With the new found flexibility and endless possibilities that NOT cycling to Thailand brings also comes confusion. After months of chasing miles, hitting targets and always with one eye on the overall distance covered I now feel like an animal who has just been let out of captivity into the wild.
Riding in the Indian mountains was tough but there are very few places I’d rather be. I still feel there is plenty of cycling left in me and so the latest plan is to ride into Nepal and to Kathmandu! Our new route should total approximately 1750km. Tom is ready to have a crack at the mountains too but Nye had already arranged to make his way back to the capital in order to dedicate his time to help the street children of Delhi.
So… Tom and I said our goodbyes to Nye in the foyer of the Valley View hotel in Manali. He is to volunteer for a month with the Salaam Balak Trust for which I have nothing but respect and admiration. We will all meet again in November for a final hoorah but it means that the descent into Manali after five days flogging ourselves in the Himalayas was to be the last few kilometres we covered side by side on bicycles. It was emotional bidding farewell to him (as emotional as it gets between three dudes) as we’d been living in an insanely close proximity for nearly five months and have shared so many experiences and visited places to which there is a good chance we may never return. Good luck brother.
Tom and I set off the following day amidst the brilliant green Himalayan foothills. The road ran alongside a river with steep rock-faces to either side towards the town of Mandi. We stayed the night at a homestay on the river and our host took us rafting on the ‘rapids’ – this involved us and a few Indian children paddling uncoordinatedly up and down a (quite calm) 200m stretch of water. Nonetheless, it was a beautiful setting and we had some delicious food afterwards. Before hitting the road the next day we were encouraged to negotiate the rapids once more and were charged with finding the owner’s son a job in England.
Nye, who cycled this route to get back to Delhi, told us to watch out for monkeys and sure enough we stumbled across about 20 of them on the roadside, watching the Indian trucks roar past.
Later that day, we got caught short in the hills and found a hotel only after the sun had set. The hotel was completely empty and rundown but the owner sensed we didn’t have many options so priced his tired room accordingly. Too tired to find a camp spot we submitted.
Tom had only use of two gears but if anything this made him cycle faster so I was in no rush to set about repairing them. Weirdly, I suffered the same problem about 40km short of Dharamshala but opted to drag the bike up the hills and fix both bikes when we were settled at the end of the day. The gear cables on both bikes had become frayed and jammed in the shifters – strange forces were at work.
A 10km climb the next day took us to McLeod Ganj, where the Tibetan government in exile is located and where many Tibetans settled who fled their country after the Chinese invaded (or liberated? Probably not).
Here we spent a few days learning about the Chinese occupation in Tibet, drinking coffee and searching for enlightenment. The Dalai Lama was in town when we arrived but the news that we were arriving obviously didn’t reach him in time. We did get to see the largest cow on the planet, however.
The town is now very tourist-centred but still retains a strong Tibetan feel. The buddhist monk count was through the roof, understandably. In nearby Tashi Jong there was a smaller Tibetan refugee community with a spectacular monastery commanding centre stage in the hills.
At this point Tom and I temporarily split up – he nursing an illness and considering his options for the next month and I on the search for an old Tibetan contact of my mum’s (who I found!).
We agreed to meet in Rishikesh in about a week and so in the meantime I headed towards Shimla, the summer capital of the Raj. With a renewed eagerness to camp again I found a secluded beach on a river and whittled away a few hours playing in the water.
Just as I was about to pitch up I was beckoned by a man on an overlooking cliff for some tea. One thing led to another and despite him not speaking a word of English I spent the night in his stone-walled hut. We ate Dahl and rice together and talked at length, only in different languages.
The next day I received a text from Tom :
“is pathankot the right direction? I seem to be heading that way.”
As you can probably guess, it is not the right way. It is in completely the wrong direction. You’ll be glad to know he’s back on course now.
After some unreasonably steep hills I arrived in Shimla, capital of Himachal Pradesh and spent the day wandering around this old British hill station. There are monkeys everywhere, swinging acrobatically on the telephone cables overhead and menacingly eyeing up passers by. They’ve lost any fear they once had of humans and a poor schoolgirl had her lunch snatched from her in the middle of the street. Next, they came for me. When visiting the temple to Hindu monkey god, Hanuman, a little bugger ripped my sunglasses from the top of my head! I stood helpless whilst an Indian gent coaxed the monkey with food which thankfully made the aggressor lose interest in my Oakleys.
The monkeys do add to the charm and the views are cracking but I now must push on towards Rishikesh where unless he’s enlisted the services of Dr. Michele Ferrari, I might be waiting for Tom for some time…