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.


  1. Wooot :) Excellent job capturing all the details, according well with my recollections.

    Couple of points of "clarification":
    - I didn't express a desire to take a jeep up to Nako, I think the words were "I may have to resort to a jeep" or something similar. Politician-like, I refused to rule it out...
    - My birthday is the 28th of October, not November. I had no idea at all it was my birthday - I even remarked at the time "my birthday is the 28th, it's in 3 days or something".

    It's funny how you remember all the specific bike maintenance moments. For me, it's all blurred into a general theme, like background music. I don't remember being all that bothered by it...

    To fill in a few blanks on that ride from Batal to Chatru, I remember having to cross numerous small waterfalls (attempting at all costs to retain dry feet), lots of ice, lots of big rocks scattered along the road, and a vague sense that we were missing some lovely scenery in the dark. And although we both kept a brave face, the next day as we reflected back, we'd both been secretly planning our survival strategies should worst come to worst and the bikes pack it in.

    Oh, and I'll never forget being woken up the next morning by a very contrite Felix bearing hot chai, saying "Today we'll take it easy, just 20km down the valley to Gramphoo". Which turned out to be totally deserted...of course.

    Truly an awesome trip.

  2. Felix, Grandma says you write better than Richard Halliburton. Wiki that.
    Please consider the emotions of your extended family and be a little more careful!

  3. I like the space metaphor running through this post. "Jupiter's unimpressed glare" - wicked!

  4. Steve, I'm pretty sure I wrote 'October'. Check it again. But thanks, yeah I grudgingly accept your clarifications, and whole-heartedly accept your supplementations.

    Pam and Grandma, I appreciate the Halliburton comparison - hopefully I don't share his fate.

    Thanks, Antechinus. You'll also find the space metaphors running through my whole blog... not to mention my entire life.