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.
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.