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?
Another lie-in and 10am breakfast at our favourite Tibetan café. We met an American guy, called Q. Short for Qubert apparently. He was from Idaho, but had lived in Bangalore for 9 months before setting off on a 100cc motorbike across India. He didn’t seem to like Indians very much, although it wasn’t clear whether this was because of something that happened during his journey or some deep-seated psychological issue in evidence before his arrival on the sub-continent. He did however explain that an Indian truck driver had run over his bike, which probably hadn’t helped. His analysis of the country and its people was peppered with the word “jackass”. To Q, pretty much everyone here was a jackass. Soldiers came in for some stern criticism – “They’re all jackasses. This has gotta be the only army in the world where the soldiers walk around holding hands”. Q wasn’t that impressed with the scenery in Ladakh either. “It’s just like Idaho,” he moaned. In the end he wandered off, muttering something about French toast.
After breakfast we loaded the bikes onto the roof of the jeep, and our driver (the impressively named Mr Phunchok Angchok) soon had us past yesterday’s high point. He took a few off-road detours which threw us around a bit, and some of the narrow hairpins had us trying to avoid looking out of the windows. Halfway up was an Army checkpoint. There were a few officials sitting around drinking tea. They asked us for our Inner Line Permits. We didn’t have Inner Line Permits. Alex didn’t even have a passport on him. In the end I left mine behind and they let us press on.
After another half an hour of bumping around we arrived at the pass. The sky was blue, the air was cold, and there didn’t appear to be a lot of oxygen. We paid off Mr Angchok, and informed him of our decision for the next day. Before leaving we had toyed with the idea of getting a lift from Leh up to the top of the first pass en route to Keylong. This would ensure that we would reach the first tent camp that day, or so we hoped. He was very happy to oblige, so an early rendezvous was organised for the following morning.
After he left we checked the bikes over. I got a bit concerned when my back brake seemed to be much spongier than normal, and more so when I saw some fluid dripping down my forks. I thought the brake hose might have split or been cut by something, but on inspection it seemed to be ok, so maybe it was just a bit of oil out of the fork. The brake hose guide was loose too, so I tightened it up. Or tried to. I managed to strip the thread and ended up having to fashion a Heath Robinson version with a collection of zip-ties.
The bikes were getting a lot of attention from various army people, and we let them have a ride around while we retreated to a kind of makeshift shed cafe, where we gulped down some hot sweet tea and Alex puffed on his pipe.
The descent was awesome. We were stopping quite a bit to take pictures and try to capture some of the action on video, but it was still surprisingly tiring. I came off on one corner which I went into a bit fast, and lost a bit of skin here and there. The trickiest bits were where the tarmac was smooth with patches of sand on top. We took another off-road diversion at the bottom that was pretty fun.
We sped back to the guesthouse to get organised for the start of the trip proper in the morning. The path from the road to where we were staying passed a little shop, the owner of which we had been trying to avoid since I promised on the first day that I would buy something. Actually, I had bought a scarf I think. It was Alex that had suggested that he would buy a carpet. Anyway, Carpet Man had started to get on our nerves a bit. He had a fairly ridiculous henna-dyed haircut, and kept telling us stories about all the English people he supplied carpets to. Luckily he was nowhere to be seen. Soon after this we established ourselves on the roof terrace of a rather fine restaurant, and I risked a beer. The beer tasted very strange – this was a well documented if slightly inexplicable effect of the Diamox. Anyway, it did help wash down a lot of curry.
I then returned to the hotel and Alex went off for a “Thai Massage”. He was asked to strip down to his smalls and lie down, and then a small Indian girl proceeded to beat him up. She then locked him in a steam room and left him to bake all by himself. Money well spent I’m sure…
The following morning we awoke early and managed to avoid Carpet Man en route to breakfast. After this we tried to get hold of some more Diamox, but the chemist was shut. Whoops. Then back to guesthouse and back out to the street with the bikes and kit. Still no sign of Carpet Man. The bastard obviously liked a lie-in. Our driver from yesterday, Phunchok Angchok had driven his jeep down the hill from the taxi stand which made the vehicle loading procedure a lot easier.
As we were making the final adjustments to the bikes on the roof, who should appear? Yeah, you got it. Carpet Man. He looked very confused and rather put out that we had deceived him and were leaving without buying any of his carpets. Not so I explained. I informed him that we had tried his shop earlier in the morning, but it had been closed. He looked distraught. I then explained that we really wanted to buy a carpet each (as well as scarves, little wooden elephants, etc), but there was no time now. However, we would be back in Leh in a few days and we would head straight to his shop on our return. A highly untrustworthy smile seeped across his face. He was no doubt thinking that he would be soon be able to retire a rich man.
So, off we went to the Taglang La. The road out of Leh was dry, dusty and bumpy, with loads and loads of Army bases and truck compounds on either side. On reaching a small village we found ourselves following a big truck. Despite our man’s hooting and overtaking attempts the truck would not pull over. Mr Angchok then really gave it some, and we found ourselves in front. He then pulled to a halt in the middle of the road, blocking the path of the truck. Then he jumped out, clamboured up the side of the truck and started shouting at the driver. The driver turned out to be about 12 years old. Our man eventually managed to open the door of the truck and beat the driver with great force, spirit and enthusiasm. Eventually he stopped, but the driver must have then said something to antagonise him further because he was back in there, laying into him with an impressive display of what must have been ancient Tibetan fighting skills.
After this, apart from a chai stop at a village called Upshi (the last proper stop before the pass) the journey was uneventful. The drive up to the Taglang La was twisty and arse-numbingly bumpy. The top of the pass was cold, windy and deserted. Angchok was over the moon with his tip, and tried to pay us back with apples. As he drove off we huddled in a corrugated iron shelter eating biscuits and trying to ignore the fact that we were at very high altitude and had quite a long way to ride.
As soon as we got going downhill though our concerns were, well, of slightly less concern. For the moment anyway. The photo opportunities came thick and fast, and the state of the road meant that our bags got their first real test. My saddlebag was pretty secure, but weighed down as it was (I had opted to keep the heavy stuff in there, and the bulky stuff in my rucksac) when I rode over bumps it was occasionally rubbing on the back wheel. Some alterations to the attachment, plus weight redistribution seemed to temporarily cure this problem. Alex’s rack was also secure, for a while anyway. The beam rack clamped to his seatpost, and the clamp required the use of a rubber shim. Big bumps caused the rack to slip to one side or the other, and after a few of these the shim would start to slip out.
A few motorbikes passed us going up the hill, including a very fine BMW GS. When they had disappeared we had the road to ourselves, and we realised that we really were in the middle of bloody nowhere. After some time the road flattened out and we were on the Moray Plains. Now, I hadn’t expected this to be that much of a challenge. I mean, how hard can a flattish 50km be? Pretty hard was the answer. The road was slightly uphill, and there was a very strong and cold headwind. And we were still over 5000m. I don’t know what speed we managed, but something pretty pathetic I expect. We stopped a couple of times for food, and to put more clothes on. Alex was in full poncho mode – I think we both must have looked pretty ridiculous. Anyway, after quite a long time we were still 19km away from Pang and the sun was rapidly setting. A decision was made – hitchbiking would be the order of the day. The first truck we flagged down drove off when we started trying to communicate. The second proved to be our saviour. It was an Indian Army Bedford thing, with two very enthusiastic artillery soldiers aboard. The loaded the bikes into the back and invited us into the enormous cab.
As the truck ploughed down the road and then off it (apparently a shortcut) it became rapidly evident that we would never have made it to Pang before dark, and with our minimal camping gear would probably have spent a very uncomfortable if not downright dangerous night out in the open. I think cyclists camp at the foot of the Taglang La earlier in the year, but in mid September it didn’t feel like a great idea.
The road eventually turned into a series of tight hairpins, and at the bottom was Pang. There were a lot of trucks and a scattering of dhabas. We chose the first one we came across, and dived inside to enquire about accommodation, food, and hot drinks. The bikes were soon stowed behind the main tent, and we were shown into the executive suite – an adjoining structure that claimed to be a British Army issue arctic tent. Probably circa 1920. After some time a group of very cold bikers turned up. On one bike an Israeli couple, and on the other a Spaniard. They looked bloody freezing. We swapped some tales, ate as much hot food as we could force down and then all fell asleep. In our executive suite.
Rose at about 8am. The Israelis were having mechanical problems – faulty fuel pipes, wobbly handlebars and a puncture. Alex and I decided that the hitch biking idea was such a good one that we thought we should really carry it over for another day. He managed to track down a driver, who looked a bit suspicious to me – a thin, weasel-like character with a face that said “don’t believe a word I say”. He had an accomplice who appeared to be an affable simpleton. We loaded the bikes onto the roof of the truck, and were quickly ushered inside. We then convinced ourselves that the bikes were being quietly unloaded into another truck so a stealth mission was undertaken to check. They were still attached…
The bridge out of Pang towards the Lachalang La had unfortunately collapsed. There was a queue of trucks waiting next to the fairly fast flowing river, and two trucks were in the river and not moving anywhere fast. After some unintelligible conversation with the others, our driver took a run up and managed to get through. It was at least three feet deep, and quite a lot of the river managed to find its way up through the dashboard. Quite impressive, though we didn’t tell him that.
The road up to the top was long, bumpy and quite treacherous. After a number of stomach churning manoeuvres we finally made it. By this point we had decided that the driver and his dumb accomplice were serious chancers and up to no good. They had started off agreeing to our fairly paltry offer of payment, but as we had risen higher up the pass they had started to make comments about how great it was of them to give us a lift. I reluctantly gave the driver 400rs, and Alex gave his mate 50. They drove off in a cloud of dust.
According to my intel, we would drop from the Lachalang La to Whisky Nullah, and then climb about 50m to the Naleeka Pass, before dropping down the Gata Loops to Sarchu. The dropping down to Whisky Nullah was fine, but the “50m climb” turned into 400m or so of total hell on Earth – knackered road, very steep, very hot, bursting lungs, and lots of trucks passing which seemed to be emitting something akin to VX. Oh, and there was a savage wind as we got nearer the top. When we made it we tucked into our packed lunch of chappatis and dhal, which resulted in a different but equally unwelcome savage wind. The decent was great fun though – very fast, thanks to our methane afterburners. The Gata Loops are a series of 21 huge (and I do mean huge) hairpins. There were rocky, sandy trails cutting come of the corners, which we decided to venture down. It was thus that we overtook the Israeli bikers. We didn’t just cruise past – we tore past them at incredible speed. We both thought this extremely impressive.
However, at the bottom the road levelled out and then started to gently climb. This was somewhat unexpected, as I was expecting the downhill to take us all the way to Sarchu. On we pushed nevertheless. The bikers overtook us. The sun started to go down. Still a long way to go. I started to feel the pain – all I could do was try to keep some sort of rhythm and let my oxygen-deprived imagination conjure up something pleasantly erotic. Alex (who had spent weeks in the army being subjected to similarly unpleasant night marches) seemed to be feeling ok, judging by his shit jokes.
At about 10km to go we started pushing as it was a bit too dark to ride. Then we decided to try riding again. And then, again, we decided against this course of action. We got slower and slower. Or rather, I got slower and slower…
Eventually we stumbled into Sarchu. We found the tent that the Israelis were staying in, and there was an adjoining shed into which we crawled inside with the bikes. Executive Suite #2. No en-suite, but the air conditioning was working overtime. I could barely function, so we called room service and then arranged the bedroom. The manager looked blank when we asked for an alarm call, a copy of the Guardian and continental breakfast with fresh grapefruit juice and a pair of Illy espressos. He won’t be getting any AA rosettes methinks…
The shed turned out to be a wooden box covered with a tarpaulin. Still, it was Sarchu’s answer to the Lanesborough as far as we were concerned. It was freezing cold, and the solitary candle that served as a heater didn’t seem to be making a lot of difference. The ensuing chill, combined with a pervasive sense of lethargy persuaded us to see if we could continue the hitchbiking theme a bit further. Alex went on a recruitment mission, and soon returned announcing that he had found a driver and a pair of paramilitary chaps who would be happy to transport us all the way to Jispa. It turned out that they were Indo-Chinese border police who had spent the previous months wandering around in the snow on the Tibetan border looking for VCR smugglers. Whilst the Tibetan border didn’t have the same terrorism / bombing / shelling problems as the Pakistani border, it more than made up for it with avalanches and rockfall. They were on their way home, and they looked like they needed a rest.
The journey took most of the day. The road was pretty terrible, but the company was good. They insisted on buying us lunch, and we wobbled back to the truck stuffed full of the usual dhal, rice and chapatti combo. The landscape was mostly the rocky, barren, Death Valley-esque mixture for most of the journey, but as we crested the final pass of the day we saw a far more Alpine panorama in the distance. Annoyingly, the road from the pass to Jispa was entirely downhill, and we should have really biked it.
It took a while to track down our hotel (not that there were a lot of hotels) but when we did we were presented with a winning combination of separate beds (what joy), a flushing loo, a shower, running water, and cold beers. These were followed with more cold beers, while we watched some fairly talented Tibetans play cricket. After that, food, followed by drunken analysis, followed by bed. Like, real beds, with sheets and blankets and stuff.
The following day was a lazy one. Rose late and spent the morning washing clothes and cleaning cement dust off the bikes – clearly one of the unfortunate side effects of hitchbiking. Alex then went off to explore the riverbed whilst I cleaned my cameras and wondered if I might have brought too many rolls of film.
We then went for a cruise down the road towards Keylong. Riding baggage-less was something of a revelation. The road was in a terrible state, but the views were superb, and the green-ish valley was a good antidote to the Martian landscape of Ladakh. There were some road workers along the route, chipping away at boulders and looking pretty miserable. In fact, I reckon road building in India would certainly make the top 3 most unpleasant jobs in the world. Alex had also noted a woman earlier on who was collecting bundles of wood from one of the fields near the hotel. She gathered it into a huge bundle, and then tied it together, lay down on top and then rolled forward, hoisting it all up and onto her back. This usually took a few goes. She then hobbled off up the road, and it must have been an hour until she arrived back for the next batch.
We sped on down the road, looking for some trails off the side, but didn’t really find anything suitable. Virtually all the land seemed to have things growing or living on it, and we didn’t want to upset any farmers. After a while we reached a little village with a shop that furnished us with a couple of Cokes. Then back to the hotel to pack and play beer-fuelled Simon handicap chess.
The evening meal was fairly amusing as a large group of Russians had appeared. They were apparently politicians on some kind of tour, and were led by a pair of ferocious looking shaven-headed ex Spetsnaz types. The scarier of the two looked like he was hewn out of solid granite. We named him Sergei. They didn’t quite know what to make of us, and by the time they’d stuffed their faces with curry and consumed gallons of vodka from their apparently never-ending supply I don’t think they knew what to make of each other either.
The following day was very lazy. We rose very late and headed back to the Tashi Deleg for breakfast. Alex had garlic toast with his eggs. His horridness knows no bounds. We spent the day alternating between sitting in the sun and watching TV. And drinking beer. I finally managed to beat Alex at chess, albeit with the usual Simon handicap. He had also run low on money, so the bank of Goldman Styler was established and an unsecured loan granted to Mr Neame, temporary resident of Keylong.
Day twelve - We woke up very early when a car alarm went off outside. After a dawn breakfast of rather too many bananas, we eventually managed to get all our shit together and by the time we were on the road it must have been 8 o’clock.
The road out of Keylong was a very long and shady downhill, and out of the sun with the air temperature still pretty cold we ended up donning multiple layers. This road carried on south to the Rohtang Pass and then Manali, but we soon broke off on a road west towards Tindi which would hopefully deliver us to the foot of the Sach Pass in a few days time.
The road to Tindi was superb, with a good surface, stunning views, fine mountain pastures and tasty-looking cows. The Glade Plug-In Mountain Pine aroma was still in the air.
We stopped at Thirot for chai, and then Udaipur for lunch, after about 5 hours on the road. Udaipur was a lot less magnificent than its Rajasthani namesake, but it was still quite an experience. It was quite clear to us that this valley was a lot less travelled than the Leh-Manali route. We were far more of a curiosity here, and the bikes got even more attention than we did. The lunch wasn’t bad – a decent amount of rice and dhal and vegetables, which we washed down with a remarkably fluorescent orange drink. I felt quite energised in a slightly unnatural way, but it had a very different effect on Alex, who fell asleep under a tree.
The road from Udaipur to Tindi was quite different to what we had experienced earlier in the day. The hills got bigger and steeper, and the road twisted torturously with scattered rocks everywhere and plenty of flooded sections. I think it was one of the best trails that I’d ever ridden.
However, the day’s enjoyment was spoilt by the evening’s search for accommodation. We got to a insalubrious truckstop in the general vicinity of Tindi. A local guy suggested that we head up the road to the village where we would find a guesthouse. The road climbed sharply for a couple of kilometres before we reached a downhill to an impressive suspension bridge. We crossed this and were pushing the bikes uphill towards the village when we met a family out for an evening stroll. “No guesthouse here” they said, in a friendly but quite firm way. We debated whether or not to believe them. I thought that there were various reasons why they might be fibbing, but in the end we reluctantly turned around and tramped back to the truck stop.
In the intervening period it had got dark and quite a few trucks were parked up alongside a row of shacks. We asked about food and accommodation and a Sikh guy who was travelling with a couple of dodgy-looking drivers pointed to a group of people who were sitting on plastic chairs next to a rather run-down shack. He then proceeded to question us about electronic equipment, offering to buy anything we were carrying. His drivers were looking enviously at the bikes. We managed to eat our fill, evacuate our bowels around the corner in the acre or so of wasteground that seemed to double as the truckstop restrooms, and then drag all our stuff into the shed-like thing that we had managed to rent for the night. We piled up the gear and bikes (including Alex’s ingenious handlebar-mounted bog roll) alongside the bench bed things and then tried to secure the door as well as you can secure a wood-framed tarpaulin.
Just as we were dropping off there was a noise at the door, and the smell of cheap Indian whisky drifted across the room, accompanied by the Sikh and his chums. They lit up some noxious smelling cigarettes and then talked loudly into the early hours.
Luckily, my fears were not realised in the night – my arse was intact and none of our stuff had been stolen. Our breakfast was two oily chapattis with lime pickle – surprisingly hard to stomach early in the morning. While we were munching and gagging we met an engineer on his way back from Sach Khas. He had been working on a major hydroelectric project and told us that if we were running late we could stay at his home. He even wrote a note to his minions confirming this generous offer.
The road to from Tindi was OK. Up and down, with a pretty shitty surface, but stunning scenery. More hardcore than the previous day without doubt. The downhills were especially good. There was a very big and aggressive looking dog at the first little village, so we got off and pushed the bikes past which he decided was an acceptable option and as a result decided not to savage us. A sparkling Timotei waterfall provided water (which we filtered) and a cold shower.
We stopped at a Dhaba for lunch, which I’m pretty sure was the one we’d seen on Cass Gilbert’s website some weeks before. Delicious rice, dhal and tea. I think we must have said “hello” to more than 300 people before lunch.
After many more miles we eventually saw Killar in the distance – a long way away and up a very big hill. The road was very sandy, punctuated with large rocks, so we pushed most of the way up. Amazingly trucks were also threading their way up the road, and there was only just enough room. With a precipitous drop inches away from the outside tyres it must have been quite a hair-raising drive. Anyway, the hill went on for ages, and despite the spectacular situation we were getting quite tired.
Eventually we reached Killar. It was a shithole. Or more accurately, a shit trench. We asked directions to a guesthouse, and were met with a great variety of blank expressions. Killar was built on the side of a big hill. We arrived at the bottom, and went on a very irritating wild goose chase from bottom to top. Meanwhile it was getting dark. Eventually we reached a helipad at the top of town, and no guesthouse. We flagged down a jeep, and the driver told us to follow him back down the hill. I did – with no lights. Alex got left behind, but somehow managed to work out the right route. The guesthouse wasn’t particularly welcoming – we shouted and knocked on doors, and after some time a man popped his head out, looked at us quizzically, and then fucked off again. Another man who could barely communicate then appeared, made some strange motions, and then showed us to a reasonable if overpriced room.
They then told us that there was a dhaba down the road, so off we went. Nothing. Came back livid. The bloke started demanding to know if we had a reservation or not. We managed to restrain ourselves, and returned to the room for a biscuit and some water, and then bed.
Woke up feeling quite refreshed – a lot better than we expected actually. Useless dhaba direction man even made us a cup of tea. We wandered down the hill in a different direction to the previous evening and lo and behold – a row of shops and a smart restaurant and guesthouse! Bastards – unbelievable. We had eggs and chilli for breakfast, and planned an easy day of errands.
After breakfast we wandered down to where we’d seen some jeeps the night before. A big swarthy looking guy pointed out the route down to the bridge at the bottom of the valley. Beyond this was the road up to the Sach Pass. We asked him if he could organise a jeep to take us down for a recce, and he said that he would “arrange” it.
Five minutes later a jeep did indeed appear. It was piloted by a pair of teenage chancers. Guy said rs200, kids said rs400. We said rs300 – off we went. The driver was a cunt. He kept taking his hands off the wheel and looking back over his shoulder at us. We were also fairly certain that his tyres were completely bald – probably as bald as his genitals. His mate, wearing a sun visor and black sunglasses was also a cunt. We did our best to ignore them.
We lost a lot of altitude very quickly, and although the bridge didn’t look a long way away we must have driven for 20km backwards and forwards along loads of hairpins. When we got to the bottom they turned the jeep around and, to our amazement and intense irritation decided to fill the jeep up with a group of locals who had managed to negotiate turning our jeep trip into some kind of magical mystery tour. When we had finally dropped off all these people around Killar we asked the driver to take us back up to the guesthouse. He muttered something about more money, and when we arrived he tried to squeeze us for more. I let rip and they drove off in a cloud of diesel smoke.
Spent the afternoon playing chess and then went back to the restaurant for mutton curry, chapattis and beer. We had heard that the other road out of Killar (not the one we had arrive on or the one that climbed south over the Sach Pass) led to a particularly dangerous district near the Pakistani border, where all sorts of banditry and terrorism we going on. The other customers in the restaurant did look pretty shady, but fortunately their interest in us seem to be amused curiosity rather than as potential organ doners.
When we got back to the guesthouse we spent quite a while filtering water and preparing for the big push. The climb up the Sach Pass was going to be long and unrelenting, and we wanted to be as well-prepared as possible.
Woke at 6am. Chai and biscuits for breakfast. Alex had attached the video camera to his handlebars with gaffa tape and zip-ties – we were planning to film the much-anticipated descent to the bridge, although we’d not had much opportunity to test the filming system. The route down was great fun though – we soon overtook a jeep, and pushed on faster and faster. Then Alex wiped out on a sandy hairpin and landed on the video camera. Whoops.
After crossing the bridge at the bottom of the valley we found ourselves in a cool forest, and pushed the bikes up through the trees. Before long, some kind of mystic Indian woman appeared, wearing quite an ornate outfit, and walking a dog. She muttered something and then scampered up the path. Some moments later Alex spotted a monkey. I didn’t believe him, but then another one appeared on the path in front. A big muscular monkey. He didn’t bare his teeth, and seemed to be curious rather than overtly aggressive. As we walked on we saw more and more of them – swinging through the trees above us. Why do TV presenters always look so relaxed with monkeys? They’re too hyperactive, clever and potentially vicious to ignore I reckon. I got quite freaked out.
The path climbed higher, and after a couple of hours we were out of the forest. It was very difficult to work out where the pass actually was – we seemed to be climbing up the side of a valley, but further ahead another ridge intersected our route, and we couldn’t see past. After a lunch stop at a deserted road workers hut we continued to climb, and when we got round the ridge we saw the route climbing torturously up the side of a very steep face. We thought that the pass would be at the top of this.
After more hours we started to get a bit concerned about how much further it was going to be. We passed a waterfall which had a lot of dead wood scattered either side. Thinking this would be useful for making a fire if we had to bivvy, we strapped as much as we could to the bikes and pushed on. After a couple more hours we reached a mini plateau, which looked like a very derelict expedition base camp. There were collapsing stone huts, some with tarpaulins stretched over the roofs. And a yellow digger. And three men, who turned out to be working on the road. We said hello and signalled to a hut, asking if we could sleep there. They enthusiastically agreed and helped us organise our stuff, light a fire (with some diesel that they poured out for us) and even cooked some boiled eggs. There were some very menacing clouds gathering over the mountain tops, and we were sure it was going to be a cold night. After putting on all our clothes and gulping down a dinner of instant noodles, we climbed into our sleeping bags and failed to sleep for most of the night.
It would be disingenuous to say that I woke up, as I had been awake for the hours before I finally decided to engage my brain and defrost my body. Alex has been nearer the fire, on account of his inferior sleeping bag. We both looked a mess, but at least we weren’t covered in snow.
More eggs together with coffee, biscuits and almonds improved the mood. We learned from our friends that there was another 12 – 14km to the top of the pass, and after packing up off we went.
The road took the form of sinuous, looping hairpins. We met some road workers who must have been dropped up there by jeep earlier on. They looked quite menacing as they strolled down towards us, brandishing lump hammers. There was a bit of a stand-off, before we slipped through and continued on our way. Hours passed and we pushed over a false summit – beyond this the road got rockier, and huge glaciers appeared on either side. We eventually summited, and as we did so a jeep arrived at the top from the other direction. The jeep was full of guys who had driven up from Chamba – they were very enthusiastic, taking our photos and then wandering off to pray by the shrine before setting off back home again.
The downhill looked awesome, and it was. Fast, steep and rocky, and I really went for it, with Alex videoing. We overtook the jeep, which was picking its way down pretty slowly, maintaining our record of overtaking every vehicle we encountered on off-road downhills.
Eventually we got to a very scrappy little village. Some unpleasant-looking bloke told us that it was a police checkpoint, although I wasn’t convinced. We couldn’t see anyone in uniform, but in the end relented – Alex climbed up to his tent, while I held the bikes. A very drunk man came over and started trying to talk to me, and I tried hard not to offend him while Alex did the business with our passports above.
Further down the hill three guys who were wearing some sort of brown uniform stopped us. One was clutching a big, sharp rock. Again, we escaped. The descent carried on for miles and miles, and it slowly got dark. We kept our eyes open for guesthouses, but none appeared. After riding in darkness for some time, we found ourselves in a village called Tisa. There were quite a few shops, and some friendly people. There was apparently a government guesthouse down the hill, so we went to investigate. It was a big building, but there didn’t seem to be much going on. A guy opened the door and we had great problems signalling our request for a place to sleep. After quite a lot of confusion he showed us into a dirty room with cigarette burns over all the furniture and smoke hanging thick in the air. I think it was his room. Anyway, he seemed to be happy for us to stay, so we dumped the kit and then went off to buy some beer up the road whilst he cooked for us. We got quite pissed, and then he started to freak us out, talking about the police coming early in the morning, and how we might need to pay him extra. We got quite paranoid, and our paranoia was exacerbated by the sound of a very nasty sounding dog, which growled outside our window all night.
Alas, it is at this point in the tale that the story goes hazy, as the previous post was pretty much where I got to when writing this up for the first time before I managed to lose the aforementioned expedition diary. Everything from this point on is based on what is in my head rather than what is down on paper.
We quit Tisa at the crack of dawn. The paranoia had reached epic proportions, with the fiendish barking of the Cerberesque hound outside the window getting more murderous by the minute. For around two hours we were utterly convinced that someone was planning to feed us to this monster. We packed our stuff in the manner of convicts preparing for escape. The guesthouse guy then started banging on the door (in front of which Alex had dragged the wardrobe – for our own protection) and started wailing about the police. We thrust some rupees into his grubby hands, and hotfooted it.
It was a lovely morning, but we chose to ignore such irrelevances and concentrated on putting as much distance between us and the man and his dog. The previously undisclosed subject of a number of, let us say, unconventional cigarettes that we had shared with him the previous evening combined with the continued psychological attrition of the past few days, dodgy officials, paralytic maniacs, and the continued effects of reading William Dalrymple’s Age of Kali were in retrospect mainly to blame for our distressed mental state, but even so there was definitely something up, and so we employed every little bead of wisdom gleaned from years of studying the works of the great McNab to effect a successful getaway. It’s rather difficult to become the “grey man” when you are 6ft2 on a bicycle with red tyres and travelling with a bearded chimp, so we focused on “putting in the angles” between us and our hypothetical pursuers.
The plan must’ve worked, because no-one ever caught us up, and our faces never appeared on any wanted posters. The road to Chamba was hot and dusty, and we managed to make a number of navigational errors that turned the day into an even hotter and longer one. For a lengthy section we found ourselves pedalling up a painful incline in the midday sun, and we had barely drunk anything all day. We crawled into the next village parched to put it mildly. Luckily there was a water pump next to the road, and we were about to tuck in when the chaingang working on the road (a relatively cheerful bunch considering the unpleasant labour that they were being forced to endure – namely hitting big chunks of rock with hammers to turn them into smaller chunks of rock, in that same midday sun) were awarded a short break, and so this jolly group of thieves and murderers (I suppose they could’ve been tax evaders or found they had some competition for their source of refreshment. In the end we joined forces, with mutual pumping and filling of containers.
The rest of the ride was less eventful (apart from a puncture – one of very few on the trip – thank you Michelin), and culminated in another tough climb in sweltering heat into Chamba. We hadn’t planned or even investigated where we would stay. Bearing in mind that it had been some days since we have enjoyed even an ounce of luxury, what with the truck stop, Killar, Sach Pass hovel and the Murderous Dog Pound, we were well up for splashing out. And so when we saw a neatly printed sign advertising Hotel City Heart, we made up our minds on the spot.
As I recall, we looked fucking appalling. Filthy, sweat-stained AND soaked clothes, fetid kit hanging from bikes and sacks – you get the picture. So when we walked into the hotel reception we weren’t necessarily expecting to be welcomed with open arms. But bizarrely enough, both the hotel staff and the members of the wedding party that was going on inside seemed to be, if not delighted, then certainly perfectly amiable about the arrival of two such rancid guests.
The rest of the stay in Chamba revolved around creative beard modification, beer drinking, consumption of curry and appreciation of WWF wrestling, and as such any thoughts about continuing on our bikes to Dharamsala were temporarily shelved. And then permanently shelved. We decided to finish the trip as we had started it – by commissioning a truck and a driver.
We did so, and our man picked us and the bikes up and delivered us to McLoed Ganj, the uppermost section of Dharamsala. Here we continued our enjoyable eating and drinking frenzy, with one sole excursion into the mountains on our bikes. Cut short as I recall by the adherence of some shit to Alex’s bike and the subsequent mobile stench causing a reduction in enthusiasm.
And after another day or two, another vehicle was summoned, and that man (a total and utter menace, overtaking fiend, and very nearly the cold blooded murderer of two British cycle tourists) drove us south to Delhi. This journey was painful, terrifying, and delayed by an actual murder (two villages having a feud, one decided to kill someone from the other village and dump the body in the middle of the motorway – nice work guys) but we eventually reached Delhi. Where the driver finally managed to do what he had nearly managed all day – knock a nice chap off his motorbike.
We were reunited with our bike bags at chez Sanjay, and within a matter of hours our plane was in the sky and the adventure was over.