Friday, 26 September 2014

Bullet in my kneecap

A Nepali market
It was love at first sight. There were mushrooms, beans, asparagus. There were eggs, sitting now in a small lake of my own drool. There was something vaguely sexual in the lay of the bacon, the way it was sprawled, invitingly, in melted cheese.

It was a breakfast that would have prostrated Homer Simpson, and it came courtesy of my friends and masterchefs Annelie and Rahul. I pedalled a full 100 km before I needed to eat again, to Gawahati where another friend, Sumanta, had organised a place for me to sleep. When I left the day  after though, I had forgotten to pack my towel. 40 km later Sumanta appeared in his car to hand it back to me. To fully explain how generous this was, let me for a minute describe my towel. 

There is a thing that lurks in the fetid, nethermost crevasses of my rear pannier. Perhaps it was once white, but it’s impossible to tell. It is the Gollum of bathroom accessories. Claire once held it aloft with a finger, asking, with a more than a faint sense of alarm, ‘what is this?’ It was a genuine question. ‘My towel’. She cocked her head, working her imagination where the most credulous would falter. It’s the kind of thing you might use to wrap your dog in, if your dog was bleeding and needed to be taken urgently to a vet. But only if you really hated your dog. And Sumatra, the kind Sir, drove an 80 km round trip to give it to me. There is no better demonstration of how generous the Indians are than that.

I cut west from Gawahati, enjoying sunny days at last, past vivid green paddies, until I hit the flood plain of the vast Brahmaputra River. The waterway is one of Asia's greatest: it drifts down from the Ansi glacier through Tibet before fattening up through India and spilling into the Bay of Bengal. It is one of the few rivers in India that are known as male and not female. The annual floods are expansive, and I cycled through a surreal water-world where just forested islands and the odd village were spared. An immense bridge spanned the river, on the other side an elevated railway had become the thoroughfare between villages and hundreds of people marched its course. I slept on the edges of the forest, the air thick with fire flies at dusk.

The next morning a soldier in the road asked me to stop for tea.

‘I’m really sorry I have to push on’ I told him, thinking of my flagging VISA .

He thought about this for second and then said ‘No. You’ll have tea. Please sit down.’

‘I’m really sorry but…’ he turned then to bark some orders at another soldier, as he did so the barrel of his rifle, which was dangling from a shoulder, brushed against my thigh. It then hovered just over my leg as he continued his conversation, the bullet’s trajectory: my kneecap.

He turned to me again. ‘So you’ll have tea?’

‘Absolutely’.

It tasted amazing, like a prisoner’s last meal might.

(This post title might be a little misleading, but I ran with it because I've just finished Tim Cahill's 'Jaguars Ripped My Flesh'. And it got you reading, didn't it?) (sorry Mum)



My first sight of the Himalayan foothills, a low blue-grey saw beyond a spread of tea plantations, became quickly blurred through weeping eyes. I was surprised by this burst of sentimentality, but then getting here did feel meaningful, like when I arrived to the Arctic Ocean or at that first snatched glimpse of Table Mountain. Crossing the biggest mountain range on earth, along with the coming winter I’ll spend in central Asia, I count as my last big barriers between my wheels and England.

Each day the mountains remained a low silhouette, striped by cloud or masked entirely, but they loomed nonetheless, swelling in my mind, sneaking into my dreams. It was impossible to view the peaks and not wonder what these flats looked like from the opposite perspective: in the thin air where self-doubt reigns, on the steep and jarring trails that wend among the peaks, the ones that set your heart pounding and chest shaking and soul searching.

I pedalled through the Buxa forest next, a place of ivy-dressed trees and scrambling monkeys. I noticed the road I was on swung close to Bhutan and then a small road branched off and penetrated the country, which was now just 17 km away. I didn’t have the coveted Bhutan VISA but perhaps I could sneak in, nose around a little, export some of their fabled national happiness, import some of my own.

Two Christian missionaries on motorbikes didn’t like my chances – there were, apparently, roadblocks and officials ahead. I decided my tactic would be one of speed over stealth. The Bhutanese officials would most likely be Buddhists, I reasoned. They probably wouldn’t shoot me.

The Indian post was easy, it may have been manned but any chance of being discovered sneaking out of the country by officials was dimmed by the very Indian-ness of the tableau: goats shambled, vendors streamed, rickshaws swerved. Then I saw big arch etched with dragons. Bhutan! A truck went past as I did, the timing was perfect and I slipped by unnoticed. Another roadblock loomed though, and I was sure I’d get stopped until I saw a solider talking through a car window and oblivious to anything on the road. Suddenly I was in the unlikely position of cycling through Bhutan, and without a stamp, VISA, permission or care.

I decided on a smaller road to a place on a signpost called Kanyo Thang because the road stayed low and because I wondered if the town might have been named after a Bhutanese rapper. I saw the wall that designated the border stretched out across the fields. Prayer flags flapped beside a river bringing cool water, I imagined, from distant ice caps. The local people I came on looked surprised to see me, wondering perhaps how someone as dishevelled as I could afford the 250 dollar a day VISA Bhutan insists on.

I made it a school, the children dressed in the traditional robes of Bhutan, were perhaps the politest children in the world. As they filed past me I enjoyed a chorus of ‘Happy journey sir!’. A sign on the outskirts of the village warned about the perils of drug trafficking and the hefty penalties for those caught. There was no mention of the penalties for those pedalling religion like the missionaries I'd met before. I wondered whether it was drugs or religion that would cause the most harm.



I’d sketched a route from googlemaps into my journal – it was an improvised ride to Darjeeling, via the back door. I’d bounce about on spindly roads but for forest and mountains I hoped it would be worth it. In Matelli, the local consensus was that there was no way through to the next place on my route, Gorubathan. But a few said yes, it was possible, only 15 km, others assured me it was 30km.Some people smiled in silence. One man dinged my bicycle bell. Eventually someone opted to show me the way, I walked behind him for five minutes and when he stopped outside a Hindu temple on the edge of town he said ‘wait a while with us brother. Share your love.’ And directed me inside.

‘I can’t share my love today brother, I have a long way to go’

He seemed satisfied with that and pointed the way. The track was decades old and in a bad state: ragged islands of tarmac in a sea of dirt. It was a jarring journey past tea plantations and only used by the workers within. A few women glanced at me sideways through sari-shaded eyes and never stopped picking the tea. The track ended in a footpath – this couldn’t be the way, could it? A local man working for a hydroelectric plant offered to be my guide. I wheeled by bike behind him on the path and we arrived soon at a small cliff face, the path ran across its face, sometimes a few inches in width and flanked by a ten metre drop. I have dragged by bike over all kinds of obstacles, but this looked impossible to cross. A farmer arrived though and without conference he grabbed my rear rack and the three of us hefted, rolled and swung it over the gaps in the path. Several times I almost lost purchase in an effort to stop my bike crashing into the river below.

We made it, and when minutes later a road appeared I narrowly avoided hugging my guide. He was going the other way and so left me with a description of my route, adding ‘the forest people will look after you.’ And then, outlandishly, ‘Watch out for tiger and elephant’.

I crossed a bridge and climbed steeply, the temperature brushing 40 degrees, the air a breezeless weight wrenching all my energy away. I dared myself to reach a palm shadow, and then the next, sweat pooling in every crease of skin.


Older tea pickers with lordosis


At Gorubathan I wasn’t sure if I should continue with my plan, which would involve not one big climb to Darjeeling but two, as the route swung down to the Teesta River before climbing again. There was an easier option to Darjeeling. I was exhausted having hardly hit the foothills, but I decided to defer the decision until I was plumped with a good meal. I ate roughly three, leaving the server agog at my effort, and then ploughed on past village girls who scowled at me but couldn’t keep it up for long and burst into giggles further down the road. I ended the day at a village which had a large effigy of Buddha, and local men found me a shelter: I would share a hut with an old man. When I opened the door two rats scarpered up opposing walls, mosquitoes danced in the gloom. I would have been happier in my tent, but it would have been rude to shun their hospitality - the price for such good intentions was a fresh slew of mosi bites and hours of fractured sleep, cut through by tense wakeful moments reverberating with an old man snores and the scuttle of rats.

The valley was steep and pine-sided, the road a fund of switchbacks. At length I hit Lava, a town of colourful several-story buildings and an ornate burgundy Buddhist monastery, 2000 metres above sea level. Prayer flags fluttered and young monks waved at me from the balconies as I mulishly climbed the final metres.

The climb ended 200 metres higher up and then I careered downhill through a run of fetching Buddhist villages in which the houses were poised over a deep valley. From Kalimpong I descended to the Teesta river, spotting three wild peacocks on the way. There are various ways into Darjeeling, all steep, this one though was the steepest. In fact, after 67,000 km of touring I can think of only one other climb this steep and prolonged. I climbed an agonising 1500 vertical metres over just 13.5km which is an average gradient of over 11%, average being the all-important word. Virtually every corner was nudging 25%, and the corners came in droves. It helps to be angry at the mountain, a kind of teeth-grinding murderous rage propels me up it. People passing me in cars looked startled, and I realised that it might have something to do with what was happening on my face.

I topped 2000 metres again and camped on a cloud-rushed ridge next to a Buddhist shrine, a vaguely forbidding kind of place. The next morning I heard chanting so I scrambled out of my tent and strolled towards the voices, through the mist. You have to see it from the women’s perspective to understand their reaction, which was one of eye-bulging terror. You are deep in prayer, on an isolated forested ridge, near a shrine. You are enclosed in a dense mist. The dawn is still and silent. Then something groans. You look in the direction of the noise and there, blundering out of the mist, is a pale hairy thing, releasing a low, unintelligible moan.

The women did bid me good morning in the end  - when they returned that is (they had run away quite fast) and could see I wasn't supernatural.

Then I whistled into Darjeeling where I had three days to rest before I had to leave India – the time allowed on my VISA was up. The town of course is a famous hill-station, in the foot-hills of the Himalayas. I wasn’t convinced about all this talk of hills. I get it, it’s relative. But in the UK I would be on a certified mountain if I were just half the altitude of Darjeeling.

When the swirls of cloud are thin enough, it is, Darjeeling, one of the most dramatic big towns in the world. On my second day a breeze threw the clouds away revealing a deep valley with roads that looked drizzled on, like icing on a cake. More strikingly though was the vista looming over the town: a row of some of the tallest peaks on earth, including Kangchenjunga, India’s highest mountain and the world’s third, making even the prodigious peaks of Sikkim to the north look cutesy. It’s a sight branded by the travel writer Jan Morris as ‘one of the noblest experiences of travel, one that has moved generations of pilgrims to mysticism and even more to over-writing’. So I’ll leave it at that.


In Darjeeling I met Mike and Chris, a pair of American bikers who had been part of the six strong posse of riders that passed through Myanmar together about two months ahead of me. With their coveted six month Indian VISAs they could afford to loiter and had toured much more of the northeast than I had time to. They were the first cyclists I had seen for months, and it was occasion for beer and stories. In between I visited the zoo and museum at the Himalayan Mountain Institute where there was a 3D plastic mould of the range. I strolled down to the western end, to the Karakorum, where I hoped to cross, but no highway was marked. I stared at it for a while though, dreaming of snowy vistas, hoping for Pakistani VISAs.

I said goodbye to Mike and Chris - Mike waved me off from a bike bedecked in Buddhist prayer flags - and I cycled back down to the lowlands, past tea plantations where the women hip-deep in the shrubs picked away, automatically. I crossed into Nepal via a bridge full of cycle rickshaws, where men in topis and a woman soldier welcomed me to the country. She had henna motifs on her hands and striking green eyes, like the photo of the famous Afghan girl. 

Nepali man, and a Nepali smile, wearing a Nepali Topi

Nepal grew more rural as I pedalled the flat road across the east, travelling over bridges, themselves ranging over sandy river beds. One morning, after pedalling for a few minutes, a snake wiggled past my front wheel. My heart was still pounding five minutes later when I spotted a tiny backpacked child to my left and saw that his school bus was on the far side of the road. Even though he was on the left of the road, his head was fixed to the left as well. When he bolted there was no time to sound the bell, or even to shout. A tailwind was helping me to 30 km/hr. I turned hard to the right and he skimmed off my left pannier and continued to run to his bus as if nothing had happened. He wouldn’t have reached the height of my handlebars and if I’d hit him full on, I don’t want to think about the result.

As I pedalled west, homeward bound and with the sun on my back in the mornings, I passed dazzling huddles of women, eyes bright in the shadows of their saris. There were Sadus too, pacing the road, happy to have their picture taken for an apple or two. There were bristle-faced gaunt-chested men, sitting up straight and dignified on bicycles.

I came to a forested area where I saw some deer and then monkeys that watched me carefully, and moved with tension, like burglars in the night. One morning I came to a big group of Nepalis huddled around something long and thin, stretched out on the road. It was a rock python, killed minutes before by a truck. ‘Ahhh. Just a baby’ said a man, dolefully. The snake was eight feet long. It must be tough crossing roads when you’re that long. The odds can’t be in your favour.








The 13th of September: my birthday. I realised at some dusky point in the evening. I’d forgotten for the second year running. Time unspools like mountain roads, I lose track of where I am. I’ll be home, perhaps, before the next one. I was in a town called Hetauda which was announced via a signpost that read ‘Shivan cement welcomes you to the Green city of Hetauda’ and I had to marvel at a town so apparently eco-friendly it is sponsored by a cement company. I spent the evening perusing emails from friends wishing me happy birthday, and bearing news of new babies. And an email from Claire reminding me of my birthday and telling me not to forget like last year.

The tourist season is short and hectic and Kathmandu's streets were messy with taxis and motorbikes and people wearing masks to prevent inhaling the pollution and dust. I didn't bother, its one of the small perks of being an ex-smoker: city air will never match the damage you've done to yourself. No need to stress about city air.

In Kathmandu I hung out with Anna, a PhD student from my hometown, and I worked on getting VISAs - another for India, one for China and one for the nightmare of the trio: Pakistan.

The Chinese embassy was the usual confusion of applicants, all jostling and looking defeated from the moment they passed the metal detector. Nobody had a clear idea of what documents were needed, because embassies like to keep important things like that secret until, hours after getting there, you find yourself at the front of the queue and then some self-satisfied paper pusher can tell you what you’ve forgotten. This was my second visit. Three Nepali men in suits strode past the entire line and entered at the front, grinning to each other. They seemed uninjured by the muttering that was, in the end, their only comeuppance. (note to self – do not write blog posts immediately after spending hours in line for VISAs. Wait until stable mental state has returned).

A lady three ahead of me in the line, British, was carrying an extremely cute three year old girl whom she deposited on the counter. The girl pressed herself up against the glass turning the embassy official gooy-eyed and silly-faced. It was the best tactic I have ever seen used to score a VISA. I didn’t hear what the lady said to the official, but I reckon it might have been something like ‘I’d like a five year multiple entry VISA to Tibet please. Oh, and hurry the fuck up’.

So no need for the obsequious noises, the myriad thank yous, the flaunting what you know of the officials native tongue. Just borrow a baby, that's my advice. Steal one if you have to. Pass it down the queue so everyone can benefit.

As I walked back to my hostel I past the Nepali passport office. The mass of humanity awaiting documents brought to mind a refugee camp. With a UK passport, things really aren't all that bad, are they?

My brain hurts thinking of all the hoops I have to jump through for the next stage of my trip. I can’t say for sure what will happen next but plan A is a Himalayan adventure in Nepal, then back into India, into Pakistan and over the Karakorum into a very cold China. If I can’t do that, then there will be flights involved, which will be spirit-crushing but unavoidable.

Thank yous – Anna, Sumanta, Lizzie and Sanju.

Finally I'm glad to announce that this blog made it to number 10 in the list of the world's most popular bike touring blogs (based on Alexa, domain and page authority) so thank you to everybody for reading and sharing.