After 7 weeks pedalling around the relatively flat lands of India and Nepal, I finally made it to the foothills of the Himalayas, in the north-western corner of India. Despite nearing the end of my trip around the country, I knew that some of the most exciting pedalling of my journey lay in the final few weeks, as I began my ride high up into the sky. For me, cycling across mountain ranges is the absolute pinnacle of cycle touring. Nothing compares to the beauty of these landscapes and the emotional rollercoaster which accompanies every up and down.
Of course though, this region is huge- the Himalayas extend far and wide and I needed a suitable road to guide me through them. I spent several days staring into a map, sussing out my options. But despite the magnitude of these ranges, there are really only a handful of ‘roads’ willing to take traffic through them. Sometimes I would decide on a particular route, then do a spot of follow-up research only to read descriptions like; “this cliff-edge road is an absolute, bloody, death-trap……though a monk is apparently re-building it”….to which I’d try to filter out the positives in this review. I mean, I have no doubt that Monks are hard workers, whatever field that might be, but was one going to be enough, I asked myself? ……Needless to say, this option was quickly abandoned
Eventually I decided on a route which would take me to Leh in the northern region of Ladakh.
I left the bubbling hot-pot of low-lying Chandigarh with just over 2 weeks to reach Leh. A slightly ambitious plan, but without doubt an exciting one.
I thoroughly enjoyed pedalling through this region and not just because I saw signs like this;
But being in the hills, under the big blue skies, amidst the cooler air and infrequent traffic was liberating. For the first few hundred miles towards Leh, I pedalled to altitudes of around 3500m- low enough to still enjoy the rich green vegetation and temperate weather. Civilisation still happily co-exists at these altitudes too, so the terrain could be enjoyed alongside the comforts of town and village life.
One morning, I sat drinking my tea (forgive me if this blog is rapidly descending into a commentary about me just drinking tea. I assure you there were periods of pedalling too. Like, in the breaks between drinking the tea), when the shop owner told me of the great benefits of living life up here in these cooler climes; “up here we can grow exotic vegetables like….broccoli” he said. Broccoli?! I thought. Broccoli?! Exotic?!
I had never imagined that I would hear broccoli be described as ‘exotic’…..! I was slightly taken back by this statement. But come to think of it, perhaps I had been unduly, unfair to that green afro’d veg. Something so common in Britain, something which sits so mundanely amongst the mass of carrots and potatoes which decorate our British dinner plates….the nearest it had ever come to feeling exotic, was if I dressed it up with some suitably swanky quinoa…..or better still, sat it alongside that 21st century, goddess-of-greenery; Kale. #GodBlessKale #AllHailKale. Or was that last years ‘exotic eat’? Perhaps we’re eating bark from the rainforest now…
Manali - Leh Highway
As I gained ground towards Leh, I eventually reached the notorious ‘Manali- Leh’ Highway. Its a 300 mile stretch which cuts right into the heart of the Himalayas. The road journeys over five mountain passes, reaching altitudes over 5000m. For seven months of the year the road is closed to traffic, surrendering to the long and torturous winter. As a result, when the road is open, it’s in a constant cycle of repair.
It’s a vast, desolate, inhospitable region. Life is sparse. Weather is unpredictable. Similarly, infrastructure in this patch of the world is especially limited, and the few people that live at these heights lead an incredibly challenging existence. And not to mention the cold. It quickly became apparent that this would be my first ice-cream-free week here in India……this was no place for a Mr Whippy.
And any accommodation came in the form of ‘dhaba’ tents. These helped break up the miles along the long, mountain roads. They act as an ideal rest-stop. They’re little clusters of tents perched on the horizon offering a place to bed down and thaw out under a thick wooly blanket- all the while sipping one mug after the next of deliciously, hot, coffee (‘lol’, I jest, I mean tea of course..)
Up we go
It’s hard to describe the feeling one gets from from cycling through this mountain range- one of natures greatest theme parks. You’re this teeny, tiny, two wheeled machine at the mercy of these enormous peaks. The landscape around you is so barren, so bleak, yet it breathes so much energy. And pedalling across these passes always fills me with so much excitement. It’s like reading a cracking novel which you simply can’t put down. You’re so eager to delve into that next chapter, to see another layer of landscape unfold, to catch that first glimpse into another breathtaking window of the world.
But despite the beauty of your surroundings, there’s still an awful lot of arduous, long days in the saddle to endure, on some steep and shoddy roads. They’re the kind of roads where, as it gets steeper and steeper, you find yourself optimistically, hopelessly reaching for that lower gear, only to remember you’re out of lower gears, you were out of those a long time ago…. so you sort of look down at the cog to double check, and the cog sort of looks back at you, shrugs, and replies “Soz legs, this ones on you”.
Likewise, en-route up these steep mountains, you become half obsessed by the idea that you must have a flat tire, or that perhaps the breaks are permanently rubbing on the rim of the wheel, or that there must surely be some kind of mechanical fault on the bicycle to warrant this level of gruelling hardship. It couldn't possibly be down to the gradient of the ascent alone. I mean Froome doesn’t appear to huff and puff his way up the hills quite like this. He glides. He’s cool and swift about his ascent. Maybe Its my clothing I conclude, perhaps I’v got the wrong colour scheme- maybe if I wore a yellow jersey, that might help….
I guess pedalling up high can be a breathtaking experience in all sense of the word. I had been forewarned of the health hazards associated with cycling at altitude. Somewhere in my vague preparation-research, I read that it was important to keep your sugar levels high. This I happily took as gospel. I think there was other advice there too, but it didn't seem half as appealing as indulging on sugar all day- so packed with sweet treats, up we went; 335 jelly babies and me. But fortunately, I didn't encounter too much trouble. At one stage I was convinced my vision was blurring, but on closer inspection, it appeared that I had just put my contact lens in the wrong way….not the dramatic anecdote I was hoping for….
But after a week of climbing, I made into the popular tourist hub of Leh - a hillside town nestled in the mountains. This would be the end of the road for me and my journey around India. From here I flew home, back to blighty. Fewer mountains, albeit similar weather.
My 2 month jaunt around India had taken me 3500miles around the country - A mere taste of this vast place, but enough to capture its unique magic.
And, as always, I owe a great deal to my hardy bicycle, because there are two members to this adventure team…a completely incompetent bicycle mechanic and the better half - a bicycle that simply doesn’t give up.
But now it’s time for a completely new challenge. Probably far harder, no, certainly far harder than anything I have taken on before. Im going to train to become a Geography teacher.
Now where did I leave those colouring crayons…..