A passage to India

This is quite a long hill. We started just above the great Sutlej River this morning and we’re on a steady climb towards Narkanda up National Highway 22, the old Hindustan-Tibet Highway. It’s still quite a few miles to the top, but it’s a beautiful clear sunny morning, the Himalayas are glinting in the distance, the surface is good and there’s very little traffic, just the occasional cow wandering down the middle of the road. A Tata truck is coming down the hill towards us, but suddenly it stops. The driver leaps out of his cab, grinning from ear to ear, and starts taking photographs of us. What is this? We’re supposed to be the ones taking photos of you, not the other way round. We have to remind ourselves, India is changing. Halfway up the same hill, our peloton pulls over at a wayside stall for tea and samosas (always delicious). Two cars stop and some finely dressed ladies emerge. One of them speaks good English and she tells us that they are from Kinnaur, right over the other side of the mountains, up against the border with Tibet. They’ve been to a wedding, hence the finery, which looks even better when they voluntarily put on their magnificent jewellery. After a few joint photos they start to leave: the English speaker turns and asks me where I’m from. London, I reply. Oh, she says, I was on stage at the Royal Albert Hall in 1982. And their cars pull away, leaving us rather speechless. India is always full of surprises. This was the penultimate day of cycling on Exodus’ Mountains, Temples and Hill Stations Ride, 10 days biking through the foothills of the Himalaya. We began with a visit to the unforgettable Golden Temple of the Sikhs in Amritsar before driving to Pragpur to start the ride. From then on it was all done in the saddle, although there was, of course, a support bus in case anyone got too tired. But mostly we didn’t, even though there were some tough hills – the scenery was just too magnificent, the roads we used were mostly very quiet, and from the bike we were immersed in the endless variety of India. I rated this among the best of my many Exodus cycling trips. One of the climbs was to McLeod Ganj, home in exile of the Dalai Lama, high up on the slopes of the Dhaula Dhar range. The hotel here was obviously trying to make us feel at home, with a mural of Battersea Power Station in our room. Next morning we had a long downhill and followed the Kangra Valley towards the temple town of Mandi. Then there was the toughest part of the trip, taking a back road through stunning scenery to the Jalori Pass at over 10,000ft. The road near the top of the pass could not be described as good, and in places even the hardiest of us was reduced to pushing. But the sense of achievement and the view from the top made it all worthwhile, and of course it was followed by an exhilarating descent, a full 40 kilometres to the Sutlej River. And what was there after Narkanda? Another beautiful ride which ended at Shimla, the summer capital of British India. We visited the Mall, the Viceroy’s Palace and Scandal Point (Shimla, or Simla as it was known then, was described by one Viceroy’s wife as the place where every Jack was doing something with someone else’s Jill), before taking the “Toy Train” down to Kalka on the plains below - a fitting climax to a superb trip. Phil Normington, long-standing Exodus stalwart, some would say institution, affectionately known as The Doc, has probably done more travelling than Palin. He travelled on Mountains, Temples and Hill Stations Ride – “the best of many cycling trips”.

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