Thursday 8 October 2015

Riding the Trails of the Unexplored Silk Route

First Mountain Biking Expedition On The Silk Route

Snow-capped mountains, age-old monasteries, gurgling waterfalls and rare high altitude birds. These are just some of the facets which make Sikkim so special. Peace and tranquility are perfect words to describe this corner of India which is a virgin biking route. If nature, thrill, adventure, Himalayas and mountain biking appeal to you, then you do not need to look beyond Sikkim. Just escape there on your bike from the cares of the city into the lap of mountains which hold millions of surprises within its folds. There is such richness of culture, religion, a mélange of peaceful people, amidst all its splendor, challenging terrain, high altitude, wildlife, unpredictable weather which made the maiden biking expedition on the old and new silk route nothing less than an expedition.

There were mix of emotions of anxiety, fear and thrill when we were told by authorities that this would be the first such biking tour on the old and new silk route. They wanted proper documentation for permissions and authorisation letters from Discover on Wheels, the registered cycling group to allow Three Idiots to cycle the route which has a total ascent and descent of approximately 23,892 ft. in just under 100kms of ride with certain incline section as high as 21.2 degrees.

Ms Manisha Sharma, a cycling enthusiast who also runs a travel agency “Tag Along” along with Mr Abhinna Mukhia, an ardent and champion mountaineer from Darjeeling joined me at Padamchen on 1st October, 2015, which was our base camp for acclimatization where we stayed overnight at a cozy homestay. Considering the weather as it was still raining in the region, we had planned to cover the distance in 3 days starting from 2nd October on Gandhi Jayanti with overnight homestays at Longthu and Gnathang Valley.

Uphill from Padamchen, we were heading towards a region which had recently traced leopards, wild pigs and even red pandas. The zig zag incline route with numerous hair pin bends went through thick vegetation of pine, teak and different species of oak trees. The biking route was to start from Padamchen at 6140 ft above sea level to Nathula Pass via Zuluk and Gnathang Valley and then down to Gangtok via Tsomgo Lake. We didn’t get permissions to ride upto the border, so we had to satisfy ourselves till the gates of the pass - Dagar Dwaar.

Route map

First day ride upto Longthu via Zuluk was the toughest which included the famous 32 hair pin zig zag roads which can be viewed completely on a clear day from Thambi View Point at 11,200 ft above sea level. The weather in this region is very unpredictable and changes frequently. It was clear sky when we started, expecting a sunny day but it suddenly became misty, foggy and cloudy.

Homestay owner offered us a scarf as a sign of good luck

Enroute Padamchen to Zuluk


One of the numerous hair pin climbs on the way to Zuluk

We took breaks to take selfies amidst serene surrounding

10 kms into the ride, we reached Zuluk where we took an hour-long breakfast break. Zuluk or Dzuluk is a small hamlet that resides amongst the serene, beautiful landscape of the Eastern Himalayas. At a height of about 9800 ft, the natural beauty which Zuluk offers is a treat for one's eyes. With a population of about 750 people, the tranquility of Zuluk is in the air. We felt rejuvenated and fresh in the pristine surroundings and chilly wind that coming from the Himalayas.

At Zuluk

We continued our onward ride towards Longthu which was about 16kms uphill. We reached there by 3pm. On the first day itself we had climbed more than 7000 ft under misty cloudy conditions. We checked into a homestay at Longthu and were served very delicious homemade food for lunch and dinner.

Zig Zag roads from Zuluk to Longthu

Enroute  Longthu

Next day morning we woke up to a thick cover of black clouds hiding the Kanchenjunga and even the zig zag roads below. Undeterred and determined to stick to our schedule, we decided to ride in rain jackets. Luckily it stopped raining by the time we were ready to ride but the cloud cover remained with extremely foggy conditions making the visibility less than 10 meters. 

The clouds enveloped us as we rode from towards Gnathang Valley

It was a recovery day ride. We had kept the riding distance short, only 10kms upto Gnathang Valley as there is no available accommodation beyond the place in that route. So we rode carefully on the steep sharp curves.

Manisha Sharma feeling exhausted after the long climbing

The high point of the ride that day was the chai adda break with the army personnel of the Madras regiment who were thrilled to see us at 12500 ft and wanted to know our experience. We however were not allowed to take pictures with them but it’s an experience that will remain etched in our memory. With a short break there, we reached Gnathang Valley in under 2 hours ride. 

At Laxman point, just before entering Gnathang Valley

In front of our homestay in Gnathang Valley

They say, if you do not like Gnathang Valley, then you may not like Paradise. Situated at the height of 13,500 ft. above the sea level, Nathang Valley is one of the most beautiful places in Old-Silk-Route. Nathang is the highest location to stay in the Indian part of the Old Silk Route. It is one of the remotest Tibetan habitations in Himalayas. The valley usually remains covered with thick snow from January to April. The long four-month of sub-zero temperature makes the valley a cold desert and one of the most beautiful parts of Himalayas. We didn’t find any snow in October. Since we reached early, we decided to explore the region on our wheels. We visited a monastery, a Krishna temple and also a war memorial carrying the memories of "Tukla War".  

Krishna Mandir in middle of Gnathang Valley

Monastery in Gnathang Valley

The accommodation again at the homestay was pleasant and we were taken good care. We kept our bikes with us in the room after the ride and took a nap after the meal. The weather got chilly from the evening as it again started raining which went on entire night till next morning.

My room in Gnathang Valley

About 64kms of ride still remained to be covered in the day and we realized we must start early to reach Changu Lake after which we knew it was all 40kms of downhill till Gangtok. So we had to cover a hard 24kms of riding at high altitude with gradual uphill sections. We started from Gnathang Valley at around 8 am and were greeted by a clear view of the Himalayan range and Kanchenjunga as the skies had started to clear. We saw different colour shades as sunshine entered the valley.

Enroute to Baba Mandir from Gnathang Valley

I could definitely feel the altitude that day early into the ride. Just 30minutes into the ride, I was quickly getting out of breath. My heart rate was shooting up as I started panting and I had to stop frequently to recover and get it down. I was wearing a heart rate monitor belt to keep my heart beats under check and it turned out to be a good decision.  Abhinna who is a mountaineer advised me to take deep breath from the nose and not my mouth and also to uncover my ears to acclimatize faster. And I did. I started to feel better and our pace improved.

Finding it tough at high altitude

On our way to Nathula Gate, we stopped at Old and new baba mandir and the elephant lake. The army personnel at Kupup check point were thrilled to see cyclists in that region climbing uphill and got eager to take pictures. They wished us good luck and safe riding ahead.

Elephant Lake

At Kupup with Army men

Finally making to the midpoint of our ride at Dagar Dwaar which is a gateway to Nathula Pass was a special feeling and we felt proud to have made it so far.

The roads leading from the Dagar Dwaar towards Changu Lake were not good and we had to be very careful from the shooting stones and road construction work in progress.

The last few kilometers before reaching Tsomgo Lake were fun as it was nice downhill ride and good roads. The lake was buzzing with tourists as it is popular spot. It was already 3pm and we still had 40kms to cover. After taking pictures with the colourfully dressed Yaks in the background, we continued our downward ride towards Gangtok.

At Tsomgo Lake

Our final leg of the ride from Tsomgo Lake to Gangtok though mostly downhill became very challenging as the weather had changed. It was extremely foggy and we had to be careful of the tourist vehicles also rushing back to the city. Many sections were marked “Sinking road” which were as steep as 36 degrees. I was more confident on my bike which had hydraulic disk brakes but Manisha and Abhinna had to struggle and be extra cautious with their v-braking systems.

Just one of the many Sinking steep downhill roads towards Gangtok 
from Tsomgo Lake

The tourist car drivers however were also careful when passing us each time. The continuous steep down roads, with sharp hair pin curves and then again a steep down were very challenging and heart throbbing.  It got dark by 5.30pm and we rode the last 4-5 kms in the trailing headlights of our backup car. By 6pm we successfully finished the ride with a group hug in Gangtok. 

Over the farewell dinner, we all agreed that this is one of the best ride we have ever done and hoped that this route would soon become a popular mountain biking destination. And we will definitely be back!!

 Written by:
Nishant Maheshwari
One of the cyclists on this expedition
and co-founder of Discover on Wheels

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