This is the story of a bicycle expedition. The original intentions were succinctly summed up in the mission statement that formed the first paragraph of my letter requesting freebies…
“My friend Alex and I are embarking on a great journey across India this September. We will be riding our bicycles through Ladakh and Zanskar and south to the remote Pangi Valley in Himachal Pradesh. Just like our heroes Chatwin, Thesiger and McNab, we intend to turn the enthralling story of this expedition into a feature length film and best-selling book. Failing that, a selection of round robin e-mails and some well-chosen postcards.”
As it happened, part of the way through writing up the story I managed to lose the diary in which I had recorded the events of the journey, and while the majority of the memories were so indelibly burned into my psyche I would need therapy (electroconvulsive or otherwise) to have even a chance of forgetting them, this unfortunate event did have the effect of causing a terminal lack of interest in finishing the project.
However, with the launch of this blog I now find myself with both a suitable organ in which to document the story and the new-found enthusiasm with which to do so. The lack of an original recorded source should not present any problems in the telling of the story; in fact, the story may well be improved as a result of gaps in my memory that have been creatively filled in.
The plan for the trip was as follows. After arriving in Delhi, we would fly north to Leh, in Indian Ladakh. We would then ride our bikes south along the well-travelled Leh – Manali route. However, before reaching Manali we would veer west from Keylong, along the much less-well-travelled Pangi Valley to Killar, and then venture directly south over the Sach Pass and into the Chamba Valley to Chamba and then Dharamsala beyond.
I took care of the planning, researching the route, preparing equipment lists, assembling medical supplies, and did a pretty bloody good job. What I had perhaps failed to address was the fact that cycling at high altitude over rough and unfamiliar terrain would actually be fairly physically demanding, and as we hadn’t trained very much / at all (in retrospect, the latter is probably closer to the truth) we would be bitten rather hard upon the bottom. And not just by bed bugs. But more of that later.
Our first day was fairly uneventful. Following a hearty breakfast of oily fried eggs and jam, Alex announced his intention to cease shaving and washing for the duration of the trip. His mind made up, he then decided that we should venture out in search of some cigars, and within minutes he had befriended a Sikh rickshaw driver and informed him of the mission. Alarm bells started ringing when the driver offered to undertake the journey free of charge, which we turned down, but jumped in the back nonetheless. The search was fruitless. Mr Singh (for it was he) engaged us in a mostly one-sided conversation about how Sikhs don’t shit in the streets, then stopped at his “friends” gift shop. We cheerfully agreed to have a look, before concluding that it was all rubbish, got Mr Singh to take us to Connaught Place, and then dismissed him with 150 rupees. Within 30 seconds of our arrival Alex managed to procure a rusty tin of Cafe Creme cigars, a small pipe and a pouch of foul-smelling cherry tobacco.
No-one squirted shit on our shoes – perhaps our decision to affect the language and mannerisms of a pair of holidaying Germans put the squirter off the scent. We feasted at the Gaylord Restaurant (no, that’s not a euphemism) before taking another rickshaw back to our hotel through the Delhi rush hour, which was a bit like watching someone else play a video game with your life at stake, whilst being engulfed in exhaust fumes and the pungent scent of poo.
Five o’clock the next morning we were at Delhi’s domestic airport. Alex must’ve decided his bags were a bit heavy, because he systematically managed to lose (or have confiscated) his mosquito repellant, Zippo lighter and sunglasses. The latter had been a very recent and expensive purchase and as such their disappearance caused a great deal of consternation. We had a pretty good idea where they were too – sitting on the table in Delhi where Alex had left them in readiness for the incredibly bright and sunny drive to the airport at 4am.
The flight to Leh was pretty quick. It didn’t take long before the windows filled up with mountain views. The final section of the flight involved circling round and round (presumably because a traditional approach would have the plane scattered in small bits across the side of a couple of hills) slowly losing height so we could finally land on a dusty runway. There were a lot of military vehicles and personnel kicking around – this was Kashmir, albeit a quiet little corner.
The bike bags seemed to be pretty much the same shape as they had been before the flight. There were a sea of taxi touts outside, but we managed to secure a driver and a Bedford Rascal-alike from the pre-paid window. The roof rack didn’t look up to much, but our man seemed pretty happy that the stuff would stay where he’d put it.
The taxi driver dropped us in front of the little path leading to the Indus Guesthouse. We soon discovered that the air at 3500m or so was pretty thin. We found this out when we carried 30kg bike bags plus rucksacs up a steep staircase. Combine that with a sleepless night and I felt shattered. Despite this we thought that we should really try to put the bikes together if only to reassure ourselves that they had arrived unscathed. Mine turned out to be pretty much fine. Alex’s had a slightly bent rear brake rotor. With the wheel in place, he tried to spin the wheel – it made a few loud squeaking noises before coming to a halt. Hmm. Despite this, Alex started making a lot of noise about how we should “go and explore town on our bikes” and “get stuck in”. I suggested that going on foot to the nearest restaurant for some breakfast would be a much better plan, and that zero-exertion relaxation should be the order of the day. We found a restaurant but it was full of action sandal-clad hippies, so we wandered up the street. There was a bit of a hill involved, and it did rather seem like hard work. However, we soon found an excuse to stop. Yes, Leh’s answer to the Sunglass Hut, and Mr Neame soon became the proud owner of 150rs worth of fine Indian optical engineering.
Back to the restaurant and most of the hippies had dispersed. Minutes later and two plates of scrambled eggs, beans, tomatoes and toast arrived, with coffee, tea and lassis. We wolfed these down and I felt pleasantly sated. Alex went quiet. Then he croaked “I don’t think eating big meals is a good idea.” After this he slowly turned white, started panting and announced that there was something wrong. He looked like he was about to faint, but to spare himself the embarrassment he sprawled himself over a set of plastic chairs. This seemed to stabilise his condition somewhat, but he was now sweating profusely too. It was tricky working out what to do with him. Moving him was probably a no-no, but equally I don’t want him to throw up all over the restaurant. So I just read my book and ignored him, until he demanded that I video his sickly face. So I pulled out the camera and interviewed him about his miserable condition. He then asked the waiter if there was a loo. There wasn’t. I thought this meant that he was about to be sick, so I moved all my stuff away from him. Little did I know that his main fear was crapping in his pants. After a couple of nasty farts he announced that he would return to the hotel room. I wished him well and ordered another coffee.
I then went off exploring and shopping for essentials. It didn’t take long to realise that striding about at London pace wasn’t a good idea. First stop – the chemist. I bought a couple of 5 day courses of Diamox. Diamox is supposed to aid acclimatisation. Some people might view it as cheating, but seeing as I was quite prepared to get a lift up a hill it seemed rather churlish to miss out on a pharmacological solution to my breathlessness. It wasn’t like we were trying to get in the Guinness Book of Records for high altitude veganism or something. I also bought a can of Playboy Body Spray, and some Strepsils. Next door I picked up a case of water, some Hobnobs and lots of loo paper.
Back at the ranch, and Alex had filled the toilet bowl with watery brown liquid. I was still as solid as a rock, though it was doubtful that the solid period would last forever. After some rest we ventured out once more for more food and then an early night. I was reading William Dalrymple’s The Age of Kali, which seemed to be mostly about murderous Indians.
The following morning we rose fairly late, on the basis that sleep is good. Breakfast delayed because I decided that the first priority was going to be getting rid of our bike bags. We found the post office, which was really just a pair of untidy rooms. They told us that if we wanted to put the bags in the post they would need to be wrapped up in white cloth. Fortunately a lady in the queue behind us offered to help. We needed some cloth and a tailor. The first few she found weren’t interested in the task and we started to wonder if anyone would be. Until we arrived at a shop entirely staffed by women who seemed to be related to our new friend. We sort of smelt a rat, but it wasn’t really a big rat and it didn’t smell that bad, so we negotiated a price and left them to it. The Om Restaurant lived up to its name. You had to have the temperament of a Buddhist monk to stay relaxed while you waited 40 minutes for some banana pancakes to arrive.
Some antagonism had built up over the course of the morning, caused by the delayed breakfast and probably exacerbated by the stress of protracted negotiations with female tailors and post office officials. We returned to our abode in silence. The silence was broken when Alex removed his pants to reveal a big brown mass of liquid shit. This had been caused by an ill-judged fart earlier that morning. The fart had in fact been a hot jet of poo. I find anything involving shitting, especially unexpected and unplanned shitting most amusing (assuming I’m not responsible) and the resultant laughter cleared the air. Not literally I should point out – the air was actually pretty revolting. We shook hands. I made sure I thoroughly washed mine afterwards.
We thought we’d go for an exploratory ride, so packed the rucksacks with water and biscuits and set off up the hill. We decided to follow the road up towards the Khardung La. The Khardung La is in the Guinness Book of Records as the highest motorable pass in the World at 5682m. However, other reports seem to suggest that it’s actually 5359m and that as such there are other passes in Tibet that are higher. From our point of view, it was just a bloody big hill. We weren’t expecting to cycle to the top of it, we just wanted to see if we could dent it slightly. We weren’t carrying much stuff, but neither had we had much time to acclimatise.
The first few hills out of Leh were steep and pretty tough. We stopped for a breather just out of town, and the views of the surrounding mountains were already much better. The road was pretty good too – decent tarmac, not many potholes and not too steep either. It was designed with trucks in mind, and I guess that maintenance is quite an important issue considering the road’s significance as a supply route into Leh.
Before we left I thought that 400m of climbing might be a bit much, but as we climbed higher we got into a reasonable rhythm and started to feel pretty good. (This is of course entirely relative – we were going bloody slowly and good in this case only meant that we weren’t stopping every 10m to hyperventilate and/or throw up.) We finally reached a point just over 400m above Leh and awarded ourselves a handful of Hobnobs. There had been a modest amount of traffic passing, mostly army jeeps and trucks, but nothing too stressful. We spotted some buses heading down the pass from above, so we gathered our gear together and gave chase. Despite my trousers threatening to fall down, we caught them fairly rapidly. Both buses were mainly filled with kids, who cheered whenever we got close. What a welcome relief from English school kids, who would probably have thrown glass bottles at us while filming our plight on their mobile phones. There were patches of sand and gravel here and there which caused a few wobbles, but it was all good fun. The buses took a slightly different route back, and we decided to head straight down the hill. There were a lot of big rocks around, but the dirt was mostly hard and grippy and we cut a big corner off and ended up in front of our escorts.
We let them pass us, and immediately attracted a pair of kids who seemed to find our every move and word utterly hilarious. They managed to clamber up on the bikes, but being about 3 feet tall they couldn’t pedal very well. We then set off back down to town for recuperative lassis. I let a school kid have a ride on my bike. He promptly fucked off, and I did wonder if that was the last I’d ever see of it. I could imagine him riding home and telling his Dad, “Look! Some idiot tourist just gave me a $4000 bike. What a mug!” But he came back sporting a big grin, and I let him off.
The plan for the next day was to get a lift up to the top of the Khardung La and then ride back down – a decision which would set a somewhat unfortunate precedent for the following week. We tracked down a jeep taxi guy who was up for the challenge, and then spent the rest of the day discussing bowel movements and eating Tibetan food. Oh, and I got interviewed by Ladakh’s answer to Channel Five. The interviewer was very keen to find out what we thought of Ladakh. He didn’t seem to be particularly interested in our journey. I think I’ll pretend to be a famous explorer next time. Ranulph Fiennes perhaps?