Flying has some advantages as a form of transport over traveling by bike. It’s quicker for one, 100’s of km pass by in minutes and hours instead of days and weeks. It’s certainly less physically demanding with the stairs up to the plane being the hardest climb you’re likely to encounter. The seats are generally more comfortable, it’s unlikely to rain or snow or reach 45 degrees inside the cabin too. Hang on, why are we cycling to New Zealand instead of flying?! Airline food for one. But hopefully the last year’s worth of blogs provides a few more reasons too.
The biggest difference though is the shock of the change. Hopping on a plane at Heathrow and then stepping out in Delhi would take some serious adjustments. At least our flight from Bishkek to Delhi wouldn’t be quite such a severe difference thanks to the gradual move east leading up to it, but we had been warned that India would still be a very new experience. 1.2 billion people, 26 provinces, 22 different languages and 33 million gods (aprox.). Just scraping the surface of this enormous country was going to be an assault on the senses.
28th July to 14th August 2015
Sitting on the floor of Indira Ghandi Airport reassembling the bike understandably draws a small crowd of curious but silent onlookers, something we’ll have to get used to. A brief test ride around the arrivals lounge confirms that everything is intact and fully functional which is always a huge relief.
It’s a 20km ride into the city and we brace ourselves for what we expect to be some of the worst roads on the planet. But for the first 10km or so the only significant event is a pinch puncture on the rear wheel, no doubt caused by a poorly fitted tyre when I pumped it up at the airport.
Yes there are lots of cars, buses, tuktuks, rickshaws, bikes, trucks, cows. Some of them are going the wrong way down the road, all of them are beeping their horns continuously (apart from the cows). Somehow the tandem moves smoothly through the middle of it all with barely a hitch. We get lots of thumbs up and calls of “Double cycle! Very Good!” from the tuktuk drivers.
It’s only when we get to the final 5km or so that the volume of traffic increases ten fold which prompts some risky manoeuvres as people try to squeeze through impossible gaps. Patience is required along with some sudden bursts of pedalling to make progress to our hotel.
Here our thanks go to our generous friends and family as we dip into the hotel voucher that we were given before we left and check into the Hotel Ajanta. Again a crowd quickly forms around the bike while I wait for the staff to work out where they’re going to put it. They find a space in a neighbouring hotel lobby, we dump the bags then explore the streets by foot.
It’s a seething mass of activity everywhere we look. Barbers shave their customers from stools perched on the pavement. A man is working through a huge pile of ironing using an iron filled with hot charcoal. Carts of fruit and veg continuously trundle up and down the road stocking up the small kiosks. Down every alleyway a hundred other people are doing a hundred different things. The noise, smells, colours are all at maximum volume and its exciting and daunting to be in the middle of it all.
Jainist temples sit alongside Hindu temples, Mosques and churches. Whole streets are dedicated to just selling wedding invitations or rice or hinges. Monkeys climb among the lethal looking tangle of electricity cables. I get my ears cleaned by a man in a red hat with a metal stick, all the time he mutters “hard dirty, hard dirty”.
Would a trip to India be complete without a visit to the Taj Mahal? Maybe, but as one of the most recognisable buildings ever built we’re intrigued to see what it is really like up close. 2 hours on an early morning train takes us to Agra where a persuasive tuktuk driver convinces us to follow his recommended itinerary for the day. Instead of going straight to the Main Attraction we instead visit the ‘Baby Taj’ and Agra Fort first, leaving the Taj proper until mid afternoon.
This proves a good tip as there seem to be fewer crowds and we get a much better opportunity to recreate the famous ‘Diana sulking on a bench’ photo. There’s no doubt that this is a magnificent place, ornately decorated with coloured marble shards set against the gleaming white marble walls, it’s hard not to be very, very impressed.
Another two days in Delhi to take in the obligatory free walking tour and we’re ready to leave. Only Delhi isn’t ready to let us go without a little reminder. As well as the busy traffic we’d expected a bout of Delhi Belly while in India, from what we’d read and been told it’s almost unavoidable. Sure enough we both begin to feel some rumblings in the tummy after only a few days in the country and we’re not feeling our best. But we want to get out of this huge and filthy city and head North.
Our next stop is Amritsar, again on an early morning train. We load up with imodium and make the short ride to New Delhi station past dozens of sleeping bodies. They sleep in their rickshaws, tuktuks, on the ironing board, barbers stool, gutters and all along the station platform. In India, If you’re tired just lie down and take a nap, even if you’re in the middle of a central reservation. From the train we see slums built right up to the tracks and families are waking from roof tops and from under corrugated sheeting.
Amritsar is the home of the Golden Temple (Harmandir Sahib), the holiest site for Sikhs and as a religion that welcomes people of all faiths and backgrounds the temple complex includes a free hostel for travellers. As we’re about to check in a bright yellow Thorn touring bike comes round the corner being pushed by Tara from Canada (http://followmargopolo.com). She’s just arrived from Pakistan having been fortunate enough to have ridden from Mongolia down through China and along the Karakorum Highway thanks to a generous 1 year Visa issued in Canada.
The temple itself is a shimmering edifice coated in 750kg of gold in the middle of the ‘tank’ of holy water. Turbans of varying design and elaborateness are on display amongst the crowds with many devotees in full ceremonial dress, complete with swords hanging from their waists. All the time calm music is broadcast around the temple complex which is a recital of the Sri Guru Granth Sahib (the Sikh holy scriptures) being sung by musicians in the centre of the temple. It takes them 2.5 days at 16 hours a day to sing the entire book, then they start all over again.
Overnight we are confident that our bikes will be safe being guarded by a snoozing Sikh lying next to them with his sword still by his side.
Both Kirsty and I are still having tummy trouble and a suspect Lassi disagrees with Tara too so we spend more time than we’d like in the hostel trying not to go too far from the toilet. We do manage to brave the feeding frenzy of the temple canteen a couple of times though. This is the largest free kitchen in the world with up to 100,000 people a day shuffling through the precision conveyor system to receive their Dal, rice, chapati and super sweet masala chai. The sound of clattering metal trays passing through the vast washing up facility is like a rhythmic, deafening percussion orchestra making this the loudest kitchen in the world too.
Amritsar Is only 30km from the Pakistan border. Tensions continue to run high between these neighbours and is symbolised by the famous Wagah border retreat ceremony that takes place every day. On either side of the border gates huge grandstands have been constructed that get filled with baying crowds ready to cheer for their country and verbally crush the enemy that they can see just 100m away. It’s worth the tuktuk ride to get there even with a change of vehicle half way due to a puncture.
At 6pm a man in white carrying a microphone appears and begins whipping the Indian audience into a frenzy. But for every chant of “Hindustan!” There’s a reply from the Pakistani mob. Then the soldiers begin their parade. In formal regalia that includes a fan shaped plume giving the impression of a mating cockerel, the soldiers perform increasingly elaborate goosesteps, high kicks and stand in intimidating stances with downturned thumbs, all aimed at their Pakistani counterparts who do the same in a mirror image of menace. It’s surprisingly camp, highly entertaining and the crowds show their support with rising volume right up until the climax when both sides lower their flags in unison and slam the border gates shut. There’s a good clip from the ceremony when Michael Palin visited during his tour of the Himalaya here: youtu.be/n9y2qtaopbE< /a>
Tara has a similar plan to us and wants to head North. Together we all make an executive decision to take another train to Jammu after Amritsar. Firstly to avoid the hot, humid and dull, flat roads of the Punjab plains that wouldn’t be much fun the way we’re feeling. This also bypasses a town that very recently saw the local police station laid under siege. The unrest with Pakistan extends way beyond the ceremonial strutting and incidents like this are not uncommon along the border region. We’re not too keen to get involved.
As with the train from Delhi we load the bikes onto the luggage car and find our beds for the overnight trip. But before the train departs a policeman storms onto the carriage and demands to see our ticket. I get dragged off the train and there follows a lengthy, and sometimes heated discussion about the fact that we hadn’t booked the bikes and how we should take them out of the, otherwise empty, luggage waggon. I refuse and we reach a stalemate that leaves several hundred people waiting on the train and delayed by 15 minutes. The promise of cash once we reach Jammu eventually resolves the situation and we’re told that next time we really should book the bike in advance. Indians love procedure and beaurocracy.
At Jammu an armed guard is watching over our bikes to ‘keep them safe’ and we hand over the demanded fee of 1000 rupees (£10) ransom to have them released. Then it’s a fond fairwell to Tara as she heads to the bus station for the next leg up to Srinigar while we check into a hotel to allow Kirsty to sleep for the day. While I feel much better the sickness still has a hold on Kirsty so I head off to buy some antibiotics that Tara had recommended.
In an Indian pharmacy, if you know the name of the drug you can go ahead and buy it without a prescription. A system that is not without it’s dangers but very convenient and the course of Ciprofloxalin pills is less than 1/10th the price we would have paid in the UK.
While Kirsty rests and let’s the drugs take effect I pop into the Raghunath Mandir temple that claims to have a representation for all the Hindu gods. With approximately 33 million of them this sounds like it should be quite something to behold but in fact I get to see several thousand pebbles (I didn’t count them) set in cement within a network of different rooms. The main attraction is a huge polished, egg shaped rock, being worshipped as the coloured patterning looks similar to several images of their gods. A bit like seeing an image of Jesus on a piece of toast. I’m invited to pour milk on it then get sprayed with water and given a smear of red paint on my forehead as a blessing.
The rest of Jammu is on strike so most shops are shut. The police and army presence is heavy which may explain why, apart from the closed shutters, there’s no sign of any trouble.
We had planned to begin riding from here to get up to Srinigar in Kashmir but there’s no sign of Kirsty improving enough to be able to ride this difficult road. Instead we opt to take a shared ride in a Jeep to allow a bit more rest time while not eroding the time left on our Visa. This proves a wise decision.
From the safety of the Jeep we see that the road is incredibly busy, hilly and teeming with army vehicles. We later learn that there’s been another incident that day involving a Pakistani insurgent who has been captured further up the road from where we are now. The 7 hour journey takes 11 hours with all the added delays from road blocks.
The final stage of ruceperation takes place on one of Srinigar’s famous house boats parked on Lake Dal. The tradition originates for the days of the British Raj when some of these boats were constructed to overcome a law that prevented the British building on any land in the Kashmiri valey. Some are floating mansions, with huge walnut lined lounges and balconies overlooking the tranquil lake. Plenty more boats arrived to surround the lake and Srinigar became a popular destination for Indians and international travelers.
But the unrest in Kashmir hit the town hard and 7 or 8 years ago it would have been very unsafe to visit, so not many people did. With a bit more stability it looks like things are improving now but there’s still a way to go before they return to the boom times. Google maps are as diplomatic as ever by not denoting the region as either India or Pakistan but many people, including our hosts think Kashmir should be neither and form a completely independent country. India though are keen to keep it as theirs and now have 700,000 military personal stationed in the province making sure it stays that way.
On the lake the shops, taxis and souvenir stalls all operate from shikara boats and roam round the house boats looking for customers. A particularly long one is needed to get our tandem over from the mainlad to our floating accommodation on the good ship ‘The New Beauty’ then back again when we’re ready to leave. From Sikh Amritsar then Hindu Jammu we’re now in Muslim Kashmir and have the joy of being woken at daybreak by the familiar Azan.
By now Tara should be two days ahead of us but just before leaving Srinigar she discovered a crack in one of her rims and has had to take some time to sort out a solution. A nice result of this is that we manage to arrange to meet up with her again so we can all ride together.
Kashmir is 80% muslim
First thing in the morning we all roll out of town, Tara’s Thorn now sporting a $10 front wheel in shiny chrome. That wheel is about to be given a very tough time as up ahead lie the Himalayas and some of the most challenging roads in India.
For the next two days we’re climbing with that famous Led Zeppelin rif going through our heads on repeat. We go up gradually at first through a tree lined valley, then after an overnight stop in Sonamarg it gets more serious as we take on the Zoji La Pass. The last 10km of this are rough and steep with a few stream crossings so we’re ready for noodles and chai when we reach the 3500m summit. At the base of the slopes opposite the tented Dhaba (tea house) the remains of a snow field is being used as a venue for a toboggan run. Our legs are too empty to ride down to it but it looks like fun.
A bumpy descent takes us into the second coldest inhabited place on the planet (-60 degC recorded in 1995) for food and sleep. It’s been hot today though. Here we meet up with a Russian cyclist, Sergi, with an enviably lightweight set of kit so that he can move quickly over the rough hills. We look back accusingly at our heavyweight machines for making the riding so difficult for us.
From Dras the road into Kargil is lovely and smooth with some fantastic fast descents. Along the way we pass several long convoys of army trucks and a few checkpoints that don’t bother to stop us. This is all part of the very visible military presence, while the less visible armed soldiers watch us from high on the hillside. We’re also joined for a few km by Rakesh, a strong Indian touring cyclist who’s covering 4500km over two months at the age of 59.
After a rough and ready camp site near a river the now unpaved road bumps us up to Mulbech. Here we leave the predominantly Muslim region of Kashmir and enter Budhist Ladakh. To signal this change we see colourful prayer wheels, fluttering prayer flags and a huge carved Maitraya Budha standing tall on a rock face overlooking the road.
Kirsty has been feeling a lot stronger since Srinagar but now it’s my turn to feel under par again so we ascend the next pass, the 3800m Namika La, at a leisurely pace. The road is quiet and there are rumours that there is a road block back at Kargil though we never find out if this is true or why it should be closed. Landslides are common so it’s possible that was a cause, or maybe more military action.
Dropping down a smooth road off the summit we arrive at a river crossing with a small meadow alongside. Kirsty scouts it for camping potential and other than a feisty baby yak that enjoys chasing her back to the bike it looks to be a good place to end the day.
Despite being the highest point on the Srinigar Leh highway, when we reach the Fotula La at 4200m we barely notice the altitude. Our time in Tajikistan and Kyrgystan has set us up for this and it seems our bodies are still well acclimatised. Altitude training will definitely be used before I run another marathon.
Also tackling this climb are a dozen or more riders on a group tour with the aid of a van carrying their kit. Chatting to one of them at the top he tells me he’s from Mumbai and never been to the mountains before, let alone cycled over them. An impressive feat and he was understandably elated to have made it up there.
It’s been great having Tara for company as we get to compare Canadianisms with Alglicisms (“What is or-reg-enno?” “Oh you mean Or-ig-ah-no!”) and having a cyclist in our photos puts the landscape into perspective much better than the back of my head can. There is also the benefit that Tara carries the bible of Himalayan cycling: Himalaya by Bike. This invaluable guidebook written by Laura Stone gives intricate levels of detail for the main routes through these mountains. From which Dhabas to eat in, to road conditions, suggested side trips and the all important elevation profile, it tells you everything you need to know to survive and enjoy the trip. Almost every other cyclist we met was also using it but somehow we had left without a copy so Tara became our tour guide.
One gem of advice from The Bible is to take a turn before the monastery town of Lamayuru and follow a precipitous minor road high above the valley. This takes us through a kaleidescope of rock formations with swirling patterns of purple, orange and red. Below us a lunar landscape of cratered white and cream looks like an enormous brain. Luckily we’ve got the narrow road to ourselves and can’t help riding with open mouths as the unbelievable scenery unfolds in front of us.
Finally we need to drop back down to the main road and lose altitude via the 17 twisting hair pins called the Jalebi Bends. By the end we have a new entry into the top ten of favourite roads to ride.
With the major passes on this stretch now behind us the final 100km into Leh should be relatively straightforward. The Delhi Belly has other ideas though and both Kirsty and I have returned to our weakened state. We split the distance into two days taking our time, but giving our full effort to get over the two 400m climbs that stand in our way before the final slog into Leh itself.
Hotel Kang La provides the ideal resting place for us to recoup some energy and try and get better. The cyclical nature of the illness (3 days bad, 3 days good etc.) suggests a parasite, perhaps Giardia so we dose up on suitable drugs to try and combat it.
Leh is a very popular tourist town and provides a wonderful selection of cafes and restaurants with mouth watering selections of Western, Tibetan and Indian
food that is just the antidote to the omelette and Maggi noodles diet we were on in the mountains. We take great pleasure in sampling most of the menu in most of the restaurants with the momos from the Tibetan Kitchen being a particular highlight. Unfortunately we’re too late to see the Dalhi Lama who gave a sermon on the mountainside just outside Leh two weeks ago.
Being well fed, well rested and generally well is important as the road ahead doesn’t get any easier. We have some even higher passes to climb on the Leh Menali Highway then some notoriously rough roads through the Spitti Valley. There is an airport in Leh so the option to fly out would be tantalisingly easy to take. But the Himalayas are proving addictive and we’re here to ride our bike over them, we just have to hope our bodies are up to the task.