Melancholy infiltrated and gradually replaced the satisfaction of completing Yoga Teacher Training. Fellow students began to go their separate ways immediately upon the course finishing, and with each passing day fewer and fewer remained. The stark reality of an imminent return to the solitude of solo bicycle travel suddenly seemed daunting. A month spent in the company of so many lovely people was a rare emotional treat for the soul which, despite learning of the necessity to practice detachment along the road towards enlightenment, I didn’t want it to end. But nothing is permanent, everything exists in a state of constant flux, and it was time to move on.
Still time though for one final adventure; a trek up to Triund, sitting at 2875 meters in the Dhuadhars range of mountains just north of, and accessible from, Upper Bhagsu. We trekked up and hired a couple of tents to camp out overnight, returning back down the following day. The evening was spent having dinner around a fire while being entertained by an Italian chap who played a guitar with only three strings and sang some old favourites – It was a great way to bring the time in Upper Bhagsu to an end.
And then there was one.
Shurly Anne was stationary for the duration of the entire stay and getting back on at the top of a steep hill quickly re-focused my full attention on remembering how to stay upright. It all felt rather foreign, Shurly was heavier, weighed down with new books, clothes and a Yoga mat. I was lighter, my body looser and more flexible. My head jerked around akin to a rag doll when passing over bumps – twice daily yoga had separated the vertebrae and had released the tension which previously locked my head in place. I didn’t feel altogether in control, and before getting beyond McLeod Ganj, less than two miles down the road, I had managed to come into contact with three other road users!! No harm done, useful cautionary reminders of the close proximity of metal projectiles that epitomise life on India’s roads.
Decending through Dharamsala seemed bumpier and less steep than it had on the way up. Nevertheless, new brake pads front and back were a timely and necessary improvement. The decent was scattered with pockets of hot air which gradually became the stifling ambient temperature.
The terrain was continuously undulating and, as a result, totally exhausting. Taking an alternative route back down to that of the way up, I cycled through Palampur and Mandi to rejoin the original route briefly at Bilaspur before venturing off towards Shimla. The views were spectacular.
Opting for a ‘short cut’ through Sabathu ahead of Shimla, I found myself on a punishing route; what it may have saved in distance as-the-crow-fly’s it more than added back with steep, weaving climbs. I spent the night in a dreadful room sweating while being feasted upon by an array of hungry little beasties. I woke the next morning for the first time in five days unable to practice yoga before setting off. There wasn’t enough space in the room, but in all fairness I was struggling to get up for my 4:30am alarm.
The rising sun gathers heat slowly like a fan assisted oven as it climbs restlessly higher, brighter, hotter, whether I drag my ass out of bed or not. Still able to feel the tingle of heat scolded skin from the previous days roasting, that inescapable fact nags like a persistent child. Aaaargh, alright! Damn you Sun, I’m up.
Eventually arriving in Dharampur I was ready to jack it in for the day after less than twenty miles; I simply couldn’t face climbing yet another bloody hill. Unbeknown to me I had in fact climbed the last hill, and was rewarded for my perseverance with a twenty odd mile decent all the way to Panchkula. I couldn’t quite believe it. The first five days back on the road had been incrementally syphoning mental resolve and physical strength like a thief in charge of a cash register. The relief to finally reach the flat again was verbalised with whoops and furnished my face with a very satisfying grin from ear to ear.
For the next few days making faster progress along flat roads was a welcome break from the hills, but beyond that it did get a little mundane. Through Ambala, East to Nahan and on to Dehradun where I was almost knocked off Shurly Anne by a Military Police motorcyclist. He pulled out in front of me while I was stood up coasting down a hill giving my rear end a rest, while taking in water, with only one hand on the handlebars – the left hand. Watching him approach the flow of traffic he appeared to see me, but something about his positioning made me think, ‘He’s not going to..’ And before I could ready myself, he had. As I swerved to avoid him the traffic ahead backed up, and with only the rear brake to stop with, I skidded straight into the back of another motorcyclist. Shurly’s front wheel slipped past the rear wheel of the motorcycle before the handlebars and forks made contact and the momentum propelled me forward head first, nutting the pillion passenger in the back of the head as he broke my fall. The traffic had not completely stopped and once again I somehow pushed myself off using my head and left shoulder, jammy side up, still one handed!
The pillion passenger was surprised and confused to see me when he looked around holding and rubbing the back of his head. He smiled as I apologised rubbing my forehead. The Police motorcyclist, completely oblivious to the fact he would have ridden straight into me had I not acted to avoid him, then started to remonstrate with me for the collision. I think I called him a f@cking idiot while pointing at him, and motioning to demonstrate his erratic manoeuvre. Thankfully I don’t think he understood the words, the tone and gestures seemed to hit the spot though, without inciting the wrath of military law enforcement. Still a bit of work to do on ‘not reacting, whatever the circumstances,’ then – ho hum.
Cycling on through Rishikesh and Moradabad towards Lucknow saw the deterioration in cleanliness meet with a disturbing increase in squalor. The perfect conditions for a second bout of progress-halting diarrhoea in Barabanki. Outside of tourist spots, life in India was clearly very tough, and keeping the place clean and tidy was far from the minds of those living there.
There was a lack of pride, even in the people who had restaurants and business to take pride in. I would often arrive at a roadside shack to find several people lying around amidst filthy tables and chairs with rubbish strewn around the ‘dining’ area. Why not clean the place up if you’re doing nothing else anyway? Rooms in guesthouses were rarely furnished with clean sheets and bathrooms were almost exclusively filthy. I didn’t find people particularly friendly or helpful either, and many would try their arm at ripping off the passing foreigner, all of which made for a pretty pants time.
One stretch of road looked like it had been tarmacked on top of the towns that lined it. The buildings on either side had been half demolished, hoards of people collecting and piling up the fallen bricks resembling earthquake victims; it was bizarre.
It became a miserable head-down-dash to the border with Nepal at Raxaul, that ended with me being taunted, kicked and rammed by a couple of youths on a motorbike, and another on a bicycle. The chubby little pr!ck on the bicycle could keep up, and his mates on the motorbike eventually tired of my stone faced (on the verge of exploding) non-reaction. Arriving into Raxaul itself bore the most decrepit image of squalor I have ever witnessed. The road was cratered with massive holes so numerous the tarmacked sections looked like marooned islands emerging from deep brown pools of mud. The road was totally gridlocked with lorries in both directions, the mud was everywhere, and without a footpath, every man and his dog was wading their way through every which way they could. It was disgusting to see people living in that way, but I couldn’t help wondering how it had gotten to that, or how together they couldn’t make it better.
Looking back over these words, my menial grievances born out of a self-inflicted, self-centred crusade make me feel a little sick. Who am I to pass judgment (again)? Blessed with the privilege of birth into a loving family in a developed western society, what do I know about the struggles of being born into a poor family in India? Once again I find myself judging others without walking a thousand miles in their shoes. The more I think about, I question if I actually could walk any miles in their shoes.
The road brings you face to face with the ugliest parts of your psyche; the petulant child within, constantly craving comfort and satisfaction from the world around, repelled from anything slightly disagreeable. The unconscious reactions distract from the truth that comfort and satisfaction come from within. It’s not what happens around you that matters, only how you choose to perceive it. Choose, that is, if you can maintain consciousness with the present moment long enough.
Adversity is a brutal teacher; the lessons are hard to accept because they shine light on your deepest, darkest faults. It’s easier to shelter under the all-prevailing cover of ignorance, but what way is that to live? Awareness is the first step towards accepting what is, without judgement, reaction or attachment. Becoming aware of the ignorance in your thoughts and actions frees you from the prejudices that taint your perception of the world around you, and within you.
Eighty-four miles through burning heat from where the day began in Gopelganj, and without the US dollars or Nepali Ruppees required to buy a Nepali Visa, I stayed the night in Raxaul. Initial enquiries for US Dollars didn’t look good; the Manager at the State Bank of India informed me that I would not find a currency exchange in Raxaul, and that the nearest service was a fourteen hour overnight bus ride to the state capital, Patna; wicked! Why oh why had I left it until now to arrange the currency?
Surfing the muddy banks of the road, I wandered on foot towards the border; surely there must be unofficial currency touts at the border crossing? There was, and after narrowly avoiding a fake ‘new’ one hundred dollar note, I opted to chance my arm with the widely available legitimate Nepali Rupees instead. The Embassy website stated that only US Dollars would be accepted in Rauxal, however, at other border crossings Nepali Rupees were accepted; it had to be worth a gamble.
The border was like a scene out of the wacky races; lorries, cars, motorbikes, cows and horses pulling carts, and pedestrians jockeying for a way through. In finding my own route of least resistance I managed to bypass both Indian and Nepali immigration ‘control’ offices to find myself cycling through the neat, tidy, fully tarmacked and drained streets of Birgunj, Nepal. The contrast was illuminating, like cycling into heaven through the gates of hell. All I wanted to do was cycle on, find somewhere to rest, and forget the previous couple of weeks had ever happened. But I couldn’t, the Visa was required by every hotel and guesthouse in Nepal.
I envisaged that asking official-looking uniformed personnel where I could purchase an entry Visa would lead to being escorted directly to immigration control. Not so, no-one was in the least bit concerned about my illegal immigrant status, and I was left to find the office on my own. If it wasn’t already evident, the immigration office was pretty relaxed, and although not happy that I had arrived without US Dollars did allow me to pay with Nepali Rupees, albeit at a favourable rate of exchange for the office. Back to India for an exit stamp first though; nooooo!
Birgunj was like a paradise city; clean, organised streets were more comfortably populated with people and vehicles. A hotel with friendly staff donning smiling faces willing to help you with your luggage to a freshly cleaned room containing a bed with clean sheets, and a bathroom with soap and a clean towel ready and waiting. It felt like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. The environment in which you spend your time, if left unchecked, can slowly contaminate your mood and perspective, and the previous couple of weeks in India had gotten the better of me.
The next day saw a gradual climb to Hetauda through overcast weather which eventually broke into the first monsoon drenching of the season. It cleared as quickly as it had begun and I was mostly dry by the time I reached the Hotel. Reviewing the map showed two possible routes from Hetauda to Kathmandu, separated by a fork in the road at Bhaines. The left fork on the Tribhuvan Highway increased the total distance from fifty-one miles to eighty-six. A discussion with a couple policemen dissuaded me from attempting the original plan on the right fork, over the shorter route on a smaller road. It was going to be a long day.
The road immediately ascended in folds of switchbacks stacked on top of each other like a road staircase. The air was warm and dense with moisture, a relatively refreshing change to the dry heat of India. Hills enveloped every line of sight, quilted in lush green vegetation protruding through white, wispy clouds. The background vibration of crickets overlaid with vocals of exotic tones enthusiastically performed by invisible birds captivated the senses with tropical essence. Beyond the sensory banquet feeding the eyes and ears was an underlying sense of presence. Not for the first time when climbing substantial peaks had the frequency of the hill resonated with my own vibrational field in a space of comforting stillness. I’m sure that sounds a bit far-out to many, but something about climbing hills quietens the mind in a visceral and vivid intoxication of inner silence. Only the sense of pure presence remains.
Interrupted by the even-more visceral pain of lactic acid building up throughout the entire body, the mind begins to think, chatter, protest, breaking the silence once more.
Six hours in the saddle and thirty-three miles of climbing from Hetauda eventually found me 2600 meters above sea level, munching my way through a bread omelette, vacantly starring at nothing in particular, pondering the thought of another fifty-three miles to Kathmandu. The climb was mainly spent weaving back and forth, around and about, and in a thick fog of moist cloud beneath more clouds, which intermittently released a torrent of liquid refreshment. From the top I could see…… nothing.
That was until I breached the precipice to drop down the other side…
Within around ten miles the decent was over all too quickly, which occupied my mind until later in the day. How could I climb for thirty three miles and drop for only ten before the next climb began? Drifting slowly through the bottom of a valley the road soon climbed back up to over 2000 meters at Tistung, when my confusion started to clear one sweeping downward hairpin at a time. One vista growing out of the next in bottomless ripples as far as the eye could see, eventually leading to more confusion, but this time I wasn’t complaining. Although I kept descending, the hills kept appearing under the road, all the way down to Naubise.
So close to Kathmandu, where I had confidently booked a guesthouse, the light was beginning to fade. Without the booking I doubt I would have persisted to Naubise, and having made it that far I certainly wasn’t going to give in to the setting sun. Onward!
With an estimated 18 miles to go, gung-ho with fresh optimism, the road then climbed ever upward in a sadistic inverted relationship to the sun. Joining the main road into Kathmandu from Bareni and beyond saw the road deteriorate under the strain of an endless flow of lorries, cars and bikes. The sun disappeared long before the top of the hill appeared, so to speak. Now cycling up hill in the dark, the stream of passing lorries bellowing dust, from sections of road lost to landslides, and toxic fumes, left me gasping for clean air and wondering what had happened to the previous epic day.
Reminding myself constantly that, ‘This too will pass.’ I pushed on, eyeing the escalating lines of headlamps that decorated the darkened outline of peaks like Christmas tree lights for the only indication of how much further there was to endure. Exhausted, senses contorted from the deprivation of sight and auditory overload, cloaked in a suffocating blanket of dust and fumes, I reached the Nagdhunga check post. Twenty days and fourteen hours on the road, and the sea of lights below merged in my weary eyes into the light at the end of a tunnel – Kathman-ding-dang-du.