity.’
Next: Sikkim, Part V (Places of Interest) – Coming Soon (Last one, I swear!)