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Cycling Plus

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.



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