The start of the Himalayan Ride
Nutshell flashback: I have just cycled a 3500 kilometer straight through India in summer and have arrived in pre-monsoon Delhi. Taking a ten days rest where I do many things but rest, I need to find out about my way onward. So I cycle some more through the heavy traffic of Delhi to find out about my chances to get into Myanmar by land border. Also I am about to get a companion in cycling, and I prepare to lighten my load and take the absolute necessary, leaving the incomplete set of tarot cards behind, and the stash of Indian handmade clothes too.
Before you set off into the Indian Himalaya, get yourself a SIM card from BSNL in Delhi if you like to stay tuned.
When my cycling-companion Henrik is arriving, Delhi is pregnant of her absolute heat. While I impart with Delhi’s Pahar Ganj area, it’s obvious that I don’t have a very good communication at all times: I await my friend, at the airport in Delhi, a day too early. Traffic stuck, bumpers touching one and another, fumes stick to the inside of my open pores while I am watching guys playing cricket on the grassy fields around the airport.
Henrik has come over to spend his summer holidays cycling in the Himalaya. Before we set off we notice his disk-brake is bended by the transport to get here. We’re going to fix this in Jhandewalan cycle-market, I have been here the day before to buy the ‘very best Chinese good quality’ aluminium bottle holder, in a tangle of tiny shops. Shops most packed with Chinese toys and cheap looking bicycles for spoiled kids. While we are getting to the cycle-market, naturally, I try to find out with whom I am dealing: I try to outdo him in the Delhi traffic. When he keeps pedaling behind me, like a baby duck behind his mother, never sway from my back wheel, I feel that this is not a very good omen. I hoped to leave him biting my dust within the second…
A newly wed couple
Although I had my hopes on cycling in Zanskar, it’s ging to be something else: the loop close to the Tibetan border attracts me as well and since we all need to make choices I decide cycling via Kinnaur, Spiti and Lahaul to Leh in Ladakh must be equally splendour. Once missed the turn-off to these little states when I came by a bus from Leh years ago, I have never been here. Taking a night bus to Shimla is an experience in itself as the couple in front of my seat is newly wed: the hands of the wife are elaborately painted with henna. She wrestles her beautiful adorned hands about 6 times a minute through her thick, shiny hair. It must encourage her spouse to an absolute height, which comes to a full play when both are having a late dinner at a very busy, commercial highway dhaba. I can’t take my eyes of this couple, the man is feeding her like she is his baby bird. His hands shoves little morsels of curry wrapped in a piece of chapati. While he feeds her, she is beaming with delight, she is not hiding her indulgence. She is darting her head backwards as often as she slides her hands through her hair, her amazingly ornate hands are amplifying her thoughts and her pleasure is his reward. Their eyes are entangled, pure joy and love is floating over their ramshackle table, and I can’t look away. Love like this is magical. I start to think about love marriages and arranged ones and when we step back into the luxury coach I can’t help it but noticing they don’t sleep at all…
I sleep a little, more in the night to come, in order to be rested enough before we start cycling the next morning. At an altitude of 2130 meter it’s finally naturally cool and the next day cycling to Theog it’s not much difference from an average Dutch autumn day.
Courage sinks when I see the bicycle of Henrik in front of me for about a second ahead of me, then it’s vanished. That bicycle speeds up the hill, around the corner, far in front of me. I had hoped that my second year of continuous cycling, my long haul through stressful India would have been fruitful, but alas, it is not. The bicycle far in front of me carries all the food while I have shed about 8 kilogram. I am at my most lightest yet the uphill of my first day in the Himalaya is testing me hard.
Tea is a good form of awareness
Starting the ride, it was a cold day where the difference in temperature was a 40 degrees, once it dropped down to 10 degrees. My fingers become numb and painful and heavy as a brick. Something must be wrong with my blood pressure? I am far below the comfort zone. Soaked completely up to my underwear by raindrops as big as miniature lakes. Hailstones unkindly hurt my bare hands. Toes wrapped in socks and Ziploc bags feel as castaway little sisters in closed, tight shoes. The rain is unmerciful and flows in brown streams down the hill. Men seek shelter underneath their trucks, tourists don’t leave the big comfortable luxury coaches who’d took them up the hill. Where I first love the rain, the welcome cool drops out of heaven, I soon start to long for the sticky, equally uneasy heat of the low lands. Heat is somehow comfortable where cold is painful and it dawns on me how our longings, or at least mine, is so changeable. Such longings always point to where you are not. To what you have not. To what is not there. Therefor I raise my voice: ‘Let’s have a chai at the first chai stall.’
The chai stall is filled with wet people seeking shelter, each a hot steaming stainless cup of chai in their hands. Rain falls through the plastic sheets which doubles as a ceiling. Two cups of chai bring my toes and fingers back to life. These two cups of chai bring me back to the beauty of where I am, to appreciate the cold, to realize I don’t have clothes with me to keep me warm, to concur the 4000 meter altitudes further on. Once in the lodge, hot water pouring over my through and through cold body covered with goosebumps, I scream a little. The same scream as would I pour cold water over a heated body in a 40 degrees dank lodge.
Being in Himachal Pradesh I soon feel I am not in India anymore. I start to refer to India as a different country as where I am in right now, still India though. The biggest difference is when I notice the silence. It feels as if two strong hands have been clutched round my neck for months, now suddenly released. To eat in absolute silence, without eyes stabbing me, is absurd and pleasing at once.
Questions over chai
Cycling with another person makes sipping chai in a little atmospheric restaurant seemingly more snug. Seemingly indeed. It seems possible for me to sit here without being watched, stared at nor interviewed. Worries are vented about me, words heard before, concerning I can not do what I am planning to do: cycling up the mountain. I have no worries at all. I can do what ever I want to…
Change in scenery, and the whole
What comes, will be welcomed. Mountains, hills or coldness. But for now that is gently moving on gradual roads and gravel. From a bold, lone, complete self-depended woman I have stepped back into the shoes of a not so obedient, but route-wise unprepared cyclist. Some days I even notice I don’t know in which town I am, but I do stop often enough to inhale the fresh pine smell and crisp air. The road start to become unsealed, rocky and sandy. Each day I get to know how much meters I will gain in altitude so I can mentally prepare. Cycling becomes harder, yet more adventurous. The mountain-walls along the route are slowly packing me closer with the greyish river plunging deeper below. I am constant accompanied by the sound of fast flowing water tumbling over rocks in a hurry comparable with the companion ahead of me.
The nature is one of soft colors together with brownish rocks and gravel. Brushed greens are dotted against the slopes and spread minty smells of fresh herbs. I reckon they’re all good for making tea. If I only had a tiny bit more time for that… The road bends constantly in swirly curves like a trained woman’s body and when a battered state-transport bus comes ahead or from behind, the driver know better than I how to maneuver around a bicycle. Truck drivers indicate with a tip of their fingers what is required of me. People and food is slowly changing from Indian to Chinese alike, to momo’s and chow mein, prepared by woman wearing the same cap as a man. I notice an equality for the first time, where men and women wear the same headdress -it says a lot. Cows are slowly disappearing, as riksja’s do too. I enjoy the ride while eating loads of deep-fried potatoes in an almost hidden shack a little below the road, my bicycle resting against a tree overlooking the road…
My mood is rancid and unpleasant
‘I have good news and I have bad news,’ says my companion. ‘First the bad news,’ I answer. ‘The route is completely blocked by a landslide. We can’t pass it, neither by a bicycle. We have to surpass it over the hill behind us, 13 kilometer by a 600 meter climb.’ ‘And what is the good news?’ I ask curious. ‘Now you can test if you can deal with such a sudden climb, because that’s what we soon have to deal with.’
Being tired by lack of rest, such words just fall wrong. Test? Do I have to prove myself now? For who? I can do ánything because power is in the mind. And I don’t want to prove myself right now. I don’t want to cycle a detour of 20 kilometer, only to move around a slide and get no further than 5 kilometer than where I started. I don’t want to climb a 13 kilometer today. I am already tired when I wake up. I have options, like staying and waiting till the landslide is cleared, or take motorized transport. Nevertheless I continue my daily tasks of packing the bicycle, having a heavy paratha breakfast, and leaving. Nobody forced me…
Up the hill.
It’s a monster of a hill. I have to climb that damn thing! But why? Why this hurry? Why this pushing on? For what? For who? Is the first prize awaiting me up there? While Henrik is super patient and doesn’t push at all, he actually rather encourage me, I climb the hill. I try not even to change my mind from ‘not wanting’ to ‘wanting’ and so it becomes ‘doing’ later on, solely doing. I have little choice if it comes to cycling. This route simply exist and that’s why I can make this detour. The route is not particular beautiful, the after-taste not distinctively sweet. This is the disadvantage and at the same time the benefit of compromise.
The real beauty comes when the detour is over, continuing between steep mountain-walls winding surprisingly another direction as I thought I would go. The nature becomes more inaccessible, although it must be my mind, because I am still below 2000 meter. The difference with lowlands India could not be bigger, if only because it is again possible to camp (camp safely). It turns out right next to a stone-cutter camp. Very often the stone-cutters are from one of the poorest Indian states, Bihar, and live in plastic sheeted huts. They repair the road and fortify parts dropping down steeply. Their daily income is € 3.50, not that bad, although the work is ridiculous intense and boring. I am not at all pleased that we are visited by three of our neighbors while we try to camp unseen…
“Instead of wondering when your next vacation is, maybe you should set up a life you don’t need to escape from.” Seth Godin
There are benefits, cycling with someone else, although it’s equally getting used to being with two, adjusting to each other, and of course, compromise. What I like is when I see another bicycle parked against a crumbling wall knowing the owner of that bicycle is already sitting in the restaurant and knows what the menu has to offer. I would enter the little restaurant where the owner would welcome me with: ‘two chai, one sugar, one no’, because that is how we communicate, most clear, with the simple, relaxed people of Lahaul. When I see that other bicycle balancing scaringly on a cliff I know I am waited for, without moody face, instead with an expression I never learned to understand. Finally I think I can rest, only to hear: ‘Come on, move on.’ We have agreed on 40 to 50 kilometer a day without my recognition as I know it.
The route becomes rougher, sandy, more harsh. The hills slightly higher. Children wave from parts above me, as little angels unexpected. Men on Enfield motorbikes have an effortless expression, mixed with enthusiasm that I seem to lose slowly. Men in trucks wave at me, in a happily sweet manner. The route is constantly being repaired and with my mind fretting over the chain constantly slipping, I pass families cutting stones along the road. Big blue butterflies fly as kites in a storm. Cows dressed in an utter happy expression are still to be seen on a route cut out of rock. If you won’t pay enough attention the depth would swallow you, unpardonable, while birds keep on singing their songs, where marijuana plants would ease your fall.
Some days are easy, with a 30 kilometer downhill I can make a 75 kilometer without too much effort. But having lost 1700 meter in height I have to climb all over again and the following days are dominated by ascending. From 600 meters up, to a 1000 meters up, again 700 meters and with the last 500 extra I reach Reckong Peo. Only at 2290 meter and my breath is already heavy and taken by thinner air. Especially when I turn on the phone early morning before leaving, something I don’t usually do, and get to hear shocking news from home…