During our first week in India I developed a sense of frustration, I felt that I had lost the enthusiasm for the cycle tour. We had been sedentary for some time, however, it should be said that much of this was unavoidable due to the processing time for my Indian visa in Islamabad. The preceding ‘city breaks‘ of Lahore and Amritsar which did in fact offer sights that we didn’t want to miss and much of the inactivity was exasperated by our shared ill state of health and necessary recuperation. Though I was becoming more and more restless on non-cycling days and longed for a chance to burn off some energy. We decided to cycle out of Amritsar with a hope that the fresh air and a little exercise will help relieve our flu-like symptoms. Immediately after leaving the city behind, the wildlife and verdure of the open outdoors reignited my sense of adventure. It was liberating to be away from a city and immerse ourselves into the hinterlands of India. Then in typical Browning style, on the first morning of cycle tour part two, Jacob suffered his second inner tube blow out of the trip. Neither of us knew that tubes could actually explode with such force. I willingly added a notch on the ‘Puncture Tally‘ in my note pad.
It took us four days to cycle from Amritsar to our next destination, McLeod Ganj. The first night on the road we were offered our own room in the living quarters of a Sikh Gurdwara, we experienced a warm welcome and were offered hot milk and pakora to tide us over until meal time at 22:00. Few Sikh worshipers at the Gurdwara could speak English but we enjoyed an animated attempt at a conversation with one of the elders. We managed to stay awake until supper time listening to a three hour melodic mantra.
We cycled through what felt like a jungle, my eyes feasted on the sights of towering trees with broad leaves, bamboo and banana plants. The foreign sound of birds tweeting and squawking, that we were deprived of living our city life, hiding in the tree tops. Over the following days we climbed higher into the Himalayan foothills, looking back from whence we came. We were granted views of the fertile land of the north Indian plains and distant hills, red faced macaques would scamper across the road, expressing a cheeky mocking look as we cycled past. As we crossed the border of the Punjab state of India, and into Himachal Pradesh, the white and gold Sikh Gurdwara had been replaced by Hindu temples and colourful shrines of Hindu deities, some often resonating with ear piercing music.
The final day of ascent to McLeod Ganj was brutal, six hours riding, of which, five hours consisted of a relentless ascent. It was a hot day, sweat dripped into the lenses of my sunglasses, my moustache was saturated and my arms glistened in the sun. As we passed Dharamshala we met an insanely steep section of road, my little legs struggled to produce enough power to propel my bike forwards, I resorted to switching back from left to right across the road to ease the gradient, I started to doubt whether I had it in me when, finally, the road eased off and lead us through a forest, the road encompassed by pine and cedar trees that, to our relief, shaded the road.
McLeod Ganj, a suburb of Dharamshala, is nestled within the Himalayan foot hills at 2,082 metres. It is often referred to as ‘Little Lhasa‘ due to a large population of Tibetans and the home of the Tsuglagkhang, the Dalai Lama’s temple. For this reason it has, over the years, attracted an increasing number of bohemian tourists trying to find themselves whilst smoking joints and sipping on sweet banana lassi. Jacob and I liked to think that cycling valorously into the main square on heavily laden bicycles, we were exempt from this stereotype, however the buff that I wear in a bandana style fashion on my head may suggest otherwise. We arrived just before 14:00, navigated through the crowds to the first Dhaba we could find. We sat down, freed our sweaty feet from the confines of shoes and socks and let out a huge, synchronous sigh. We ordered enough food to feed a family and feasted like kings. This was undoubtedly followed by coffee and cake at Jimmy’s Cafe, coffee and cake becoming an indulgence that we treat ourselves to to celebrate our achievement of an extremely arduous day, if it’s not too late of course.
Losing the coin toss, it was my duty to seek out a comfortable, affordable establishment to spend the next few days and rest our weary legs. I happened to stumble across a very reasonably priced guest house with a balcony offering vast views of the misty valleys and surrounding villages. We settled in, showered and collapsed on the bed. Always a sucker for a sunrise, I set my alarm for 06:00. I woke like a child on Christmas morning, pulled my aching legs out of bed, brewed a pan of fresh coffee, donned my down jacket and sat on the balcony as the sun rose above the valley to the east.
We spent a few pleasant days recovering and recuperating in McLeod Ganj. On the first day we wandered the streets to the Dalai Lama’s temple, the Tsuglagkhang, where we quietly observed Buddhist monks chanting in unison, the younger generation read from religious scriptures while the elders, who must have memorised every word, sat peacefully with eyes closed as they recited from memory. Although not very aesthetically pleasing from the outside, the interior of the temple was elaborately painted with symbolic Buddhist iconography. As we walked through the temple grounds, I couldn’t resist and spin the prayer wheels in a naive hope that simply imitating a deeply religious ritual may bring good fortune and karma.
To continue our day of religious exploration we also visited St John in the wilderness church, that has religious significance dating back to the time of the British Raj. I sat in silence on the second row of pews and admired the vibrant stained glass windows and decorated alter. The waxy smell of varnished church pews and the hard stone floor took me back to the days when, with my family, I attended a church service each Sunday morning. I was overwhelmed with a wave of nostalgia and although I have not experienced a great deal of ‘homesickness‘ on this trip, I felt sense of empty loneliness. I don’t see myself as a devout Christian, however, I do resort to prayer in times of desperation and although this wasn’t at all a desperate situation I felt it appropriate to prayer for the safety and happiness of my friends and family.
As we left the church it had occurred to me that we had encountered a blend of religion on the tour, or pilgrimage it could perhaps now be referred to. We left the compassionate Islamic peoples of Pakistan, we have eaten with the Sikhs of the Punjab state of India, we have seen giant, musical statues of Hindu Gods in Himachal Pradesh and now we have sat in the Christian sanctuary of the British Raj. It has, thus far, been an educational and enlightening experience.
Unable to resist the lure of a mountain summit, we hiked to Triund Peak at 3,250 metres, host to a Shri Kunal Pathri Devi Temple. The five hour ascent lead us past the Bhagsu Waterfall, through forests, along a ridge line and past Triund Hill until we walked under prayer flags and emerged above the clouds. This is perhaps a good time to point out that I have tried to describe many views throughout my written accounts of this cycle tour, so to avoid another string of adjectives such as “awe inspiring” and “magnificent” I will simply embed a few photos, enjoy. We spent about an hour at the summit ‘finding ourselves and drinking banana lassi’ before starting the three hour descent. In truth, at the summit Jacob fell asleep while I sat doused with deep gratification, overwhelmed with another “Holy cheese-wire, I am in India!” Moment.
The rest of our time in ‘Little Lhasa‘ was largely spent relaxing, reading, drinking coffee and eating cake. One morning we were running low on fuel for our stove, thinking it a good idea to keep the blood pumping through my legs I volunteered to ride down to Dharamshala to the nearest petrol station. It didn’t occur to me until I was half way there that this meant a 400 metre ascent back to up the guest house and to top things off, the heavens opened. I returned 80 minutes later soaking wet and chilled to the bone, a chill that only a steaming bowl of porridge, banana and honey could relieve. The poor weather meant we had to delay our departure by two days, our legs appreciated the extra rest. The next stage of the tour would take us down from the high perch of McLeod Ganj to the valley floor and right back up again to the Himachal Pradesh capital, Shimla at 2,276 metres.