After a few days spending time in the busy town of Darjeeling, I decided to take a taxi to get to Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim province. Even to get a taxi was difficult since its a tourist season now. After lingering around the town for an hour, I finally got one who agreed to take me and my bicycle to Gangtok. At first the road was super busy, trucks and jeep everywhere on the small road getting out of Darjeeling. Getting out of small town of Darjeeling itself took us about half an hour. But after a few minutes riding out of Darjeeling, the road slowly became quiet. I was smiling myself, finally now I can get my bicycle rolling… rocking the road in India!
We crossed the Sikkim border at Rangpo, which took only a few minutes for me to register myself at the Sikkim border province. I already applied the permit for Sikkim in Darjeeling, which is very easy to get. After that, the road started to climb passing by Singtam all the way to Gangtok. Again, I couldn’t find any hotels in Gangtok so I ended up staying in Tadong, about 6km from Gangtok centre. My hotel is sitting right at the mainroad so its so noisy and chaotic but the owner of the hotel is so friendly and helpful. But Gangtok is somehow cleaner and actually less chaotic compared to Darjeeling. It is located on a hill surrounded by beautiful views of the Himalayas mountain range. The people are so nice and helpful, majority of the faces here look a lot like Bhutanese people but with totally different style of clothing. Its so colourful and rich of culture. Gangtok is the capital of Sikkim province and its well managed and so clean! They even ban smoking in public areas here and have designated areas for smokers. Somehow it feels a bit like in Eastern Europe.
I stayed a few days here in Gangtok, taking a rest and tried to continue writing my book but failed, since it was too noisy and chaotic even from my hotel room. So I just visited the surrounding areas like Bakthang waterfalls and some monasteries. There are so many monasteries and temples here, both Buddhists and Hindus but I just visited two of them. I’ve seen so many temples in Bhutan and China before and I think I have enough of it. I even met a Bhutanese monk who resides here in one of the monastery in Sikkim. He is originally from Paro and was happy to hear that I came from Bhutan just a few days ago and had a great time there. Most places that I went is full with tourists and prices are high now everywhere. I’m basically stucked now and not sure what should I do next…
I went to the tourist information centre and the FRO office to extend my permit in Sikkim to a month long. I also went to a few travel agent here in Gangtok city to get more information about trekking and cycling in Sikkim but it seems now is the worst time to visit Sikkim. Hotels are full everywhere, Im not allowed to wild camp anywhere in Sikkim and its raining most of the time. I cant even go hiking alone by myself just because there was one tourist was lost while trekking in west Sikkim two years ago. I need a guide and another foreigner to hike anywhere in Sikkim. The travel agent here can provide me a guide but I need to find a partner which is difficult because Im travelling alone. I cant cycle towards the north of Sikkim since a bridge was destroyed just a few days ago and it will take many days to recover. My only hope is now to cycle towards the west of Sikkim and hoping that I will find a foreign tourist to team up with me to hike the western area of the province. And the chances for that is very slim since its monsoon season now and there are almost no foreign tourist here now. The raining season will end only somewhere end of August. I started to get serious in planning things now. I started to live the future, my mind was toying around with ideas even though my body was in a restaurant eating rice and curry. Maybe I will travel another 3-4 weeks in Sikkim and then find a safe place to put my bike and other stuffs, and travel light and fly to Europe or Eastern Africa for 6-8 weeks to escape the monsoon and come back by mid August. Crazy ideas started coming in and I was just play along with it.
In my experience, the speed of time is always relative. It moves slower when we concentrate right at it. When we are counting days and do nothing while waiting for some important event in our lives, it moves slower. But when we ignore it completely and concentrate on something else, it moves much faster, and in most cases, we don’t actually realized how fast it moves. That is the case with me while travelling in Bhutan. I felt that it was only a few days that has passed since I was in Bhutan, while it was actually almost a month since I touched down in this country. After Bhutan, my plan was to cross into Sikkim Pradesh in India by land. I supposed to cycle and cross into India via Phuentsholing, the border between Bhutan and Sikkim. The Bhutanese side allowed me to do that, but the problem will arise once I face the Indian border officers. It is quite complicated since I’m a foreigner where I need a permit to be in Sikkim region of India. So I had no other choice but to do the long way round, I flew from Paro all the way to Kalkota airport to enter India. Once I touched down, I rushed into their domestic airport to catch another flight to Bagdogra, the nearest airport to Sikkim, which is not so far from Bhutan. In this case, time moves really fast, imagine within only an hour, I had to catch another flight, carrying all my luggage and a bicycle, passes through the endless hassle of security check and long queues in one of the busiest airport in India.
Once I reached Bagdogra airport, time moves a little slower, it was less crowded. After I got all my luggage and the bicycle, I took a taxi to send me to Darjeeling. India is the second most populated country in the world, with over 1 billion people. I would never travel with my bicycle in a crowded place. I still remember the nightmare leaving Urumqi, the busy city of Xinjiang, China with my bicycle. Riding side by side with buses and lorries on a super busy road is no fun. Im the type of person who prefer something quiet, dark and mysterious. I can survive weeks talking to no one, alone in the mountains or deserts, but I wouldn’t survive a big city. So I decided not to cycle from Kalkota or even Siliguri and I took a taxi to get me to Darjeeling while my bicycle is still packed inside the box. The road was super busy and polluted in Siliguri. Its packed not only with cars and pedestrians, but also dogs. Less than 10 minutes we drove out of the airport, the taxi driver already hit a dog crossing the road. The journey took about 5 hours to reach Darjeeling. After half an hour we rode out of Siliguri, the road became calm but the climb started. The taxi driver speaks some English so we chat a little. He showed me his new shiny phone and proudly told me that he just got this phone. Its a big screen smartphone. “This is a very biggest phone and its very good! It is made in India!” he said proudly. I was surprised and asked him what is the name of the brand. “Its Samsung”, he said confidently. I gave him my smile. The climb was very long and steep. The road is very small but still packed with tourist jeeps. Lucky I didn’t choose to ride to Darjeeling right from the airport.
Once we reached Darjeeling, it was already dark. The driver sent me right at the taxi stand and left me there with all my luggage. I couldn’t carry everything by myself and it was too dark to assemble my bicycle in the middle of the busy taxi stand. So another local driver came and asked me to pay some rupees and he will help me to find a hotel. It seems that now is the busy season, there are so many domestic tourists coming to Sikkim from all over India and all the hotels are full. The first challenge came to me right at my first day in India, to find a place to sleep. After asking a few hotels, there was one family run guesthouse located about 3km out of Darjeeling which has just one more room left for only a night. I had no other choice but to take it. It was owned by a Ghurka family, very nice and hospitable, they gave me free food for the night as they sensed that I was tired and hungry. The next day they asked me to join them for tea, again giving me free food for breakfast. Since all the rooms were fully booked, they asked me to change, where they have a store room available for me to sleep for the next few nights while I was trying to find other available room in some other hotels. I agreed and moved all my stuffs in the store room. It wasnt that bad actually, even though its not a proper room but it was very quiet since it was facing the hills. I then walked to the centre of Darjeeling and found some hotels, but I decided not to move to those hotels in the middle of the city since it was way too crowded and noisy. I then told the Ghurka family that I wouldn’t mind to stay a few nights in the store room, plus the charged me so cheap for that. They also treated me so well, always invited me for tea and always eager to listen to my travel stories… and gave me free food while staying there.
I came to India totally unprepared and I expected nothing but the unexpected. So I stayed a few days in Darjeeling, doing nothing but taking a rest, walked around the town, reading books and doing some research about travelling in Sikkim. It seems that its really the wrong time to travel in Sikkim now. It is some school holiday in India until the end of June, most hotels are fully booked and the monsoon season is right around the corner. Most of the time I couldn’t even see Darjeeling even though I’m in the town. The clouds are hiding the town from my eyes most of the time. Sometimes the visibility is as bad as less than 50 meters. But once the clouds gave way for Darjeeling to show herself, its beautiful. I see tea plantation almost everywhere on the hills surrounding the town. I see a very nice colour tone between the green hills and the blue sky surround the town. But Darjeeling itself is a really busy town. There are so many tourists and the traffic is really bad. But I still managed to smile, being in a very high populated country, I’m really experiencing India now and trying to get used to it, its just a matter of time…
After almost a month spending time in this small and charming country of Bhutan, the time has finally come for me to say goodbye to this amazing country. Even though I didn’t stay too long here in Bhutan, I managed to learn a lot while being in this country. When I looked at the world map during my childhood days, I always wonder what kind of country it is when I see Bhutan, stucked between 2 great empires, China and India. I have thousands of questions just by looking at it. How does the Bhutanese looks like, what language do they speak, how do they live their lives and what kind of landscape furnish the country. Now after being here, explored deep into the mountains and see the city life of its capital, thousands of those questions were answered. A month is definitely not enough to really understand the country. Its only an introduction, nothing more. A month is not enough for the locals here to recognize me as their own, they still see me as a tourist, a foreigner. Even though many times the locals in the mountains and villages thought that I’m one of their own because of my look and the way I eat, but I still dont speak their language.
When I was travelling from Malaysia all the way to central Kazakhstan, it was amazing to see how culture and the look of the people change, slowly… the transition from the brown people of Malays all the way to the Russians. From pure brown people of Malays who live in the Malaysian peninsula, people start to change very slowly when I travelled north. Once I crossed into the Thai border, they still have brown skin tone but the language starts to change. The sound of the language is somehow a bit like Malay mix with Chinese. Their eyes become slightly smaller, more like a mixture between the Malays and the Chinese. The further north I went, the sound of the language change again, into Vietnamese or Laotian, their eyes become smaller and the skin become fairer, yellowish. The further north I proceeded, I started to hear the Chinese language and the people has pure yellow skin tone. Crossed into the far north of China, the people starts to have bigger size body proportion, probably because of the colder weather and their food intake. Crossing into the Central Asian border of Kyrgyzstan or Kazakhstan, they still have yellowish skin tone and small eyes, but their hair becoming blonde and they speak Mongol-Turkic group of language. The further north I proceeded, their skin becoming white and I started to hear they speak Russian. Its amazing to see how the characteristic of people change from place to place, just like how you see the slow changes of trees from sea level all the way to high altitude land.
I also have seen the transition between the Chinese and the Turkish, by observing the changes slowly between Uighurs, Kazakh, Kyrgyz and Tajiks. I could feel the mixture of the look, the culture and language between Turkish and Chinese by observing the people of Central Asia. But I always have this question, how is the transition like between the Chinese and the Indians. They look very different to my eyes and the language is so different. And here in Bhutan, I finally get the feel of it. The unique culture of Bhutan is somehow like a mixture between the two great civilization, Chinese and Indians. Sometimes, their language sounds Chinese to me, sometimes it sounds like Mongol and sometimes, it also sounds like Hindi. I even asked my guides while they were talking to each other, “are you guys speaking the same language all these while?”. Their look and their characteristic also seems like in between… even the music they listen to! I always find it amazing how this earth is populated by so many different races of people. I have yet to see the transition between Asians and Caucasians. Ural… a mountain range located in the middle of Russia, I heard thats where the transition starts for these two great human races. I hope that one day I will live long enough to witness that transition by putting myself in the Ural mountain range… “insyallah”, like what Tshering always said to me.
To my eyes, Bhutan is really developing fast into becoming one of the greatest country. They’re the only country in the world with not only carbon zero, but carbon negative emission country. They produced very minimal, emitting around 1.5 million tonnes of carbon annually from their factories etc, but their forest absorbs 4 times that amount. Their government is very careful on that, they care for each single tree in the country. They even take care of their tradition, allowing only a certain numbers of tourists coming to the country each year, to preserve their tradition and way of life. They care most about quality rather than quantity. Each Bhutanese soul is rich with the Buddha teachings. My friend Tshering for example, is very determined to reach the Nirvana, the enlightenment. Concentrating on the GNH (Gross National Happiness) rather than the GDP, they really takes care of every Bhutanese soul. They want everyone to live happily in the country. They care more about the time spent with their family rather than material possession. The average income per person jumped to USD1600 per person from USD400 monthly in just 7 years. The government is currently building roads now to connect all the villages in the country. Almost every Bhutanese, surprising even the nomads in the high mountain can at least have basic conversation in English. With all these, I cant wait to see how Bhutan will look like in 5 years. If both the government and the people keep having good relation with each other, soon they will be as good as Singapore or even Japan. They love their king, the prince charming of Himalayas, who is both very traditional yet highly educated. I almost had the chance to meet their Prime Minister, to shake his hand and have a short and good conversation with him, but too bad it was too last minute and he has a very tight schedule. But there is always a next time. I plan to visit this country again, probably after a year or two, see if I can have the opportunity to travel the country with its new road with my two wheels, cycling from end to end of Bhutan.
A wise man once told me… nothing in this life is coincidence, nothing is random, even when shuffling cards or throwing a dice. We always thought that throwing a dice is random simply because we dont control the force. We human are so weak that we cant even control our force precisely. But to think it over, when we throw a dice and it ends up at number 6, is no coincidence. How hard we throw it, the angle of our hand, the gravity, the air pressure, the wind, the surface… everything contribute to how the dice ends up at number 6. The mother nature already know it will end up at 6… only us humans… are lack of that knowledge. The wise man then continued, nothing is coincidence, it was all planned and written… long ago, during the “zulumat”. Everything happen for a reason… every small thing.. even the most unimportant thing to our eyes. Every entity has its own purpose in this universe, everything was written, we are here only to experience.. to realize.. nothing more. So life is to experience and to realize… to realize the truth and surrender to it. Lastly, that wise man, who is a sufi master, explained that this life is a journey, a human journey, to experience. So live your life as a musafir, a traveller… be in a journey, be on the road… the goal is to collect experience. Live with minimum belongings, too much material possession will feed the greed inside you and it will outgrow you. The wise man’s words went deep inside my heart. I then decided to live my life as a musafir, a traveller… a nomad. And whenever I meet another nomad, I observe them thoroughly, studying everything about them…..
While in Laya, I stayed with a nomad family, theyre yak herders living high in the mountains with their yaks and horses. But on winter time, they retreat back to Laya. I’ve been following and studying nomads in many places now. Ive seen nomads who dwell between Siberia and Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Xinjiang and now… Bhutan. They all have something in common, they live with their herds, they all live the hard life, they possess very little things, they’re kind and friendly, they give even they dont have much and they know well their surroundings. They can read if the weather will turn bad from the sound of birds, the condition of the snow and the pattern of the sand in the desert. Here in Laya, the nomad that became my host named Tshering, doesnt talk much except when necessary. A man who doesnt talk much, is difficult to predict. There is an art to learn a man from his talking, not by listening directly to his saying, but by studying the between the lines. The choice of his words, his tone, the speed of his talking, everything can be turned into information. Like I said earlier, nothing is coincidence, nothing is random, everything is related, cause and effect. But this man is quiet most of the time, so I tried to learn him by studying his wrinkles. A man who has passes over 40 years old, you can read his life experience by studying the wrinkles on his face. Tshering has survived the cold Bhutanese winter 51 times in his life but his physical body and strength easily beats a 25 years old man. A very strong man, he climbs the high mountains like a normal man walks in a shopping mall…
Two days I stayed in his house with his 2 adorable kids, they smiled everytime we had eye contact but they dont talk much either. They’re shy kids, when looking at them straight in their eyes, they smiled and quickly looked away… sweet little kids. After 2 days resting in Laya, we packed our stuffs into Tshering’s horses. I wanted to follow him to the high mountains where he will dwell there for the whole summer with his yaks. So he took all his 9 horses and take as much stuffs as they can carry… including firewoods. Its a 2 days journey to get to the high mountains where he will set his summer camp, but to return back to Laya takes only a full day, since its mostly going down instead of climb. After everything was prepared, we then started our journey, walking slowly leaving the village behind. Besides having 2 kids, Tshering also surprising, has 2 wives. On the first day it was only a short 2 hours walk, we walked to his other house on the next valley, where his other wife was waiting for him. We walked down from the valley where Laya is, crossed a river and begin to climb the next valley where his other house is. Once we reached his other house, Tshering and his 2 wives quickly unpacked all the stuffs from the horses and pitched our tents and made some fire inside the house to warm us. Theyre nomads… and theyre very hospitable to travellers. They make sure that my stomach is always full and I always feel warm inside their house. In the evening, I started to see their yaks came back from all over the place. They have probably around 30 yaks. They need to take the yaks to the high mountains because this place will be swarmed by flies by summer. Plus the grass is so fresh during summer in the high mountains. So I’m here at the right time to witness the animal migration.
The next morning, they woke up early to prepare the journey to the summer camp, high in the mountain very near Tibetan border. They feed their yaks and horses, put all our stuffs on their horses, had a good breakfast together and finally, hit the road. It was a very steep climb right when we started, gaining high in elevation before moving through the high altitude forest. Then, slowly the trees disappearing as we moved higher in altitude. We passed valleys after valleys, towards the Tibetan border. We stopped a while for lunch near a river before proceeding higher. At one point, we passed the tree line and finally the landscape turned into grass and rocks, which means we are already very high in the thin air. I was walking right behind Tshering with his horses, while the two wives, my guide and his friends together with the yaks were far behind. While I was exhausted from the long trek, Tshering pointed a snowy peak mountain high above, signalling that we are heading there. I was surprised, it looks really high, that peak in front of us must be at least 7000m high. I stood still for a few seconds, inhaling all the fresh air into my lungs before proceeding, trying to catch up with him. Looking at him, he didn’t seems to show any sign of fatigue. He climbed as in he’s still fresh. I climbed really slowly, trying to catch up with him but he just got further every second. I was exhausted, my legs were really tired, so I used more force from my upper body to push myself up with the tree branch that I used as a walking stick. I stopped once in a while, to get enough air and enjoy the magnificent view of the mountain range. After more than an hour, I felt really exhausted and couldnt go any further. When I looked up, the snowy peak was still far from reach. But just after a few more steps, I saw a small flat area. Tshering finally stopped and start unpacking his horses. I felt relieved, we finally reached our destination. It was cold, the wind was blowing and the icy rain fell upon us.
We quickly pitched our tents and I quickly grabbed my thick parka since I fell really cold. I felt so tired and took a good rest inside my tent. An hour later, my guide, his friends and the two wives arrived together with the yaks. Then they started to pitch their traditional tent made from yak’s fur. One thing I realized here in Bhutan, they never tie their horses or the yaks unlike in Central Asia. Back in Kyrgyzstan, if I dont tie my horse’s legs, it will runaway and I will have problem catching it. But here, they just leave their animals roaming free. If they need to catch their animals, they will just climb the mountains to find them. Weather here changes so rapidly. You see the sun for a few minutes then it will rain just 5 minutes later. The clouds were so thick that I couldnt see much views. The visibility was very poor. It was getting darker so I took early dinner and went to sleep early.
I woke up really early the next morning but since it was too cold, I stayed inside my tent until I started to see the sunlight shining through the tent window. I went out and was surprised to see the beautiful landscape under the clear sky. I had a quick breakfast and quickly took my camera out to film the surroundings and the daily activities of Tshering and his two wives with their yaks. They get the milk from their yaks early morning and make sure their yaks and horses roam at the right places to get the good grass. It seems like a hard life but they’re so used to it. Sometimes Tshering and his wife will come back down to Laya once in a while to visit their kids. But most of the time during summer, they will spend their time here in the high mountain to look after their animals. I asked why don’t they live comfortably in the city, they said that they’re so used to living in the high mountains and they feel like an alien living in the city. Plus they don’t know how to live their life other than this… living the nomadic way of life is their only way. This has been their way of life since generations. “A true nomad”, I whispered to myself while looking deep inside their eyes studying their souls.
After 5 days of resting in Thimpu, I finally got the good news, my visa was successfully extended and I managed to get all the permits needed to go further. Without wasting time, me and my Bhutanese trekking guide, Lhawang drove for the whole day from Thimpu to a remote village called Gasa. The road was good half way until a town called Punakha (which is the country’s first capital before moving to Thimpu), then its dirt mountain road all the way to Gasa which took us hours to reach. We reached Gasa when it was dark so we stayed a night there.
The next day, we left Gasa early. The trek from Gasa to Laya is long and difficult and we needed to complete it in a day. The government is building good roads all over Bhutan now to connect all the villages but the road construction to Laya from Gasa had just begun. The road from Gasa only goes for a few kilometers plus it is still under construction. We had the wrong choice of car so we only managed to drive only for a few kilometers before our car got stucked in the thick mud. The Bhutanese, whenever theyre in difficult situation, first they will joke and laugh hard, then only they start working. The action of pushing the car started but still… we failed. After a few minutes, we were lucky that we were saved by a 4wd jeep and we were sent all the way to the end of the road.
Upon reaching the end of the road, our horseman was already waiting for us. We then quickly packed all our stuffs on the horses since we were late and we started the long trek to Laya. It was only about 5-6 hours trek but it feels very long walking through the valleys following a big river. After about 4-5 hours of trekking, we finally reached an army checkpost where I need to show my army permit to go further. We were in the far north of Bhutan, where the Tibetan border is only a few kilometers away. After everything was ok, we pressed further, another an hour climb to the mountain to finally reach Laya, a very remote village in Bhutan, hidden by the clouds. It is the highest settlement in Bhutan sitting at about 3800m altitude.
Reaching this village is special. I feel like I’m travelling not only through space, but through time too. It feels like I just crossed into a magical portal and I was back to some 50 years ago. People here behave differently, the lifestyle is so different here compared to any other place, it feels so untouched.. making this village so special. The roads are currently being built here from Gasa and the electricity is coming here soon. Soon this place will be finally touched by modernization but I hope it wont touch the tradition and way of life of the people here. They’re very welcoming, everyone is friendly here and they give their smiles so easily… a signal showing that they’re approachable, a universal language of kindness, a free therapy.
I stayed 2 days here in Laya before going further and higher in the mountains. I visited a school here, with some 150 charming students. Despites a very remote village in the mountains, the population here is surprising quite big. The teachers here came from all over Bhutan. I could see that the facilities here are so limited. There is still no electricity here but its coming very very soon. The roads here are still being built, it takes a day to get here only by walking through the mountains and a few river crossings from Gasa, the nearest village. And even to get to Gasa is quite difficult by bad roads. But surprising, the students here are so well mannered, brilliant and they converse well in English. The teachers here are very determined and creative. Despites the lack of equipments, they still managed to bring the education level here to compete with other schools in Bhutan which have much better facilities.
I was invited to see inside the classroom and observed by myself how the classroom is conducted here. Travelling here really feels like travelling through time. Being here feels like I’m back in my school days. The teachers here do excellent job, the students here seem very interested in every word their teachers said. I also managed to watch English poetry recitation competition by the students. They seem really good at it, they pronounce most words very well and clear… a bit shy but lovely. They’re so discipline and everybody is quiet when their friends are performing.
The following day I just spent my time walking around the village, observing the village life here inside the clouds. I walked slowly, the altitude is high here and its very steep, since Laya is built on the mountainside. The air is cold and fresh, my lungs are pleased everytime i breath the fresh air inside my body. This village is really surrounded by nothing but mountains and clouds. Most of the people here are farmers and herders. Some of them including the teachers here, they play archery on their free time. Archery is the national sports here in Bhutan and theyre really good at it. With the distance of 150 meters, I can hardly see the target with my eyes. I have to get the help from my camera’s zoom lens to see it, but they managed to hit the target with their arrow most of the time.