Prelude


Flying over Dhaulagiri (8167 m) peaks, enjoying the curvature of the horizon.

This is the story of how I rode a bicycle from New Delhi, India to Kathmandu, Nepal. And it starts with traveling to India.

For those of you who have never flown in and out of Kathmandu, be aware that it is something that requires quite a bit of forethought. The most important part is making sure you get a window seat on the correct side of the airplane. Because the Himalayas is a sight you cannot ignore. Even at cruising altitude of 10 000 meters asl, their white peaks look as if they almost reach you. This is truly the roof of the world. And you can almost touch it.

I didn’t travel to India to ride a bicycle. No. The trip to Delhi was actually sparked by a friend’s wedding. Only when purchasing plane tickets did I come upon the idea of returning overland. It had been a while since my last adventure and I’d yet to properly explore India. But how to do it? Traveling on top of a train I had already ticked off my list and it may not necessarily be the most comfortable way of covering long distances.…

Setting off


The roads have been built. The people have come.

By Delhi standards, traffic here is light

Huddled in a small corner of New Delhi exists a part of town that predates the British boulevards – Old Delhi – and, setting off, my path took me straight through it.


This is ‘India Gate’. So it has INDIA written on it in large letters

New Delhi is a planned city, established by the British in the beginning of the 20th century. Many parts of it are a joy to drive – the boulevards are wide and lined with old trees. Riding from the Estonian Embassy to India Gate took no time at all. But Old Delhi is different. Reaching it, the roads get so packed with traffic that even people cannot squeeze through. Here it felt as if I was finally getting a proper introduction to India – loud, colorful, smelly, crowded, filled with places of rich history and wealth, and poverty. Riding through it is an experience in itself.

Crossing the Yamuna river just north of Old Delhi takes you out of Delhi into the state of Uttar Pradesh and the smells just kept piling on. Ignoring the arguments presented by my nose I made a stop on the side of the road to take a look around.…

to towns of Uttar Pradesh


Khaki is the new black

It was 7 in the morning when I woke up in the small town of Baraut. I promptly went back to sleep and did not get up until 9. I’d arrived here at nightfall and stayed up late fixing a punctured rear tire. Sleep had been good and under blankets it was nice and warm. The air was still one of early spring, hovering around a refreshing 12 degrees. The hotel room was pleasant for 1000 rupees, with my only gripe being the lack of hot water. Showering the night before had been enough to get me shivering. But as I said, the blankets were comfy and warm.

Baraut is a good example of an Uttar Pradesh town. It stands on the intersection of two main roads which run through its center. As you get closer to the town, the main road gets more and more stuffed with cars, busses, vans, trucks, donkey carts, tuk-tuks, three-wheeled bicycles, two-wheeled bicycles, horses, dogs, push-carts, moving platforms and obviously people. Traffic slows to a crawl. With all of this the noise skyrockets. So does the pollution, as deep black diesel exhausts mix with thick clouds of dust. At the end of the first day of riding I spent some time coughing to clear my lungs and air pipes.…

… and the plains


Welcome to Camel country

The landscape of Uttar Pradesh, to describe it in one word, is flat. Flat and dusty, to use two. Though the latter is exacerbated by the season. This is the driest time of the year, just before the first spring rains arrive. The monsoon season is still far though, so rain shouldn’t bother me much. The flat ground makes for easy bicycling though and bicycles are popular here. Same for scooters and motorbikes. This makes traffic a little less risky, as drivers are used to lots of two-wheelers on the roads. It doesn’t mean that big trucks or buses would slow down or give space to riders, but at least they do their best not to simply run me over.

I’d like to see this place right after the monsoons, when the dust has not yet returned to cover everything. It might not change much though. The soil here is sandy and greenery is sparse, making the entire region look like the outskirts of a desert. Though the days were cloudless, a thick haze covered the sky and made everything even more dry and yellow. I had not expected to see camel caravans in India, but they fit right in over here.…

The hills arrive

I was woken by thunder. It could have also been one of the Indian Royal Enfield’s on the street, but regardless it was raining outside. Once the rain had stopped and I’d finished my fruits and biscuits I got going again. On the way out making sure to dodge the owner lest he’d make a fuss about the staircase again. The streets of Saharanpur were muddy but empty, completely unlike the loud colorful buzz of the previous night.

Going was slow. Wind was against me and the road had become a steady gentle uphill. On the upside, it was less dusty here than before. The road to Dehradun goes through Rajaji National Park and the closer I got to it the greener the surroundings. There is no gate or sign to indicate that you’ve entered the park, but you know it when you get there. Suddenly the straight and flat road you were driving is no longer neither straight or flat. Reaching Rajaji I had put the plains behind me and entered the foothills of the Himalayas.


Doesn’t look like Himalayas yet, but just you wait

Chai? :)

Rain caught up with me as I entered the park and forced me to start seeking shelter whenever it got too heavy.…

Marathon day

Today I rode only about 42km. Walking around Mussoorie would cover the missing 200m. It was my first day of proper climbing and possibly the worst I’ll have – I ascended from Dehradun (400m asl) to Mussoorie (2000m asl). You can do the math. Basically I used 2 gears for the entire day. One of them was ‘walking’. Jokes aside, there is a limit to the steepness of a climb, where for me it becomes more useful to walk the bike, rather than ride it. The speed difference is minimal and it takes more effort, but I get to rest my bum and use different muscles for a change. The latter is quite useful when you’re in the saddle 8-10 hours a day.


The uphill road

Awesome guy right there

Looking back, Dehradun, the capital of Uttarakhand, is a surprisingly pleasant city. You have your regular Indian sights – small shops, dust, crazy traffic – but it also has a lot of greenery, lots of modern buildings and in general looks noticeably wealthier than anything I saw in Uttar Pradesh. The people also were a lot friendlier here. Setting off in the morning I noticed that the bike chain was acting up.…

Mountain fun


All downhill from way over there

This was a fantastic day. French toast for breakfast followed by 80 kilometers of riding; most of that downhill. And oh what fantastic downhill it was. The exasperations from the day before truly found grand compensation. And I enjoyed it fully. Surprisingly, the uphill portion of this day was much easier as well. Places where I walked my bike were few and far in between.

The views on the road from Mussoorie to Chinyalisaur are magnificent. The road twists and turns on the slopes of steep hills, covered with tall snowy pines closer to the top and lined by fields and villages on the bottom. Even though there’s plenty of snow still on the hilltops, all creeks that the road crossed were dry. They’re waiting for the summer monsoons to arrive. I imagine that traveling here in autumn, after the rains, when nature is much more lush and green, would be an even more inspiring experience.


Looking over Bhawan village

But this is no way criticism towards what I saw. The views were magnificent and made for a slow ride. Every little while I was granted a new angle on the landscape that begged to be photographed.…

There and back again


I can only imagine what it looks like during high water

I set off towards Uttarkashi early in the morning and by nightfall found myself back in Chinyalisour. Bugger.


Bustling under Vishnu’s watchful gaze

Uttarkashi is the largest city this far up the Ganges, though here the river bears the name Bhagirathi. Only downstream, at the town of Devprayag where Bhagirathi joins the Alaknanda, is the river renamed the Ganges. Names aside, about 100km up the valley from Uttarkashi is the Hindu pilgrimage site of Gangotri – considered the seat of goddess Ganga and the origin of the Ganges. So I’m still calling it the Ganges.


Uttarkashi in all its glory

People who consider Ganges holy have a soft spot for Uttarkashi as well – the busy town houses dozens of ashrams and temples. The Ganges at once both gives the place life and threatens to drown it. During the 2013 monsoon massive floods devastated the town and left dozens dead. Over 100 000 pilgrims were trapped by raging waters and had to be airlifted to safety. Now I could see towering new concrete embankments on both side of the river, attempting to provide the town a measure of protection.

I had hoped to take a bus from Uttarkashi to Gangotri and later, conditions permitting, ride back down.…

On scenic byways


That dammed Ganges again

The road due east from Chinyalisour follows the massive Tehri reservoir. The Tehri dam was completed in 2006 after decades of planning and the relocation of over 100 000 people. It is an impressive feat of engineering. When the reservoir was being filled, it also stopped the river from flowing, so understandably there are people who are very unhappy with the entire thing. Not to mention that it is built in an area of high seismic activity. However, with this dam the people of Uttarakhand no longer have to suffer the regular 14 hour blackouts that are still the norm in neighboring Nepal. So I guess that to make an omlette…


This could be a scaled up game of snake

The road towards Srinagar goes over the dam, shortening the old way around by 30km. However people are not allowed to walk on it, so the only way for me to get across was to hop on a bus. Chatting with the locals they also warned me against taking photos of the place, as apparently the security here doesn’t have a soft side. From how I was told I couldn’t ride across the dam, I’d gotten a sense of it.…

to see Nanda Devi peaks


If you look carefully, you’ll notice there are actually two cars

I’d been lucky with weather ever since Dehradun and now I was enjoying a small heatwave. With overcast skies the temperatures were high enough to get by with a t-shirt even late in the evening. This was going to be followed by a thunderstorm, but I’d worry about that when it got here. In any case, I had little idea of how far I’d get before the rain hit.

The road up to Gwaldam was the worst I’d met. No tarmac here, only large stones and thick dust. At some places, when a truck drove past, all visibility was lost. Not a place you’d want to be at without a respirator, not to mention ride a bicycle. To spare my lungs I hailed a bus and once again strapped my steed on the roof. The ride was shaky to say the least. On a bike you can attempt to steer clear of the larger rocks, but with a bus this road made for a rattling experience. Then, when a loud bang was heard from outside I got worried for the bike. Even more so when the sound started repeating with every larger jolt.…

I can see Nepal from here


I wouldn’t mind waking up to this every morning

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.


Driving through a cloud, literally

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.…

The long flat highway,


The migration officer in his natural habitat

As you descend from the foothills, the plains begin as if cut by a knife. Suddenly the steep road comes to an end and from there onwards, it is all just… flat. And humid. This sudden change is visible in everyday life as well. Suddenly there are throngs of people, bicycles and carts. Dust is everywhere, again. Roads run straight and are lined by settlements. human activity is present all around you. This change is a bit jarring even.


We’re back on flat ground here

The border crossing from India to Nepal goes over a hydro power dam. The respective borders are almost a kilometer apart, which in between makes for a small refuge for nature. An untouched area where wild animals can seek shelter. In a way it acts as a continuation of the nearby Shukla Phanta Wildlife Reserve. As neither Nepalis or Indians need to go through immigration when crossing the border, it doesn’t even feel like crossing from one country to another.  Just a nature road between two towns separated by a river. Had I not been actively seeking out the immigration office to get my passport stamped, I would have missed the building.…

the long straight home


Makes you think you’ve arrived, but alas not yet

Why it cuts right through the park is beyond me

As the East-West highway continues towards Kathmandu, it moves through flat plains, interrupted by large protected areas. Shukla Phanta was the first one I passed through, followed thereafter by Bardia and Banke National Parks. Further on, after the turn-off to Kathmandu, the highway also goes through the most famous of them – Chitwan National Park. Almost all of them are here to protect tigers, rhinos, elephants and crocodiles, among hundreds of other animal and bird species. Here one can get acquainted with a completely different side of Nepal,  one of jungles and wetlands – something very different from the high snowy slopes and deep green valleys.

For me, the parks provided much needed variety on a road that is otherwise exhaustingly flat and straight. And also dry. This was the driest season of the year. the first rains should have already arrived, followed by the monsoon in about two months’ time, but it was obviously delayed this year. The wide but empty riverbeds that the road crossed were evidence of how much the rivers change here during the year. Creeks barely 10m wide would expand to a current several hundred meters across.…

Maps and photo gallery


Memories from Chaukori

It took me a total of 14 days to ride from New Delhi to Kathmandu. The total distance for it exceeded 1800km, though parts of this I travelled by bus. I had no specific plan when I set out, though I hoped to cross the border farther north and see a bit more of the Nepali far west. In the end, this was the path of my adventure:

 

All pictures posted here were taken by me. These and other photos I took on this trip can be found here in full quality: http://madexplorer.smugmug.com/Himalaya-by-bike/

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this.