I am on the side of a road in India watching a kingfisher*. It sits in stillness watching, waiting before diving down into the pond below, which is unexpectedly clean. It emerges victorious, a silver fish glistens in its large red beak. A beak that seems too heavy for its small, plump body of iridescent colour. Ioan is about 100m behind me, he is talking to a man in a white cap. They have been discussing something for a while now, but my attention has been focused on the play of nature before me.
Dilip Singh was riding pillion on his brother’s motorbike when he spotted two foreigners cycling in the other direction. Seizing his opportunity he stopped his brother, jumped the flower-filled central reservation and introduced himself to Ioan. He worked on a farm below a leopard cave and they were were setting up a new tourism project. He invited us for lunch saying: ‘Just give me one hour‘.
‘How far is it?‘ I asked when they reached me and explained the offer.’4kms‘ – not far. 13kms later we are still following Dilip but we are unphased. We had turned left off the main road and in the west before us are a series of rocky hills that rise like curved pyramids from a sea of flat land. We had noticed these strange shapes earlier, resembling a dragons tail stretching down from the body of Mount Abu. We cycle through a series of small villages where rural India went about her business in all her usual colour, but here there seemed to be more calm than clamor.
We pass a small pond of water where naked boys, water buffaloes and birds cool off. Turning right onto a yet smaller road, we pass a temple complex built around the boulders that form these hills, weaving our way through a herd of buffaloes taking their siesta. Just after the road gives up to dirt we go through the rust red, unmarked gates of the Siranwa Hills Hideaway, beyond which lie fields of fennel. The scent of the tall plants purified our senses as we entered this new world. Beneath a semi-circle of trees two chairs had been placed facing the hillside. Between them a pair of binoculars sat waiting on a small table covered with a white cloth embroidered with peacocks and flowers. Upstage there are wooden tables piled with wildlife books and travel guides. Bamboo vases hold peacock feathers and porcupine quills.
We walked into this most inviting set and gave Dilip his requested hour, during which we were served a delicious, freshly prepared thali of local Rajasthani food. One hour, turned into an afternoon that included a post-lunch outdoor snooze, which was only disturbed when were awoken to see a sloth bear making his way to the cave on the hillside just above where we lay.
Afternoon turned to evening and we pitched our tent under the neem trees before being taken for a ride on the farm’s characterful old Massey Ferguson tractor. We bounce along a dry river bed that flows into life during the monsoons and watch the sunset over the hills. Later under the light of the nearly full moon we were led through the cool fields of fennel to a secluded spot in the river where a circle of lamps and candles illuminate our dinner spot. And that one hour, that one night turned into two weeks sleeping under the leopards cave.
We are not the first visitors to have found the area surrounding the village of Nandia too magnetic, too compelling, too friendly to leave. In the 80s a young Australian woman found her spiritual home in the Shiv rock cave next to the farm. She stayed for 12 years and is considered a saint by local people. Ioan and I also found spiritual solace in these hills in an undeveloped corner of the Araveli Range. Formed over a billion years ago they are the oldest mountains in India. Once as mighty as the Himalayas they have been weathered down by time to a fifth of their original size. Water and wind has curved them, creating caves that house hyenas, sloth bears, leopards and sadhus. These lands hold secrets and stories that our friends are only too happy to share. We made friends here, met people that protected and nurtured us, who taught us and appreciated our skills. Who laughed with us and with whom we made a lasting bond.
Bhanwar Singh Photo: ILeontie
Dilip & Manwhar Singh leading a lost goat home past a leopardess Photo: ILeontie
Dheeraj Mali Photo: ILeontie
Bhanwar Singh grew up exploring these hills. Inspired by the landscape he studied for an MSc in Geography before taking over his father’s farm, which he still farms with his brother Manwhar. They grow different crops on rotation, this year it is fennel. A highly prized variety that is used in French liquor making. But farming is hard and more than that it does not always sit happily with Bhanwar’s desire to protect wildlife. The farm is surrounded by protected forest and wild animals regularly make their way across his land. He is a man with an ambitious dream, that one day he will be able to afford to return the farm back to nature. By starting up a small, ecologically minded tourism project he hopes to be able to not only ‘rewild’ the farm but also set up schemes to educate other local farmers, shepherds and tribal villagers about the importance of protecting the forest and wild animals.
*There are so many tales to tell from our time in the Siranwa Hills, so many vivid memories captured beautifully by Ioan to share with you. But for the first time on our travels I was ‘blocked’ when trying to write about our experiences. I wrote this blog back in January, but I was unsatisfied with it so failed to share it. I’m only pressing Publish now so I can move on and update the blog to the present day where I sit looking out at the rain falling on the bare, ancient oaks of the Forest of Bowland. I want to tell you tales of tea with camel herders, of spotting leopards, of sitting around the campfire listening to the devotional music of Rabari tribesmen. Of moving on and cycling down the Konkan coast to Goa, where we gave our bodies a break in the sunshine and waves. Where we learnt to hang upside down and taught our muscles to forget bad habits. Of a final few days in Mumbai, before our return to here to now.
India is an intricate place; every facet of life is embellished with meaning and myth. The pantheon of Hindu gods and the epic scale of the scriptures, makes my western Christian-educated mind reel. The tale of Mary, Joseph and their son Jesus (even if they did throw in a couple of donkeys and a bit of gore near the end) pales in significance to the awe inspiring antics of the likes of Kali. Therefore it comes as no surprise that Indian weddings are complicated, lengthy, and noisy affairs. November/December is peak wedding season, but only on auspicious dates and times based on the placement of the stars and the birth dates of the bride and groom. Star-crossed lovers never fare well.
On the road from Sanchore to Mount Abu we were flagged down by a man on a motorbike. This is a regular occurrence and is usually followed by a request for a selfie and a chat. This time however we were invited home for a cup of tea. ‘Sometimes it’s good to stop, come meet my family and then you can carry on. Don’t worry about time there’s a guesthouse just down the road’. He seemed an amicable chap and quite persistent so, in the spirit of saying Yes, we obliged and followed Kalu Dan Jee Charan home. On his small farm we were introduced to his extended family, chairs were brought and tea was prepared. I was immediately placed in the custody of Ridhu, his intelligent, beautiful 14 year old daughter. ‘Please stay tonight, you should stay tonight. We are going to a wedding, you should come’ she implored. The men sat out front having a similar discussion and it was agreed we would stay and attend the neighbour’s Baraat; the night before a wedding when the groom processes from his home to that of his bride.
As soon as we arrived at the wedding venue, a colourful tent decorated with pretty lights, I was ushered away to the womens’ area and Ioan was led to a tent where the men congregated. For the rest of the night we had very different experiences.
I joined the women sitting on the floor in the groom’s parental home. There must be 30 plus women, all of them dressed in colourful saris and the majority have their faces veiled. A space was made for me, and Ridhu with her brilliant English fielded and translated the queries of the women. We sat there, so close, all patiently waiting for our role. We were to follow the groom and drummers to a line where what looked like gifts of money were exchanged and placed underneath a coconut that a woman carried on her head. Each person had a turn to greet the groom and like all weddings the formalities had a tendency to drag.
A bit later it was excitedly decided that I should be transformed into a Rajasthani woman. ‘Are you sure? I don’t want to be any bother.’ I protested, fearing what lay in store. Under the moonlight I was led across the fields to a neighbouring farm house, where a beautiful outfit was thrust into my hands. In front of the women I changed, bangles were painfully forced onto my too big hands, and somehow my boobs were squashed into a too tight top. I started to sweat. Once the transformation was complete I was taken outside and presented to Ioan. He was beaming and seemed to be having a wonderful time.
Back at the wedding venue we were once again segregated. I sat in near silence eating with the women and children, whilst Ioan ate, danced and drank whisky.
At one point the women requested I dance but provided no instruction of how. So in my new attire I did my best to pull off a few Indian-eque moves. Shy, hot and feeling lost without Ioan I tried repeatedly to sit down but the women pushed and pulled me back into the centre where I was expected to perform. I was repeatedly struck by the rough physicality of these strong women. To top it all off the wedding photographers and camerman appeared to film this spectacle, a couple of men started to wave money around my head and all I wanted was the earth to swallow me up or at least for someone to give me a bloody drink!
As suddenly as my humiliation had started it finished as the Baraat moved to the next proceeding. The groom introduced himself to me, he looked dashing in his wedding attire and unlike his male guests appeared to be stone-cold sober. He mounted an immensely patient, elaborately decorated horse who was led by two caring men, whose job was to keep the horse calm as they followed the dj. Now we have come across these wedding ‘djs’ before, they are mounted on the back of pick ups with enormous speakers and play ear-splitting hits from Bollywood. Normally we keep a safe distance but tonight we are in the procession, following the poor horse. When the groom and his women followers met the men, the men started to dance.
I see Ioan for the first time in an hour or so, it is also the first time I’ve ever seen him dance – Ioan does not dance. He looks drunk and I am getting tired. I am feeling claustrophobic: the clothes, the proximity of so many people, the noise, the fact I cycled 50km earlier that day. And more than that I am finding it hard to stay in role, to be a demure, respectful Indian wife; my veil keeps slipping. I want to break away to go to Ioan to talk to him, to check he is okay, for him to see if I am okay. People sense this and they try to reassure me, to explain that everything is fine. But my independence, my free spirit it stronger than my will to please and I break protocol.
The foreigner, the woman, is on the verge of making a scene. Ioan is whisked away from his dancing partner back into the male tent and I am prevented from following. All I want to do is talk to my friend, to be an outsider again; Ridhu is trying to understand but she is 14 and out of her depth. I cannot explain why I feel like this, I am tired, I am anxious about being apart from Ioan after travelling as a unit for so long, more than that I think I fear the supposed anonymity of womanhood here. This is a traditional area; I stand beside a smart, serious girl whose future is likely to be predestined to early marriage and child bearing. A few times over the course of the evening I ask her what she would like to study when she finishes school, what job she would like. She does not answer. We are surrounded by women who do not show their face in public and by bright young unmarried girls whose future will no doubt be constrained by custom. And despite all my worldly wisdom, my anthropological understanding, I cannot stop my feminist ego fighting back.
At midnight we leave the party, well before everyone else. Ioan is as nonplussed as the rest of the wedding party, as to why I am so agitated. We are very kindly taken back to the farm and people in the car apologize; I apologize trying to explain. But how, so much is going through my head about why I feel so uncomfortable. I realize just how dependent on Ioan I have become during this journey, we are everything to each other – friend, lover, nurturer, protector, therapist and at times enemy. I see how the binary male-female bond dominates most relationships in the west, well mine anyway. How I, as a loner by choice who often finds male company easier than female, have isolated myself from the kind of multi-female support that women in rural India depend on.
I am still in my wedding finery and Rhania’s grandmother is happy to see me transformed – a reverse Cinderella who had left in plain Indian clothes and no bangles (‘does she not have any bangles?!’) We go to sleep on two cots and sleep soundly, hearing the others return at around 3am in the morning. They all sleep communally in the room next door, 3 generations together.
At dawn everyone is awake and ready to go to the main wedding event. We are rested and any awkwardness from the previous evening is quickly forgotten. These are good, hard working, intelligent people and we are very grateful to have spent the night with them. Ioan had thoroughly enjoyed himself and I had been given a glimpse into the life of rural Hindi women in India, a world that had remained hidden indoors and under the veil for much of our journey.
A few weeks later on a bus from Mount Abu to Udaipur a man leans over to Ioan and shows him a photo on his phone. ‘Is this you?’ he asks. ‘Er yes..’ Ioan replies, slightly taken aback. ‘I thought so, it was taken at my wedding’.
Our host Photo: ILeontie
The family who took such great care of you. Thank you! Photo: ILeontie
Travelling by bike is really annoying – it’s slow, often exhausting, frustrating and limits what you can see and do. It also happens to be one of the best ways to travel if you want to fully experience a land and meet its people. Cycling however is not enough, you have to learn to say yes, to change your plans when opportunity presents itself (we find not really having a plan helps with this) and be prepared to go with the magical happenings that will unfold.
I knew I wanted to meet the Bishnoi. They are the original radical, environmentalists and their lands are harmonious wooded areas filled with trees, birds and wildlife. Two centuries ago more than 360 Bishnoi people died protecting trees that the Maharajah of Jodhpur had ordered to be felled to construct his new palace. Led by Amrita Devi, a local women, the Bishnoi put themselves in the line of the axes to save the trees they consider sacred. Such is the groups dedication to protecting trees and wildlife, as they believe harming the environment means harming oneself.
So when Ram Jeevan Bishnoi invited us home to see his village we didn’t hesitate to say yes. ‘My mum is going to be so excited, she’s never seen foreigners’ giggled Ram.
For the next 24 hours we are taken under the loving wing of Ram’s family. At first we were all a little shy but Ram is the ultimate host and under his guidance we all quickly relaxed. Shanti, his mum prepared delicious food for us in her simple kitchen. The Bishnoi use limited wood for cooking and never cut green trees, they are also unique amongst Hindus in that they do not cremate their dead, instead burying them to conserve wood.
Ram showed us around his farm where his father, grandfather, extended family and neighbours are installing a new water pump. It is amazing that anything grows here in this sandy land with brackish water, but the farm succeeds through skill, determination and respect. The Bishnoi follow the teachings of Guru Jambhesvara who set out in the 15th Century 29 principles for living in harmony with nature. He set out the principles following a famine, having made the connection between human practices and their impact on the environment. Still today the Bishnoi fight to protect their eco values, with the recent high profile case of a famous Bollywood actor being taken to trail by the tribe for shooting a Black Buck on their land.
Laughter filled Ram’s home and it felt like the most harmonious place we have been for a while. Neighbours popped round to say hello, Ioan is given a turban and taught how to tie it, I am given a beautiful shawl and a pink sari. In the afternoon the baby naps, and Shanti and Ram’s sister Ramewshari milk the buffalo. In the evening Ram called us over to the room where the family sleeps communally and we settle down to watch Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. That night we sleep soundly on comfy charpoy cots under the stars, lulled to sleep by religious music and chanting from the nearby temple.
The next morning we watched as Grandma Veera Devi made fresh yoghurt from buffalo milk and once again laughter filled the air as Ram tested out Ioan’s sleeping bag. Ram works in Barmer as a government official during the week and so Monday morning meant a return to work. We accompanied him back to the main road and set off back on our journey with happy hearts.
We only get a couple of kilometres down the road before we are invited home for a cup of tea by a passing Bishnoi teacher. We say yes and he takes us home to meet his wife who prepares the hot sweet, milky chai for us whilst wearing her stunning signature Bishnoi jewelry. These are proud, generous, peaceful people who have found a way to live in harmony with nature yet despite their best efforts to protect it their environment is changing. Last summer (May 2016) saw temperatures in Phalodi, Rajasthan, reach a scorching 51 degrees, the highest temperature ever recorded in India. Across the globe temperatures are rising year on year and if we want to minimize the catastrophic impacts of climate change then we all need to be more Bishnoi and make protecting the environment central to our existence.
Thank you Ram for inviting us home to meet your family. Good luck with your wedding in April, sorry we can’t make it. Rest assured we will come back to visit soon and we look forward to welcoming you to our home in Romania one day.
The road to the edge of the Thar Desert is straight, dead straight, it stretches forward into our imaginations. The road is flat and the winter sun not so punishing, so we are able to push on until darkness falls at 5.30pm. We create a dot-to-dot across this landscape, sleeping in roadside rooms or in homestays. These small towns seldom see ‘foreigners’ other than reclining porcelain figures that speed past encased in their tourist buses. The game of leap-frog played by most visitors to Rajasthan’s must-see-spots robs them of the secret jewels of this state.
On Wednesday 9th November in the small town of Soila we awake to the news that 1,000 and 500 Rupee notes are no longer legal tender. Demonetization is an overnight strike by Narenda Modia, India’s ‘strong man’ Prime Minister, against the black money market and the corruption, drugs trade and terrorism that it funds. The money in our pocket suddenly becomes useless and I start to worry about all those innocent people, particularly the elderly suspicious of banks, the rural poor with no papers, and the women with secret savings who dream of escape, who will be affected by this sudden announcement. Later that day Donald Trump is elected President and my worry grows to encompass us all.
These modern trials are set in dusty towns where we are reminded of the constant flux of life and soothed by the immense creativity and tenacity of the human spirit. In Osian we take a room in the house of a Brahman family and, despite their worry about the political situation, their gentleness, spirituality and healthy food nourishes us (thank you Raju). We visit Jain and Hindu temples and step-wells that have been swallowed by time. We wander the evening streets and peak into the lives of others.
Photo – ILeontie
Photo – ILeontie
Osian to Phalodi – 80km (1 day)
Our cycle ride becomes a safari with sightings of Chinkara (Indian Antelope), Nilgali (Blue Bulls), camels, countless birds, and roadkill that looks tragically like wild cat. Wildlife flourishes here under the protection of the Bishnoi people. Often considered to be the first environmentalists this religious group follows a set of 29 principles (set out by Guru Jambheshwar in the 15th Century). They believe that wildlife and trees should be protected, as harming the environment means harming oneself.
As we cycle past beautiful villages with round adobe houses surrounded by living fences, I am desperate to learn more about this culture whose philosophy aligns so closely with how I see the world. But for now I pedal on to the next town Phalodi where our worthless cash means we are forced to stay in a place that accepts card. We find ourselves at the doors of the Lal Niwas, a heritage hotel in a magical haveli . For two nights we sleep in a room that fills our dreams with a golden age of desert merchants and opulence. We are surrounded by antiques and original fittings, we open shutters to secret corridors and are frustrated that the hotels museum, and all the wonders it no doubt contains, is shut for refurbishment.
By day we join the good-natured queues for cash and wonder how well the people of Europe would cope with finding on waking that all £10 and £20 notes were worthless. People are given a set number of days when they can deposit the old notes into bank accounts, but there is a limit to how much an individual can deposit. And the new 500 and 2000 rupee notes take a while to reach ATMs and there are still lengthy queues, 1 month later, to withdraw money when it is available.
Queuing to deposit or change old notes, Phalodi Photo: ILeontie
A woman waiting outside the bank, Jaisalmer Photo: ILeontie
Phalodia to Jaisalmer – 175km (2 days)
These Rajasthani roads are leading us to Jaisalmer a fortress city on the edge of the Thar desert near the border with Pakistan. Whilst we are not in the realm of dunes yet we are surrounded by sand. Roadkill becomes grandiose both in sight and smell and we gag as we pass a decapitated camel upon whom dogs feast. You get acquainted with the smell of death on the road. It was in these lands that India tested its first nuclear bombs: Smiling Buddha in 1974 then the Shakti tests of 1998. It is a militarized area with army barracks, personnel on the move and the dull thud of distant firing ranges provide percussion to the bird song. We once again skirt the fragile borders of this land, we seem to like the risky edges.
As we arrive in Jaisalmer the road is book-ended by the sinking sun before us and a super-moon rising behind us. The scent of the open sewers perfumes the air and the orchestra of India at dusk starts up – satsang mantras and bells from the hindu temples mixed effortlessly with the azan calling muslims to prayer, the tuk-tuk ticking over, beep-beeps, the fall of a shutter, the chatter of man and birds. I think India is the noisiest land I know but all falls silent by 10pm and the darkness is disturbed only occasionally by a dog. With dawn the fine tuning begins with the hacking up of an old man clearing his lungs.
In Jaisalmer we are back in a world of tourists but it is worth it to see the treasures of the fort, the palace, the Jain temples, and the old havelis. Amongst the traders, the tourists, the touts and the beggars this is a city that maintains its charm. It is here that I get sick for the first time, it’s remarkable that we have survived so long. For 24 hours liquids of alarming luminosity evacuate themselves from my being and I thank the many gods that I am struck down here in a comfortable guesthouse and not on the roadside.
Jaisalmer to Dhorimana- 224km (3 days)
There is always an element of foreboding when we leave the safety of a city where we’ve been settled for a while. What will the road be like, where will we sleep, will there be food and water. This insecurity is exacerbated by a growing lack of direction and purpose. India is a vast country to explore by bike and in 4 months we have only seen 2 states, time is ticking on our visas. Our minds jump from south to east, to yoga, from Gujarat to the Ganges to not-going-to-Goa, to meditation to craving lazy days on beaches where we can luxuriate in our hidden skin. We formulate grand plans and scribble down train times and the names of ashrams. All fade to nothing as we cycle onwards and fate will reward us for those hours we despair.
As dusk falls we enter a muslim town, just a collection of shops, workshops and tea stalls spread along the roadside. A friendly man Salim rushes across the street to help us, he helps us find a room for 200 rupees in a resthouse occupied by young men. It is very basic but it is safe and for dinner we eat incredibly spicy curry at a neighbouring stall. From a concrete cell-like room on the edge of the Thar desert in India I make a Whats App phone call to my dear friend Fiona in Scotland. Apart from a slight delay the line is clear and we marvel at the utter ridiculousness of such a thing.
In the morning we are are asked if the picture of the cycle tourist in the local paper is us, it isn’t but we are pleased to hear that there is another one of us out there. We haven’t seen another cycle tourist since Kaza. We are sent on our way with hot chai and smiles, once again heartened by the utterly wonderful muslim hospitality we have received all along this journey.
By day we cycle through beautiful villages and are frustrated that we invariably have to stay in guesthouses in busy towns. We have chosen this route as we have heard that there are more Bishnoi villages around Dhorimana and I want to learn more about this culture but it’s not clear how to arrange a visit. The towns are noisy, dirty places and I’m giving up hope as we prepare to set off after yet another night in a souless roadside room.. It’s then over breakfast that our luck changes when a very polite, friendly chap named Ram introduces himself. He asks me where we are from and what I do. By now I have an arsenal of professions at my disposal, some more aspirational than others – writer, anthropologist – but with Ram I give the one closest to the truth ‘ I work on community environmental projects’. ‘Oh you must come and see my village. I am Bishnoi, have you heard about the Bishnoi’.
Tourists bristling with cameras, livestock traders and Hindu pilgrims flock to the holy town of Pushkar during the full moon of the month of Kartika. Humans congregate here, in one of the oldest places in India, for the world famous Camel Fair and to pay homage to Lord Brahma. We arrived a few days before the official start of the fair and the sandy areas around town were already filled with camels, horses, turban wearing traders, hawkers, musicians, and tourists.
We always feel a little uncomfortable in touristy areas, arrogantly feeling that our bicycle ramblings are somehow more authentic than the experience of others. Seeing how the presence of foreigners reduces transactions to a primarily fiscal one saddens us. On our first day on the fairground we were befriended by a lad from Agra who had travelled here with his brothers to sell intricately carved soapstone ornaments. He became an impromptu guide around the ground, using the time to practice his excellent English, all for the promise we would visit his family’s stall. As we walked and chatted three musicians joined us and asked if we wanted a song. We agreed. These people are the descendants of travelling musicians who used to entertain royalty in the palaces of Rajasthan. This is how they have always made their living and we were happy to spend time with them and listen to their beautiful, haunting songs.
Sitting patiently with us as we listened to a man and wife sing was a young man who sucked on beedes. He introduced himself as Ram and invited us to come and meet his family who lived on the edge of town. We agreed to his invitation and said we would return later that afternoon. At 4pm, our agreed rendevous time, Ioan and I lay in bed. We were tired and Ioan was starting with a cold. We were sure Ram would understand.
The next day we headed back to the fairground, winding our way through the horses and camels. Tourists, Indian and foreign, float past high on the backs of camels. Whilst the scene is entertaining it shouldn’t be forgotten that this is a trading fair. Most of the travellers are oblivious to the fact that many of the camels are bought for meat and that the horses face a hard life working at insanely noisy wedding celebrations or carrying tubby middle-class indians for the ubiquitous selfie snaps at sunset points.
As we near the spot where we had first met Ram, a hand grabs me. ‘I waited, yesterday I waited’ he says. There is relief in his voice, somehow our return has validated his hope that no doubt ebbed in the failing light of yesterday. ‘I’m sorry Ram, but we were tired and Ioan is getting sick. We are here now.’ It sounded lame.
We followed Ram along sand roads for a kilometre to where his family lived. Ram, his wife Angelina and their five sons (all under the age of 7) lived in a small tent construction on a piece of unclaimed land between town and the desert lands. Neighbouring tents housed his extended family, we went round for a cup of tea whilst Angelina prepared dinner for us. Lucky, their 5 year old son, was sent off alone to the nearby shop to buy provisions. The protection obsessed west is far from here. We laugh with the family and eat the delicious food before making our way home as the nearly full moon rises over the town. It is agreed that the following morning we will meet Ram again and he will take us to see a nearby temple.
We keep our promise and the following morning we make our way back to the families tent. They are happy to see us and the children care for and entertain each other. I am struck that they have nothing. No storage boxes overflowing with plastic toys, no books, no high chairs or cots, no wardrobes full of clothes, no option of going to school. They have each other.
Ram works hard to secure a motorbike from a friend to take us to see a local temple but we are pressed for time. We have arranged an Ayurvedic massage in a couple of hours, how do you explain this absurdity to him. I cannot disappoint him so we climb on the back of the bike and hang on as we slip along the sand road. ‘So heavy, no seriously you are so heavy!’ exclaims Ram. We make our way through the beautiful hillsides, past herds of camels already heading from the fair. Past ancient trees to hidden temples, on the way back we spot a big lizard which excites Ram – he wants to get off, to see it more closely – but we have a massage booked.
On the edge of town he asks his question, it is the right time. ‘Can you help me friends? With the tent, the rain comes in. Can you help?’ He has invited us in to share precious time with his beloved children, shared his little food with us, given us his time and shown us things we would not have otherwise seen. It is a fair transaction. ‘Yes Ram we will help you’. And so we give him the equivalent of £60 to buy a new tent. He is overjoyed and in a very unindian moment he takes me in his arms and gives me a big hug. A hug of relief, of friendship and gratitude.
Now some of you reading this might think that we were taken quite literally for a ride by Ram. That over the course of the week of the camel fair he will take many foreigners home and ask them for help. Perhaps he will, even if he does – good on him, he is doing what he has to do to survive, to ensure his young children have basic shelter and food. We left Pushkar happy to have helped Ram in a small way, happy to have shared time with good people, with a CD of Ram’s music (that I’ve not yet heard), oh and with a carved elephant from the lad from Agra’s stall.
India is a land anointed with many myths and before touring here we were warned of pestilence, pestering and pandemonium. The Himalayas tested us but also sheltered us, however they could not hold us long before our curiosity edged us southwards to the tribal lands of Rajasthan. From Manali we cycled 220 km to Swarghat, the edge of the foothills, from where we took a taxi across the Punjabi plains to Ludhiana. It was Diwali and the streets were crammed with people buying gifts and we jumped as fire crackers exploded around our feet. The air was thick and our heads reeled after the crisp tranquility of the mountains. At the train station long lines of people pressed close, pushing us to the ticket counter where we successfully secured tickets for the night train to Ajmer.
Diwali Gift (Photo: ILeontie)
India seemed to be on the move that night and we, with our bikes and baggage, were just another part of the spectacle. On the platform extended families sat in circles to eat their dinner from tiffin tins; a pretty smiling woman with crippled legs shuffled along the ground before swinging herself up onto a trolley for a chat with her porter friend; a group of blind men led themselves, hands on shoulders, through the crowds; a reluctant goat was dragged by his ear to an unknown destiny; and as a train pulled away strong, good-natured men ran alongside squeezing huge bundles into the goods van, fumbling to close the ready-to-burst doors.We pondered the fate of our bikes, but there was no need to worry, India does trains well. When our delayed train arrived two porters relieved us of our steads and we struggled into our 4-berth sleeping compartment with our ridiculous 11 pieces of luggage! Fireworks illuminated the world as we passed over her and we witnessed a silent Diwali from the comfort of our beds.
I was struck at how different this chaotic, utterly alive station scene was to a train journey I had made in China a few years ago, from Guangzhou to Kunming on Chinese New Year. There thousands of people, making their way home across the country for only a few days of freedom from relentless work, were herded from one waiting area to the next. There was nothing to buy, there was no colour, no festive cheer. One scene particularly haunts me – a man who had dared to stop with his bags in an unauthorized area was bellowed at through a megaphone by a female soldier who stood less than a metre away from him. He had inadvertently become an island of resistance within an otherwise cowed, compliant shoal. India is a hard place to travel, it tests your resilience and patience, and there is terrible poverty and inequality. However it is not China, where I felt the state had a stranglehold on the very souls of its people.
In Ajmer we stayed in an old haveli in a room once inhabited by Gandhi.The past lives here and ghosts share the crowded streets with the living. Every cow, every dog, every bird, every cockroach is a somebody. Some of us will become sacred and others will be riddled with mange (politicians in particular get a rum deal, reincarnated as pitiful dogs). The streets of Ajmer thronged with humanity, imagine Oxford Street on Boxing Day played out in a narrow bazar full of holy pilgrims of multiple faiths. Muslims flocked around the Sharif Dargah, a shrine to a famous Sufi saint, shoes were lost under foot and we struggled to make a path between the bodies. Crippled men, who limbs have potentially been twisted and broken by other callous men, roll back and forth on the floor calling out for Allah, I do not know if he hears them, there are so many voices.
The truth is I struggle in crowds and there are times when I feel like I will suffocate in humanity. But India has a way of pulling you back from despair. We are forever being stopped by strangers who ask politely for ‘ one pic, one Selfie’. They ask our names, our country name; we have inadvertently become ambassadors of Romania. (I’m sorry England I have jettisoned your association, it is too bloody and embarrassing, both then and now.) In the chaos smiles abound, the varied architecture showcases the work of talented craftsmen and amidst all the filth and pollution, nature somehow finds a way.
I write this from a winter vacated hippie-hole in the foothills of the Himalayas. London youth shout profanities at each other in the neighbouring rooms and swagger around with an umbilical-arrogance that only the English seem to profess. I look at myself in a flecked mirror set jauntily on a pink wall, which is smeared with the full compliment of human secretions. My hair is not so matted, the sores on my lips are healing, my eyes are not so wide – I am starting to recover from our journey down the Earth’s Road.
A bike ride is a bike ride wherever you take it. It’s just you really – your power, your strength of will and a bike that you may or may not have named (meet Betty Artemis Black) and developed an almost horsewoman’s esteem for. I remember all my childhood bikes, they were my ticket to freedom – they took me to the library on Saturday morning, on summer afternoons we went to the river, cold winter mornings flying down the hill to the village shop then puffing back up with some steaming pies for lunch. I liked to tinker with them, mending punctures, cleaning, spraying the wrong places with WD40. Basically I like bikes, which is why I now spend most of my time riding one. This love-affair was however strongly challenged by the last leg of this haphazard adventure and if you happened to be travelling down a dark, cold road 4,000m up in the Himalayas last Monday night, you would have witnessed a wild white woman swaddled in clothing, sobbing her heart out, shouting into the wind and very, very close to throwing her fully loaded touring bike into the black ravine below.
13 – 18 Sept – Chandigarh (350m)
Chandigarh is a city that has fluttered in the corners of my imagination for a while. Barbican exhibitions about the city’s master visionary, the French-Swiss architect Le Corbusier –The Crow; monochrome images cut from Wallpaper magazine and used in collages of my future. Built in the 1950s it is green, calm, inspiring and welcoming – a perfect place to ease into India. We had bypassed Delhi, catching the 4am bus from the airport to Chandigarh . (That makes it sound simple, but bear in mind the ridiculously cumbersome burden 2 bikes and 40kg of kit becomes when being transported). As the bus made its way through Delhi’s dawn, new visions of this world were revealed to us. People were sleeping, everywhere – little soft bundles, crooked bony limbs, crisp laundered envelopes besides patiently waiting shined-shoes. Humanity laid out on colourful squares dotted the pavements, under trees, at bus stops. There was no place that humans could not take rest, and it did not matter what human – our need is shared. My body squirmed in its bus-confined numbness, but as the lights came up on India she did not disappoint.
‘Please stop!’ the gentle, laughing man on the bicycle whispers imploringly as he raises his hand to the oncoming traffic. He is demonstrating his technique for tackling Chandigarh’s omnipotent roundabouts. He and I giggle like school girls as we glide into the space that he has magically created for us in the honking, fuming, dirty-dance that is Indian traffic. ‘There is only one rule on the road in India: Protect yourself first, as no one else will’, were the wise words of S,… who ran the guesthouse that we called home for 4 days. It’s one of his commandments which include ‘Thou shall not eat anything anyone gives you, especially on buses.’ he then recounts a tale of a doped sandwich and a drugged dog. ‘Remember 99 of people are good, but 1 percent is bad. Treat everyone the same’. Sage advice.
Our time in Chandigarh was spent exploring the city and preparing for the next cycling challenge, as set by me. ‘You chose this road!’becomes Ioan’s go-to motivational mantra for the coming weeks. We would cycle from Chandigarh to Manali via the Kinnaur and Spiti valleys. A journey of 800km that would take us along – drum roll please – The World’s Most Treacherous Road. Later I would spend many hours in the saddle contemplating why I chose this road. Partly it was because we had failed in our overland venture and therefore not fully tested ourselves. And mostly because I seek to meet the earth in all her wild wonder. The secluded places where humans are a happy part of the whole. Oh, and I am a naive masochist with a tendency to quit, which arguably makes me braver than most.
And the Earth’s Road told us many stories, of humans and gods, of broken promises and new life, of cruelty and suffering, of soot and stone, of laughter and love. A road that would tell the tales of ourselves.
18 – 20 Sept2016 – Chandigarh (350m) to Shimla (2,276m) – 115km, 2.5 days
Hot and sweaty ride out past the protected city’s limits and immediately we are thrust into India; we pass a bicycle rickshaw with an Royal Enfield motorbike on it’s back. The pavement is the road and everything is moving. Two amicable teenagers out for a Sunday morning ride accompany us for a few kms, chatting to Ioan as we peddle onto the highway. The hills rise above us and for the next two days we steadily climb up a busy road with endless roadworks. When the light gives up on us we sleep in overpriced, and in one instance utterly squalid, roadside digs. Laying our tarp on the bed we cocoon ourselves in our down sleeping bags; fear of biting things trumps death by overheating. By day we gulp down litres of water and diesel fumes and by night our muscles twitch and stomachs gurgle with the fear of the inevitable belly troubles. Breakfast was skipped due to sanitary concerns on our last morning before Shimla, and as the road narrowed, and the tar barrels bubbled, and one more bus honked before cutting me up on a corner; I started to lose it. Until now the choreography had somehow worked, and even now I sensed that it was my fault we’d all missed a beat. I was tired, my senses and bike overloaded.
20 – 23 Sept – Shimla
In Shimla’s mist we felt winters chill for the first time. We found lodgings in the attic of the oldest house in town, a wood frame affair of faded colonial comfort. We slept beneath Hanuman, a 32m high orange statue of the Hindu Monkey God, and above the Mall; a British highstreet superimposed on a Himalayan ridge. Shimla is a town of promenade, of stiff climbs and stompy descents. The children weave between us on their way to school, swinging plaits and crisp shirts. I feel creased and ever so dull here, there is colour everywhere. Dapper gents with twirled mustaches, thick glasses and cravats. Weathered mountain men from Kinnaur with their green felt and tartan hats. Women with thick black hair and eyes of every shade. And on the grimy streets that slip down through the thickening cloud men heave huge loads to the traders of Middle Bazar. The tail of the monsoon scatters and soaks the unprepared. Hanuman’s sentinels sit on the fence and watch the world go by. We are equally captivated but a road awaits.
23 -25 Sept, Shimla (2,276m) to Rampur (1,021m) – 3 days
It’s harvest time in the apple orchards and although the traffic has eased since Shimla, trucks still pass us, anointing us with a puff of black diesel on the climbs. The apples are picked by hand and a woman throws us some, they are delicious. It is an act of sharing that makes us nostalgic for the good people of Turkey.
On the roadside creative young men offer their truck-pimping services – the truck drivers pull over and the process of beautification begins. A few tassles here, a hand painted BLOW HORN there, some rope earings, a flashing god on the dashboard and the truck is transformed. They are quite something these yaks of the road.
We eat in roadside Dhabas that provide us with delicious, nutritious thalis, plates of rice, dahl, vegetables, and roti. In a basic place in Kingal we are entertained by the pet rats that scuttle around the place. We are unphased, life on the road has taught us to expect everything.
Animals are part of life here but there is a cruelty. We pass a sacred cow slowly dying in the hot sun on the side of the road and are surprised that it has been left to its fate. Someone has tried to give it some relief by throwing a piece of sari over it but it will die alone maybe tonight, maybe next week. It’s not something you see much of in Europe, death. We hide it from the living world, secret it away, and in so doing we rob ourselves of acceptance, responsibility and peace.
At Rampur we treat ourselves to a couple of nights in a cheap 4 star hotel in the grounds of the beautiful Padam Palace. Clean sheets, a duvet and pillows all a luxury at this point. Our tent sits unopened and the stove is cold. We convince ourselves that camping hasn’t been an option until now – no flat ground, too many people, too close to the road. The truth is it’s sometimes good to shut a door, have a hot bucket shower and sleep all night.
Street Life Rampur PC: Liz Horn
PC: Liz Horn
27th Sept – Rampur (1,021m) to Shri Bhima Kali Temple (2,313m) 41km
A detour. We leave the main road to visit Shri Bhima Kali Temple in Sarahan just 12km up the hill. It takes us 3 hours and is our first real taster of what physicality this road demands. We are still in the human world and so there is plenty to distract and entertain us. People are on the whole relatively prosperous in this area, they have land, clean-ish water, and access to education. But not everyone. A family is living in a layby, they are cow herds. It is approaching dusk when we pass and a shape pulls the blanket tighter round them on their open air bed frame. A teenage girl stirs the pot and meets my smile with blank, blank eyes.
We sleep in the Temple dormitory, 1.50 a bed. At dawn we awake and make our way with other pilgrims to meet Bhimkali, the mother goddess. The temple is made of wood and stone and beyond the earth rises in snow lined peaks. It is one of 51 Shakti Peethas sites in India, where Sati’s ear fell according to Hindu legend.
28th Sept – 1st Oct 206, Sarahan (2,313m) to Rekong Peo (2,290m) – 100km, 2 days
It is here that the road starts to change. We leave the tarmac world which runs through green hillsides of apple orchard and cultivated plots. Following the river into the rocks we find oursevels in a land which is now familiar. The land of the Dam and all the stretches of dust and gravel that entails.They are building epic structures in these mountains. Concreting in the entire sides of mountains, trapping souls and water. But they find their way out, trickling out in new fissures that will become stronger. It’s fragile this balance.
At Reckong Peo we climb again from the valley floor and it is hard. Our legs are tired, we’ve not eaten enough the gravel has taken it’s toll but for now we are grateful for tarmac. We secure our Inner Line Permits for the stretch a road ahead and still we don’t really think about what it will entail. We rest two days and when I look back I’m so glad we took it slow those early days.
Children Playing PC: IL
1st Oct – 2nd Oct – Reckong Peo (2,290m) to Pooh (2,262m) – 64km, 2 days
Spello is a bleak place. The road works have become a near constant now and it is hard. The colour has faded, we are in a grey, blue haze. The once colourful clothes of the mini-tribes of the stone and dust that build this road, hand-by-hand, have taken on a ghostlike palour. Families live here, on the edge of the road, in drainage pipes, in wooden huts, under tarpulin rags. A baby and her grandfather sweep the dust from the freshly laid tarmac. Her mother sits and breaks rocks, all day, everyday. Gangs of young Nepalese and migrants from India’s poorest states work this road and BRO (Border Road Organisation) takes the credit with their proud signs of achieving this engineering feat – the most treacherous road in the world. Blackened tar makers breathe in the bubbling treacle in their barrels. They and their dogs have been tarred in patches, my panniers are not spared the sticky stuff. I have never seen anything like it, such massive, dangerous construction work undertaken with no concern for human safety. We all wrap flimsy cotton around our mouths and carry on.
Chop, chop, chop – the knock of knife on roof. Three floors above us a Kinnaur family sits under the greying Himalayan sky and chops apples. Laid out on the roof the juices dry and crispen, turning autumn harvest into winter fodder for the cows. We liked Pooh, with its buddhist temple, prayer wheels and stupas of carved rocks. At the foot of the climb up to the village we had our first cup of tea with the army. A perfectly timed hot sweet, milky chai. This is a militarized area, close to the China border. To the east lies Kashmir. Soldiers pass in lorries on their way to some of the hardest training grounds and postings in the world. We wave and are cheered on with salutes, happy our endeavors are acknowledged.
3rd Oct – Pooh (2,262m) to Nako (3,662m) – 39km
On the descent from Pooh back to the valley floor I realised that some of the trinkets that adorn my bike are missing. A necklace and bracelet that were given to me by two kind strangers in Turkey. It stung that gifts had been potentially taken by someone else and I latched onto the unfairness on behalf of the gift givers. But the road soon shook my attachment lose.
A rare sighting – cycle tourers. Two Russian men descending as we climb, we exchange information about the road ahead and behind. Their lips are chapped and faces ruddy. Previously we had only met one German chap going the other way. It was good to see him, to believe that the road was possible. ‘I won’t tell you about the road. I don’t want to scare you. Just go slow and steady. I liked one sign ‘If you believe it is possible, you can do it’. I looked but never found that sign.
We round a corner and the road turns into a series of switchbacks. Our next destination is up there. That village of white and black houses clinging to the rock face. We make our way along the corsortinas, at times it feels like we are trapped in an Esher lithograph. It is dark and cold when we arrive in Nako. In the morning the beauty of the village reveals herself, streamers of prayer flags flutter from every roof. On the hill above a wind propelled prayer bell tolls a bell, as the sunsets goat herders bring their charges down the hill in a dust cloud that envelopes us. We are up high and the Earth’s road is showing us her secrets.
5 Oct – Nako (3662m) to Tabo (3280m) 65km
This is a world dominated by shale and mud colossis that tower above us. We are dwarfed by mountains, young unsolifidified masses that slip and shift to the river Spiti below us. We are cycling in a high altitude desert. Everything is in flux, everything changing. ‘I begin to understand how the buddhists got their philosophy in this land. Nothing is permanent here.’ Ioan reflects, admires and documents it all. I struggle to breathe and worry about it going dark. There is stillness. These mountains are silent except for when the pebbles tinkle down, catching in the spokes, bigger stones fall – one bounces of my back pannier. I stop to put my helmet on. On the 65km from Nako to Tabo we enter large areas of Stone Slip Zones where men wait watching the scree above us. We hold our breath and wait for the go ahead. At times huge controlled slides fall creating huge plumes of dust.
Further along the road we are engulfed by goats coming home. Their owners wait to reclaim them on the roadside, some saunter happily home others put up resistance. It is another day when we have failed to eat lunch. Roadside food is becoming harder to find and we have a terrible habit of pushing on. Again we reach our destination in the dark, on the verge of exhaustion. I have pushed my bike on and of for the last few kilometers through the dark. I find it hard to keep my balance on the gravel in the dark.
Tabo Monastery is one of the most sacred Buddhist sites in the world, second only to ? in Tibet. Simple adobe chambers hold masterpieces. Light filters through small square roof holes providing illuminating glimpses of the demons, demi-gods, buddhas and dragons painted in primary colours. No queues, no audio guides, no fee. Just a handful of female guardians sit at the entrance to each spiritual tomb-womb, ‘no photos’. And so we stand and witness as the veil between the worlds flaps.
7 Oct – Tabo (3,280m) to Kaza (3800m) 51km
Autumn is here and winters chill is chasing our tails. We have to get over Rohtang La before the road closes, basically before the snow comes and cuts of this valley. The date of 15th October is banded around. The last yellow leaves of the willow tree are falling. The fruits of the buckthorn bushes are bright orange, apart from those next to the road, they are dusty, grey like us. I turned 39 on the road from Tabo to Kaza, it was a beautiful ride. At 5am I was presented with a mouse in a plastic bottle hand-caught by Ioan.
In Kaza we stop a while. The Raid de Himalaya rally is in town, motorbikes and cars and man testing their nerve and endurance on this crazy road. We explore the town – at the temple we are mesmerized by a monk practicing his singing and drumming. We sit in meditation the sound of a conch shell, fills the air. Later we watch the young moks playing cricket, it is freezing. As we walk home the singing from monastry reflects off the wall of mountain that lumes over us and the heavens are set above us.
10th Oct – Kaza (3,800m) to Losar (4,085m) 57km
It was on the road from Kaza to Losar that I broke. The Earth road she shattered me. For 3 km in the dark I pushed my bike into the cold night, I sobbed, I shouted, all I wanted to do was lie down on the side of the road and go to sleep. One question…why? Why did we do this to ourselves? No one else felt the need to do this? 12 km that had seemed very achievable at dusk took us 3.5 hours. Ioan was strong, patient and resilient as I flailed in my misery, using my last ounces of energy on despair. Focus, a few more steps. No suitable place for the tent. No food. No water. Sob….irresponsible…dangerous…sob. Why can’t i just have a normal life? I said that even when I had a normal life, but life is not normal, it’s messy and painful and wonderful. On that cold, scary night in the Himalayas I let go, the earth forced me to. I don’t know why we didn’t stop one of the trucks or buses that passed us. I would not give up, and Ioan stood besides me through a volley of abuse and spit and snot.
We found ourselves at the door of a tibetan guesthouse but there was no room at the inn. Freezing and broken I asked just to eat and get warm. That meal was good. That fire was good. We asked if there was a place we could sleep and a bed was prepared for us. Inside in the family quarters. I do not know where the family slept that night, all i know was that I have never been so grateful.
At the Nomads Cottage we made friends with other voyagers on the road. A group of 5 who had come from Delhi on motorbike and 3 friends who had driven. We all knew the road in our own way. Laughter and friendship filled the guesthouse. Out in the cold we let off fireworks, the ‘bomb’ deafened us and ricocheted across the field, disturbing the sleeping yaks. ‘Happy Diwhali’ went the cry.
12 – 15 Oct- Losar (4,085m) to Old Manali (2,050m) via Rohtang La (3979m) -146km, 4 days
One day I will give this journey, this story, the appropriate time, reflection and dedication that it deserves. For now you get mere snippets of some of the most challenging and rewarding days of our lives.
We always knew the road would get harder. After the breaking I just took one section at a time. I will try. I will try to pass Kunzum Pass, let’s see what happens. As we climbed the oxygen became thinner. A few steps, a few peddles and then we were bent over catching our breath. It took us 5.5hrs to go 28km. At the top we mustered the energy to go around the stupas before dropping down the dark side of the mountain. Our friends pass us in their car and give us much needed snacks. We arrive at ChaChi Dhaba at dusk and eat our rice and dahl like hungry wolves. That night we share an ex Indian army ‘igloo’ with our other friends the motorbike crew from Delhi, thanks guys!
From Losar the earth really reclaims her road, we bump along a rocky glacial river bed for hours. Laughing hysterically when energy allows. Always marvelling at what surrounds us. Flowers and trees start to make an appearance and water flows once more.
For the first time we pitch our tent and sleep under the stars, it is below freezing but feels good to be out in the elements. At Gramphur before our climb over Rohtang La we sleep in a dhaba run by a Nepalese man. He prepares rice and dahl for us. Cold, hungry boys from the road building crew enter the stone and tarpulin hut, in search of alcohol, smokes and comfort. We sit for hours mesmerized by the play of life that unfolds before us. We are voyeurs in a world that we can never understand, just how it feels to work that hard, that far away from home, in such cruel terrain. Cycling this road was a privilege, a choice. A hard one, no doubt, and one that revealed our strengths and weaknesses. But the roads greatest lesson, for me any way, was acceptance and the peace that can bring. I found it striking that not one Buddhist stopped to offer us a lift or to see if we were okay on the Earth’s road. This was our journey, our path.
I didn’t know much about Armenia when I cycled across her border one month ago and if I’m being honest I still don’t. I can recite a few facts gleaned from the internet: the first country to adopt Christianity; she is at war with her Eastern neighbour Azerbaijan and has a deep wound inflicted by Turkey to her west; her national symbol is Mt Ararat where Noah’s Ark came to rest after the great flood, a mountain that now lies in Turkey. She is a country whose children have travelled far and can claim Steve Jobs (his adoptive grandparents were Armenian and apparently he could speak the language fluently), Andrea Agassi, Cher, and erm…the Kardashian’s (I honestly don’t really know who they are) as her distant offspring.
I know first hand that she is a quiet country with impressive landscapes where the cool forests of Dilijan National Park give way to the stark hot lands around Lake Sevan. The tranquility of the countryside makes arriving into Yerevan, her large cosmopolitan (whatever that means) capital, a bit of a shock.
Our final night in Georgia before crossing the Armenian border was a frustrating affair that involved entering a field of thorns in the dark when trying to find a place to camp. We managed to escape to the hazard free seclusion (apart from the odd nut) of a Hazelnut grove and slept soundly. At first light the pickers came but seemed unphased by our presence. They were curious and asked us questions as we packed up and made our way to a clearing to mend our punctures (Liz wins 3-2), and inspect the thorn damage. Every inch of tyre seemed to have at least one thorn and we spent 2 hours patiently removing them, a surprisingly relaxing activity. I think sometimes our brains are thirsty for any stimulation other than cycling.
In usual style we crossed the border into Armenia in the midday heat and pedaled on along river valleys, happily noting how much quieter the road had become since leaving Georgia. A water stop at a roadside bbq shack led to an evening spent drinking vodka and eating with new friends of dubious character. I was rechristened ‘Matilda’ by a tattooed, gold-toothed guy who had a heart to match; a little bruised black-back but essentially made of gold. His friend (I’m afraid names were lost on the spirit soaked air) possibly the ‘boss’ just referred to him repeatedly as Stalin’s Gulag. As the laughter-shouting balance tipped towards the latter, we took our leave and tipsily pitched our tent near to the river behind the bar. Throughout the night we were awoken by regular cries of ‘Matilda‘ and Amigo, (which on reflection are mighty fine new names) and heard footsteps close to the tent. Despite the persistent lingering we never felt truly threatened, I didn’t sleep well it’s true, but our instincts about these guys was right. In the morning we were sent on our way with one last shot of vodka and a ‘you’ve not seen me right‘ tap of the nose from the boss.
Two days later we passed Stalin Gulag on the outskirts of the nearest city waiting for a lift back home. His Barcelona top was unzipped enough to see the Gulag Christ his body carried, cross-like, and his teeth flashed in the sunlight as he smiled. ‘Matilda‘ went the cry followed by hearty handshakes. Before leaving he asked us for some money for the bus, not in a threatening manner but in a forceful enough way that we crossed his hand with silver. It felt acceptable as he had been very generous during our nights entertainment, but it was a transaction that left us feeling a little uneasy. Welcome to Armenia!
In Dilijan we enjoyed the cool forest air and stayed in a friendly guesthouse with delicious food and where Ioan’s bike mending skills were called upon. Grandad christened him the ‘Master’ and his grandson seemed happy enough with the job done (although probably slightly miffed that we left him to mend his own puncture, but you got to learn sometime kid!)
At Lake Sevan we finally got to swim in crystal clear water, this has been a constant thirst of mine during this journey. The rivers we have encountered have either been filthy or raging torrents. Our refreshing dip was followed by a warming shot of world-renowned Armenian Cognac offered to us by a couple of barrel bellied bathers. That night we camped beneath the iconic Armenian Writer’s Union guesthouse, which has now rather unsanctamoniously been reclaimed as a nightclub (we didn’t know this when we set up camp, so another sleepless night!) Now I don’t think for a second that the Union didn’t see it’s fare share of hedonism during the heydays, I just think the revellers probably had a more refined taste in both music and stimulant.
Leaving the busy main road between Sevan and Yerevan we found a recently harvested field, where we could finally have a restful night under the stars. One of the pleasures of this journey has been watching, feeling and tasting the season change from spring to late summer. We cooked our dinner tired but happy, watching the distant plumes of smoke from the burning fields of stubble hang in the air as the sun sank behind Mt. Aragats. We’ve finally found our rhythm.
We dropped into Yerevan past deserted Soviet factories and hillsides where the city’s rubbish tips smoldered. Tbilisi and Yerevan are the only cities I’ve been in for a while where I’ve seen no recycling facilities. In Yerevan in particular, the stark contrast between the show of wealth (real, borrowed or make believe, it matters not) and the fixation on personal appearance, sitting alongside an apparent blind-spot when it came to the environment, left me underwhelmed. Strong perfumes, high heels and thick make up were the overwhelming impression, but there were pockets of resistance and I think if we’d been prepared to give it more of a chance we may have been surprised by what we found. Instead our minds were focused on our next goal = India. It was a time for life administration – securing visas, booking flights, finding bike boxes, packing up and jettisoning excess weight! We also had the pleasure of popping into the Romanian embassy to pick up a package of bike bits that we’d failed to find on the road. It was a treat for Ioan to speak his mother-tongue and a reminder of just how warm, welcoming and accommodating Romanians are. Multumim baieti pentru ajutorul acordat!
So sorry Armenia that we didn’t explore you further, that we didn’t get a chance to visit your pagan sites, to climb your mountains and loose ourselves in your secret valleys, or touch your dragon stones. But one day maybe, just maybe we will return.
Scary surgical implements on sale at the flea market
Stone masons at work. Yerevan is a pink city, with buildings made from pink volcanic rock.
We hid in the Georgian capital for almost 3 weeks, burrowing ourselves away from the searing heat. When we ventured out we sizzled in the 40 degrees pan, our rind crisping and minds short-circuiting. Our days were spent formulating, then discarding onward plans. Researching, calculating, we composed alternative scores for month long symphonies that would carry us across the Caspian sea, to Kazakhstan’s desert plains, past Uzbekistan’s fabled mosques, and over the snowy peaks of Kyrgyzstan. We looked at the weather forecast, deep purple bruises cast burning shadows across our intended path. We scribbled numbers – costs, times and dates – and the abacus grew too heavy, the calendar ran out of pages. And so with heavy hearts we admitted defeat and decided on the easy option, a plane (the cigarettes of the sky). We sit uneasy with this decision, fully aware that it contributes to the scorched planet, the Biblical monsoons, the hurricanes, the famines, the wars for resources and the waves of humanity moving north. (And closer to home, it contributes to the flooding that left Lancaster, my city in the north of England, without power for 5 days in December 2016). Some pay a heavier price sooner, but in the end we will all suffer. Nature will not discriminate, she is the great leveller.
Flying was always a last resort but at every other option we were thwarted- Iran (not possible for British citizens without an expensive guide for duration of the trip), Pakistan (not possible without an armed escort and untold Parental concern), across the Caspian Sea into the Stans (possible but expensive visas and great distances would decimate our budget and time). And so it was final we would cycle to Yerevan in Armenia, apply for our Indian visas and then fly to Delhi. In other words, we would fail.
To distract ourselves from disappointment we made early morning and evening forays into Tbilisi, a magical place that reveals her delights slowly. It is a city of discovery – hours spent sifting the flotsam and jetsam of life on sale at the Dy Bridge Flea Market, awe-struck by the intricate beauty of the ancient jewellery on display in the National Treasury, throwing shapes within the light projections on the ravine below the old city, sweating in the steamy private sulphar baths where cigars of filth were scrubbed from our thighs by strong men and women. Nights were spent sharing Lake-side tales with new friends or eating delicious meals in romantic flower-filled restaurants. It felt like a reward of sorts to be here in this sleepy, nostalgic, city of possibility.
Tiblisi is a city that is reluctant to let you go, somewhere that you only truly appreciate as ‘quite special indeed’ once you leave. Our last night was spent on the outskirts of town at a hostel run by two Punjabi lads. It was by sure chance that we ended up in their gentle care, nourished by delicious food and sent on our way with a bag of apples from their garden, but it felt like a blessing for our journey ahead to their home – to India.
Georgia is a spectacular country that has held us enchanted for 7 weeks in which time we have clocked up over 750km. After our adventures in the Svaneti mountains and time with our generous hosts in Tsageri we made our way to Tskaltubo. It is a thermal spring resort where Stalin used to come for rest and recuperation, so we figured it might be a good place to rest our mountain legs. The off-road down hill from Ushguli had been almost as tough as the ascent, my body was tense from holding on too tightly and our minds were tired from negotiating the rough terrain and mud.
Marina, our jolly guesthouse owner, prepared us delicious breakfasts and organised our treatments at Spring No.3. It was as expected a clinical, post-soviet affair with serious (but secretly soft) women in white coats overseeing proceedings. First I lay in a blue bath as it was filled with midly radioactive tepid water, then a friendly lady massaged me under the water with a high pressure hose. It was invigorating rather than relaxing. Meanwhile Ioan was in another room having a therapeutic massage, which sent him to sleep. We swapped treatments and both concluded that the massage was very, very good. Other treatments were on offer such as a gynelogical douche or prostrate manipulation, but we passed on these like cowards. Whatever is in the water it did the trick and we zonked out for the next 24 hours.
The radon bath
Spring No. 6 – Stalin’s Choice
From Tskaltubo we took a pretty direct route to Mtskheta, the old Georgian capital, via Prometheus Cave (the longest in Europe), Kutaisi, and the ancient rock city of Uplistsikhe; a total of 250km (I intend to create a map our route soon.)
It was a hot ride with temperatures reaching 40 degrees and we sought midday shade in woodlands, stringing up our hammocks for a snooze, crossing rickety bridges to lie next to rivers, or in old churches. At the atmospheric IX Century Ubisa Monastery we felt privileged to witness an Orthodox baptism.
We passed through forested mountains and we feasted on summer apples, hazelnuts, salads and mushrooms bought from roadside traders. It was our longest stint of sleeping wild and at points we started going a little mad. Camp sites included a bus stop where we had taken shelter from a storm that never ended, the locals were bemused but tolerant of the strange aliens in their midst.
We slept in recently harvested fields, washed at roadside taps and went black-moon mad under electrical storms. It was a test of our resilience, of our love, but we survived. Forever renewed by the natural beauty that surrounded us.