Friday, 16 March 2012

Spring into the Himalayas

I always imagined that my trip, my grand adventure, would be a silvery ribbon of pure cycling across the globe, unbroken except where seas and oceans have to be crossed. I'd ride triumphantly to Australia in time for the solar eclipse in November 2012.

I've made two mistakes which broke this thread: I decided to come to India, and I didn't get a visa for Pakistan while I was in the UK.

I had read about the difficulties of getting a Pakistan visa (they're only issued to residents, without exception, as the officials at the Pakistan High Commission in Delhi have reiterated to me despite my protests and carefully-worded letter to the High Commissioner, which confirms what I was told in Istanbul and Dubai), but I trusted to the road and my optimism, chose to believe second- and third-hand reports of travellers being given visas in dusty foreign embassies.

India, likewise, is a notorious cul-de-sac for overland travellers. Nico, the French cyclist riding home from Japan, winced when I said I was coming here, as it's "impossible to get into, and impossible to leave". So it has proved.

The overland routes out of India are as follows:

Bangladesh. Easy entry, but the only other land border is with Myanmar/Burma, and no border crossings are open to foreigners.

Myanmar/Burma. Border crossings are open to foreigners, but travel is only then permitted within 10 km of the border, and you're obliged to leave at the same border by which you entered, which prohibits transiting the country. Also, the Northeastern Hill States of India such as Manipur and Nagaland have an unsavoury reputation for lawlessness and banditry. Special permits from the Indian government are required to travel there, and independent travel is difficult.

China. No land borders are open to foreigners, unsurprisingly. A couple of the high Himalayan passes are open to local herders, but I doubt I could pass for a Tibetan in any light.

Pakistan. One land border is open at Wagah, between Amritsar and Lahore in divided Punjab, where the changing of the guards and lowering of the flags takes place every day at sunset. Without a Pakistan visa, though, this is closed to me.

Bhutan. Easy to enter from India, but although the mountain kingdom shares a border with China/Tibet, no crossings are open to foreigners.

Nepal. This may be my only opion, as it is very easy to enter from India, and there is an official crossing into China/Tibet where foreigners may enter, on the Friendship Highway between Kathmandu and Lhasa. However, as independent travel in Tibet is prohibited by the Chinese authorities, you are officially required to travel with a tour guide. As a cyclist, this is possible, but I'd have to hire a man-with-a-van to trail me around, or tag along with another group of cyclists to share the cost, but I would either be shelling out my meagre funds, or letting myself be tied into somebody else's itinerary. Finally, onward travel from Tibet into China appears to be impossible. There are plenty of tales of travellers who have travelled independently from China into Tibet, then into Nepal, but going the other way (as I would be) seems highly unlikely.

So political reality interferes with my cycling adventure. I feel childishly resentful about this.

I've already broken my duck and taken one flight from Dubai to get into India. I don't regret it. I was aware that I was laying a trap for myself, but India has been intoxicating and infuriating and glorious, I've had experiences I couldn't have had anywhere else, spending the night with a family of ganga farmers, trading insults with stoned tuk-tuk drivers, fixing my bike with nothing but my own ingenuity, then entertaining village kids while the local hammer swinger performed percussive repairs on my bike, or watching the moon rise and blot out the endless stars while camping in the desert.

If I was to take a flight out of here, it would be a temptation to return to Iran and pick up the thread of my original route, treating India as a side trip and pretending that I'd cycled it all, but I know this is one breakage that I can't repair on the road.

So I return to the beginning, to my reasons for going a-wandering. My friend David had, when I was a kid, travelled all over India and returned with stories and sketches and paintings which inspired me to see it, one day. I also wanted to travel by bicycle, which is such a natural, satisfying way to travel, and saves the hassles of other forms of transport. Finally, I wanted to see mountains, like Bilbo Baggins.

Without a Pakistan visa, where I could cycle over the Karakoram Highway and into China at the world's highest border crossing, then over the Pamir Ranges in bleak, beautiful Tajikistan, I could fly out to Uzbekistan, where Alexander the Great once trod, and follow the ancient Silk Road through Tashkent and Samarkand. The route to Australia would then take me over the snow-capped Pamirs and into the green valleys of Kyrgyzstan, through the remote provinces of China and down to South East Asia.

But Australia, to me, was only ever a destination. It was the places on the route which inspired me. It was easy, to say "I'm going to Australia" to people at home in the UK, as Australia is a tropical dreamland of sunshine and beaches and beer. If I'd said I was going to Tajikistan, people would have needed a map.

It's the mountains that I want to experience, the changing vistas of peaks and valleys, hauling myself and my luggage up colossal passes, gasping for air at the top and being rewarded with the freefalling descent at the other side. A question has been asked of me a few times, "where was your favourite place?" and one answer is obvious - the best cycling was eastern Turkey in early winter, with its sterile, frozen summits and skies of infinite blue.

So the answer to my current dilemma is also obvious. I've trapped myself in India, so I'll stay in India. There are mountains here in India, after all. My visa expires on 28th April, and before that I'll go to Nepal (which, I hear, also has mountains) and explore its mix of ancient cultures and modern adventurers. I can also renew my Indian visa while in Nepal, and return to India to roam the distant valleys by the Tibetan border, and ride the famous Manali-Leh highway when it opens in early summer. Security permitting, I may also ride to ill-fated, divided Kashmir, which is as close as I seem likely to get to Pakistan.

I am simply putting off the problem, but it seems that I now have six months in India and Nepal to ponder it. I'll call in at Corbett National Park and go tiger-spotting on my way to Nepal, and in Nepal I might just visit Everest base camp. By bicycle, naturally. I hope my non-cycling adventures are over.

Map of My Journey

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