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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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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The Highest Highs and the Lowest Lows in Ladakh

5328m. The Taglang La pass was beckoning us out of the comforts of Leh. Even after a few days rest, all three of us still felt weakened from sickness. At the point it was hard to know which food was really safe to eat. Still, we decided to try to cycle a short day to Thikse gompa, which according to my guidebook was an “iconic image of Ladakh.”

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Thikse Gompa

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Monk, Thikse Gompa

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View from Thikse Gompa

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At the top of Thikse Gompa

In Ladakh, Tibetan culture is colourful and thriving. During the cultural Revolution in China in the 1960s and ’70s,  Buddhist culture in Tibet experience a massacre – 1000 year old scriptures burned, monasteries reduced to rubble. Because the provinces of Ladakh and Spiti remained a part of the Indian union, Tibetan buddhism in this region remained protected. As a result, this extraordinary part of India has monasteries that have been untouched and preserved for up to a thousand years.

Thikse gompa was an impressive sight. We climbed to the top, from where we had amazing view of the valley and mountains in the distance. Inside of the rooms were fascinating statues including a gigantic gold Buddha.

Inside of a temple there was one terrifying statue of a god (I think?) that had many arms. Supposedly this creature represented anger and sometimes the emotion would become so intense that it would consume itself. Leaving the temple, we later camped at the base of what looked like an abandoned shrine. Barren mountains surrounded us, defined by the shadows being cast from the fading light. I slept well that night, hoping to feel more energetic the next day.

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Camping just outside of Thikse

I woke up the next morning feeling worse that the previous day. I knew from experience that it wasn’t altitude sickness, but my stomach and it continued to protest. On the way to Lato, we stopped at a small Tibetan restaurant. I asked for tsampa – a popular Tibetan breakfast of ground roasted barley. It wasn’t on the menu, but the owner dug through some cupboards, coming out with a large bag. I asked for milk, hot water and sugar to have with it. While I thought this was a safe meal, sure enough my guts paid for it again later.

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On the road to Lato

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The road carved its way along a beautiful river valley surrounded by wild, jagged rock faces and coloured rocks.  Small Tibetan style houses were spread out along the river. We reached Lato, barely a town with a few guesthouses and gorgeous areas to camp. We decided to stop here for the night and had a wonderful campsite. The stars that night were something of dreams. The three of us sat outside of our tents gazing intently at the clear streak of milky way, awestruck. The experience of a Himalayan night sky – the silence and the billion tiny balls of light against the darkness cradled by the mountains is unforgettable.

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Camping in Lato

We ended spending two extra days in Lato, which really wasn’t such a bad place to be stuck. Kirsty had a worrisome headache the first day and we had decided to play it safe. We knew that once we had crossed the Taglang La we wouldn’t be descending much below 4000m. If you got altitude sickness, the only way to get to a lower elevation would be to go back the way we had come or over another high pass in the other direction. In Lato we ate our meals at a cozy little guesthouse where we had Tibetan noodle soup called thukpa, along with the staple of dal and rice. There, we met another Scottish couple touring on a tandem, along with some Polish backpackers who had some panniers made out of cheap school backpacks to go with the bikes they had picked up in Delhi. It was their first bicycle tour and they were doing remarkably well considering the difficulty of the route.

The day we had planned to leave the guesthouse it was raining like crazy – a horrible cold rain and we could see that the Taglang la was shrouded in cloud. We decided that it wasn’t the most ideal weather for trying to climb a 5000m pass and ended up waiting one extra day.

Finally, the day came. We left Lato and headed towards the Taglang la. The weather was perfect and clear. From Lato the road continued to climb and climb. We got many thumbs up from passing motorbikes. I had seen more motorcyclists on this route than any country I had previously visited. Many were riding Royal Enfields, part of the legacy left by the British.

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Ladakh woman spinning Pashmina

Passing a small town about 8km from Lato called Rumptse I suddenly felt transported back to Tibet with the high altitude desert scenery all around and white washed houses. We passed a Ladakh women walking around spinning Pashmina by hand. As the air grew thinner, I started to adopt my high altitude breathing pattern of two quick breaths in, two quick breaths out. I had cycled over 5000m before, but this was with a support van in Tibet and I wasn’t carrying any of my own gear. With 35kg, it was a challenge. Once you get over 5000m, sometimes you can feel like you are barely holding on. And that’s how we felt.

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“almost” there! Only 24 km…

The headaches crept in and I felt so fatigued that I could barely think. There was an ultramarathon race taking place on this route (yes, seriously) and we met one of the support cars on the way up, but no runners. Since it was the end of the race the guy had all sorts of supplies to offer us – Snickers bars, peanut butter and a kilogram of sports energy drink. During this whole interaction I felt so out of it that I couldn’t even get excited over free peanut butter. I could barely get out sentences and felt like I was drunk. This is what high altitude does to you. If not taken seriously, it can be dangerous. But we would eventually descend low enough that it wouldn’t be an issue.

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The rigours of the climb taking its toll on all of us. Marcus taking a mental break…

The last 10km were hell. The last 500m felt like 500km. Then, the prayer flags! This time I didn’t get the usual excitement and surge of energy. I felt like I barely made it. Kirsty and Marcus were a bit ahead and I eventually caught up. We were all beyond wiped from the climb. We were almost too tired to appreciate the stunning scenery all around.

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“Unbelievable, is not it?”

At the top there is a sign claiming that the Taglang la is the 2nd highest motorable pass in the world. Supposedly the highest is the Khardung La Northeast of Leh at 5359m, with an incorrect sign at the summit saying it is 5602m. These are dubious claims as there are some roads in Tibet that are supposedly higher.

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View from the top of the Taglang La that I was almost too tired to appreciate…

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We took some photos, made sure to get one of the classic sign and then concluded “Let’s get off this f***ing mountain.”

One of the greatest rewards of a strenuous climb is the exhilarating descent on the other side. Well, the descent from the Taglang La was far from it – slow and rough. With all of the rattling, I wonder for a crazy moment if the climbing was less torturous. Eventually, we reached Debring –  a small “village” of parachute tents. All along the Manali to Leh highway are temporary settlements consisting solely of these parachute tents. Inside, they offer basic bedding and food. They are around usually from late June to mid October before the harsh winter arrives and the highway is closed until the following summer. In Debring, we decided to camp by a lake and had a dinner of momos (Tibetan style dumplings) noodle soup and omelettes.

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camping in Debring

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The next morning I felt so exhausted from the previous day that I could barely cover the 40 something kilometeres across the flat Morei plains to Pang. But the stark and beautiful scenery helped to ignite the senses and give me enough energy to pull through.  I was beginning to understand more and more why the Manali to Leh highway is considered one of the best rides in the world. The one drawback, however, was the amount of truck traffic on the road – more than I had expected. Also, the obsession with honking. But crossing the vast Morei plains there were barely any vehicles at all.

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Morei Plains

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Then, just before Pang, we came to a stunning river gorge lined with hoodoos.

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Descending into Pang

The town of Pang itself was quite filthy, but had a great parachute tent scene. Despite feeling terrible and low on energy, I still hadn’t lost my appetite! While Marcus and Kirsty were still battling sickness on and off themselves I was often ordering too much food and finishing theirs as well.

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Chilling out in a parachute tent in Pang

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The parachute tent scene in Pang

We spent the afternoon hanging out in a parachute tent and ran into some young British cyclists that we had met earlier. They were fast and full of pep and were sensible to be carrying half of what I was. Outside of the tents were a few bicycles and many rows of motorbikes.

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Motorcycling is immensely popular in the Indian Himalaya

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Crawling up the Lachlung La

_DSF3358  The next day, my health had a complete turnaround. I felt incredible. I can sincerely say that this day was the highlight of the India tour so far (maybe even of my entire tour). The first pass of the day was the Lachlung La at 5077m. Then. at the start of the descent, my jaw dropped at the scenery ahead and stayed like this for the rest of the day.

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Tara India

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Climbing the Nakeela

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Descending the Lachlung la

After a brief stop in a tent dhaba in Whiskey Nallah for some of our beloved ginger lemon and honey tea, we set out to climb the next pass, the Nakee La.

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Truck on the road towards the Gata Loops

After the pass, another treat lay ahead – the famous Gata Loops, which are 21 switchbacks. We were lucky enough to be descending them. Before we reached this point, we zoomed downhill through more epic landscape. It set my heart racing and I felt so tiny and overwhelmed in its presence. I thought to myself, this is why I bike tour and this is when I feel the most alive. _DSF3416
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The Gata Loops

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End of the Gata Loops

Racing down the Gata Loops was a lot of fun and from the top we had wonderful views of the river valley in the fading light. We camped that night and it was one of the best campsites we had in India so far (this was going to be topped in Spiti). The intense stars prolonged the magic of the day and I fell asleep with a deep satisfaction of what I had just experienced.

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View from our tents

The next day had a whole other character. It did start off with an amazing 20km to Sarchu. We passed another beautiful river gorge with wonderfully textured mountains all around. Really, I think I am running out of adjectives to describe Ladakh. In Sarchu we had a second breakfast of our beloved Maggi instant noodles and an omelet. Maybe too many noodles for me. While Marcus and I felt fairly strong, Kirsty was still suffering from the sickness that I had  finally managed to shake off. She had been on and off for a about a month and it was becoming concerning. These roads were challenging enough in perfect health. Leaving Sarchu, we cycled into a terrible headwind on a road that went from bad to worse. We had plans to cross the Baralacha la pass, but with the conditions this was becoming less and less of a reality.

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Ascending on the rough stuff

Today the truck traffic was especially heavy, sometimes with barely enough room for two to get by on the perilous roads. We ran into a traffic jam that was almost comical – two trucks on each side of a blind corner high on a cliff driving almost side by side, towards one another and then trying to pass. When they came to a standstill, we said “have fun with that one guys” and snuck by with clearly the vehicle of choice in an absurd situation.

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Back of an Indian truck – as if they needed to be reminded…

The road was really terrible – lots of loose rocks. We knew there was a parachute tent village called Bharatpur just below the Baralacha la and we decided we would spend the night there. A cold and unpleasant rain began and Bharatpur still seemed so far away as we were uncertain of the exact distance. We were thrilled to arrive and spent the night in a very cozy tent dhaba. This one was larger than usual with wood beams in more of a triangular house shape. We sat around the tables and wrapped ourselves in blankets, eating chips and drinking milky coffee. We didn’t move for about a hour. We didn’t regret our decision as the weather turned frigid. We met some freezing Italian motorbikers that said it was snowing on the pass. Clearly we made the right decision to stop! We slept in the main restaurant with bedding and about 3 huge blankets each. After dinner, I dozed off with an Indian version of American Idol playing on the TV in the background.

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Morning. Time to ride the last pass on the Manali to Leh highway. The weather had improved significantly, but it was still quite cold. We loaded up on omlettes and pranthas (a tasty, thick fried Indian flatbread) and set off. The road was still in terrible condition, with lots of short steep climbs that winded us. We reached the top of the Baralacha la at 4890m and then had about 60km of descending. It was cold, so we stopped a lot for photos. As usual, the scenery was mind blowing.

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Descending from the Baralacha la

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The landscape grew greener and greener the more we descended. Suddenly it felt like a different world.

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The return of green

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We made it to Keylong that night – an 85km ride, which was the longest we had ridden in a while. We found a budget hotel, that suddenly felt way too fancy with fast wi-fi. Kirsty and I indulged that night in a delicious butter chicken dinner and Marcus with some kind of chili chicken. At this point, everyone had had their fill of dal and rice.

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Mark and John, two Brits we met near Gramphoo

The following day the cycling was dusty, busy and rather unpleasant. There was lots of climbing on sandy or broken roads with construction. At the end of the day we made it just past Gramphoo, leaving the Manali to Leh highway and turning off towards Spiti. We met Mark and John, two English guys that were camping near the junction. While Mark lives in Tokyo and John in Paris they make it a yearly event to meet up for a few weeks and cycle together. Here are some of the photos that they took while we were there:

India Cycling 2015 Mark (796)

Entering the Spiti Valley

India Cycling 2015 Mark (770) India Cycling 2015 Mark (782)

Next up was the Spiti Valley and the notoriously rough roads. We had met a French cyclist that said one part of the road was like “riding on a riverbed.”

The road from Leh and left me completely amazed and I had heard equally great things about Spiti (aside from the disastrous roads).  One of the highlights had also been the hilarious road signs that are an amusing characteristic of the Indian Himalaya. We would see them on a daily basis. Here are a few.

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Reaching New Heights: Amritsar and the Srinagar – Leh Highway

My Shangri-La beneath the summer moon
I will return again
Sure as the dust that floats high in June
When movin’ through Kashmir

Led Zeppelin, “Kashmir”

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Climbing the Zoji la pass, Kashmir

Like the Karakoram highway in Pakistan, the Indian Himalaya had been a dream cycling destination for me for years. When India comes to mind, many people conjure up images of intense crowds and heavily polluted cities. The Himalaya of India couldn’t be more different. In fact, it can feel like an entirely different country altogether. Due to the extreme geography, much of the land isn’t suitable for human habitation. Having now cycled the Karakoram Highway, The Andes, Tibet and the Pamir highway I can say that the Indian provinces of Kashmir, Ladakh and Spiti have some of the most extraordinary mountain scenery I have ever ridden. My 1600km route through this dramatic region began in Srinagar, Kashmir through a region historically in dispute by India and Pakistan.

When I crossed the Wagah border from Pakistan to India I was a long way from the mountains. Like in Pakistan, I was still caught in sweltering August heat as I cycled to the hectic city of Amritsar. At this point I was eager to get back into the hills.

Pedalling into Amritsar I headed straight for the Golden Temple, the holiest temple in the Sikh religion. Out of the crowds and heavy traffic the temple was a peaceful refuge. Pushing my bike through the crowds, I eventually came to the temple grounds. I had heard about a free dormitory for travelers and opted to stay there. As I approached the building I noticed a bicycle with panniers, but not just any bicycle – a tandem! This was the first touring tandem I had ever seen. So, naturally I was eager to talk to the riders. A tandem bicycle is very exotic in this area of the world and many curious locals hovered around and stared at the strange “double cycle.” (the only real Hindi I learned)

Marcus and Kirsty were one year into their two year trip from England, heading eastwards towards Australia.We hung out in Amritsar for the next few days taking in the unique atmosphere of the Golden temple, while battling various stomach ailments – a welcome present from India.

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The Golden Temple, Amritsar

The ornate main temple is coated in 750kg of gold and is surrounded by holy water, where one can take a dip. Crowds of pilgrims with Sikh men in colourful turbans and thick beards glided in and out of the temple complex. When entering the temple, one must cover their head and remove their shoes. Inside of the temple are a group of musicians singing the Sri Guru Granth Sahib (Sikh holy scriptures). It takes two and a half days, 16 hours per day to sing the entire book – and when it is finished,  they start all over again. The tranquil music is broadcast throughout the temple complex adding to the serene atmosphere.

One of the most fascinating experiences of visiting the Golden Temple is to take part in its free meal service. With over 100,000 people eating at the temple per day, the level of organization is incredible. At the entrance, each diner is handed a metal try and joins the cue of thousands into the eating area. The line moves swiftly and I am directed into a large room with rows of people and their trays in front of them.

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Meal service for the thousands. Photo courtesy of Marcus and Kirsty http://www.shesnotpedallingontheback.com

Once I am seated people, whiz by with buckets of dahl and rice pudding swiftly dropping a ladle full onto the dishes. Next, discs of nan bread are dropped up and down the rows. They even come by for seconds. The most intriguing part is the dish washing service. Thousands of trays are washed and tossed back and forth with a rhythm that almost seems rehearsed. The loudest and most unusual orchestra.

While in Amritsar, we also decided that it was a good idea to check out the famous border retreat ceremony at the Wagah border with Pakistan, where I had just come from, 30km away.

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Getting ready for the border retreat ceremony on the Indian side (Pakistan was louder)

At the border, we took our seats in the bleachers, at the “foreigners gallery.” Loud, high energy Indian music blasted through speakers, amping up the crowd. It felt like I was at a sports match.

Through the border gates in the distance I could see that the Pakistani side was even louder than the Indian side. In hindsight I should have experienced it from the Pakistani side when I was there. The ceremony itself was a ridiculous show of military bravado between both sides. It was a competition of who could kick their legs the highest or march with the most authority. All of this happening with a loud drum roll in the background and crowds cheering. At the end, the flags on each side of the borders were lowered and the gates shut. While the whole thing seemed like some sort of parody,  it was completely serious. A entertaining way to symbolize the ongoing tensions between India and Pakistan. And they did this every night.

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Who can kick the highest? Photo from http://www.shesnotpedallingontheback.com

To get a better idea, here is a video from BBC of the ceremony.

The heat of Amritsar was getting to me after a few days, which didn’t compliment the assault on my stomach from a suspect Punjab Lassi (even though it was the most delicious lassi I’ve ever had). Marcus and Kirsty were also headed to Srinagar and we all had opted to take the train to Jammu in order to avoid the heat and heavy traffic of the lowlands.

We arrived at the train station around 11:30pm for our 1am departure and it was still stupidly hot. When simply sitting still and breathing makes you burst into a sweat, it is just too much.

Because the train was only stopping for a few minutes en route to Jammu, we had to sprint with our bikes towards the luggage car. We heaved my bike and tandem onto the train before anyone could tell us what to do and ran towards our air conditioned car. It wasn’t long before someone found us and demanded to talk to us about the bikes. Marcus went out to deal with the problem. Because we hadn’t officially booked the bikes, they had threatened to take them off. Really, a worthy cause to hold up a train of over 100 people for 20 minutes…

Eventually they gave up and we would simply have to pay a 1000 rupee bribe (about $15) at the other end for all the ‘inconvenience’ we had caused putting the bikes into an empty luggage car.

In Jammu, I continued to Srinagar via a shared taxi. Marcus and Kirsty had planned to cycle, but Kirsty was still suffering badly from “Delhi belly” and they decided to get a hotel for the night. The traffic was heavy all the way to Srinagar and the roads twisted and turned sometimes hugging the edges of dramatic cliffs. It really tested my tendency for motion sickness and with the insane driving I wondered if I would be safer on a bicycle, being in control of my own vehicle.

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Shikaras in Srinagar – like a water taxi.

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Sunset on Dal Lake, Srinagar

Srinagar is a unique place because of the communities that live on houseboats. Along with staying on a houseboats, you can take a shikhara ride (a small boat) to explore this watery way of life with floating markets. Like in most cities, I was a lazy tourist and instead wanted to spend my time preparing for the start of the Himalayan ride. The night before I was preparing to set off, I was adjusting my front brakes when I noticed a large crack in my front rim.

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Crack #2!

Just over a month ago, my rear rim had cracked just outside of Urumqi. “F***!” I thought. So then I had no choice by to stay another day in Srinagar to find a new rim. I went to Hero Cycles, India’s flagship brand, whose quality of bicycles made Wal-Mart bikes look like Cervélos (sorry if this reference is too North American – it means complete sh*t). I ended up having to go back the next day, because the mechanic was away. I ended up with a big hunk of Indian steel that weighed twice as much of one of my alloy rims. The best part – it only cost $10. I couldn’t take a risk with a poor quality aluminum rim, that looked like it would crack if I stepped on it. The shop only stocked 36 spoke rims and my front Dynamo hub took 32 spokes, so I had no choice but to carry my own hub and spokes and get a whole new wheel. So, armed with more weight, less braking power and the power of steel my bike was ready for the Himalaya (maybe).

My delay in Srinagar ended up putting me on the same schedule as Marcus and Kirsty, who had also decided last minute to take transport from Jammu. On a lucky meeting online, we decided to rendezvous the next day to start the ride together. The next morning, after getting a good laugh at my new steel rim we started out on the road to Leh.

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It was a very hot and humid day up to Sonamarg. For me it was one of the toughest I’ve had so far. The valley of Kashmir was lush and green and so far, fairly populated. This region of India is mainly muslim, with Urdu as the main language (also the official language of Pakistan). This area had a very heavy military presence and we could see many soldiers with AK-47s hanging out on the hills above the road.  It was nice travelling with a tandem, because for once the attention was being taken away from me! We would hear indecipherable words being spoken and all of a sudden “ohhhhhh – double cycle!” Whenever we stopped, a crowd of locals immediately formed.

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“Double cycle!!!”

I was completely exhausted when we arrived in Sonamarg and I guess in a heat inflicted stupor I failed to notice that my front brake had been rubbing on my new rim the whole time (doh! thanks Marcus!).

We had climbed over 1000m that day and would continue to ascend another 800m to the Zoji La pass at 3528m before dropping down to Drass.

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Marcus and Kirsty taking a break on the climb up the Zoji La

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Soft greens morphed into more barren rock as we ascended higher and higher. Today, I was relieved to be temporarily escaping the heat and really felt the lure of the Himalaya. There were still many army vehicles about and soldiers on patrol. We were never bothered, only for photographs.

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Military guys on the Zoji La, armed with their smart phones.

It was also becoming common practice for vehicles to stop in front us and having passengers run out for “just one selfie!” We met more touring cyclists this day than elsewhere in the himalaya. Amongst them were several men and women from Poland along with guys from Ireland, USA and the UK.

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A meeting of touring cyclists

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Polish riders

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Descending from the Zoji La

After summiting the rough but beautiful climb up the Zoji La, we came to a small tent dhaba (parachute tent restaurant) and had some Maggi instant noodles. This would become a staple of our Indian Himalaya diet along with dal (curried lentils) and rice. We descended to Drass and found a friendly little dive hotel, sharing a room for about $1.50 USD each. Drass claims to be the second coldest inhabited place in the world, where a temperature of -60C was recorded in 1995. Hard to imagine when it was in 30s when we arrived. There, we met a Russian cyclist with an enviable, ultra light set up of two tiny panniers. It was only a matter of time before I realized how tough hauling 40kg up in the Himalayas would be.

After the climb up the Zoji La, the road to Leh was in excellent condition. We enjoyed many long, swooping descents to Kargil. En route, we met Zaver from the South of India doing a 5400km ride through the country. At 30 years older than me, he could still ride faster than all of us.

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Having lunch with Zaver on his 5400km ride around India

The heat came back full force again and reached 35 degrees, even at 2700m. Kargil reminded me of Pakistan, with men running about between the fly invested shops in Salwar Kameez and girls in tiny hijabs.

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Girls in Kargil

We decided to take a break from the heat and indulged in several bags of chips and ice cream. We had opted to camp that night, but it was proving to be tricky in this area. Any area that was flat was populated. Also, my invaluable guidebook, Laura Stone’s amazing Himalaya by Bike had advised against camping from Srinagar to Kargil due to the military presence. We eventually found a place barely tucked away off of the road – not ideal and more like a last resort,  but not the worst I had seen. It was nice to camp at night with friends – something I often miss while cycling solo. I was also grateful for Marcus’s mechanical skills to help prevent my steel piece-of-junk front wheel from falling apart. While the rim itself seemed bomb proof, the hub was already rattling loose after a few days. Along the way I also enjoyed learning some British.

Me, preparing dinner: “Do you guys have any or-reg-enno?”

“Any wawt?”

“or-reg-enno?”

“Oh you mean or-ig-ah-no!”

“Uh..yeah!”

Another favourite of mine – Marcus pointing to his bike:

“If the bike was broken I would say, ‘that’s bollocks!’ But otherwise, I would say it’s the dog’s bollocks.”

Me: “Oh, like saying something is the cat’s ass…”

Leaving Kashmir

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We had now entered Buddhist Ladakh and monasteries began to replace mosques. In Mulbekh, we saw the impressive 30 foot tall limestone structure of the Maitreya Buddha. Scholars date it back to the 8th Century.

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8th Century Buddha

Today, unfortunately, it was Marcus’s turn for feeling under the weather. Since we had started cycling together, there wasn’t a single day where the entire group was feeling 100%. The food in India was just not agreeing with us. Still, we decided to push on and climb the Namika La  pass at 3700m. The landscape made me feel like I was on the moon. The descent was incredible – fast and smooth. Tucked low in the valley floor were villages surrounded in bright green – a contrast to the stark beige mountains rising above.

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On top of the Namika la

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On the descent from the Namika La

The scenery got more and more dramatic and hit its peak the following day.

We climbed to the highest pass on the Leh-Srinagar highway, the Fotu La pass at 4108m. As I neared the top, I could see the Tibetan prayer flags. With a rare burst of energy, I surged towards the top. Since I had the privilege of cycling in Tibet in 2011, the sight of prayer flags on the passes always stirs up something inside of me. For me it is reminder of imminent victory after struggle and the spiritual experience of cycling in the Himalaya.

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Iconic image of riding in the Himalaya – prayer flags whipping in the wind

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At the summit we met several cyclists in a group who had climbed up the other way. We met a few people on their first supported bicycle trip from the South of India that had never been at altitude before. They were absolutely thrilled to reach the top. An amazing accomplishment.

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Descending from the Fotu La

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Lamayuru Monastery

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The descent was exhilarating and from there it only got more impressive. In Himalaya by Bike we had read about an alternate route that went high above the valley through Lamayuru, known for its famous monastery. Along this road we would be descending down 17 hairpins called the Jalebi bends – through “the most extraordinary landscape you can imagine” as the book had claimed. With that description, we knew we had to take the road.

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On the high road above Lamayuru

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If you click on the photo and look closely, the tiny speck on the road is Marcus and Kirsty…

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And extraordinary it was. An incredible palette of of oranges, red and purple covered the surfaces of the rock faces. Watching Marcus and Kirsty’s tiny tandem from a distance glide along the road really gave me a sense of the scale of the land we were travelling through. With the road teetering at the edge of cliffs it sometimes tested my fear of heights. We passed some strange cream coloured rock formations that looked like a coral reef. Marcus and Kirsty described it better comparing it to a “giant brain.”

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Me overlooking the “brain”

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This place was a geologist’s paradise. Next were the Jalebi Bends – a truly awesome descent.

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Racing down the 17 Jalebi Bends

At the bottom, we couldn’t stopping talking about what we had just ridden through. For me, it was easily one of the top five stretches of road that I have ever cycled.

With only 100km left until Leh and the lure of good food and much needed recovery, we had ideas of completing the ride in one day. But with our continued stomach problems, we felt too weak and decided to split the ride into two days.

The amount and variety of food in Leh was overwhelming. Pizzas, pastas, shakes, smoothies, Israeli food, Indian food, Tibetan food, German bakeries, muesli and yogurt… it was paradise.

Leh was a good place to recover, even though none of us were able to feel 100 per cent. The battle was never-ending and it was taking its toll. My once large stock of Ciprofloxacin and Imodium pills for diarrhea was quickly disappearing. People weren’t kidding when they said that India was rough on the stomach. We had planned celebratory beer for reaching Leh, but in our weakened states, we lacked the energy. Instead, we ate and ate and ate. From Leh at 3500m we had about 120km to climb to reach the Taglang la at 5330m, the highest pass I would ever cycle (my previous record was the Gyatso La in Tibet at 5200m). With our current health issues, we hoped that we could regain enough strength for the challenge.

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A wise saying on the road…