I couldn’t believe it, ahead lay one of the most spectacular roads on the planet and the two backpackers I was chatting with were going to travel along it overnight. The vastness of the Himalayas would be passing them by in the darkness while they caught 40 winks in the back of a taxi. How could they not want to see those mountains? Experience the death defying roads clinging to a cliff edge? Feel the oxygen dwindle on the crest of each 5000m pass? Admittedly my surprise was matched by their reaction when they found out we were riding it on our tandem. Each to their own as the saying goes.
Cycling through India was always going to be a love and hate experience. We braced ourselves for hectic traffic, terrible roads, stifling heat and a complimentary side order of dysentery with every curry. But on the flip side we hoped to experience a vibrant, ever changing culture spread across a multitude of different landscapes. It’s fair to say we got a bucket load of all of the above.
After the crowded streets of Delhi, we took a train over the baked plains of Punjab and headed for the cool of the hills in Kashmir and Ladakh. True to form, our parting gift from the capital was a nasty dose of Delhi belly so as we hauled the bike high into the mountains from Srinigar we had half an eye on the views and the other half on the lookout for rocks to duck behind. As described by Jonathan in his blog, even with a clean bill of health this road is a challenge but on a heavy tandem and a crew running on half power things take on a new level of difficulty.
But there’s so much to take in that the aching muscles could easily be forgotten. At every turn a completely new view unfolded on a scale that left us feeling absolutely insignificant. Different colours, strange rock formations, snow covering the enormous peaks. Our road deteriorated to a rubble strewn ledge in places with just enough room for trucks to rumble past. At other times we had pristine tarmac so could only blame the high altitude for our slow progress.
After Srinigar came Leh, a small slice of Tibet that the Chinese have not been able to get to. The road kept climbing higher and we found temporary refuges in the form of parachute tents offering instant noodles and sweet tea to keep us going. This road is only passable for a few months before winter takes hold again so our arrival had to be timed just right. We then turned towards the Spitti valley where it was hard to determine if we were on a road or a riverbed. Patience and effort took us into an area of the country where the culture of these mountain communities had been preserved for hundreds of years.
The mountains were spectacularly peaceful but once we’d reached Shimla we dropped back down into the madness of the lowlands. Now it was hard to keep up with the rate of change from one province to the next and even between each town there were huge differences. We spent one night in a Sikh temple, the next with a Christian evangelist before dancing with an elephant on the banks of the Ganges for Lord Ganesha’s birthday.
On the road we’d be met with big grins as swarms of scooters crowded round us taking ‘snaps’ and asking for “just one selfie please sir, please!”. They were a much bigger risk than the slow moving cows or colourful tuktuks.
We had a period of respite in Nepal, which felt like an oasis of calm by comparison. As soon as we crossed the border the motorised traffic almost disappeared to be replaced by bikes, pedestrians and ox carts. The country was in the middle of a fuel crisis that meant that the few vehicles that usually travelled on the road we were on were parked up waiting for fresh supplies. It made our journey from West to East much easier than expected and a far cry from the bedlam of its enormous neighbour.
But we hadn’t finished with India and after an extended stay in Kathmandu that gave us time to sort out kit and make much needed repairs to our trusty Vulpine jerseys we emerged into Assam.
Latched onto the back wheels of two German cyclists we had met we were now racing past tea plantations over huge, hot flat plains. It was as much as we could do to persuade our lead-out men to make a slight detour up to Bhutan for an unauthorised afternoon in this tiny Himalayan Kingdom. The border seemed to be open to all so we snuck through without visas and managed to lose a game of football to some monks before we were politely asked to cross back into India.
As Manchester differs from Newcastle, the North East of India is very different from the North West. We were entering into the tribal regions where each village seemed to have a different language and it’s own customs. Two Brits arriving on a tandem was a significant event that drew in an instant crowd.
Riding Into Manipur we felt like we’d already crossed into South East Asia as the jungle closed in around the road and the people’s features changed. These were some of the kindest communities we’d encountered as well as some of the poorest but we were welcomed into the homes of village chiefs, pastors and several families. Although our stomachs had pretty much recovered we were still not able to tolerate the liberal use of King Chillies that made the food we found in this region largely inedible. Sometimes people can be too generous.
What we love about travelling by bike is the time it gives us to take in our surroundings and the way you can see everything change slowly. A taxi ride may be quicker but we’d have left with a few snapshots and missed out on the bigger picture. The bike allows you to get fully immersed in the sights, sounds, tastes and smells of each region, province and country. Overloading the senses is what India is all about and admittedly that can be overwhelming at times. But it’s such a huge and diverse country that to say “I hate India” after getting ill in Delhi would have been like saying “I hate Europe” just because we had a bad croissant in Paris. Give it time, be patient and it’s a great place to cycle through, and if you don’t like one part then ride a while longer as there’s bound to be something different round the next corner.