The previous six weeks cycling in and out of the Himalayan foothills of north India had been relentlessly tough, and although I strive for a challenge, sometimes a period of rest and recuperation is imperative and in this instance, a necessity. I had found myself in some pretty dark places struggling for hours up steep, perennial ascents and although the sense of accomplishment and rapture experienced when reaching such a destination is sheer elation, my body was starved of rest. It’s not merely the cycling aspect and consecutive days in the saddle that takes its toll during a cycle tour, but almost every day has a series of compulsory tasks; bicycle maintenance, resupplying food and water, finding a suitable and reasonably priced hotel or guest house, unloading and securing my bike, hauling every personal belonging up and down staircases, unpacking, preparing and cooking dinner and washing up, to name a few. Personally, having a regular, methodical routine is a pleasing and satisfying notion, however, being able to reside in the same place for a few days, for a cycle tourer, is emphatically refreshing and revitalizing. Aware that Rishikesh is dubbed the “Yoga Capital Of The World” it called out to us as a place to put up our feet.
Our time in Rishikesh was extremely relaxing, we stationed ourselves at Mount Valley Mama Cottage, a recommendation from two good friends, Joel and Karina who have experience in travelling through India. Our relatively plush room was equipped with a sofa, a private bathroom, a hot shower and many windows allowing in plentiful natural light. It goes without saying, we were extremely comfortable. Shortly after settling in Jacob and I mutually agreed to extend our visit from three to five full days rest. We were ecstatic to enjoy five morning without the necessity of packing everything into panniers and loading the bikes.
It is fair to say that we looked somewhat dishevelled and ragged upon our arrival at Rishikesh, high up our priority list was a hair cut and a shave. After a lengthy search we ambled into a barbers where one man was sat having his hair cut by an experienced barber who radiated professionalism and competence, a second was being attended to by, who we believed to be, a 13 year old boy “I refuse to have that kid cut my hair!” I affirmed to Jacob under my breath. The experienced barber had finished with his client and ushered Jacob to the hot seat. Shortly after, the boy finished shaving his client, I was then called over as the boy demonstrated a shaving action. Assuming that he was perhaps an apprentice and was only trusted with facial hair I decided that if he didn’t do a brilliant job I could tidy it up myself, however, envisaging a teenager holding a cut throat razor to my neck wasn’t the most reassuring image. Two minutes later, armed with clippers, a comb and a pair of scissors, the teenager, who later claimed he was 17, was snipping away. Yes, I was given the full youth apprentice treatment, he was even being supervised by a female hair dresser. To be fair to him, he didn’t do a bad job, however admittedly, I did trim part of my hair and tidy up my beard. Jacob however was hysterical and wouldn’t let me live it down, one minute acting the bravado and the next, my macho display had shrivelled to that of a high school bully groveling for forgiveness when stripped of his entourage. I had succumbed to the uncalloused hair cutting hands of a juvenile who was barely old enough to grow a wispy moustache.
Once our bikes and panniers has been cleaned, chains decreased, oiled and other essential maintenance had been ticked off the to do list, we let our new hair down, or what was left of it. Days were mostly spent relaxing each morning enjoying an egg and tomato roti in bed, followed by a few hours of reading, wandering down to our favourite cafe for a lemon and ginger tea and a nourishingly nutrient rich salad for lunch, in the afternoon we would sup a coffee by the emerald waters of the River Ganges and for dinner, demolish a thali that could feed a family. In the evenings as the sun set we would find a quiet spot by the sacred water and ponder as Hindu worshippers bathed and payed homage to their ancestors and to their gods.
A visit to Rishikesh couldn’t go without a visit to the Chaurasi Kutia or ‘Beatles Ashram‘ as it had widely became known. Wandering the grounds was quite eerie, yet also fascinating. The individual meditation pods wouldn’t be out of place in a Star Wars movie. I tried to envisage what it would have been like to spend time in its mystical grounds, an extremely enlightening experience no doubt.
Despite the fresh food, copious quantities of coffee and the spiritual significance that Rishikesh has to offer, the personal highlight was perhaps the 60 sensational minutes of a full body, deep tissue massage. I hadn’t realised how painful my calves and glutes were until enduring the hour long pummeling. I left feeling absolutely fantastic and could have stayed for another 60 minutes.
We had arrived in Rishikesh ahead of schedule, this meant that not only could we extend our stay from three to five days, we also had the opportunity to extend our cycle touring itinerary. The original plan was to cycle from Rishikesh to the Nepali border, for this route we had two options, southeast would take us four to five days of cycling a busy highway and through major towns, our nemesis, or we could head northeast and continue to pick our way through the mountains. The latter sounded much more appealing, however this came at a cost of an additional 200 kilometres, we were uncertain of road conditions and the difficulty of the ascents which meant this option may put our plans to reach Kathmandu for Christmas in jeopardy. Neither option was very appealing. We weighed up alternative plans, assuming we can average 100 kilometres per day we decided that it was possible to visit the Taj Mahal and still arrive at the Nepali border in time. Always up for a challenge and excited about the prospect of cycling through a different environment, the north Indian flats, and I later learned that my ex-flatmate Eliza would be in Agra at the same time, the decision was made, 10 days of planate roads and a quick stop by the architectural icon of India was on the cards.