Friday, October 31, 2014

Wow! What a ride!

Early the next morning, we looked out our window to a cloudless sky at Pelling (India) so we scrambled out of bed and rushed out for yet another photo op. Perched at 2,150 metres, we were at one of the best spots to say Good Morning to the mighty Mount Kanchenjunga close by.

It was magic time for photos as the sun bathed the mountain tops with an incandescent warm glow. Only in nature can one find such enchanting beauty in rugged stone and gelid ice.

It was magic time for photos as the sun bathed the mountain tops with an incandescent warm glow. Only in nature can one find such enchanting beauty in rugged stone and gelid ice.

We came to the mountain

The trucks here take on a unique nuance and character of flamboyance...

Fancy ride

Arriving at the border of Sikkim and the rest of India, we had a friendly checkout from the attending soldiers who even posed for photos.

A cheerful checkpoint

The narrow suspension bridge was our gateway for the last leg of our motorcycle journey that would end us back in Darjeeling. It started out with muddy ruts up to our axles then transitioned into a vertigo inducing challenge and "don't stop" steep single-track lanes. However, the scenery was most spectacular as it took us through verdant mountainsides of tea plantations and tidy villages clinging to the vertical terra firma.

We arrived back in the din of Darjeeling by late afternoon to the frenzied rush hour traffic.

After completing 608 gruelling yet exhilarating kilometres in 6 days, Jordan said he felt like it was living the favourite quote of Jorge's, a fellow motorcycle rider and sailor from Columbia (by Hunter S. Thompson).
Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out and loudly proclaiming "Wow! What a ride!"

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Pelling

With Yuksom (India) behind us, we continued riding the rocky roads much of which clung to the palisades like vines. We stopped for a breather at a remote village lost in time perched high on a sharp ridge. I doubt there was a house without a shangri-la view. A couple of village ladies ambled by, displaying the customary nose jewellery and the old one the textured skin of many years.

Nose bling

And...more waterfalls and bridges. Khangchendozonga Waterfalls of West Sikkim is next to a sharp curve in the road and flows year round. But it is hidden behind a smaller set of falls and wasn't noticed until the 1990s! We were guided to the stairs leading up and behind for a view of Khangchendzonga crashing on the rocks below.

Smaller falls in front of Kanchendzonga Waterfalls

Hidden Khangchendzonga Waterfalls

It had been suggested that we visit the serene setting of the footprint-shaped "Holy Lake" called Khecheopalri not far from the falls. (This complicated name is pronounced ketchup-perry.) Both Buddhists and Hindus consider this Lake, formed from an ancient glacier and over 3,500 years old, to be sacred. Visitors are not allowed to wear shoes on the bamboo jetty - lined with small, easily spun Prayer Wheels - leading out to the Lake.

No swimming is allowed and no animals can enter the water (remember, it's "holy"). Fish of course were an exception and many were swimming close, hoping to be fed, which amused the children present. Interestingly, no leaves ever float on the lake as the birds assiduously pick them off as soon as they drop!

Children were laughing and playing, adults talking. No notice was paid to the sign requesting Silence please.

Fluttering Prayer Flags were evident everywhere, and a monk inside a small one-roomed temple was chanting the words from his sacred manuscript while beating a drum. Outside was what looked like a smoking brick oven but no doubt was really only used for certain rituals.

Hmmm, pizza?

Occasionally we would pass some workers, both young and old alike, on the other side of nowhere, working along the side of the road tediously breaking rocks into small pieces, We assumed these were the poorest of the poor with this work being the last resort. But we later learned that they were happily sundering the slag for a whopping equivalent to $3.00 a day compared to other labourers who make only about $2.00 a day.

A family production

The roads could be really atrocious, leaving us going only 10 to 20 km per hour. Some days, we would rarely get out of first and second gear!

At times, we would also negotiate water along with the large boulders, and at other times, we struggled through deep mud tracks. Jordan would stop, contemplate the tricky area directly ahead of us like a lion sizing up its prey, and then he would go for it! He was an amazing driver with no major upsets and no injuries.

Actual road near Pelling (copied from internet)

We manoeuvered on many roads just like the previous photo! Approaching curves, there was always a lot of horn blowing by drivers to warn other drivers of approachment.

Waiting our turn

We stopped for the night in Pelling, another town perched high on a ridge with alpine vegetation, where we breathed air at 2,150 metres. The food was local and good and we found a very basic motel but with a million rupee view of Mount Kanchenjunga.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Yuksom

Leaving Singtam, we were off to Yuksom (India). Again was the profusion of waterfalls, bridges, and scenery that defied description and photos couldn't do justice.

One vehicle at a time please

A long way down for this car

A further familiar sight was the multitude of roadside Poinsettia that grew with gusto - nothing like the tiny plants back home in Canada.

And it's not even Christmas

One more convergence of the carmine kind was our happening upon a troop of red-faced monkeys along the roadside but they were too timid to stay still enough for a photo. Throughout our travels, we had also seen several regular cute monkeys running freely about, and at one point, we watched as they teased the dogs trying to get close. But of course, the monkeys were much faster!

As you could expect for a kindred scene were these friendly natured, long-haired, trodding bovids. Yaks prefer the colder temperatures, unlike me!

Yak, yak, yak

Yuksom, a very tiny remote village at road's end and up against the border of Nepal, is where all the trekkers head to make their assault on the craggy peaks. It has many hotels for such a tiny village - a very popular haunt for the brave tourist.

The village is devoid of urban normalities like ATMs, gas stations, and big fancy restaurants. Their "market" is a couple of tiny wooden huts with little to offer. The one large and ornately decorated building contained several giant Prayer Wheels. These large Prayer Wheels hold millions of mantras inside their structure. Upon entering the building and trying to spin one, I found it to be extremely heavy and very hard to turn!

Jordan dwarfed by large wheels

The day ended up drizzling and electrical power was in and out to add to the mood.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Welcome to North Sikkim

Once again, we were up early (05:30!) for photo ops at Tashi View Point only 7 kilometres outside of Gangtok (India), but there were too many clouds to see the majestic peaks.

Typical scenes of the day for us as we travelled were intrepid roads carved along the sides of mountains with hairpin curves aplenty...rickety swinging suspension bridges...warm valley bottoms nurturing a diversity of tropical species...large butterflies constantly flitting about...hillsides covered in a green carpet of lush vegetation including abundant stepped rice paddies swaying in the breeze and acres of cultivated tea plantations.

Mr. Tea

Tea bushes are pruned to waist height for ease of plucking and to encourage new, tastier, and more tender shoots with only the top 1 to 2 inches being used; India and China are the top producers of tea.

These varied tapestry scenes were vertically seamed together with splendid cascading waterfalls, crashing uninterrupted onto the rocks like the heartbeat of the world. In number, it seemed as if they were non-stop, from small delicate trickles to grand gushers.

Cascading onto rocky road

The other constant was bridges and their varied integrity was as diverse as their types. But one similarity of many was the ever visible Prayer Flags. The robust ones gave passers confidence but others were a bit heart stopping with views through the gaps of rapids below - will it hold us??

Some even had signs stating that only one vehicle could cross at a time. Others were deteriorated to the point of closure with alternate crossing. Some places didn't even merit bridges and we had to cross through the water over rocks and boulders while raising our feet to keep them dry.

Welcome to North Sikkim

Safely on the other side

Riding yesteryear's technology, as robust as they are, one still needs to be prepared to give it some sweet talking and attention. Gatty equipped us with essential tools and parts that proved to be a prudent move when at one lonely part of the road Jordan needed to replace a broken clutch cable.

The tools and parts came out, the old cable was extracted, the new one was in and adjusted in a few minutes and we were on our way, ending up that day in the grotty valley bottom crossroads town of Singtam (East Sikkim) situated along the river. The town roads were lined with transporters and taxis, waiting for their next fare.

Monday, October 27, 2014

On to Gangtok

As dawn was about to break in Kalimpong (India), Jordan rushed out bright and early in the clear cool air to catch the day's first golden rays igniting the highest snowy peaks.

Dawn's delight

We had been instructed to have the bike chain adjusted soon, so we found a little shop that specialized in Royal Enfield repairs. The young man spent about 20 minutes doing the task which cost us the equivalent of $1.50.

Royal Enfield getting some attention

We then travelled towards the border of the Indian state of Sikkim. Recent history (1975) has had Sikkim join India and today it still retains at least some semblance of autonomy, which we observed by having to get a special visitor's permit to enter. Even though it is the least populous Indian state, it has a motley array of cultures and 11 languages can be heard!

With due paperwork all in order, we fuelled up (the bike and us) and continued to Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim.

Old sign

As we snaked our way along the mountains and through the towns and villages, we constantly came across many colourful Prayer Flags of the primary colours. We saw both types, either tall and vertical rectangles hung on several individual poles, or smaller horizontal rectangles or squares strung together. They are always hung in a specific order: blue (sky and space), white (air and wind), red (fire), green (water), and finally yellow (earth).

Good wishes going out

Prayer Flags are not worship to gods, but rather good wishes sent out to everyone through the blowing wind on the flags.

The public transportation of choice from town to town is jeeps that cram in about a dozen passengers and it's not unusual to see a few passengers extra on top riding along with the baggage. But we were surprised to see an older man literally hanging onto the back of a van with his fingers as he perched precariously on the spare tire.

Are we there yet??

Arriving late in the afternoon in Gangtok, we had a hard time finding a hotel vacancy. We were travelling in peak season. But we finally found a nice one, and after booking, we walked to the MG Marg Market. The broad main street of the Market is pedestrian only and a very popular hangout among the locals and a great place for tourists to stroll and shop.

Heading down steep stairs of MG Marg

Sikkimese carrying large heavy loads hang onto them using a broad loop around their foreheads and then leaning slightly forward. We have seen some extremely heavy loads being carried in this manner.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Royal Enfield Himalaya adventure

Our dreadful 1st night dibs in Indian were soon forgotten over a nearby rooftop breakfast as we gazed out at a most magnificent scene. We were overlooking Darjeeling below us, perched on a ridge with snow-capped Mount Kanchenjunga in the background picking early dawn's golden sun rays on its peak. Mount Kanchenjunga is the 3rd highest peak on earth with an altitude of 8,598 metres.

Darjeeling dawn

We unbooked from the dump and found a very acceptable little hotel right across the street from Adventures Unlimited, the folks we booked our motorcycle rental from (www.adventuresunlimited.in). We soon intercepted Gatty, the young super friendly proprietor, and got the bike and route all organized and prepared.

The rental bike was a Royal Enfield 500-cc single cylinder. The English brought these bikes with them which proved ideal workhorses for the terrain. The rights to manufacture were obtained post Brit and even today one can see with nostalgia new ones almost unchanged.

The in-between time that day was spent discovering Darjeeling's uniqueness. The beautiful old clock tower in the background is currently being restored.

Narrow and steep streets

Chicken anyone?

Our 1st day of motorcycling got us a late start and we quickly saw what we would be in for, best described as intense. The roads presented all kinds of adventurous challenges. Narrow. Precipitously steep. Tight blind hairpin bends. Extremely rough and rocky in many spots. The incredible mountain scenery was a constant distraction to the concentration of safe driving.

We made a long descent through acres of tea plantations, down into a gorge, and across a mountain fed river then up, up again to the sleepy town of Kalimpong where we spent the chilly night, about 50 km from Darjeeling.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Thank you!!

I would like to use this medium to graciously thank Nurse Tracy who takes time out of her day to thoughtfully read each of our escapades to my beloved Mom who is in the hospital. A Great Big Thank You to Tracy and a Great Big I Love You to my dear Mother who I think of everyday.

When not eye to eye, Mom, always heart to heart

In my absence, I really appreciate Tracy's kindness to Mom, making her days a little brighter!

Friday, October 24, 2014

INDIA

We were off to experience the majestic Himalayas by touring the intrepid back roads on a rented Royal Enfield motorcycle.

Jordan added this to our bucket list about 6 years ago when our friend Stan told us about this type of trip. So our anticipation was growing the closer our 3-legged flight took us from Bangkok Thailand to Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) then Guwahati and finally Bagdogra. All 3 flights were far from being full.

The Himalayas boast the highest mountains on earth (with Everest of Nepal as the most commanding). Stretching from Pakistan, they weave their way through northern India, Nepal, and Bhutan. We were headed to intercept them in the Indian state of Sikkim. On a map of India, you will see it squished in between the eastern end of Nepal and the remote, shy mountain nation of Bhutan.

After landing in Bagdogra, we were immediately immersed in the frenetic culture that Indians are known for when we had to negotiate a taxi ride up into the mountains. There was a lot of fevered talking and gesturing including the unique Indian head wiggle, which incidentally can mean just about anything like "maybe" "yes" "no" or "no problem" as Jordan learned the latter when he asked the taxi driver "Do you have a spare? Your tire is bald."

The 2.5 hour ride (for a distance of only about 70 km) which included a generous amount of horn blowing began in the low fertile flatlands with fields of tea plants. Soon we were introduced to a wall of green mountains. The pavement abruptly transitioned from flat to steep, narrow, and winding.

Without barriers, the road hung on the side of the sheer slopes as it zigged and zagged up into a rarefied atmosphere. We passed through towns that speckled the vertical land and clung apelike to the slopes. This road to Darjeeling at times would best be described as Jar-dealing! But we were oblivious to the portentousness of it.

About two thirds of the way into our journey, the road doubled and crisscrosssed with the curious train (called the Toy Train) running on a narrow 2-foot gauge rail, a leftover from the English occupation as are many of the roads carved into these mountain sides. These arteries serviced their hill stations of which Darjeeling was one, and established their presence in this area being a strategic route to Tibet.

Slowly chugging along

There were never any "Railroad Crossing" signs or barriers. The train continually crosses the road and vehicles are just expected to look before proceeding across the tracks. The train also loops to navigate steep climbs.

Before getting our Visa to enter India as a tourist, we had to have a hotel booking of several nights. So we had found and booked 1 online and our taxi driver delivered us to the doorstep. Substandard is putting it kindly. But is it Standard by Indian definition? We were tired and didn't want to trek the town to find out, so we took the room knowing that soon our sleep would be ignorant of the cold musty ambiance of the windowless bunker...

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Bootin' around Bangkok

On October 19th, we left Sea Turtle once again on the motorcycle to return to Bangkok to pick up our Visas and for our flight to India on the 24th of October.

On our way to the Embassy in Central Bangkok to pick up our Visas, we were hit with a fierce rainstorm. The street drainage system couldn't keep up with the deluge. We quickly pulled in under cover and watched the traffic. The water became so deep that it covered the sidewalk.  It was up to the doors of the cars and a few of the un-detered scooters conked out.

They need water taxis!

With Visas in hand and a clear sky, there were a couple of sights to see that we had heard about. We visited the famous short street called Thanon Khao San. Decades ago, the backpackers hung out here for the cheap accommodation and street food. Today, it is more popular as a tourist venue with souvenier sellers, pubs, and McDonald's but the delectable street food vendors are still there.

A Bangkok favourite street

As the sun was setting, we made a quick stop at the steamy street called Cowboy Soi. This came into its own as the haunt of American soldiers on leave during the Vietnam war. Today it's another spectacle for the tourist and the girls of the night still provide their services

With a day to kill before our flight out to India, we zipped out of Bangkok for a change of pace. It was 75 kms to a popular floating market in the village of Amphora where time slowed down and reverted back to simpler ways. Shops in age old shanties that lined the canal complimented the scene of floating commerce. Indigenous chefs aboard their skiffs were eagerly cooking delightful meals and serving hungry visitors as longtail boats provided transportation to tour the canal.

Waterway commerce

Boat side chef

With an early morning flight, we were off to bed after a busy day. We hope to update the blog with India adventures - depending on available internet access...

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Now where to?

Back at Sea Turtle on October 5th, after 9 days away travelling from Phuket (Thailand) to Malaysia and back, we made no waste of time cruising the internet to figure out our next adventure.

It was the discovery of cheap flights to India where we could do some intrepid motorcycle touring on remakes of the old British Royal Enfield bikes up into the Himalayas. But India is another country that requires pre-issued Visitor's Visas. So we left a few days later on October 11th for a 2-day run up to Bangkok to make our Visa submission at the India Embassy, a 7-day process.

An unusual poolside sign at our hotel that we couldn't quite figure out...what could it possibly mean??

Naughty!

We saw a half dozen accidents along the way which fortifies the reputation that Thai driving is the 2nd worst in the world in terms of deaths per capita (26,000 last year). Anything from multiple vehicle pile-ups to a large rig straddling the medium.

There was also a beefed up pick-up overloaded with fruit that blew a tire, but his load was so tall and top heavy that the truck tipped over onto its side leaving fruit strewn about the road. Beefed up pick-ups are common. What are they? A pick-up with a 1-ton axle and gigantic overload springs. They believe it gives them unlimited carrying capacity but more than a couple of times we have seen them in the ditch or stopped dead on the freeway missing a wheel. Empty, they are some of the fastest and craziest drivers - I guess rushing to get their next overload fix!

Buses and transport trucks are often dressed like clowns. These mobile kaleidoscopes sport elaborate and fanciful paint jobs and accessory gauds of lights, mirrors, reflectors, and their favourite trinkets. The "Michelin Man" is the best loved!

Flamboyancy run amok

It was a quick trip, there and back. Traffic was horrendous in the large City of Bangkok with over 8 million people (12.6% of Thailand's entire population). Jordan was able to navigate around without getting lost, which always amazes me.

We were rained on a lot during our journey - hence the numerous signs indicating the many waterfalls - and we were glad to be back at Sea Turtle.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Food foibles

As we travelled on our  motorcycle returning to Phuket (Thailand) from Malaysia, we stopped for lunch one day at a sidewalk eatery that once again reminded us that in this part of the world, you can have an international experience while sitting in one chair and observing your surroundings.

Our waiter, let's call him Zamir, was recently from Pakistan yet spoke good English and had a manner that in American would be considered pushy, but no doubt he considered it helpful. When we ventured towards the buffet counter, he adamantly said "No, no, sit here!" pointing us to a table with menus.

"But we just like to look at what we might want to order", Jordan said trying to ease Zamir's anxiety. But he enlightened us, "That's Malay food. You don't want it." We felt like saying, "Oh my mistake, I thought we were in Malaysia." We relented only because the menu had pictures.

As we perused the diverse selections of mostly Indian foods, Zamir peered at us with a drooped head and eyes wide as though he was looking over the top of invisible glasses. We're not familiar with this look. Was it to evoke a response? Like maybe, "I'm waiting!"

As diverse as the residents and foreigners are here, a westerner on a Thai licensed motorcycle seems to be a slight oddity. But not at this restaurant. We were just another colour on a palate of confluent cultures. The waiter was Pakistani who spoke English. The patrons we could see were a mix of at least 3 different ethnicities. Indian food, Malay food, Arabic calligraphic decorative inscriptions framed on the walls. And the name of the establishment was Danish Briyani Place. We can understand most of it, but Danish?

Lunch came and even though it wasn't even close to the pictures, it was delicious.

This reminds us of another interesting dining experience we had in Trang a while ago on the way down to Malaysia. We had a hankering for a familiar breakfast, and when we saw American Breakfast on the menu, we looked no further.

From previous experience, eggs can be served runny to raw. So Jordan wanted to make sure he got them well done. "Eggs, no runny", he said. This drew a blank stare as the waitress spoke as much English as the dead ducks hanging on display in the window.

No problem. This is when we use only the simplest, smallest English words and lots of pantomime. "Egg", he said, pointing to them on the menu, "Hard", as he rapped his knuckles on the granite countertop. More blank stares. At this point, he realized his pantomime repertoire for hard-cooked eggs was seriously limited so now he was stuck.

After a few moments of vacant eye to eye contact, the waitress finally flip-flopped her hands and Jordan immediately knew it was the best he was going to get and gave her the thumbs up and made a mental note to add her gesture to our repertoire.

Then it was on to the coffee. "Coffee with milk. Sugar on side", as he showed a package of sugar and put it beside the coffee cup. Blank stare. The coffee came with milk in it, but as they used sweetened condensed milk, the sugar on the side was a moot point.

Ah yes, food can be a peculiar challenge to make life more interesting!

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Travelling to and fro

After seeing the hornbill birds on Pangkor Island (Malaysia) on our motorcycle trip from Phuket Island (Thailand) to Malaysia, we continued on our way to Penang Island (Malaysia) where we would get new 2-month Visitor's Visas for Thailand.

Along the way, we stopped periodically for a butt rest. During one of these rest stops, I severely burned the arch of my foot on the motorcycle muffler. Ow! The 2nd degree burn blistered so my aim was to keep the blister from breaking to prevent infection - that meant a lot of tip-toeing!

Crossing the bridge, we arrived at Penang Island on a Friday later in the day, and the Visa renewal department was closed. We were able to drop off our forms on Sunday with a promise of our Visas being ready on Monday. So to kill some time, it was another island motorcycle tour. The most enjoyable part of the Island ride was along a winding road that snaked through verdant hills and past cliff hanging vista points.

An unexpected interlude while waiting for our Visas was the arrival of our friends on Jabula who we had left a couple of days before down in Pangkor. They had decided to make their final jump off for their Indian Ocean passage from Georgetown (Penang Island). So we spent a genial last chance visit.

On Monday morning with renewed Visas in hand, we headed north to the mainland of Thailand. Palm oil plantations dominate the Malaysian landscape whereas Thailand's counterpart seems to be the forests of rubber trees. At least from the smell that wafted throughout the countryside as we travelled indicated that. Jordan said its unique scent could be described as pungent, but I thought it was just plain stinky!

The dripping fluid fills up black pots attached to rows and rows of stately trees, like maple trees drip their sap back in Canada. What's surprising is that this fluid is white, not black like we think of rubber.

Drip, drip, drip...

Once collected, it has a soft, rubbery feel. We stopped to check it out when we saw a pick-up truck parked with a rear cargo of the half-sphered product. We were informed that it naturally turns black, no dye is added.

Go ahead, touch it!

We deviated from a direct route home and took the ferry to the touristy Koh Samui, another island! The fare for the 1.5 hr ferry trip for us and the motorcycle was only the equivalent of $10 US - nothing compared to expensive Canadian ferries.

Looking back at Thailand mainland pinnacles

Our first night was in a rather nice resort right on a quiet beach where our first order of business was an inviting swim in the pool after the long hot day's ride. The highlight of the evening was the amazing sunset...


The next night, we took a budget beachside bungalow on a busier side of Koh Samui. The highlight there was a massage at beachside under the open-aired roof of what we would call a pagoda gazebo.

How divine

Of course, we did yet another pleasantly diverse motorcycle island tour. An unusual and popular photo op was that of Grandma and Grandpa Rocks where erosion formed distinct replicas of separate male and female genitalia.

Our final run back to Phuket Island was punctuated with rain that the mild temperature made it easy to endure.