Cycling Plus #17:
Rishikesh to Dharamsala, India
We left our guesthouse in Rishikesh after a typically hearty breakfast.
Mama G, our miniature hostess wrapped in a sari, cackled happily: 'Sons
good cycles. Big money!' In the world of Mama G, guests are divided between
sons and daughters, who she plies with her delicious home cooking.
Rishikesh is a sprawling town on the banks of the Ganges, a hive of activity
where pilgrims bathe in the holiest of rivers, cleansing their souls and
bottling the sacred water. A week of yoga had accustomed us to the tannoys
blaring out religious chanting. Passing the blue larger-than-life statues of
Hindu deities, struggling through the pollution of Gandhi Chowk, we were
back on the road once more.
Before long, a steep climb led to the hill station town of Nahan, whose
streets emanated the soft and lilting tones of one of India's many
soundtracks: cricket commentary. A broken road that rose and fell hundreds
of metres was an abrupt reminder that these were the foothills of the
Himalayas. Consolation lay in the solitude of the road, away from the frenzy
of the lowlands, the peaceful landscape our own.
Onwards we toiled, gaining in height and arriving in a village near Shimla
with only a railway bench to spend the night. At close to two thousand
metres, a winter wind blustered along the line and friendly station master
Vivek invited us in to huddle around a coal fire. Built in 1898, he took
great pride in his
immaculate station, like a lock keeper on a canal in Britain. Offering
dinner, dials were twisted and commands spoken down an antique telephone;
an hour later, the night train delivered a take-away, chapatis and dahl!
Retreating to the waiting room, wrapped in layers of thermals, we were
grateful to the friendly and open mountain people of Himashal Pradesh.
Beyond Shimla, the skies darkened and the rain set in. Like a thick cloak a
heavy mist descended and mountains drifted in and out of view. Words cannot
convey how cold I was feeling; my frozen fingers clawed the brakes clumsily
during each descent. We fantasised about hot steaming showers and riding
through deserts...It was a lesson not to underestimate the unpredictability
and severity of the winter, and a reminder of how refreshing tough cycling
can be! Hardship can leave the strongest impressions, even if its only
really appreciated over a cup of tea and a plate of food!
Morning came, the sun innocently beaming down once more, as we shared the
road with diesel-belching Tata trucks and shepherds, surrounded by seas of
speckled goats. My saddle bolt snapped abruptly but help is never far at
hand in India. In a darkened roadside repair shack, a friendly and grubby
old man fished inside various oily pots as a crowd of expectant onlookers
gathered. So too did the dark clouds, and that night we settled for a room,
devoid of sink or loo, shared with two smiling Indians. We had beaten the
rain and were exhausted enough for sleep to come easily...
Cresting the final peak to Dharamsala, the cross cultural sight of Tibetan
children playing cricket introduced us to the home of the exiled Dalai Lama.
Refugees fleeing their homeland arrive every day after their long journey
across the Himalayas, a journey I had done by bicycle. Young monks rub
shoulders with backpackers. Like them, I was keen to spend time amongst the
Tibetans and support them in some way. And after our unexpectedly hard ride,
I was also looking forward to the peaceful Tibetan hospitality that draws so
many travellers here.