Ok, I admit it. When Pam and I planned the map for where we would be riding on this trip, we were perhaps a tad overambitious. 2300 kilometers in one month in countries that we are unfamiliar with is a lot.
Our pace turned out to be far slower than what expected, partially because we are slow (or we “move at our own pace” as I like to say), but also because it was over 100 degrees on average, we would meet interesting people and want to spend some time with them, we got an extremely potent stomach bug in India, and….well, this kind of travel just takes time.
So we had to make up for it. In Pokhara we were 832 kilometers from the border of Bhutan, Phuentsholing; and we had 3 days to get there. Flights are very expensive and difficult to manage, especially at the last minute, so we decided on taking a bus, which would get us to the Nepal/India border, 209 kilometers from Bhutan. The only thing was there were no “tourist” buses, only local “Nepali” buses that go direct. These are the ones you can see in our pictures….loaded with people and crap with little to no suspension as we would soon learn.
The bus ride ended up taking 15 hours, in uncomfortable seats, with uncomfortable smells, and was very bumpy. When we would hit a bump, we would fly out of our seats. When we hit a big bump, I would fly up and hit my head on the ceiling, awakened from my restless sleep. There would be no real sleep on this overnight trip.
After 15 surreal hours, we arrived in Chandragadhi, Nepal, the border town with India. Having gotten no real sleep, we were pretty out of it, and felt pretty disgusting, so when we were invited to rent a hotel for a few dollars for a few hours we went for it. We got cleaned up and were directed to a local spot for some fried eggs and Roti (little tortilla-like Naan breads). There we met a local travel agent, who just happened to apply for a US visa to visit California and was very interested in which sights to see. Eager to share our local knowledge we said we would help him out, and he was thrilled. He generously bought our breakfast for us and invited us to his travel office, where I proceeded to draw him a map of California, the redwoods, wine country, the Hollywood sign, Yosemite, Lake Tahoe, etc…. until he had more than enough for his month of travel. In return he helped us figure out how we would navigate to the border of Bhutan in one day….which is what we were down to at this point.
Tired but excited to go back into India we crossed the border, and headed toward Siliguri on one of the worst roads we had seen yet on the trip. We navigated small rocky roads by saying “Siliguri” and pointing in different directions, waiting for the approving nod. We rode about 50 kilometers through beautiful neatly kept tea fields of the Darjeeling district to Siliguri, a relatively large and affluent town. We spent the night in a nice hotel in Siliguri, and they helped us find a train to Hasimari the next day, which would put us about 20 kilometers from the border.
We got up early, threw all our stuff into a rickshaw, drove to the train station, got to the platform and bought a ticket for almost $2.00 (US total). The train was 45 minutes late of course….but well worth it. With the help of a porter, we got on and enjoyed chai and some rest on a smooth and beautiful ride to Hasimara through a national park. After almost missing the stop (The station was so small we only noticed at the last minute), we raced out of the train. We assembled our bikes at the train station while the passengers watched captivated, and rode off toward Bhutan.
Making good time we were planning on meeting our guide Ugyen around 1:00 PM, until we decided to stop for a soda a few kilometers from the border. As we prepared to get on our bikes to leave after our break, a man approached Pam and asked if we wanted to come in for some tea. Not excited to do any more riding in the heat, and excited for the chance to meet some new people, we agreed. We went inside and they sat us down and invited the whole neighborhood to visit. They kindly gave us tea, crackers, and water, and introduced us to the whole family for nice conversation. Not to be outdone, the neighbors then invited us into their house and fed us sliced papaya, mango juice, and eggs and toast. Now thoroughly stuffed, the family showed us their amazing artwork including paintings and knitting…and after we had a photo session where both sides took many pictures of each other. It really was a lovely exchange, and goes to show that you don’t have to go very far for a bicycle to be your “Vahana” and bring you into someone else’s world.