The Road to Yuksom: A Religious Experience. Or, Four Wheeling in a MicroBus

Typical side of the road here

Today I left Gangtok, fair capital city of Sikkim. Cars are hard to come by for transport to Yuksom, in part because this is a starting point for many mountain expeditions. It’s climbing time here, so cars are all booked. I managed to get transport in a Suzuki microvan. Not minivan, microvan. Barap the travel agent tried for a four-wheel drive vehicle, but there just weren’t any. And he himself could not come with me, as he was in a documentary and a television crew that came to do some last minute shooting. He had another friend go instead. In a way, I think we were safer in the microbus because we had more room on what was left of the road, but we had a hard time because of all the mud and rocks in places where there was no more road, or where there was a waterfall working its way across the road.

In my previous post, you read that it was a wild ride up to Kalimpong. Today’s drive made that road look like a parade ground. Many of the cars here have slogans or names across the top of the windshield, and at first I thought maybe these were company names. But after some reading, I could see they were names like “Jesus”, “Madonna”, “Ganesh”, “Resurrection”, “Sita”, “Kali” and others. There was cloth draped above the rear-view mirror and bells hung from it in every car I was in, and I didn’t think much of it until today when I realized that the cloths were prayer flags and the bells hung from packets of prayers. The car might seem a strange place for religious worship to you, but up here, there is a lot of praying for divine protection done in and about the car. There was today in my microvan, anyhow. One’s life is clearly at risk on these roads. I don’t think I have ever been on a more treacherous path in my life. They don’t mention that in my tour book. Torrential rain last night and this morning did not help matters.

Sheer drop-offs are anywhere from 200 to 1000 feet, there are rarely any guard rails or stones between you and the drop, the road is about one standard American lane wide (two microvans, wide), there are rockslides, mudslides, places where the paving has been totally washed away leaving only dirt and rocks, or places where it’s been washed away leaving only slick mud, and sinkholes that require you to climb over two foot ledges/hills in the road. Sometimes the paving is gone for a quarter mile. There are pools of water, running streams and waterfalls that are diverting over the road. In one place, the left half of the road had been cleanly removed by the hand of God and was simply a straight down drop of I don’t know how far. Hazards such as drunk drivers, school children, people hauling bamboo, goats, chickens and sleeping dogs hardly bear mentioning compared to the prior listing.

Mind you, the view is incredible.

It is less than 60 miles from Gangtok to Yuksom. It took us 6.5 hours. For the first three hours, I was so busy trying not to be terrified that it was hard to take pictures. We stopped a couple of times, and that allowed me to get some shots, and as I got more used to it, I also tried to photograph the “drive by” scenes and capture the crazy road. I don’t think I managed to get it. The time we had to roll back down off the mud hill in the road and try again to surmount it (twice) was definitely an experience, but again, since my seat was two feet from a cliff ending in the Teesta river, I wasn’t too snap-happy. I would say “next time a 4×4” but because we had a narrow vehicle, we were able to have more room on the road to work with, and successfully dodge the boulders that had fallen into the road. I am not sure which car is better. The Suzuki had at least as much power and torque as my old VW beetle, which was enough for the situation, and as I said, it was very maneuverable.

My driver did an amazing job. Not only did he not hit one chicken, school child or dog, he found us a decent momo shack, and fresh roasted corn on the cob with lime& salt. Kudos are due to the Suzuki as well: the little taxi that could. I suspect, though, that me, the driver, our other passenger and the cab all have a higher power to thank for today’s survival.

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