High in the Hi­malayas

The chal­lenge of cy­cling in the foothills of the In­dian Hi­malayas is re­warded with more memorable lo­cal en­coun­ters than can be had from a seat on a bus.

Lonely Planet Magazine (US) - - Journal - by MATT SWAINE @Mat­tSwaine illustration by MARC MARTIN @mar­c­mar­tinillo

I RE­ALLY HAD TO AD­MIRE THE BUS DRIVER: the way he greeted my hor­ror-stricken face, which was in­verted in his wind­shield, with such a sweet smile. Sec­onds ear­lier, my bike’s han­dle­bars had been snared by a low-slung power line, and the bike cat­a­pulted from the bus’s roof rack. Sit­ting cross-legged on the roof, I watched in dis­be­lief as my bike now dan­gled above a rut­ted moun­tain pass while we con­tin­ued our de­scent into the val­ley.

Hang­ing from the roof of the bus, I ham­mered on the wind­shield. “Stop … my bike!” Un­fazed, the driver calmly ne­go­ti­ated the nar­row moun­tain pass in re­verse un­til he was po­si­tioned un­der my stranded steed.

I had cy­cled up the road to Manikaran three days be­fore in tor­ren­tial rain and hardly no­ticed the prayer flags, bunt­ing, ca­bles and ban­ners that were slung above the road. I was too busy try­ing to ne­go­ti­ate the land­slides, wheel-suck­ing mud and covert man traps mas­querad­ing as pud­dles. Dan­gling from the power line, the bike was now au­di­bly fizzing with the threat of elec­tro­cu­tion.

“Do not worry. I have pro­tec­tive gloves!” the driver said as he waived a pair of la­tex kitchen gloves above his head. He clam­bered onto the roof of the bus and lifted the bike free from the ca­bling to a riot of ap­plause from the pas­sen­gers who had gath­ered to watch. I sus­pected that this wasn’t his first ae­rial res­cue.

I had been sim­i­larly res­cued when I ar­rived at New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi In­ter­na­tional Air­port four weeks ear­lier and was star­tled to find my bike cir­cling the air­port carousel with a buck­led rear wheel, hav­ing been thrown from the air­craft with the rest of the lug­gage. But in Delhi’s cy­cle mar­ket I had met an in­cred­i­ble ar­ti­san who whipped off his san­dals and straight­ened my wheels to per­fec­tion with his bare feet.

“Wait­ing in a rest stop af­ter a par­tic­u­larly long as­cent, I met a mo­torist hold­ing out a bunch of flow­ers and invit­ing me to drink chai and talk cricket.”

IT HAD TAKEN THREE DAYS OF CY­CLING NORTH out of the cap­i­tal to catch my first glimpse of snow-crested moun­tains and feel the cool Hi­malayan air. It was a wel­come relief from the sear­ing heat of the fume-choked plains, where sa­cred cows ru­mi­nated in the slow lane as trucks tore past.

The heat of any day was matched by the warmth of my wel­come. Cy­clists on sin­gle-speed bone shak­ers would pedal along­side, smile and en­gage in a light-hearted race. Slam­ming on my brakes to avoid a wed­ding party one morn­ing, I was asked to dance with the groom, then spent the af­ter­noon as guest of honor. And a few days later, wait­ing in a rest stop af­ter a par­tic­u­larly long as­cent, I met a mo­torist hold­ing out a bunch of flow­ers and invit­ing me to drink chai and talk cricket.

My first des­ti­na­tion was Shimla, the sum­mer home of the Bri­tish Em­pire where the gov­ern­ment and their fam­i­lies would de­camp to es­cape the heat. As I rounded a cor­ner one day there was a rather in­con­gru­ous Bri­tish church, cast adrift from the age of Em­pire in the mid­dle of the moun­tain­ous green of the state of Hi­machal Pradesh. Af­ter fol­low­ing the nar­row-gauge train line that leads into Shimla, I was con­fronted with what could al­most be, in places, an English mar­ket town.

It’s 145 miles from there to Manikaran, where the live power ca­ble in­ci­dent put me off buses for good. By the time I had hauled my bike an­other 56 miles to Manali, I was tak­ing the con­tours in stride and was ready for my big­gest chal­lenge yet.

The Ro­htang Pass on the Manali to Leh high­way takes you to an el­e­va­tion of 13,051 feet. Only open dur­ing the sum­mer months, the pass sep­a­rates the Kullu and La­haul Val­leys. Its name trans­lates as “pile of corpses,” a ref­er­ence to those who have lost their lives try­ing to cross in bad weather.

But on the day I ar­rived, the road was packed with a con­voy of tourist buses, bring­ing trav­el­ers from the south high into the moun­tains to get their first glimpse of snow. They cheer­fully alighted at the road­side stalls to rent out­landish fur coats, walk­ing poles and hats that were clearly essen­tial to tack­ling iso­lated patches of dish­wa­ter-gray snow. Hun­dreds of day-trip­pers, look­ing like es­capees from Nar­nia, threw oblig­a­tory snow­balls and at­tempted to fash­ion ice and slush into snow­men and igloos.

Af­ter a cou­ple of hours’ as­cent, I found the road blocked by a wall of snow, with no idea how high I was. It cer­tainly wasn’t the top of the pass, but it was a gen­uinely sat­is­fy­ing way to end a climb. I rolled back down the hill, fi­nally over­tak­ing the tourist buses that were busily re­turn­ing their arc­tic gear on the way home.

THE DAY-TRIP­PING HIGH JINKS WERE IN STARK con­trast to the spir­i­tual aura that hangs over the hill­side city of Dharam­sala, home to the Dalai Lama, a few days’ ride away. Its main street is lined with large, col­or­ful prayer wheels, and monks mak­ing their way to tem­ple, weav­ing between trav­el­ers who’ve come for med­i­ta­tion, en­light­en­ment and keenly priced banana pan­cakes.

That week His Ho­li­ness would be bless­ing thou­sands of pil­grims who stood pa­tiently in line for a mo­ment in his pres­ence. I joined in for the novelty of meet­ing a spir­i­tual celebrity, but the warmth of his eyes gen­uinely moved me. I walked into the near­est bar­ber’s and had my head shaved. It may have been a mere fash­ion state­ment, but the sen­sa­tion of the wind brush­ing my scalp on a fast de­scent out of the Hi­malayas the fol­low­ing day felt truly spir­i­tual and made the re­turn to Delhi some­thing of a pil­grim­age.

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