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Rishikesh to Pokhara – Down in the lowlands

February 6, 2012
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My volunteering post had been confirmed, I would begin working at REEC (Rural Environment and Empowerment Centre) a small charity supported by ICT on the 10th of October.  Therefore any mountainous routes to the Nepalese border had to be shunned in favour of quicker lowland main roads, something I hate to do as I knew what would be in store, but sometimes needs must.

 

The first few hours out of Rishikesh were a dream, huge tarmac paths next to concretised river channels feeding into the mighty Ganges, it felt a bit like a tropical Eurovelo.  The route took us through dense forest with not a sole around out onto a main road replete with all India has to offer in that department.  Still in the forest the road was bareable, warning signs for wild elephants leaving us both in a constant head turn to spot one of the mighty beasts in the undergrowth.  Suddenly I hear a crack in the woodland and as I stop to take a closer look 2 huge grey faces can be seen in the dense foliage.  I quickly reach for my camera eager to get as close as possible without getting trampled (these guys don’t mess around and are constantly pissed off) as both of them look content to destroy everything around them at a safe distance.  Our excitement doesn’t go un noticed and before long a lorry stops and tells us to get away from the area very fast, with a quick snap and a good look were quickly on our way feeling pretty buzzed.

 

Camping seems unlikely amongst the dense settlements organised around endless green fields plus the humidity would make camping uncomfortable so we try to find a cheap hotel (dharamsala).  We find one after collecting two ice cold beers from one of the many ’wine shops,’ your order is passed to you through the prison bars as no one is allowed in apart from the poor sole who has to remain trapped inside all day serving drunks.

 

We spent the next few days battling along the main roads trying not to let our tempers get the better of us.  In dusty, hot and hectic conditions its easy to become frustrated and angry but its part of the experience, even though it doesn’t get you anywhere.  Feeling tired, the only restbite for fresh lime juices and ATMs we made our way to the border eager to get into Nepal, a country known to be a little less intense than India.  We arrived at the border, the most lowkey of the trip, consisting of a table and a few disinterested guards, my well concealed hashish could have been in my hand for all the attention we received and we freely passed the check post as hordes of Nepalis and Indians drifted between the countries without hindrance.

 

It was a momentous occasion to enter Nepal, the original destination of the trip was tangibly close now, good reason to find a hotel, get some beers and celebrate with the friendly hotel owners, who were far removed from the off-putting stares of some Indians, despite taking advantage of our newness to the Nepali language and teaching us rude words instead of the name for the traditional dish.

 

Terai, or lowlands comprises roughly half of Nepal stretching from one end to the other and cutting the country in half lengthways.  The top half of Nepal is mountains, it has the highest concentration of plus 8000m peaks of any country.  But we would spend the next week or so pedalling along the only road, a straight monolith stretching from West to East.  Despite its lack of turns the road showed itself to be the lifeblood of the areas we passed through, people constantly on or around it, some busy working others sitting around watching the world go by.

 

Many houses were wooden tree houses on stilts nestled in the thick forest, people could be seen fishing in shallow ponds with makeshift nets and we would constantly pass giant bundles of sticks and grass trundling along the side of the road attached to the forehead of a hunched individual returning home with firewood and feed for the animals.

 

The vast expanses of woodland would have been perfect for camping were it not for the constant stream of kids somehow managing to find us even when we thought we were completely hidden.  On a couple of occasions you would wake to hear giggles from a group in the near distance and peering out of the tent the campsite would have been ransacked of anything that had been left out, including any rubbish.  After some shouting the stolen items were returned luckily but we soon learnt that it was best to keep everything out of sight of these light-fingered Nepalese.  In addition to some thieving children the humidity was pretty uncomfortable and every night we would try to camp near a water source in order to wash away the days sweat and try to cool off before the mosquitoes began munching at us.

 

After a few days of lowland riding it was time to turn up into the mountains towards Pokhara.  This route offered some spectacular and tough riding, Nepalese roads pitching up and down relentlessly, you never hold the altitude.  It was all worth it for the views of Machuppachure mountain or ‘fish tail’ as its known (the northern view has given it its name), forming part of the Annapurna range this mighty mountain sat above the clouds like a ghost.  After some more relentless climbing through the maturing rice fields we could see Pokhara sitting beneath next to Fewa lake.  The decent was sweet but a monumental explosion from my rear tyre revealed a shredded rim, the walls of which had become progressively thinner over the past year and had now given way.  So with only 5kms remaining I slung the bike into the back of a pick up and Tim rode behind towards the river side and a hotel with a hot shower.

 

17/09/2011 – 27/09/2011 – Kaza to Rishikesh

February 6, 2012
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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.

 

6/09/2011 – 17/09/2011 Leh to Kaza – One of the highest mountain roads in the world

January 14, 2012
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The Indus valley, the bedrock of many civilizations and a river we had followed in Pakistan and now closer to the source in Ladakh, India was left behind for the last time.  The rocky valley feeding into the Indus was tighter and more challenging to ride, but the area began to feel more remote and more as I had expected of this road.  Dhabas (Indian restaurants) became more sparse, the only buildings tight sets of Tibetan houses with  huge stacks of cut and dried grass sitting outside, animal feed for winter carefully collected in bundles for storage.

Huge slabs of dark rock erupted from the floor at sharp angles, further along Gompas sat up high on the rock outcrops.  We camped next to a group of sheep herders who became the proud owners of my broken sleeping mat, having picked up a cheap Chinese imitation in Leh, in the morning they are busy vaccinating the animals against BSE as we pack up.

Tanglang La pass sat towering above us at 5300m, fully loaded this was going to be more tough than Khardung La (5358m) we’d completed without baggage a few days back.  The first section wasn’t too tough, slight breathlessness above 4500m as the huge switchbacks winded up the mountain always obscuring the final summit marked by colourful prayer flags.  Thoughts of relieving myself of the considerable library I’ve amassed and letting them fall to the valley floor did pass my mind, every kilo at this attitude is like lead weight, your body struggles to provide the muscles with the sufficient oxygen you need filling your body with lactic acid.

A huge sigh of relieve at the top, the climb was tougher than expected, most the day had been spent edging up, resting at the side of the road and taking in the scenery, it was a short windswept descent into a sparse high altitude plain, Morei Plains.  A huge expanse of dusty red and lime green mountains, road building forcing drivers to forge their own paths across the mass, creating a dense tapestry of intertwined tracks.  A remote area with no settlements except small encampments made from discarded tarp and old oil cans, occupied by Southern Indians and Nepalese road workers these groups live a hard life away from their families in challenging conditions working hard to turn the highway into one continuous strip of smooth tarmac.

After a short descent into Pang, a roadside village consisting of a  double row of tent structures acting as restaurants and hotels all run by excited Ladakhi’s eager to secure your business, we begin to ascend through a rock theme park of spewing landforms, turrets and tunnels.  This place has to be one of the strangest I’ve ever visited – a psychedelic wonderland, rock formations straight from Albert Hoffmann himself.  As the sun set, the weather got colder and rain fell making the river crossings that much colder, on the way we met a couple of Indian cycle tourists who’d come from the south to spread their cycling for peace message, one told us excitedly that We must go to Malana! as you can roll your own hash.  We made the summit in the dark and settled for a small patch to camp right at the top – 5000m, the highest I’ve ever camped, it was surprisingly comfortable considering how exposed you are this high, the only problem that the stove sometimes cut out.

At the top of Baralacha La pass the following day, a passing driver confirms that the track heading away from the road towards the horizon is a trekking trail to Chandra Tal, a high altitude lake and somewhere I was very interested in visiting.  Having seen this route on the map, temptation for adventure –  7 days of wilderness without any proper villages obscured any issue we had of not having enough food and we begun the track full of adrenaline.  The first obstacle, a huge expanse of boulders roughly 500m wide, an un-rideable river bed started the pragmatic wheels turning in the brain and we begun to question A).  The feasibility of completing this route in a decent amount of time and B).  Whether any of it was actually cyclable.  We sat on the open plain flanked by rows of huge snow capped mountains on either side and decided that the route was only suitable if you had a horse, an unloaded bicycle or just a backpack and walking shoes.  Slightly dejected we made the return journey back to the safety of the tarmac road, a route for another time.

After a week of hard riding, the desire to sit around and be lazy grew stronger but we were still a few days away from the first stop in Kaza.  Feeling a little weary of mountain roads – despite how beautiful they are, it can be easy to slip into a non-plussed attitude about the surroundings especially when the beauty is there 24/7.  The ideal solution would be to transport yourself into the heart of hectic Dehli for an afternoon I’m sure the desire to be in the mountains would quickly recharge.  Unfortunately this isn’t  possible, the next best thing however is a pannier full of cold crisp beers clinking away as you descend down the road to find camp in the cool heat of the setting sun.

Descending from Baralacha La the valley had shifted from stark rock to lush alpine, a thick aroma of pine emanating from everywhere.  Tired and a little weary, the road difficult to cycle due to a high concentration of boulders leading up to Kunzum La, the entrance to the Spiti Valley.  These stretches really test your patience, it requires a lot of concentration and physical exertion to ride the bike in such difficult circumstances especially when all you want to do is rest.  Luckily we reached the base of the pass filled up on plates of Thali (Mixed curry plate) and started up the 20 switchbacks of decent track.

Spiti valley brought a fresh palate of colours, yellow from the numerous tree-planting initiatives there and newly built houses in Tibetan style with blue window frames.  The valley felt more wealthy than previous places, the new construction, the lack of rubbish, people appeared to be well-nourished and the friendly mentality of the Ladakhi’s was firmly back.  The ride past gompas and rock formations but all I could think about was having a day off in Kaza and how painfully slow to arrive it was.  Finally we made it and got our permit to ride further in the valley out of the way. It was time to start munching mo-mos (Tibetan dumplings) and Chow mein to recoup some energy, the bike safely out of sight on the balcony.

24/08/2011 – 5/09/2011 – Srinagar to Leh – I cycled the line

January 14, 2012
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We leave Srinagar cycling around the lake, passing the early morning swimmers and boats with huge rotators clearing away the weeds from the surface.  Traffic is ok but still quite heavy as we weave through small outlying villages, in one I get a bump from behind, the driver almost completely oblivious to the situation, apparently I shouldn’t be on the road, I’ve got two words for you my friend.

The rain pours down after a fantastic Wazwan (traditional Kashmiri cuisine) lunch for the remainder of the afternoons gradual climb.  Hoping to find a roof to camp under our hint dropping to sleep in an abandoned barn doesn’t yield any results, but further down the road Mohammed offers a room in the front of his house and leaves us to cook on the windowsill.  He routinely pops in with his two sons to sit watching us use the stoves, always a great source of interest to people.

Pine trees filled the valley as we climbed up towards the first pass, Zoija La.  Nomads passed us followed by donkeys stacked high with hay and all their possessions, their hands out stretched, years of tourism have cemented the role of foreigners as a source of money and pens.  On the rocky pass, the traffic and stress of the road to Srinagar slipped away, it felt so good to be alone amongst the mountains and nature with the cool mountain air replacing the heat of the lowlands.  Up towards the top of the pass, we met Colin an Australian touring the Manali – Srinagar highway on a Molton, a vintage English folding bike with tyres unsuitable for the rocky deluged path leading down off the pass.  He’d cycled from England to India as a young lad and had passed through Afghanistan in the 1980’s, im sure he’d have some great pictures.

Zoija La marks the entrance to the Ladakh valley, the dense pine of Kashmir left behind for a stark, tree-less valley of red and sand coloured rock.  The light is phenomenal up here, nights are accompanied by a dense blanket of bright stars and mountains sit against a light blue sky populated by huge white plumes during the day.  After passing through the Drass, apparently the 2nd coldest village in the world registering -60 celcius one winter, and Kargil we’d left the Muslim world behind for a new and unfamiliar landscape of  white Tibetan houses, colourful prayer flags, Gompas (Buddhist monasteries) perched ontop of hills and smiling Ladakhi’s shouting “Joolay” (Hello) as you’d pedal past.

After almost 9 months and 10 countries dominated by Muslim culture it was a breath of fresh air to enter into a predominantly Buddhist area.  Many Tibetan refugees live here amongst a population of Buddhist settlers who’d spread from Tibet when the border was open.  The Chinese closed the border and prevent the descendants from returning to their homeland,  its common to see huge panoramic posters of Lhasa (Tibetan capital) in shops and houses.  Ladakhi’s have a calm and friendly aura, Buddhism focuses on meditation as the route to enlightenment and its obvious to see it’s effect.  It’s easy to feel happy here, people are smiling and always welcoming, the bewildered stares of the Indian lowlands left behind in the smog.  Mulbekh attached to the valley side, offered a great place to soak up some of the new environment.  We visited a huge stone carving of the Buddha and wandered in the Gompa (Tibetan monastery) colourfully decorated with paintings of demons and their associated evils alongside enlightened beings.  Bells chime out sporadically from around the villages, knocked at every rotation of the prayer wheel.  Some people walk past and push the wooden wheels in an almost idle manner, others seem to be in a deeper and more reflective mindset as the walk around the wheel fiddling with prayer beads.

 

Another day another pass, Namika La the final mountain pass before getting to Leh the regions capital.  Resting would come later however, at 6am the next morning we began ascending the Khardung La pass.  45km of uphill riding into high altitude.  At first Leh was spread out beneath, a green blanket hugging the river valley but soon became a distant speck on the ground below flnaked by huge 6000m snowy peaks.  After 5 hours of climbing we summated the “Worlds Highest Motorable Pass,” as the Indians like to claim but its actually 3rd or 4th as there are higher passes in Bolivia and Tibet, but a feat nonetheless and with little altitude sickness, the ride back down to Leh finished off a more active than usual rest day.

The rest of the time in Leh was spent eating pizza, drinking beer and all the other couch potato activities which provide a welcome balance to the stresses of bike travel.  Ialso managed to get an infection in my ankle, the altitude prevents any wounds from healing properly and had to visit the hospital, which was surprisingly clean and efficient considering how the rest of the country is kept.  After doctors orders of rest and antibiotics a trip on the bus to the sand dunes in Nubra Valley just north of Leh seemed like a happy compromise.  Surrounded by high mountains the dunes cover a sizable area, camels slinking across the sand waves with excited Indian tourists whooping and cheering as they disappeared into the alien landscape.

Amritsar to Srinagar – HONK HONK

January 14, 2012
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Amritsar had been a great introduction to India, super curry, the serenity of the Golden palace, friendly people and an energetic street life but I was very ready to leave the hustle and bustle and head for the Himalayas for something more relaxed. The desire to get back on the bike escalated each day as I waited for a package of maps and a water filter to arrive, which it never did.

Finally I gave up on waiting and left the hectic city behind with 500kms of hopefully good road up to Srinagar in the heart of Kashmir where the Himalayas begin. I was joined by an American/French cyclist called Kevin for the first day, roads were congested and hot, lorries pumping out huge plums of smoke straight into your face whilst beeping their customised horns eager to let you know they’re going to come past within a few inches. A disappointing Dhaba (simple restaurant with huge pots of curry) for lunch and it wasn’t turning out to be a great day luckily we avoided the monsoon which battered the dingy hotel near the Pathankot Jammu turn off and I cooked a decent curry bringing the day to a more positive close.

In the morning I parted ways with Kevin as he was heading east to Dharamsala, the home of the Dalai Lama. A huge military convoy of trucks full of armed soldiers sat at the side of the road, this would become a normal, if quite unnerving, daily sight as the area I was beginning to enter is highly contested between India and Pakistan. Bloody wars have been fought between the two countries over Kashmir since Pakistan was annexed from India in 1947 and the tenuous line of control (border) decided by the UN in 1949 has done little to prevent 2 further wars over the region. One million Indian soldiers are posted along the border, however, despite tension the situation in the region is relatively stable at the moment, .

My attention turned towards the towering green mountains in the distance, the start of the Himalayas. I turned off the main road on to a shortcut and was treated to some remote hillside riding away from the stupid horns and thundering traffic, people instantly seemed more friendly and the sounds of birds in the trees provided welcome rest bite. I rejoined the main road but not in the place I had expected, the road marked incorrectly on the map I was about 40km off schedule, but the experience had shown that it was possible to find refuge in India and I was happy for that.

Finding a camp spot was tricky, people seemed to be everywhere and almost all the land used. A temple sat at the top of the hill and knowing they sometimes they offer a place to sleep I investigated. A young Indian couple greeted me and invited me to eat and stay in their house when I gestured to put my tent next to the temple. Curry was served within a more balanced home life than I‘d seen in a long time, the wife joking with her husband and not scurrying off as soon as something was served, it was refreshing to see a more equal relationship.

The road to Srinagar cut up through vast green valleys, over the 2000m Patnitop tourist attraction and through the Pir Panjal range via a 2km pitch black tunnel. The scenery was stunning yet the experience soured by a huge amount of traffic, lorries carrying supplies to remote regions and the relentless beeping that had now caused ear damage. I interacted with few people along the road, the only way to remain sane on these roads was to block out everything including the sound using ear plugs, we’re great. Searching for a place to sleep in a valley near Ramben the only option seemed to be a police checkpoint, I asked about the flat area next to their building and they said I should sleep inside due to wild tigers and monkeys. Here I met Tosif and an Indian Army officer eager to show me that the negative relationship depicted in the media between the Muslim population and predominantly Hindu army, was incorrect. Up towards Jalawhar tunnel I met an old man who wanted to join me on my trip, we joked that he should sit on my rear rack and I’d carry him.

The final day into Srinagar was a long one, thoroughly soul destroyed and at my wits end with traffic and noise, I made a beeline for the hippy hangout in its hey day. After 8 hours of cycling I arrived in a completely dead town, Srinagar has an unofficial curfew of 8pm so theres little life left on the street after that. The only shop I saw open was selling booze and I battled my way through the throngs, face up against the metal rails I ordered by beers and whiskey, people pushing from all directions, it felt like everything was on the verge of kicking off so I got out of there asap.

Srinagar is famed for the houseboats which rest majestically on Dal lake, huge wooden constructions moored in long lines creating a quasi village on the lake. The origins of the houseboats dates back to the British colonial times, unable to build on Kashmir land they took to the lake and built houseboats to skirt the laws. In the 60’s hippys from all over the world flocked there to chill out on the boats smoking some of the best hash on the planet. The conflicts between India and Pakistan combined with terrorist attacks put the area on the tourist black list but since the period of relative peace begun 5 years ago, tourists have begun to return and pretty much do what was done in the 60’s.

Srinagar was a mixed bag, where I stayed with Gohar, a young entrepreneur and all round good guy, the area was entirely wrapped in barbed wire, soldiers sat idly in gunner turrets and even the post office heavily militarised. But away from this part, around the lake and floating between the houseboats with only the sounds of the paddle cutting the water it felt serene,. The tense atmosphere created solely by the military’s presence was swept away as you peered into the ornate houseboats and watched tourists battling with the mosquitoes whilst trying to read a book on the veranda.

When I bumped into Tim, a Swedish cyclist I’d met in hostel in China, I didn’t need much convincing to leave Srinagar the next day and return for the package which was being held in Delhi customs. I spent the last night on a houseboat on Jhelum river drinking whiskey and teaching Tim how to roll and joint, in true 1960’s style.

Do the ‘Du – Kathmandu

December 14, 2011
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So after a couple  of fairly uneventful days i dragged myself and bike up the final ascent to Kathmandu.  It certainly wasn’t as i had imagined it would be, for over 2 years  i had daydreamed about this moment but contrary to my imagination there were no tears and unfortunately no best friend to share the jubilation, just a deep sense of achievement.

So many amazing things have happened in the past year and 3 months i’m glad to have shared them with you and would like to send out a big thankyou for all the people that have supported us and ICT.

The final updates will be posted on here imminently so stayed tuned.

Thats all from Kathmandu baby!

13/08 – 15/08 – Amritsar – Chandigarh – Oh monsoon, do your worst

November 10, 2011
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I was keen to get on the road, and excited about heading to Chandigarh. It wasnt long before i had negotiated the gridlocked rickshaw crowd negotiating the flooded streets and was heading out of the city. My first target was Hoshiarpur, off the main route to Chandigarh – i was duly rewarded with a quiet, well paved road with close tree cover providing ample shade from the relentless sun. It didnt stop my from burning though – i soon realised cycling in my new vest was not such a good idea.

Before long i was topping 100km – which was great as i had planned to cover the 250 km to Chandigarh in two days. I stopped around 125, which was just the other side of Hoshiarpur,  and started looking for camp. I heard many stories about the challenges of camping in India – about the lack of privacy, and the difficulty of hiding away from curious onlookers. I had no trouble at all, and ducked off the main road down a track that was flanked by recently turned fields. I found a great spot of grass that ran between two of these fields, well hidden enough fromthe road and far enough from any serious vegetation so I wouldnt be too hassled by insects. There was a nice breeze and the ground was cool – it was perfect.

It wasnt long though before i was spotted, by the owner of the land. He came over and looked dumbfounded as to what i was doing. I gestured in my best hand-ish that I wanted to sleep here for one night, and he said in his best hand-ish that i could sleep in the temple for free. I told him i would rather camp, and he was cool, off he went. Result. I settled down to my first night, camping alone in India. Cooked up some curry, and had a blast.

It was hot in the night – too hot to put the topsheet on. I regretted this decision at around 3am, as the rain started in earnest. I got up and quickly covered my tent, and tucked into my dry spot, actually rather thankful that it was chucking it down – at least the temperature had dropped. The rain didnt ease up until gone 10am – I hid in my tent until then waiting for it to stop. It eased up just enough for me to pack up, only for it to start again, even stronger than before. I contended to cycle the next 25km almost blind in torrential rain. My bike computer gave up the ghost, but i was loving it. The fresh monsoon cooled my bones and cleaned my bike, and the feeling of overcoming such a hatred towards rain was really envigorating. Normally i hate rain, but in India, i love it.

It stopped around lunch time, and theheat turned up instantly. I got more sunburn (strange to get a drenching and sunburn in the same day) and had to stop several times for Mountain Dew breaks(slightly overdoing it on one occaision – three bottles) i reached Chandigarh before sundown and spent the remaining hours navigating its arrow straight and busy streets, desperately trying in vain to finda hotel in my price range where i could explore the city from. I duly failed, checking into a hotel on the edge of town for a hefty 500rupees a night (about $11 – outrage!) i got over it by getting the beers and the curry in.