March 14th: McCloudganj to Pathenkot, India, 95 km
Bid farewell by a party of Tibetans, we leave McCloudganj, Upper Dharamsala - David is carrying a Tibetan flag and a petition for Tibetan independence to the Olympic Games committee in Sydney. Silk scarves are ceremoniously placed around over our heads. 'Tell them to help bring peace to Tibet,' one monk calls out to David as we set off amidst the snapping of cameras. Our multi-coloured prayer flags flutter wildly on the descent out of the mountains.
The road to Pathenkot is steep and winding, crossing fields of lush terraced farming and connecting frenetic, lively villages. After a few days in peaceful McCloudganj, home to so many Tibetans, it's a reminder that we're back in 'India' again. Buses blast their horns mercilessly, trucks pour forth noxious fumes, cratered roads shake our bodies and over-enthusiastic bystanders seek our attention - all classic ingredients that make up the Indian cycle experience. After 4 months, I think I'm about ready to move on...
Looping through the valley, a band of jagged snow capped peaks slowly gives way to rolling hills. The air is crisp and I feel alive, refreshed after a few days amongst the Tibetans. Before long we cross a bridge connecting Himachal Pradesh to Punjab and in the dusty town of Pathenkot, a dorm room in a Tibetan hotel seems an apt and characterful place to rest. Over a dog-bowl sized serving of noodles, one smiling man tells us about his 22 day trek from Lhasa to Nepal, a journey many refugees are forced to make to escape their oppressed homeland. I'm always surprised by the good natured manner that Tibetans display in the face of such adversity. Joined by Kiwi Kate, also Amritsar bound, we curl up on our Tibetan beds, and fall asleep to the sound of throat clearing and fighter jets tearing across the night sky. Closing in on the border with Pakistan, the Indian military presence is becoming ever more prominent.
March 15th: Pathenkot to Amritsar, India, 107 km
Back in the lowlands, a repetitive stream of dusty towns do little to break the monotony of the fields, along with a depressing headwind that wears us down. Smooth and well kept, the tarmac directly reflects the wealth and power of Punjab state. Here, greetings are considerably less subdued than the Punjabis' mountain relatives. Indians on 'Jurassic Hero' steeds rush past like the wind, shirts billowing like open sails, only to slow down as they overtake us. At a railway crossing, gates bar the traffic from passing; a medley of motor rickshaws, mopeds, buses and cars face each other head on, revving their engines as though at the start of a Formula One race, blasting and buzzing their horns excitedly. The gates are barely up and the crowd has lurched forward. Keeping to their respective sides seems too logical; instead each vehicle, regardless of size, weaves randomly onwards, leaving a gridlocked road behind. India... such a fascinating and vibrant country, yet in so many ways a mystery!
Approaching Amritsar, we stop beside a typically run-down roadside garage, displaying the usual range of bald tyres that seem so popular in India. A small knot of bystanders converge, as if awaiting our arrival. To our surprise, a Sikh brandishes a map, indicating the exact way to the Golden Temple. It's a gesture typical of the organised and welcoming Sikhs. What is your country? We're asked once again. England, I reply. And pointing to David, 'France.' Brothers?!? Yes, we laugh, and peddle off once more.
Briefly, we're swallowed by the epic Grand Trunk Road, the major overland trade route between India and Pakistan, before turning off to weave our way into the old city. All around, turbans bob this way and that, a range of colours, an assortment of sizes.
Like Mecca to the Muslims, the Golden Temple is a magnet to the Sikhs, drawing pilgrims from all over India and the world. David disappears within the complex, shoeless and, in the absence of a turban, clad in his Bolivian hat. A huge, broad shouldered and bearded Sikh, sporting sunglasses, towers over me for a closer inspection of the bikes gear system; he's a carbon copy of the henchman from 'Octopussy'. Looking round, the surreal scene seems complete - the greying beards of cycle rickshaw drivers catch the wind, a turbaned snake charmer ambles past and a Sikh policeman waves his arms in vain.
Passing a group of old men in electric blue turbans, long curved swords slung at their hips, we wheel our bikes towards the temple dorms. All around, men are washing themselves, unravelling long turbans and revealing shoulder length hair... (to be continued)