Leaving Palwal with a humbled sense of invincibility, and a handful of pills, the road to Delhi and beyond looked more daunting in my fragile state. With a date to keep in McLeod Ganj, Dharamshala, balancing daily progress with recovery and staying out of gastrointestinal trouble was a fine line at times. The thought of eating another curry was enough to make my stomach churn, the smell roused sensations of phantom stomach cramps and images of restless nights sweating on the loo.
Eating anything was a struggle, which is a problem when cycling long distances. Packets of peanuts, Nik Nak style corn snacks, chocolate bars, and fruit drinks were the safest way to ingest the calories necessary to make progress in the mornings. Arriving into larger towns for overnight stays around lunchtime made finding ‘safe-looking’ eateries for something more substantial to eat feasible, but not any easier to stomach.
Delhi came and went with only a couple of pictures of India Gate, and yet another brush with a motorist. The transformation from anger and frustration to non-judgement was complete when the instinctive urge to curse and remonstrate quickly melted into apathy.
Noticing each judgemental thought as it emerges, and mentally labelling it as such, is an eye opening practice. By consciously witnessing your thoughts in this way it becomes easier to actively manage your mental state, eliminate mind chatter, and ultimately become fully aware of, and in, the present moment. Give it a go; it is a form of active meditation. I like to think of myself as a pretty positive person, so I was quite disturbed by how many negatively judgemental thoughts were streaming through my mind all day. It has changed my experience of India for the better, and has become an enlightening daily practice.
The wheels rolled on with every thought a new source of learning. The moments of thoughtless silence bringing enriched life in through the senses, like stepping into the movie instead of watching it on a screen.
The road north through Sonipat, Karnal and Ambala was flat, straight and fairly uninteresting. North of Ambala, passing by Chandigarh brought a noticeable improvement to the standard of living. The roadside was cleaner, everything looked more organised and complete, and the first signs that the hills were a-coming graced the horizon. After cycling over a thousand miles on relatively flat, straight roads, the excitement of being almost within touching distance of the Himalayas was difficult to contain.
Back to full strength, my enthusiasm to reach McLeod Ganj brimming over, I pushed on through Nalagarh, my planned stop, to be reminded of my physical limits once more. The heat was the unknown quantity that, up until reaching India, had never before single-handedly halted my progress. The gastrointestinal problems had no doubt contributed to the exhaustion I had recently experienced, but the heat, I was to discover, was the true source of my exhaustion. A timely stop at Swarghat saved me from total physical annihilation, plenty of time for that further on!
The next morning started with a climb which continued without respite for fourteen and a half miles. The road was surfaced with tarmac, sometimes, and weaved upwards through gradients that made my eyes water. As painful as the climb was, the ever changing views were stunning.
Cresting a summit, lungs gasping for oxygen, heart desperately pumping to feed my muscles with oxygenated blood, the gradient began to relent. Always cautious of the spirit-shattering prospect of a false summit I held back the release of elation which had begun to tingle up my spine. Was it worth the climb? I thought so.
The elation flourished with a rush of endorphins into a feeling of pure bliss. Not only because I had reached the top of a long, will-testing climb. No. The lush, green hills decorated with trees and flowering vegetation rising out of steeply banked lakes rolled on as far as the eye could see. Suddenly the journey from Mumbai through the heat, the dirt and dust, the rubbish lined towns, the shameless early morning roadside sh1tters, the death-defying dances with faceless metal marauders, the illness and exhaustion, yielded a bounty worthy of the trial.
At last; Incredible India was before me, and the finish line was tantalisingly close.
Then followed a steep, winding decent, carefully picking off the slow moving Lorries in between fast approaching corners and patchy tarmac all the way down to a narrow bridge. The decent was over in a matter of minutes, the bridge crossed a deep crevasse between two steep hills; the one I had come down, and the other I was about to climb up.
The heat continued to rise with the sun in the sky, sapping every last drop of energy. Gasping for water, food and shelter I stopped a couple of times at roadside shops, eventually arriving at Bilaspur exhausted; only thirty-eight miles further on, but I was done.
In the morning I woke early, refreshed from a long rejuvenating sleep and ready to push on. Two days cycling through hilly terrain remained, culminating in a climb up to McLeod Ganj sitting at just under 2000 meters. The road was quieter, fluctuating up and down through picturesque villages of brightly coloured and beautifully maintained houses. The houses were often grand in size and design, surely built during the rule of the British Empire.
It really was a joy to behold and, encouraged by swift progress early on, the potential overnight stop mentally moved further towards Dharamshala. First from Hamirpur to Nadaun then to Jawala, and finally to Kangra. The plan was to cycle for as long as was comfortably possible, every mile covered one less for the final day. Between Jawala and Ranital the heat overcame me again without warning. Yes you get tired, but refuelling and pushing through tiredness is just part of the daily grind. The heat, however, just strikes you down like a baseball bat to the forehead. I pushed on with tunnel vision towards Ranital, stopping to rest and refuel. There was nowhere to stay overnight though, and feeling slightly better after the rest I decided to cycle on to Kangra.
The fluctuations in the road began to swing ever higher and lower, the road surface deteriorated and, nearing the top of a particularly steep climb, the long muscle running between the knee and the groin on the inside of both thighs cramped simultaneously. “My word” I said, “That smarts a bit,” (or words to that effect) before unceremoniously disembarking into a fit of spasms as what seemed like every muscle in my body cramped; neck, jaw, back, hands, calves, thighs, feet. Hobbling around with arms and legs jerking uncontrollably, whaling at the top of my voice in agony, I must have looked like a lunatic escaped from hospital. For the third time in a week I was laying on my back in the dirt looking up at the sky wondering how I would ever make it to the next town.
I had been on the road for ten hours, and as I lay there sweating I realised that the sun was going to fall along with the temperature. Under the circumstances that seemed like a good enough reason to get up and carry on. It was slow going, the hills continued to get bigger until I passed through a tunnel to see my first glimpse of the snow topped Himalayas. It is those little visual rewards that serve as a reminder of how far I have come, and as motivation to keep cycling on. The road continued to get tougher and tougher, ending the eighty-four mile ride with a nine mile climb complete with a double summit, I arrived into Kangra after almost thirteen hours, delirious.
‘So near yet so far’ was the theme for the final day cycling up to McLeod Ganj as the goal posts kept moving further up the hill. Since leaving Mumbai I have been focused on getting to Dharamshala, a ten mile climb from Kangra, however, after checking the address I found I was actually staying in a village near McLeod Ganj, Upper Bhagsu, six miles further up the mountain. Of course, my accommodation was situated at the end of a long steep stair case up a twenty-five degree single track road. Carrying Shurly Anne and the bags up the stairs after pushing her up the road was a fitting end to a brutal week. But it didn’t matter; I had arrived.
What would I cycle all this way to do?
Another challenge of mind, body and soul in the form of Yoga teacher training. Twenty-eight days of intensive training in the practice of Yoga, meditation, philosophy, physiology, anatomy and teaching practices. I last practised Yoga nine years ago and my curiosity was reignited again when in Dubai. I’m an advocate of following your curiosity and I’m keen to pick up new skills and continue to deepen my understanding of the relationship between mind, body and spirit. I’m not sure where this will take me but it promises to be a transformational journey, I’ll let you know how I get on.