By mid-November the daylight hours were diminishing, this meant that I would be setting the alarm before sunrise. We routinely roused in the early, dark hours, though to a morning lark such as yours truly, this meant that I had the pleasure of watching the colours change as the sun peeked over the horizon. We eased ourselves back into the cycling and planned a short day to continue the climb from Shimla along the ridge to a small town, Kufri. Kufri didn’t have much to offer except a delicious thali, “Probably the tastiest Thali we have had in India!” To quote my diary that day and a phrase that tends to be repeated every few days. This is perhaps a good time to point out that the vegetarian food that I have sampled in India has been nothing but exceptional. It is extremely rare to be served a substandard meal, especially if you stick to a reliable Pure Veg Dhaba or Bhojnalya. Cycling through India and burning through thousands of calories each day means that I can eat curry for lunch and dinner guilt free, and in abundance. I sometimes worry how I will integrate myself back into my English routine, though I expect that a bowl of blueberry, banana and cinnamon porridge, an avocado and egg salad and a home made vegan pizza and will quickly change that.
We crested the final ridge after a brief climb out of Kufri the following morning. The next three hours were some of the most enjoyable cycling we have experienced on the tour. All the effort we had put in to climb to this point culminated in an insane, unforgettable descent, we weaved through a thick blanket of alpine forest, sweeping round long corners and tight bends as the sun streamed between branches marbling the road. Absolutely glorious. Unfortunately, it was so glorious that we missed a vital turn off the main highway which meant rather than a further 34 kilometres of descent, we had dropped too low and now had 18 kilometres of climbing to reach the next hotel.
The hotel offered nice views across the rolling valleys and was situated two kilometres from the Solan Brewery. Excited by the prospect of a pint of freshly brewed ale we walked the short distance down the highway. We passed what I believed to be brewery workers walking in the opposite direction before arriving at the brewery at 17:20 only to be informed that it closed at 17:00, however we were informed that we could buy bottled beer from a shop down the road. A short stroll later lead us to the store to find that the only beer on sale was an extra strong Indian lager and warm bottles of Carling. It had been 94 days since enjoying our last pint in Osh, Kyrgyzstan, so we walked back to the hotel empty handed and would have to wait to satisfy our craving. The next few days provided impressive views, sensational cycling and spectacular sunsets as we descended further out of the hills to the religious Sikh city of Paonta Sahib and across the Yamuna River that continues its way south flowing through New Delhi and Agra.
We scouted out a hotel in Paonta Sahib that had a licence to host foreign guests but decided to resupply for the morning before checking in. As we waited for a restaurant to prepare a batch of chapati to go, I noticed a sign ‘Bar and Restaurant.’ Having been denied a pint of ale the day prior, I couldn’t help but pop my head in out of curiosity. I was immediately ushered through the door and offered a scotch whisky. Slightly overwhelmed and not one to have a taste for whisky I turned and headed for the exit. Before I knew it, the words “Do you have beer?” Slipped out of my mouth, 30 seconds later and I was holding a 700 millilitre bottle of ice cold Tuborg. I went back to mull this one over with Jacob who was innocently waiting outside. I couldn’t make up my mind, I had been recently been slating lager, claiming I would only drink it in extremely rare, perhaps desperate circumstances and had sternly stated that only a proper ale would suffice in breaking the 95 day beer embargo. It didn’t take much persuading before two glasses were on the table. We toasted to the cycle tour and, to my surprise, I very much enjoyed a small glass of strong, fizzy larger.
After enjoying just over half a pint each and deciding that it could be a dangerous concept to order a second bottle, we cycled back to the hotel which now claimed to be fully booked. We were advised that the Paonta Sahib, a historically significant Gurdwara had plentiful rooms open to pilgrims and guests. We navigated our way to the Sikh temple and were relieved to learn that they had a room available, but not just any room, we were treated to a double bed each with fresh linen and a private shower with hot water. We were delighted. After a wash, we ate in the Langar before entering the temple to relax and listen to the reciting of prayer. We once again appreciated the sincere hospitality of the Sikhs and were glad to spend the evening at the Gurdwara. Fortunate of the fully booked hotel, perhaps there is something to be said about enjoying a beer from time to time..
The following morning we continued on to Dehradun, the capital of the Uttarakhand state. An extremely busy and dirty city. We were glad to be only spending one night amongst the riff raff. Fortunately our hotel was modern and comfortable, we needed a good rest in readiness for the day that lay ahead.
Although we had decided to take a more gentle approach to the tour, Mussoorie, a popular destination for Indian tourists situated along a mountain ridge, called out to us. Rather than cycling down the highway to Rishikesh in one day, we opted for the three day scenic route. Day one consisted of a 1,641 metre ascent, a challenging and relentless climb that we thoroughly enjoyed despite a seldom lapse in preparation which resulted in a lack of bananas, the 32 kilometres must have been the only stretch of road on the entire sub-continent where bananas weren’t on offer. Jacob and his thunder thighs had arrived a few minutes before I did and managed to gather a crowd of Indian tourists to clap me through the home straight to the main square.
After almost two hours of seeking out an affordable hotel that would accept foreigners we checked into Hotel Valley View. Our room was spacious, equipped with a sofa and coffee table, effectively a bed sit. Content and comfortable we decided to treat ourselves to two days rest whilst enjoying the view from our eyrie. We demolished a thali and garlic naan before putting our feet up at Cafe By The Way with a fresh cuppa and a slice of chocolate cake.
The next two days were mostly spent in Cafe By The Way, which was duly crowned our all time favourite cycle tour cafe with it’s rich coffee with a thick crema and generous portions of overly indulgent baked goods. Winter was coming and during the many hours spent sipping a cuppa joe, inevitably conversation veered towards post-Christmas plans. Jacob had learned that due to his Indian visa expiration date and his security clearance for work, his travels would come to an unfortunate end by the end of January 2019. Having weighed up all available options it was decided that his last few weeks would be spent cycling solo through Kerala, an Indian state on the southwest coast. This therefore meant that our cycle tour would end upon our arrival at Kathmandu in time for Christmas and sadly, our time travelling together wouldn’t continue into the new year. A sobering prospect.
It’s rare that a day in the life of Luke Woods passes without some form of dilemma. This was a big dilemma that took hours of deliberation. To cut this short, after hearing some excellent news that my best friend, Tom, would be flying out to Nepal on December 30th I decided that rather than sticking to the original plan and spending valuable energy and resources cycling in solitude all the way across the Indian sub-continent, I would extend my Nepalese visa, spend two weeks with Tom and Eliza trekking in the Annapurna Conservation Area and exploring Chitwan National Park before embarking on a solo journey. I planned to cycle back into India, catch a 55 hour sleeper train to the west coast, explore the state of Goa by bicycle, continuing south to Kerala. From Kerala I planned to fly to Colombo, cycle around Sri Lanka then, as a treat and birthday present to myself, fly to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands for one to two weeks of scuba diving. Hopefully, this plan would maximise enjoyment and minimise enduring any inclement weather conditions. However, this plan depends entirely on my satisfaction of solo cycle touring.
Despite the good food, coffee, spectacular views and sunsets, Mussoorie had little else to offer except respite from the hot, dusty plains. That said, we were happy to spend two pleasant days in the mountains, enjoying the fresh air and relaxing in our swanky condo.
Cycling out of Mussoorie granted more eye watering scenery, silky, sinuous road and thoroughly enjoyable riding. We spent the following night in Chamba and tucked into a new contender of “The best Thali of the tour” at the Dehli Darbar. It was truly exceptional and unbelievably good value.
Winter was definitely coming, morning temperatures dropped significantly in the Himalayan foothills. The ride down to Rishikesh started with a bone chilling bite in the air, this was the first day on the tour that I resorted to donning my cycling leg warmers with a double buff combination. We felt almost reptilian as we rode in and out of the icy shade, the interspersed sun just managed to penetrate the cold and keep our finger tips from turning to icicles.
Unfortunately, the road from Chamba to Rishikesh was largely under construction, a 30 kilometre descent was followed by a two hour climb up a road consisting of a mixture of gravel, sand, dirt and water, our bikes were the dirtiest they had been all tour. The preceding 10 days had been long and enduring and we hadn’t rested sufficiently to fully recover, it was the prospect of a well earned break in Rishikesh by the holy waters of the River Ganges that spurred us on. A destination we were both excited about. We longed for a few days off the bikes, unwinding and recuperating. A full body, deep tissue massage beckoned.