20 Sept 2016 – Old Manali (2,050m), India
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.
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.
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.