First big climb in a while and I relished it. Finally up into the cool air before heading back down to the Bangladesh border as I take the back way to the hill town of Cherrapanji. The Indian border patrol were either concerned or bored as I was stopped a few times but allowed to continue and I camped by a river at the foot of a climb.
Woeful day. During the night I got sick. It's part and parcel in this part of the world. Especially eating in some of the places I eat. You just got to pray that when it hits you are not in a tent in the middle of nowhere. I was in a tent in the middle of nowhere. I was only 40km from a town but one problem. The enormous mountain in between. I had a 28km climb. I didn't know how i was going to do it. I couldn't hold anything down. Not even water. I resolved to hitch at the first opportunity. The road was deserted. Occasionally I would hear a vehicle coming up behind and I'd spin around full of hope to find a car already crammed with 12 people. I dragged myself up. Every couple of kilometres I would lie in the shade for a few minutes and then continue. It was misersble but all bad things come to an end and eventually I could see the outskirts of the town. At this point a man in a jeep pulls up alongside and shouts 'Do you want a lift?' I laughed, shook my head and dived into a guesthouse. Ate some food and thankfully it stayed down.
There is a happy rule in cycle touring. A good day always follows a bad day. Nothing you can rely on of course but it does seem to work out that way. Today was no exception. Yesterday I was wondering why I put myself through all this. Today I remember. The road to Shillong stayed high with spectacular views all day. To my right I could see the mountains giving way to the flat lands of Bangladesh. To my left were rugged peaks with dramatic waterfalls every few kilometres. Hairpin descent into Shillong and took a day off.
Set off into the hills heading north east to Nagaland. I am now in a predominantly Christian area which is great as I no longer need to cover my knees. Good rolling cycling on quiet roads and camped in a pine forest. Finally I have a tent worthy of the name. I picked one up in Shillong. For the last few weeks I've been using a £5 job I found in Thailand. Fine for perfect weather but it wouldn't last 2 minutes in the mountains. The new tent is heavy. 2.2kg I am feeling the extra weight when climbing. On the plus side I have doubled my living space. I don't know what to do with it all. Tried sleeping in a star shape but it felt odd. I could almost swing a cat.
Today I had a crash. I was descending on a dirt road, doing Spanish verb drills in my head, when I lost it on a curve and went over the handlebars. Annoyingly I have damaged a pannier. It is now hanging very loosely to my bike. If it gets worse I have a problem. I'm going to have to nurse it carefully until I get to a country where I could possibly replace it. I cycled on to a nearby reservoir and went for a swim to clean myself up and sort myself out. My left side was covered in cuts and bruises but no real harm done. All nothing compared to what happened to my friend Pete the other day. He almost died putting the bins out. Get well soon mate!
I am aware that in this blog I am always waxing lyrical about how great the local people are. I do this because it is true. I must therefore be honest about the people of India. They are a mixed bag. I have met countless Indians are who are almost overly helpful and hospitable. I have met others who are just plain rude. The rest just want to sell me a carpet. I can have a laugh with the latter. I admire the optimism in trying to sell a carpet to a weight obsessed cyclist. You can always post it home they say but as I've not managed to send a postcard home yet, I am unlikely to start with a carpet.
Got a proper soaking in the afternoon which was fine as it gave me an excuse to hole out in a hotel where I realised I had lost my passport.
Good news is I know where my passport is. Bad news is it's 300km away in the last hotel I stayed in. Hotels often keep your passport overnight. They should remember to return it to you when you checkout and you should remember to ask for it. Neither happened. I tried to persuade them to post it to me but they couldn't be bothered so I had no choice but to go back. Two days on buses and trains which just reminded me while I cycle in the first place. Made it back to my bike and got sick and spent a day in bed listening to the entire Tom Waits back catalogue.
Think I'm beginning to smell of petrol. I can't get camping gas in this part of the world so I have moved onto my back up stove which runs on petrol. Handy as you can get petrol anywhere. You have to be quite talented to work the thing and as a result I am struggling. I seem to get there in the end and am keeping myself noodled up but it can be messy and the smell of petrol is beginning to permeate everything. It's a good job I am not currently smoking as I would probably go up in flames. Still it overpowers all the other things I might smell of.
Today I got a boat across the mighty Brahmaputra river onto Majauli island. The largest river island in the world apparently. One to tell the grandkids. Well, someone's grandkids. There was only one bridge off the island which was the long way round so I decided to just head straight for the river. In my limited experience of rivers in this part of the world there is always plenty of activity and you can easily cadge a lift across to the other side. So I followed dirt tracks through tiny villages until I hit the end of the island. The river was completely deserted. Oh well. Nice place to camp.
A local guy joined me at my tent for breakfast and pointed me down river to a place where I could hitch a lift across. Once on the other side I followed narrow paths until I rejoined the main road and then headed straight for the mountains. Passed through the border check post. The guard told me to be mindful of robbery in Arunachal. I asked what the chances were of me being robbed. He said you will probably be robbed. Terrific. Climbed up into the mountains and camped in a clearing. I was soon joined by a group of young linguists. They are working on an UNESCO initiative to preserve the endangered languages spoken in the remote corners of Arunachal. They visit villages close to the Chinese border and spend a couple of months documenting the ethnic languages that are in danger of dying out. Seems like an excellent project to me. Tonight they were just getting drunk around the campfire. I'm hopelessly out of practice on the drinking front and was the first to bed after losing a few drinking games.
I haven't got this wet since me and Poole went trekking in Nepal in the monsoon season. Whacked it down all day but rain is vastly underrated. I feel much cleaner after it rains. I don't need to worry about the fact that I'm running out of sun cream. I don't get dehydrated. I have to put on more clothes which frees up space in my panniers for food. I look amazing in my rain poncho. I could go on. It does help when it's 25 degrees. Sadly my new tent failed the heavy rain test and I spent half the night scooping water out of my tent with a mug. Made in India.
The rain relented. Steam rose from the forests as I climbed into the heart of the Arunachal mountains. I am lucky to be here. Arunachal is a disputed state. A source of considerable stress between India and China. A major part of the state is claimed by the Chinese. They often refer to it as South Tibet. A few years ago foreigners could only come here as part of an organised tour. At hundreds of dollars a day the only visitors were the wealthy in jeeps. This has recently been relaxed so independent travellers can visit. You have to arrange a permit in advance which costs $50. Even Indians need a permit. You are meant to be in groups of at least two so when asked for another name to put on the application I gave the first name that popped into my head which was 'Eric McLair'.
Fantastic cycling through the wild lands of Arunachal. Initially through jungle, then up through dense forests and across misty mountains. All the men in these parts carry Crocodile Dundee knives around their waists. The villages are poor. There is little electricity. The people are not used to foreigners on bicycles and I get a lot of encouragement. One guy asked me after I'd pitched my tent high up in the hills, 'Are you not afraid? There are tigers, lions and bears in these parts.' I think he was winding me up. If he'd stopped at tigers I might have believed him but I'm pretty sure there are no lions or bears in these parts. That said it's not what you want to hear when you are about to sleep in a tent. I moved the food well away from my camp spot and slept badly. Every time a leaf rustled outside my tent I would bolt upright thinking 'WHAT WAS THAT!'
Another great day as I slowly work my way to the Tibetan border. I am heading for Tawang. 105 km away as the crow flies. 400 km away by road which gives you an idea of how much the road twists, turns and winds through the mountains. This area is known for landslides. The road is often closed during the rainy season. A couple of times I heard the sound of small stones coming loose above and I had to adjust speed accordingly. Camped high up in the hills once again trying not to think about tigers.
I was on the road by 5:30am today to take on the high pass. A 50km climb from below 2000m to over 4000m making it one of the longest climbs I can remember. I had been warned of rough roads and snow at the pass so I wanted to give myself enough time to get over. I would not be able to camp near the pass as the altitude gain would be too great. Fortunately the weather was good. The first clear sky I've had in a week. The road was not as bad as I'd been led to believe. It was rough on the descent but I was up and over by then. Plenty of snow up high but the road was clear. Incredible views all the way up. I was struck by the military presence on the climb. Army barracks every few kilometres. Army trucks going back and forth. Lots of lookout towers with armed soldiers looking out for stuff. All this as a deterrent in case the Chinese get any fancy ideas. There's quite an anti Chinese feeling in this part of the world. I went into an electrical shop the other day to buy a phone charger and the owner proudly told me that nothing in his shop was made in China. The phone charger broke after 2 days. Exhausted I eventually hit the lake that represented the pass and picked my way slowly down the mountain. I then had another 20km climb to Tawang but my legs had gone so I camped in the valley. A very good day.
Finished the job up to Tawang and found the guesthouse I'd been recommended by a German couple I'd met a few days ago. The owner greeted me with 'Excellent, an Englishman. I have a lot of homemade wine I need to get through'. Tawang is a beautiful Tibetan town high up in the mountains famous for its stunning monastery. The largest in India and the second largest in the world after the monastery in Lhasa. The Dalai Lama stayed here after fleeing from the Chinese in 1959. He regularly visits. As you may know me and the Dalai Lama are old friends. In 2004 I shook his hand in Dharamsala. To be fair we haven't exactly stayed in touch since then. A very good man. If you ever have any idle moments you could do worse than read some of the articles on his website. I often read them.
The monastery itself is like an old town and I enjoyed a peaceful few hours wandering around and chatting to a couple of the monks. They were telling me about how the next Dalai Lama will be found not chosen. Following the Buddhist belief in the principle of reincarnation, the current Dalai Lama is believed to be able to choose the body into which he is reincarnated. That person, when found, will then become the next Dalai Lama. The atheist Chinese government has expressed unusual interest in choosing the next Dalai Lama and claims it has the right to do so, something heavily contested by the Tibetan authorities. Will be an interesting period but let's hope my old buddy can go for many years yet. Joined the guesthouse family over dinner. The homemade wine was loopy juice and I literally had to feel along the walls to get back to my room.