Getting over the Rohtang pass and into a desert inside the himalayas was, to me, an obvious and undeniable example of my strength.
I even told Dan who shares my tattoo opinions (whether they are for us or not) that if I got through this section I would probs get a tattoo in commemoration. It wasn’t about the road itself (I believed I could however slowly ride it) it was the choice to do it, and furthermore the choice to do it when it hadn’t yet officially opened. I was the ignoring the cannot’s or should not’s, thinking my bicycle prowess could trump the mountains and believing that all these people who were telling me ‘no’ were underestimating me.
You can’t imagine how confused I was with myself when I was cycling back down the mountain at the end of the first day defeated having barely tried at all. I have been thinking through it ever since….
I had attempted once already to get into the veins of the Himalayas, back a few hundred kms in the district of Chamba where I learnt too late the pass was still very closed from the winter.
I had dropped my wallet in Jot, Chamba while out walking atop a quiet hill-scape in the evening, by the time I turned back to look for it, someone had run away with it, along with my cards and about 25,000 Rupees. I had to cycle to the closest large town to get a Western Union which was in the opposite direction I wanted to travel. I decided to move along from that entry point and try the one further east that was rumoured to be closer to an opening date.
The Rotang Pass, translates to ‘Pile of Corpses’ because of how many people lost their lives when trying to cross in bad weather. It connects the Kullu Valley (a Hindu area which is busy and over-touristed valley where I now was) to the Lahaul and Spiti Valley (a buddhist area where I was eager to escape the madness into a place where apparently nobody yet was).
I had told Dan that since this was the final stage of our journey across Asia, having decided to fly to Europe to attend this years Bike Courier World Championships, that I would make this final month one that exemplified our entire trip. To prove to myself that I had grown and show myself how strong I had become.
For the week leading up to Rotang I enjoyed the nervous back and forth of being confident and lacking confidence feeling it was all apart of the experience. I spent time in Old Manali a Tibetan settlement that is teeming with western and Israeli tourists, it has clothing stores, bong shops, leather goods and tattoo parlours, all to entice our vices. Step off the small main strip and the door to that closes and then opens to small, quiet homes with Tibetan families living the old life seemingly away from our nonsense. I spent time on the roof top of my new favourite haven… Zostel, a european style brand of Indian youth hostel that are the perfect escape for someone like me who increasingly feels more and more overwhelmed. There on the rooftop I couldn’t see the hectic and downright disgusting noise and pollution of peak-tourism New Manali only what surrounds it: green tall pine forests, waterfalls off cliffs, and snow capped mountains all shining under a warm but friendly sun.
I was strengthening my knees, stretching, thinking deeply and preparing myself. Why was this so important for me? Well our story so far, from Japan to India wasn’t exactly how we imagined it and I feel like a failure. We had spent too much money, we hadn’t gotten as far as we wanted to, our relationship was hanging by a thread, we had decided to fly to Europe for the Courier games which felt like running away. I wanted to do this challenging route to prove to myself I was indeed a cyclist who could cycle around the world.
The pass was still closed but I had plans on waiting till nightfall to get past the Indian Army if they said no. I had imagined the worst – that I would push my bike through meters of snow, that I would help them clear the path for days until I could get through. I had money for bribes, bought Northface knockoffs and my bike was so heavy with extra food/gas/and woolies that I could feel the frame wobbling under the weight.
I rode up the beginning of the pass, the road a friendly gradient. I stopped to talk to the Yaks (my new favourite animal) that where tethered on the side of the road. They had saddles on their backs and they were clean and seemingly well cared for apart from the ropes having been thread through their noses. I wondered for a moment (not sure of a Yaks temperament) how you would go about piercing a yaks nose.
I could see the snow disappearing from the mountain tops, the sun was strong and the snow was slowly sliding down the mountain like a gargantuan melting ice-cream sundae. The grass was green and the mountains looked as if someone had pulled a flowering meadow up and hung it over a chair like a rug. Little rivers flowed down between neat wild gardens with small mountain flowers on the impossibly steep hillside. Horses grazing on the 50% gradient hundreds of meters above, goats and sheep even further up looking like sesame seeds sprinkled on the side of the mountain.
That night I camped beside a small cluster of eating houses. The younger boys helped me erect my tent, hammering down the pegs telling me that in the morning the north wind is strong. The sun went down in a long lasting dusk and as the night went black it was hard to decipher the lights on the mountains to the stars in the sky. To me it was unbelievable that people would or could live in the tips and sides of these mountains, and even more unbelievable that I could see pinprick moving lights of the torches moving around up in the heavens of those hills. Feeling like I was somewhere special.
Later some boys started throwing rocks at my tent which brought me back to India.
India had been difficult place to cycle, with rigorous planning it could of been done much smoother and less expensive but it isn’t in our nature to plan so meticulously. We came to India to challenge ourselves but for me that was our first mistake which hindsight has kindly pointed out to us.
I had received emails with people who had cycled in India saying flat out ‘don’t do it’. It has been a long, lonely and hardening lesson that I will now also pass onto others if they asked me. It’s not India’s fault, I don’t blame it, it is me, I am too sensitive.
That night I got sick. My body cramping and nausea stopped me from sleeping. In the morning I hung over the table and chairs having laboured to pack everything away in the fierce northern wind that indeed came that morning.
I didn’t move for 2 hours, in and out of sleep, in and out of the toilet. I had no energy. After trying to eat some toast I cycled up, unable to see the beauty of the area, I just peddled staring at the very edge of the road which was the only room I had while hundreds and hundreds of cars whizzed past me blowing thick, black smoke fumes into my face. I thought to myself perhaps the pass had opened because I didn’t expect so many cars to the travelling it.
Traffic became so dense that I couldn’t cycle, people were standing outside of their cars like they do in serious traffic banks. I pushed my way wiggling around, ignoring everyone like I do these days, cars were parked all along side the road in ditches and up on mounds, anywhere there was space. Thousands of people were walking around the hillside under the bright hot sun in 80s ski suits drinking whisky next to the pristine rivers, and taking selfies. After a couple of kms I found the barrier to the Rotang Pass with the army men guarding it. They told me I couldn’t pass.
Whatever plan I made I no longer had the willpower to do it. A group of men, after explaining I felt ill, let me sleep for 2 hours in the back of their car as they walked and drank around the mountainside. I lay there in and out of sleep, every time I woke up I felt a new wave of disenchantment and failure.
Simply to get away from the pollution and neon ski suited people who had infiltrated my dream mountain, I turn back down and left just as a storm had come over the scene and started raining icy droplets onto my face. I just cycled that back the way I had come, past spoiled Manali and back along the river just cycling, not thinking, not feeling, just letting my bike wiz me away in a direction which felt like I was leaving India.
It wasn’t that the day was particularly difficult, what was obvious is how weak I had become, that all it took was a bit of sickness, busyness and an unchallenged ‘no’ from the Army for me to give up and want to go home. I was drained and lonely, and upset, and not at all strong of mind like I had thought. 3 months of challenging cycling in India has made my bike heavier, my mind weaker, my patience shorter, and my dreams hold more weight.
I am not sure why I feel the only way to be successful is to push as far as I can, it is ridiculous since I’m not even that strong willed of a person, my belief on how far I can push far outweighs my ability, so I am always disappointed.
An Australian girl I met in Myanmar who frequents India and to me is something of an authority on the subject said the other day ‘there are experiences I have chosen to walk away from because I want my love for India to grow not decline’.
I wince a little when I say I love India. I do, it’s the most interesting, most challenging, and most rewarding country in the world (not confirmed). There is an infinite world here and while the rich use it as a place for spiritual enlightenment, the young use it for adventure, the world uses it as an example, Indian’s use it as a home, I have used it as a way to understand that I am not as strong as I thought.
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