Monday, September 9, 2013

Bicycle Blues (True story bro.)

It's been a while since I've returned from cycling up in the Himalayas. Long enough for immediacy and the seared shadows of the mountains to have dimmed in the whirl of the daily commute and glare of naked light bulbs of yellow expectations.

There is so much that will remain unsaid here. I am not a notebook and a pen person, so the names of little hamlets and the mountain people are already fading.  The nine days I cycled there, are all blending into each other and distorting my recollections of sunsets, prayer flags, wind sculpted ravines I'd then imagined plunging into and landing painlessly on a family of shocked plump marmots.

However, there is a little stretch of the trail I'd like to put down on record.

I shall fast forward to the aforementioned little stretch, between Pang and Debring, two outposts in the bizarre mountain desert wilderness, both blessed and damned at the same time. Timeless, except they are force fitted into the present by the yellow Maggi packets in the little road side shacks.

The first days on the trail had been singularly taxing, much like a baby just out of the womb, I gasped and gasped for air which I barely inhaled before I had to cough it out or wheeze judiciously to keep the cough from wearing me out. I took a couple of days to settle into some breathing rhythm where I could manage significant displacement without having to stop.

We started for Pang from a place called Whiskey Nallah(named so because an Indian Army truck bearing nightcap supplies for soldiers hereabouts toppled and spilled it's contents into the cold desert dusk), where we had spent the night.

We started early, the sun had just started to rise and there was a crystal crust of frost on the seat as we mounted the cycles, pedaling up the Lachlangla Pass in a stiff trundle. We reached Pang a little after noon, not without incident, having to deal with a couple of flats and a couple of tyres actually ripping at the seams and then climbed up a few steep kilometers into the plateau of the Moray Plains.

Moray plains.

After the longest time of pedalling at the lowest gear and terrain more suited to mountain goats than anything humans could engineer, there lay a brilliant stretch of black tarmac, straight as it could be, shimmering and disappearing into a madly fluttering haze at the horizon. Flanked on either side by signature landscape reminiscent of imagery from epic Mongol sagas. Vast emptiness, textured silences and a tinge of green coaxed out by the summer sun.

The air seemed to buzz with an almost unnatural energy and as we loitered at the summit. For the first time in all these days on the trail, all my aches, the dodgy knee which I had injured fording a mountain stream  somewhere below, seemed to fade away and like a crazed Pamplona bull just out of the pen, I shot into the road in a blood tinged rush, cranking up a gear every few pedals.

The whole scene was set to a blues soundtrack running in my head. I dont think I can remember if there was a particular one, but I shall pick Howling Wolf's Wang Dang Doodle as most likely.

There I was slicing through the thin,still mountain air. Howling Wolf's swagger in my shoulder posture. I was the Mongol horde charging to plunder, I was Dylan writing Visions of Johanna, I was Arthur swinging the Excaliber jubilating in it's perfectly balanced arc , I was Paul Simon's Boxer winking at the women in diaphanous tight dresses and their come-ons on Seventh Avenue, I was the rifle shot that killed an antelope in a Hemingway short story.

I, for that briefest of moments, was everything I wanted to be and could be.

And then there was a fierce gust of head wind, that slammed into me from nowhere and time froze as I was stopped dead in my tracks. One moment speeding down in a visceral day dream, and the next suspended in perfect equilibrium, all the energy pumped into the pedal, emasculated without malice, by the gust micromanaging my inertia to a standstill.

As the gust swept by chuckling, I put my foot down more in shock than anything and the thin film of sweat evaporating on my cooling forehead being the only sensation I registered.

I think I must have laughed at it all. There was no one around to confirm. But I can I imagine I did. 

The rest of the journey is possibly inconsequential to what will be my memories of the trail. Numbers like 5400m at the highest point may probably tell a story. Bragging rights for bar stool conversations.

When at the end like they say your life flashes before you, in what I'd like to believe will be a set of photographs set to the comforting whirr of a projector beaming pictures on the favorite wall of your childhood home, I'd like the operator to really linger for a bit on breathtaking landscape of the moments on the black tarmac, as I have one last chance to chisel out a hitherto unseen detail and then fade to black to a familiar and dear blues riff and ...

For context: In June this year, in the company of three other friends, I cycled from Manali to Leh and since then have been left with the lingering feeling that I may have done the coolest thing I'll ever do and learning to live with that while I plot to ensure that this will not be so.

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