‘Don’t forget to look up!’ cheered Marina as I cycled away from her ancient tumbledown family home nestled among majestic maple trees on a hill above the medieval city of Telavi. I’d arrived in the principal town of Kakheti with the intention of visiting Tusheti and the Caucasus Mountains for a spot of hiking. Meeting Marina on a hot Friday afternoon had changed my mind.
We approached the Uzbek border, full of trepidation, in the knowledge that a full and detailed search would be made of our entire luggage. An ‘illegal’ item, such as codiene, or a topless snap of a girlfriend, would result in a ‘fine’, or more plainly, baksheesh, a bribe. I was in company with Jonas and Emma, having left Dushanbe together, early on Tuesday morning. We were already nervous, since an earlier mishap at the Tajik border post; I’d forgotten to get my GBAO permit extended, consequently, the guard threatened, several times, to send me back to Dushanbe to get the necessary stamp; a 160 kilometre round trip I was loathe to entertain. I repeatedly shouted and pointed at the dates in my passport until, some 20 minutes later, the guard relented, allowing me to join Jonas and Emma on the short cycle to the Uzbekistan border crossing.
”Well this is all about my problems to get out of drugs,
cause I had enough of that,
I’ve had the college,
I’ve had the earning the money,
and the material trip,
I just decided I was going to find a new way of life
And so I took off on my bicycle…”
I was alone, one week out of Khorog, on the edge of madness through exertion and hunger, when this song came on my little portable sound system. It reminded me of university. The lyrics, the sentiment and the cheerful riff – the memory – made me smile at my immediate situation. I had indeed taken off on my bicycle; I was certainly finding a new way of life; eat, sleep, cycle, repeat. It was one of those moments that I’ll always remember. If you can, put that track on now, as you read all about the Pamir Highway Social Club.
Before I crossed the bustling, semi forested no mans land from Banbasa to the Nepalese border patrol office in Bhimdatta, I joined the masses of locals taking a dip in the Sharda Mahakali river. It was a sunny Sunday afternoon. It was nearly summertime. The fast flowing river felt deeply cleansing as it powered it’s way downstream. A fitting end to my four months in India. Nepali/Indian borders are porous which means both nationalities come and go, seemingly, as they please. This made the remote far western crossing a busy trade hub for the locals on both sides.
The cycle from Kalka to Rishikesh was hot, dusty and very hilly. My welcome back to the bike after six weeks of train hopping around India (Kolkota to Goa to Kalka) was exactly as anticipated; really hot and really hard. I tried to trick myself that it was good to be back on the bike but it was no use. The ride out of Kalka was a steep ascent headed for Shimla. I tried in vain to get my bike on the toy train, I stopped repeatedly for chai, hoping the bike might ride itself up the hill, it didn’t. The day grew hotter, my legs grew tired and the bike remained heavy and unwieldy. Fuck this! Just fuck it. I sat at the side of the road on a low wall and had a nice stretch and looked out over the wide valley. That’s when I met Dan. Dan was cheerfully pedalling up the road towards Shimla in the height of the day’s heat. He pulled over to chat.
India is a very big country. And I wanted to see a lot of it. For that reason I took a series of trains making a horseshoe shape around the country. Down the east coast alongside the Bay of Bengal, from Andra Pradesh across to Goa on the Arabic Sea with a stop over in Hampi before striking north to the end of the line in Himachal Pradesh.
‘Hey! I didn’t expect to see another traveler for weeks. Especially not crazy bike guys’. Jiles blurted out as John and I sat drinking tea and feasting on puri at the tiny chai stand on the fringe of Moreh town. Jiles, a 21 year old, six feet six, Belgian hitchhiker was crossing the border from Tamu in north western Myanmar to Moreh in Manipur, heading south to Mizoram. ‘We thought the same until eight o’clock this morning- we met a French couple in Tamu. Seems like a popular crossing for travelers’ I offered. Jiles would be the first backpacker we encountered in the lesser traveled regions of North East India, but not the last.
High up above the town of Kiphire we were given an ominous warning; ‘you can’t go that way’ said the hulking mass of man in charge of the guest house, ‘it’s too dangerous, many rebels, insurgents, the road is blocked’. We thanked him for his concern and went to bed. We were committed to that route, since it was the only direct road to Mon and we’d crossed 134km of rutted dirt track to reach our present location- returning the same way was, in my mind, absolutely, completely out of the fucking question.
‘I have the necessary papers right here’ drawled the cowboy in a thick Texan accent, his strange voice filling the tiny portacabin office of the border checkpoint. It was early in the morning, purposefully so, to avoid any potential queues; our forms were filled in quickly, photographs taken, occupations fictionalised, passports stamped; we didn’t get to speak to the man in the Ten Gallon hat but were certain we’d see him again.
The bike rolled along quickly on the glass like surface. For the first time in months there was not a blemish to be seen on the road. I was relieved, the past 98 days had been hard on the old steel horse. It was time to run free once more.