Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Spiti Valley

When organising this cycle tour in Himachel Pradesh's Spiti Valley – a remote Himalayan area of northern India on the border with Tibet – Steve asked me if he should bring bike lights.

"Well, I try never to ride at night," I explained. "In fact, I've only ever had to use my lights once in the last 4,900 kilometres."

It was a good thing Steve decided to take his lights anyway: on just as many nights as not we found ourselves struggling along poorly maintained and totally deserted dirt roads, often covered in ice and snow, fighting away the cold wrapped up in almost all our clothing and desperately searching for somewhere - anywhere - that could provide us with a bed.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

I'd just got back from my crazy dry run of Himachel Pradesh and had a day and a half to prepare for Steve's arrival. My triumphal return to the dusty Indian capital marked the one year anniversary of my travels so far (in honour of which I changed the title of my blog) and I celebrated this great feat of overland locomotion with a last desperate bid for a Pakistani tourist visa.

Unfortunately, I ruined my chances by greeting the high commission official with "Namaste".

"I'm not a Hindu, I'm a Muslim! You must say 'Salaam'!" I was told angrily before being turned away.

Giving up on this I rode out on my bike to meet Steve at the airport. The traffic was quite light in the night-plunged city, but the road heading out to the terminal turned out to be a violently busy elevated tollway (which is free for me: big signs declare that those exempt from payment include the President of India and cyclists).

So it was with some disguised relief that I discovered that Steve, having arrived as one of the few passengers to have his luggage not lost by the airline, had forgotten to bring his front wheel's skewer, forcing us to take a taxi back into town.

Steve's troubles continued when he realised he'd left his GoreTex jacket (and only weatherproof item of clothing) on the plane, and then dropped half his D-lock onto the street below our hotel balcony. Although it was lucky he didn't kill anyone, Steve got an early lesson in Indian sociology when the useless U-bend of metal comprising his lock was stolen in the 20 seconds it took him to run downstairs.

Although I certainly can't complain about Steve's bike woes, having just discovered my pannier rack's bolt had sheered off inside my bike frame. The rack would continue to disintegrate over the course of our journey.

Sleeping away the train ride in a state of fear that all our stuff would get nicked, we missed the dead-boring scenery on the way to Kalka. I spent some of the time watching Starship Troopers on my ipod (through my new shaped earphones that give me the sense of being aurally penetrated), part of the 12 GB of new data Steve brought along with his good self from various well-wishers at home, and I had to fend off curious railway workers eager to witness the reputed rampant sex scenes of Hollywood films.

After missing our original narrow-gauge toy-train to Shimla and getting our tickets transferred to the next one (I'm used to it - just getting to this stage involved canceling ten-person-journeys worth of tickets before hitting upon the right permutation) we were on our way up the mountains to my old stomping ground.

The afternoon spent in this idyllic mountain city was far from ideal. Stress levels remained high even after we'd discovered our bikes hadn't been ‘disappeared’ but were amazingly delivered to the platform on the later train specified. Finding a bus that would take us as far up towards the Spiti Valley as possible was our first priority, as was fixing Steve's front brakes, the current state of which precluded him from being even remotely mobile.

The rest of the afternoon was spent in the primal search for foods and phones and fighting against the mosh-pit like crush of thousands of Indian pilgrims of tourism on Shimla's curving main bazaar, an experience akin to swimming up a waterfall or mining gold with a fork.

This third leg of our frantic transportation to the beginning of our now almost mythical cycle tour was by far the worst. We could sense it coming while standing in the urine-soaked bus depot while hastily cramming down take-away chowmein before our bus could depart without our bikes firmly ocky-strapped to the roof. The journey itself I found fine, learning afterwards I'd slept most of the way through it, but Steve bore the traumatic scares of its wild ride upon our alightment in Rekong Peo at 3:30am.

These were scares of sleep deprivation - after letting him expunge himself of them amongst wandering cows, random rubbish and an insouciant dero I found him a hotel in which he could complete his rest in warmth before the midday checkout time.

The rest of the day was spent absorbed in the horror of Indian bureaucracy as we failed to book a return train ticket to Delhi but eventually succeeded in gaining permits to enter the Spiti Valley. Sadly, this ordeal took several hours, being walked into and out of offices, having documents stamped, signed and ignored and clinging to the skirts of nonchalantly powerful town officials, until we found ourselves with miss-matched permits at 4pm with 60 kilometres still to ride. On the other hand, we had cutely managed to procure matching woolen jumpers for this experience, enveloping ourselves in the illusory layer of invincibility these garments bestowed.

The fun began immediately. We were in a deep valley, negotiating a road scalloped from a vertical cliff-face, surrounded by towering Himalayan protuberances, the sun setting behind a few whispy clouds clinging lugubriously to their peaks. As it got dark we were plunged into that type of despair reserved for riding along a dangerous road at night in the Himalayas without a definite bed at the end of it, but, as usually happens, when it stopped getting dark and was just dark we felt much better. Finding a truck-stop hot meal and later a guesthouse and beer helped too.

The morning produced excellent weather and more incredible scenery, all the better to spend fighting with my pannier rack to prevent the opposite bolt from sheering through. But soon we were on our way, passing through the town of Puh and either ricocheting off Tibet or entering its disputed border region, depending on which map you look at (hence the permits). It didn’t escape my notice that if we’d been positioned properly within our respective countries I could have met my mum here as she’s now living in China.

Possibly the coolest part of the day was climbing up from the bottom of the Spiti Valley into a narrow, precipitous gorge. The road was barely a lane wide and its shape, gouged out from the cliff, produced an eerie wind-tunnel effect. Steve chose that moment to finally divest himself of his now useless D-lock half, hurling it ceremoniously into the river far below us.

The arduous switch-backed climb to the hillside town of Nako, amid panoramic views of vast mountain ranges beyond our reach, marked not only the point at which Steve expressed his wussy desire to hitch a jeep ride, for which I'm still unable to forgive him, but also my epic kilometre-stone of having cycle-toured 5,000 Ks through Asia. To put this in human terms, this is a respectable one 60 trillionth of the distance to the super-massive black hole at the centre of our galaxy. You certainly can't say I'm not making progress.

The final seven kilometres of this ascent, again at night, produced one of the most amazing northern star fields I've ever seen, unhindered by intervening atmosphere (although the north looks away from the galactic core, missing all the action).

A lazy morning produced some serene scenes of the Tibetan town, with which we were so delighted I accidentally left my non-folding spare tyre in our room (Steve had brought it for me from Melbourne but I'd been so lazy I never installed it for the trip at all). Before I rushed back for it Steve asked me if I wanted him to push on ahead up the road, being slower than me. "No," I said, "It's best if we don't get too separated."

Flying back down the hill, my panniers left in Steve's care, I encountered a rare fellow cycle tourist (and the only other westerner for the whole valley) whom I didn't stop to greet, choosing to catch up with him on my way back.

Returning, tyre in hand, to the small shrine where I last saw Steve an unpleasant chill passed across my skin. He was nowhere to be found... and nor were my panniers. Searching the roadside temple, the steep cliffs and a small hut nearby, no trace would present itself. I scoured the opposing cliffs for signs of either Steve or my panniers up ahead, but to no avail. Realisation hit me: Steve had left them on the roadside to push on, and they'd been stolen by a passing vehicle. Hastily re-planning my trip to be compatible with the loss of my wallet, passport, books and other luggage I opened out my lungs to the cold Himalayan air and screamed an invitation for the mountains themselves to sexually violate my friend.

Resigned to my fate I pushed on until, rounding a bend, what did I find but Steve, carrying all four panniers and chatting to our new cycle touring buddy. He'd elected (rather uselessly in my opinion) to carry all our gear 50 metres up the road instead of sitting idle, for which I cannot thank him.

Our new friend turned out to be a Canadian cycle tourist by the name of Nathan, a mechanic by trade, who'd managed to cycle all the way here continuously and circuitously from Nairobi. Having toured on his own for the last year and a half (30,000 kilometres he estimates) he was very happy to join our small group for the day, sharing some incredible touring stories with which my own experiences cannot compete.

Further down the road we were stopped at a checkpoint and asked to show our papers. Like the previous time this happened we were forced to assume each other's identities so the photos printed on our messed-up permits matched our names and details. When interrogated on this point, Steve floundered around guessing my birth date while I unsubtly gave him hand-signals under the table. When it came for my turn to guess Steve's birth date it slowly emerged from desperate mutterings and cryptic finger configurations that it was the 28th of October, 1980.

"Hey, what a coincidence - that's exactly thirty years ago from today," I noted once we were safely away from the checkpoint. "Wait a minute! That means that today is your 30th birthday! Happy Birthday Steve!"

Okay, I dramatise: I did have some idea Steve's birthday would fall sometime during our trip. But that didn't prevent the three of us from partying it up at the next town of Tabo. We found ourselves staying in a beautiful monastic guest house, although this didn't seem to excite the qualms of the Tibetan Buddhist monks in serving us a few celebratory beers.

We split up with our friend Nathan for the following day's ride (and were not to see him again until discovered on our last day in a pitiable state), but not before enlisting him in the fight against mechanical breakdowns. Sadly, his expertise did not extend to hydraulic disc brakes and I spent the day without trustworthy stopping power. Some of the unprotected sheer ledges by the side of the slippery, gravelly road caused concern bordering on terror.

It wasn't long before we had ascended well into the snow-line. We marked this occasion with a picnic to consume the half kilo of oil-soaked tuna we'd bought in the regional capital of Kaza. This was almost not enough to get us through the rest of the day: a painful slog into the cold wind while climbing up snow-scoured glaciated valleys and through desolate Tibetan villages. When at last we reached rest, at the gompa town of Losar, we were warmly welcomed into the hearthy home of a local family and fell into a languid heat-embalmed repose in front of the kids' cartoons. I, sadly, was committed to my mandatory two hours bike maintenance per day that this tour inflicted on me in order to ensure the road-worthiness of my escape vehicle.

Setting off in the morning for the dreaded 4,551 metre elevation Kunzum Pass we asked a local whether the town of Batal on the other side had accommodation. His answer, that there wasn't and we'd have to continue on for another 30 kilometres to the even smaller town of Chattru, was immediately dismissed. If we believed that we'd be totally screwed. So we put him and his helpful comments out of our minds until sunset when they came smashing violently back down upon us like an icy sledge-hammer.

It was actually a great relief when we began the climb through the snow up to this feared pass: the sun was shining, my brakes were working again and the thin air was causing oxygen to pool in the back of our brains causing a mild delirium. As our wheels crunched the ice encrusted puddles and sank into road’s deepening dusting of snow we admired peripherally the curly frozen rivers beneath us and the soft white mountains above us. And at last the pinnacle of our efforts: Kunzum La! With impeccable timing this achievement coincided with the compete destruction of one side of my pannier rack. The side containing Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy.

For the excessively exciting downhill ride to the town of Batal Steve was kind enough to suggest a swap of panniers – his were half the weight of mine and would impart less pressure on my rack. However, as we descended from the pass, past waterfalls frozen mid-air and into the deepening desolation of the cirrus-enshrouded glaciated valley, a new concern consumed us: Batal had been abandoned for the winter, its walls buried beneath a metre of snow. And the sun would soon set.

Picking up our pace alongside the crazed glacier following us downhill, we spent the next six hours struggling through darkness with only Jupiter’s unimpressed glare to keep us company, hoping to encounter some sort of vehicle. I don’t have much memory of this time, except for a few snapshots of Steve smashing at the ice encrusted on his frame with his pedal spanner and fixing a few flats while I kludged up my rack with packing straps.

We awoke in the tiny town of Chattru, finding ourselves curled up in beds at a general store: the only inhabited structure for over 30 kilometres. What miraculous luck had brought us here late last night? It was all a blur now.

We began that morning, after many hours’ bike maintenance, thinking we’d just have an easy day to the village down the road, but when we reached the turnoff for the next pass – Rohtang La at 3,978 metres, a 600 metre climb – we just couldn’t resist, even if it meant another night descent. The trudge to the top took three cold, windy hours, passing trucks on the way to Leh and periodically peeking over the peaks to Kashmir. Having loose snow blown off the slope into our faces competed with deep muddy bogs to bring down our enjoyment of the spectacular scenery, but at last, as the sun set, we rounded the summit. Stopping briefly to warm our fingers at a fire somehow connected with a nearby vehicular collision we began our controlled fall to truck-stop town Marhi. Luckily, this sunset descent was much easier to cope with than the previous night’s, with our destination invitingly shining out to us the whole way like a comfy-looking globular cluster.

The final day down to Manali was one of the most satisfying. The road was the best sealed bitumen we’d come across so far, allowing a consistent downhill glide, and the mountain-enclosed landscape had a real European Alps feel to it (not that I’d know) – so different from the harsh Himalayan hostility on the other side of the pass. It was during this decadent descent that we coalesced once more with Nathan. Just after we’d separated at Tabo he’d suffered extreme hypoxia from the altitude, and as a result contracted pneumonia. Luckily hitching a ride on a jeep to Marhi he’d had just enough strength to endure the glide to Manali before we checked him into the local hospital. It’s been over three weeks and the last I heard he was still there.

Finally it was getting time to return to New Delhi. I'm pretty sure this was the most amazingly awesome and crazy cycle tour I've ever done - these eight days and 430 kilometres were really quite emotionally challenging in a way no other tour has even approximated. I was pretty glad I didn't have to do it alone. Due to the awesomeness Steve and I had spent over two full days recovering in Manali: drinking bad wine, eating icecream, fussing over Nathan's invalidity and watching an awesome trans-American mountain biking cycle touring DVD Steve had brought with him. Unfortunately the next night’s movie, Starship Troopers 3 on HBO, was so terrible it took me a week to get over the sense of betrayal.

Skipping the view on the way back by taking the night bus, we struggled to hold our bikes together for the final leg back to our hotel. To wish Steve farewell, India put on a spectacular Diwali festival that night: as we returned from a nocturnal urban geohash we were greeted by a post-apocalyptic war zone as random fireworks were giddily activated through the gunpowder haze. We felt like we should be taking down a government or something.

But in the sadness of Steve’s departure for a work conference on the Gold Coast, a Queensland cycle tour and then home, some good news: his GoreTex jacket had been recovered at the airport, keeping him warm for his flight back.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Wild Road

In my last post I left my readers dangling precariously on the fate of my bike as it and I took the train to the Sikh holy city of Amritsar. I'd decided to head to this Punjabi city and ride back to New Delhi through Himachel Pradesh as a dry run for my later cycle tour up in those parts with my friend Steve, flying in from Australia ten days later.

But on this uncertain journey I did not know if I’d be collapsed into a universe in which I was privy to the whereabouts of my bike or one in which it had been nicked by the New Delhi railway staff. Only observation at Amritsar would determine this.

It was during this time that my pants started falling apart, possibly out of sheer terror. Like the king pin in Ford's Model T car before them these pants seem to have been designed to fail catastrophically after a specific period of time: the material wore out in several places at once, the pockets all developed holes together and, crucially, both of the pocket’s zips broke within a few days of each other. These tough cycling shorts I'd been wearing for my entire trip were on their deathbed, pathetically kept on life support out of a perverse sense of poignancy.

I hadn't realised how much I'd relied on the zippability of these pants until my train ride to Amritsar, where, during the packed bustle and confusion of getting on and off different carriages in my attempt to find the one on which I was booked I sensed a hand casually inserted deep within my right pocket which contained my wallet... and the hand's fingers had wrapped themselves around that wallet... and those fingers, together with the hand to which they were attached, at that moment carefully maneuvering this wallet out my open pocket to its illusionary freedom. Ironically I only noticed this activity because I'd just been to an ATM to fatten my wallet up with cash, thus creating some geometrical difficulties in extracting it from my disintegrating pants. As soon as I became aware of this enterprise I used the only weapon I had at hand to prevent it: my right pannier overloaded with Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy, to crush the thief onto the floor of the train, leaving him to scuttle away through the fluxious forest of feet. Who says violence never solved anything?

Wallet secured I attended to my other major possession before departing the Amritsar station just before midnight. Thankfully I did end up being the lucky parallel Felix: after a brief panic I observed my bike being taken for a joy-ride along the platform by a member of the station staff (whose disappointment at being deprived of this exciting item was palpable). I was then presented with a new problem: finding somewhere to sleep in a city closed down for the night.

The obvious solution was to stay at Amritsar’s Golden Temple – headquarters of the martial Sikh religion. I’d heard they never close and allow pilgrims to eat and sleep there for free so I rode up to the gates, parked my bike in a cavernous bike-parking dungeon, deposited my panniers and shoes in enormous and efficient cloak-rooms designed for such things and donned the mandatory headscarf for entry. Inside the temple I was led to a patch of floor with a blanket over it upon which I quickly fell to sleep.

The morning afforded me an appreciation of my templous surroundings: the Golden Temple itself, sitting in the centre of a koi-filled lake surrounded by marble colonnades was aesthetic but not terribly exciting. What interested me was the food hall. Here, thousands of pilgrims were fed simultaneously while squatting on the marble floor in rows as indefatigable and exuberant volunteers dressed in outrageous purple turbans globbed food onto their plates.

Not quite ready to depart on my tour, whose route was still to be decided, I stayed for the rest of the day, exploring the town, getting into the local soft-serve ice-creams and even ignoring a perfectly accessible geohash right on the Pakistani border.

That night I found myself sleeping next to a guy who was not only a Melbournian, but also on a year-long trip having left on exactly the same day as me (and thus, weirdly, the same day as Nick and Trina from the previous post - what was it about the 21st of October 2009 that made people want to flee the sunburnt country?). However, the only coincidence that seemed to excite this amiable ex-high-flying-lawyer-now-professional-backpacker was the fact that we both barracked for the North Melbourne footy team (of whose fortunes the shame of my ignorance was matched only by my ineptness at hiding it).

Tearing myself away from my new friend from home the next morning I was away, off through the Punjab to the border town of Pathankot from where I would launch either a sober meander through the Himachel Pradesh foothills, a mad dash into Kashmir to prove how cool I am, or a suicidal puncturing of the Pakistani border in frustration at being barred legitimate means of entry. After first being politely yet firmly interrogated by the border police (whose information gathering techniques involved asking me questions while under the duress of disgustingly bitter vegetables), and then spending a terrifying night beneath the sonic booms from wave after wave of fighter jets screaming over the border a few kilomtres away into Kashmir, I decided to opt for the former choice and just ride into the peaceful Himalayan foothills.

Crossing the border into the Himalayan state the first thing I noticed (other than the sudden dearth of the Punjab's spectacularly delicious lassis) was that things instantly got a lot hillier. Since none of my maps were topographical I hoped this wasn't going to be a trend here. Exhaustingly, the rest of the day's undulating hills' eventual break into a solid climb two vertical kilomtres high to the Dalai Lama's home of McLeod Ganj near Dharamsala proved this trend to be almost asymptotic.

And no, before you ask, I did not get to meet Mr. Dalai Lama himself, meeting instead an A4 sheet of paper sticky-taped to his gate telling me he was too busy and that I should go away (my helpful plans for the Tibetan conquest of humanity left unheard).

On the glorious ride back down onto the plains I got quite lost, with one woman (a shaved British convert to Tibetan Buddhism) offering me directions to the low road and informatively pointing out I'd save petrol on the way down.

The next few days clarified an important aspect of my personality for me. Whenever I attempt something difficult it looks like I'm going to achieve I massively increase the difficulty until I'm pretty sure it can't be achieved. I had to be back in Delhi to meet Steve in six days' time, and my route would get me there in just over five days, assuming I rode 100 horizontal kilometres and climbed a vertical kilometre every day. I therefore lengthened my trip to include an additional climb to HP's capital Shimla, fully aware that this would turn a relaxed cycle through this scenic state into a panicky and exhausting dash.

However, this trip ended up being one of the most satisfying cycle tours I'd done, exclusive of events described later. The days were long and strenuous, riding up and down hills continuously, but the views were amazing, the people friendly and the roads smooth and largely empty. Along the way I met sadhus and school groups painted orange or dressed in Hanuman monkey suits roaming the streets in celebration of something, shared chai with local villagers inured to their spectacular views over the Gangetic plains and hobnobbed with English-speaking process engineers at a hilltop cement factory town.

But the following day disaster struck: my right pannier (yes, the one containing A Suitable Boy, which I was yet to even begin reading) fell off onto the road. I searched in vain for the lost bolt holding its clip together but was eventually forced to resort to an octopus strap. It took many days and several attempts at finding a bolt that would fit the counter-screwed socket before I was able to dispense with my bouncy kludgemanship. Little did I realise that this would be a foretaste for much worse pannier trouble to come.

I arrived at Shimla with a sense of elation. In fact, almost euphoria - I've found that whatever happiness turns out really to be, the two sure-fire ways of enhancing it are good music and physical exercise - having lost the former to a cable break in my ipod earphones I was getting my endorphin fix from the latter, and a solid ride up to the 2200 metre elevation Himachel Pradesh capital definitely gave me an overdose. The city's setting certainly increased this: poised precariously over a curving ridgeline mimicking a devastating landslide from a distance it looked as though the town planners had dropped it there from the sky without consulting Google Maps' terrain view.

Annoyingly, all these extra happiness units were wasted on battling with banks and railways: I think there should be a new triathlon for the Commonwealth Games involving riding 100 kilometres, climbing up a 2000 metre high mountain and then wrestling with Indian bureaucracy for three hours. Amazingly, there is a railway station up there in the clouds and it was my job to ensure Steve and I would get there with our bikes in a few days' time.

After several hours of standing in queues and filling in forms I was ready to hit the hay, reserving my dramatic tumble back down to the plains for the following day. It would be hard to top the descent I'd imagined for my himself, but three hours and 100 kilometres of virtually continuous downhill gliding later I knew I'd managed it. In fact I'd got so into the ride down I skipped both breakfast and lunch (apart from a bag of milk and a few apples), started racing cars and trucks, and failed to even slow down for my negotiations with the potholes and pointy protrusions crossing the border into Haryana. It would be two days before I discovered the resulting sheered-off bolt from my pannier rack in my bike's frame, also on the side of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy – having explained the cause my next post will describe the consequences.

Passing through Kalka caused more queuing pain, having to cancel and re-reserve several sets of train tickets (all on the waiting list) after I discovered that my preferred Shimla train lacked a luggage van for bike transportation - but I was sure glad I'd checked the conditions on the ground!

That afternoon I raced along Highway 1 to Ambala - the Haryana dust, newly constructed freeway flyovers and vast yet slow-moving trucks gave the journey a post-apocalyptic Mad Max feel. When I finally found a hotel with a vacancy that night I negotiated with the manager unkowingly sporting Australia’s favourite racial comedy, blackface, accreted from the dusty road - I can only imagine how it went down with the Indian staff.

But the joke was on me: while showering I got a knock on the door that wouldn't be put off. Indians only ever knock if the door's actually locked - usually they'll just open it without warning regardless of your state of dress on the other side. Annoyed at the management for interrupting my ablutions I turned off the tap and exited the bathroom dripping and half-dressed... only to be confronted by three heavily-armed police officers. They'd come to check my passport for visa invalidity. They wouldn't leave until they'd traced my entire trip through Asia from my randomly stamped entry and exit dates - not a mean feat.

The following day's long and seemingly boring 120 kilometre journey from Ambala to Samalkha turned out to be one of the most emotionally involving days on my whole trip. Working my blood up early in a fight over five rupees with an omelette-wallah I settled into the left lane of India's premier highway as the traffic streamed along beside me. Lost in thoughts of train schedules, Punjabi milk products and the engrossing novel Crime and Punishment I noticed a motorbike overtake me from behind and scoot around a slow-moving truck I myself was planning to supersede. At that instant a speeding car travelling at twice the traffic's average velocity rammed into the back of the motorbike.

I can recall the next few seconds in vivid slow motion: the motorbike was launched vertically into the air in front of me, shedding shards of plastic and metal, with the elderly couple riding it flung off like heavy dolls. The centripetal force of his ejection was enough to spin the man's arms outwards and he hit the bitumen shoulder-first, the abrasion ripping his shirt and flesh apart as he slid to a halt. His wife was also thrown clear of the motorbike which bounced and tumbled down the road in front of her. Horribly, she landed head-first on the asphalt, with only her skull protecting her brain from the impact. The rear-ending car not only did not stop, it accelerated away as fast as its gears would allow.

Since I was the first on the scene I dropped my bike onto the roadside and ran over to the woman whose head was now at the centre of an expanding puddle of thick, black blood soaking into her sari, passing cars smearing it into tracks on the asphalt. At first I was sure she was dead, but eventually her eyes stopped staring and looked at me. As I stopped the traffic another man ran up and we both pulled her off the road, my arms dripping with blood as I tried to keep her head from scraping the ground. Her husband had by now got up and was standing next to us in shock. I tried to call an ambulance but the number in my phone wouldn't connect.

But by now several people had turned up with some dragging the motorbike off the road and others tying a torn piece of the woman's sari around her head as a bandage. Soon a small sedan pulled up and the couple were bundled into it and driven off, their mangled motorbike left on the side of the road. I picked up my own bike and rode on, my handlebar grips still sticky from the blood - a reminder that I hadn't just woken up from a sudden nightmare. It took me a long time to shake off the image of the woman hitting the road - she was amazingly lucky to live, but I'll never know the true extent of her injuries, or her husband's. After this I became cautious to the point of paranoia.

Recovering from this shock I stopped an hour later to look for another bag of milk and a better place to wash my arms than an oily roadside puddle where I was ushered, somewhat against my will, into a nearby Hindu ashram with cries of "English! English!" (despite all my attempts to tell them I was NOT English). Interestingly, I was introduced to a real Englishman in the form of the ashram's guru: he'd moved to India in the 60s and converted to Hinduism a few years later. Since this was the first westerner I'd met since the Buddhist woman at Dharamsala I was glad for some conversation. However, this was nothing compared to the Englishman's astonishing good fortune: since his own, now deceased, guru had banned him from speaking English I was about the first person he'd conversed with in that language for over a decade.

He was an interesting man - his ornate robes and headgear were not enough to hide his pasty white skin and wild orange hair. Our topics ranged over American politics, life in an isolated ashram and, naturally, the murderous idiocy of India's road culture. But soon I had to go: I'd only ridden 85 of my scheduled 100 kilometres that day and when I make up my mind to do something I cannot be dissuaded. It was only when I was well on my way did I realise that the Englishman's invitation for me to spend the night at the ashram, with all meals provided, was more than just politeness - I was depriving him of an extremely rare chance to catch up on world events and to speak in his native tongue. However, I would soon be punished for my obstinacy.

Passing one hotel-saturated town near dusk because it was at 99 kilometres for the day rather than 100 I found myself at sunset in Samalkha, a fairly major town with a train station and bus terminal, searching in vain for somewhere to stay. I wasted over an hour being directed back and forth by kids with no real idea where any hotels existed before I was told by a group attracted by my growing irritation that I would have to backtrack twenty kilometres to the last town. This was the closest I've ever come to actually losing it on my trip so far. I practically yelled at the crowd that there was no way I would be riding twenty kilometres on a dangerous highway at night and that I was going to stay here even if it meant sleeping on the street.

The only suggestion I got was to try the train station. Pleading with the railway staff I asked to be shown a bench upon which I could wait out the night. Kindly, the station chief offered me his office and made a bed from a few blankets on a desk. Exceeding all expectations of hospitality he then invited me to have dinner with his family. The food was cornucopic and delicious, surpassing some of the best food I've had in India yet, and his educated and extensive family were so incredibly charming and charitable it made me wonder how I could have been satisfied with a hotel. This was a day in which I'd experienced both the best and the worst of India.

Finally, heading off in the morning, I made the relatively uneventful trip back into New Delhi, stopping at a recommended restaurant on the way, riding through the northern torus of construction and traffic mayhem and into the familiar tranquil streets of Connaught Circus. Checking back into my old hotel, the New King, just as a wild thunderstorm ripped through the city, engulfing Delhi's washing lines and scared sacred cows (even uprooting power poles), I decided that I had just completed the most intense and emotionally exhausting cycle tour I'd ever been on - little realising that Steve's arrival the next day would initiate a tour even more extreme.