Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, Ain’t No Road Rocky Enough… : A Voyage Through Spiti and Kinnaur, India

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The reality of the roads in the Spiti Valley

“A road so bad even goats avoid walking on it” is the description given for the 30km section between Chattru and Batal in the Spiti Valley. It was our first full day of cycling in this region – so at least it couldn’t possibly get any worse. It didn’t and I can’t remember many roads in my cycle touring ‘career’ that have been equally as bad. Even with my travels in Mongolia, it made its way into the top three.

The road from our camp to Chattru was quite rocky and steep in sections, with the odd riverbed to push across. It was strenuous cycling, and with Kirsty’s health worsening, she concluded that it was too much for her to ride. Also, I have learned that on rough roads, the difficulty of riding is increased considerably with a tandem. She decided to take a lift to Batal while we continued to ride. She definitely chose the right section to do it.

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The Spiti highway

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We passed tiny houses and locals on the roads with their herds of goats. A few motorcycles passed us on the road and we could see that they were struggling themselves to stay balanced on the rocky terrain. We stop for a lunch of watery paneer curry and dal and rice, before starting the notoriously bad road to Batal.

For the first 10km, I think we felt overconfident, because we concluded that the road was rough, but no where near as bad as people had made it out to be. We had quite a few river crossings that were shallow enough to put the bikes in their lowest gears and charge across, while fighting to steer over the large rocks. I found this section quite fun. But I spoke too soon, because it got worse – A LOT worse.

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“the road is basically a riverbed” – an accurate description by a French cyclist we had met in Ladakh

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Marcus getting it done

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me navigating the river/road

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…and then it became a boulder field

The smaller rocks on the road eventually grew into boulders and across these boulders were rushing rivers. We would attempt to ride against the current uphill before it no longer become possible and I was almost dumped sideways, soaking my feet in the freezing waters. These road conditions quickly went from amusing to exhausting and aggravating. A truck drove by us and took pity, handing over a bag of dried fruit and nuts to help fuel us. The last 8km to Batal was like riding over a rock beach. As Marcus exclaimed “they really saved the best for last.” A few kilometres from town we passed some road workers and when I stopped, I didn’t unclip from my pedals fast enough and fell sideways. I am sure the sight was quite comical – that’s how tired I was. One guy took pity and pushed my bike for me through the construction site. Luckily, Marcus was ahead and missed my embarrassing fall.

It Batal, we were happy to see Kirsty and heard that she had an adventurous ride of her own. At one point their vehicle got stuck in a river and they were there for a while trying to haul it out. Not an easy road for anyone. We were exhausted and slept in the basic guest quarters at the only dhaba in Batal. The turquoise lake of Chandra Tal was on the agenda for the next day.

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View from the road to Chandra Tal

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The journey was as inspiring as the destination

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Chandra Tal (Moon Lake)

Even though it was only 16km to Chandra Tal, it was a tiring ride with my legs heavy from the previous day. This lake is a detour off of the main road that came highly recommended in my bible, Himalaya by Bike. I loved the unusual pink hues of the mountains to compliment wavering strands of silver on the dried riverbed. The lake itself was a lovely turquoise, but the real attraction here was the backdrop. After some pushing up and over a steep hill, I found possibly the world’s greatest camp site. I can’t really remember any (and I’ve had many) that were quite that beautiful. When the sun began to set, it cast a heavenly ray that framed one side of the mountains.  This single, extraordinary beam of light reaching out and illuminating the valley floor is a sight that will stay with me forever.

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heaven on Earth really exists…

Along with the many highs we were experiencing riding in the Himalaya were the ongoing battles with illness. I had to keep a certain pace for India because I had a flight booked out of Delhi to meet some friends to cycle the Pamir Highway. Although we didn’t feel too rushed, it wasn’t enough time to stay anywhere for a week and fully recover. I didn’t want Marcus and Kirsty to feel rushed to accommodate my schedule. While Marcus and I had mainly recovered, Kirsty was still suffering from bad amoebic dysentry. She decided to catch a jeep to Manali and recover because riding the strenuous roads of Spiti would be unwise in such poor health. We made a plan to rendezvous in Shimla at the end. We were both very sad to see her go.

Backtracking on the Chandra Tal road we eventually reconnected with the switchbacks headed up towards the Kunzum La at 4590m. This would be the highest pass we would cross in the Spiti Valley.

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Marcus scaling the Kunzum la

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…and me behind…

The road was unsurprisingly rough with some steep sections. Pressing down hard on the pedals while trying to coordinate my short breaths, I sometimes went slower than walking pace. But when I got to the top that view was worth every forced pedal stroke.

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View from the top

The extraordinary colour palette of Spiti revealed itself on the descent. I haven’t seen so much pink in a landscape before. It was so unusual it looked like a setting in a surrealist painting.

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Pink rocks on the riverbed

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The rocky descent rattled our brains and were relieved to finally reach Losar, check into cheap accommodation and eat a massive meal. As usual, I ordered too much, but finished it all – french fries, momos and Tibetan noodles (thenthuk).

From Losar, the average quality road suddenly felt like a highway compared to what had ridden the past few days. We passed one village with one tiny restaurant where I saw the cutest rosy-cheeked children.

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Children just outside of Losar

We were treated to more wonderful mountain views and passed Tibetan style villages.

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Tibetan style homes in the Spiti Valley

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Monasteries could be seen perched high in the cliffs above.

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There were a view short sections with road construction. One of the workers had an excellent work ethic, blasting Indian dance music from his machine. We nicknamed it the “disco tractor” and it drove slowly in front of us for about a kilometre, giving us both a good laugh. It had surprisingly good bass. We needed to reach Kaza that day in order to obtain an Inner Line Permit before the weekend to travel onward as the road would pass very close to the Tibetan Autonomous Region in China. We took a day off in Kaza catching a lift the next day to Ki Gompa, one of the most famous monasteries in Spiti. On the drive up we passed some road workers fixing a small section. Our young driver told us that these people are only paid about 300-400Rs per day ($5-7). No one wonder none of them ever seem to be working very hard.

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An Iconic image of Spiti – Ki Gompa

We are lucky to catch the mid afternoon prayers at the monastery. My first experiences at Buddhist monasteries were in Tibet in 2011 and I always found the deep, raspy chanting to be hypnotic. Most of the prayer sessions I have seen used similar patterns in the sound of the chanting and use of percussion instruments at various points. This one was more elaborate – at one stage the monks put on strange conical hats and golden tiaras. When this happened we noticed that some of them were unable to keep a straight face.

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Morning prayers – Ki Gompa. Photo by Marcus. http://www.shesnotpedallingontheback.com

On our monastic tour, the next was Tabo gompa. En route we passed some very small villages, one with the world’s tiniest shop.

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Through that door is a tiny shop

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Marcus can barely fit inside the world’s tiniest shop

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The monastery in Tabo is noted for being the oldest continuously operating Buddhist enclave in both India and the Himalayas, founded in 996 AD. We stayed in the traveler’s dormitory. Morning prayer or puja, began at 6am. Although there were no funny black and gold hats this time, it was still enjoyable to sit and listen to the voices interlocking in their chanting. I think we were having a better time than the young monks that were yawning and barely staying awake in the back. Some of the older ones yawned mid chant as well.

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Stupa at Tabo Gompa. Photo by Marcus.

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Ancient frescoes inside Tabo Gompa. Photo by Marcus.

Afterwards, we entered the temples. The dark rooms only became slightly illuminated by cracks of light through the doors or the flickering of a butter lamp. In the partial darkness, you could still make out the elaborate centuries old frescoes of buddhist imagery on the ancient mud walls.

We rode a surprisingly smooth road to Sumdo, the first checkpoint for the Inner Line Permit. We passed a tiny army canteen where a friendly soldier brought us delicious samosas and some tasty bright orange pretzel shaped sweets. Here we are about 2km from China, the Tibetan Autonomous Region. “That is Tibet, captured,” he said. During the Chinese takeover, some families were divided – some relatives in Tibet and others in India. Now, separated by a closed border it is unlikely that they will see each other again.

We ride onward to Nako village past through more areas of road damaged by landslides.

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pushing through the mess

These are an ongoing threat in the Spiti and Kinnaur valleys, with unstable scree slopes threatening to wipe out roads and bury traffic at any moment. We eventually pass through a tiny “one horse” town called Chango with local women in the colourful Kinnauri dress.

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After a tough climb we reach Nako, a town in an extraordinary location.

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Nako

On the way up we meet Karl, a 68-year-old Swiss cyclist that had first cycle toured in India in the 1970s. We would cross paths several times over the next few days, enjoying lots of good conversation. His love for cycling was inspiring and I hope to be doing the same when I reach his age.

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Village clinging to the green springing out of sheer rock

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On the descent from Nako – green life fighting outward from the rock

We drop down from Nako and pass a friendly army post that is set up to provide travellers with chai (a little too sugary) and snacks. It is run by a very well dressed man that greets passing travellers by the road. The day ends in a small village called Spillow after a dusty ride through many sections of road construction.

From Spillow, the plan was to push on towards Sarahan to visit the Bhimikali Hindu temple. The road from Spillow is pristine and paved, but we know too well that this will not last. Sure enough, the familiar rocks and sand reappear 20km later. Our plan to reach Sarahan is thwarted when we come across an unexpected detour. A new power plant was being built in the area and the drilling for the pipelines last summer caused a landslide that destroyed the main road below. As result the diversion took us up 600m in elevation and an extra 15km out of the way.

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Quite the detour…

The steep switchbacks are lined with ditches of marijuana and curious monkeys gawk at us before quickly disappearing when we notice them.

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local greenery

When we finally get back to the main road, I think we maybe moved 7km since the start of the detour. With our original plan thwarted, we settle in the village of Tapri for the night. Now, the area has started to feel more “Indian” – colourful saris become a more common sight and the fly population has increased, along with the traffic.

The Kinnauri roads are a massive feat of engineering. It boggles my mind that someone could just look at a vertical cliff face and decide “let’s blast a road through it.”

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Insane roads in Kinnaur

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kinnaur road

The heat and humidity is starting to feel more oppressive and I already miss the cool air in the high altitude. In Jeori, we hitch a lift up to Sarahan, not in the mood for another 800m of climbing. The Bhimikali Hindu temple was tranquil place to relax with its nearly empty grounds and peaceful setting.

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Bhimikali Temple

We wanted to get a early start the next day for the climb up to alpine Narkanda. Ahead of us was a 37km climb that would take us from 900m back to 2800m.

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The green of Kinnaur

While Marcus suffered from a poor night’s sleep due to a backpacker snoring in the temple dormitory, I must have been tired enough that I heard nothing whatsoever.

The air grew heavy in the heat and was tiring but we were making good progress. The climb to Narkanda was unrelenting for the entire 37km, but we both felt strong and were reaping the benefits of cycling at extreme altitude on rough terrain for so long. 110km and 12 hours later we hit the India ski town of Narkanda -surely the Whistler of India? We got a room that was more “posh” than usual and had a massive dinner – a little treat for all the effort!

It was an easy ride on a busy road to Shimla, the end of the Indian Himalaya ride. In 1864, Shimla was officially designated the summer capital of British India. The town is ruled by monkeys and they see people as a major inconvenience. At our guesthouse I was told not to leave my laundry outside because the monkeys would take it.

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“This is our town”

I only had one night in the town and was taking the famous ‘toy train’ down the mountain from Shimla to Kalka and then another onwards to Delhi to catch my flight to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

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Shimla’s famous toy train

This was the end of the Himalayas. We cycled over 1500km and climbed somewhere in the realm of 30,000m. We celebrate with pizza, beer and various baked goods along the street. I was very disappointed that Kirsty was not with us. She would take a bus from Manali to meet Marcus the next day when she felt more up to the long journey as she was still trying to beat the sickness. I was really lucky to have such awesome riding companions on this epic journey full of so many highs and lows (mainly highs). But I’m not finished with these hills yet. The Himalayas still have their hold on me and I hope that my two wheels will travel its roads once again.

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“Heroes” of the Himalayas

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