Cycling in Sikkim

As most of you know by now, Sam and I spent 11 days in October biking through Sikkim, a small Indian state nestled in the eastern Himalayas between Nepal, Bhutan, and China (Tibet). Here's a map: 

We flew into the small town of Bagdogra, then drove another seven hours to Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim, where we picked up our bikes. We spent a couple of nights there getting accustomed to the terrain and the steep climbs that would characterize our next week. On our first morning there we woke up to this view and watched clouds drift by below us over breakfast. 

As we wondered around Gangtok before setting off, we also were able to see a lot of the festivities that were happening in celebration of Durga Puja, a Hindu festival that celebrates the goddess Durga. Lots of lights, singing, and just general religious fervor. There were a series of performances by local singers and dancers, and we had a good time watching a group of young kids performing a version of a famous dance/song from a film. (You can tell these teenage boys are still a little shy about performing publicly...kids are kids everywhere).

 

 

On the way back to the hotel we also ran across a small temple that was white hot with people celebrating: 

The following morning we got the bikes ready and set off, headed mostly downhill to the next town nearby. 

 

We also ran across what looked to be a funeral procession.

And here is an "action" shot of Lissy cruising a bit down a gentle slope (calm before the storm).

 

We spent most of our days riding hard up and down switchbacks. The terrain is some of the most beautiful we've ever seen, made up of mountainsides, curtain-like waterfalls, and lush valleys where orchids grow wild. Most families make their living by farming but the hills are so steep that they have to create terraced fields in the hillside to hold their crops. The farming in the state has been entirely organic since 2013 and it produces much of India's famous cardamom. Beauty comes at a cost though: the steep hillsides mean that the area is very prone to landslides. We crossed many sections of "road" - by car and bike - that looked as though they were ready to crumble into the valleys below and saw the remnants of cars crushed by falling rocks. 

In the evenings we visited local sights, often Buddhist temples. The nuns in the photo below invited me in to see their boarding quarters. The girls were in their early teens and had been at the monastery since before their 10th birthdays. They may eventually leave to marry and start families, but for now their days are filled with chanting and chores. And puppies.  

Buddhists worship the elements, which are represented by the colors on the ubiquitous prayer flags: blue (sky), white (wind), red (fire), green (water), and yellow (earth). They believe that the movement of the flags in the wind perpetuates the prayers written on them, so they're hung everywhere throughout the region. Temples also have prayer wheels with inscriptions on them that followers turn continuously to keep the prayers repeated. 

As most of you know by now, the terrain was challenging and we're a little worse for the wear. I crashed while careening down a hillside, smashing up my mouth and right arm pretty badly. The mountains kept three of my front teeth. 

SH: Let me interject here and just say that: 1) the crash was horrific (I was riding behind her); and 2) she is insanely tough. A brief gallery of the day's events below.

 

Being injured is a great icebreaker though. Many people were curious about what a white, road-scraped woman was doing there and it led to some interesting conversations. This woman was making gravel - by hand. She sat atop a mound of small stones, chipping away at them with a hammer. She got shy when I asked whether I could take her photo but gave me permission after some encouragement from the other women around her. She wore the ornate facial jewelry common among older women in Sikkim. The pieces are handed down through generations, though many younger women have stopped wearing them because they're considered old fashioned. We met the Bhutia tribesman in the photo on the right while hiking near Yuksam. He assured me that the crash was good karma, gave me a few ground nuts he had collected, and let me check out his traditional knife. 

We spent the final days of our trip in Darjeeling, made famous for its tea. From a peak just outside town we were able to watch the sunrise on Mount Kangchenjunga, the 3rd highest peak in the world, and got a glimpse of Everest in the distance. We were also happy to run across a very cozy English pub, a remnant from when India was under British rule and Darjeeling was one of their favorite places to cool off during the summer months.

We hope that these images give you an idea of the region and what we experienced. We have many more pictures and stories that we hope to share with you all in person soon! We're headed off on another biking trip, a much, much gentler one, this weekend. Time to get back on the horse! ;) 

xo, Alissa & Sam