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A ride to remember

We had been planning our cycling trip to Sikkim’s Gurudongmar Lake since January and it finally happened in April. Five of us, members of The Adventurers, rode off without knowing it, but returned having become the first cyclists to reach the 17,100ft lake from New Jalpaiguri (NJP).

On the ride was Palash Ghosh, an insurance executive and our leader, Sujoy Das, a techie, and the assistant leader, Jagannath Ghosh, another techie, Susant Mohankur, an aspiring engineering student and myself, Navonil De Sarkar, a PhD scholar researching on cancer.

We had reached NJP by bus and train and our cycles went with us on the train. MLA Sujit Bose had gifted us two bikes and the petrol pump opposite City Centre — Salt Lake Service Centre — had provided us with our jerseys and track pants.

We had put up at Kanchanjanga stadium at Siliguri the first night and set off on wheels the following morning. The trip lasted from April 2 to 7.

Day One: New Jalpaiguri to Singtam

Our 18-speed gear Hercules Rodeo Turner bikes were ready for us. We set off at 7.15am under clear blue skies. The first day would be a 94km ride. Though it sounds like a daunting task, we had practised for almost two months in Calcutta, riding 100km from Science City to Gosaba.

As is the norm, we took note of any weak rider and made sure he — Susant — was always the second or third rider in the pack. We were stopping every hour or so for tea and Wai Wai, the popular noodle brand of those areas. We soon learnt not to eat chicken in high altitude areas, as it was remaining fibrous no matter for how long the chef cooked it.

We reached Singtam at around 4.30pm and saw everyone around us wearing masks, to escape the dust. Even we had to buy masks that day, over and above our complete cycling gear. We spent the night at the cheapest hotel we could find. The entire trip cost us Rs 20,000 per head.

Day Two: To Mangan

Jagannath’s brakes failed on this day, but luckily it didn’t end in an accident. We had a support van carrying our luggage, dry food and repair equipment but it wasn’t riding alongside us. It was overtaking us and stopping 10km ahead. Once we realised Jagannath’s brake was failing, I rode ahead to the van and beckoned it to return to where the bike was. We couldn’t call the driver over mobile phone as it had been drizzling intermittently and we had left all our electronic equipment in the van.

Day Three: To Pegong

We needed special permission from the sub-divisional magistrate to ride further and luckily, got the paperwork done without much difficulty. We left at 11.30am and reached Pegong at 5pm, putting up at the Indo-Tibetian Border Police guesthouse. We were touched and honoured by their hospitality and were saddened to see how much damage last year’s earthquake has caused there. The rooms we stayed in had cracked walls, some of the police quarters had notices outside saying they have been abandoned due to damage caused by the earthquake. We even saw a monastery on the way that looked like it would collapse any minute.

Day Four: To Lachen via Chunthung

It had been raining since the night before we were to set off. We put on our raincoats but they weren’t foolproof. Riders’ raincoats only reached up to our knees and so our lower legs and shoes were drenched. Raindrops landed on our faces and trickled down to under the coats. It didn’t help that we were sweating profusely too.

The rain had resulted in slush, as deep as six inches on some stretches and our cycle tyres were sinking up to their rims. We had to get off the bikes and push them on several occasions.

We had previously established contact with CPWD assistant engineers Sridhar Mondal and Umesh Yadav and they arranged free accommodation for us at Lachen. They also warned us about certain roads where rocks had come lose from mountain sides and fallen on the roads.

Day Five: To Thangu

The temperature was 12C but we had to take off at 7am. But so difficult was the ride, sometimes at inclinations of 45-50 degrees, that after an hour we realised we had only crossed around five kilometers! The rain would not stop. In fact, at around 1.30pm, we realised that the rain had given way to snow.

We could not stop and admire the beauty of the snowfall. On the contrary, it was us who were getting stared at and admired! The locals were awestruck seeing us. Later we realised it was because they had never seen cycles in real life before! They were calling out to their children and pointing at us as if to show what a cycle looks like. They offered us food and water but told us point black that we would never be able to reach Gurudongmar Lake in that weather on bikes.

Now that we think of it, we only saw one other cycle besides ours on the entire trip, that too at Chunthung on our way back. And since there were no cycles, there were no cycle repair shops anywhere either. We knew we were on our own.

Day Six: To Gurudongmar Lake

On our last day we were supposed to leave at 6am but we woke up to find our cycles frozen! The snowfall and -20C temperature had stiffened our tyres and jammed our gears and brakes. We didn’t know what to do. We thought of using mobil and cigarette lighters to warm our bike but the lighters were hardly working in those conditions. We had to use Zippo lighters finally. Even then we had to be careful not to overheat the tyres and wires.

We started an hour late and oxygen was very low. Army officials had warned us to reach the lake and return by 1pm as snowstorms start there from noon, but we were way behind schedule. In fact, when we reached the lake at 1.40pm, we could barely get off and marvel at our feat for the army had already sent out a search team to look for us!

We, along with our bikes, got ushered into the army vans and driven away to safety. It was much later that we realised our achievement. We also learnt from the army that no one before us had been granted permission to cycle up to the lake from New Jalpaiguri so we are perhaps the first people to do so.

Back in Calcutta, we have now all gone back to our jobs but the trip was one to remember. In fact, we are already planning our next adventure trip.

(L-R) Susant Mohankur, Navonil De Sarkar, Jagannath Ghosh, Palash Ghosh and Sujoy Das at the Gurudongmar lake