March 17th-18th: 'The journey takes an unexpected turn... Back in Dharmsala to contemplate,' India
David the (Levis-clad) Frenchman and I bid each other a fond farewell. In David's words: We met in Tibet, celebrated his birthday in Nepal, New Year's Day in Rajasthan and my birthday in Rishikesh. Now in Amritsar, we have to go our different ways. My gift to him is a Tibetan phrase book, and his to me, a colourful Tibetan flag. It seems strange that it really is finally time for our paths to diverge... At least for now. I know we both feel the pull of Tibet and will one day return.
As for me, visa complications with the Iranians have thrown my travel plans into the balance. The next 6 months of my life now look set to unfold in a very unexpected and exciting manner. Mulling over this bureaucratic hurdle and knowing Pakistan's Karakoram Highway to be one of the most beautiful cycle rides in the world, I have decided to reroute through Central Asia. Dispensing with my sun hat for thermals, I will now ride to Kashgar, China, and on to Russia's satellite states of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakstan.
It's a major change in direction. And because of the vast distances involved in this overland route to Europe, it might mean catching a ride on the Trans Siberian Railway to Moscow, before cycling onwards to London. But, as I've come to discover, travel plans always have a liquidity about them, and it will not be until reaching Kyrgyzstan that I will know the full story.
If anyone has any knowledge of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakstan , I would be most grateful to hear from them. **** Post on the message board or email: firstname.lastname@example.org, cc: email@example.com **** (Thanks)
Which leaves me to head back into the mountains once more. Northern Pakistan and China are divided by the mighty 4730m Khunjerab Pass, under snow until sometime in May. I have a couple of weeks in hand, and decide to return to the Tibetan flavoured town of Dharmsala. I stash my bike in Amritsar's Golden Temple, under the watchful eye of its broad shouldered, bearded spear-clutching custodians. Clutching pannier bags, Kiwi Kate and I hop on a cycle rickshaw to the city's train station as I rest my cycling legs once again.
It's not often that I encounter Indian public transport, and I follow Kate's lead as we gamely join the maul, elbowing its way into the carriage. In a game that seems to have no rules, we emerge successful, securing half a seat in an area that defies all conventional notions of space. Oblivious to the mayhem below him, an old man in a turban sits cross-legged on an upper rack: popadom sellers weave their way through and passengers spill out of open doors, clinging nonchalantly to handrails as the ground rushes by below them. Families share out their chapatis, the aroma of spices wafts through the carriage, and a neighbour strikes up a conversation about the 'Backstreet Boys' and 'Titanic'. It's a side of India that I've really missed out on, and it makes the country's highways seem comparatively peaceful.
The train rattles on for a few hours, the distinctive rhythm reminding me of days when I used to visit my grandad in Wembley - if he could see me now! Pulling into Pathenkhot, we rest for the night before changing to the older metre-gauge rails that will take us to Kangra. This narrow and rickety train also bursts at the seams with people, who climb in and out with their baggage through windows, contorting themselves into any available space.
Travelling by train is a totally different experience of the senses - watching the faces of fellow passengers, having time to look as well as be looked at, noticing the evolution of the roadless landscape and feeling a part of a method of transport that has probably changed little since it was first laid down. It rekindles memories of the romanticism that I'd imagined of India from distant memories of films I'd once seen. It's a far cry from the frenetic pace of the roadways, where bus horns and Hindi music prevail.
Rising away from the lowlands of Punjab, we're back in the foothills of the Himalayas. Deposited on an empty train platform in the middle of nowhere, we look out towards a band of snowy peaks that dominate the skyline. Clambering down a hill to the road, we catch a local bus, complete with kitsch flashing lights that illuminate Shiva and Ganesh, which struggles up the series of switchbacks that lead to Dharmsala. Like all buses in India, it's a run-down Tata, a fact that seems to do little to diminish the driver's raw enthusiasm for his job. Sitting at the back of the bus, I watch him furiously pump his arms, feeding the steering wheel around, swinging the whole bus from one side to the next, letting off a tuneful blast of the horn at every turn. Lurching to a halt, another bus precariously squeezes by.
Before long, we're back in McLeodganj, where we'd left just a few days ago...The journey has taken almost the same length of time that I took to cycle it! It's like coming home. After so long on the road, it takes little to feel familiar with a place, and the feeling of knowing my way round is comforting. Backpackers mingle with burgundy robed monks, Tibetan children return home from school and the older generation make their way down the kora, prayer beads in hand.
As for Kate and I, we know both our destination - 'Nick's Restaurant' - and the fact that the garlic and mushroom pasta that awaits us will remind us even more of home!