As the jagged, stony teeth of the Jorethang-Melli ‘road’ pulverised my man area and bounced my chain-ring clean through my shin, I found the man responsible.

I entered the halls of bureaucracy, checked the name plates of the inept and proceeded to my quarry.

He knew I was coming. He didn’t know how, but something in his marrow told him it was over.

He reached out to touch his young family for one last time- they smiled back at him from the photo on his desk.

A fatherless trio, soon.

I entered the room perineum first. He would witness the destruction he had caused, this builder of pretend roads, this drawer of lines on maps.

‘You see what happens! You see what happens when you say you’ve built the road but you haven’t built the road!’

He tried to close his eyes but I forced them open. He needed to see what he had done. He needed the raw, pummelled hideousness of what he had created squashed onto his face.

I drew my Ghurka blade, placed it on the desk and stepped back.

The blood dripping from my shin to the floor was the only sound.

He knew what he had to do.

His blood for mine.

Pulling up my sodden chamois, I waddled back to my bike.

There were only 3 hours of daylight left and I still had to get to Melli

land of exotic festivals

Yeah and also the land of shit roads

Such is West Sikkim. Exotic and worn-out, or yet to be built. It’s hard to know whether a place is in decline or has yet to rise and fall. All I know is that I brought the wrong bike. Or maybe I brought the wrong me. All I know for sure is that I need a new neck. Without front suspension, your neck is forced to become accordion-like with the jolting.

dawn teesta panorama

Oh look, they forgot to build the road

Leaving my nest in Gangtok was a bit of a wrench. For all my nomadic tendencies, I am a strong nester. Yet fly we must. West Sikkim welcomed me with laughably abysmal roads splattered by piddly waterfalls, golden retrievers that snapped flirtatiously at my ankles, and endless doughy discs of Tibetan bread. I discovered my new favourite Tibetan dish, only to discover that it was Israeli – ‘Shakshuka’, a beguilingly simple reduction of tomatoes, onions, capsicum and coriander, with 2 fried eggs plopped on top, it has redeemed a whole nation.

bike with mountain

Sniffing around for my next Shakshuka hit, Mount Pandim aloof in the background

While neighbouring Bhutan’s national sport is archery, Sikkim’s seems to be the hawking up of phlegm from the deepest recesses of their beings. Most mornings I will be roused not by birdsong but by the spectacularly grotesque cacophony of men and women mining their guts for phlegm and splattering it all over the place.

Their excavations are almost archaeological in depth and focus.

lady with bag

A lady carrying a bag of her own pleghm most probably

I’ve stayed in several ‘Gumpas’ –  a cluster of dwellings hanging off a cliff around a Buddhist Monastery, where dogs and chanting monks compete to keep you awake at night. I’ve had uncomfortable dinners with families who I unwittingly gate-crashed, thinking it was a hotel. I’ve averted my gaze from a doggy-style roadside romance between two monkeys and seen a man casually brandishing a spade engulfed in flames.

random fire machine

Men pretending to build the road

Something I’ve re-realised is that women are the warm heart of every place. When a man tries to be hospitable, it always seems forced or trained in to me. One particular woman (more a girl) in a tiny wee village nestled under massive mountains cooked me the best food I have ever eaten, day after day. I was so over the top with my praise that towards the end, she thought I was taking the piss. A particular highlight was a bowl (3 bowls) of homemade ‘gyathuk’ – succulent hunks of hand-made pasta torn in to a golden, mystery-vegetable filled broth.


Could easily be from the bottom of the sea

Back on the ‘road’, the going often got so tough that I would hear myself reciting a mantra – ‘House, Horse, Haven, Hero’; all the things the bike had become to me. As the rides became harder, I started adding ‘Hearse.’

Occasionally, clumps of jungle sprouted little feet from underneath themselves and hopped onto the road – as I passed, sweet little men would look out at me from under their leafy loads.

As I feasted on oven-fresh apple rolls and steaming hot, milky cardamom tea at a bakery in the jungle, a tiny male employee accused me of being handsome. Not knowing what to do, I responded by looking at my feet and doing a little jog on the spot. Passing by later at dusk, I heard his little voice cry out: ‘Hellooo! Gentleman! Hellooo, we walk together!’ Minutes later, he chirpily excused himself into the bushes to ‘Do a quick shit’ as he put it, though it was only a piss.

monk with attitude

Life is a catwalk. That’s actually a Buddhist belief

Cars, Jeeps and massive, smoke-belching ‘Tata’ trucks tore past at shoulder height bearing strange tidings on their windows – ‘Facebook’, ‘God’, and ‘One mistake and you’re dead’ being particular highlights. After 2 weeks of this, Kalimpong was a welcome refuge. I wined and dined myself at the ever-so-fancy ‘Elgin’ hotel and was surrounded by ‘lady’s slipper’ orchids in my very own cottage at ‘Holumba Haven.’

Railing against this new civility, I bought a large Ghurka knife and used it to drunkenly apply the finishing touches to my annual shave, before returning to Gangtok to be sick again. Next stop, health. And Mysore.

epic smoke crop

Say what you want about the Sikkimese but they are not afraid to light a fire in the street


Buddism VS Cake

The last 14 days have melted into each other. All valleys have become one valley, all people one person, all immodiums one fizzy get-out-of-jail-free card. A village idiot has danced a jig, clicking his cardamom-stained fingers in joy, before being waved away by the girl who sang to make him dance. Butterflies, it turns out, are the true Sherpas of the mountains. Leaves have hung in mid-air, ensnared in the web cathedrals of a thousand spiders overhead, roasting alive inside their black casings.

woman temple pray crop

I think pain amplifies everything. Colour, scale, smell, significance.

Often I would find myself stopped by the side of the road, mouth agape at a mist-shrouded forest or a mashed up butterfly on the tarmac, feeling like I was understanding something.

another valley

It’s easy to drift off into emotional and spiritual incoherence when you are this tired in a landscape this beautiful.

Which probably explains the proliferation of the world’s cuddliest religion – Buddhism.

It’s everywhere here. It’s in the marrow of the place. Even the dogs reek of it.

dog with wheels

You can hear it whispered through cracked windows at dawn, smell its incense thick in the air around monasteries.

And you can see it in the glazed eyes of the indoctrinated.

Buddhism, of course, is mostly silly nonsense. But such beautiful nonsense I have yet to encounter. For example:

‘Buddhism envisions the world as a net of jewels, each facet of reality reflecting every other facet.’



Have you heard anything more delightful than that? Or what about this marvellous piece of jibberish from the Dalai Lama:

‘Compassion sets in motion an exponential multiplication of our powers’….As if somehow, by being a nice guy, I can gain super powers. What a thought. What a guy. No wonder he sells so many books.

buncha monks

Seeking special powers, outside Pelling

The Himalayas bristle with seekers of special powers.

In a one-bike village called Yuksom (the one bike was ridden up and down the only street, still covered in the plastic it was sold in), I met a  bloke with a shaved head, sea-coloured eyes and a pectoral ridge accentuated by skin-tight, expensive t-shirts. He wore individually-toed shoes with no soles because it connected him to the earth more and strangely for someone without a bike – cycling gloves.

Consumed and quite clearly overwhelmed by the pursuit of ‘truth’, he explained to me during a particularly harrowing high-speed taxi ride that ‘Everything is a pattern, even us. Patterns within patterns. Programs within programs!’, he exclaimed as we almost flew off a cliff.

‘You know the Matrix?’ he shouted over the sound of our tyres spraying stones into the valley floor 1000 metres below. ‘It’s all in there.’ When I looked over at him to see if he was joking, his head was bowed, eyes closed. Totally away with the fairies.

big prayer wheels

Massive prayer wheels. Massive waste of time? Probably

But oh the beauty. Check this out:

‘In the midst of the seething darkness is Buddha – serene, unmoving, unperturbed – a luminous awareness that embraces all disturbances and converts it into energy and light. When we look upon the chaos of our lives with compassion and bemusement, we achieve a similar alchemy.’

Fuck. Me. That’s fantastic. ‘Bemusement’. Love that. Of course, you could just say ‘chill out’, and not have to build a whole belief system and loads of temples, but then you wouldn’t have all the seething darkness chat.

moody as fuck forest

I checked the seething darkness for Buddha but he wasn’t there

I guess it all boils down to this – these guys have all of this good will and potential to actually do something and what do they do? They spin a prayer wheel. They put up a prayer flag. They incant messages of good will for people who will never hear them or feel their effects, because there are none. This has been proven by it’s not being proven, ever. The beauty and wonder of their mythology and their temples aside, I couldn’t help feeling like it was all a big waste of energy.

buddhist stuff

Their prettiness matched only by their pointlessness

I was in a musty, north-facing hotel room one night when BBC World news crackled up onto the screen. A group of very clever people at the European Space Agency had just landed a probe onto a meteor, an achievement which would enable us to learn a great deal about where we and our planet came from. That’s a real thing and it happened because people DID something, they didn’t just hope for it.  Next up was the world’s first legally recognised cyborg – a man who had an antenna protruding from his skull that enabled him to hear colours. Before this breakthrough, he could only see in Grayscale. Amazing. Not as amazing as a dragon clutching a wish-fulfilling gem like you get in Buddhist art, but it gets extra points for being real.

schoolkid in yuksom

Prayer flags may be a total waste of time but they sure look good

But there’s a far more worrying flaw with Buddhism.  If you choose Buddhism, you choose not-cake.If you do Buddhism, you can’t be attached to worldly pleasures. You have to break those chains. And that means no more cake. Ok, you can have it but you can’t really enjoy it. You can’t lust for it. You can’t be it’s prisoner. You can’t want it. But dammit, I want to want it. Without desire, what are we? Numb. Numb to pleasure as we are to pain. A flat tone. And there’s nothing more boring than flat, which you’d think would be obvious to people living in the Himalayan foothills but apparently not. For all their inter-dimensional sight they can’t see what’s in front of their noses.

Darjeeling to Gangtok: The land of God

So there I was, sat in Darjeeling, utterly overwhelmed by the immensity of the Himalayan vista in front of me, when an older Indian couple ruined everything by sitting down and being friendly. Oblivious to my spiritual rapture, they prodded me with words until I was forced to acknowledge them, and we fell into a rather one-way conversation.

The man was wearing a knitted tea cosy in the shape of an army beret and the woman smiled a lot, until we got onto the subject of Kashmir. ‘They have no morals, they are animals!’ she fumed into her tea. Ignoring his wife, knitted beret man offered up his analysis. ‘Pakistan’, he smiled, ‘used to be India. It was aaaaaall India back then. We, the Hindus of India gave the Muslims a place to live – Pakistan.’

I desperately tried to take the man with the knitted army beret tea-cosy seriously, so I narrowed my eyes and nodded vigorously like I used to do in meetings when I was drifting. Nod nod, yes yes, I listen you.

He continued: ‘But they are not gracious enough to accept this history, this heritage. Take Indonesia. They are a Muslim nation but they keep their Hindu names, their history. When Pakistan say they want Kashmir, they are simply ignoring their history.’

I nodded more vigorously, wondering if ‘Army-Casual’ could take off in the West and if he would consent to be the brand ambassador.

The morning sweep, before preparing all that FRESH food, Darjeeling

The morning sweep, before preparing all that FRESH food, Darjeeling

A brownie with chocolate sauce plopped down onto the table and they forced me to eat some, despite being full of bun. ‘You know India is the only truly tolerant country,’ he said, leaning back in his wicker seat and crossing his legs. So tolerant, in fact, that they still keep the place and street names foisted on them by their many invaders – Mongol Hordes, the Dutch, the British. We all agreed that this was a bit too tolerant.

Continuing my Indian education, the man leaned further back into his wicker.

‘Only in India do we cook 3 times a day, FRESH.’ He went on. ‘Tooootally FRESH, you see, 3 times a day.’ He conceded that it was a heavy burden for the women, who were expected to prepare all of this FRESH food, but he continued: ‘If we took that away from them, what else would they do with their time?’ I’m pretty sure he wasn’t joking, but I laughed anyway because it was easier, then excused myself. I didn’t come on holiday to explain the world ground up to an old guy.

Never trust a monkey. They may look cute but where there is one there are many, and they have strong, searching fingers and a bad attitude

Never trust a monkey. They may look cute but where there is one there are many, and they have strong, searching fingers and ideas way above their station

The next day, my alarm clock woke me at 0530 and I rolled out of bed with a spring in my lurch. Monks chanted in the direction of the massive God mountain (Kanchenjunga), waving fans inscribed with Tibetan / Chinese / Nepalese writing, then tapped people on the head with them as a blessing. A horde of hissing, growling monkeys bullied a stray dog, while 50 metres away the dogs got their own back by trapping a terrified monkey up a telephone pole.

I had only one duty for the day and that was to find the best pound to rupee rates for my 480 quid. I was amazed to discover that 2 of 3 places simply wouldn’t accept my filthy Scottish pounds, and the remaining one offered an offensively low rate (85, compared to the 96 offered for the ‘Great British Pound’). To soothe my wounded Scottish ego, I popped into a terrific teashop, where I was allowed to sample two Oolongs in brandy glasses, two white teas in Champagne flutes and two black Darjeeling teas in little port glasses. After they poured it for you, they held the brewing pot underneath your nose for about 30 seconds too long so your entire face dripped with fragrant tea steam.

As I left with my 3 little string-tied parcels of tea, I was given a short lecture on picking seasons. Tea isn’t just tea. It’s a totally different beast according to the time of year it’s picked. The spring (or first flush) tea is light and floral, the summer (or second flush) is more ‘muscatel’ (God knows…) and the autumn flush is richer, deeper and fruitier. I was ashamed to admit that in the UK, we generally don’t know where our teas comes from, just the brand, as if ‘Typhoo’  or Tetley’ were places. It wouldn’t surprise me if some people thought that ‘Yorkshire tea’ is grown in Yorkshire.

Anyway, it all tasted bloody great to me, and gave me this smouldering high that lasted for about 3 hours – long enough to propel me up to the charmingly dilapidated colonial gem that is the Windamere hotel.

Christmas in 61' at the Windamere. Note the faces of local kids pressed up against the window, peering in at all the roasted meats they wouldn't be eating

Christmas in 61′ at the Windamere. Note the faces of local kids pressed up against the window, peering in at all the roasted meats they wouldn’t be eating

On arrival, a boy wearing an incongruous costume of western formal wear underneath a traditional Himalayan shawl thingy ushered me into an empty living room full of deep sofas and a dying fire. On the walls were black and white photos of rich people quoffing gin in the sixties, and paintings of Himalayan scenes, including a shepherd with 3 unsettlingly over-sized goats, and a girl kneeling on a rock ledge over a cloud-filled valley. Soon the fire was roaring and I was flicking through the ‘Times of India’. Apprently, Kolkata meat market is getting a much-needed renovation because it stinks so bad that even the cleaners don’t go there, the Indian army is buying weapons from Israel, and over 100 Air India pilots were discovered not to have valid pilot’s licenses.

A framed sign advised me not to ‘Lie supine on the hearth’, which I would have committed to if I knew what it meant.

Sometimes the tarmac just disappears, leaving only hunched women tottering through dustclouds.

Sometimes the tarmac just disappears, leaving only hunched women tottering through dustclouds

Day 3 on the bike was my worst day on a bike.

It started nicely in Darjeeling, with an impromptu dawn yoga session looking out to that massive God mountain. The air didn’t seem to sparkle, it literally was sparkling. As I was finishing, some locals came up and asked if I could teach them. Apparently their uncle, who had been sitting nearby doing all sorts of weird and wonderful yogic breathing exercises, had given the nod of approval. I said I would return to Darjeeling specifically to teach them, despite being fully aware of how ridiculous it was for a Scotsman to teach yoga to Indians in India. It’s like asking an Indian person to come and teach the British how to do sarcasm.

Breakfast was an epic feast of porridge with bananas and honey followed by a ‘full’ English breakfast – I was going to need the fuel for another 1000 or so metres of climbing. However, my well-laid plans backfired and I was soon enjoying some low quality toilet time, courtesy of Indian bacteria. I couldn’t for the life of me work out how I had got it as I’d been very diligent with my hand-washing and water purifying, avoided all milk and cheese (they don’t do pasteurising here apparently) and avoided all street food. I guess it’s just something you have to go through. Or rather, something that has to go through you.

Durga celebrations - another excuse to let off fireworks day and night

Durga celebrations – another excuse to let off fireworks day and night

So back to the ride. It was horrendous – two agonising hours of pulling the brake levers full force as I weaved through a craterfield of potholes on slopes so steep they should quite frankly be illegal. I found myself cursing the author of the book for encouraging human beings to do this and in my mind wrote an extremely abusive email that I would send to her if I survived.

Then of course, there was the looming threat of shitting myself.

As the front wheel slammed down into another pothole, I willed my sphincter to clench as tightly as my fingers were on the brake levers. It was a tense time. Real tense. And then it ended. The free fall abated and I flowed down into a deep, wide, sticky valley where a dog half-heartedly tried to eat me and my bike. A rogue monkey also had a go, darting out from the side of the road, and I produced an incredible burst of speed to escape. They freak me out, those monkeys, and they always lie in wait where I’m most vulnerable – up-slopes or pot-holed sections. The night was spent in a dive on the town’s main/only junction, nursing litre after litre of salty blackcurrant electrolytes as yet another soundstage kept me wide awake until the early morning, when the fireworks took over.

Everyone loves the horn, even Sikkim border guards

Everyone loves the horn, even Sikkim border guards

The upside of being kept awake is that you aren’t asleep, which means as soon as the sun is up you can be gone. So by 0545 I had clicked my panniers onto the rack and pedalled grimly out of town. towards the capital of Sikkim, Gangtok. Time for another Immodium too, just to be sure – it was set to be another crucifixion of a day, with 1300ish vertical metres to contend with. The dawn freshness soothed my broken mind and tummy and the Immodium took care of the science. Soon, I was at the foot of the climb and feeling good enough to eat so I picked up some delicious, steaming hot vegetable momos from a wee roadside hotel. The owner’s son had never seen a white person before. I feel like I under delivered with my chat, which consisted mostly of mumbled, dumpling-filled nothings with question marks on the end. So to the climb.



It was hellish. Of course it was hellish.  But smooth hell is much better than lumpy hell, and smooth and up is much better than lumpy and down. Sikkim roads are comparatively brilliant, which is down to the exceptionally diligent and proud road-building team ‘BRO’. Every year, the roads are swept away by monsoon storms and every year, they rebuild them. I grew to love the various upbeat roadside messages encouraging love, life and safety. Things like ‘Life has no spare – take it easy.’ However, I’m not sure the jeep drivers can read the English. The last 15km were utterly brutal, and made almost intolerable by the back-to-back traffic and accompanying fumes. I focussed on breathing out and not in.

Gangtok baby

Gangtok baby

After several months or years of this, Gangtok revealed herself to me in all her turquoise and pink and baby blue grandeur. The first thing I saw was a sign telling me that: ‘Leprosy is 100% curable.’ 45 more minutes of slogging my way to the top of town and it was over –  I had arrived at Hotel Pandim and immediately agreed to a wincingly high rate for an admittedly quite plush room with loads of cable TV channels and enough room to swing a yaklet (a child yak).

I spent the next hour flicking between the skin-crawlingly awful but undeniably moreish British X-factor, and a TV lecture by a stern white woman wrapped up in the white sheets of a popular Hindu sect.

Cowell:                You have what it takes. I’m really impressed. CROWD GOES WILD.

Sect woman        I was God in the copper age, but I had no memory of my Godliness.

Cowell:                You’re likeable. I like you. The crowd likes you. But you can’t sing. CROWD BOOS.

Sect woman:        And we will be tested. Have you noticed? Every day we are challenged to be more Godly

Clicking off this vortex of no return, I noticed that I had already gained quite an imposing, severe gaze. Looking closer, I discovered that it was a masacara made of splatted flies.

Neon green chicken in my Thai curry

Neon green chicken in my Thai curry

My evening comprised of a Thai green curry with neon-green chicken, and monk spotting. There’s tonnes of orange-and-yellow-swaddled Buddhist monks here, of every shape and size. The most impressive one I saw was a down syndrome one and the impressive part is that he’s evidence of clear follow-through on a come-one-come-all policy up here in Buddha HQ. The least impressive ones were using mobile phones. Three of them sitting on a bench, gazes downward, tap, tap tapping like normal people. It’s just not right. You either get spiritual centredness, tranquility and moral authority OR you get our modern enslavement to the transient froth of modern social networking. Not both. I bet they had facebook accounts too, the frauds.

Cobbling away with his feet

A cobbler cobbling, unsurprisingly

Gangtok, like Darjeeling, suffers from a split-personality. From a distance, she is serene and picture-perfect but up close, when you’re stuck in the steeply winding, fume-choked streets, you often wish you weren’t here. However it’s nothing that some good headphones, sunglasses and a face-mask won’t fix. Yes, it makes me seem aloof and unapproachable but needs must – I can be nice later.

After the near death experience that was ride to get here, I’ve decided I need to lose a lot of weight. Not from my body, which is gaunt and bony, but from the bags. So far I have replaced the heavy but intoxicating ‘The God of small things’ with a tiny paperback ‘Oxford Introduction to Empire’, and ditched my expensive and (I hope) extraneous waterproof jacket, sleeping bag and sleeping mat.

The book feels rather fitting, as I can’t imagine a country more bizarelly contorted by colonialism than India. To be surrounded by poverty-stricken, tobacco-skinned men speaking perfect Queen’s English every time I stop the bike is a surreal and jarring experience. It’s all roses now but the violence it took to get those poor buggers speaking like toffs is bothersome. I would get slightly more upset about it but a waiter just put down a generously filled cherry muffin and green tea with goji berries and chrysanthemums. Next stop, West Sikkim. Or maybe I’ll just stay here and keep looking at God.

God / Kanchenjuga

God / Kanchenjuga

Kolkata to Darjeeling: from dust to clouds

I arrived in Kolkata to be greeted by the sub-continent’s worst taxi driver, who couldn’t find the hotel I specifically picked because it was right next to the airport. Up and down the ‘VIP’ road we went, asking other taxi drivers, Tuk-Tuk boys and bystanders where this place was. They all seemed to know exactly where, confidently pointing in different directions as Diwali exploded around us. Eventually we arrived at a cesspit down a dirt track with a man wielding a semi-automatic stood close by. To be fair, the review (the only review) on did say ‘disappointing’, so I guess I deserved it. The staff seemed surprised to see me, despite having booked online more than 24 hours prior, and they spent many minutes rotating a paper jotter on a desk to see if this would clarify the situation. Relaxing into Indian hospitality, I tried to ignore the taxi driver, who was repeatedly droning ‘RUPPEE, RUPPEE’ at me. Eventually I was taken to my putrid room, where I spent five hours fumbling around trying to build my bike like one of those experiments where monkeys have to work out what shaped holes to put the blocks in. Eventually, bike built but by no means road-safe, I fell into a fretful sleep, flinching every time a Diwali firework exploded, which was about every 30 seconds or so.

Some woman on the approach into Kolkata

Some woman on the approach into Kolkata

I was woken 4 hours later by a massive explosion, which turned out to be the last Diwali firework, and left without saying good-bye. I had no map and no real idea of where I was going. I’d bought a compass knowing full well that I didn’t how to use one, so instead relied on the locals’ ambiguous yet spirited directions and was soon wobbling my way along a deserted highway somewhere on the outskirts of Kolkata in 98 degree heat. Somehow I arrived at the correct train station, despite the efforts of many small children and goats and cars and buses who darted directly into my path as if that was fine. Buying a ticket was a typically Indian experience of being sent from one desk to another, to another to fill out the same information onto a series of forms that resulted, not in a ticket, but in a further 4 hour wait to see if I definitely didn’t have a ticket.

Even a s non-believer, I was happy to have so many prayers in the wind

Even a s non-believer, I was happy to have so many prayers in the wind

Sitting down to write my diary, I was immediately surrounded by boys and men who read each word as it was written, some nodding along approvingly as if to say ‘yes, my thoughts exactly.’ Soon they dispersed, leaving one young man with a brilliant white smile and wandering hands.

‘You have very nice handwriting,’ he said, his hand creeping a little too close to my leg. ‘Are you married?’  he continued, his pinkie brushing my knee. ‘No,’ I replied, wondering if this was just how Indian guys did things. Then he started playing with the hair on my knee. ‘Hair,’ he said.  ‘Hair,’ I said, brushing his hand away without trying to be rude. ‘Yes, hair. Your hair is very nice,’ he said, his hand returning to my knee.

After a few brush-offs, I figured this was probably more a gay thing than an Indian thing but decided to just roll with it – I didn’t want to get into a fight on my first day. Then he said he was going to the wash-room but didn’t go, looking at me with very gay (not Indian) eyes. ‘I’LL SEE YOU LATER. THANKS VERY MUCH!’ I said, staying where I was until he got the message. Before he left, there was a split-second when he moved his head a little too close to mine and I thought he might go in for a kiss, but thankfully for everyone, he desisted and sashayed off to the bathroom.

Organic tea-fields shimmering under the sun

Organic tea-fields shimmering under the sun

Miraculously, both me and my bike eventually got on that train and were soon on our way to Siliguri on the Darjeeling Mail sleeper. After an hour or so of drooling, open-mouthed sleep, I awoke, rearranged my panniers and put my helmet on. There was no way I was missing my stop. So, jostling past sleeping families, hitting them in the head with my swinging panniers, I planted myself at the door and waited for the stop. ‘Where you go?’ came a voice from within a bundle of sheets that I hadn’t realised contained a human. ‘Siliguri’, I said. ‘Aaaaah, yes. 1 and a half hours more. Train late.’ Of course it was late. So naive to think it wouldn’t be late. So back I went, hitting the heads of the same sleeping people with my panniers to my seat, which had now been stolen by a smiling grandmother holding a small child. Instead of back-handing her (I would never do that), I consoled myself with a steaming hot milky Chai in a thimble-sized cup and watched India wake up through the window.

A particularly sinister congregation of prayer flags

A particularly sinister congregation of prayer flags on the way up to Mirik

The train pulls in and I’m out the door like a rocket, my cycling shoes slip-sliding all over the platform as I scream ‘Bike, my bike!’ to anyone remotely official-looking. Mostly they had no idea what I was saying but one guy had the good grace to point me to the other end of the train, so off I shot to that end, screaming ‘BIKE BIKE!’ and waving my pink receipt around. When I got to that end, a man with a beret shook his head and pointed me to the end I’d just come from. This went on for precisely long enough to lose all of my pride, until at last I caught sight of my sturdy steed being carefully plucked from the bowels of a cargo carriage. Sliding to a stop, sodden and shaking, I limply held out the pink bike receipt and said ‘Bike. Is my bike.’ Success. I had bike. I was bike. Bike was me. Bike is us. Bike.


Soon I’m gliding through a tropical, dusty landscape with cows kneeling by the roadside and palm trees shivering in the hot breeze. Siliguri is a dustbowl but I find a nice hotel and get the most expensive room (five quid) before popping out for my first taste of Indian food (/parasitic infection). The mutton Rogan Josh was flavoursome but oily and tough, the Kashmir Naan was from Kashmir (the waiter told me that when I asked what the Kashmir Naan was) and the rice was fancy. On the way back, I stopped on a bridge to watch what I can only describe as an orgy of filth in the river below. Kids mingled with pigs snuffling through heaps of garbage, as a crowd of locals watched a JCB digger heaping a make-shift bank of mud in the middle of the river. Young boys stood on the the freshly heaped bank, their arms aloft, talking shite to anyone who would listen. Night-time brought an eardrum-splitting mix of train and truck horns mixed with a post-Diwali Diwali celebration from the disco literally next door.

Steamy, jungly valleys make terrific rest-stops before brutal climbs/ after brutal descents

Steamy, jungly valleys make terrific rest-stops before brutal climbs/ after brutal descents

The book promised that today would require a ‘marathon effort’. ‘You will drink ten litres of water,’ the author said. This, coming from a woman who spent 5 years cycling through all of the Himalayas, in every condition and elevation. Shit. And, to add to my anxiety, the blog of the book had had to reiterate just how steep the roads were, as some disgruntled westerners had evidently not done enough spin classes before coming to West Bengal/Sikkim. All of which added up to me being wide awake at 0430 wearing my cycling clothes, shoes and helmet, waiting for the sun to come up. At 0545, the day switched on like a light and I was soon charging out of town, the wind in my knee hair. In the wrong direction. Luckily, I realised my mistake before I got to the airport and was soon pointing in the correct direction – towards those big fucking hills over there.

large cloud over tiny village

Soon, Siliguri was a distant smear on my memory, as I flew low through towering, cooling forests and on through a military base riddled with monkeys and cheery -looking soldiers who would say ‘Goooood Maaaaawrning!’ as I sped past. At a tiny village called ‘Dudia’, the road ramped up to a laughable gradient (I did actually laugh), and decided to become severely pot-holed too. In my training in Scotland, I’d avoided using the ‘granny ring’ (easiest gear) but wasted no time in clicking down there. There’s no room for pride in the Himalayas. I was really feeling the 30kg of stuff I’d brought with me and discovered with newfound clarity how unnecessary most of it was. This, plus the four litres of water (‘You will drink ten litres of water….’) I was carrying slowed me down to a creaking, weaving wreckage of a man, emasculated further by the stream of rickety jeeps tearing past me, honking madly in triumph or sympathy – it’s hard to decipher the tone of voice of a horn. Easier to decipher were the expressions of pure incredulity on the faces pressed to the insides of the back windows. ‘Why?’ they seemed to ask. I had no answers at the time.

So much style up here it hurts

So much style up here it hurts

After three hours, I collapsed against a snack shack and fell into conversation with a local boy with impeccable English. Looking at my map, he told me I had 12 or 13 hours to go. ‘What?!’ I spat – I had expected to be there in 3. He did a funny Indian head nod-shake that makes you wonder whether they’re agreeing or disagreeing with you, and revised it to 8 or 9 hours. Unwilling to accept the idea that I would have to do this for another 8 or 9 hours, I simply shook my head and said no, it’s no possible – I left at 6. ‘Wow. Ok. 6? Really? Then you will be there in 2 hours.’ It seems my adrenalin had propelled me up the mountain at an unusual velocity. Allowing myself a momentary swelling of pride, I creaked off up the vertical slope and in the blink of a yak’s eye, was where I was supposed to be, but about 5 hours too early. Mirik was my oyster.

I wish this was a traditional West Bengal mask but really it's just a weird batman

I wish this was a traditional West Bengal mask but really it’s just a weird batman

Mirik, 1500 metres higher than Siliguri, was a strange place around an uninspiring lake but did offer steaming hot showers, a magnificent Thali, including a transcendent black dahl, and of course, the requisite sound stage right outside my hotel showcasing the best (worst) of the local singing talent all throughout the night. Other highlights included a rampaging horse stampeding past a flustered family, it’s cock swinging all over the place, and a strange fruit like an avocado with short, green octopus tentacles growing from it’s skin that grew on the outskirts of town.

After another broken sleep, I was wide awake before dawn, clutching my stomach. It felt like someone had put a balloon into my gut and was playfully blowing it up and letting it down. My mega-thali must have been poisoned. Or perhaps it was the eight extra momos (steamed tibetan dumplings), the extra portion of naan, the two pots of Darjeeling tea, and the additional cup of milky, sugary, cardomom-y ‘Masala’ tea. In retrospect, it was probably sheer greed that gave me the cramps and resultingly bad toilet time but at the time, I was convinced it was the Indian food. As I rode off, I swore never to touch it again.

Looks like someone's got a case of the mondays

Looks like someone’s got a case of the mondays

So out I went, gut wriggling and writhing and underslept, straight into a vertical wall of tarmac. Down into the bottom gear I went, down where I belong. The morning was serene – deep blue skies, cheery smiles and the faintest whisper of a breeze. Almost everyone I passed greeted me with a breezy ‘Goooooowd Maaaaaaaawrning!’, which brought an involuntary smile (they’re all involuntary) to my face every time I heard it. If I stopped in a village, I was immediately swamped by smiling, curious men wanting to know where I was from (nowhere knows where Scotland is but they gloss over it). One time I stopped in the middle of a dark, empty forest to change my t-shirt and from nowhere, ten guys on motorbikes had surrounded me, demanding more photos.

Soon I had reached the halfway point – a clustering of chai and momos stalls perched on a rocky outlook that looks directly into Nepal. Their mountains looked bigger. I bought some overly sweet Masala chai and vegetable (cabbage) momos and was then tricked into buying Malaysian almond toffees by a kid who assured me they were Nepalese. The little shit overcharged me by about double too but I’m over it. When I checked my phone, I had a text from my mobile provider informing me that I could top up as usual when in Nepal. It’s true to say that the lines between countries are very blurred around here.

Boy at rest, somewhere on the way to Darjeeling

Boy at rest, somewhere on the way to Darjeeling

Pushing on like the toffee incident never happened, I was soon in Darjeeling, at Hotel ‘Tranquility’ (it was opposite a building site patrolled). They very graciously let me keep my bike in my room and didn’t even make faces about my smell, though they were tellingly forthright with the instructions for the shower. After a bruisingly hot shower,  I shuffled off around the steep, narrow streets to the apparently good but actually rubbish bakery for the worst apple pie I have ever had (it was salty). But there was the view. Ooooooh, the view. My first true panorama of the Himalayas, strung out along the horizon, crowned by a flowing, churning, cascading cloudscape. Storms here must be utterly terrifying. I remember thinking that there was something much greater than us going ont here. No wonder it’s so easy to buy into all the God talk – I’d pray to anything for deliverance from these monsters.

darjeeling epic dawn

Dawn in Darjeeling. Apparently, the people of Sikkim think that massive mountain over there (Kanchenjunga, 3rd largest in the world) is a God, which I guess makes more sense than an invisible one in the sky.