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Road book » Un blog utilisant WordPress
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The last frontiere

South of Spilow lies the valley leading to Shimla, harboring the Sutlej river. The stream is big and powerful, and the Indian governement has decided to harness its power with a major dam project. For lack of space - or of money, I reckon - they have simply chosen to use the main road to move around the tons of material needed to complete the enterprise: machines, boulders, gravel, sand, concrete, workers, the lot. After years of putting up with overloaded trucks and caterpillars, the road has just turned into dust and stones, roamed by countless semis and thousands of Indian workers.

I had been in contact with Indian road workers before: they aren’t rare in Ladakh, where the roads require constant care, that can be performed only for a few months per year. They are usually Indians of the lowest cast, of course, and though some of them greeted me cheerfully, I had found the interaction to be mostly dispiriting. This had something to do with the way they looked at me, without answering my salutes, as if I was not recognized as a human being, but merely as some curious object passing by. More than once, I had felt utterly uncomfortable, and found it best to just cycle fast without even seeking eye contact.

But in the Sutlej valley, it was a different story: the place was simply overwhelmed by these people, and there was no way whatsoever to escape the fixed, dark glances scrutinizing me as something not belonging to the human race. Alas, as I was to discover soon, this had precious little to do with a cast problem.

I cycled in the sand for the rest of the day. The breeze was strong, sweeping in my face clouds of dust lifted by the countless trucks. I passed numerous shanty towns harboring the workers, enclaves of modern buildings especially built for the engineers, and military camps. All in all, the places was amazingly ugly. It was getting dark and I could find no place to camp or stay, hence when I spotted at last a field of boulders at the side of the road, I stopped. I couldn’t pitch my tent there, of course: the risk of being splashed by a huge stone in the middle of the night was quite high, yet one of the boulders was as big as a hut, and would offer a decent protection against more rockfalls. I crammed my stuff in its lee and got ready for a night under the stars, lulled by the roar of the passing trucks. The noise soon abated, but the stars quickly disappeared. At around 11pm, the rain started. I crawled in a cavity mercyfully left open under the big boulder, found a way to lay uncomfortably, and fell asleep with spiders and ants as night companions. Surprisingly enough, I spent a rather good night in my hole.

In the morrow, the rain had stopped. I kept cycling the track, and discovered that there is much worse than sand and dust. There is sand and dust after a good rainfall. The road was a giant, deep mudpool, surrounded by the unavoidable workers staring and laughing loudly at the sight of a white man turned grey by the dirt. I reached Rampur in the afternoon, a city whose dirty, stinky steep and narrow streets - after what I had seen for two days - appeared to be quite charming. The city had four ATMs, one was working, and as I could replenish my reserve of cash at last, I elected to stay in a decent place for once: I could use a bathroom looking slightly better than a dirty public toilet.

I happened to stay two nights there. Not that I liked the place that much, but as I woke up the next day, it was downpouring. Choosing to hang around wasn’t a hard decision to take. I spent most of my time in my room reading and catching up with some Hollywood bloodbaths showed on the few American channel the TV could receive. That was not enlightening, that is, but the journey is made of soul-filling moments as well as utterly dull ones.

Yet, more than anything else, I needed an escape, even a cheap one. Thing is, as I had reached Rampur, I discovered that the heavy stares and down-looking attitude had precious little to do with the cast of my onlookers. Actually, everybody was doing it. I had been in India for a while, but dwelling happily in Kashmir and Ladakh, I had not yet really been in India. I was discovering the place at last, and that wasn’t thrilling. Not the least.

In the morning, the sky was grey but dry. Shortly after Ranpur, I took an eastward left turn, plunging straight into a green, quite valley, harboring a jungle-like vegetation and tiny farmers villages. All of a sudden, people became more relaxed, sometimes quite friendly, actually. In a turn, a young woman handed me two walnuts with a large smile and laughed as I struggled to peal them properly.

The Uttar Anchal is a huge maze of hills and deep valleys. That day, I had to clear the first ridge of an endless list. On my map, it appeared as nothing but a discreet shadow. The real thing took me about four hours before letting me through. Indeed, the road was often too steep to make a first-gear climb comfortable, and I was most of the time struggling to keep moving, legs aching. It was drizzling every now and then, and the unasphalted portions of the road were turned into deep mud by the recent downpours.

So muddy had been the road for the past few days that – as I was getting close to the top – my gear system jammed. It was simply, hopelessly blocked. When such a problem occur - I have learned it the hard way - first rule is “Don’t panic”. I stopped at the side of the road, and started to assess the extent of the problem. The gear system was fine, actually, but the cables operating it were jammed. I dismounted the cable box, under the rain. Performing mechanical maintenance in the mud, that is something I really enjoy doing. Opening the box, I realized that the cables were not only dirty, they were damaged as well. Something not quite unexpected after so many kilometers, yet I had been hoping they would make it to the goal. I cleaned them, arranged them the best I could, and uttered a tiny prayer to the God of all cables, begging for mines to hold a bit longer. The system was working again. For a while.

I made it to Rohru - a middle-sized and noisy city - at nightfall. Soaked wet and covered with mud, I was fancying a dry place to spend the night. I found it, miraculously: a surprisingly nice, surprisingly cheap room in a surprisingly welcoming guesthouse near the center. And it had warm water, lavishing me with the first hot shower in months. That was blissful miracle, of course.

Surprisingly enough, the next day was dry and sunny and I kept cycling toward the next ridge, climbing yet another forlorn valley. But the climb was long. I didn’t even reach the beginning of the real climb before the evening came, and I spent the night in a perfect camp spot in a quite forest, next to the river.

I cleared the ridge in the morrow, reached a tiny city on the other side in the beginning of the afternoon and decided to stop there: big storms were brewing not far ahead, a promise of more serious rain. I strolled through the tiny, dirty city, and got stuck by heavy feelings again: stares, as if you were some three-headed, eight-legged alien. Actually, it might be better to be such a genuine monster: at least you would instill fear instead of flat, hostile, down-looking disdain or disgust. I strolled for a while, but I quickly went back to my room and locked myself in. I needed to get out of here. After having crossed more than twenty countries on two wheels, it was the first time that people managed to make me do this. I was getting tired. Exhausted. Tired of the people, tired of these landscapes, one curve revealing nothing but another useless climb, one ridge hiding another higher, mightier ridge. I was not enjoying anymore, not any bit of it. I slept most of the afternoon, I guess I needed it. Outside, it was downpouring.

I kept cycling the next day, climbed again, spent another night in a city whose name I can not remember, in yet another gloomy room surrounded by noisy locals. Outside, it was downpouring again. In the evening, I went to the common bathroom and discovered that someone had used my bicycle to hang the laundry to dry. The mistake would have been funny, if I had not been tired by the common lack of respect I had already been facing for a while around here. I put the bicycle in my room, and hung the laundry on the fence of the balcony. Exposed to the rain, it would hardly dry, but I couldn’t care less.

The following day was supposed to be easy - according to my map. No ridge to clear, no big climb, the road was simply following the river - a major affluent of the Ganga - downstream. I should have known better, of course: it turned out to be tougher than ever. Fair enough, the road was following the river. Granted, it was going downstream. But doing so, it was climbing far and high into every single side valley, reaching tiny bridges up there before going back - yet not necessarily down - to the main valley. I could have cried. Maybe I did.

I reached Chamba in the afternoon, a tiny city perched on the top of a ridge, and stayed there for two nights. The place was cute enough, for once, and people were somewhat less unfriendly. And I needed to make up my mind. My plan had been to cross most of the Uttar Anchal before cycling down to Banbassa, the most western entry point into Nepal. The main reason for doing so was that I didn’t want to cycle the Indian flatland. Not at all. Yet it was slowly becoming obvious that I was not enjoying cycling the place either. The landscape wasn’t bad - though it fell quite short of being spectacular - but the price to pay was absurd. I was eroding myself.

In Chamba, two roads were opened before me: left to Tehri, keep cycling through the hills; right to Rishikesh and take a sprint through the flatlands, straight to the border. I could think about it for ages, look at the choice anyway I wanted, the decision was already made: I needed to leave India, the sooner, the better.

The place was sucking my energy, filling me up with anger and resentment. Celine’s “Voyage au bout de la nuit” was echoing in my ears, memories of a distant past, and I could at last understand his darkest lines. Some people had warned me - not the backpackers hopping from one touristic place to the next, but the few ones who had chosen to see the places in between - India is a perfect place to discover ones ability to hate the human race. I was there, drowning into violent feelings, it was urgent for me to move on. I took right, to the flatland, the quick exit route.

I reached Rishikesh in a couple of hours, after having cleared one last ridge and taken an endless glide down the hills. A shy sun was turning the place into a sauna. The place turned out to be somewhat relaxing, for people are used to see foreigners around and treat them as human beings - as walking purses, that is. That was a major improvement. Rishikesh, dwelling on the shores of the Ganga, is a holy Hindu place, attracting Gurus and lost souls as a light bulb attracts butterflies. The place is riddled with Sadhus, wanna be Hindu wise men and ascetics seeking the Moksha, though most of them are simply beggars, drug addicts and alcoholics, offering you drug deals with misty eyes, or simply begging for some money.

One can find many westerners as well, of course. Most of them seem very busy, too busy to talk to you anyway. Judging by the titles sold in the few bookshops - self-help, yoga and ten-easy-steps-soul-healing - one can guess what they are up to. And I couldn’t help but wonder: if westerners travel thousands of miles to seek an answer in a dirty, smelly place mostly roamed by alcoholics and drug addicts, what does it tell us about ourselves ? Where did we fuck up as a culture ? On my route, I have seen many behaviours and cultures I struggled to understand, yet that shouldn’t come as a surprise: I often struggle to understand my peers already.

I stayed three days in the place, more than I had planed. The morning I wanted to leave, I would have needed a pedalo to get out of the city: the streets were flooded by yet another downpour. Yet the day after was dry, though the sky was quite threatening, and I got back on the road, dreadful and unwilling.

I cycled more than a hundred kilometers, ending up in Dampur - a middle-sized city - under a pounding rain. People told me there was no place to stay around there, so I kept cycling to the next, bigger city, a dozen of kilometers further. The rain turned into a full scale monsoon shower. One can not understand what that mean before having witnessed it. In the next city, people told me to cycle back to Dampur, the only place where I could find a shelter for the night. “Fuck them all” I decided crudely, and kept cycling to the east. In more than 20000km, it was the first time that people turned their back to me in such conditions, without offering any kind of help.

At the edge of the town, I spotted a tiny abandoned temple at the side of the road. It was just large enough for me to lay down and for my bicycle to stand at my side. The doorless gate wasn’t facing the wind, the floor was somewhat dry. In these circumstances, it was a gift from the sky, irony set aside. I slept with spiders again and hungry mosquitoes, hoping that none of them was bearing malaria. Sleeping might be an overstatement, though: I was constantly awakened by the roar of the trucks storming pass my hut, and by wind that had turned into hurricane-like proportions, breaking branches and trees. At 6am, I was back on the road, cycling into a light, refreshing rain. The wind was gone.

The two following days were uneventful: an endless sprint to the border, the noise of countless horns deafening my ears, brainless drivers performing absurd stunts to gain half a second on their schedule - at the expense of a life, if required - and the heat. The sun was shining again, and as I soon discovered, that is not a blessing around here. Whenever it was beaming between the stormy clouds, the temperature would soar, as if I had entered a Turkish bath. The air was saturated with humidity, and one would sweat heavily just by laying on his back, hence cycling at full speed was sucking water out of my cells and energy out of my body. The flatland let me move fast, but they were draining me just as well.

I nevertheless soon reached the Banbassa-Gaddachankl border, eager to move to another country. I turned out to be such a strange custom that I just flew pass the Indian checkpoint and stopped only a few dozen of meters further, when everyone around started shouting and waving at me. Unsurprised, the officer dressed as a civilian wasn’t the least angry at my failed attempt to leave the place illegaly. Thing is,  there is no barriers, no barbed wires, no soldiers. People just swarm through, unchecked. Local people, that is. As a foreigner, one gets singled out and kind of checked. Kind of, for I had to look carefully for the Nepalese immigration office hidden between shops and Dabas, show up and ask for a visa to enter the country legally. I could have moved in without it, no question asked, at least for a while. I received the absurdly expensive Nepalese visa in a matter of minutes and cycled straight to Mahendranagar, the first Nepalese city, a dozen of kilometers after the border.

Unsurprisingly enough, it looked barely different than India. Yet this slight change in the faces, yet this uncanny quietness on the overpopulated road, yet this strangely welcoming and respectful attitude: something had slightly changed, and I knew at once that fleeing India had been the right thing to do.

I had made it through the last frontier, I was cycling in Nepal, at last. And I was feeling much better, already…