My mum loves Levison Wood

My mum loves Levison Wood.

In case you’ve been on hiatus from our star system, Levison is an adventurer whom Channel 4 follow about doing venturesome things.

‘He’s such an adventurous guy’ my mum says.

‘Mum’ I begin, steadily. ‘I’ve been cycling around the world for six years.’

‘I know, I know darling’ she says, before lapsing into a reverie.

‘But he’s so handsome, isn’t he?’

 

She follows him on Twitter. It makes me wonder when she’s going to follow me. ‘Oh, are you on Twitter? I didn’t know’ she says when I remind her. I send her the link, but she’s lost to Lev’s feed, embarking on a festival of ‘likes’.

She bought tickets to see him speak at the Sheldonian theatre in Oxford, weeks after I’d given a talk to the students of the Oxford University Exploration Society, in a classroom. They were lovely and full of appreciation, all 16 of them.

Bears and how to beat them

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Thank you everyone for your online votes. This piece was shortlisted for the Pure Travel Writing Contest 2014 and was then judged the winner by a professional travel writer. I won 1000 pounds – which will buy me a lot of noodles! Here it is…
 

Bears and how to beat them

 
‘Stephen it’s inside! My God, it’s inside! INSIDE!’

Annapurna: Cycling a circuit in crisis


In this world, few things exist alone, unworried by and remote from the rest. When heavy rains and gusts ripped through India’s eastern seaboard and cyclone Hudhud was christened as such, the sun was shining over Nepal, hikers were pounding Himalayan trails in peak season and nobody rued the interconnections of this world. Not yet, anyway.

As Indian police began the evacuation of 400,000 people on the Bay of Bengal coast Mike and I were beginning to bike-pack the Annapurna Circuit: a trial most often the realm of hikers (over 20,000 of them yearly). The trail scoots round the Annapurna range, a 55 km long section of Nepali Himalaya including 14 peaks over 7000 metres and one, the eponymous peak of the range, over 8000 metres. It’s one of the earth’s most venerated hiking trails, and in the space of the next few days, it was about to bloom in renown, but for all the wrong reasons.

Mike Roy would be my companion. Mike was part of the six strong posse of riders who, two months ahead of me, crossed Myanmar. His blog The Three Rule Ride is an awesome account of a two year bicycle odyssey from Korea in which Mike has given genuine thought to the environment.

Other things to know about Mike: he is an American, he loves food (though limits his pace of consumption, cf me), he meditates, he can speak Korean, Chinese, Italian, more than a smattering of Thai and Spanish, and has blossoming Nepali. He has an uneasy relationship with geodesic domes. He has a tendency to look intermittently mystical.


‘Now, you guys will ride down, it’s easy, and then it’s flat’ reported the confident young girl, perched on the steps of the village police post.

‘Flat?’ We chorused, from the shadow of sky-tickling mountains.

‘Well, you know, ‘Nepali flat’: Up, down, up, down, up down.’

An hour later Mike and I were still lugging our bikes down the steps carved into rock, blaming the process on not just on one optimist but two: a boy had directed us onto this hikers’ path hours ago. We wanted to be on the road which lay now tauntingly on the other side of the river, golden in the sun, like a promised land, unmeant for people as used-up and ugly from toil as us.

It was a familiar trap: you strive for ages, bent on some irrational hope that things will improve, only to learn that they will not, but by that time doing an about turn would be too spirit sapping, and anyway, things might improve, right?

Day one on the famed Annapurna Circuit drew to a cruel end.

By nightfall, we came upon a house and were offered to share a room with a preternaturally fat pigeon with diarrhoea which was perched (wedged) in between rafters. The woman showing me the room caught me anxiously appraising the thin plywood floor boards with inch wide gaps, offering glimpses of a painful landing: the dining table on the floor beneath. To prove the robustness, she jumped savagely, landing with a thud, laughed in my face and was gone, leaving us to our rickety bedroom.

The next day a line of honeyed light caught the peaks, and then dropped, filling the valley with warmth and promise. It was a return to shouldering our bikes though, traversing rivers, mounting unending steps, blaming ourselves. The circuit had promised to be tough, but not at this meagre altitude. About us was a stadium of yellow-green rice paddies, the breeze shivered them: ‘shhhhh, shhhhhh, you idiots, shhhhh’.

Finally we got to a bridge and rejoined the road. Almost immediately two hale and burnished trekkers, Scandinavians probably, jogged past. ‘Hi guys!’ they chirped. Mike looked like he might attack them, but cheered up a minute later saying ‘I’m kinda glad the start was tough. Everything will be easier from here on’. Briefly, I wanted to attack Mike.




The next two days to Manang were spent mainly on a road that only fitted that definition because people referred to it as such, and because it joined places, not because it actually resembled one. It was the sight of man sized boulders which hikers had to round that clashed most with my vision of what a road should be. Bike touring had again become bike-lugging, but there were the other things to enjoy: grand rainbowed waterfalls, purple-tinged fields packed with the stalks of harvested buckwheat, the cheery trekkers: robotic-looking in their pole-assisted mission. The British announced themselves with awkward apologetic manoeuvres when confronted with another hiker ‘Oh God’ I heard one man say ‘this is embarrassing’ as he shuffled into someone’s elbow. There were porters too, their job two-fold: to carry three rucksacks a piece, and to force everyone else into judging themselves inadequate slouches.

From the outskirts of Chame an audience of Buddhist prayer flags strung across the river waved us off and as we passed trekkers their words lingered in the air long enough to catch ‘wow, hard work’ and ‘no suspension. Alright!’ Reading the prices of food on menus on the trail involved a light-headedness to rival that provided by the thinning air, especially if you’ve been tramping around rural Nepal for a while and living cheap. ‘Oxygen goes down, prices go up’ as the saying goes. Oxygen is at a premium not just for the altitude though, methane displaces it. The local dish of Dal Baht makes up the dinner for most, and is the most flatulence-provoking food known to mankind. The fact it appears high on menus on a trail in which people walk one behind one another makes me wonder if it’s all just one big Nepali joke on the visitors.

Food. I fight the urge to ask the question that I know is not becoming of a grown up. It’s not: ‘What would you recommend?’ Not even ‘What is the cheapest?’ I want to know what is the biggest feed on the list. Mass over flavour. I ask anyway, and receive the muted smile I expected, but get a mound of potato as big as my head, so I don’t care about the faux pas.

The most delicious feature of the circuit though is the changeability of the landscape, and on the approach to Menang it altered again: from the steep valley lush with deciduous forest and sparkling with banks of rust coloured fern, woven like scrap metal, to a flatter, pine forested place, presided over by bigger mountains and beige coloured rock faces eroded into surreal shapes. Each splash of pine forest was riven by the grey streaks of old landslides.

A helping hand from a porter



We were alone, the trekkers had taken to the other side of the river and the road this far wasn’t yet accessible to vehicles. Crows cawed. Wind quivered the yellowing pines. Donkeys stilled in the road, like for them, time had ceased to pass. This is a place of stories: witches are said to wander these parts.

We passed a row of tables by the empty wind-blown road. Amid the artifacts were yak bones and two great yak heads with light bulbs in their eye sockets, old pottery, goat horns, a black necklace fashioned from the vertebra of a snake. A man appeared, chanting, prayer beads in hand. ‘Three babas’ he said nodding to his stash meaning three generations had gathered the finds on sale.

Up until this point, I had been feeling a bit envious of Mike’s bike which sported Buddhist prayer flags, the face of a bearded man carved from bamboo root from Vietnam, and the best novelty horn imaginable, which sounded like a clown’s. From the table I immediately claimed a charred baby yak’s skull and cable tied it to the underside of my handlebars. People now approach my bike, take a sudden step backwards and cast me a worried look. Children cry. Old women bring forth prayers. It’s fantastic.



As a breather, unlike most humans, I am of a singularly noisy variety when I exercise, and especially at altitude. Mike didn’t know this. Momentarily he looked back, concern written in his eyes, as if he might find me grounded, woven in my bicycle, drowning in sputum. When he saw that wasn’t the case, his face reverted to one of pleasant surprise.

As my breathlessness abated, and serenity returned to the Himalayas, I looked up at the mountains, now snow-coated and appearing impossible to reach. I mentioned this to Mike. ‘Nothing’s impossible’ he returned, grim-faced and sounding like a Nike advert. A wimpier travel companion, I realised then, might be easier on my ego.

The culture around Manang is recognisably Tibetan. On the approach to the town the small children have the paradigm rosy cheeks, and are so muffled they can hardly flex their knees or elbows when they walk, making them hilarious for their being unchangingly star-shaped. By three and half thousand metres up signs advertising the symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness arrived on the scene, which just rubs it in if you’ve been suffering from 3000 metres. Exertion is a major player in who succumbs and bikers are a lot more susceptible.

The first sight to greet us in Manang might have been used on the cover of a book entitled ‘Wilderness Medicine: a practical guide’. Two western doctors charged through the village, one squeezing an IV bag of fluid attached to the arm of a Nepali woman who was being piggy backed by a porter stampeding through town. Later I learnt that the medics had to rub off melted yak butter from her forearm, a local remedy, in order to insert an IV line.

As we wheeled our bikes through the town I looked back behind us: a fleet of clouds was driving up the valley. I didn’t think to mention it to Mike.




Manang was in full bloom at the peak of the tourist season and few guesthouses had rooms to accommodate two bikers and the skull of a juvenile yak. Trekkers shuffled about the one street taking days off from the trail to acclimatise, buying books which seemed to be entirely about death in the mountains and watch films in the two small movie houses which also seemed to be about perilous quests into the unknown. Deciding I needed something a little more escapist (or just not entitled: ‘The day I starved and had to eat my frozen friend’s face off’) we headed straight to a guesthouse, ending the day with a few beers with fellow bikers James and Logan. As I walked out into the moonless night, I shivered and saw the snow. It wasn’t a flurry, not even a dusting, just a few minute white specs floating out of the night sky: pioneers, I would discover.

I was wrestled from sleep by a white light, and discovered a broad white bar occluding the view out of the upper part of my guesthouse window. It fell. Gravity has beaten the abundant snow gathering on the roof and it had joined snow heaping up on the ground. A head-scarfed old lady shuffled through the white-out, shovel in hand. There had been no weather warnings, and everyone in town was as agog as we were: a blizzard had gripped Menang, in October: a month of unchallenged blue skies in the middle of the Himalayan dry season. And we still had the steady climb of 2000 metres to climb to Thorong La, a pass of 5416 m which claimed the blue bit of my map and where the contour lines crowded together like tree rings. And if it was snowing abundantly here…

But as the snow continued to pile up, people’s minds were not on the pass, and the snowfall forced everyone’s faces into silly grins of the type that grace seven year olds when school’s cancelled. With the power out, there was nothing to do but read or crowd about the wood-burning stove which was incited with dry yak dung, as the scent of garlic and butter swirled and a snowman in sunglasses took shape outside my window. As more hikers arrived and nobody could leave, Manang became a stoppered bottle of bewildered adventurers, aiming eyes at the still-white sky.



Manang under snow
It was here we met three New Zealanders: Emily, Claire and Tim, all in shorts. This was immediately satisfying. I’ve never been to New Zealand, but in my mind, all New Zealanders wear shorts, and only shorts. I am certain that if I would go there I would find people running about glaciers in vests and underwear. They don’t have homes, or jobs. They sleep in crevasses and spend their days playing water-rugby in grade five rapids.

Emily, Claire and Tim didn’t pack trousers in order to hike over a Himalayan pass of 5400 metres. And that’s how it should be. They are the only nationality allowed to do this and not be considered foolish or ill prepared. All three were as outdoorsy as every Kiwi I have met, and Emily was keen on something called Adventure Racing (if you’re not acquainted look up masochism in a dictionary, it’ll be there).

The following day the sky was a pacifying blue, and the Annapurnas looked to smoulder as snow was whipped from their upper reaches by sun and breeze. Manang was alive again: sunglassed, pack-laden trekkers pounded through two feet of packed snow which was yet to live as slush. Above, electric cables, the ones still up, bled snow in plummeting shafts. The rock faces of Annapurna 2 and 3 were unsullied panes of white. Mountain goats, driven down to town by the snowfall, began pestering shop keepers and munching on gardens.

Mike and I trekked up to a ridge above Manang where the snow was thigh deep and eye-aching, almost forcing us to break trail. Our feet slid deliciously into it. When we returned power had come back to the town. Inside a hostel a posse of Australians sat, their eyes trained intensely on a TV: the BBC were reporting deaths on the Annapurna Circuit. Nine bodies so far, at least 140 missing. The news channels knew more about the disaster than anyone in Manang itself, one of the biggest towns en route. Everyone began playing the ‘what if’ game, everyone had a reason why they could have been two days further ahead, at the pass, when the snow-storm hit. Manang was all chatter, but facts? They were as absent as colour in the peaks.

The drone of search and rescue helicopters became as familiar as the low of yaks. They zipped to and fro, like the rumours around town: two metres of snow at the pass, body count: 21. Scores were still stranded at Tilicho Lake and High Camp. The Israelis were being evacuated first as the Israeli government had fronted the money for evacuation of all its citizens. Later, this would be a topic of controversy and rumours spread of helicopters half full refusing to take anyone not Israeli, of bands of Israelis commandeering the available satellite phones and, more farcically, of two people who’d blagged their way onto a chopper because ‘we’re half Jewish!’

We stared wistfully at maps, pondering the future of our ride, knowing it may now be impossible to proceed – already many hikers were turning face and marching back to Besishar. We decided to linger, and then, realising bike travel was fantasy (since hiking may well be too), we left our bikes and gear at a guesthouse and set out to the pass on foot when everyone else was in retreat. We bought wooden sticks as trekking poles and stuffed plastic bags down our trainers. Thoughts of avalanches were edged out by the slim chance of making it up. The events on the pass felt remote. We met two hikers, a Lithuanian and Siberian, unfussed, who ran out of beer and cigarettes from high altitude near Tilicho lake. ‘It vas tragedy’ the Siberian pined. From where others were being air-evacuated, they had left on foot through deep snow drifts, motivated by the fear of remaining without the refuge of booze and fags.

The Nepali minister for tourism arrived into Manang by helicopter and promptly presented to the medical clinic with symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness – typical, I thought, of tourists not to heed the advice, especially amusing through if you yourself promote that advice. I was asked to check in at the clinic too in case they had a rush of patients who had been stranded on the trail and needed help, but having not been called into action, I set out on foot.

Snow: the great eraser. Filching not just colour and detail, but leaving the land bereft of smell, of movement too, with the exception of avalanches and as we tramped out over the hills northwest of Menang, a huge crunch caused us to swivel and watch snow barrel down the opposing side of the valley. Our gaze waited over the mountainside before we moved on, our thoughts murky, our plan still imprecise. We met a few trekkers heading back who had been stranded at High Camp, they bore news that the Nepali army had closed the pass to collect bodies.




The next night we spent with a French girl, Maryon and American guy, Elie. ‘Hey, do you guys blaze?’ asked Elie.

It wasn’t strong weed, but it doesn’t have to be at 4200 metres above sea level. I know this because an hour later I found Mike in his room sat upright and crosslegged, meditating. He was wrapped in a yak hair blanket inscribed with Tibetan runes. He looked, in almost every respect, like a wizard. The only inconsistency was the fact that he was wearing a pair of gloves on his feet, and instead of solemnity, his expression was one of lightly controlled mania.

‘That Yak looks demonic’ said Mike. Having considered that Mike was no longer high, I peered at the beast and had to agree. A long face, big horns and a bleak, nowhere stare. I was still vaguely spooked when we came to some other trekkers who paused by us. ‘Over there, you see?’ one pointed to the shape of a man over the river, lying down in the snow. ‘It’s a dead body’.

Until that point, the events on the pass had seemed remote and marginal, too extreme perhaps to process. We had been merely held up and I hadn’t considered the reality. The reality was brutally unsheathed now, in the shape of a dead man, and a red rucksack, laid out in the snow.

There’s an expression in medicine which, typical of many of doctor’s idioms, carries a certain brutality but is useful nonetheless. ‘You’re not dead’ they say ‘until you’re warm and dead’. Hypothermia can do strange things: brain function can be preserved, heart-rate slowed so much as to affect death. I had to check.

If he’d been out there all night, or for longer, then I couldn’t see him being alive, but nobody knew. We passed a German hiker, noticeably shaken by the sight, and then to the body. He was lying down, head on a red rucksack for a pillow, a blanket over his legs, one hand balled up to a fist. He had been dead for some time. It was shocking in the juxtaposition: dead bodies belong in hospital beds, in the morgue, not alone, skin still shining, growing hard in the snow.

He was a monk whom we later discovered had walked from Thorung Phedi against advice during the night. By his posture he looked resigned to death, not as though it had come suddenly and with a fight. Later I wondered whether his religion might have played into this. Perhaps, amid the cold, with a certain fatalism, he’d thought about his next life. But perhaps not.

An army helicopter above described a curve and as we hiked around the next corner, they must have winched up the body.

As we hiked our wooden sticks created tunnels of glacial blue in the snow which was lumped over unseen boulders and shrubs – the world had been bubblewrapped. Recent avalanches churned up the snow, twisting it up into ragged shapes, like a sea bed of coral. My heart was set to pounding as I took stock of a great crack in the snow, extending down into the earth, where rocks and snow were spilling in ceaselessly. It looked as though at any moment the mountainside would snap and tear off towards the river, plunging at 20 degrees to the vertical. Maybe my perspective had changed: Would I have been as afraid had I not just stared into the frozen features of a dead man? I don’t know, but as I paced through the snow my feet found other footprints coming the other way. The lingering echo, perhaps, of a man’s last strides.



Sunlight roused the valley, waking the colours and contours of rock exposed by the melt. The crags above us were blotted with the shapes of big birds of prey, Himalayan vultures perhaps, and as the snow melted rocks shifted, at times tumbling down to the trail from on high.

It was a scramble from Thorong Pedi up to High Camp, which was at almost 5000 metres and the snow was still waist deep. We were now the only foreigners this high aside from a Chinese hiker, the rest had returned, and a few had been airlifted out. My head ached. This was the place that porters had arrived at days before, clutching notes from hikers near the pass which stated that they were in immediate and life threatening danger. Send help. No help by then could be sent. Mike set off on a short recce but even now, days after the snowfall, the trail to the pass was judged too dangerous and, dissuaded to try because we still had to return to Manang to collect our bikes, we decided to return by foot, trudging through the melting snow which was exposing sweet smelling shrubs, in a steady, pleasing silence.






Manang was a ghost of its former bustling self when we returned, and much of the snow had evaporated with the tourists. Uncomfortably, because we were in the shadow of tragedy, the Himalayas south of Manang looked as beautiful as perhaps they would ever be: the high rock faces sheeted with snow, the blue October sky, the rust and ochre of autumn, the earthy colours of rocks and pine.

We met tour groups, one British, with members in National Geographic t-shirts but so obese that the logo was distorted, stretched over geographically significant bosoms and man-breasts. A teenager in the posse received a text from a friend and said ‘Hey, hey Jack check this out. My mate wants to know if I’ve seen any dead bodies! Ha Ha Ha Ha!’ His friends joined him in the hilarity. I exchanged a look with Mike.

We arrived back at Besishar which was in the midst of Tihar (Diwali) celebrations and ornate Hindu girls dazzled onlookers with their practised dance routines.



An avalanche on the way back to Manang
That Nepal struggled to deal with the unfolding tragedy is unquestionable, that it needn’t have is under debate. Nepal is, after all, one of the poorest countries in Asia. The Annapurna Circuit is not a jaunt through Yosemite and the Himalayas are a different breed to the Alps. But with over 20,000 hikers paying 40 dollars a pop annually questions will and should be raised. Here are mine:
  • The cyclone was being monitored. The snow was predicted. Why were no severe weather warnings telephoned to the villages and camps en route before the snow fell, especially the ones after Manang where there is no public Internet access? (and if these calls were made, why were the hikers not told?)
  • Why are communications between points on the hike so patently inadequate? There are is no radio communication or relay towers, and only one satellite phone. When power went out, there was no way to relay a message to high camp and tell them to instruct trekkers not to leave.
  • Why did nobody take charge of the disaster – the trail was only closed a full 4 days after the snowfall and misinformation was rife.
  • How does TIMS (the Trekkers Information Management System) spend the 20 dollars a trekker it receives? Is any of it used in crisis prevention?
Officials I spoke with were in the habit of reminding me that Nepal is far behind the west in matters of disaster preparedness. That may be so, but it can’t be used as an excuse for mismanaging was has been an epic calamity, and the loss of 39 lives. You can argue that the responsibility lies not just with authorities but with trekkers too. I agree, but trekkers can’t make reasoned decisions without the information. A dusting of snow is not uncommon at the pass, even in the dry season. It’s conceivable that the hikers set out thinking it would soon peter out, they could have had no idea that two metres would fall, obliterating the trail and leaving them to exposure and ultimately, death.

Some of the misinformation may have been born of a vested interest, locals and ACAP (Annapurna Conservation Area Project) were in the habit of telling everyone the pass was open and easily reachable in the days after, when it clearly wasn’t. This is peak season, and bad weather is bad for business. I sympathise, but this relentless optimism just added to the confusion.

Whilst the trail is spectacular, I can’t recommend the Annapurna Circuit for touring bikers, though this has nothing to do with the disaster. For trekkers it’s fantastic, but too much of the road is still unridable (for surface, not gradient) and trudging behind hikers with a 20 kg bike and more gear over your shoulder is not as fun as the Himalayas should be. That said – with a fat tyred light weight mountain bike and no gear – perhaps it’s a better prospect.



A lot more has happened this month, but alas, no space. I visited a leprosy hospital near Kathmandu, and one of the mobile health clinics that serve the city’s street children. Perhaps these will appear in a later edition.

Thank yous: Lizzie and Sanju, My Mum, Anna, Fareed, Mike (a special thank you for Korean acquired toe warmers), Mango Tree for the tranquillity I needed when the trek was over, Cory, Benny and Carolyn.

Bullet in my kneecap

A Nepali market
It was love at first sight. There were mushrooms, beans, asparagus. There were eggs, sitting now in a small lake of my own drool. There was something vaguely sexual in the lay of the bacon, the way it was sprawled, invitingly, in melted cheese.

It was a breakfast that would have prostrated Homer Simpson, and it came courtesy of my friends and masterchefs Annelie and Rahul. I pedalled a full 100 km before I needed to eat again, to Gawahati where another friend, Sumanta, had organised a place for me to sleep. When I left the day  after though, I had forgotten to pack my towel. 40 km later Sumanta appeared in his car to hand it back to me. To fully explain how generous this was, let me for a minute describe my towel. 

There is a thing that lurks in the fetid, nethermost crevasses of my rear pannier. Perhaps it was once white, but it’s impossible to tell. It is the Gollum of bathroom accessories. Claire once held it aloft with a finger, asking, with a more than a faint sense of alarm, ‘what is this?’ It was a genuine question. ‘My towel’. She cocked her head, working her imagination where the most credulous would falter. It’s the kind of thing you might use to wrap your dog in, if your dog was bleeding and needed to be taken urgently to a vet. But only if you really hated your dog. And Sumatra, the kind Sir, drove an 80 km round trip to give it to me. There is no better demonstration of how generous the Indians are than that.

I cut west from Gawahati, enjoying sunny days at last, past vivid green paddies, until I hit the flood plain of the vast Brahmaputra River. The waterway is one of Asia’s greatest: it drifts down from the Ansi glacier through Tibet before fattening up through India and spilling into the Bay of Bengal. It is one of the few rivers in India that are known as male and not female. The annual floods are expansive, and I cycled through a surreal water-world where just forested islands and the odd village were spared. An immense bridge spanned the river, on the other side an elevated railway had become the thoroughfare between villages and hundreds of people marched its course. I slept on the edges of the forest, the air thick with fire flies at dusk.

The next morning a soldier in the road asked me to stop for tea.

‘I’m really sorry I have to push on’ I told him, thinking of my flagging VISA .

He thought about this for second and then said ‘No. You’ll have tea. Please sit down.’

‘I’m really sorry but…’ he turned then to bark some orders at another soldier, as he did so the barrel of his rifle, which was dangling from a shoulder, brushed against my thigh. It then hovered just over my leg as he continued his conversation, the bullet’s trajectory: my kneecap.

He turned to me again. ‘So you’ll have tea?’

‘Absolutely’.

It tasted amazing, like a prisoner’s last meal might.

(This post title might be a little misleading, but I ran with it because I’ve just finished Tim Cahill’s ‘Jaguars Ripped My Flesh’. And it got you reading, didn’t it?) (sorry Mum)



My first sight of the Himalayan foothills, a low blue-grey saw beyond a spread of tea plantations, became quickly blurred through weeping eyes. I was surprised by this burst of sentimentality, but then getting here did feel meaningful, like when I arrived to the Arctic Ocean or at that first snatched glimpse of Table Mountain. Crossing the biggest mountain range on earth, along with the coming winter I’ll spend in central Asia, I count as my last big barriers between my wheels and England.

Each day the mountains remained a low silhouette, striped by cloud or masked entirely, but they loomed nonetheless, swelling in my mind, sneaking into my dreams. It was impossible to view the peaks and not wonder what these flats looked like from the opposite perspective: in the thin air where self-doubt reigns, on the steep and jarring trails that wend among the peaks, the ones that set your heart pounding and chest shaking and soul searching.

I pedalled through the Buxa forest next, a place of ivy-dressed trees and scrambling monkeys. I noticed the road I was on swung close to Bhutan and then a small road branched off and penetrated the country, which was now just 17 km away. I didn’t have the coveted Bhutan VISA but perhaps I could sneak in, nose around a little, export some of their fabled national happiness, import some of my own.

Two Christian missionaries on motorbikes didn’t like my chances – there were, apparently, roadblocks and officials ahead. I decided my tactic would be one of speed over stealth. The Bhutanese officials would most likely be Buddhists, I reasoned. They probably wouldn’t shoot me.

The Indian post was easy, it may have been manned but any chance of being discovered sneaking out of the country by officials was dimmed by the very Indian-ness of the tableau: goats shambled, vendors streamed, rickshaws swerved. Then I saw big arch etched with dragons. Bhutan! A truck went past as I did, the timing was perfect and I slipped by unnoticed. Another roadblock loomed though, and I was sure I’d get stopped until I saw a solider talking through a car window and oblivious to anything on the road. Suddenly I was in the unlikely position of cycling through Bhutan, and without a stamp, VISA, permission or care.

I decided on a smaller road to a place on a signpost called Kanyo Thang because the road stayed low and because I wondered if the town might have been named after a Bhutanese rapper. I saw the wall that designated the border stretched out across the fields. Prayer flags flapped beside a river bringing cool water, I imagined, from distant ice caps. The local people I came on looked surprised to see me, wondering perhaps how someone as dishevelled as I could afford the 250 dollar a day VISA Bhutan insists on.

I made it a school, the children dressed in the traditional robes of Bhutan, were perhaps the politest children in the world. As they filed past me I enjoyed a chorus of ‘Happy journey sir!’. A sign on the outskirts of the village warned about the perils of drug trafficking and the hefty penalties for those caught. There was no mention of the penalties for those pedalling religion like the missionaries I’d met before. I wondered whether it was drugs or religion that would cause the most harm.



I’d sketched a route from googlemaps into my journal – it was an improvised ride to Darjeeling, via the back door. I’d bounce about on spindly roads but for forest and mountains I hoped it would be worth it. In Matelli, the local consensus was that there was no way through to the next place on my route, Gorubathan. But a few said yes, it was possible, only 15 km, others assured me it was 30km.Some people smiled in silence. One man dinged my bicycle bell. Eventually someone opted to show me the way, I walked behind him for five minutes and when he stopped outside a Hindu temple on the edge of town he said ‘wait a while with us brother. Share your love.’ And directed me inside.

‘I can’t share my love today brother, I have a long way to go’

He seemed satisfied with that and pointed the way. The track was decades old and in a bad state: ragged islands of tarmac in a sea of dirt. It was a jarring journey past tea plantations and only used by the workers within. A few women glanced at me sideways through sari-shaded eyes and never stopped picking the tea. The track ended in a footpath – this couldn’t be the way, could it? A local man working for a hydroelectric plant offered to be my guide. I wheeled by bike behind him on the path and we arrived soon at a small cliff face, the path ran across its face, sometimes a few inches in width and flanked by a ten metre drop. I have dragged by bike over all kinds of obstacles, but this looked impossible to cross. A farmer arrived though and without conference he grabbed my rear rack and the three of us hefted, rolled and swung it over the gaps in the path. Several times I almost lost purchase in an effort to stop my bike crashing into the river below.

We made it, and when minutes later a road appeared I narrowly avoided hugging my guide. He was going the other way and so left me with a description of my route, adding ‘the forest people will look after you.’ And then, outlandishly, ‘Watch out for tiger and elephant’.

I crossed a bridge and climbed steeply, the temperature brushing 40 degrees, the air a breezeless weight wrenching all my energy away. I dared myself to reach a palm shadow, and then the next, sweat pooling in every crease of skin.


Older tea pickers with lordosis


At Gorubathan I wasn’t sure if I should continue with my plan, which would involve not one big climb to Darjeeling but two, as the route swung down to the Teesta River before climbing again. There was an easier option to Darjeeling. I was exhausted having hardly hit the foothills, but I decided to defer the decision until I was plumped with a good meal. I ate roughly three, leaving the server agog at my effort, and then ploughed on past village girls who scowled at me but couldn’t keep it up for long and burst into giggles further down the road. I ended the day at a village which had a large effigy of Buddha, and local men found me a shelter: I would share a hut with an old man. When I opened the door two rats scarpered up opposing walls, mosquitoes danced in the gloom. I would have been happier in my tent, but it would have been rude to shun their hospitality – the price for such good intentions was a fresh slew of mosi bites and hours of fractured sleep, cut through by tense wakeful moments reverberating with an old man snores and the scuttle of rats.

The valley was steep and pine-sided, the road a fund of switchbacks. At length I hit Lava, a town of colourful several-story buildings and an ornate burgundy Buddhist monastery, 2000 metres above sea level. Prayer flags fluttered and young monks waved at me from the balconies as I mulishly climbed the final metres.

The climb ended 200 metres higher up and then I careered downhill through a run of fetching Buddhist villages in which the houses were poised over a deep valley. From Kalimpong I descended to the Teesta river, spotting three wild peacocks on the way. There are various ways into Darjeeling, all steep, this one though was the steepest. In fact, after 67,000 km of touring I can think of only one other climb this steep and prolonged. I climbed an agonising 1500 vertical metres over just 13.5km which is an average gradient of over 11%, average being the all-important word. Virtually every corner was nudging 25%, and the corners came in droves. It helps to be angry at the mountain, a kind of teeth-grinding murderous rage propels me up it. People passing me in cars looked startled, and I realised that it might have something to do with what was happening on my face.

I topped 2000 metres again and camped on a cloud-rushed ridge next to a Buddhist shrine, a vaguely forbidding kind of place. The next morning I heard chanting so I scrambled out of my tent and strolled towards the voices, through the mist. You have to see it from the women’s perspective to understand their reaction, which was one of eye-bulging terror. You are deep in prayer, on an isolated forested ridge, near a shrine. You are enclosed in a dense mist. The dawn is still and silent. Then something groans. You look in the direction of the noise and there, blundering out of the mist, is a pale hairy thing, releasing a low, unintelligible moan.

The women did bid me good morning in the end  – when they returned that is (they had run away quite fast) and could see I wasn’t supernatural.

Then I whistled into Darjeeling where I had three days to rest before I had to leave India – the time allowed on my VISA was up. The town of course is a famous hill-station, in the foot-hills of the Himalayas. I wasn’t convinced about all this talk of hills. I get it, it’s relative. But in the UK I would be on a certified mountain if I were just half the altitude of Darjeeling.

When the swirls of cloud are thin enough, it is, Darjeeling, one of the most dramatic big towns in the world. On my second day a breeze threw the clouds away revealing a deep valley with roads that looked drizzled on, like icing on a cake. More strikingly though was the vista looming over the town: a row of some of the tallest peaks on earth, including Kangchenjunga, India’s highest mountain and the world’s third, making even the prodigious peaks of Sikkim to the north look cutesy. It’s a sight branded by the travel writer Jan Morris as ‘one of the noblest experiences of travel, one that has moved generations of pilgrims to mysticism and even more to over-writing’. So I’ll leave it at that.


In Darjeeling I met Mike and Chris, a pair of American bikers who had been part of the six strong posse of riders that passed through Myanmar together about two months ahead of me. With their coveted six month Indian VISAs they could afford to loiter and had toured much more of the northeast than I had time to. They were the first cyclists I had seen for months, and it was occasion for beer and stories. In between I visited the zoo and museum at the Himalayan Mountain Institute where there was a 3D plastic mould of the range. I strolled down to the western end, to the Karakorum, where I hoped to cross, but no highway was marked. I stared at it for a while though, dreaming of snowy vistas, hoping for Pakistani VISAs.

I said goodbye to Mike and Chris – Mike waved me off from a bike bedecked in Buddhist prayer flags – and I cycled back down to the lowlands, past tea plantations where the women hip-deep in the shrubs picked away, automatically. I crossed into Nepal via a bridge full of cycle rickshaws, where men in topis and a woman soldier welcomed me to the country. She had henna motifs on her hands and striking green eyes, like the photo of the famous Afghan girl. 

Nepali man, and a Nepali smile, wearing a Nepali Topi

Nepal grew more rural as I pedalled the flat road across the east, travelling over bridges, themselves ranging over sandy river beds. One morning, after pedalling for a few minutes, a snake wiggled past my front wheel. My heart was still pounding five minutes later when I spotted a tiny backpacked child to my left and saw that his school bus was on the far side of the road. Even though he was on the left of the road, his head was fixed to the left as well. When he bolted there was no time to sound the bell, or even to shout. A tailwind was helping me to 30 km/hr. I turned hard to the right and he skimmed off my left pannier and continued to run to his bus as if nothing had happened. He wouldn’t have reached the height of my handlebars and if I’d hit him full on, I don’t want to think about the result.

As I pedalled west, homeward bound and with the sun on my back in the mornings, I passed dazzling huddles of women, eyes bright in the shadows of their saris. There were Sadus too, pacing the road, happy to have their picture taken for an apple or two. There were bristle-faced gaunt-chested men, sitting up straight and dignified on bicycles.

I came to a forested area where I saw some deer and then monkeys that watched me carefully, and moved with tension, like burglars in the night. One morning I came to a big group of Nepalis huddled around something long and thin, stretched out on the road. It was a rock python, killed minutes before by a truck. ‘Ahhh. Just a baby’ said a man, dolefully. The snake was eight feet long. It must be tough crossing roads when you’re that long. The odds can’t be in your favour.








The 13th of September: my birthday. I realised at some dusky point in the evening. I’d forgotten for the second year running. Time unspools like mountain roads, I lose track of where I am. I’ll be home, perhaps, before the next one. I was in a town called Hetauda which was announced via a signpost that read ‘Shivan cement welcomes you to the Green city of Hetauda’ and I had to marvel at a town so apparently eco-friendly it is sponsored by a cement company. I spent the evening perusing emails from friends wishing me happy birthday, and bearing news of new babies. And an email from Claire reminding me of my birthday and telling me not to forget like last year.

The tourist season is short and hectic and Kathmandu’s streets were messy with taxis and motorbikes and people wearing masks to prevent inhaling the pollution and dust. I didn’t bother, its one of the small perks of being an ex-smoker: city air will never match the damage you’ve done to yourself. No need to stress about city air.

In Kathmandu I hung out with Anna, a PhD student from my hometown, and I worked on getting VISAs – another for India, one for China and one for the nightmare of the trio: Pakistan.

The Chinese embassy was the usual confusion of applicants, all jostling and looking defeated from the moment they passed the metal detector. Nobody had a clear idea of what documents were needed, because embassies like to keep important things like that secret until, hours after getting there, you find yourself at the front of the queue and then some self-satisfied paper pusher can tell you what you’ve forgotten. This was my second visit. Three Nepali men in suits strode past the entire line and entered at the front, grinning to each other. They seemed uninjured by the muttering that was, in the end, their only comeuppance. (note to self – do not write blog posts immediately after spending hours in line for VISAs. Wait until stable mental state has returned).

A lady three ahead of me in the line, British, was carrying an extremely cute three year old girl whom she deposited on the counter. The girl pressed herself up against the glass turning the embassy official gooy-eyed and silly-faced. It was the best tactic I have ever seen used to score a VISA. I didn’t hear what the lady said to the official, but I reckon it might have been something like ‘I’d like a five year multiple entry VISA to Tibet please. Oh, and hurry the fuck up’.

So no need for the obsequious noises, the myriad thank yous, the flaunting what you know of the officials native tongue. Just borrow a baby, that’s my advice. Steal one if you have to. Pass it down the queue so everyone can benefit.

As I walked back to my hostel I past the Nepali passport office. The mass of humanity awaiting documents brought to mind a refugee camp. With a UK passport, things really aren’t all that bad, are they?

My brain hurts thinking of all the hoops I have to jump through for the next stage of my trip. I can’t say for sure what will happen next but plan A is a Himalayan adventure in Nepal, then back into India, into Pakistan and over the Karakorum into a very cold China. If I can’t do that, then there will be flights involved, which will be spirit-crushing but unavoidable.

Thank yous – Anna, Sumanta, Lizzie and Sanju.

Finally I’m glad to announce that this blog made it to number 10 in the list of the world’s most popular bike touring blogs (based on Alexa, domain and page authority) so thank you to everybody for reading and sharing.

Cycling The 6 Equipment Reviews 2011

I’ve been honest, I promise. Yes, some of my gear is sponsored and yes, of course I have a vested interest in promoting the freebies, but on this trip I only approached sponsors who are at the top of their game and I refused kit that I suspected wasn’t up to the job. I haven’t included anything in the lists that follow that didn’t work extremely well in some of the tough and varied conditions I experienced en route. This is a breakdown of what worked and what didn’t, what I really needed and what I could have done without. It’s in no particular order. Hopefully it will be useful for anyone planning their own cycle tour, expedition or outdoor adventure. There´s a full kit list on my website here.

Top ten kit list
(items which cost less than £50)

1.   A Buff




How do you describe a Buff? Maybe ´Multifunctional headgear´ covers it. I used it in a variety of extreme conditions and I reckon I have worn it in every possible fashion (see the video below) including the ‘Driving Miss Daisy’. It stopped me accruing ice crystals in my beard in the Alps, it turned into a sweat band in the Middle East and saved my eyes and nostrils from a sandy oblivion during a sand storm in Sudan. One word of warning though… don’t walk into an Albanian bank wearing a Buff as a full face mask as I did, you will inadvertently terrorize all the staff.

2.    Incognito insect repellent

Cyclists are a vulnerable bunch when it comes to mosquito bites and the diseases they carry. It’s fair to say that as an absolute minimum, a bout of malaria would have really pissed me off. I found Incognito – a non DEET based repellent and gave it a go. Whilst riding through the malarial zones in sub-Saharan Africa it has been incredibly effective and I’ve been malaria free. Plus it makes you smell like lemons, which after cycling 150 km can only be a bonus. You can get some here 

3.   P20 Suncream

This is more of an essential item in my book. Once a day application is all you need – you can sweat buckets, shower or swim and it stays on. No grease, no shine and its fast gaining popularity. After only one application you can cycle 150 km through the Sahara under the scornful, merciless sun and no beetroot hue afterwards. Could this be the end of red and white striped Brits abroad?

4.   Endura Hummvee 3/4 shorts and trousers

It´s a bold statement I know, but I reckon Endura make the best cycling clothing out there. I rode in these almost every day. Loads of pockets with zips, stretch panels and side zipped ventilation. And they look cool, which of course is very important when you’re completely on your own for days at a time in the middle of a desert.

5.   Craghoppers base t-shirt

I alternated between two of these t-shirts whilst cycling through Africa and both look almost brand new today. They cost less than a tenner and are made from moisture-wicking polyester which keeps you dry and not caked in sweat. Bargain.
Craghoppers Base t-shirt and Endura 3/4 shorts
6.   The Nomad Expedition Poncho

Its all about multi-functionality when you’re gram saving to avoid chugging too slowly up those hills. Yes it’s a poncho but I also used it as a tarp and a ground sheet. It got me through the wet season and anything that copes with tropical rain in Tanzania must be worthy of a place in this top ten. Find it here
 

7.   Seal skinz socks
 
The Sealskinz range of waterproof socks keep your feet warm and dry even in the worst weather conditions and definitely worth investing in if you´re planning a journey through a wet climate. Unique patented technology – find out more here

8.   Moleskine journal


A symbol of contemporary nomadism. These are the ultimate, classic, smartest notebooks, used by the legendary explorers and artists of yesteryear. I’m particularly fond of trying to convince strangers that they are actually made from mole’s skin. The Moleskine is where my blog begins and where my book, if I ever write one, will be spawned from. There are several different varieties. I use the large ruled hardback which has loads of pages, little pockets for all the scrap paper I scribble disjointed ideas down on and a reward section at the front. More info here

9.   Park MTB-3 Multitool
I’ve had many bad experiences with multitools. They often fall apart on me or I end up hurling them at something hard in frustration, and then they fall apart on me. But this robust little gizmo has everything you’d need and expect from a multitool, it’s really durable and comes completely apart which is important because you need the Allen keys to operate the chain tool, most other multitool makers forget about this. When you dismantle it you have two tyre levers too. It includes various hex wrenches, spoke wrenches and screwdrivers, a bottle opener, a pedal wrench and a serrated knife.  

10.   Sea to Summit Sleeping bag liner

Washing a sleeping bag is a hassle so these save you the trouble – you just wash the liner. They also keep you even warmer on cold nights. There are various versions including silk and cotton. You can get some here.


Top ten kit list
(items that cost more than £50)

1.   The Santos Travelmaster bicycle

 

I bought Belinda, my bicycle, knowing I needed to spend enough money to guarantee a solid, trusty steed. She hasn’t let me down. Santos allow you to do a complete custom build, so you choose each part of the bike from a range of different components. You choose the frame colour and type of metal, the accessories, the brakes, the chain, the pedals, the rims… everything. This freedom of choice and high quality of the parts doesn’t come cheap but I reckon it’s worth the price tag and would certainly favour a Santos over, for example, a Thorn – another popular touring bike in the UK. The bike came with a Rohloff hub – a device which contains 14 internal gears and holds a solid reputation – most long distance cyclists I came across have one. I wanted a bike that was durable and easy to fix. Mine has a steel frame and isn’t light – perhaps weighing around 20kg – but it’s as heavy as it needs to be and will hopefully last me the five years I plan to be cycling. It came with a Brooks saddle, a handlebar mounted compass, a very strong kickstand and a dynamo hub. 

 I have ridden thousands of miles in relative comfort thanks to Alasdair at MSG Bikes who does an ergonomic bike fitting which is unique to him and not available anywhere else. Their slogan “it’s not all about the bike is right.¨ Check them out here 

2.   160 GB IPOD

Is this the largest music memory of all portable MP3 players? I don’t rightly know but that’s got to be the main draw. 160 GB = about 40,000 songs. That’s over 110 days and nights of listening continuously until you reach the end of the track list. I have almost 30,000 on mine so I doubt I´ll ever get bored. Yes Itunes is annoying and makes accessibility difficult but it still has to be head, shoulders, knees and toes above the other MP3 players out there. 


3.   Leatherman Wave

Fix your bike with it, open tins with it, cut up mangos with it, open beer bottles with it, trim your beard with it, scratch your arse with it… not all of the leatherman’s functions are in the instruction booklet but that’s only because the list is endless. The Wave is the most popular Leatherman and includes a tough pair of pliers, sharp blades and hacksaws, scissors, can opener and more. It’s one solid sexy beast and well worth investing in.

4.   Ortlieb Panniers

Out of the 26 cycle tourers I met between London and Cape Town almost all of them had Ortliebs, and there must be a reason. Immensely durable, watertight and suitably voluminous for starters. They are an obvious choice for most.

5.   Tubus racks

In South America I was once flung far from my saddle when a cheap aluminium rack suddenly bent and jammed into my spokes, obliterating several of them and leaving me rackless with a sore arse in a ditch. So it’s fair to say I did my research this time round, make way for the Tubus. The concensus seems to be that these are the strongest racks out there and well worth the investment, unless you have a penchant for mud in your face and the taste of blood.

6.   Schwalbe tyres

I did almost 16,000 km on my front Schwalbe Extreme, that’s the distance from London to Tanzania. This is another brand the long distance cyclists stick to like glue. Overwhelmingly more popular than the competitors, some cyclists complain of forgetting how to fix a puncture after fitting them. I have the Schwalbe Dureme on now, they might sound like a brand of condom but they do the job and I suppose if either bursts you’re going to have a pretty bad day.

7.   Terra Nova Superlite Solar tent

Camping in thick snow, the Alps
Some would argue that equipment is overrated, that people take off into the wilderness all the time with cheap bits and do fine, but if there’s one piece of kit you definitely don’t want to skimp on it’s your tent. It’s your home afterall. I have camped for over 200 nights in my tent so far. In the desert, in the wet season, in gale force winds and in thick snow (see right) and my Terra Nova is still going strong, still water tight and the poles are still fracture free. The design is great too, there’s loads of room inside, 2 doors and porches and if its hot you can just pitch the freestanding inner. It weighs a miniscule 2.4 kg and for me it was the best choice I could have made. Terra Nova have actually stopped producing the Solar but the Superlite Voyager is a similar price and just as good with a similar design. Be careful with the zips though… treat them well and they’ll do the same for you.



8.   Exped Downmat

Down and air is the combo gives you the warmest night’s sleep. These sleeping mats are also much more comfortable than a thermorest or a simple roll mat. Check them out here.
9.   Shimano SD66 SPD sandals  

Tough sandals you can cycle in, with cleats if you need them. I wore them almost every day I was in Africa and they lasted me all the way. You can pick up a pair from Madison here.


10.   Business cards   

Not just a good way to avoid constantly writing down your email address to people you meet en route on scraps of paper which inevitably get lost but also a good way to promote a blog or website. I´m tired of explaining my route around the world so I have a map on the back of the cards so I can just show people instead.

Absolute essentials

Never leave home without…
Padded Lycra
A couple of good books


Kit I wish I’d brought…

A side mirror
A descent multifuel stove – such as the Primus Omnifuel
Two litre water bottle holders for the bike (still can’t find any)
A decent travel pillow – the key to a good night’s sleep
Presents for people /  thank you cards – maybe some photos from home
A half decent netbook
A decent dry bag for the rack to keep everything together, such as this one pictured from Overboard Africa…

Some kit I wish I had left behind…

MSR stove (I had one, it is now floating around the crocodile infested waters of the Okovango river in Botswana. Good riddance.)
Self sticking puncture repair patches – good for a race when you have to repair punctures quickly but not for touring. They all eventually fail.
Cleats – still not sure if these were behind my knee injury but I no longer take the risk
My crap bike pump without a pressure gauge, always have a gauge.
Tubes with Presta valves – You will never find replacements outside Europe, go instead with Schroeder valves which are also handy because if your pumps breaks, and it will, you can re-inflate at petrol stations


3 things I would never skimp on…

1. Tent
2. Sleeping bag
3. Tyres

So a quick update – I´m currently in Argentina and about to begin the next leg of the journey – The Americas. It will be around 18 months from here to Alaska. Cant wait to get started. My knee has been a problem of late but the MRI scan in Cape Town was better than I had anticipated and the knee has improved a fair bit since, so on I go. More stories from the road very soon.