Like the sunset, the sunrise was breathtaking. The air was clear and crisp, mountains shining bright under a blue blue sky. Down below, the valleys were hidden from view under a layer of clouds, as if covered by a lid of white cotton. All around everything was covered by a thick layer of dew. Stepping outside it all felt just… fresh. Also I’m glad the bicycle was indoors and dry.
Returning from the early morning walk to the hilltop I was ready for some breakfast. Important lesson here though, when the conversation goes: “and toast.” “Bread?” “Bread.” – it does not mean you’re getting toast. But the coarse thick roti I did receive went down surprisingly well with the side-serving of ketchup. I would not have thought to combine the two, but it works. Indian food, huh?
By the time I got the bike ready, the sun had dried the last of my laundry and off I went. South towards Gangolihat. No Thal and Pithoragarh for me, if they won’t me cross the border there. Their loss. You see, initially I had planned to wander around the mountain roads in Uttarakhand and then continue this journey of discovery in the Far West Himalayas of Nepal. This would mean crossing the border east of Pitharogarh and riding the Amargadhi-Birendranagar road down to the East-West highway (which for me would be the only way of reaching Kathmandu, more on that later). I’d read of foreigners crossing the border over there, but turns out that they never officially entered the country. They crossed the border but only to return the way they came, most likely when the same border guard was on duty. The only immigration office in this part of Nepal is down south in Mahendranagar.
So south I went, but was I in for a surprise. Not even for a moment had I expected to find a road like the one I spent the day on. The first 10km down to Berinag went in a snap (and in a cloud) as the downhill was in excellent condition. From there it turned uphill again, but I didn’t mind in the least. Because the views. The views! The road took me higher than Chaukori and the entire Himalayan panorama was wide open. I just had to be careful in the narrow parts. A step to the side here would have given me the opportunity to contemplate my life choices for about a minute, before skipping off the near-vertical cliff. This would have turned the descent into a tumble, but as I would have already been dead at that point, these details hardly matter.
Some 10km before Gangolihat the road turned down again. It was still gravel so my pace was patient, but the downhill never ended. It went on and on and on. I reached bottom around 4 hours and 50km later. Crazy! I’d never have thought I’d get tired of riding a bike downhill. Yet after two hours of breaking I took a long toffee-break (yes. Toffee.) to rest and recuperate. This road is not for the faint of heart, as the steep drop is constantly there right next to you, ready to claim any who lose focus. The uneven gravel, however, made going slow, so speeding cars were not an issue here as they are on other roads just as dangerous.
This area of Uttarakhand was the poorest I’d seen. The houses are more modest, women wear less jewelry, shops are less stocked and the clothes people wear are more shabby. The rest of life here is mostly the same. Men can be found doing construction on the road or hanging around shops and eateries. Boys and guys either play cricket on the road or just wander around aimlessly. Women, young and old, all work. Usually together in groups. Cutting plants and trees, carrying firewood, water and food, tending to animals. Never are they assisted by manfolk. Sad. At best I could spot some women running small shops, mostly selling things meant for other women.
By the time I reached the valley floor it was getting dark and Lohaghat was still 30km down the road. Up the road to be more precise. I figured I’d try to get there in a shared jeep instead of attempting to sweat it into the night – just tie the bike on its roof as I’d done with the bus. Unfortunately, the last one had already left. Fortunately, hitchhiking works – a truck stopped for my thumb, we agreed on the price, loaded the bike and off we went, Indian music blaring loud from its rickety speakers and colorful lights flashing all about the truck.
Like many truck drivers around here, He was obviously an amateur racing driver. He’d dive into corners breaking from maximum speed and gun the accelerator right after the apex. All the while managing two phones and smoking a cigarette. People in the west pay lots of money for experiences like this, but usually in amusement parks. Nevertheless he was quite easygoing and we chatted as much as possible without speaking each other’s languages. Half way up to Lohaghat we stopped for chai together with a group of other drivers. The owner of that roadside shack knew a bit more English, so the entire group joined in the conversation. And then, once chai was finished and the drivers’ initial curiosity satisfied, we continued on our way uphill.
I arrived in Lohaghat quite late and by happenstance checked into the cheapest hotel in town – 300 rupees per night. The room was tiny and had no windows. For hot water there was a locally mastered “element” in the hallway which I used to heat a bucket of water. Oh and the place had no toilet seat. But I liked it. It was cosy. I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow and slept like a baby.
Leaving Lohaghat the next day I also said farewell to the view of snowy peaks of Indian Himalayas. Next stop, Nepali border.