In love with Oblivion – Real & Imagined stories cycling from Manali to Khardungla – A travel diary involving experiences and learning of four mountain bikers on their self-supported expedition from Manali to Leh. All characters and events are based on real people and real occurrences respectively.
He lay flat on the ground protecting his eyes from the bright sun. Occasionally he peeked at the towering pass in front of him and quickly looked away in disbelief.
By a stroke of luck, four cyclists found themselves at Manali on a bright Tuesday morning. They geared up to tackle what would be one of the toughest expeditions they had ever embarked upon. Being mere acquaintances, expectations were a luxury. This mighty expedition, to some, was about the thrill of adventure. For others, it was about meditation and spirituality. But there was one common motivation– determination to conquer Khardung La, the third highest motorable pass in the world. The group was traveling self-supported giving them the luxury of staying back at places they wished to explore.
Tenzing, a young entrepreneur found himself among new comrades. He owned a successful real estate business in an upcoming Indian city. There is nothing he would trade in for spending time with his wife and kids but he just had to make an exception. And it was cycling. He loved cycling and he had always dreamt of cycling to large mountains and deep valleys. The marriage proved to be an impediment to his old love. That is, until this Tuesday morning. His family was kept in the dark, fearing they might mess up his plans. To them, it would be a stupid quest. To them, his love was just insanity. To them, he was out on business.
Tenzing was not new to mountain biking. He had been on a few trail routes in the past but the blistering sun coupled with thin air took a toll on his body. A few days into the tour, he tore a tendon in his right ankle. The steep climbs of 4% to 7% gradient were enough to make him cry out of pain. On his way up a pass in the Himalayan Range, he peeked at the towering pass ahead of him and quickly looked away in disbelief. He felt like a speck of dust in front of it. Each pedal at the lowest gear felt demanding. As he stared at each drop of sweat that dripped from his nose, he thought for a moment whether his decision to enroll on this tour was regretful. Clearly, he was not just suffering from physical exhaustion, but mental fatigue too. It wasn’t his day and before it got too dark he hitched a ride to the next village to camp.
That evening, he caught up with his group at Jispa, a small town to the north of Keylong. It was a laid-back place, away from the hustle and bustle of Keylong. The banks of the roaring Bhaga river were wide on both sides making it perfect for camping. Since they were carrying their own tents, they found the perfect locations. While chilling with the locals over chhang, Tenzing learned that the town of over 300 residents was destined to be relocated as plans for a huge reservoir to feed a hydel power plant to the south of Jispa were being drafted. Clean energy is not all that clean he remarked to his friends.
Over the next few days, Tenzing was still unable to keep up with his friends and they often met only at the campsites towards the end of the day. Being a noble man, he insisted that others not wait for him during the day. He spent the majority of the day all alone often exchanging messages with his friends by sending them with travelers on a motorbike to let his friends know he was safe. Mobile phones were of no use in this paradise on Earth.
He felt travel is as much about visiting places as it is about meeting people. And meet people he did. One of them was a Dutch couple in their late fifties on their 9th visit to India. In a desperation to travel and write, Peter had quit his job in Amsterdam and Karlijn took a 4-month long sabbatical to travel to India and South-East Asia. They quickly opened up to him to confess how badly they love to travel and how at desperate times they had thought of resorting to stealing groceries as they had no jobs after coming back from travel. Here he was, thinking of how to improve his financial security. And there they were, throwing their settled lives into disorder by digging into every last penny to fund their travel. They were old by physique but young at heart. Their age was just a number. At times, it is important to unlearn he thought to himself.
By the time he entered the state of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), he learned to cope with his friends’ pace. At Sarchu, a small town in the J&K and Himachal Pradesh border, he had his first encounter with people of the Changpa Tribe. Inside the community centers and eateries in the Changthang Plateau, he was welcomed to a huge poster of Lhasa (as in the 1990s). The Changpa tribe residing on this strip in South-Eastern Ladakh were nomads from Tibet. The near identical posters was a way of remembering their beautiful home which has allegedly been culturally destroyed and epistemologically ruined by secular China.
The plateau was also famous for its monasteries. It was home to two of the oldest monasteries in the valley: Hemis and Hanley. He found Hemis Gompa to be a purely tranquil monastery seated high atop a hill. It oversaw the town of Karu and was one of the major commanding monasteries of the Ladakh valley. Tenzing along with his friends decided to spend the night at the Gompa to attend the evening and early morning rituals. During the evening pooja, he for the first time, saw remarkably dissimilar instruments such as Lag-na (a frame drum), damaru (small two headed drum), bells, Rag-Dung (Tibetan Horn) and Tingsha (small cymbals) blend to form a soothing background for the sonorous chants. The vividly colorful paintings on the wall and the vibrant flags hanging from the ceiling complemented the brilliant red robes of the monks. Thick smoke from flash burnt leaves of Tibetan shrubs suffused throughout the prayer room creating a numinous chamber for the Buddha. Tenzing had a highly enchanting and deeply spiritual experience that evening. Never until that day was he so lost in emptiness to sit idle for an hour and a half without twitching a muscle.
He left the monastery the next day towards the last leg of the tour. On the road, he met Janek Franek, an ebullient man hailing from Spain who left a lasting impression on him. Janek was cycling along the same route, on a journey much longer and a purpose far greater than that of his. He was traveling around the world for over three years on his tour bike to write about the vanishing tribes and lost cultures. He had already drafted chapters on the near extinct tribes in Madagascar and on the humans brought up by apes in Rwanda. Among other things, he had been a truck driver, toilet cleaner, teacher, busker, wildlife photographer, nude model, and chef in order to save up to fund this dream project of his. With his immense love for biking and a depth of experience to share, Janek came forward as a talkative person. When Tenzing learned that Janek too was married, he thought to himself that it is never too late. He too dreamed of touring the world on his cycle one day.
In Leh, on the evening before the climb to the top of Khardung La, Tenzing looked back on his journey. He noted how he had not fought the mountains, nor committed the stupidity of imposing his ego over their will. This is something he learned from the Lamas he had met on the way. Whenever the weather got harsh or the terrain got rough, he did not fight. Rather, he took a pause to see how things turned out. At the same time, he did not quit to struggle too. He understood the mountains so well that he was able to strike this fine balance between pushing himself and respecting the mountains. To those who struggled with them the mountains revealed beauties they didn’t disclose to those who fought them. After a tiresome day of cycling on the 8th day, he dove into the freezing cold waters of the TsoMoriri. It felt like a thousand needles pricked all over his body. Once he got his breathing under control, the pain became more bearable. After a short swim in the crystal clear waters of the lake, he came out and turned back. The clouds had cleared away. The gentle breeze blowing through his hair caused a slight shiver. The sun was just about to set, spreading a golden hue in the water. A paddling of ducks swam past him while a few kiangs stood grazing in the green cover beyond the golden lake at the foothills of the snow-capped mountains. He stood there mesmerized, soaking in the unreal beauty as a moment of epiphany struck him. That was the reward the mountains gave for his struggle.
The next day, once he reached Khardung La late in the evening, he didn’t feel the satisfaction he was yearning for, but an intense hunger, a burning desire to explore further and fill the void, just moments after completing his arduous journey. Change, the only constant in life, is often gradual. He didn’t realize how much travel influenced him until months later when it made his life and character. For Tenzing, mountain biking was meditation. A time when he could be in a zone of unhindered focus and undisturbed peace. It was a phase when he could be all alone, yet not feel lonely. It was a moment when his mind would be empty, yet he felt so full.
It was an experience which he came back from being half in love with himself and half in love with oblivion.
Read our full itinerary for Manali to Khardungla cycling expedition Here