Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The Indian Himalayas: Exploring the Kinnaur Valley (Week 1)

I’ve been pedaling now for almost a week. The first few days brought me up to the Himalayan foothills and after that the real fun began. For the first few days I was tired from the lack of sleep, the plane, and getting used to the physical exertion, not to mention the noise pollution which takes it’s wear and tear.  My body was still trying to adapt to holiday mode. For the several mornings, I’d wake up and couldn’t remember where I was: initially I’d panic and think I was late for school, they I thought it was the weekend, and eventually I would finally remember that I wasn’t in Switzerland, but somewhere else, lost far off in the Northern Indian Himalayas.

Shimla is where my real route started. It took me a day to pedal up to this Indian mountain resort. The roads were under construction and traffic was horrendous. When I arrived, I was surprised to find swarms of Indian tourists who come here just to say they’ve been to the mountains and shop ‘til they drop’ on the city’s never-ending “Mall Road”. It was easy for me to depart early the next morning eager to escape this tourist trap and start my 700km route that touches the Tibet border, goes over two 3800m plus mountains passes while cutting through the Kinnaur and Spiti valleys.

The first two days it rained on and off, a fine warm mist that kept me cool and dirty! The air was humid and was, and the scenery reminiscent of SE Asia’s mountains with lush green terraced land that descended steeply in all directions. Clouds hugged the sides of the mountains as did fog and my first two days reminded me very much of the Ha Giang province in Northern Vietnam. The only real difference was India’s incredible infrastructured, making it a much more developed area and wealthier than Ha Giang, whose charm also came from it’s isolated location.

The road, for most parts, a national highway was a paved-single lane road in each direction. This “highway” was shared by buses, taxis, trucks, motorcycles, cars, road workers, and myself. Unlike Cuba, Myanmar, and Morocco,  where unfortunate car mechanic problems are frequent, to my surprise Indian vehicles, who don’t slow down for ANYTHING, but rather honk fervently, hold up pretty well on this road. It‘s hard to get in a good pedaling rhythm on this road; a roller coaster that constantly undulates with incredible pot holes and many mud and dirt patches.

The first night I make it to Sainj, a tiny little pit stop at a major road junction. I had asked in advance about a hotel here as it isn’t listed in my guidebook. The six men working the reception desk are delighted to see me and i’m thrilled to call it a day riding the last 35 km downhill completely soaked. I cherish the warm cup of chai they serve me, wash up and get everything drying out in my room.

The next morning I hit the road a bit earlier, knowing that the ride will be mostly flat except for the last 17km up to a monastery.  The traffic has died down, none-the-less, the vehicles sharing the road with me still honk relentlessly. I try all different strategies to try to avoid them pushing their horns; I wave, say “namaste”, or wave them on, but they still feel compelled to blare their horns.

I’m pretty proud of myself for not stopping every 20 minutes to eat as there are literally roadside cafes and restaurants called “dhabas” every kilometer.  The typical dishes so far have been roti, also called chapatti (their round flat bread), dahl in a variety of colors, curd, and chai, their staple beverage, milky masala tea. I’ve managed to try an assortment of their brightly colored sweets as well, although the ingredients remain a mystery.

Cows still line the road, either standing or lying down. Monkeys creep out as well, usually in clusters. Unfortunately I heard my first monkey road kill from a distance.  It was an awful loud metal thump, followed by a lot of squeals. It was bound to happen.

The road hugs the Sutlej river that cuts deep through the Himalayan foot hills making for dramatic green valleys and breathtaking scenery. I’m baffled by how this green tropical lush land will turn into 5000m plus rugged mountains with glaciers and turquoise lakes. For now I have yet to rise above 2600m and the river flowing through the valley shows no signs of glacier silt. It’s dull greyish brown mud color roars next to me as I ride.

My second night leads me to the tiny village of Sarahan perched on the side of a mountain where the well known Hindu Bhimkhali Temple lies. It’s a grueling 1000m climb to the top of the village for 17 continuous kilometers, but it’s well worth every moment of suffering. The temple is delightful with ornately carved wooden panels and signs of the close proximity to Tibet appear. I cross my first Tibet Indian border patrol station without a problem, and the prayer flags start to appear the higher I go.  I pedal above the clouds and the rain stops. I find myself a very modest and basic hotel with a surprising view of the stunning valley on the other side of the Sutlej river, where I watch the sunset before feasting on the delicious Chinese cuisine that is now ever-present in this region. What a treat for my second night en-route. It doesn’t seem like my trip can get better than this but much more awaits me as I pedal on to the Tibet border.

A fine mist cools me off as I descend down to the river valley. The rains have destroyed the road that hugs the river as it curves and cuts through the valley. I see an official sign that welcomes me to the Kinnaur Valley. The road today is in complete ruins, mostly unpaved with large rocks in the middle that have fallen from cliffs above and deep mud in many places. Yet none-the-less the traffic is quite heavy and drivers don’t seem to be phased by the poor conditions, which tells me that relatively speaking in India, this road is not that bad!  I learn quickly to try to pedal at all times as the mud is about ankle deep in most places and clipping out only leads to a muddy disaster.

I’m amazed as to how this can be the main drag through the area, the national highway that everyone takes to get to the small villages that dot the highway ever so frequently. More than villages alongside the road there are military compounds and hydroelectric plants. India is notorious for poor electrical connections. Many times throughout the course of a day, the electricity is cut and all the lights go out. I can’t exactly figure out how this can be with all the hydroelectric plants that I’ve passed, electricity should be an abundance, but then again you have to remember that you are at 2000m plus and getting the electricity up to the villages is quite a challenge.

On the third day, I plan to ride to Recong Peo, a village up from the Kinnaur river valley where I have to do the paperwork for the Inner Road Permit, as the road travels so close to Tibet and security is strict. The office is open until 5pm and had the roads been smooth tarmac, I would have been there in plenty of time. But now I struggle, between the tattered road conditions, the sun, and my frustration, I know making it before 5pm is impossible, but actually I start to doubt if I will make it at all. The theme for the last couple of days is to end the ride on a grueling uphill climb, this time a 700m ascension over about 5km. Sharing the road with huge trucks, buses, and road works again, makes a difficult climb even harder. As i struggle to climb I wonder how on earth there is an entire civilization above me, a capital city of the region? How have they all managed to ride the road I’m on?

For the first time in a long time, I hit the wall. The body gives up 2 km from the top and I pull over to gag. My muscles are shaking and I can’t go on. I can’t remember the last time this happened to me. I’m embarrassed and frustrated with myself. I buy a juice, sip on it, and get back on my bike. What else can I do?

I’m on the lookout for the first hotel I see and to my surprise I see a westerner working on a bike outside what seems to be a hotel. I start chatting right away in hopes it will help me ignore my condition. It turns out he and his wife are my neighbors back in Switzerland, from the next canton over. They’ve come to follow the same route in the same guidebook as myself and ride to Leh. Stephan and his wife, Jessica, were a day ahead of me and got caught in a big downpour on the road making riding conditions impossible. They were told the road they were riding was under construction and impossible to pass. Rather than opt for the detour pedaling, they hopped a bus and made the detour. I on the other hand, knew of no such detour, and foolishly rode the impossible road under horrific construction. The reason for the detour is that at one point enroute the road ends as there is a bridge that has yet to be finished. I suppose I got lucky and the construction workers helped me across the bridge which was missing several panels and therefore I had to leap across a few points with the rushing river below.

With most of the traffic on the detour, my road is delightfully empty, providing a respite from the honking horns and suicide drivers. The scenery drastically changes and becomes much more arid. For the first time I can smell nature, the warm scent of pines under the sun makes me nostalgic for Central Oregon. Although the river is still muddy and roaring, above, lie the first signs of glaciers and it is evident that I’m entering a higher altitude alpine region….Just what I’ve been waiting for!

That night I’m still not well. I can’t stomach more than a cup of tea for dinner and I’m in bed by 8:30 in hopes to sleep whatever I seem to have, off. Unfortunately the next morning I still don’t feel good. I feel a bit dizzy and without energy. The thought of eating something makes me quiver. I manage to make it down to the inner permit office which opens at 10am unfortunately. I'm lucky in that it only takes an hour and a half to obtain and I hit the road descending back down to the river valley, unmotivated to pedal along the road that awaits me. When it comes to biking, I've always been a smooth tarmac kind of cyclist. The thought of mountain biking scares me; bumps, uneven surfaces, mud and dirt, technical descents, it's never appealed to me! I have NO experience on this sort of terrain, yet I have a feeling that by the end of the summer, I will have a new outlook on this sport.

I’m motivated to find the Swiss couple and French family up ahead of me, but again the road is not favorable. I bump along for 20km, and finally the road gets better. I stop at the first little store I see and they tell me that the Swiss couple was here as well as the family. It’s funny, the tour cyclist always end up going to the same place. Shortly after, I come to my first Tibetan-Indo border control and show them my permit. Then I head out, still not feeling great but determined to keep pedaling.  I stop at another small village, where I could choose to stay or continue on to the next big village I had originally hoped to rest for the night. Of course I decide to go on, knowing that if worse comes to worse, I can hitch a ride.

Surprisingly, the road is much better which uplifts my spirits at the same time I start to feel better. Some motorcyclist tell me there is a group of cyclists just ahead bathing alongside the road, I get even more excited I can make it. The road all of a sudden turns from good to new pristine tarmac, I don’t get it, the road conditions can change so drastically in a matter of meters, and you just have to be happy with what you have for the moment. With the smooth surface I pedal along with ease and finally see the French family,  Jessica, and Stephan.  

I’m delighted to join the group. Never have I encountered a family of 5 on the road, it was an honor to pedal with them. The whole 8 of us were going to the same destination that night so we all pedaled along at a mellow pace. As soon as Ariane and Sebastian, the parents of the 3 children knew I was from Oregon they asked me if I knew of another woman tour cyclist from my hometown, and sure enough I did. The degrees of separation in the world of tour cycling is incredibly small. Here we all were from different parts of the world, never met before, but with friends in common. Amazing!!!

And so was the final ascend up to our destination, another steep climb up to the village.  The Swiss couple and myself volunteer to pedal on ahead and reserve rooms for the whole group. I offer my bike and my extra energy to them to carry a bag for them up to the village and releve them of their weight. Ariane jokes with me, telling me it takes her a good 4 days to warm up to the heavy load she pedals, but once she is used to the extra weight, it's quiet manageable. Ariane pedals a tandem with a recumbent bike in front for their daughter Adélie, age 9, and has a small bike attached to the back for their son Titouan (Tito), age 5. They call themselves the TSAGA tribe, an acronym that incorporates the initials of all their family members. If Tito gets tired he goes in the trailer his dad pulls behind his bike and if he wants to pedal solo, his bike detaches from his mom’s bike and he can ride freely. Gaspard, their 12 year old son, is incredibly bright and mature has been riding his own bike since he was 7. Ariane and Sebastien were never cyclists, but before having kids they were passionate alpinists and ski tourers living close to Grenoble. When they started having kids, they figured tour cycling was the way to go to still enjoy the outdoors and travel. Tito was still breast-feeding when he went on his first tour, amazing. They camp many nights as they pedal on average 30 km a day, especially on rough roads like these! But they are used to these challenging conditions as they’ve cycled the Patagonia, Kyrgyzstan, and the Dolomites to name a few of their destinations. When they find out I'm from Oregon, they immediately ask me if I know of another female cyclist from there. It always amazes me how small the world if, especially in the world of tour cycling.

I was truly in awe witnessing this family and their lifestyle as we shared an evening together in Pooh. By the time we made the climb, found a hotel, unpacked, showered, sat down to order dinner, the two smallest kids were sleeping with their heads down on the dinner table.  But the next morning around 8am, they were all dressed and ready to go with big smiles on their faces having fun while never seeming to be phased by the fact they were traveling in a foreign country. I’ve always believed that children are resilient and adapt to any situation. Ariane and Sebastien introduced their children to this lifestyle and for them it is the norm, it is all they know, and they thoroughly enjoy it, despite it being hard work.

That morning we all depart together, descending what we climbed yesterday at dusk, but not before a photo shoot takes place. Being a solo female cyclist, I get a lot of stares and requests for pictures, but I can't even imagine the amount of photos albums of random strangers in which TSAGA tribe are features. As I ride behind them I witness the heads turning of the locals. Road-workers breaking stones nudge their friend and tell them to look. Jaws drop, comments are passed, and smiles overcome the local's faces. There is a huge amount of respect in their presence. At the junction on the main road that once again follows the Sutlej river we say good-bye and wish everyone a safe and happy journey.

I cycle with the Swiss couple that day. It is a pleasant ride in good company. Stephan and Jessica have traveled the world on bike and my mouth is open wide as are my eyes as I listen to their travel tales. A more enjoyable day couldn’t be had amongst good company and the Kinnaur Valley. The mountains continue to impress us and in the back of my mind, I can't fathom how the TSAGA tribe will make it up these climbs and down the descents. We slowly ascend to the last village in the Kinnaur Valley, a gentle 1200m climb to Nako.  It’s another Buddhist village with prayer flags flying briskly in the wind and an old monastery. Prayer wheels can be found all around the city as well, turning in the wind and from all the people passing by. The town is a labyrinth of small alleyways and it is easy to get lost. All the houses are made of stones or dried mud bricks, painted white with sticks piled on the roofs. It seems to be the Tibetan architecture style, practical for the brutal winters they endure every year.

In the morning, Jessica, Stephan, and myself decide to walk up to the shrine on the top of the hillside, a huge prayer wheel that chimes when the wind blows. We get gorgeous views of the peaks that surround us in all directions and watch the sunrise over the mountains makings the prayer flags light up in the bright blue sky.

It is the perfect way to end our time together. They stay back to have breakfast and I hit the road, eager to enter the Spiti Valley.

Monday, July 4, 2016

On the Road Again

No sooner did I get my bike built and roll through the doors of the airport did I get my first questions after asking for the road to Shimla, at the base of the Himalayas. They came from the same man in this order, all rhetorical, if he were to just stop and observe:

Question 1: Alone? Ahhh...yes, I think to myself, do you see anyone besides me? I guess if you count my bike, which I sometimes pretend is my boyfriend, I’m not really alone!

Question 2: You are riding your bike to Shimla? Actually the thought crossed my mind to walk to my bike all there carrying my heavy load!

So here I am again, on the road again with plenty of spectators and questions to ask and answer! I missed the road, which was apparent this year, considering I did two different tours during school holidays; one in The Atlas Mountains in Morocco and another in Cuba. Both were amazing and helped me get that nostalgic road feel back and wet my appetite for more, which is why I decided to head to the Indian Himalayas.

Yes, I’ve got the Swiss Himalayas right out my window in Lausanne (also known as the Swiss Alps) but it just isn’t the same. At the moment, I’m also one of those people who needs a complete physical and mental disconnect in order to feel refreshed, which is why I opted to go so far away.

The Alps in the back drop of Lausanne

I just can’t get enough of the road! I miss that liberating and carefree feeling that comes with bike touring. The feeling of not having a worry in the world, except to make sure you’ve got a warm, dry place to sleep at night (which is many times not even necessary) and the feeling of total freedom to enjoy the present moment as you never know what the next kilometer will bring.

Somehow I’d forgotten the best part about tour cycling, which has nothing to do with the bike, except that it’s your means of transport. My favorite part of this lifestyle are all the experiences and funny stories it allows you to enjoy. Consider today, I’m still chuckling to myself as I recall the event. I left Shimla with about 80 euros of rupee. The guidebook I’m using warned me to go to the bank in Shimla as it is the only town with ATMs for the next 600 km. Since my guidebook was printed in 1997 and the prices of the hotels have more than quadrupled since then, I thought that surely the towns along the way would now most likely have ATMs for foreigners. Call me absent-minded, but I like to think of myself as optimistic and hopeful!

After ascending into the mountains, I stopped at Narkanda, at 2700m, an Indian town that is known as a ski destinations nestled in the mountains, above a steep river valley. Of course I imagined Swiss chalets and shaved hillsides with chair lifts in my head, but it looked nothing of the sort when I arrived. Narkanda was more of a humid lush jungle with terraced lands on steep mountainsides. I did however find an ATM, but the first didn't take any of my cards. I tried again at the second ATM that was actually connected to a bank and still had no luck. I walked into the adjoing bank thinking they could help me out or even exchange currency. No such luck, although they were rather thoughtful and called around for me to see where I could successfully get more Rupees, only to find out this could only be done in Shimla or Manali, my final destination.

I didn't start to panic as I had a backup plan which was to attempt to do the next week of riding on a shoestring budget or go the opposite and stay at super nice hotels that take Visa. Just as I was starting to contemplate in detail each option, one of the men there asked me what currency I had. I really only ever carry Euros, but this time my friend in Switzerland had given me a 100 US Dollars. She had asked me for a favor, to kindly donate the money to someone, or several people, who had a need. It was extremely thoughtful of her and the idea really excited me. I tucked the crisp 100 Dollar bill in my wallet.

There I was at the bank with a client inside who was eager to get his hands on a hundred dollar bill and i was equally desperate for Rupees. He told me to sit down, invited me to a tea, and we decided how we would do this transaction. None of the bank workers actually knew the conversion rate so I showed him on my xe.com app the equivalent value in rupees. He talked with his friends there and the word commission came up. So instead of the listed value I subtracted a Dollar, he gave it a second thought and did the Indian head bob! YES!!

Voila! I was in luck, now with enough money to make it to Manali where I would have to take out more rupees. I was incredibly lucky to have encountered this man. He seemed more delighted that I promised to add him as a Facebook friend rather than the 100 Dollars he said he was never going to spend and keep as a “souvenir” for show and tell.

I left the bank chuckling all the way downhill, 35 km to the bottom of the valley. I was one lucky lady now with a stash of cash but also to be witnessing a remarkably unique landscape on bike!

I’ll have to do some math, but with a hotel room averaging about 10 dollars a night and a plentiful meal about 75 cents to a dollar, I think I should have enough money for the first part of my trip, even if I stop and have a handful of chai teas a day, which is what I’m averaging now.

And actually if you think about it, I needed to exchange my friend’s hundred Dollar bill anyway. Now I just know exactly what it’s worth! I just have to find the people who need it!

Friday, July 1, 2016

Welcome to India

I'm always amazed at how fast I can switch mindsets and go from crazy busy at work in a stressful environment to complete disconnect on holiday with no worries in the world. If only I could do that switch daily when I finish work…..

The school year was extremely busy and stressful. It was as if i was a first year teacher again. My confidence were completely shaken at the start of the year and I found the transition to work life after being free and in the saddle for about 2 years to be pretty rough. No need to go into details. Thankfully, I don’t think next year could be worse.

After being crazy busy with last minute grading, preparing my summer travels and getting my apartment ready for subletters, as the train doors closed, with my bike in a box and my gear on my back, I found myself with nothing to do as I rode the train to the Geneva airport. What a liberating feeling; no list of things to do, nothing to preoccupy my mind, nothing pressing at the last minute. I just sat and zoned out looking out the at the gorgeous Swiss countryside that never gets old for me.

I really should have slept on my flights to Delhi via Doha but i a sucker for the movies they play on the entertainment system on the back of the seats. After watching a dozen trailers I got through about 3 movies and did doze a bit. Once in Delhi I booked a domestic flight on Air India to get me as close to the Himalayas as possible effortlessly, which landed me in Chandigarh. It all went smoothly and my bike arrived as well, unfortunately more banged up than I would have liked. I built it at the airport calmly and headed out, making my way towards the mountains slowly.

It’s my second time in India, but the first time cycling here. Everything changes when you are battling the traffic and chaos on the road rather than riding in a rickshaw or taxi. It took me about 10km to warm up once again to riding on the opposite side of the road, but that is easier to get used to than the honking. Indians use their horns more than any country in SE Asia, even Myanmar which was pretty unbearable.

Horns here serve many purposes: Warning I’m going to pass you; I’m impatient, I think I’ll honk; it’s a blind curve I better honk to let them know I’m around the corner; careful cow, monkey, or dog, get out of the middle of the road; or hey there cyclist kudos to you! Therefore, honking is just one continuous sound and it’s hard to know the true reason for why they are honking! In Europe there are no honking signs to keep the transit noise down, but in India the trucks actually say blow your horn. I’ve thought of sticking a big sign on the back of my bike that says, “Don’t honk, I hear you!!!” I think they would honk anyway

India, I had forgotten the little things I love about this country that surfaced again after my first 30 kilometers of pedaling. First is the head bob. Nowhere else in the world to they bob their head back and forth so smoothly and continuously to imply “yes”. It cracks me up. They look like one of those little toy figures that have that ever bobbing out-of-proportion head. And yet I have still not figured out what head action means know as they pretty much say “yes” to everything! Is the road hilly? Yes! Is there a hotel up ahead? Yes! Spicy? YES!

I also get a good laugh at the dyed hair style that surprisingly I’ve only seen men wear. They dye their hair this bright, almost fluorescent, orange that looks so far from any natural color, I can’t help but think it would go nicely with the older women in Spain who go for the bright purple dye, also a very natural color.

I’d forgotten how funny the cows are here. We all know there are huge cultural difference from country to country, but the same goes for animals in foreign countries. A Swiss cow puts an Indian cow to shame. The cows in Switzerland are immense, larger and more robust than any cow I’ve ever seen. They graze so systematically around the open countryside, never passing their electrical fence barrier. When it come to being round up, their farmer makes it seem rather effortless. Their udders seem to have an endless supply of milk and they let other people know of their presence with their huge bells around their neck. In India, cars come within centimeters of cows as they plop themselves down of the big belly right on the side of the road. The don't seem to be worried at all about finding food, appearing emaciated in comparison to those of Switzerland. Whereas those in the Swiss fields are nicely colored with their markings, here their markings look like a primary school science experiment! Oddly, here, no one seems to mind their presence by the side of the road but I have yet to see a cow road kill either, impressive.

Like other countries in Southeast Asia, the stores amaze me. You can find anything, any time you want for incredibly cheap prices. I didn’t come to shop, but I’ve been in desperate need of a proper industrial seamstress to replace the buckles on my Ortlieb panniers. I never got around to getting the sewing machine out at home and all but one original buckle works! On my first night, I find a seamstress, in this case a man, and in 15 minutes and 50 cents later all bags have nice new clips. You can’t beat that!

India, so far it has warmly greeted me, both literally and figuratively. Fifteen minutes into my ride I’m so sweaty the sunscreen on my face is dripping down my face. My whole front and back of my shirt is soaked, I ring it out at my first stop 2 hours into my ride. Even my shorts are wet coming from the sweat on my shirt. It’s about 35 C and 99% humidity or so the barometer of my hair reads. I’ll be happy to climb up into the mountains just to have cooler temperatures and less humidity.

In a day and a half, i’ve climbed to the base of the Himalayas, riding 130km and climbing about 2000m. The fun has yet to begin along with the amazing scenery!