I spent a serene ten days in Naggar, gorging on apples and strolling the hill trails, but once sufficiently mentally and physically rested, the King and I grew itchy feet once again. We were hesitatingly eager to tackle the challenge that lay ever northward. And what a challenge it was to be!
How does one go about describing THE highlight of an already highlight-packed fourteen-month bicycle tour and indeed, a certain highlight of a 26-year life?
The now famous route from Manali to Leh is an absolutely amazing road, made all the more amazing by the fact that it exists at all, considering the seemingly impenetrable terrain and extreme climatic conditions that it has to overcome.
Starting at 1,800m in backpacker-central, Manali, it snakes its way heavenwards, eventually gaining entry into the land of the Gods; The Himalayas. Through these barren lands it travels, fiercely rising, gently dropping and eventually peaking out at a gasping 5,328m before resting 1,800m lower in backpacker-central II, Leh.
This epic 485km length of rocks, mud, water, sand and a little bit of tar is plied by all sorts during these summer months when the entire country south of the greatest of all ranges is drowned by the life-giving and life-taking monsoon.
Fully-loaded Royal Enfields, manned by foreigners and young Indian tourists alike, hoon along the bumpy roads at scary speeds with their spare petrol sloshing about in containers and everything else rattling like a can full of nuts and bolts. Their pilots, always intent on getting there, seem to put the emphasis in ‘Manali to Leh’ on the ‘Leh’ rather than the ‘to.’ As they set out on grueling days of eight hours behind the handlebars, staring at the road pass beneath their wheels, the bike continuously punching into their spine, I could not help but feel that they were missing the point somewhat and may get more out of the journey by riding two four-hour days instead. It is amazing how a motor and ease of propulsion creates such a different mindset.
Similar express vehicles include the many buses and jeeps that endeavor to complete the route in a blurry two days. Their passengers flop out at the roadside dhabas for a chai stop looking weary and uninspired – looking in fact, like they have been beaten up by the inside of a jeep while looking at the world through a forty square centimetre pane of glass for the last seven hours.
Bulky, dark green military trucks hammer down the middle of the road from base to base – so long to anyone who should get in their way.
Without a doubt though, the heart and lifeblood of this road is ‘Tata.’ These enormous trucks, carrying fuel, livestock and other supplies, spew out such a steady stream of black fumes that even at 5,000m, it can be hard to find a breath of fresh air. So robotic are they, that it sometimes comes as a surprise when a driver – invariably a bearded, turbaned Punjabi, famous for their reputation as being world-class truckies – pushes the door open and jumps to the earth below. It has a brain!
And at the very bottom of the highway hierarchy are the bicycles, of which there were more than I had ever seen on one road. Some were fully-laden long term tourers, but most were part of a supported package tour, the largest group of which I met consisted of fifteen Englishmen and one woman. For a few thousand quid, they have the luxury of being led and trailed by support jeeps who set up camp, prepare meals, provide a lifeline to any tourer that has had enough of pedaling for one day and most importantly; carry their onerous luggage, leaving them to ‘glide’ through the mountains un-laden. And more power to them for doing something adventurous with their two weeks annual leave or indeed, with their retirement – some of these guys were old!
One thing is for sure; there were not too many solo cyclists, for this would be a tough and lonely road without some solid support morale. It was fortunate for me then, that one day prior to leaving Naggar, I met a young, cycling Swiss couple who were heading in the same direction. I had also received an email from my old mate Hans, who had abandoned Pakistan and was booked on a bus to Manali with the intention of jumping back in the saddle and heading to Leh.
The four of us came together in Vashisht, a cosy, heavily-touristed village containing hot springs, high on a hill just outside Manali. With Hans being from the German-speaking part of Switzerland and Gerry and Marta from the French part, it meant that our common language was English, which as a typical monolingual Australian, suited me just fine.
Hans had not turned the pedals over for a couple of months and was keen to get back into it, so he decided to leave a day earlier than the rest of us and take it slowly while we caught up.
We would never see Hans again.
The road begins with 51kms of nothing but up to Rohtang La at 3,978m.
Previously in my travels, whenever I would arduously fight gravity and push myself up the ‘hills’ of SE Asia, I would feel as though I was owed something, namely, a relaxing, effortless downhill. What is more, I expected to be paid soon! But, when cycling over 2,000m vertically in a single hit and ultimately on to what is the second highest motorable road in the world, one is not owed anything for a very long time.
And so it was that the three of us, Gerry, Marta and myself, on a hot, sunny day, oh so slowly began what would be an oh so slow and oh so extraordinary journey.
Gerry, born in to a Bombay orphanage and fortuitously adopted at the age of eight months by a couple from the south of Switzerland, cuts a double-take inducing image. Skinny and dark, he has wide, dancing eyes and wears a full, bushy, black beard that has not met with a razor since he departed Switzerland fifteen months ago. Running down his back are thick, lumpy dreadlocks, one of which has been with him for twelve years and extends down to his ankles. He subsequently has to tie it up and tuck it into the back pocket of his cycling jersey when on the bike; for fear that it will end up a part of his drive train. Wearing his dark goggles and 1980s helmet constantly askew atop his head, he is a source of fascination for locals and tourists alike who try to place him as an Indian sadhu, a devout Muslim, a western bicycle tourist or an overgrown kid dressed up as Luke Skywalker in Return of the Jedi.
No less fascinating to the eye, at least to the Indians, is Marta. Born in El Salvador before migrating to Switzerland with her family at the age of two, she has become accustomed to having camera phones shoved in her face by obnoxious Indian men who want a ‘snap’ of a Caucasian woman to show to their friends. Unlike Gerry who has the odd cycling style of pedaling really hard for a minute, then stopping for a minute, Marta is an Energizer Bunny on the bike and just keeps going and going and going, often finding herself waiting on Gerry and I.
They are both passionate, aspiring world cyclists, for whom I imagine travelling as a couple, is both a blessing and a curse. The regular squabbles that I was witness to were made bearable by the fact that they were all in French, meaning I had no idea of the trivial matter that had initiated them. They were always resolved in the end though and I commend all of the lovers who can keep it together under the stresses and strains of not only travelling in the third world, but doing so on a bicycle.
Not once in over a year on the road had I ever cycled a full day and managed an average of less than 10km/hr. It was now to become the standard, beginning on day one when we made it a mere 35kms before deciding that Rohtang La was definitely a two-day job. We pitched out tents beside those of three Dutch cyclists with whom we had dinner and like typical bicycle touring geeks, compared kilometres. The Dutch couple were sitting pretty with 34,000 under their belts.
I unzipped the tent early the next morning to see a soft carpet of mist over the valley we had just about emerged from. Above me though, a thick, dark sky seemed to move in and hang over the pass, patiently waiting for us.
In the weeks and kilometres approaching the point I was now at, as I cycled through the foothills over some terribly rocky, bone-rattling roads, I seriously questioned the ability of my racks, bags, wheels and components to stand up to this kind of punishment if it continued much longer (naturally there was no questioning the King Brown himself). When the ascent to Rohtang La began in earnest, I was certain that everything was going to be destroyed.
The series of winding switchbacks, which sees plenty of rain, was a chunky soup consisting of little more than mud and rocks as well as the occasional cracked portion of tar; remnants of an actual road that existed many monsoons ago. Battling maintenance crews lined the strip of mud and beneath the rain, endeavored to keep the road in some kind of working order. All their maintenance kit consisted of though was shovels and more rocks.
When we finally ambled to the top, tired, cold and wet and forced our way through the traffic crowding the pass, consisting mainly of Indian tourists eager to get their first glimpse of snow, we felt like we had achieved something. We had successfully tackled the first of four major passes and were at just under 4,000m. Only 1,300 to go, right?