India 🇮🇳: Motorcycle diaries – Full throttle 😈 in Meghalaya, the ‘Scotland of the East’ (day 3)

Today: 298km | Total: 686km

India just doesn’t stop surprising and show off its tremendous differences. Today was just another example as i reached the state of Meghalaya – the 3rd state on my motorbike trip and the 10th overall (just 19 more to go, one day 🤣😂).

First up a few snaps with the Royal Enfield Classic posing across Meghalaya (the 📸 was busy today)

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Get me out of here

I woke up late in the run down hotel i booked late last night. I didn’t sleep well despite having been supertired yesterday, as i was fighting off mosquitos all night, was without ventilation (energy-saving or power cut 🤔) and with the entertainment of an Armageddon type thunderstorm all night. Despite the relentless efforts of the resident muezzin and his adhans, nothing happened before 9am. I also skipped breakfast and left this hotel and city as fast i could.

Adhan – muslim call to prayer

The muezzin calls six times for prayer starting with sunrise. Means the times change every day and are location dependent. Check your times here.

Hello Meghalaya!

My general direction was south-east, further towards Bangladesh. On the border is a national park i want to visit, but that is for another day. First up, i wanted to get to Meghalaya’s capital – Shillong. And that was quite a few km away…

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The scenery improved significantly once i was out of Goalpara and even more so once i crossed from Assam into Meghalaya. I became more hilly (the highest peak in the state is almost 2000m and it did get cold late afternoon) and very, very curvy with many tiny villages wayside. So let’s bend it like Beckham!

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Topographical map shows hilly Meghalaya surrounded by the planes of Assam & Bangladesh

It just didn’t stop… Must have been close to 200km of relentless turns and twists today as i yanked my moto up and down the hills. The roads here are good meaning in good condition and with two marked lanes. Not much traffic either and generally decent driving (well, cutting corners remains popular). Absolutely a dream for any biker.

A Christian state with woman matter

The whole state felt different in general. 75% are Christians (vs. only 2% countrywide, one of three states with Christian majority), english is the main language (no more Bengali though there are several spoken native tongues) and people look different (more akin to people from Myanmar than your typical indian look if there is such a thing). There are little churches all over Meghalaya and seemingly a complete lack of Hibdu temples or shrines not to mention mosques.

The state is also referred to as the Scotland of the East due to its hilly and green countryside and i guess the rainfall too, which is nowhere higher than here in the world (12m annual rainfall!). I actually felt like in Cairngorms national park at times and like in Colombia in others.

Different to most india, the women carry the family name and inherit the wealth (matrilineality) – a tradition stemming from the three key tribes (Khasis, Jaintias and Garos) and by far not the only place in the world with such customs. I guess that makes local woman a tough match for muslim admirers.

This time i reached my destination before nightfall and after refreshing in a fantastic homestay (Rockski B&B), i enjoyed some continental food in Shillong. Great place this city – while very busy traffic wise, it is clean and organised. What a difference to Assam (well, lets not judge so quickly).

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India 🇮🇳: Motorcycle diaries – Crossing the Brahmaputra & offroad on ‘highway’ 46 (day 2)

Today: 203km | Total: 388km

I didn’t get going overly early and rather enjoyed a long chat with Laura (about to go to sleep being 11h behind) and the comforts of my hotel room – god only knows when i might encounter such ‘luxury’ again (the hotel was only 3mth old).

Into Assam

First up i headed 90km in a broadly southerly direction towards the city of Dhubri in order to cross the Brahmaputra river by boat (or i could wait until 2026 for the completion India’s longest river bridge at 23km).

 

Bangladesh was now always on my right and half way i crossed into Assam. There was a noticeable increase in muslim population as i rode along. 90% of Bangladeshi’s are muslims (following a large concentration / migration as part of the Indian partition, which created the muslim states of East and West Pakistan – the former now being Bangladesh). At 35% it is also high for Assam itself – more than double than Indian average (15%).

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India’s main rivers

India relies heavy on its rivers for everyday life and considers them holi in the Hindi religion. The three longest ones are Indus, Brahmaputra and Ganges though only the latter flows most of its length in India. To that extent, many other and shorter rivers like Godavari are actually more meaningful.

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Crossing the Brahmaputra river at Dhubri

Your basic options are smaller (very flexible timing) or larger ferries (neither with great safety records). I opted for the larger one to get a somewhat decent space for the rather heavy moto.

Afternoon ferries to the opposite side leave between 2.30pm and 3pm. I went with the latter (to make sure i have to wait even longer 😂) to arrive at Fakirganj. Quite an experience with an estimated 100+ people on what felt like a DIY boat, a lot of motorbikes and all sorts of goods on board. Last ferry also meant it was packed.

It took us 2hours as we cruised on the might Brahmaputra – 2,900km long and very deep at 38m average & 120m max depth… WOW! Beautiful scenery accompanied us throughout. Truly breath-taking!

There is quite some order on the boat – Women sit below deck while men above. What happens when it rains i dont know. The boat also features india’s cleanest and least smelly toilets with direct deposit into the river should you use them.

I spent the two hours talking a lot to locals (well, i haven’t met a foreigner since Siliguri) in broken english since i command zero Bengali. We talked about my country, my girlfriend, my travels (we watched the Lhotse video together and a snowboarding one from chamonix) and took lots of selfies. I was even asked for an autograph – a first!

Once arrived all people left and the crew managed to get the bike safely back to land. Time to hit the road again.

Following state ‘highway’ 46 – muddy potholes with speed bumps

Once off the boat i just typed a distant location into google with the aim of stopping somewhere on the way. What a mistake …

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First the map took me on highway 46 into ever more muddy roads until i needed another ferry. Enough ferried for today… So 180 degree turn and back. Same muddy roads, ponds… Worst i have been on with a moto. It all reminded me of the Sicily experience last year (Boys week: Sicily road trip) though i didnt get stuck this time.

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The additional handicap was the onsetting darkness and lack of road markings or lighting. What i thought was hilarious were the potholes upgraded by speed bumps – i mean it was not exactly a highspeed track. What a poor road!

Eventually i made it to highway 12 and could race the only property i found on booking – Hotel Moon Moon in Goalpara. Very visible muslim population and the most bureaucratic check in so far (maybe focus your energy more on the bathroom next time!). Both the city and hotel are a complete waste of time – dirty, noisy, dodgy .. You name it.

Anyway, after 113km in 4,5hours since disembarking the ferryboat i had made it. Time to sleep. I am exhausted. But love the adventure and the insights into this part of India i gained today. Road tripping baby!

India 🇮🇳: Motorcycle Diaries – Cruising East in West Bengal (day 1)

Today: 185km | Total: 185km

I left my hostel before 7am and walked to the taxi stand just grabbing a quick milk tea on the way. I felt mentally done with India somehow. Wanted no more now that dirt, the noise and hassle that had come back now (there is only one Sikkim!). Why now? I can’t say, but the fact that Darjeeling didn’t live up to my expectations wasn’t helpful. No more cities for me. Just get me out into the countryside, would you please?

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Arpan at Siliguri Bike Rental helped me out with a motorbike – this time a Royal Enfield Classic (350cc, 20bhp) vs. the off road touring version Himalaya i had in Gangtok (India 🇮🇳: Sikkim – a VERY different side of India). I felt immediately relieved as I got going albeit traffic in Siliguri held back my progress initially.

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Siliguri – Alipurduar: Tasting freedom

You couldn’t pick a much more generic description of a day out on a bike, but i really loved the liberating feeling today as i rode through the planes towards the eastern border of west bengal – always parallel to the Bhutan border keeping the mountains on my left side (though always in sight) and Bangladesh to the right.

Large green tea plantations, almost dry riverbeds, village people busy at work, kids playing cricket (mostly) or football (sometimes), Tata trucks filled with people, police check points (loads!) or army drills – you name it… It was all lovely to take in.

You see, on the bike you can always stop and take in the moment or scenery as you see fit. And i did just that. In short – the mere decision to leave cities behind me has revived my hunger to explore India. Thanks go to Royal Enfield motors!

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India 🇮🇳: Losing steam in Darjeeling

I had a lot of hope for my time in Darjeeling – the city of the champagne of teas – and all started very well. During my trekking in Sikkim i got to know a group of Romanian hikers under the leadership of a Romanian guide (Simina) who had travelled India and south-east asia intensely and even published a book. On top of having a lovely time socializing post hike in Yuksom, they also offered me a free and direct ride to Darjeeling… Hard to say no and with good views on the way (be it foggy ones as so often in these hills).

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Once in Darjeeling we were greeted by rain. So i buggered off to Glenary’s cafe for lunch and to sort accommodation. There weren’t many great options short notice and i was tired, so i booked a OYO hotel in the center. That night didn’t offer much bar a few beers at Joey’s and an early sleep.

Next day i headed back to Glenary’s for breakfast – black forest cake & brownie 😊. Apart from blogging i wasnt keen on much, but decided to get myself a ticket for the steam toy train ride. I did enjoy taking in the mountainous scenery though – all Darjeeling is built on hills just like Gangtok (but bigger).

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The train was a complete waste of time. Views are limited and only good on viewpoints that can be reached by other means faster and cheaper. The museum at India’s highest railway station (Ghum, 2,258m) offers a few insights into the engineering masterpiece the Himalayan train line was at the time, but still i felt underwhelmed.

Rain was back just in time for afternoon and eroded any last bit of drive i had that day. So back to Joey’s & the mobile. I ended up having a good conversation with two italians and later than evening with some locals. Still, i just wanted to get away from here. Sorry Darjeeling… I know there is a lot more on offer, but sometimes it just doesn’t work out.

Water crisis in Darjeeling

On the way to Darjeeling our drivers used the lunch break outside town to get their cars washed. I was told there is a water crisis in Darjeeling, which seems odd for a city with so much rain. Failure to keep reservoirs up with population growth as well as poor distribution infrastructure explain the issue.

A solution locals implemented were a host of private water supply lines (leaking big time) … This not only looks extremely confusing, but can only be a short-term fix i think. How hilarious 😂!

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India 🇮🇳: Sikkim – a VERY different side of India

Sikkim is a tiny state in the North of India nestled between Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan. Until 1975 it was actually an independent kingdom, but then an uprising removed the monarchy a d voted in a referendum to join as India’s 22nd state (a status long contested by China). At 610,000 population (0.04% of India) it is truly a minion even though Goa is smaller by area. It stands out though with a high literacy rate and fully organic farming – the first state in India.

Sikkim doesn’t feel like India at all to be honest. Its organised, clean, green… You get my point. Culture and language remain distinctly different to North India (even more vs. South) with Nepali the main spoken language (despite Nepal’s status of arch-enemy in the past) and Buddhism the 2nd religion (27%) after Hinduism (58%).

Getting to Gangtok

Initially i wanted to go to Darjeeling first and sort a few things for my 1trekking plans in Sikkim. However, i ended up sharing a ride to Gangtok (the capital of Sikkim) with two other travellers – Lizzie and Trey from the US. Saved me a lot of hassle too.

They are both into teaching and spent the last year in South India teaching english under the umbrella of a Christian organisation. It appeared that they were really happy with their experience be it not always easy. Now they were on a busy schedule checking out India in their last month.

On the way to Gangtok, in what turned out as a pretty wild ride along Sikkim’s narrow serpentine roads, i acquired my Inner Line Permit. It is required for all foreigners wanting to enter Sikkim – you need is a passport foto and a passport/visa copy. Very quick process. However, depending on your plans further permits may be required (north Sikkim, most multi day hikes etc).

Impressed in Gangtok

Gangtok felt soooo different as soon as we arrived. No-one hassled us (literally nobody asked me for anything in two days), there was a pedestrian area, almost no honking 🚙 🔊 and an order like nowhere else in India i had been to.

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Sikkim puts a lot of value on a clean state and has heavy penalties for littering (something that seems to be the sport of choice in many other parts of india). Well done! It looks and smells really different.

A statue (two) of Mahatma Gandhi on the main street reminded me of doing a bit of reading on the big man. See the blue box for a few highlights.

Mahatma Gandhi (1869 – 1948)
Mahatma Gandhi is very present when you stroll through India – be it banknotes, posters or statues – and likewise is he a ‘household name’ in the developed world though he was less important for my German history lessons – time to catch up.

Key facts

  • Led independence movement against British colonialists
  • Known for his non violent approach
  • India call him Father of the Nation
  • Born to a merchant caste (yet family relatively poor), he studied law in London and gathered first experiences of non violent civil disobedience as expat lawyer in South Africa
  • His birthday (2nd October) is a national holiday in India as well as International non-violence day
  • He was assassinated by 3 gun shots and his killer (Hindu nationalist) hanged. The motive was mainly around Gandhi’s stance  on India’s partition with some thinking it was too favorable towards Indian muslims during the partition of India & Pakistan in 1947

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A few Ghandi quotes i like

“Be the change that you want to see in the world.”

“An eye for eye only ends up making the whole world blind.”

“Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.” 

“Poverty is the worst form of violence.”

Cruising around East Sikkim on a Royal Enfield Himalaya

Having spent my first day to secure my hiking trip (see separate post) , i had a day spare before departing for the village of Yuksom. So i rented a motorbike and took it for a spin.

I managed more than 150km that day on windy roads – at times on decent tarmac, at times completely off-road and always with a steep drop on either side of you. Scary? Sure, sometimes. Amazing? Absolutely!

The bike i got was a Royal Enfield – a very popular brand in India yet not elsewhere. I comes mainly in two popular variations – an offroad tourer called Himalaya and a classic road version. There are more models though. I got myself the 411cc Himalaya (and was glad i did… As the advertising says: “Built for all roads. Built for no roads.”).

On my tour i visited viewpoints, monasteries and many mountain villages. Amazing memories. The rental agency was a little surprised how dirty the bike was after one day ‘local sightseeing’ 😉

Royal Enfield motorbikes

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With the first Royal Anfield produced in 1901, this indian motorcycle brand is the oldest in continuous production. Originally they were commissioned for police and army. You’ll find the bikes all over india with close to 700,000 produced per year. Selling their bikes in over 50 countries globally, royal anfield surpassed Harley Davidson in unit sales in 2015.