As we stepped out of the tent, our breath frosting in the cold air, a sharp chill caught our sides. The camp lights were out, so we were in complete darkness. That is, until we looked up to see the diamond studded dark blue carpet that enveloped the valley. Thousands of stars glittered & winked down at us – a sight tired and starved urban eyes would happily trade for the spine tingling cold of the night. We had ventured out to star gaze, except that nobody really knew one constellation from another.
It was a savagely humid afternoon in August, and as I sat at my desk, resigned to the will of Delhi’s weather gods, an unexpected phone conversation was about to change the course of what autumn would look like for me.
An old friend called, asking if I’d like to travel with a troupe to Himachal Pradesh on a mountain bike rally. This was quickly followed by a clarification; “I don’t expect you to bike with us (perhaps as a reaction to the rising octave of my voice as I wondered aloud if I was fit enough to bike). Travel with us, I was told, because we’d like someone to pen the journey of the riders, talk about the splendor of the Himalayas, and narrate the experience of what it’s like to be part of a traveling camp for ten days.
Forty days later, armed with a camera and laptop, I found myself amidst 67 riders, 25 volunteers, and 25 organizers at the flag off ceremony in Shimla. A team of four had been brought together to write and blog about a mountain bike rally in Himachal Pradesh that was being organized by the Himalayan Adventure Sports Association (HASTPA). We had an open-back jeep at our disposal, which we first considered quite a privilege until we realized that the independence came with the responsibility of being assigned the task of ferrying the last of the riders back in the jeep, which made us the last set of people to reach the base camp at night. By the time we got in, most participants were done unwinding for the day, sunset and chai in hand. There was little to do except finish writing out our notes, partake in other such nefarious activities in torch-lit tents and, yes, star gaze.
Our 10 day, 500 km journey traversed hot and humid valley bottoms, scorched barren hillsides, cooler forested patches, and sudden passes that rose steeply from serene alpine meadows to mark one watershed from another. From campsites in the lost valley of Gada Kuffar to spending two days in a heritage village in Kullu-Sarahan, each new region brought amazing scenic splendor in the midst of ever changing topography and vegetation. As we moved from Simla to Narkanda, for instance, the majestic deodar forests gradually transformed into pure and mixed blue pine trees. This alternated with Fir-spruce that donned hills that, themselves, were crested with sombre brown oak forests. Himachal’s most commonly found and, therefore, official tree is the magnificent Deodar. The etymology of the word Deodar comes from deo, which means god, and dar, which means tree. The tree of the Gods: nature’s most fitting gift for the Western Himalayas.
From Narkanda, descending via Kotgarh (the home of the apple in India), we were met by the mighty Sutlej. Beyond the valleys across this river, a spectacular vista of the eternal snow clad Himalayan Range glimmered. A dark thought flashed across my mind; I hoped none of the bikers had nose-dived into the Sutlej while admiring those snowy peaks!
Since the rally took place in October, the alchemy of autumn was at its best. Mountainsides previously drenched in masses of dark green now had auburn, gold, and brown canopies spotting the landscape. Tiny yellow and red and purple flowers blossomed, and on many a lunch break (always just a random clearing by the road where one could find enough shade from the crisp autumn sun), we found perfectly shaped pine cones that had fallen from the soaring blue pine and fir trees, which sought to regenerate their kind.
Mountain biking is a sport that doesn’t just demand high physical stamina, but also tests the endurance of your body and mind. Especially when there is an ascent to 3,340 meters at Jalori Pass – the highest point of the race. For such a steep climb, the bikers have to be in good shape. Those who hadn’t trained long enough bore the brunt of this when their bodies gave up, and the riders would have to resort to manually pushing their bikes across the passes.
Albeit an unconventional one, I’d feel guilty calling this trip anything but a holiday (paid vacations are legitimate, right?). Sans a few backbreaking jeep rides, add multiple breath taking views, clean mountain air, scrumptious and nutritious pahadi food, and the trip amounted to nothing short of a much-needed break for the soul.
Sometimes the stars don’t need to align in order to grant wishes.
Born and brought up in India, Surabhi Tandon is constantly venturing into new forms of exploring different ways in which to understand the world, both in macro-perspectives and in micro-stories.