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India part one

I didn’t quite appreciate how lucky I’d been over the last few months in having friends visit from home. Leaving Pokhara had to be one of the most mentally draining days to date, with that reoccurring theme of loneliness coming to the forefront. Mel and Shaun had arrived merely four days after Dicko had returned to Australia and I once again cast away my delinquent daily budget in preference of being a normal tourist. With time limited, we decided on a common trek out of Pokhara to a destination, tantalisingly called Poon Hill. My mind had decided that this would be an Eden well worth the effort and just rewards after being on the road for nearly ten months.

After trekking through lush villages for three days, we arrived early morning at Poon Hill, hoping to get a glimpse of the Annapurna mountain range. A feeling of dejection arose in us all as a thick fog had set in and we could barely see each other, let alone the 8,000m peaks. I honestly thought Mel was going to cry – or snap. But as luck would have it, the fog dissipated and we took in all before us. I’d been in Pokhara a fair while and I’d never seen the peaks this clear. I honestly thought Mel really was going to cry this time, tears of joy, as it was the first time she had seen snow. We traced back to Pokhara in quick fashion with nothing too exciting happening, except dhal bhat farts and Mel falling off a cliff. A few days later I bid them adieu and prepared for the plains of Nepal.

Descending Poon Hill, Nepal
Poon Hill, Nepal

​It had been well over a month since I’d indulged in the daily routine of cycle touring – finding food and water, using my tent, and actually cycling fully loaded. But it still came as a surprise to me the little hurdles that would present themselves for the next week. Perhaps it was due to the scorching heat of the plains, being the build-up to the monsoon, but I often found myself making weak excuses. I was actually scared of my stove, wondering if the lack of use would have the fuel bottle somehow blow up in my face. I was also dreading being disturbed in the middle of the night by strangers who were obviously going to cause harm, so I would resort to paying for accommodation. I found it quite peculiar that I could be calm about cycling in altitude, yet freak out about using a stove that I had used so many times before. Luckily, I got out of this little rut and was back to eating the most uninspiring food possible, two minute noodles.

After being shrouded for so long in the endless parade of restaurants, travel agents and first world comforts, Western Nepal bared the harsh reality of a country grinding along in poverty. Mud thatched houses dotted the farming land, with children forgoing school to tender crops, cows and any other animal worth the effort. The cycling was utterly draining, verging on boring. Temperatures sweltered from 10am till 4pm, sapping any desire to leave my slumber from the roadside shade. The view stayed the same – flat road, trees to the side. After six days of pedestrian cycling I reached the border of India. I had less than two months remaining on my visa, and given the route I wanted to take, I was ultimately left with the decision to take a bus for 300km - the plains of India had nothing for me. I found it quite the paradox in that I have all the time in the world, but no time to enjoy it.

The Mahendra Highway, Nepal

​It was never my intention to cycle every single inch of the planet, and my goal of cycling 100,000km through every inhabited continent was still demanding and reassuringly daunting. The last ten months has instilled in me the confidence to cycle in places where I get the greatest return on investment. From the remote Birdsville Track, to the heights of the Annapurna Circuit, this trip is about really testing myself, not simply coasting along with the perpetual motion of the bicycle smothering any real trepidation. Enter the Spiti Valley.

The British originally built the Hindustan-Tibet Highway as a secret invasion route into Tibet. The road itself, now known as Highway 05, is regarded as one of the most dangerous in the world. I now wholeheartedly understand why. Unlike the commercialised Death Road in Bolivia (a tourist attraction), Highway 05 has the utter madness and constant dangers of India that I’ve grown to love and loathe.

The road, a mix between pot-holed bitumen and loose gravel, snakes its way through the valley somehow clinging to the side of a cliff. I was constantly reminded of the sheer audacity of engineers as bulldozers continually forced a path through a landslide that occurred on top of another landslide. There was barely enough room for a car and bicycle, let alone two cars, and I was kept vigilant with washed out roads and manic bus drivers. It was a relentless battle for my wavering attention. Should I focus on the deplorable road – an attraction in itself - or should I stare in amazement at the surroundings?

My proximity to Tibet and the Spiti Valley became more noticeable as I kept pedalling. Mountains soared in every direction and the landscape became more dry and desolate. The people wore faces exposed to a hard life in the elements – a harsh sun, unforgiving winds and mountains of snow. Village elders were covered in wrinkles as deep as the valley itself, whilst the children had runny noses and rosy cheeks. Everyone dressed in attire suited for functionality rather than fashion. I grappled with the thought of winter and struggled to comprehend the toughness of the people living here, callously cut off from the outside world in temperatures dropping to a bone chilling -30C. Here I am winging about menial first world problems.

A local Kalihari man, Northern India

Something which I have noted in previous blogs, the harshest environments seem to generate the most honest of people. A sense of community is fundamental in village life as a way to lift morale and to survive. Surprisingly, this selfless way of life is sometimes bequeathed on bald, skinny and smelly cyclists. I confidently entered the roadside dhaba (food stall) enquiring about the possibility of food.

“Of course, come on in!”, said Tenzin.

Halfway through eating my meal, Tenzin started telling me his plans for the future.

“Anju, one day I hope to retire from teaching English in the Pin Valley and turn my home into a guesthouse”, he said.

Ahhhhh shit. I somehow managed to invite myself into a stranger’s home and eat his food. Luckily, Tenzin appeased my embarrassment by proclaiming that it was the Spiti way, whilst topping up my plate with more food. It’s always a pleasure cycling in these parts of the world being treated as a human being and not a walking wallet in tourist towns. My good fortunes weren’t to last for long though. That night I was awoken by a loud “pop” noise. As if it was some sick joke, having my inflatable mattress bulge at 4,000m was about as demoralising as having no mattress at all. My guess to the cause of the bulge was probably eating half of Tenzin’s pantry. Karma at its finest.

Tenzin and his son, Northern India
Spiti Valley youth, Northern India
Tiny village, Northern India

The next evening I was in Losar, the last village before Kunzam Pass (4,550m), sleeping in the common room of a guesthouse for 100 rupees. The seven Indian men from New Delhi who proceeded to smoke hashish until 11pm soon overshadowed the low cost of the room and I decided to stay an extra day to rest. The twelve Israelis who proceeded to smoke hashish the following night had me leaving the next morning a little lightheaded. The climb up to the pass wasn’t as difficult as I’d envisaged. My heart, lungs and mind were feeling as fresh as the air itself, and at no stage did I succumb to pushing – the true test of any climb. Dejection and prayer flags met me at the summit. I was hoping the Spiti Valley pushed me further and up until that moment the decision to take a bus was burning my conscience. I eventually got what I wished for.

The switchbacks from the pass steered me down to the valley where I was instantly hit with a crushing headwind; the one that you have to push into it. The dirt road drew closer to the river where giant boulders had me bouncing all over the place and testing the strength of my bicycle racks. The mountains, as majestic as they looked, were playing the devil’s advocate as streams of water fed along the road and into the river. At times the road resembled a flowing river, gushing freezing water for over 50m and forcing me to wade through, shoes and all. I wished Shaun, Mel and Dicko could have been here to suffer with me.

I‘d had enough by 4pm and pitched my tent by the side of the road as an act of stubbornness. I don’t care who sees me; there is no way I’m cycling anymore. Sure enough, the sound of hooves drove me from my peaceful sleep into a stiffening delirium. A flashlight shone through my tent and a nomad started unzipping my tent flysheet. “Tourist”, was the only word I could cowardly say in my state of fear. It worked. He zipped the tent up and was on his way. The next day involved more river crossings and large stones and I was glad to see the turnoff for the Manali-Leh Highway.

The highway has taken on the status as a demi-god for cycle tourers. From the hippie hangout of Manali, the road winds its way over 479 km to the Buddhist city of Leh. Lying in between is three mountain passes over 5000m, makeshift summer camps and endless switchbacks. A flurry of cyclists make it this way each Summer before the road is snowbound and closed for winter. I’d been looking forward to cycling this road since I left home ten months ago. The best-laid plans, as perfect as they are, are no match for Murphy’s Law. A loud clunk noise was coming from my rear wheel every time I braked. I hesitantly looked at my rear wheel and saw a crack developing in the rim.

At this stage I was just before the three big climbs to the 5000m passes. I figured if cycling uphill was possible, I could walk the downhills and limp into Leh. It worked for about 10km until the crack got even bigger and was making cycling impossible. I had a 7km walk to the next town. I’ve often wondered what would push me to actually snap. The mental strain of being away from family for so long? Seeing my niece grow up without me? No. A broken rim, an innocuous incident with a replaceable part would be the downfall of my will and the affirmation that my bicycle was perhaps an integral part of my life too. I actually thought of the prospect of going home for a few months.

The broken rim, Northern India

I had to load my bicycle onto a truck and drive the remaining distance to Leh. It took over 24 hours with rest stops for the driver. I would often find myself in the parachute tents listening to incoherent Hindi, completely zoned out from everything in the world. It was a pretty scary thought knowing how content I was without and human interaction except my own, but it was just what I needed. Trying to sort out a new, decent rim whilst my visa clock is ticking will be a hassle I could have done without, but life goes on. I’ve got bigger fish to fry over the next five months to keep me motivated. From Leh, I will cycle back to where I got the lift and continue in a more direct Westerly route to Pakistan. A Central Asian Winter awaits…

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