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.
An hour later I suggested that we get back on our bikes and out of the sun. Ten minutes later we crossed out of Chandigarh into Himachal Pradesh. There was a frozen yoghurt shop. We pulled in. Ordered everything. It was cold and delicious and expensive. It was glorious. Dan was six months into a trip, having started in Bangkok he was now finishing a loop of north western India, going as far as the road allowed (the road to Leh opens in late May depending on snowmelt) then hoping to go to Iran. That afternoon he got an email from his agency with bad news about his Iranian visa. I explained my plan to cross the Pamirs into Uzbekistan. Dan was impressed. We called an end to the day at four pm. I’d covered just 26km. It was my shortest day yet. And I didn’t care one bit. That night we camped out just above the tracks of the Himalayan Railway, the Himalayan Queen tooting her tiny chimney from fifty feet below among the lucious scent of the abundant pine trees.
Dan and I took a leisurely breakfast then set off. Seven kilometres later we were saying goodbye. The fork in the road taking Dan up to Shimla and me across to Nahan and onwards to Rishikesh. The chance meeting with a fellow cyclist and Brit had lifted my spirits. I pushed the bike along with ease into the rushing winds, sumptuous bends and scorching day. The road undulated through alpine forest, littered with huge boulders and rock formations betraying the earths limited possibilities for agriculture, only emphasising the increasingly mountainous aspect of the landscape- I was entering the foothills of the Himalayas.
Following the long, twisting ribbon of blacktop out of the forest onto the bald hillside I could see in the distance the hill town of Nahan. I would spend the night there. The road swept down in a delightful sequence of gentle curves arching into a deep apex then out across the ridge in the far distance. A low wall occasionally fallen away in places as a result of collision kept drivers from the death drop into oblivion. Then a fierce climb around row upon row of ancient shops and buildings at the back of the town before arriving at the impressive Lytton Memorial, a British monument in memory of the handover. From Nahan the next place was Dehradun, capital of Uttarkhand. I didn’t care much for it. An industrial university city; too much traffic; expensive and unfriendly.
I left early next morning with my sights firmly on Rishikesh, a few days off and a catch up with Brooke and Klemi, my new friends from Goa. The highlight of my visit apart from morning and afternoon swims in the Ganga, daily yoga and excellent food (there are a lot of German and vegan bakeries) was dinner with a group of original 1970s hippies including Brooke’s father Ira, his friends Mohan, Gypsie and Devendra. At the beginning of our meal Gypsie gave a blessing. It was beautiful.
One thing that became clear was that while they each shared a generational connection to India, none of the group had the same ideas about spirituality. This made the conversation fascinating. Everything was talked about; non duality and the self, which Ira believed and lectured on as a professor and translator of Sanskrit; Osho was preferred by Devendra and praised for the simplicity of his teachings (‘be aware of your thoughts but don’t go swimming in them’ and ‘I’ll sleep with your wife while you meditate’ was a running joke with Osho); between them the group had met all the great teachers of the day, studied with them- for all the difference of opinion there was a lot of knowledge at this table. The next day would be Mohans 73rd birthday. It was hard to believe, in his sun orange lunghi and half shaved / half long head of hair, he looked great. We all shared a few plates of tiramisu with ice cream. It would be full moon tomorrow too.
I left early next morning, taking the lower, shorter, direct route to Banbasa and my next country- Nepal.