Outside familiar & routine: A cycle ride

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This is about a week spent cycling to Leh from Manali, alone. This distance of 480 kilometers has sent me home with a few lessons. Some obvious – about physical capability, perseverance and comfort with uncertain weather, and some less obvious that I hope to probe with this act of writing. Besides, every journey works on the traveler at many levels. Two for me are at the inner (about the self) and for the want of a better word, outer (the worldview). The cycle ride was a chisel, working slowly on both these parts of me as the journey progressed. The process has been pleasure and pain in parts, just as the terrain itself.

The closest one comes to ‘living in the moment’ is perhaps when the immediate environment poses itself as a challenge to one’s physical ability to negotiate it. The more diminished the physical state is, more sharply focused is the person in trying to get past that moment, without thinking  about anything else. The days spent cycling have been my experience trying to live in the moment – completely occupied with the present and nothing else. In urban life, I see no other way, wherein, I can pull the plug on all the thoughts (and concerns?) about people, events, plans and pursuits that occupy daily life. And do this, without sitting in a dark room or a leafy retreat, eyes shut in meditation. Cycling in the Himalayas was an experience in being in the moment. It was about days lived discrete. No carry over and no drawing from either. Each day squared off as it ended on the highway from Manali to Leh. The ride was about a couple of days lived in solitude, trying to get closer to the sense of being alone that has often been an uncomfortable though in our regular lives. It was a conscious thought to ride alone, self-supported for the requirements of the seven day journey that I was about to make over high mountains and into the Leh.

Dinesen meant to say this about writing – (write a little everyday) ‘without hope and without despair’ and I took that to cycling. On this ride I wanted to ride a little everyday, without hope and without despair.  Although, it turned out to be quite different in the following days of the ride. The weather left a lot to despair. My own thoughts about life and its ongoing affairs, day after day, on those mountain passes, blew like cold headwinds of the passes. Thoughts troubled me. The act of thinking as well. The attempt was to get past the day’s climbs and the distance, to the next shelter on this highway.

First three days were constant rain and wind. As one got higher up from Manali towards Rohtang Pass, the rain increased. First night I slept with a resolve to roll back down to Manali and abandon the ride if it continues to rain. Following morning, I hung out with boys who worked in the clutch of dhabas at Marhi, from Bihar and Jharkhand, waiting for rain to stop and sun to show up. Neither happened. Instead, their repeated questions about whether I head up or down, made me try the first few kilometers towards the pass. Thirty minutes into the ride, the rain picked-up further, and so did the spirit to face it. With that began the uncertain second day of the ride, riding in rain up to Rohtang and beyond it, riding for six hours. Where did that will to continue on that morning come from? I do not know!

Second day ended in Sissu, a small village in Lahaul valley. I am given a room in a homestay as I stood knocking on a door, soaked in rain with a cycle. I change into the only other spare set of clothes and stand by the window looking at the mountain range I pedaled out from all day and to the sound of a high waterfall. Both intimidated me. Slept that night again with a decision to head back, if the rain doesn’t stop. By late night, that decision seemed to be weakening as I sat writing in my notebook in comfort of the house, warm with people of the house and kids completing their homework by the hearth. It continued to rain the next morning, affirming what I heard at Sissu’s tea shop and grocery store, with people discussing the unusual weather this year.  I have believed that no two days are same on the road. Sure enough I thought, as I got out in the rain again and road descended to valley’s floor and followed along the river until Tandi, a village by the confluence of Chandra and Bhaga river. Chandra and Bhaga – lovers, who as the story goes, take a walk around the holy mountains of Lahaul valley, fall in love and embrace where the river meets. The river further down the course gets a new name, Chenab.

Over a small bridge, I continued in the warm morning’s sunlight towards Keylong. An easy ride along the gently rising and sloping valley floor. Third day of the ride and the plan to abandon it was still lurking in the head. Keylong could offer an easier exit with the cycle, on the following day’s bus to Manali, I thought. By late afternoon, I rode into Keylong, having eaten two small snickers bars and nothing else. It wasn’t the ride’s physical demand. I felt it then as I see it now. It was the state of mind. The confusion, the pointlessness of it and the dissatisfaction of the familiar and routine life back in Bangalore. Before I can even think of changing something, I wanted to know whats going on. Keylong passed by in these thoughts. Jispa was up ahead on the road and it didn’t look like much effort to break the journey there. A lone man in one of the restaurants plainly explains that he can’t serve food as it isn’t convenient for him to cook for one person. He suggested that I ride down four kilometers further to Darcha.

The slow chisel of journey worked – I was pushed to Darcha, when instead I wanted to end the day much before that. Darcha was six kilometers ahead. A busy stretch of restaurant-dhabas, and a preferred stop on the highway for lunch by every passing vehicle on this highway, except the bikers who are cared for and served by Jispa’s luxury tents by the riverside. After patiently watching me finish lunch, the dhaba owner insists that I take the climb above and ride twenty kilometers more to Patseo or beyond, which might be closer to the next mountain pass of Baralach La. I didn’t want to. He was happy offering a bed in the dhaba for the night, but insisted that I do, after describing the road and conditions until next stop. Darcha’s settlement sat by the river which flowed through the valley floor. The way to north of Darcha is by negotiating the shadowing mountain with a climb of over 600 meters. What I lacked by the way of team, people along the way filled it. They insisted and I got out. Who are these peple? And why do they do this? Every time! Soon enough it began raining as I got on the ascent to Patseo. However, I needed to keep the kind man’s expectations and live up to his words ‘you are riding strong’. These were the first four days of the ride, which took me by surprise. I wasn’t sure of riding in such a weather. All the nights I nursed the intent to abandon. All of the following mornings, I got back on the saddle, pedaling further away from point of start.

Reading about wayfarers and their beliefs, Tibetans say that obstacles in a hard journey, such as hailstones, wind, and unrelenting rains, are the work of demons, anxious to test the sincerity of the pilgrims and eliminate the faint hearted among them. Matthissen wrote about it in The Snow Leopard. In retrospect, days of rain, wind and cold didn’t seem much of a test. Being with oneself was. The silence of long distance, isolation of landscapes and being in one’s own mind were greater tests. Slowest thing in the landscape was the bicycle, making one take only small bits of the distance each day. The patience that it brings along feels transformational after getting to the other side of this journey.

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At Pang, the morning felt as though I was home. The landscape was changing fast. Changthang plateau lay ahead. A five kilometer climb and one would get a straight, ramp of a road on this high altitude space – Moreh Plains. On this morning, there was no one to be seen for several kilometers, except the oil tankers and the herders – yaks and goats. The landscape was dotted with hundreds of yaks and goats making their way in the spaces between the mountains, foraging in the silence of this space. Grim mood of the past days dissolved, much like the snow cover on mountain tops that turned water after the sun came up in Sarchu, on an earlier morning.

A slow ride, at the pace of a bicycle makes for a strikingly different experience on this highway. For one, the rider comes close enough to hundreds of those faces that toil away in this cold, inhospitable region, constructing roads. Under the hoods of the jackets are faces of teenage boys and men in early twenties, with skin cracked in cold wind. Some of them appeared strikingly young to undertake this hard labour. In the many accounts of rides and travel on this road, I do not recall reading about these workers, almost clawing away the hill sides, as far as the requirement of the road takes them. From working on very high passes to dark and cold gorges, these workers from Jharkhand, Bihar, Orissa and other poverty stricken states, contribute an unimaginable amount of hard labour. On broken stretches of the road, we look at each other, as though a video tape set on slow-motion, as they take a moment to look up. The hammers continue to pound the hill sides, day after day, as long as the weather allows them to and India’s strategic interests requires them to.

The highest pass on the route – Tanglang La, lay ahead the sixth day. I can now affirm that in a good spirit and mental state no pass is high enough to scale. The defeatist spirit of first few days no longer prevailed. I was beyond the point of no return. Although, the delirium experienced in cycling up to this pass felt like I was a full two steps beyond my physical ability. Not sure of my control on the cycle, I rode closer to the right side to avoid rolling off the road into the valley unconsciously. Three hours of inching closer to the pass, the pass appeared plainly in sight and soon enough under the feet. I stood there in the cold wind, snow flakes falling on the jacket, trying to soak it in – the arrival at this place. However, it felt plain. Only a small realization about time and effort. Make the effort, however small and given enough time, one is over the highest of the passes.

From there on to Leh was a massive incline that I was thrilled to experience. One barrels down the road as though a darting falcon. I remembered with a wide grin, what a tour guide at Sissu said on the rainy evening when I stood dejected looking at the map. He mentioned that Tanglang La is as far as I need to make an effort and that after that it is no longer a man. It is a bullet shot from the pass to Leh. Almost 50 kilometers of blissful downhill ride awaits a cyclist from Tanglang La pass. It reminded me of the thrill coming down from Nandi Hill long years back, in Bangalore.

As I try to figure how to close this piece, I flip through my notebook for entries from every day of the ride. I notice that the pages only speak about terrain, weather, landscapes, people, hosts at several places and the sense of loneliness, solitude, intimidation experienced as well as the occasions when I sat eyes brimming over, trying to figure the road ahead through those teary eyes. None of these have been familiar and routine for me.

Arriving in Leh, the following day I shopped for books. I was hungry for words. Matthissen’s The Snow Leopard is perhaps what life wanted to throw at me. It is an account of his journey into Nepal’s Dolpo region with biologist George Shaller. What are the odds that he speaks of his inner journey to me, as soon as I finish mine. In a story written by a traveler in medieval era that he mentions, the concluding line is the following and which fits my little journey too –

‘One plods along in a state of amazement, sometimes smiling, sometimes weeping.’

 

 

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A trek into human imagination

A view of Sumeru range and Kedarnath valley from the trail.

A view of Sumeru range and Kedarnath valley from the trail.

“Asti kaschit vaak vishesh?” asked Kalidasa’s wife when he returned home after long years away from her and home. This question in Sanskrit means “do you have anything to say?” Inspired by each of the four words (of the question) Kalidasa is said to have written four epics of the medieval Indian Sanskrit literature – Meghdoota, Raghuvamsa, Shakuntala and Abhijanashakuntalam. I have not read these texts in their original form nor can I claim to have a good grasp of their themes. My exposure to Sanskrit remains limited to learning the language for five years in high school. But the anecdote conveys a great deal about human imagination. The tremendous range and depths of human imagination appears exasperating and at other times exhilarating. In this, I have often located myself as a traveler, exploring what it is that delights us? What is beautiful? And how do we know when we find see something beautiful?

Courtesy their experiences, exposure to absolutely alien environments, landscapes, cultures, languages, colors, food, customs, societies and lifestyles travelers tend to look at life in a much different perspective than they would have otherwise. It could have been a fair chance that had Kalidasa not left home and wandered for years, he may not have developed that ‘different perspective’ that I am talking about. Men and women across ages have ventured out solo or in groups to explore what lay beyond the immediate and apparent. They have almost always returned with life altering experiences which have also added greatly to human knowledge – Al Beruni, Ibn Batuta, Huein Tsang, Fa Hein, Marco Polo, Amerigo Vespuci- the list is endless. Of more recent times Lawrence of Arabia, Freya Stark, Pico Iyer (?). How does such an experience shape a person and how does his conception of the world change (perhaps slightly) is often a gradual process. Like this trek in the Himalayas four years back. What was adventure alone then is a clear experience in traversing the personal plane beginning with the outside. As I walked, putting step after step on that 14 kilometer trek to Kedarnath shrine I didn’t quite realize that those footsteps were not made on the physical terrain alone. They were also the first steps made into the self. Another terrain where I was beginning to know myself and explore how I related to others and what did I think about things that I hadn’t known were raging questions in themselves.

Spending a moment on recalling this journey is also due a chance encounter with a fellow traveler on a train to south India from up north (Kris, this is for you. And the Kedar pictures that follow). Kris has made me go over that trek in the Himalayas frame by frame (from what I remember) and place myself again in those experiences contrasting and mapping the distance I have covered as an individual in these years.

Pilgrims, ponies and the crowd at start of Kedarnath trail

Pilgrims, ponies and the crowd at start of Kedarnath trail

We were four of us on the trail. What we shared was an excitement for the unknown. An urge to venture out, test the limits of our physical selves and wrap in all the adventure that we can while we are still able bodied. This could be very Indian thought, for we believe that able body is a blessing and a matter of being fortunate. On their mutual love for science that brought them together, in a memorial address for Hermann Minkowski, David Hilbert says,
“… we also liked to seek out hidden trails and discovered many an unexpected view which was pleasing to our eyes; and when the one pointed it out to the other, and we admired it together, our joy was complete.” On that trail high up in the Himalayas our joy was pretty much the same.

Himalayas can evoke a range of emotions. This experience intensifies when a man’s faith is layered on this. Himalayas are an abode of many Hindu gods. High in the snow capped peaks are caves, temples and physical forms of divinity which are revered. This I think is a work of human imagination and a profound one at that. Perhaps the experience of witnessing the sight of these majestic peaks, the experience of being one to one with these enormous mountains was a spiritual experience. It is stirring – the physical exhaustion of having trekked so high and what one sees in such a physical and mental state. And to one’s imagination this was the divine one that he sought or never knew he sought but could make out when he found it.

The high point of the trek to Kedarnath temple was the awe inspiring fashion in which the magnificent Sumeru peaks revealed themselves for a brief moment from an overcast sky and on a rainy noon.

The imposing Sumeru range hidden in fog and clouds at Kedarnath temple

The imposing Sumeru range hidden in fog and clouds at Kedarnath temple

Kedarnath temple in the foggy Sumeru range background

Kedarnath temple in the foggy Sumeru range background

Sumeru range reveals itself for a brief moment

Sumeru range reveals itself for a brief moment

The magnificent peaks over Kedarnath temple

The magnificent Sumeru peaks over Kedarnath temple

Sumeru peaks

Sumeru peaks

Talking to Kris on that train traveling across the Deccan plateau, I was startled to know that he had a similar experience. He was on his way back from a trek to Kedarnath and I did it 4 years back. But the similarity of experience and his sublime experience made me wonder if that is how the nature plays itself out high up there. I would be happy enough to leave my ‘rational’ self and believe in this spectacular play of divinity manifested through the nature.

Photo credits: my awesome fellow traveler @praveenasridhar & me @tiwarisac