Shimla to Kathmandu

“Where are you going?”
“Kathmandu!”
“On this bicycle?”
“Yes!”
“I do not think that this is possible.”

For as long as I can remember, almost universally the first question we’ve been asked by the people we encounter on this trip is “Where are you from?”. Admittedly this has varied slightly with the relentless “Atkuda, atkuda?” through Central Asia and “What-is-your-country-sir?”, “Ah-England-is-a-very-fine-country-sir-and-Alistair-Cook-is-very-fine-cricket-player” in India. But the Nepalese seem to be more concerned about looking forward rather than back and everyone seems keen to know where we are going and not where we’ve come from. Looking to the future is a useful trait for a country that has had a difficult year after the terrible earthquakes in April, now compounded by a further crisis that we were about to arrive right in the middle of. More on that later, first we had to leave India.

Permanent cycle mitt tan

10 days of rest in Shimla have brought Kirsty back to a position where she can contemplate riding the bike again. Our prolonged stay has put us on first name terms with the local cafe staff and they tell us they’ll be sorry to see us go (along with the thousands of rupees we’ve spent there). The monkeys see us off too by snatching a bag with our lunch in it right from Kirsty’s hands.

There goes our lunch

To ease Kirsty’s legs back into cycling mode again without too much of a shock we take the ‘Toy Train’ off the ridge to avoid more difficult mountainous terrain. This picturesque narrow gauge line is a legacy of the British Raj and is one of the world’s classic rail journeys. It winds around the hills through 100 tunnels and over several hundred bridges, stopping at various stations to allow the purchase of samosas and chai due to the lack of a buffet car. We disembark at Kumarhatti and stop there for the night.

Boarding the train at Shimla

Down the mountain on the Toy Train

Then we’re both back on the bike after 23 days of either 1 or both of us not riding. The day begins with a gentle descent followed by a steady climb. All crew members seem to be functioning correctly and we enjoy some more ups but mostly downs through to mid afternoon. The annoying macaques and curious grey langur monkeys are still in abundance in the trees so we keep our food safely packed away. On the final drop we’re accompanied by a small car with a man hanging out of it to film us.

We wouldn’t dream of doing either

Grey Langur Monkey

Then we hit a brutal climb before Nahan to end the day. We’d joked on our way down that the town would be at the top of the steep hill in front of us and sure enough it is. Our hill climbing legs have lost some of their power but we just about manage to winch to the top. There’s a scout jamboree taking place and we catch a few of them playing a furious game of kibadi in front of the Sikh temple.

Kibadi! Kibadi! Kibadi!

While refueling in the evening we’re joined briefly by Shibu. He seems a little odd but is keen to show us round so we agree to meet in the morning.
“English people get up very early, yes? Shall I meet you at 5:30?”
“Better make it 8:30, thanks Shibu”.

At the allotted time we venture out and Shibu is already waiting for us, he’d been there since 8. We’re greeted with a big hug as his ” Brother and sister” then he leads us out hand in hand. It’s perfectly normal for men to hold hands in this part of the world and men and boys do it as a sign of friendship just as couples would do in the west. I’m keen to show acceptance of their culture so have no problem when he shifts his arm onto my shoulder.

Just good friends. With Shibu in Nahan.

We walk through the bustling, narrow streets with the typical Indian hive of activity cranking up at the start of a new day. Shibu’s arm drops down and he begins rubbing my back as we walk, but he’s just showing that he wants us to be good friends I suppose. Kirsty isn’t so relaxed when he begins to do the same to her with his hand creeping under the back of her shirt, so we have to draw the line at back massage. This is beyond normal behaviour even in India.

Chicken shop. Buy them fresh and feathered or plucked and fly blown.

We assumed we were being led to his house but it’s actually a wild goose chase and we zig zag all over town, always “just another 5 minutes” to his home. When we start trudging down the steep hill while he talks about feeding each other apples, spending the rest of the day together and asking us “Do you like fun?” we have to make our apologies and make our escape. The poor chap is clearly upset that we’re leaving but we’re not sure we’d have ever been able to leave if and when we got to his house.

Time to go I’m afraid Shibu

We quickly fetch the bike and with gravity on our side we plummet down the hill laughing about our curious new friend.

If it’s got wheels it can carry people

Soon we’ve made it to the flat lands at the edge of Himachal Province and pedal alongside water buffalo, scooters and bikes. It’s hot, humid and harder than it should be. The dysentry seems to be making a comeback and sapping the energy out of both of us again. We can’t believe it hasn’t been killed off yet.

By the evening we roll into Paonta Sahib and up to the gates of another Sikh temple, the Gurudwara Paonta Sahib. Like the Golden Temple in Amritsar there is a free hostel here and we’re given a prime riverside room complete with ensuite bathroom (squat toilet and bucket of water for washing). It also comes with 2 lizards that have to be chased for half an hour before they get the message that they’re not welcome and scuttle out the window.

So begins the game of chase the lizard

We join the devotees in the temple where the Guru Granth Sahib is being sung. Legend has it that the holy book was written here giving this location special significance as a place of pilgrimage for Sikhs from all over the world.

Devotees at Paonta Sahib

After the prayers we head to the canteen to sit cross legged on the floor with our serving of chapati and dahl in a tin tray. Sikh hospitality is always tasty.

Next day we keep the pace easy and use rain showers as a good excuse to stop for chai, sweets, then pomelos, a delicious giant citrus fruit that tastes like a sweet pink grapefruit.

Pomelo, our new favourite fruit

By late afternoon we’ve crossed into Utarrakhand Province and arrive in Dehradun. The rain has set in. A scooter pulls alongside and its rider asks us where we’re from in an American accent. A short conversation of explanation as to why we’re on a tandem in the pouring rain in India and we’ve been invited to follow him home. Stephen is from Michigan but his wife, Nalini is Indian so they now live here with their youngest daughter Sabina and son Stephen Jnr. They have built their own house on the edge of the jungle which serves as a wonderful place for us to stay for the night. While being shown where we can sleep Stephen nonchalantly mentions that we shouldn’t go outside after dark on account of the leopards that roam around looking for dinner. We think he’s joking at first but his face says otherwise and he even tells us a story about some people who had been attacked down near the river not long ago. Of course there’s the usual risk of bears, cobras and pythons too. The doors and windows will be firmly locked tonight.

Stephen Jnr., Nalini, Stephen and Sabina

We are served a tasty meal and have an interesting conversation about life in India and its north/south divide. Bizarrely Nalini had read about my ‘Marathon World Record Dressed as a Toilet’ in the Indian Times last year.

Then the topic turns to religion. Stephen is what is usually termed a ‘born again Christian’ having had a real road to Damascus moment that turned him around from being well off the rails to being firmly back on track. His passion for his faith and the effect it’s had on his life is fascinating to hear about.

On the streets of Dehradun

Our spiritual journey then continues into Haridwar, our destination for the next day and one of the 7 holiest sites for Hindus in India. This town on the banks of the Ganges is supposed to be where drops of Amrit, the elixir of immortality, accidentally spilled over from a pitcher while being carried by the celestial bird Garada. To obtain a long and healthy life I take a holy dip in the river, immersing myself 4 times then nearly getting swept away by the strong current. Garada is already looking after me so I survive.

Busy streets of Haridwar

Holy dip in the Ganges

 

Worshippers at the evening service

Sadhu in Haridwar

There’s a ceremony each evening that involves lots of fire and singing with a huge crowd gathering to watch. Hundreds of boats made from leaves are filled with flowers and candles before being launched into the river for good luck.

Haridwar fire ceremony

Haridwar fire ceremony

Kirsty launches a flower boat as a marriage blessing

A priest keeping watch over one of the many shrines

But the celebrations are bigger than usual tonight. By chance we’ve arrived at the culmination of the Ganesh Chaturthi festival, celebrating the birthday of the elephantine god Ganesha. A procession of carnival floats trundle down the street accompanied by energetic drumming, loud music and crowds of dancing revellers being sprayed with coloured powder. Following them is a decorated elephant that takes offerings of money in its trunk and passes it up to the driver. It seems completely unphased by the chaos around it but its glazed eyes suggest this might not be its natural character.

Paint flinging

Girls hitching a ride on a carnival float

Monkey tractor driver

Decorated elephant

Families bring their idols of Ganesha down to the river and let them float away. It’s said that Ganesha takes all their misfortunes and maladies with him on his journey back to his holy abode on Mt. Kailash.

Ganesha idol

Ganesha idol

The largest and final Ganesha idol to be brought to the river

Ganesha idol prepares to swim

Ganesha floats away down the Ganges

It’s an exciting, vibrant spectacle that leaves me fired up with adrenaline from all the dancing and with multi-coloured face. Kirsty had her own excitement when a firework landed on the balcony outside our room. It also explains why we’d found it so hard to find a hotel with vacancies. Every 12 years, up to 100 million people descend on Haridwar for the Kumbh Mela pilgrimage. It’s hard to imagine that many people in one place and it may well be too much of an intense experience.

Painted reveller

Painted reveller

The next three days take us ever eastwards past jungles that are home to elephants and a huge national park that includes the Jim Corbett Tiger Reserve. We pick up more drugs, this time a 10 day course of slightly different antibiotics, antiamaeobas and probiotics on the recommendation of a doctor in Khashipur.

Statue of Shiva, Haridwar

Don’t play chicken with the elephants

A shortcut takes us alongside a quiet canal with straw hut villages and carts being pulled by water buffalo. The roads vary from smooth asphalt to rocky tracks and at one point another shortcut is completely flooded so we have to turn back to the main road.

Buffalo cart

A soggy shortcut

Bicycles are increasingly popular while the scooters and motorbikes become a menace. A westerner on a bike is unusual enough but two on a tandem is something they’ve never seen before so they buzz round us with smartphones set to record and we get repeated cries of “please stop! One selfie sir! One selfie, I beg you sir!”. Usually one of the many passengers is on camera duty but the drivers are busy gawping as well and on several occasions we nearly get ridden into. We can’t stop for everyone so they have to settle for an in flight shot.

Girls on the way to school

“One selfie please sir!”

Helmets are optional, especially for babies.

In Rudripur we find ourselves in a strong Muslim area and after a night in a lizard infested room 101 at the Hotel KK we see crowds of men in long salwah kameez and scull caps off to Friday prayers. The women on the back of the scooters now peer out from under hijabs or the full face covering niqab.

An Orwelian nightmare

Hotel Baghdadi, Rudripur

Off to Friday prayers in Rudripur

This final stretch before the Nepalese border feels more rundown than most of the regions of India we’ve ridden through so far. Alongside the road huge piles of rubbish are grazed by cattle, pigs, dogs and children. The roadside provisions are sold from basic wooden shacks. Every couple of kilometres a bike mechanic is serving the two wheeled traffic and there are far fewer cars.

Buffaloes wallow in the filth

Basic bike shop

Improvements seem to be on the way with a brand new road in construction to replace the pot holed track we’re picking our way over but there’s very little work going on. The Garmin thinks one of the new bridges should be complete and sends us up to a river bank with a few concrete pilings in place but no way of getting across.

Village in Uttar Pradesh

Blindly following the Garmin. This road needs a bit more work.

At Banbasa we reach the border and a young Nepalese cyclist called Shiria helps escort us across. Indians and Nepalese can cross without any passport control and as tourist traffic is rare at this point we have to seek out the immigration office to get stamped out. While we wait a monkey takes the bananas that we’d carelessly left on the back of the bike. A short ride further and a relaxed official sells us our Nepalese Visas and then we’re sent off into our 32nd country.

Another border successfully crossed

We’d been told to expect a change compared to where we’ve come from and the difference is immediately obvious. A wide smooth road stretches out in front of us and motorised traffic is almost non-existent as most people are either on bicycles or walking. It’s such a refreshing change after the bedlam of India. In the first day of riding not a single person asks us for “one selfie”.

Traffic free bliss

Chickens on the move (all alive)

Crowds soon gather when we stop though, especially in the small village of Chaumala where sisters Sumdinu and Madu look after us from their parents’ dhaba. Everyone is curious of the ‘Double Cycle’ but friendly and courteous with it. They’re particularly amused when I purchase the traditional Dhaka Topi hat that I’d seen most of the older men wearing and queue up to have their photo taken with us. Someone tells me “You must be the tallest man in Nepal!” which also means that I fit in none of the beds in Nepal and hit my head on every doorway.

Making new friends in Chaumala

We ride on past neat little straw houses, some tree houses, fields of wheat and barley, over pretty rivers and alongside dense forests. Huge bundles of sticks are carried on heads with more awkward loads slung in a basket on their backs. That’s if a bike or donkey isn’t available.

Village in far west Nepal

High capacity panniers

Village meeting place

Topis are the head gear of choice.

It’s cleaner than India, something that they are very proud of and several people tell us about how dirty their neighbouring country is. It’s the poorest country we’ve visited so far too (Nepal is in the lowest 25% in the world) so there are charity and NGO funded projects in many of the villages. Lots of pictorial signs explain the importance of sanitation and using latrines properly. WaterAid is one such such charity that funds projects here and we’ve been supporting them through various events in the UK for a while. A lot of the improvements that we can see will have been the result of their hard work so it’s fantastic to see what a difference they can make. If you have some spare cash then I’m sure they’d be grateful for a donation at www.wateraid.org.

Charity funded information sign which seems to be about using a phone while going to the toilet

The forests become humid jungle with the noise of the birds and insects at maximum  volume. Road signs hint at some interesting wildlife lurking in the trees but we fail to spot any tigers, rhinos or armadillos, just a deceased snake in the road. But it puts us off the idea of camping so each evening we search out a cheap hotel and tuck into the national dish of Dahl Baht, a great meal for a cyclist as it comes complete with an endless supply of rice and lentil soup. The heat and humidity makes for another good reason to a find a room so we can douse ourselves in cold water from the ensuite bucket.

Tigers hate hearing beeping horns, much like us

Snakes near a tandem

A night in the ‘Riverside Cottage Guesthouse.’ More a barn 200m from a drainage ditch.

After checking into one such hotel in Gorusinge we take to the streets to find some dinner. We’re quickly surrounded by a dozen or so excited children who don’t normally get visitors to their small town. They all attend the nearby English school so enjoy interrogating us to practice their language skills, which are impressively good. They also tell us about how scary it was when the earthquakes hit. Despite being a few hundred km from the eipicentre one boy tells me “the cricket bat was shaking in my hand and I didn’t know what was happening”. Before we manage to break away we promise to ride with Uba, Diya and Pushpa to their school in the morning.

Making friends in Gorusinge

Off to school with Uba, Diya and Pushpa

The school has 700 pupils and when we arrive we’re mobbed by every single one of them. It’s utter chaos as we’re dragged through each classroom to say hello, shake lots of small hands and answer questions. The teachers stand back, bemused by it all then invite us into the sanctuary of the staff room. Here they explain that all lessons are taught in English, giving the pupils a good grounding for studying abroad. We’d seen lots of signs advertising colleges in Australia, Canada, Denmark and Japan for courses that just aren’t available in Nepal. Technical subjects like Engineering in particular seem to be the most lacking. Attending an NGO funded school like this will really help the children’s future prospects.

The English School in Gorusinge

Taking control in the classroom

After extracting the bike from the rabble we continue on to Lumbini, the direct opposite of the noise and excitement of the school. We enter this Centre for World Peace, created around the birthplace of Buddha, and find ourselves in an oasis of calm. Many countries have built Buddhist monasteries in their own particular style so riding round them feels a bit like a theme park. There’s ‘Chinese World’, ‘Burma Land’, ‘Cambodia Towers’.

Buddha statue, Lumbini

Burmese temple, Lumbini

Monks congregate at the birthplace of Buddha.

This 2600 year old tree began growing on the day Buddha was born.

We spend the night in the dorms of the secluded Korean Monastery, tucked away in a forest enclave at the edge of the sanctuary. There are several other tourists enjoying the hospitality of the monks, including Or, an Israeli who is about to embark on a three month meditation retreat. With the prospect of 16 hours a day engrossed in his own contemplation, it’s something that he’s looking forward to with some understandable trepidation.

The Korean Monastery in Lumbini

Young monks in Lumbini

World Peace Pagoda, Lumbini

After our side trip to Lumbini we spin back up to the main highway across flat farm land. The highway is the only major road that crosses Nepal but it’s still relatively quiet. We have discovered that the reason for the lack of traffic is due to blockades at the borders preventing the huge number of trucks that bring imports from India to makeing it across. This includes fuel. Petrol stations are closed with vehicles parked all around them waiting for new supplies. Some enterprising shops are selling petrol from coke bottles at twice the normal price. There seems to be traffic control measures for the lucky few that have vehicles still running so two or three times a day a convoy of buses and trucks passes us before the road returns to peace and quiet.

Flat and ordered fields

Traffic free streets

Queue of motor bikes at a petrol station, but no fuel to sell them

A dispute over the recently introduced constitution resulted in riots and protests by some ethnic groups that felt excluded. In response, India decided it was too dangerous for its vehicles to enter the country so they have been left standing in sight of Nepal but not able to get in and offload their goods. Essentials like medicines and cooking gas are now in very short supply. In essence the Government are being blackmailed to change the constitution but with both sides refusing to negotiate it’s a stalemate that has led to a national crisis. Good for cycle tourists but terrible for the residents.

A protest on the streets of Kawasoti where an effigy, presumably of the prime minister, is burnt.

The flat plains are receding behind us to be replaced by several sweaty climbs. Nepal is hilly after all but we’d become complacent after several days of easy riding. We’re earning our endless dahl baht now as well as a plateful of sweet orange jalebis and swaari bread for breakfast.

We’ve reached 20,000km!

Making fresh jalebis for our breakfast

Sometimes it’s the simple moments on the road that make a day memorable and on a rare flat section we’re surrounded by a flock of orange and black butterflies that then glide alongside us. Simple pleasures that keep us smiling.

Pareidolia – perceiving faces and patterns in unusal places

Not long after there’s less to smile about. Turning onto a smaller road we’re hit with a steep gradient which doesn’t let up after a weary lunch stop. In the afternoon we climb 650m in less than 8km with the limit of our power being touched for most of the way. Part way up we have the conversation about wanting to ride to Kathmandu but being told it wasn’t possible by a passing driver. At the time we’d laughed it off but a few km later we can see their point.

Steep and relentless

A building claiming to be a hotel not far from what we think is the top turns out to be a fraud without any rooms. They cheerily tell us that it’s only another 10km to go. Only 10km at 15%!

Getting desperate as the light is fading fast we catch sight of a flat piece of earth just off the road and enquire in the building opposite if anyone would mind if we pitched our tent on it. “Why don’t you ride to the top of the hill instead?” we’re told, clearly unaware of our state of exhaustion. After a few phone calls and meeting the owner of the plot of land we’re invited to sleep on the floor of the building instead. It’s a part built cafe with no door but a roof and four walls. There’s a family living there too and after making us some dinner a sheet of corrugated iron is used to block the doorway and we settle down under our quilt. The family push a few benches together and huddle together under a blanket. This appears to be their home as well as their business.

Cafe floor refuge

Cafe, building site and home

We pay for our night’s lodgings then get going early in the morning. It turns out to only be 2km to the top but it still takes 20 minutes to ride. A bite to eat at one of the three hotels we could have stayed in and then it’s an equally steep descent off the other side. So steep in fact that we have to stop for 10 minutes part way down to let the rims cool off.

Finally at the top

So surprised to see a double cycle that he rode into a ditch,

The undulating valley road takes us a few km further on before an enormous ridge looms up ahead again. The road is now just as steep as the day before with added rockiness and the top far out of view. Our legs are still recovering from the previous day’s effort but we work away at it for an hour or so getting slower and slower until we stop. Pushing would be even harder so we take stock of the situation and reluctantly flag down a passing Mahindra pick up. The words from the day before are ringing in our ears as we get whisked up the hill in the back of the truck: “You can’t cycle to Kathmandu”.

Uplift

We jump out after the summit and get our first views of the capital city and the enormous snowy hills forming a backdrop. Somewhere north of here is the highest mountain in the world. Descending past monasteries and hearing drums and cymbals in temples we eventually arrive on the streets of Kathmandu. It’s eerily quiet though and becomes the easiest capital that we’ve had to ride into so far. The fuel crisis means that there are hundreds of vehicles parked up on every road leaving plenty of space for cyclists and the odd scooter.

Dropping into the outskirts of Kathmandu

Open top bus ride

Out of 19 capital cities, Kathmandu was the easiest to ride into

Hundreds of taxis queue for petrol

We find a place to stay and venture out into the tourist district of Thamel, packed with tempting restaurants to eat the tastiest, and admittedly only steak we’ve had in months washed down with ‘Everest’ beer.

The only kind of fuel we need is steak

There’s some of the usual admin tasks on the agenda in Kathmandu with applications for visas for Banglasdesh, Myanmar and an extension to our Indian visa to sort out. A parcel of parts is also on its way from the UK. It all sounds ominously familiar and we’re under no pretences that any of this will be easy. A rest will probably do us some good though so we settle in and prepare to wait and eat and wait and eat.

“It’s very difficult” he kept saying

Travelling light

Mad max taxi




Leh to Shimla

There’s always a fine line between keeping the momentum of the trip going to seek out the next chapter of the adventure and knowing when it’s time to stop and rest. Kirsty will tell you that I have no idea where this line is drawn, and she’s probably right.

Words of wisdom from Huxley

15th August – 16th September 2015

We return to the saddles on a bright, sunny afternoon, leaving Leh to take on the  ‘highway’ towards Menali. This is another road of some infamy amongst touring cyclists with the promise of high passes, challenging road conditions but the reward of some of the finest scenery the Indian Himalya has to offer. It was only cleared of snow in early July and will be closed by late October once winter takes hold again.

Our welcome travelling companion Tara is still with us but less welcome are the stomach bugs that refuse to stay away. The rest, food and cocktail of tablets don’t seem to have shifted them completely but with blind hope that they are receding we carry on.

Team Thorn

We keep the next two days short, with a visit to the huge Thiksey Monastery on the way to Upshi then camping in a field at Lato. Upshi is an appropriate name as from here the road begins going skywards and continues to do so for 60km. Stopping at Lato helps break the workload up.

Thiksey Monastery

Huge Buddha, Thiksey Monastery

A nice place for contemplation and meditation

As a team we’re all faltering with unexpected altitude headaches (we’re at 4000m), sore knees, sickness and general weariness . One rest day is followed by another when we wake up to heavy and cold rain which would make the rest of the climb unpleasant at best, but more likely very dangerous. While warming up in the nearby guest house we meet a variety of other two wheeled travelers.

Camping in Lato

Firstly, one half of a Scottish tandem crew (http://www.peggytandem.com), Linda was glad of some company while her husband Jimmy was lying ill next door, another victim to the Indian levels of hygiene. Tandems on this road are incredibly rare so to have two in one place must be a first! Their world tour was prompted by their children having backpacking adventures making them think “Why don’t we do something like that?”.

Valley below Lato

We also have an unexpected flying visit from Sergi, the Russian we’d met in Dras. Although it’s now midday, the sun has come out and he’s pushing on to the top of the hill having started in Leh that morning. Fast and light still looking to be the sensible option but it’ll still be hard going to make it before dusk.

Mountain stream, Lato

Two Polish cyclists then arrive. They used to be backpackers but decided to buy second hand bikes in Delhi and headed for the mountains. Cutting your teeth as a cycle tourist on the Leh Menali highway can only be described as incredibly bold but they are coping well and have made quick progress. Their $70 bikes and panniers made from converted school backpacks show that a lack of expensive equipment shouldn’t be a barrier to just getting on with the journey.

This lady was spinning wool on a bobbin while she walked

After three nights in Lato we wake to sunshine and clear heads so continue on. The road is smooth and steady and up we go. Passing 4500m the speed drops to a crawl but it’s hard to know how much of the difficulty is down to the lack of oxygen and how much is the sickness. Most likely a nasty combination of the two and we take to stopping every 5km for a sit down and a breather.

‘Only’ 24km to the top

Above 5000m and the lungs are working hard. There’s a huge snow drift alongside the road then a steep rough section pushes us to the absolute limit. Cycling up here is challenging enough but we also witness a few superhuman runners taking on the La Ultra Marathon. For endurance athletes there’s always something bigger, longer, higher, more difficult but this 330km epic must be hard to beat, let alone complete.

Are we nearly there yet?

One of the support drivers for the race, Danny is wild with enthusiasm when he sees us inching up the hill and calls for us to stop. He loads us up with Snickers, energy drink, cheese spread and biscuits but we’re too exhausted to show our true level of appreciation.

We turn through one final hairpin and get a view of the stupa and flags that must surely mark the summit. It’s as much as we can do to pedal the last 200m then we’re at the top. We’ve arrived at the Tanglang La which sits at 5328m and a sign proclaims it as the 2nd highest paved road in the world.

Tanglang La- 5328m

The highest is still claimed to be the Kardang La, north of Leh who’s summit sign show it as 5602m. In reality, modern GPS has shown that it’s only 5359m and there are several higher roads in India and Tibet. This doesn’t stop thousands of t-shirts being sold to motorbikers who have ridden to the top to claim their ‘highest road conquered’ accolade.

On top of the Tanglang La

We’re breathless, dizzy and weak-legged so after stumbling around to take a few photos we wearily swing back onto the bikes and try to get down the mountain again. A rough unpaved road slows down our progress so once it levels off as we arrive at the small encampment of Debring it’s already time for dinner and sleep.

Meal time entertainment in a parachute tent

Because this stretch of the road is closed for 8-9 months of the year, the settlements along it are only temporary. They mainly consist of parachute tents housing dhabas that offer basic food and shelter for travellers and truckers. Once the snow starts falling these will all be packed up and shipped out until next summer. The food, music and hospitality are all largely Tibetan while the language is now Ladaki, so we say ‘Julay’ for hello instead of the ‘Salam’ of Urdu speaking Kashmir or ‘Namaste’ for southern Hindu regions. English is still spoken as a common language, after Hindi for all of India though, and we can usually find someone who can just about understand us.

Herding horses on the road from Debring

After breaking camp by a mirror smooth lake we’re out into the Morei Plains, a high altitude desert that’s a welcome relief after yesterday’s climb and reminiscent of some of the scenery on the Pamir Highway.

Debring

Morei Plains

Pang is another temporary village of tents and stone shelters alongside the claimed ‘Highest Army Transition Camp in the World” and a road workers’ settlement.

Descent into Pang

In the morning we have to push our bikes up the steep bank from the river where we had camped while 30 or so road workers stare at us and ignore my calls asking for their help. After an hour waiting for three pancakes to be made we set off for the next big climb.

Off to work they go. Road repair team, Pang.

Passing through a narrow gorge we then power up a steep hairpin onto a road that is barely more than a ledge carved into the cliff face. Anyone familiar with programmes with titles like “Worlds most Dangerous Roads!” will probably have seen something like this, where the buses are cm away from tumbling over the edge. Overtaking is impossible for most of the way so some luck is required to make it round the blind corners without coming face to face with a speeding tanker.

Right on the ledge.

A candidate for ‘the worst bus journey in the world’

If you hear a horn, pull over. Quickly.

The rugged climb to the top of the 5077m Lachung La takes us 4 hours to complete but we feel much stronger than we did on the Tanglang La. Once again the body’s ability to adapt to altitude surprises us.

Climbing the Lachung La

Lachung La. 5069m

Also surprising is the magnificent view that unfolds as we roll over the top. With everything that we’ve seen so far on this trip I was afraid that some ‘scenery fatigue’ would be creeping in, preventing me from fully enjoying yet another panoramic mountain vista. But the Himalayas are as varied as they are high so each valley and each peak has it’s own characteristic and this one is very special.

Tara descending from the Lachung La

From the warm reds and oranges of the Morei Plains we now have cold greys and blues topped with a permanent blanket of white snow. Below us is a vast bowl that we pick our way down into before hauling up the other side onto the modest summit of the Nakee La.

Nakee La. 4758m

Rolling along for the next 10km it’s hard to keep my eyes on the road as the sheer drop down into the deep valley to our left is so mesmerising. Some stern words from the stoker encourage me to concentrate a bit harder on not getting too close a look and to watch the road ahead.

Traversing from the Nakee La

Then we come to the Gato Loops, 21 hairpins scribbled across the hillside like the calling card of Zorro. With the evening light now reflecting off the rocks around us it’s another wonderful moment that confirms that I’ll never have my fill of mountain scenery. We camp soon after the bottom and spend the evening drinking in our surroundings

The Gato Loops, 21 hairpins dropping 450m

The Gato Loops

Truck on the Gato Loops

We survived the Gato Loops

Camping near the bottom of the Gato Loops

View from the tent

After 20km of an undulating road that follows the river valley we pass through tents and huts at Sarchu then battle a head wind in a wide valley while the road begins to edge upwards again. As things begin to get more difficult we meet a small group of supported cyclists who feed us fudge and advise us to stop there for the night as the road ahead deteriorates further. It’s an enticing prospect as there’s a small lake with a grassy ledge alongside but we haven’t got any food for dinner so have to push on.

Huge landscape, tiny Marcus

Sarchu Playstation

The road from Sarchu

The road becomes rocky and steep with short sections that require every ounce of power from our legs to launch ourselves up and over the obstacles. We ride up small streams where the melt water is pouring down from the high peaks above us and we’re frequently passed by trucks and tankers who have just about enough room to get by without us having to stop. The tankers are ferrying huge stocks of fuel to supply the remote settlements who will probably be cut off for most of the winter.

More testing tracks on the way up the Baralacha La

But on a perilous corner on the narrowest section a traffic jam forms with vehicles waiting impatiently in both directions and no obvious way to sort out the problem. We push our bikes past and leave them to sort out the mess, expecting to hear the crash of a truck falling off the cliff but thankfully it never comes.

Every truck carried this instruction, and it was always obeyed with enthusiasm.

A light snow flurry begins as we approach the last settlement before the top which is now just 200m above us. We decide to stay in a dhaba for the night and hope it’s clearer by the morning. Our shelter is little more than four dry stone walls with a polythene sheet forming the roof but they have plenty of cosy quilts and blankets to keep us warm. I buy some thick and colourful woolen socks just for good measure.

Sleeping at 4700m requires some seriously warm socks

Luckily the morning is clear and the road ahead to the top of the Baralacha La is now visible. It’s only another 5km but continues to be very difficult so we’re glad that we stopped when we did. This is our last major pass on this stretch of road and it’s one of the most beautiful.

Baralacha La, 4850m.

We now have a lot of altitude to lose and the smooth road that rolls off the top is inviting us to get down quickly. As we gather pace and drop through a collection of tents that form Zing Zing Bar, round sweeping bends, over bridges, past road workers, the landscape begins to change.

The road down from the Baralacha La

The stark coloured rocks of the high altitude roads are slowly being smothered by vegetation, waterfalls, streams and lakes. Eventually it gives way to a full alpine view with thick pine tree forests and fields of grazing sheep and goats. Although this area is sometimes cut off in winter there are now permanent dwellings and even a proper hotel or two. It feels like we’ve emerged from the wilderness.

Vegetation starting to appear

Glacier on the way to Keylong

A couple of short climbs keep our legs in check and allow the rims to cool down after the lengthy descent, then we arrive in Keylong, our first proper town since Leh which we left 9 days ago. We gorge ourselves on WiFi and curry.

Hillside opposite Keylong

While pushing the bikes through a section of deep sand on a climb after Keylong the next day we meet a French cyclist who gives ominous news of the road ahead. Our plan is to turn off the main highway towards the Spiti Valley but we’re told that the first 60km of this road will be ‘une mare de nuit’. The dusty road we’re on is no dream either as the fine sand is constantly kicked up into our faces by the passing cars and trucks.

Backpack baby

The steep valley on either side of us has impossibly perched fields and grazing stock that ought to be secured to stop them sliding down the cliff. After the climb the road rolls nicely on with a few undulations until we reach the base of the final climb of the Leh Menali Highway, the Rohtang La. We have the now familiar sight of the road turning into a rough track and ramping upwards but we get our heads down and begin winching up.

The Rohtang La peaks at 3978m and from the top there’s a 2000m descent down into Menali. We’re only taking on the first 5km of this beast of a climb though and turn off at Gramphoo. This is the beginning of the road towards the Spiti Valley.

Sunset just outside Gramphoo

After a short way we spot two small tents with two touring bikes parked alongside. They belong to two Englishmen, Mark and John so we ask if we can join their campsite. Although Mark lives in Tokyo and John in Paris they always manage to meet once a year for a 3 week cycling trip in some beautiful parts of the world. We share advice on where they should go next while they in return offload medicines and food supplies that they no longer need. As the night draws in we can see the headlights of trucks and cars slowly crawling up the pass high above us and the clear skies reveal a dazzling display of stars.

Mark and John

In the morning we face the nightmare road and we quickly realise two things: progress is going to be so slow that we’ll never manage the 63km to the Chandra Tal lake that we were aiming for in one day. Secondly, the boulder strewn road is not helping Kirsty’s sensitive stomach as she’s launched off the saddle and bumps back down again every few seconds. She decides to try and get a lift and we’re fortunate that two cars pull over soon after we’ve stopped. To lighten the load we take off the front panniers and rack bag and they are strapped to the roof of the car while Kirsty is wedged into the back seat. I’ll be continuing on the tandem on my own for this section.

Not tandem friendly roads, or any kind of vehicle.

A lamb being rescued

She really isn’t pedalling on the back!

Kirsty speeds off in the convoy while Tara and I continue tackling the challenging road. One comment from Himalya by Bike is that “..the road is so bad even the goats won’t walk on it…”. In some parts it’s a boulder field and in others we’re attempting to ride up a flowing river. Calling on skills learnt from my mountain biking days I manage to get through most of it while still on the bike but there are just a few soggy foot moments too when the rocks and water come together to throw me off.

“..the road is so bad even the goats won’t walk on it…”

The road became a boulder field

More river than road

We’re both exhausted by early evening so it’s with a great deal of relief that we arrive in Batal, not only because we can rest our battered bodies but also because we can see that Kirsty has arrived safely and is waiting for us. Her journey was no less eventful as her car had to be pulled out of one of the streams by a 4×4 and then suffered a puncture. We eat plenty then bed down in the stone shelter alongside the dhaba.

Dhaba in Batal

In need of a short day we take a detour to Chandra Tal (Moon Lake) and set up camp on a hillside overlooking a number of glaciers tumbling down from high peaks. We share this idyllic spot with just a few horses but it’s hard to fully enjoy the moment. Kirsty has had a rotten couple of days with the sickness returning and compounding her feelings of having had enough of bouncing around on the back of the bike. These roads have been incredibly tough to ride on a double bike but doing it while sick has been even more formidable task.

Camping above Chandra Tal

The priority is for her to get diagnosed and get well while at the same time take a break from cycling.

Early morning near Chandra Tal

Prayer flags, Chandra Tal

Chandra Tal

Kirsty insists that she goes alone to Menali to find a doctor and a hotel and there’s not much time for me to protest before she’s hitched another lift with a family heading in the right direction leaving me and Tara to ride on. We part company for the first time in over a year, aiming to meet up again in Shimla.

Kirsty heads back along the ‘river road’ and on to Menali.

In a melancholic mood Tara and I scramble up the Kunzum La and complete the traditional kora circuit of the buddhist stupas at the top. Dropping down into the Spiti Valley is torturously slow but as many other cyclists had told us, the suffering is worth it to experience such a magnificent landscape.

Scaling the Kunzum La

Scaling the Kunzum La

Stupas form a circuit for the traditional kora at the summit of the Kunzum La

At several points along the road landslides have blocked the way but teams of JCBs seem to always be on hand to get the rocks cleared as quickly as possible so the delays don’t last long.

Pink pebbles line the mountain nalahs

The road was being built before our very eyes

Spiti at last

On my own the bike now gets called a ‘long cycle’ but is still ‘very good!’

Tibetan style houses

The Spiti River is like a mass of interconnecting streams, twisting around each other with no defined main channel. Gulleys are lined with pink rocks and enormous scree slopes threaten to form another blockage in the road or bury whole convoys of trucks without a trace.

If the land is flat then crops are grown. Lots of potatos and wheat.

The Spiti River

There are several monasteries and nunneries with many perched high on the mountainside to give inspiration and solitude to the inhabitants’ meditations.

Key Gompa (monastery)

While taking a rest day in Kaza we catch a lift up to Key Gompa and witness the morning prayers. It’s a fascinating experience with rythmic chanting accompanied by the occasional beat of the drum, ringing of bells and blasts from a horn. As it progresses various accessories are added by the monks, from coloured ponchos to conical hats finishing with an elaborate gold fan to form a tiara round their heads. Even some of the monks seem to be finding it hard to keep a straight face when they look at each other.

Morning prayers in Key Gompa.

Prayer wheels, Key Gompa

In Kaza we collect our Inner Line Permits from the well hidden Additional Deputy Commissioner’s office. It costs nothing but allows us to continue on the road ahead that comes very close to the Tibetan border. If we manage to cross the deep gorge, swim the river, evade the Indian army, cross into Tibet, evade the Chinese army and start an uprising then they’ll know who we are.

I also manage to contact Kirsty who is on a course of antiamoebic drugs and beginning to feel better. I buy some of the same as although my bouts of illness haven’t been as severe as Kirsty’s, it does keep coming back in a similar cycle so I’m keen to get rid of it for good too.

Shopkeeper and son

Shichling, Population 87+2

After Kaza we spend a night in the dorms of Tabo monastery and join the monks for their morning prayers. It’s not just us that are yawning given the 6am start, some of the younger monks are only 6 years old and struggling to stay awake. Founded in 996 AD this is the oldest continuously serving buddhist monastery in the Himalayas and there are some incredibly vivid murals preserved in the gloomy rooms of the mud-walled buildings.

Tabo Bridge

Stupa at Tabo Monastery

Ancient murals, Tabo Monastery

A rare treat of 30km of paved road takes us to Sumdo, the checkpoint for the Inner Line Permit where we enjoy some samosas in the army canteen. The soldier who looks after us while we eat describes the land 2km to the east as “..Tibet, captured by China..”. The communities on this side of the closed border include families that have been divided by the Chinese occupation. Their relatives are on the other side of the range of mountains right next to us but it’s unlikely they’ll ever be able to cross over to see them ever again.

On the way to Sumdo

The road gets worse again, damaged by yet more landslides. There are plenty of men and women kicking stones around in an attempt to improve it but it looks to be a slow process not helped by the fact that they also need to look after their children in what must be one of the most unsuitable workplace creches we’ve ever seen. The average wage for this job is just 300-400 rupees (£3-4) per day.

Landslide repairs

The hardworking hard workers

An arduous climb takes us to the pretty town of Nako which clusters around a manmade lake and is surrounded by fields and orchards. Apart from this oasis the landscape around us is elemental, just rock and water on a scale that is hard to comprehend.

The climb up to Nako

Nako

Somehow an orchard grows amongst the vast slabs of dry rock

Down from Nako we follow the river again. Through Dubling we pass tin shacks with wood being stockpiled in preparation for trying to survive what must be a very harsh winter. Just after the turn off for Pooh (no bears seen) we’re beckoned into a roadside booth at an army base, expecting a routine passport and permit check but in fact getting a cup of tea and some fresh pears. The soldier explains that it’s just a nice gesture they offer for passing travellers.

Kinnaur characters near Pooh.

We spend the night in ‘The Little Chef’ in Spillow. Sadly they don’t have an Olympic Breakfast but while we eat pirantha and fried eggs in the morning we sit and chat with Karl who we’d crossed paths with a few times over the last two days. He’s travelled through many parts of the world by bike and at the age of 68 is still hungry for more adventures. Provided you still have the desire there’s no reason to stop doing what you love just because you’re not as young as you used to be.

We seem to be on the wrong road when we leave Spillow. Not only is it smooth with asphalt, there are two lanes and a white line painted down the middle. This is the first ‘proper’ road we’ve seen for several hundred km. It lasts for a glorious 20km before the more familiar rocks and sand return.

We leave the ‘Inner Line Permit’ area as the road turns west and away from the Tibetan border. Dropping down further we see more trees, more colour, cows, saris, hear the sound of hacking and spitting and the temperature rises. We’re entering ‘India’ again.

The Indians love world records, whether they’re true or not

A million tons of rock dangling over the road

The chocolate brown Sutlej river rages below us, picking up tributaries from the mountains and gathering pace. There are huge hydroelectric plants built into the hillside. 1/4 of India gets its electricity from Himachal Province thanks to water and gravity.

A confluence of blue into the brown Sutlej River

Enormous Hydro Power Plant

A new power plant is being constructed south of the village of Chilling but drilling for the pipelines last summer caused a landslide that destroyed the main road below. The resulting diversion is still in place and involves an extra 15km and a 600m high steep climb which we take on begrudgingly. On the way up we pass troops of monkeys and verges filled with Marijuana then the small reward is a view back down to the valley below, where we should have been riding.

Roadside herb garden

My front brake cable had snapped while I was trying to tighten it up earlier in the morning, thankfully while stationary and thankfully before the long fast descent into Tapri that we now enjoy.

Enjoying our bonus climb

Finding some WiFi I manage to catch up with Kirsty who is on the decline again and still in Menali. The course of pills had only had a temporary effect and she’s feeling worse than ever. Our rendez-vous in Shimla can’t come soon enough.

We’re in the Kinnaur Valley now which is a road builder’s nightmare. Near vertical cliffs leave no option but to carve a notch in the rock which is our pathway through this stunning valley. Trucks and buses squeeze under the overhanging rock with nothing but a slim armco barrier or the occasional concrete block to catch them if they get too close to the edge.

Kinnaur Valley road, an amazing engineering feat

Kinnaur valley road

Kinnaur valley road, mind your head

At Jeori, we decide over an ice cream to hitch a lift up to Sarahan where we stay in the basic dorm of the Hindu Bhimikhali Temple. A snoring Swiss backpacker makes for a restless night’s sleep that is brought to an abrupt end by the morning prayers being broadcast at high volume from 4am. But we’d planned an early start anyway and hit the road at 6:00am as we want to make good progress today.

Too lazy to ride another bonus climb to Sarahan

Bhimikhali Temple

The morning sunlight creeps down the mountainside as we plunge back to Jeori for a quick breakfast. Then onwards and downwards for most of the morning. The roads are busy with vehicular, pedestrian and bovine traffic and as we pass through each hectic town the utmost concentration is needed to make it through safely.

Early morning descent from Sarahan

By lunchtime we’ve covered 70km and stop to refuel and rehydrate. The air is hot, humid and thick with oxygen. We can almost drink the air and both Tara and I feel stronger than ever having been up high for so long.

More faces of Kinnaur

Which is just as well as the afternoon will be spent climbing up to Narkanda. A winding road for 37km that will take us from 900m back to 2800m. It begins in dense jungle and finishes in fresh pine forests steepening up towards the top with a broken road surface and curious monkeys watching from the branches of trees.

Helpful road sign on the long climb to Narkanda

Parking for bikes and beef

We arrive in the ski station town over 12 hours and 110km after leaving Sarahan at dawn and treat ourselves to a smart hotel and a huge dinner.

It’s then a pleasant ride along an alpine ridge line towards Shimla. Himachal is the fruit basket of India and it’s apple season at the moment. The roads are packed with hundreds of trucks laden with crates of apples picked from the vast orchards that line the slopes below us.

Apples by the truckload

Candy floss?

Proud owner of this well groomed yak

Battling with increasing volumes of traffic we finally arrive in Shimla and make our way up to the town centre on the ridge of a hill. Famous for being the summer capital of India during the British Raj, the entire government used to move from Delhi to this hill station to escape the heat from March to October. It has the feel of an English Spa town with the grand Gaity Theatre, a provincial church and a library that wouldn’t look out of place in Cheltenham.

St Michael’s Church, Shimla

The Viceroyal Lodge, Shimla. 1/5th of the world’s population used to be ruled from here

This is the end of our Himalayan odyssey, since leaving Srinigar we’ve ridden over 1500km and climbed somewhere in the region of 30,000m. We celebrate with the luxuries of pizza and beer while on the streets there are celebrations for Lord Krishna’s birthday.

Krishna celebrations

Krishna celebrations

Mass cooking for the celebrations

But the celebrations for us at least are slightly muted as there is still one member of the party missing. Kirsty was not feeling well enough to make the 8 hour journey from Menali so is waiting another day before heading across. It means she misses saying goodbye to Tara who has a flight to catch from Delhi in a couple of days. Tara leaves Shimla in the morning on the tiny ‘Toy Train’ that winds its way down to the plains far below. Her journey now will follow ours in reverse as she flies into Bishkek then takes on the Pamir Highway. After that it’s Cairo to Cape Town early in 2016 (www.followmargopolo.com). Hopefully we’ll ride together again but who knows where or when.

A temple with houses squeezed around it, Shimla

Shimla knitting group

After 10 days apart Kirsty finally arrives by taxi that evening. I’m shocked by how gaunt and frail she looks. I think we both underestimated how serious amoebic dysentery could be and I can only imagine how awful the last week has been for her. She’s on yet another course of drugs prescribed by the doctor in Menali and so far she’s making good progress in that she can walk more than a few steps and eat, more than can be said for a few days ago.

Filling up at the Wake and Bake café, Shimla

Every kind of fruit available!

Head waiter at The Indian Coffee House, Shimla

Shimla provides a comfortable place to stay, good places to eat and monkeys for entertainment so we decide to stay for as long as necessary to get Kirsty back up to strength.

Baby monkey being groomed

Don’t get too close

Dancers at the Shimla Apple Festival

Dancers at the Shimla Apple Festival

Dancers at the Shimla Apple Festival

As we were warned, India shouldn’t be underestimated. Every day we’ve had moments where we have to stand and stare with a look of total awe at a landscape that verges on the surreal. But with the beauty comes the beast and carrying on such arduous riding while sick has taken a heavy toll. Physically and emotionally drained from the experience I should have recognised that we needed more rest but instead we pushed on. From this there is a lesson I hope to have learnt, particularly for Kirsty’s sake.

As Billy Ocean once said..

Yes you can!

Kinnaur hat