I’ve been pedaling now for almost a week. The first few days brought me up to the Himalayan foothills and after that the real fun began. For the first few days I was tired from the lack of sleep, the plane, and getting used to the physical exertion, not to mention the noise pollution which takes it’s wear and tear. My body was still trying to adapt to holiday mode. For the several mornings, I’d wake up and couldn’t remember where I was: initially I’d panic and think I was late for school, they I thought it was the weekend, and eventually I would finally remember that I wasn’t in Switzerland, but somewhere else, lost far off in the Northern Indian Himalayas.
Shimla is where my real route started. It took me a day to pedal up to this Indian mountain resort. The roads were under construction and traffic was horrendous. When I arrived, I was surprised to find swarms of Indian tourists who come here just to say they’ve been to the mountains and shop ‘til they drop’ on the city’s never-ending “Mall Road”. It was easy for me to depart early the next morning eager to escape this tourist trap and start my 700km route that touches the Tibet border, goes over two 3800m plus mountains passes while cutting through the Kinnaur and Spiti valleys.
The first two days it rained on and off, a fine warm mist that kept me cool and dirty! The air was humid and was, and the scenery reminiscent of SE Asia’s mountains with lush green terraced land that descended steeply in all directions. Clouds hugged the sides of the mountains as did fog and my first two days reminded me very much of the Ha Giang province in Northern Vietnam. The only real difference was India’s incredible infrastructured, making it a much more developed area and wealthier than Ha Giang, whose charm also came from it’s isolated location.
The road, for most parts, a national highway was a paved-single lane road in each direction. This “highway” was shared by buses, taxis, trucks, motorcycles, cars, road workers, and myself. Unlike Cuba, Myanmar, and Morocco, where unfortunate car mechanic problems are frequent, to my surprise Indian vehicles, who don’t slow down for ANYTHING, but rather honk fervently, hold up pretty well on this road. It‘s hard to get in a good pedaling rhythm on this road; a roller coaster that constantly undulates with incredible pot holes and many mud and dirt patches.
The first night I make it to Sainj, a tiny little pit stop at a major road junction. I had asked in advance about a hotel here as it isn’t listed in my guidebook. The six men working the reception desk are delighted to see me and i’m thrilled to call it a day riding the last 35 km downhill completely soaked. I cherish the warm cup of chai they serve me, wash up and get everything drying out in my room.
The next morning I hit the road a bit earlier, knowing that the ride will be mostly flat except for the last 17km up to a monastery. The traffic has died down, none-the-less, the vehicles sharing the road with me still honk relentlessly. I try all different strategies to try to avoid them pushing their horns; I wave, say “namaste”, or wave them on, but they still feel compelled to blare their horns.
I’m pretty proud of myself for not stopping every 20 minutes to eat as there are literally roadside cafes and restaurants called “dhabas” every kilometer. The typical dishes so far have been roti, also called chapatti (their round flat bread), dahl in a variety of colors, curd, and chai, their staple beverage, milky masala tea. I’ve managed to try an assortment of their brightly colored sweets as well, although the ingredients remain a mystery.
Cows still line the road, either standing or lying down. Monkeys creep out as well, usually in clusters. Unfortunately I heard my first monkey road kill from a distance. It was an awful loud metal thump, followed by a lot of squeals. It was bound to happen.
The road hugs the Sutlej river that cuts deep through the Himalayan foot hills making for dramatic green valleys and breathtaking scenery. I’m baffled by how this green tropical lush land will turn into 5000m plus rugged mountains with glaciers and turquoise lakes. For now I have yet to rise above 2600m and the river flowing through the valley shows no signs of glacier silt. It’s dull greyish brown mud color roars next to me as I ride.
My second night leads me to the tiny village of Sarahan perched on the side of a mountain where the well known Hindu Bhimkhali Temple lies. It’s a grueling 1000m climb to the top of the village for 17 continuous kilometers, but it’s well worth every moment of suffering. The temple is delightful with ornately carved wooden panels and signs of the close proximity to Tibet appear. I cross my first Tibet Indian border patrol station without a problem, and the prayer flags start to appear the higher I go. I pedal above the clouds and the rain stops. I find myself a very modest and basic hotel with a surprising view of the stunning valley on the other side of the Sutlej river, where I watch the sunset before feasting on the delicious Chinese cuisine that is now ever-present in this region. What a treat for my second night en-route. It doesn’t seem like my trip can get better than this but much more awaits me as I pedal on to the Tibet border.
A fine mist cools me off as I descend down to the river valley. The rains have destroyed the road that hugs the river as it curves and cuts through the valley. I see an official sign that welcomes me to the Kinnaur Valley. The road today is in complete ruins, mostly unpaved with large rocks in the middle that have fallen from cliffs above and deep mud in many places. Yet none-the-less the traffic is quite heavy and drivers don’t seem to be phased by the poor conditions, which tells me that relatively speaking in India, this road is not that bad! I learn quickly to try to pedal at all times as the mud is about ankle deep in most places and clipping out only leads to a muddy disaster.
I’m amazed as to how this can be the main drag through the area, the national highway that everyone takes to get to the small villages that dot the highway ever so frequently. More than villages alongside the road there are military compounds and hydroelectric plants. India is notorious for poor electrical connections. Many times throughout the course of a day, the electricity is cut and all the lights go out. I can’t exactly figure out how this can be with all the hydroelectric plants that I’ve passed, electricity should be an abundance, but then again you have to remember that you are at 2000m plus and getting the electricity up to the villages is quite a challenge.
On the third day, I plan to ride to Recong Peo, a village up from the Kinnaur river valley where I have to do the paperwork for the Inner Road Permit, as the road travels so close to Tibet and security is strict. The office is open until 5pm and had the roads been smooth tarmac, I would have been there in plenty of time. But now I struggle, between the tattered road conditions, the sun, and my frustration, I know making it before 5pm is impossible, but actually I start to doubt if I will make it at all. The theme for the last couple of days is to end the ride on a grueling uphill climb, this time a 700m ascension over about 5km. Sharing the road with huge trucks, buses, and road works again, makes a difficult climb even harder. As i struggle to climb I wonder how on earth there is an entire civilization above me, a capital city of the region? How have they all managed to ride the road I’m on?
For the first time in a long time, I hit the wall. The body gives up 2 km from the top and I pull over to gag. My muscles are shaking and I can’t go on. I can’t remember the last time this happened to me. I’m embarrassed and frustrated with myself. I buy a juice, sip on it, and get back on my bike. What else can I do?
I’m on the lookout for the first hotel I see and to my surprise I see a westerner working on a bike outside what seems to be a hotel. I start chatting right away in hopes it will help me ignore my condition. It turns out he and his wife are my neighbors back in Switzerland, from the next canton over. They’ve come to follow the same route in the same guidebook as myself and ride to Leh. Stephan and his wife, Jessica, were a day ahead of me and got caught in a big downpour on the road making riding conditions impossible. They were told the road they were riding was under construction and impossible to pass. Rather than opt for the detour pedaling, they hopped a bus and made the detour. I on the other hand, knew of no such detour, and foolishly rode the impossible road under horrific construction. The reason for the detour is that at one point enroute the road ends as there is a bridge that has yet to be finished. I suppose I got lucky and the construction workers helped me across the bridge which was missing several panels and therefore I had to leap across a few points with the rushing river below.
With most of the traffic on the detour, my road is delightfully empty, providing a respite from the honking horns and suicide drivers. The scenery drastically changes and becomes much more arid. For the first time I can smell nature, the warm scent of pines under the sun makes me nostalgic for Central Oregon. Although the river is still muddy and roaring, above, lie the first signs of glaciers and it is evident that I’m entering a higher altitude alpine region….Just what I’ve been waiting for!
That night I’m still not well. I can’t stomach more than a cup of tea for dinner and I’m in bed by 8:30 in hopes to sleep whatever I seem to have, off. Unfortunately the next morning I still don’t feel good. I feel a bit dizzy and without energy. The thought of eating something makes me quiver. I manage to make it down to the inner permit office which opens at 10am unfortunately. I'm lucky in that it only takes an hour and a half to obtain and I hit the road descending back down to the river valley, unmotivated to pedal along the road that awaits me. When it comes to biking, I've always been a smooth tarmac kind of cyclist. The thought of mountain biking scares me; bumps, uneven surfaces, mud and dirt, technical descents, it's never appealed to me! I have NO experience on this sort of terrain, yet I have a feeling that by the end of the summer, I will have a new outlook on this sport.
I’m motivated to find the Swiss couple and French family up ahead of me, but again the road is not favorable. I bump along for 20km, and finally the road gets better. I stop at the first little store I see and they tell me that the Swiss couple was here as well as the family. It’s funny, the tour cyclist always end up going to the same place. Shortly after, I come to my first Tibetan-Indo border control and show them my permit. Then I head out, still not feeling great but determined to keep pedaling. I stop at another small village, where I could choose to stay or continue on to the next big village I had originally hoped to rest for the night. Of course I decide to go on, knowing that if worse comes to worse, I can hitch a ride.
Surprisingly, the road is much better which uplifts my spirits at the same time I start to feel better. Some motorcyclist tell me there is a group of cyclists just ahead bathing alongside the road, I get even more excited I can make it. The road all of a sudden turns from good to new pristine tarmac, I don’t get it, the road conditions can change so drastically in a matter of meters, and you just have to be happy with what you have for the moment. With the smooth surface I pedal along with ease and finally see the French family, Jessica, and Stephan.
I’m delighted to join the group. Never have I encountered a family of 5 on the road, it was an honor to pedal with them. The whole 8 of us were going to the same destination that night so we all pedaled along at a mellow pace. As soon as Ariane and Sebastian, the parents of the 3 children knew I was from Oregon they asked me if I knew of another woman tour cyclist from my hometown, and sure enough I did. The degrees of separation in the world of tour cycling is incredibly small. Here we all were from different parts of the world, never met before, but with friends in common. Amazing!!!
And so was the final ascend up to our destination, another steep climb up to the village. The Swiss couple and myself volunteer to pedal on ahead and reserve rooms for the whole group. I offer my bike and my extra energy to them to carry a bag for them up to the village and releve them of their weight. Ariane jokes with me, telling me it takes her a good 4 days to warm up to the heavy load she pedals, but once she is used to the extra weight, it's quiet manageable. Ariane pedals a tandem with a recumbent bike in front for their daughter Adélie, age 9, and has a small bike attached to the back for their son Titouan (Tito), age 5. They call themselves the TSAGA tribe, an acronym that incorporates the initials of all their family members. If Tito gets tired he goes in the trailer his dad pulls behind his bike and if he wants to pedal solo, his bike detaches from his mom’s bike and he can ride freely. Gaspard, their 12 year old son, is incredibly bright and mature has been riding his own bike since he was 7. Ariane and Sebastien were never cyclists, but before having kids they were passionate alpinists and ski tourers living close to Grenoble. When they started having kids, they figured tour cycling was the way to go to still enjoy the outdoors and travel. Tito was still breast-feeding when he went on his first tour, amazing. They camp many nights as they pedal on average 30 km a day, especially on rough roads like these! But they are used to these challenging conditions as they’ve cycled the Patagonia, Kyrgyzstan, and the Dolomites to name a few of their destinations. When they find out I'm from Oregon, they immediately ask me if I know of another female cyclist from there. It always amazes me how small the world if, especially in the world of tour cycling.
I was truly in awe witnessing this family and their lifestyle as we shared an evening together in Pooh. By the time we made the climb, found a hotel, unpacked, showered, sat down to order dinner, the two smallest kids were sleeping with their heads down on the dinner table. But the next morning around 8am, they were all dressed and ready to go with big smiles on their faces having fun while never seeming to be phased by the fact they were traveling in a foreign country. I’ve always believed that children are resilient and adapt to any situation. Ariane and Sebastien introduced their children to this lifestyle and for them it is the norm, it is all they know, and they thoroughly enjoy it, despite it being hard work.
That morning we all depart together, descending what we climbed yesterday at dusk, but not before a photo shoot takes place. Being a solo female cyclist, I get a lot of stares and requests for pictures, but I can't even imagine the amount of photos albums of random strangers in which TSAGA tribe are features. As I ride behind them I witness the heads turning of the locals. Road-workers breaking stones nudge their friend and tell them to look. Jaws drop, comments are passed, and smiles overcome the local's faces. There is a huge amount of respect in their presence. At the junction on the main road that once again follows the Sutlej river we say good-bye and wish everyone a safe and happy journey.
I cycle with the Swiss couple that day. It is a pleasant ride in good company. Stephan and Jessica have traveled the world on bike and my mouth is open wide as are my eyes as I listen to their travel tales. A more enjoyable day couldn’t be had amongst good company and the Kinnaur Valley. The mountains continue to impress us and in the back of my mind, I can't fathom how the TSAGA tribe will make it up these climbs and down the descents. We slowly ascend to the last village in the Kinnaur Valley, a gentle 1200m climb to Nako. It’s another Buddhist village with prayer flags flying briskly in the wind and an old monastery. Prayer wheels can be found all around the city as well, turning in the wind and from all the people passing by. The town is a labyrinth of small alleyways and it is easy to get lost. All the houses are made of stones or dried mud bricks, painted white with sticks piled on the roofs. It seems to be the Tibetan architecture style, practical for the brutal winters they endure every year.
In the morning, Jessica, Stephan, and myself decide to walk up to the shrine on the top of the hillside, a huge prayer wheel that chimes when the wind blows. We get gorgeous views of the peaks that surround us in all directions and watch the sunrise over the mountains makings the prayer flags light up in the bright blue sky.