June 2011, a bit before midnight, its raining like crazy here. I am in Pelling, a little village in the Est of the Himalayan range, at the bottom of the Kanchenjunga, the 3rd highest mountain in the world.
I just came back from a 8 days trek to the Goecha La pass, an amazing place, some 4940 meters above sea level, with a stunning view over the majestic white mountain, the Kanchenjunga that make the border between India and Nepal
My starting point for the trek was a little village call Yuksom, and after I went back down from the pass, I had decided to hitchhike from there all the way to Leh, one of the most remote place of the country, on the complete other side of the Himalayan ranges, in the North West of India.
My departure from Yuksom was about to became the first step of a great hitchhiking trip, a 6 month last longing journey through the great Asian subcontinent, Nepal included. Back then I was not aware that I was about to rock the place from north to south, latitude by latitude with a total of 12 000 kilometers all by lift. Jumping in cars or behind motorbikes. In the cabins of the so comfortable and famous Indian truck’s brand « TATA », or simply sharing a free scary ride with a drunk taxi-jeep’s driver in the middle of one of the most dangerous road in the world ! But those are stories for an other time.
My first hitchhiking trip in India ever is kind of long. I mean I am passing from cars to cars, going up and down the numerous loopy road of the Sikkim state. All together its just like a long bumpy ride. I once rest somewhere in a restaurant for a Samosa, but only to keep on going. One don’t see the sun that much in some valleys of the Himalaya and I don’t know how much time I have left before the sunset.
Its my first hitchhiking day in the country, I don’t wanna end up on the border of the road in the middle of nowhere with a 30 kilometers journey at the end of my day. In fact I just come from a great hitchhiking trip around South east Asia, all the way through Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and back to Thailand,and I know I can hitchhike this country too.
I am walking down the road anytime I can to save time, trying to reach the next cross point. « Next cross point » means a lot for me. More cars opportunity and obviously less cars that don’t go my way. « Keep on walking » is my everlasting hitchhiking mantra.
Though it take ages to do few kilometers in Sikkim. I feel I am driving a lot and I only need to do 100 kilometers if I want to sleep in Pelling at the end of the day, but as I am reading the kilometers on the white stones on the border of the road its seams that I am not really moving. 20 kilometers is the end of the world on those roads, and to go from the bottom of one valley to the next one is a real adventure trip. Walking through deeply muddy « main road » Or crossing doubtful bridges one after the other !!! Even if I am gradually going down in altitude every minutes closer to the sea level the high peaks of the mountains made the road going up and down, again and again, endlessly. From rivers to valleys, from hill side to lost villages, from old stone bridges to seasonal Bamboo span. My plan is first to reach New Delhi some 1700 kilometers away from Yuksom. Then from there, to take the road up the Himalaya again but on the west range this time, till the really end of it, Leh, in the Jammu- and Kashmir state.
But well back on the roads of Sikkim, this trip of almost 3000 kms look kinda harsh. A foolish dream. I am already struggling to do a little 100 K and time and speed seams to have a complete different definition in this part of the world.
At the end of my day I am walking up the road (again!!!), its seams that there is a little place around the corner. Coming closer I can finely see a white stone with the inscription Pelling 0 !!!
That’s it, I have done it. I am glad to see this little village, finely. I can say I am off for the day, I am completely exhausted. I had walked the last kilometers that separate Pelling from where my last lift left me on the road and I really need a bed.
I quickly manage to find a tiny cozy Guesthouse. They serve great ginger tea and awesome chapati, I am in bliss.
Its raining now. It always rains at this time of the day during this season, its getting dark and I don’t last long before I decide to go to sleep.
At one point around midnight a huge noise, followed by a general power cut wake me up. Its raining like crazy now and the sound of the rain cover the valley with a loud mantle. « The thunder must have cut the power » I thought,before going back to sleep.
On the next morning I wake up late, around 10h30 the power is still off. I don’t know why but there is no way to got a breakfast in town. In my guest house the restaurant is closed, no one is here. Same same for the other places, all closed.
I eventually find a place open but as soon as I ask for a breakfast the owner tell me « Not today. » Not really understanding I beg the man, all the other places are closed, I have nothing with me to eat, I am starving and I need to keep on going. The man at last agree to cook for me but telling me he will quickly do something but no way to chose what it will be, fried eggs and toast. It will do.
All this seams unusual, the shops are all closed but there is a kind of agitation in the streets. I ask more questions. There had been a Landslide down the road during night. The power cut was not due to the thunder but because the lines had been swept by the mud. Apparently one house a bit away from the village had been swallowed by the dirt snake.
As I finish my breakfast the owner ask me if I wanna come, they are going down the road to see if they can help. At first I am not sure. I need to go further and its already late, but the landslide had just cut the road I will need to take and after all the guy was nice to me so I accept.
Once there the spectacle is terrifying. From above our head to the bottom of the valley far away down, there is a long lane that have been carved into the mountain. A gigantic worm trail that had leave the place quite deadly, empty of houses, trees, concrete roads and so on. All there is, is a dirty lane 20 meters wide, like a long halfpipe running down the slop of the mountain but cover with mud.
There is a lots of people here, looking down from the border of the road. The military forces are already here trying to dig out eventual survivors. Fireman, police, doctors are actively trying to do something.
As soon as I put my feet on the ground from the car that brings me to the place I almost slip. There is so much mud all over the ground that my Australian crocks are of no use. Neither can I do anything barefoot. I am useless. Anyway the military and few strong man of the village are taking things in charge.
As I am looking helplessly the scene I decide to have an other view of what is going on. I got my camera with me and I start to shoot. What there is to see can give you a closed idea of the incredible power of the landslide. Once there were here a place which housed 14 persons . All there is left is a mucky doll foolishly smiling among the rest of the destroyed house, a real mess, and an old armchair hanged up in the air, impaled on a standing wooden branch.
I then came back up the road. I realized that the military had already dig out one body. Partly cover with a woolen blanket, the feet of the corpse are coming out. I can see that the stiff dead body is cover with mud. Sad reality.
The only survivor is a shaking goat. The animal is bleeding, both her horns had been wrench, but still laying on the top of her head. I am shocked, I can see from here that the horns of such animals are empty, and the beast is still living. She must had taken a huge rock on her face cause she is all swollen and blind. Carnage !!!
On the side of the road one elder man is sitting, I don’t really knows if he is crying or if he is only old. I wanna leave this place.
On my way up I cross the road of a bright smiling India girl. She is carrying a pitch off water on her shoulder and her smile give back some hope to the gloomy starting day.
I reach my guesthouse by foot this time, on the way, I went across more worms trails, here and there the road in cover with huge rocks that big machines are now trying to get ride off.
Once in my guest house, I find someone to pay. Grabbing my backpack I toke the road once again. No way to expect any car by now the road is blocked, but I wanna walk down the valley until I reach the next cross point. From there I will find cars in order to continue.
My First hitchhiking experience in the country lead me to some crazy reality of the everyday life in the Indian Himalaya. What to expect next. All I know is that I am still going down, leaving the lonesome land of the mountains. Leaving the mud and the rain behind me, I am expecting to experience really soon the heat of the sun and the taste of the dry dust forming everlasting clouds on the boarder of the roads and streets of the subcontinent, feeling up the air and the lungs of the over abundant population of India. All of this, I don’t know it yet but I am ready to expect the unexpected, I have my house on my shoulder and my legs are still carrying me, I can go to the end of the world if I want and this is a good thing cause in fact this is were I go.