Thursday, September 14, 2006

To Demul and back

The next morning when I woke up and stepped out of my tent in the high mountain pastures of Demul village at 4200m, the view that greeted me was simply stunning. In front of me a small collection of square Spitian houses perched on top of a series of rich agricultural terraces hung precariously at the head of a steep gorge. Our planned ride for the day, a thrilling switchbacking 800m descent headed straight down that gorge. The local were a little surprised to say the least, shouting at us as we passed that there was no road that way and the road was broken (meaning that the road was blocked by landslides). We smiled and carried on anyway.

The next couple of hours were filled with switchback after switchback followed by steep stony runs and impossibly tight singletrack. ‘What a way to finish the trip’, I was thinking. The trail was changing its character from moment to moment. One minute the corners would be straightforward, then just on a bit they would suddenly become tight and technical with tricky little drop offs right on the apex of the bend.

On one of the more daring switchbacks, trying to ignore the hundred metre drop to my left, I realised mid-move that it was all going horribly wrong. I was picking up more speed than my brakes could cope with in such a short distance and I decided that the only way to stop this becoming messy and spilling blood all down the mountainside was to throw myself and the bike onto the ground whilst there was still ground around me. I came to a painful sliding stop with my bike hanging over the void, still held on to me by my feet in the clips. Looking around, nobody had seen me, thank god, pride, bike and body still intact, I gave the trail a little more respect after that.

At the bottom of the gorge, we crossed the river on a narrow bridge and continued along on wheel wide singletrack to a short hike up and then more narrow trails to arrive on a wide truck road heading up to Lalung Monastery. I was keen to see at least one monastery during my visit. We were now just kilometres away from the Tibetan border and Buddhism was all around us. At the monastery we took off our shoes and covered our legs and shoulders as a sign of respect and entered the inner temple. Lalung monastery is almost a thousand years old and the walls were covered in paintings and carvings designed to both inspire and put fear into the devout.

Leaving the temple we were asked if we would like to visit the Lama and take tea. I felt privileged to be part of this ancient ritual of giving tea to strangers and sitting on the low benches of the lama’s room took a moment to reflect on the uniqueness of this region. I hoped that I wasn’t the first of an influx of tourists that would change all that. For the riding, the scenery, the unique culture, and the people it would be hard to beat a trip like this. For the ascents, the altitude and the Delhi belly, it would be hard to ignore the pain, but for anyone wanting an ‘out there’ experience it was worth it all.

Even after two weeks on the trail with two people who knew the area pretty well, I came away thinking that we had only just scratched the surface of what was possible in terms of riding. Everywhere we rode, we saw yet more interesting looking singletrack snaking off to who knows where in the distance. For anyone wanting an adventurous trip be that heading out to explore on your own or as part of an organised trip the area has much to so much to recommend it.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Back with the team and on to the monastry at Komik

With Jim safely in recovery, Cara, myself and Funjuc headed back to meet the others. Whilst we were away they had ridden up to a small mountain village and without the jeep to support them had stayed in a local house and eaten with the family. For Andy this truly local experience was the highlight of the trip. We caught up with the team again in Kaja, the main village in the Spiti Valley, at a comfortable Tibetan style guest house and made plans for the last couple of days of the trip.

The following morning we took off early, and as usual it was straight up and out o the village, at first with the luxury of a tarmac road and later once into the high hills again, back onto rough dirt tracks. We were aiming for lunch at the small village and monastery of Komik and then on over the mountains on a broken jeep free road to spend the night at what must be one of the prettiest villages on the planet – Demul. At 4500 metres, Komik claims to be the highest village in India. We spent a long lunch there, and having missed a couple of days of the trip and a couple of days of acclimatisation I have to admit that the altitude was catching up with me. On from Komik the road continued to climb to another high pass.

At the top the others were waiting for me, as I staggered to the top feeling like death. Cass had talked about mouth-watering singletrack on the way down from here, but with my head pounding like a jack hammer, I couldn’t think of anything except down and quick. Whilst the others set off down fabulous singletrack, I just continued on the rough doubletrack with my head banging every time I hit a bump. By the time we reached the main road again, what seemed like a life time later, someone had finally switched off the jack hammer and I was once again able to think rationally. Unfortunately we had to go back up the hill to get to a camp, and not wanting the jack hammer back I opted for a lift in the jeep.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Chandra Tal and Jim's lungs

"Chandra Tal Lake on route to Spiti"
"Jim's lungs are not looking too good at 4000m and we have to head back to the hospital in Manali"

Cass offered a semi rest day with a short optional ride up to the lake for a walk and a swim if anyone wanted it. Good job too, as Jim was looking a bit crook and had woken up with ‘funny gurgling noises in my chest’. Now I used to work as high altitude mountain guide, and when someone says that to you, it generally only means one thing – Pulmonary Oedema, a very serious form of altitude sickness. Jim wasn’t showing any other of the usual symptoms though, so we decided to see how he was with the opportunity to rest and acclimatise some more.

Whilst Jim rested, the rest of the team of Cass and Cara, Dan the Aussie traveller and Andy, part time Iron Man and full time chicken farmer, headed off to the Lake. Half an hour later, happy that Jim was OK for the time being; I decided to catch up with the others for some of the sublime singletrack on offer at the lake. Cutting the corners on the road, I rode steeply up dusty singletrack to arrive at one of the bluest lakes ever seen. By the time I got there everyone was chilled out in the sun soaking up the ambience. The ride back was as promised, sublime. Kicking up dust from our wheels, you either had to ride just about blind or drop back far enough to be able to see the ground through the dust again. Under the dust, hard packed earth offered fast playful riding with any number of line choices.

We rolled the last steep section into camp and arrived laughing like children after such an effortlessly fun descent. By the early hours of the morning it was obvious Jim wasn’t getting any better. I could hear the ‘funny gurgling noises’ without even putting my ear to his chest, his pulse was over 100, a sure sign of respiratory distress and he was feeling just ‘crap’. I woke Cass and Cara up at 5am and suggested that we go back with the jeep to the hospital in Manali whilst the others go on. The next six hours were almost the most worrying of my life, checking Jim every few minutes to make sure he was still conscious, with him improving as we dropped down from Chandra Tal back into the valley and then deteriorating again as we had to re-ascend to 4000 m to cross the Rothang Pass.
By the time we got to Manali and the oxygen rich environs of Manali, Jim was up and walking about again. At the hospital they took x-rays of his lungs, checked his blood oxygen levels and gave him a variety of tests. The outcome of all this just confirmed what we already knew, he was very sick, his blood oxygen levels were at 60%, dangerously far below the normal 95% for that altitude, and his right lung was full of fluid. It was obvious that Jim was not going to be getting out on his bike again on this trip. Pumped full of drugs and hooked up to oxygen, we booked into a private room for the night so that I could stay with him. In the morning all the doctors at the mission hospital including three British medical students came to see him, so fascinated were they all to see real pulmonary oedema in the flesh.

Sunday, September 10, 2006


"Alfresco breakfasts and fur coats on route to Spiti Valley"

The next day we were up at 6am for an alfresco breakfast and an early start on the ride up and over the Rothang Pass. As we continued to climb the 16 km of tarmac to the pass, the road gradually disintegrated into potholes and dirt, with the occasional sliding tata truck to keep you on your toes. Lucky with the weather, it was cold but clear at the top, and unlike the Indian tourists from Delhi, we didn’t need to hire one of the gaily coloured coats or pairs of welly boots to keep warm, though Jim just couldn’t resist the temptation to try on one of the leopard skin prints – what can I say?

Dropping down the other side of the pass we headed straight off-road. Why take the road when you can cut off the corners on fantastic alpine style singletrack. We started with an eyeball jarring race down a rocky path followed by a sudden plunge through a small stream. At the back I watched as Cass’s bike disappeared up to the hubs in water. Miraculously he survived without a dunking, but I chose discretion and scouted out along the banks for a slightly tamer crossing.

As the road dropped dramatically down into the next valley, the shortcuts too got steeper and steeper and there were a few comedy moments as Dan and Andy both had their over the handlebars moments. Judicious choice of line was the order of the day. Following goat tracks and local’s short cuts, the trail wasn’t at all safety conscious and this definitely wasn’t Glentress. At one particularly steep section with a yawning drop to my right I unclipped my upper foot from the pedal. Situations like this I have no pride and would rather dab than fall. I admit it I’m a ‘big wuss’.

On from here and we danced down the last narrow section of short drops and small boulder chokes to turn up back at the road and a small dabha. Back down to 3000 metres at Gramphoo and we had just descended a 1000 metres and almost all of it on singletrack – beat that! It was obviously time for tea again. Replenished we were ready for the long trek along the valley to another idyllic campsite at Chatru. The following day was another gruelling climb along a long unpaved road following the impressive Chandra River. By now, we were riding at 4000 metres and with everyone feeling the effects of altitude, a general weariness was creeping into the group as we arrived at the high meadow campsite near Chandra Tal.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Onwards and upwards from Manali

"Evening meal at Camp 1 at 3400m outside Mahri"
More used to organising our own expeditions from scratch in the past, the criteria for this one was simple. We wanted a trip that wasn’t too commercial, had some challenging mountain biking and took us somewhere remote and interesting in good company. Surfing the net for inspiration Jim came across Cara and Cass’s website, and was inspired by their beautiful photographs and the idea of a small semi supported trip into a isolated area only recently opened up by the Indian Government to outsiders.
The plan was to ride out of Manali up the road towards Leh and over the Rothang Pass. On the other side we would turn off the main road and follow the road to the Kunzum La Pass to drop down into the start of the Spiti Valley, then follow the valley via several high mountain villages and Tibetan style monasteries to finish at Kaja. We would be totally self sufficient during the day and then met at our camping spots by our jeep and driver in the evenings. And believe me you really didn’t want to be pulling a trailer with all your kit for two weeks over those high passes. After a traditional breakfast of porridge and omelette at Johnson’s CafĂ©, we rode through the narrow streets of Manali, dodging tourists and rickshaws, passing teahouses galore, and settling into a steady pace up the tarmac road towards the Rothang Pass. There was no hurry; the road took us from 2000m at Manali up to 4000m at the Pass, and after a stern warning the night before from Cara about the dangers of altitude sickness, the slower the better.

It started easily enough, a steady grind to warm up the legs and nowhere near the granny gear until we reached about 3000m. By then the altitude was definitely kicking in and any excuse for a photo or a tea break was widely welcomed. Four o clock in the afternoon and 1,400 metres of ascent we arrived just below the pass at the small settlement of Marhi. Consisting of little more than around twenty cafes and teahouses and a tiny Buddhist temple, the ‘Dabha’ as these settlements are called, was full of activity, as a truck stop and tourist rest.

At Marhi we met up with Funshuck our driver and Norbu our cook for the trip. The tents were already up and the boys were making a start on dinner. Finally it really felt like we were on our expedition, and for the first time we had a real chance to look around us and relax.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Delhi to Manali

"Prayer flags at Kunzum La, en route from Manali to Spiti"
Even as we drove through the city at 4.30am, Delhi was still busy, but it wasn’t really until the next day after a few hours sleep in a simple hotel in the middle of town, that we wandered out into the streets and got the fully Delhi hit. Yes, there really are cows in the middle of the street, surviving on eating the rubbish of the hundreds of little markets that thrive on every street intersection. As well as the cows, to walk up the narrow streets by the railway station where we were staying, you had to negotiate bicycle rickshaws, motor rickshaws, taxis, mopeds and oxen with fully laden carts.
This is the Indian equivalent of wandering around the streets surrounding Victoria Station in the middle of London. In the market stalls we bought all the little things we needed for our trip, checked out the bicycle repair shops (just in case the bikes hadn’t survived the trip from the UK) and then went to meet our next challenge; finding the bus station and the bus that we were booked onto to take us the 16 hour drive up to Manali in Himachal Pradesh in Northern India and the start of our journey by bike to the remote and little visited Spiti Valley.
This was when we discovered that our bikes really were people (we knew that all the time), when we were told that for them to travel on the bus we would need to buy them a seat each. I trudged back in to the ticket office ready to argue that two bike bags didn’t really take up that much space, not really. I must have been convincing as the ticket man and let me off with buying just one half price child ticket for both of them. So now I know that my bike is not only a real person, but is just a little child too! The sixteen hour bus journey really did pass quite quickly, watching the city go by, eating Aloo Jeera and Dahl for supper and breakfast in local service stations, and finally gazing at the awesome river and mountain scenery of the Kulu Valley as we entered the cool and green town of Manali.
By now we were 2000 metres up in the foothills of the Himalayan chain. We stepped of the bus to be greeted by Cara. This was the first time we had met in the flesh and with all of our early delays and the problems of communication, it was good to finally arrive and Cara’s relief at our finally arriving was obvious. We unloaded the bags and jumped straight into a taxi for the short ride up to ‘Old Manali’ and the Sunshine Guesthouse were we hooked up with the rest of the team and spent a pleasant couple of hours on the terrace reassembling our bikes and talking shiny bits.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Manali Road Trip

I've done more than my fair share of world travelling by now,both with work and for play, but never before had I had quite such a unremitting collection of delays before. Finally today after 4 days of travelling we have arrived in Manali in Northern India. For it while it did seem like someone was trying really hard to keep us away from the place. Plan was to get the Scotland book out, have a couple of weeks getting it to the shops and then jet off for a much needed holiday ( busman's holiday) in Ladakh. Things dont always go according to plan though.

The Book was having a very painful birth with delay after delay in the printing, and then just as I was about to leave the office on friday morning to fly to India, our agent at the printers phoned up to say that they had made a mistake in printing the cover - he didnt go into details, but I had this image of it being upside down or something - and that we would have to reprint it, meaning another few days delay. So here I am arriving in India at around the same time as the book arrives in the office, and poor Ali having to sort our 5000 books all on his own. Then when i finally did leave the office to drive to Heathrow, I distractedly filled up the tank of my diesel car with PETROL., and standing on the forecourt with a petrol nozzle in my hand, a plane to catch and a queue of cars behind me, I knew this was not good. I almost wept. 7 hours later and tank drained and cleaned, I was on the M6. Surely everything would go smoothly now, but there was a niggling doubt in the back of my mind, after all 'bad things come in threes'. We were flying from Heathrow on the 5.10pm to Delhi on Saturday with British Airways. 'Great' i thought when Jim booked us onto a BA flight, 'its nice to fly on one of the more mature, professional carriers now and again'.

When we arrived at the airport there were queues OUTSIDE the airport and all along the pavements. I assumed this was all due to the security threats they had had recently and didnt worry about it too much, until the anouncement came on the tanoy that all BA flights had been suspended due a luggage belt failure. 5 hours of queueing later and they finally announced that ALL FLIGHTS THAT DAY WERE CANCELLED. Thousands of people were totally stuck at airport. Being good Brits and all that we patiently transferred to the queue to rebook our flight for the morning. 2 hours later and about 20 people from the front, along came a man who said, sorry the bookings desk is closing. 2 mins later he came back and said,'no its OK its going to stay open'. Then 2 minutes later, back again, and you've guessed it, the desk was closing. Now 10pm at night we realised we were going to have to admit defeat and go away. Luckily we managed to get a doss for the night at Jim's folks who live just outside London. A bit suprised to see us at 11pm, they nether the less fed and watered us and gave us a bed for a few hours. Next morning, dragging ourselves out of bed at 4am ready to do battle with BA and get ourselves on a flight to India, we headed back to the airport. We were stunned when we managed to book straight on to the next flight at 10am that morning. Elated, we thought that all our delays were finally over. At 8am we dutifully went through checkout and headed for a bit of retail therapy in the departure lounge. 10 minutes later and there was suddenly a loud continuous ringing sound, not unlike a fire alarm. Yup, now that we had finally got into the building, there was a fire and people were being moved out. There must have been a God out there somewhere, one who thought we might have had enough by now, and we were allowed back in just in time to board our flight.

FANTASTIC. We were just sitting comfortably when the captain announced that there would be a slight delay, whilst they moved some luggage around in the hold to realign the trim of the aircraft. 'Never heard that one before'. An hour later, still sat on the runway at Heathrow, and the announcement came, they had aligned the trim, and whilst doing this had found ' a small fuel leak in the aircraft'. 'Nothing to be alarmed about'. As a series of fire-engines drew up and lined them selves up outside the plane, i was alarmed. Maybe there was a reason why I had put petrol in my deisel car, maybe there was a reason why the plane didnt take off yesterday, it was all a terrible warning, my paranoia was shouting. 4 hours later, and the captain calmly announced that the leak had been fixed, the fire engines drove away, it was safe to use a mobile phone away and we would be leaving shortly. There was a loud sign of relief from a lot of very anxious people on the plane as we finally left the ground and headed for Delhi. Once in the air the flight was straightforward. Arriving at Delhi, we collected our baggage and bikes and started looking for Cara from OUT THERE BIKING who were arranging our trip for us. Now it hadnt been easy to keep in touch with them, whilst all of the last 2 days carnage had been going on, and we had had to keep making arrangements and then keep changing them as things had gone on. By now it was 4am Indian time and we had been travelling for 2 days and were much in need of bed and a shower. 'Where were they'.

You've guessed it, where they were was not in the airport. We learnt later that Cara had had to go on with another client to Manali, where our trip started from, and she had arranged for a local taxi driver to meet us at the airport and take us the hotel. At the time we didnt know all this. We also didnt know the address of the hotel, or any hotel come to that, or Cara's contact number in Manali. We were kinda stuck. The only thing to do was go to sleep and worry about it in the morning. I'd been dozing for about half an hour when a woman near us pointed out that a man outside had been knocking on the window and pointing excitely at our bikes. Eventually she thought she had better come and tell us about it. Hoorah! our taxi had arrived. We drove throught noisy dusty streets, still busy at 5am, to our hotel and threw ourselves straight in to bed. Everything was OK now wasnt it. A postponed book, petrol in the diesel tank, a cancelled flight, a fuel leak on the plane, and abandoned in Delhi at 4am. I'm hoping that that's our full quota of delays now for the trip...... Sue & Jim Savege from the Sunshine Guest House and the Manali Cybercafe