January 23rd: Rishikesh to Nahan 139km, India
After a break, it was time to say goodbye to Rishikesh. What better way than with a typically hearty breakfast and farewell hugs from Mama G, the characterful proprietor of our guesthouse. 'Sons good bikes, big money!' she cackled. In the world of Mama G, guests are divided between sons and daughters, who she plies continually with her delicious home cooking. Parting words from our yoga teacher, Divanka, were suitably yogic: 'Look after your practice, and it will look after everything!'
Following a smooth debut, our road deteriorated into a bumpy state of disrepair, undulating continually, easing my unaccustomed muscles back into cycling. Uninspired by the scenery, the kilometres rolled by punctuated with juice stops - fresh orange juice stalls lining the road tempted us away from the task in hand.
Beyond Paonta Sahib, a Sikh pilgrimage centre, our path eased away from the lowlands and here the scenery, people and houses were reminiscent of Nepal, thatched huts, housing Indians with longer Himalayan faces and stronger builds. Mountains crept closer and so too did the feeling of physical pain - after a hundred kilometres, exhaustion was taking over. A part of me enjoyed this feeling of discomfort. A week of yoga, good food, forest rambles... Things had been too easy! A steep and windy 7km climb signalled the end of the day, feeding us into the hill station of Nahan. We struggled up the final hill, glad to arrive in time to catch the sun dropping behind a range, coated with forest.
Nahan, set on a steep slant against the hillside, seemed a small and homely town. Away from India's at times overbearing tourism, David and I were refreshed by the people's sincerity and kindness. A free jumper repair from a tailor, and a chai stall handing back our change when we overpaid him. Small acts maybe, but non existent in the tourist centres where the rupee rules. As we wandered its paved streets, the cricket commentary emanated from antique television sets, each shop taking over from the next.
Our first day back in the saddle had been a challenge. Fruit, dates and a few juices later, we were caterpillars in our sleeping bags. Aching and sleepy, knowing the days ahead to Dharamsala would be hard ones.
January 21st-24th: Nahan to Khadangat 79km, India
A broken road that rose and fell hundreds of metres again and yet again abruptly reminded us we were in the foothills of the Himalayas. Not as dramatic as the mountain passes that take half a day to ascend, they are perhaps even more exhausting. Consolation lay in the solitude of the road, away from the frenzy of the lowlands, the hills our own.
Once again, our Nelles map proved frustratingly inaccurate. We stopped for oily samosas on the cusp of a pass refreshed by a cool breeze. The sun gently beamed down and even a puncture seemed only a minor inconvenience. Relentlessly, the road wound on and on, and we passed the strange sight of perhaps fifty men playing 'road' cricket as it ran along the mountain ridge.
The night was spent in Kumar Hatti, in the unusual accommodation of a railway station built in 1898. This narrow gauge line was the creation of Lord Curzon in 1903, feeding Goverment officials away from the oppressive summer heat of the lowlands to the more European temperatures of Shimla Hill Station.
At close to two thousand metres, a winter wind blustered along the line; we huddled around a coal fire, chatting to friendly station master, Vivek. Like a lock keeper on a canal in England, he took great pride in his immaculate station, steeped in history. We discussed differences in religion. 'India has many gods!' he said, smiling proudly.
Supper was a takeaway chapati and dahl from the next station - an order Vivek made by turning various dials and speaking into an antique telephone. The first time I've had an Indian takeaway delivered by a train! We watched him pull switches and jot an endless stream of numbers into a tiny notebook as the two trains of the evening came and went. 'A peaceful job,' he admitted.
Retreating to the waiting room, we slept wrapped in layers of thermals, after enthusing over the friendly and open Himachalis - the mountain people of Himashal Pradesh.
January 25th: Kadanghat to Darlaghat, 79km, India
In order to make an extra loop and visit Shimla, away from our 'official' path, we picked up the early morning train and sampled a slice of locomotive history. Its narrow gauge seemed barely wider than shoulder width and the carriages unchanged for almost a hundred years.
With a 6am warm farewell from Vivek, we joined a carriage full of Indians shrouded in shawls - wrapped head to toe like Egyptian mummies, asleep in contorted positions. The sunrise lit the sky a beautiful rose as we crested the hills, steep drops of terraced agriculture at our sides. Leaning out of the windows, taking in the beautiful colours around us, it was strange to imagine the 'pipe toting' colonial types who must have once sat in these very seats. Overhead, the weather looked ominously dark as we pulled into town, red nosed from the chilly carriage. 'Shimla is like the heavens when it snows,' said a fellow passenger. But this we didn't have time to see. Weaving our way between friendly poncho clad Kashmiri porters, we found our 'back' route and began a suspiciously long 45km descent, twisting and turning through a valley that flashed with auburn. Kilometre stones seemed strangely inconsistent with our Nelles map and as rain began to fall, we stopped by a 100 year old golf course - another Curzon initiative. A friendly high society Bombay'ite warned us over tea that we were heading for a road that didn't exist - yet again our Nelles map was proving totally inaccurate and luckily he was able to supply us with a 'Himashal Pradesh' tourist map instead.
But having descended this far, there was little to do but go on... The rain was increasing in enthusiasm in reply our own which was waning! Soon it drenched our bodies, heavy mists obscured all views and the temperature plummeted to numbing levels.
After 70km of hard riding we emerged just 20km from Shimla. Words cannot convey how cold I was feeling. My fingers felt like ice pops, weakly squeezed brakes worn to the bone from mud and rain. I longed for every ascent to pump blood around my body, to relieve the intense pain of my fingers cut off from circulation. We fantasised about hot steaming showers and riding through deserts...
But just as my body was beginning to shake uncontrollably, the end was at last in sight. A warm but expensive welcome in Darlaghat 'Amuj Resort' awaited us, where our room was soon draped with dripping clothes, adding to the damp and cold air. The day had been a lesson not to underestimate the unpredictability and severity of the mountains in winter, and a reminder of how refreshingly tough cycling can be. Hardship can leave the strongest impressions, even if it's only really appreciated over a cup of tea and a plate of food!
We prayed for sun the following day...
January 26th: Darlaghat to Bhota, 90km, India
'Amuj Resort' - a classic example of perfected Indian disorganisation. A mad uncle ranted and raved like a lunatic at breakfast, orders were shouted down the line to no-one in particular, interminable delays for anything, promises of hot water unfulfilled... Sitting in damp clothes, our levels of tolerance ebbed away rapidly.
Outside, the morning was clear and before long the sun had dried us to a crisp. We were back on the main road, but this 'highway' was little more than a potholed road winding up and down the mountains edge - shared with diesel-belching Tata trucks and grinning shepherds surrounded by flocks of speckled long haired goats. One old man waved to us with particular enthusiasm. Like in a marsupial's pouch, a baby goat peeped out of his waistcoat, its head bobbing up and down as he strode along.
Lunch entertainment was provided by an invitation for tea, over offers of joining a strange travelling salesman cult. Our unusual friend listed a few of his favourite products, including a device to keep car windows from steaming up in the rainy season. I admit to being tempted by a toothpaste called Gleam. 'After this, you will throw away ALL your other toothpastes,' the salesman enthused.
But despite promises of untold fortunes, we rode on once more. Again, the hills defied Nelles cartography, and our only rest came when my seat pin snapped abruptly. But help is never far at hand in India, and we soon found a darkened roadside repair shack run by a friendly and grubby old man, who fished inside various pots while a crowd of onlookers gathered.
Ominous clouds were closing in when we arrived in Bhota, a dreary town in the throws of major construction. Efforts to be put up by the Public Works Guest house came to nothing, despite looking as weary as possible; eventually, we were directed to a room in town, devoid of sink or loo, which we shared with two friendly Indians. But we had beaten the rain, which had begun to fall with renewed force, and were exhausted enough for sleep to come easily...
January 27th: Arrival in Dharamsala, India
And finally, arrival in Dharamsala - home to the exiled Dalai Lama and the growing community of Tibetans who have fled Chinese oppression in their homeland.
Having visited Tibet ourselves, I knew it to be a land unparalled in natural beauty undergoing a very open form of genocide - its people are being methodically squeezed of freedom, religion and culture. I was excited to spend time amongst the Tibetan people and support them in some way.
The air was crisp, the mountains powdered with snow and a network of Tibetan restaurants awaited our visit...