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.