We had made a promise to the Himalayas that we would return to watch them in their full glory. This is the story of India’s first fat biking expedition that took us to the last village of India in the dead of Himalayan winters – on cycles.
“Are we moving? I feel like we have been pedalling at the same place for over half an hour now”
I could barely say this in one breath. My heart was pounding from the continuous effort to try and keep the cycle and myself from slipping on the ice that lay beneath us and for miles ahead. Why was I cycling on ice?
The 3 of us had made a promise to these mountains that we would return to visit them in their full glory in the Himalayan winters. Everything seemed tough, challenging but possible. Only, we decided to do this on cycles. We would be the first men attempting to this route on cycles in the winters.
A few months ago, as we sat across the table sipping one cup of tea after another we saw this tiny speck on the map and it had a name too, Chitkul. It was the last Indian village on the map and right ahead lay Tibet. We instantly knew that this is where we were heading. What we didn’t know was that these cups of tea were soon going to become the single most fantasized brew of our lives.
As we covered the first few miles, we found ourselves navigating through deep snow and ice so slick that we could barely stand straight. Our Surlys helped us navigate through these obstacles and gave us that much required encouragement to move forward. These bikes were a godsend.
If the riding was tough, standing still was tougher. The temperature hovered around minus 15 and the moody sun was not helping. Everything around us was frozen solid and the stillness could be heard. Our journey took us through some of the most breathtaking views of the Indian Himalayas, through towns which saw a steady influx of travellers on a warm summer day. These towns and villages stood abandoned now, as the Himalayan winters had managed to push even some of the locals to lower grounds.
“There is nothing here, everyone has moved out for the winters. Except for the snow and icy winds, no one visits these places in winters. What brings you here?” asked one of the locals in Kalpa, who later invited us to his home to spend the night. It was these little acts of kindness that we experienced which gave us some much needed warmth. He later recalled instances where he and his family were stuck in their house for over a week as the only way out had been blocked by snow. “ It took me 8 hours to get from my door to the road” he said. The road was just 50 meters from his door. It’s easy to forget and ignore the beauty all around when your toes are numb and hands refuse to obey any command.
Every morning, we had to wait for the sun to come out and melt the ice that formed on the road, overnight. As we made progress on our route towards Chitkul, the climbs got steeper, the roads narrower and barely visible under all the snow. The number of people we saw each day kept reducing until it came down to single digits. But, whenever the going got too tough, all it took was a look around where we stood and it changed everything. Feeling humbled by the Himalayas all around, the semi frozen rivers, trees that looked right out of a fairy tale… everything was so pure.
Our bodies had become weaker, our faces now spoke of the journey we undertook to get to where we were. As we stood in Sangla, looking at the road ahead, we knew our destination was not far, but then, at this altitude and in the dead of winters, far had a different meaning. A village called Raksham stood between Chitkul and us.
“Udhar kaise Jaaoge? Poora baraf hai” (“How will you go there? It is all ice”) said one of the local elders at Sangla. The stories we heard about the road ahead made us nervous, jittery and a little unsure of what to expect. But we knew one thing, this was the only road to Chitkul and we had to go.
What we saw for the next two days, changed our lives forever. As the sun rose and kissed the peaks around us, we ploughed through snow and moved ahead. The fat tires on our Surlys were now feeling at home. We just could not get enough of the white all around us. The sun was out in full glory and the clear blue sky set the perfect setting for this canvas. The going was tough with our avg speed around 5kmph but it didn’t matter anymore. We were overwhelmed by being where we were and all that mattered now was to take in everything we saw.
Nothing else mattered, not even the bear tracks that we spotted all through the day.
The icy air we were breathing made sure that our lungs forced us to take regular breaks. We didn’t mind that at all. We had lost track of time as we pedaled our way up. The milestones on the side of the roads had now disappeared as they had been buried under snow, we knew we were close but didn’t know how close.
Our breaks had become more regular now and most of the time spent catching our breaths was in silence. We just sat and stared at the beauty our land beholds. “I can’t believe this is real” was all each one of us could say.
During one of these breaks, we saw a cluster of huts and cottages a little ahead, partly hidden by the ridge in front of us. “Is that Chitkul?” asked Pankaj. “Don’t mess with me” said Naveed, who was looking in the direction we came from, staring in disbelief that he had just cycled through all of that. Those huts were what marked the beginning of Chitkul – The last Indian village on the map.
There were no crowds to cheer for us as we passed under the arch that said – ‘Welcome to Chitkul’. No flag that we had to hoist as a proof that we had done this. We had the Himalayas watching over us as proof of what we had accomplished and we didn’t need anything else.
We looked at these magnificent mountains with respect, shook hands and welcomed ourselves to Chitkul.
We were home.