17/09/2011 – 27/09/2011 – Kaza to Rishikesh
There are some things you come to realise on a trip like this, some are worldy and wise (the population of a country should not be judged by their governments actions on the global stage) but some are a little more mundane. For example if your bags arent packed the night before you leave, your probably not going to leave until late the next day, if at all. An unpacked pannier breeds procrastination, perhaps i should stay another day, I could do with some more rest you think to yourself. Or a personal favourite, I need to catch up on the blog which is perpetually in a state of lag. Luckily, we did leave Kaza that day after lunch, mostly because if I didn’t then it would make getting to Dehra Dun to pick up some well-travelled parcels more of a tall order.
The deal was sweetened further as our first stop would be that evening in Tabo to visit a 1000 year old monastery only 30kms down the road. We caught up with Loretta and Brad two solo cyclists who we’d met in Kaza and enjoyed beer and momo’s in the evening. In the morning we ventured over to the small unassuming monastery in the centre of town. Part of the appeal of Buddhist monasteries are that they are usually perched precariously atop hills, Tabo’s ground level offering was a little less impressive. However, the paintings and mud sculptures of colourful monsters and enlightened beings adorning every wall and darkened corners provided some entertainment, but the visit was short lived as a special guest was arriving and we had to leave. We ended up outside sitting with a middle-aged American with a comb over trying to hark back to his bygone hippy lifestyle. Endowed with a now discontinued 10 year Indian visa, we listened to him babble on about Buddhism.
Loretta joined Tim and I as we continued down into the Spiti Valley, riding a super light set up of only two rear bags and full of stories from her time living in Alaska and 2 years of solo bike travel, I was interested to find out more about her solo cycling experiences. Leaving home over a year ago was a pretty big deal, venturing out into the unknown, swamped by the prospective distance, it was very scary, but that was accompanied by a friend. To have done all that alone as a woman takes guts, especially when your route takes you through predominantly patriarchal countries, but Loretta shrugs it off saying she’s never felt really threatened. In fact quite the opposite and in countries where you would have suspected some trouble for women, Pakistan for instance, the red carpet was rolled out every time with nothing but respectful behaviour towards her. She became an honorary male in many situations in addition to being able to interact with women as well, something we were certainly not able to do.
We passed a checkpoint later that day, handing over our permits for the region. In such close proximity to Tibet/China, the area is relatively sensitive despite the officers relaxed demeanour. After a day of cycling we were looking forward to getting to Nako and having some beers but it wouldn’t come as easily as we’d hoped, stopping to eat some momos (a staple Tibetan dish of dumplings) we’re told by an old man that its downhill to Nako. This completely contradicts what other people have told us but late in the day we’re all happy to blindly take his word and discount the previous advice. Around the corner the road steeply climbs from the riverside in a series of switchbacks scaling the entire surface of the megaliths, downhill it is not my friend and i daydreamed about going back to collect the old fool and marching him up the road. Around the last bend and more climbing is ahead, this is quickly turning into a pass and the light is fading, beers in Nako seem less likely now. With little option to camp, the sheer surface leading straight back down to the river we’re forced to push on. We happen across an abandoned building at the road side still showing signs of its previous occupants. Discarded tar stained clothes are littered everywhere, the old home of the ubiquitous road workers but the soft floor is perfect to rest on.
Nako sits ahead amidst a sea of mountains, colourful prayer flags point us towards the monastery but first stop is another monster breakfast of aloo parantha (bread filled with potato), omelette and vegetable curry. Set above terraced fields Nako was a beautiful unassuming village and far more impressive than Tabo, we spent a little time in the monastery before starting the mega descent down towards Pooh, an unfortunately named town which only seemed to sell building materials. Following a dusty road along the river, the road was taking us out of the mountains that we’d called home for over a month towards the plains.
The mighty Kinnaur Kailash mountain loomed above and we were keen to get a better look. Turning off the main road and feeling a little uneasy about leaving the main route, the deadline to pick up my new thermarest before its shipped back to the UK fast approaching, and begin to hail down lorries for a lift up to a view point. After a few unsuccessful attempts we pay a taxi and load all 3 bikes for the bumpy road up past the district capital Recong Peo onto Kalpa a small village dominated by wooden houses and subtle red flowers. We’re dropped at a hotel and make our way to the roof terrace, across the valley Kinnaur Kailash sits shrouded in white mist. We eat some food and the prospect of some beers on the terrace wins out over getting back on the bikes.
Slowly the hills become smaller and before we know it we’re back in the insanity of India proper, everything is ten times louder, dustier, smellier and busier. I’ve dreaded this moment since leaving the mental shit storm 2 months ago, back in the ’real’ India its actually not so bad Himachal Pradesh seems to borrow some of the good parts of Northern India, people are friendly and smiley and theres still some hills to enjoy.
I decide to push on ahead leaving the other two, with 3 days remaining and 250km to cover to the FedEx depot in Dehra Dun, I’m feeling the pressure to get big distances and don’t want to feel like I’m pulling the others along. The route peels off the main road and I’m back in the serenity of a quiet track leading up into the green mountains. India surprises again, one moment your amongst the mayhem of rickshaws and cows wandering across the road the next your completely alone pedalling up a track with no sound other than the crunch of the tyres.
A young kid stops to ask if I have any rolling papers, I oblige and in return for my generosity he gives me a small lump of black hash. The climbing is sweaty and despite the amazing scenery I feel preoccupied with time pressure, kilometre calculations and slow progress swirling around under my drenched brow. A lift begins to seem like a good option and I flag down a flat bed truck filled with aggregate, “To Rohru?” I ask to which I’m told yes and so load my bike onto the building material for the 40km journey. Unfortunately the driver pulls to a halt 5kms down the road at his building site and im promptly left at the side of the road with the end of the day fast approaching. I make it to what seems to be the top of the hill just as it gets dark and secure a cheap room after protesting the managers assumption that I was a rich tourist and so should pay more.
Surely enough the road began to descend the next morning towards Rohru passing hordes of school children making their way to class. Rohru is really busy and the stress of the road gets the better of me, shouting and swearing at traffic and almost hitting an old man who reversed into me were not my finest moments of the trip. I decide to try to channel my angers towards FedEx, who being a global delivery powerhouse were ironically unable to deliver the packages to the intended address meaning I have to traipse across the better part of Northern India in order to retrieve them.
In a rare moment of relative calm I did manage to meet two old men, grinning from ear to ear from the car windows. In 2 weeks they told me they would retire from their jobs and return to a more relaxed lifestyle hence the smiles, they offered to help but short of dropping me in Dehra Dun they couldn’t really do anything for me, or so I thought. Arriving in ….. a huge road sign hung over the road and confirmed my worst fears, the distances on the map were completely wrong, Dehra Dun lay over 100km further than I had estimated with a huge climb in between. To make things worse my intended route was a no go, a huge military facility lied ahead and foreigners were not able to pass. I slumped at the side of the road trying to work out what was best, a familiar voice came from behind me and the two men I’d met earlier came into view. I told them my woes and they told me there was an alternative route un marked on my map that would take me to my destination without having to climb.
Armed with a new route following the river downstream I was pumped up and ready to tackle the final furlong. The track was stunning, taking me through remote villages and lush green mountains covered in terraced fields. I camped in the dark after 8 hours of cycling finding a small cramped spot just above the road, tired, I prayed I wouldn’t be discovered. No one came past and the only sounds I heard that evening was the humming unison of the areas insects. Tomorrow was going to be a huge day, I planned to wake at 6 in order to tackle the final 125km, most of which would be off road.
Morning came and progress was good, I pumped the bike up any small inclines, slow travel is enjoyable but sometimes a large target gets the endorphins pumping through your veins. After a sweaty morning the dusty track I’d raced along the day before was met by a smooth tarmac highway and arriving in Dehra Dun later that day seemed achievable. The remaining 50kms were a bit of a blur, completely shattered and having done 100km before lunch I felt completely disconnected from my surroundings.
I arrived in a Dehra Dun feeling glad to have arrived yet the FedEx depot proved to be illusive. Armed only with the memory of google maps I frantically passed up and down the main road frustrated that time was ticking by. With 40minutes remaining till closing I found the correct area and was pointed to an unmarked building. Inside the airy expanse of the office I came face to face with the man who’d made my life ten times harder and managed to hold back a torrent of abuse. Armed with my new thermarest (essential for a comfortable nights sleep) and various maps and water purification tablets I found a small room in a hotel that must have been a prison in a former life and slumped on the small bed in a pokey room after 9 hours of cycling.
The next day I cycled the remaining 50 kms to Rishikesh, a lonely planet ‘must see’, it sits on the banks of the Ganges and therefore has enormous religious importance as well as being the Yoga capital of India, if not the world. Wandering around in the afternoon, a familiar face cycled past, Tim had just arrived having cycled the same route. Now I had someone to celebrate the anniversary of the trip with and we had a slap up curry and then went on hairy rickshaw ride out of town to the nearest alcohol vendor 30minutes away (the holiness of Rishikesh makes selling alcohol illegal) and bought a big box of alcohol to wash down with some of the finest Charas I have ever smoked.
I’d like to have said that I went to Yoga and meditation class and started my path to enlightenment but I felt lacklustre to get involved in anything, preferring to slump on the balcony and try to recoup some energy. We did manage to pull ourselves away from the sedentary lifestyle and soaked up the calmness sitting next to the Ganges, which despite being close to the source was a huge expanse of water so large it passed by as a smooth blanket of grey water. The main strip was dominated by tourist trappings, completely disconnected from the remote landscape of the previous two months. The roads lined with religious pilgrims dressed in orange robes, a large proportion of which speak perfect English and earn and decent wage requesting money for photographs.