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Kinnaur Explorer bike trip
Asia bike: Another Kingdom in the Sky
Jan 2003, by Joel Schone
Kinnaur; sandwiched between the Himalayan and Zanskar ranges, a Buddhist kingdom, but not Tibetan. Amazing scenery, incredibly beautiful people, with its own Kailash, where Shiva is rumoured to spend his winters, smoking dope.
All my early ventures into Asia were on a bike, trekking came relatively late in a life of Himalayan adventuring, and sometimes in the bazaars of a Himalayan hill town, I'd bump into bike wallahs and chat, and bore my friends with how I'd like to do a two wheel instead of two foot trip. Last winter I finally made a brief excursion into Kinnaur with an Indian mountain bike, and fell in love with it again on my 3rd visit, so Corrin, a British engineer, was a gift. "Anything happening in January?", coming to India for some weddings, he was looking for a brief adventure, nothing planned, we replied, but we could arrange something, like biking the old Hindustan Tibet highway, then one of our Everest trekkers, Michael, signed up, and Kim dispelled her fears of cold, and came along too.
First hurdle, whoops, we had no bikes. Indian mountain bikes simply would not cut it, so I casually entered drift Nepal and told them I had a couple of friends in town for a few weeks and we planned on doing some biking. Three shiny mountain bikes were ours. Next problem, Mike had no Indian visa, so the day before the trip we had 15 day transit visas "not for vacation purposes". Vacation?
I had the procedure down pat from years of Asian biking. Turn the bars around, let down the tires and the saddle. Actually, yes, we had three bikes on the flight, and yes, there are two of us. The secret? A mountain bike wheelbase can't quite sit on airport scales, you have to support it. Make sure the front wheel goes first, and as the loader struggles to hold the wheel straight on the scale, support the rear of the bike helpfully, keeping an eye on the scale, don't go crazy, if you take too much of the weight, the guy behind the counter will not believe it weighs 5 kilo. He will go for, say, 10 kilos, thought. Very light machine, the guy said later in Delhi. Excess paid, we were on. Of course, Kim was there to meet us, and so was Largyal, summoned from Manali with his Tata Sumo. We drive to the Hyatt and they admit one elegantly clad and two scruffy adventurers. Uniformed flunkies fall over themselves to serve us cold beer and dinner.
Corrin is due in at 12.25am, and all I have to go on is he is wearing Salomon boots and a red jacket, and is tall. Kim spends the time colouring the air with adjectives about the professionalism of group leaders who identify trekkers by their shoes, and hitting on guys, at one point an entire Indian meditation group and then an 8 year old, despite the presence of his mother. Airports do this to people.
And then a tall guy wearing Salomon boots responds to Kim's shout, and we are heading North.
What to do?
Kim and I bundle in the back, and Corrin and Mike share the middle, as we drive into the dawn. Kim's bottle of wine goes around, and over us, and Corrin's kettle chips he was so kind to bring. We nap and then as day breaks the great scenery of Himachal is around us. Kulu comes, then we turn a corner and see the snowy Pir Panjal. We dither briefly over hotels then plump for the wood floored Mayflower. Dinner in Johnsons, and bed.
Corrin and Mike warm up by jeeping up the Rohtang and biking down; Tenpa, Kim, and I shop. The usual piles of food pile up on counters, and we run all over town helped by Singge, our adopted Zanskari waif, as excited to see us as we are pleased by his progress. In May he had his first ice cream, and hated it. For good or bad, he has turned from a homeless survivor to a real little boy, from Johnsons home made with walnut sauce to street vendor softie, he laps it up.
Another dinner, with Tenpa and family, and Largyal, our driver. Arriving back in the hotel befuddled by beer and exhaustion, I accidentally set fire to the huge wicker lampshade by my bed.
Next day, Largyal comes to collect our bags, and a slight problem. We cannot fit bikes, food, and gear in one jeep. So, we become a convoy to Rampur, where we start to bike. Winter Himachal slips by as we lunch on the Jalori past with a Himalayan backdrop. In 1988 this was a nightmare road, and I crossed it by moonlight. Now the km's pile up as we drive a slick road. By 6pm we are in Rampur, and by 8pm sitting down to a huge Indian meal, getting Michael to eat spinach by telling him it wasn't. I drink the cider Corrin brought me, before collapsing into a dreamless sleep, my first real one since Nepal. My uncle Alan, who introduced me to Cider and to cycling, had died when I was in Manali. This one was definitely for him!
"what did they say?" "I think they shouted 'Aiwa" A popular Indian TV advert for electronics has brightly clad westerners walking quickly down Indian streets carrying electronics as Indian passers by scream "Aiwa!" and apparently when they see bikers in Kinnaur they belt it out. In Sarahan, a demented looking octogenarian (?) would say what sounded like hi to me and I responded "Aiwa" and 10 or so people drinking chai threw their arms in the air and echoed me.
Rules of the road
If you hear a horn, move left; avoid erratic cows; don't brake on ice; and more came back after years away and Asia bike was there; 360 degrees of India, smell it, hear it, unfiltered by a bus window or Lonely Planet. Smooth hairpins, tiny hamlets, shouts of delight as 4 swift cyclists dance on their pedals through a cricket match (in the middle of the road). A kaleidoscope of images.
Trekking muscles became biking muscles as we pushed big gears all morning to the bottom of the hill leading up to Sarahan, and lunch. This is the capital of the kings of Bushar, the old empire built on the Pashmina trade. Crispy nan and spinach, and the colourful bazaar goers stand and check out the blonde and the colourful bikers. By 3pm we were pushing up the hill to Sarahan, past signs like "haste makes waste" and "the man who gets up late will achieve nothing" By 5pm we are in camp, looking out across the Sutlej valley to the Himalayan barrier. Soon 4 of us are curled up in our Mountain Hardwear Kiva (tent), enjoying happy hour then the usual Tenpa feast, and bed.
Next day: away. We had over 80kms to Sangla, but arranged for the jeep to pick us up at Wangtu, 50k away. After visiting Sarahan's temple and receiving our tikas, a long downhill to the road, chai, and push on, settling into the routine, Kim making sarcastic comments about why do I always bring her on trails and roads with 3000 foot drops. Cries of "Aiwa", wide eyed Kinnauris pressed against bus windows as we bowl past, and Tenpa and Largyal waiting with a huge lunch. Afternoon cramming in, as we look back, and yes, we are climbing. Effortlessly.
Round a corner at speed and images click like a camera shutter in my head, Kim's Colgate grin as she flicks past, yellow vest and day pack a splash of colour; Corrin, electric blue helmet, braving shorts, Michael in true Brit style with pants tucked into socks, looking for all the world like he's off to the garden centre to pick up some compost. Another corner, and in a patch of shadow I hit ice, dumbass, brake, and do a 360, going off and the bike hits me. No damage, but cracked the helmet.
Finally, " the Bridge", erected a few years ago after a flood, we pedal across and notice the sign that says "Wangtu 0" but no village in sight, so we push on, assuming its a mistake, and 8kms later come to another town where we stop for a chai, then another one. Where was Wangtu? in fact, where was Michael? Finally I hire a jeep to go to look for Michael, he waited at the bridge for an hour, which is all that's left of Wangtu. It was wiped out in the flood. The jeep arrives, we lash the bikes on, and drive up to Sangla. Tenpa and Largyal have camped in the garden of a guest house, to the horror of the locals. We all pile snugly into the cook tent, and settle into happy hour, chips and the wine from Nepal. Soup goes down as does more wine, in fact to Tenpa's laughing we finish the box, Kim tripping over me she's so smashed. I am left to sip rum with Tenpa. "Kim very drunk".
Next day after punctures are fixed and bikes tuned, we set off to Kamru, the old town, another Bushar palace, with the rocky outcrop of Kinnaur Kailash cleaving the sky behind. Last year I had no camera. This year just 2 frames left. Fated never to record the unrecordable, I enjoy this mellow place. A real piece of antiquity. We play with kids, and admire the main square. Music plays a major part in Kinnauri culture, in Hindu folk lore Kinnauris are "celestial musicians" and every town has a small bandstand for performance, like those at British seaside resorts. The drums and horns lay inside, as if the players had just popped out for a beer. I wander around a corner, admiring the wooden architecture, and nearly trip over a toothless old guy with a still set in the corner, local wine, I lean forward smiling as if to taste a drop as it filters through, and he shouts and gestures obscenely at me.
Finally, we get on the road, 18kms and a drop of 600m. Not for the fainthearted, the road is carved into the sheer hillside, if you went over you would go a long way. Lammergeiers wheel overhead, dizzy drops, the sun bouncing off Corrin's helmet far below. Asia bike! at the final hairpin, lunch is set up. Tenpa's delicious pitta flavoured with coriander, cheese, chutney, tuna and oodles of fresh salad. All followed by fresh chai, delicately flavored with a hint of pepper.
Then we kick into gear on rough dirt roads, avoiding potholes, stopping to ogle the scenery or join in the cricket matches we constantly pass. By 5pm we were at the junction of the climb to Peo, and pansies like we are, chose to drive up, as Kailash turns pink in the sunset.
"below them, as they stood, the forest slid away in a sheet of blue-green for mile upon mile. below The forest was a village in its sprinkle of terraced fields and steep grazing grounds" - from "Kim", Rudyard Kipling
A less than lovely hotel, but Tenpa has turned one into his kitchen, and produces egg and chips for our very British bikers, and lots of spinach, veggies and bread for the Asia-philes, Kim and I. All washed down with "knockout" beer.
Another day, another hurdle. To get to Tabo, we need an "inner line" permit, as the road passes close to the old Tibetan trade route, the Shipki La. By 10 we have met the man who does it, and by 11 we had our photos, forms filled, and present them to him. "Come back Monday," he says. Shit.
The DC is on/tour/holiday/not around. But the 4 of us rally quickly. Our handy jig saw puzzle map is reassembled on the bonnet of the jeep, and we knock out a plan. Bike to Morang, try and talk our way through the checkpoint, then take a new route back to Shimla. The plus was with this, we get to explore Kalpa (we discover this was the "chini" referred to in Kipling's "Kim").
Kim finds some new fabric, Mike buys about 6 pounds of peanut brittle to throw at dogs, and I get 3 rolls of toilet paper at what the shopkeeper tells me is the "concessionary rate". We dined in Michael's room, the scene illuminated by the ugliest chandelier ever created. Tenpa and Largyal discovered the local booze, giving us more time to shop. We were invited into the "winter room" and over the obligatory chai haggled for some stunning shawls.
Road? no road!
Tardiness gone, we were away at 7am next day, dropping fast on jelabi bends to the road, pushing along flooded roads, chai stops, and road workers, until lunch had us passing under the towering wooden fort at Morang that guarded this once crucial trade route. High above, the old town huddled under its ancient gompa. I made a quick visit to the checkpoint where the official appeared to be related to the Rakshi brewing man in Kamru, for he too gestured and shouted obscenities at me (Largyal had already bugged him for an hour!) So lunch, and Kim, Corrin and I decided to walk up to Morang where we would meet the jeep. Back to trekking muscles, and we visit the boxlike fort, like a giant genga game, sides hewn from whole, huge, tree trunks. At the foot of the hill, a puzzle, a chorten sits side by side with a Hindu Lingam, animism, Buddhism, and Hinduism coexist in this mountain kingdom.
Morang was another discovery; carved wooden screens, women brewing rakhshi with blocks of ice slowly melting, ornate wooden stupas on the rooftops. We lose Kim, and start looking for the road into town, to meet the others.
"Road?" no road, its not been built, and the rest house is in "other" Morang, over there a couple of kilometres away. Corrin and I try to find Kim, then he discovers by using the universal male sign for "big breasts" that she's on her way. We arrive as it gets dark and find there is no caretaker for the guest house, so pile into the jeep and head off into the night. Tenpa jumps out at what he thinks is a lodge, and disappears into the night. Some banging and shouting, and he jumps in, Largyal accelerating away smartly. He turns around, says "that hospital" and the jeep explodes into laughter. Eventually we are back in Peo, a smart hotel, and we hand our spinach over to the hotel, and tandoori and beer follows, me giving out the fox fur hats we brought in Manali for 100rs each. Endless "brave explorer" poses follow, Largyal and Tenpa denting their rum ration (they always ate with us).
The 8 piece map came out, and we knocked together a plan, drive to Bahli, a hill town just past Rampur, and bike to Shimla. Both Kim and Corrin were less than 100%, and a day off the bikes would be good.
Bahli was a success, a Raj-style bungalow on a ridge with a Himalayan backdrop, and dinner was set in Corrin's room, Kim and I camping. Middle hills cruising... No we never got past the "inner line", but then in the next two days we discovered the middle hills of Himachal smells of wood smoke, pines, and chai, amazing roads, sun dappled by the forests, one other vehicle in two days, apart from our Sumo, beeping past us with a sunglass-clad Tenpa laughing at us. Pull over to buy spinach or rum, and the chai stops (Corrin became a chai fan and Mike had a jar of Nescafe he would flourish in an aggressive manner). Behind us the whole Himalayan range, sparkling, sweeping away towards Nepal; days like this inspired the Hindu Epics, you could believe in the abode of the gods...
"Surely the gods live here!" said Kim
Wheeling around bends, poor Michael visiting the only two hotels we did not stay in!
And to finish in Shimla, summer capital of the British Raj, like a British seaside town plonked down in the Himalayas; the bazaar immortalised in Kipling's master work, a maze of alleyways, book shopping and the classic Indian coffee house, Michael in true Curzon fashion flouts the byelaws by riding to viceregal lodge. Wages and tips paid, we said goodbye to the boys (for a while) and set off for another great dinner...
"Together they set off through the mysterious dusk, full of the noises of a city below the hillside, and the breath of a cool wind in deodar-crowned Jakko, shouldering the stars. The house lights, scattered on every level, made, as it were, a double firmament. Some were fixed, others belonged to the rickshaws of the careless, open spoken English folk, going out to dinner" - "Kim"
Next day we endured the jeep driver from hell, Kim almost smacking him to get him to slow down as Michael sat seemingly paralysed by fear in front. By night we are on the wrong side of Delhi, driving around cows and rickshaws, the night assuming an almost hallucinatory quality as the tank registered zero, and his driving got worse, a wedding reeling crazily past us, jazz musicians and a groom on his white horse, but somehow, we made Pharakganj, and there is Don, an old trekking friend, come to take Tenpa's son for his operation. We laugh over beer and food at the image of 65 year old Don travelling 3rd class sleeper with two attractive young Tibetan women and a small boy.
The final chaos, nearly missing the flight due to another crazy jeep driver, sweaty westerners running across the departure lounge with bikes on their shoulders. That night in Sam's in Kathmandu Mike and I sat exhausted, swigging strong drinks, and looked at each other. Had we really left here 13 days ago?
Thanks to Drift Nepal for the bikes, Tenpa and Largyal for being such total professionals, Jamie for setting it up, Corrin and Michael for their great company (and Corrin double thanks for being a mechanic), and Kim for her usual good sense, and Kipling for inspiration!