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We

Bill Weir

can hardly be the first cyclists to have ridden the Char Dham but we had not found any accounts on the internet from anyone who had yet done it. By a happy coincidence, someone we knew from the Web was going to be there the same time as us – Bill Weir, whose account of the Spiti-Kinnaur ride we had read and found very helpful. With the nature of the Char Dham route as it was, backtracking down valleys, we would have a good chance of seeing Bill, and it was just up from Uttarkashi that we did.

Bill warned us about what was ahead. The valley again is beautiful but the road is pure evil. I suppose there is a lesson in this, in Hindu beliefs about the oneness of everthing, and the balance between creation and destruction, and so on, as the road climbs 150m steeply up the side of a gorge and promptly drops down again equally steeply back to the level of the river. It then climbs 500m in long zigzags up a beguilingly lovely slope, terraced into orchards, heavy with delicious ripe fruit, before dropping again to the level of the river. Bastard. It relents more or less for the next 20km, where the floor of the valley is relatively flat and the beautifully blue river Bhagirati sweeps lazily through wide silvery beaches.

We saved the final haul up to Gangotri for the next day, which was relentless but at least did not pull any nasty tricks. The views were tremendous. More and more snowy peaks, side valleys on an immense scale, leading up and up to the heavens and to unseen and unimaginable lands of snow and ice and rock. It is hard to take in that you are really on the same planet and that you are not dreaming.

Bhagirathi valley

Bhagirathi

Gangotri is an appealing little mountain town. It is compact enough to be cosy, and yet spread out enough to feel relaxed. The main way through to the temple is lined with brightly painted lodges, dhabas and restaurants, vegetable stalls and biscuit shops, gaudy religious paraphenalia and tv screens showing the Char Dham DVD, and an awful lot of woolly hats. Across the river are ashrams. Gangotri is quite a westeners’ hangout place, compared with the others. There were not yet any German bakeries, but it was conspicuous that the one restaurant with a full complement of walls was precisely the one where all the white faces were to be found. Mostly, I would think, the attraction for westerners is the trek up to Gaumukh and Tapovan.

Gaumukh

It is a 2-day trek to Gaumukh and back, the snout of the glacier of the Bhagirati, and although it must be said that the glacier itself is overrated as a tourist destination, it is here that you get close to the high mountains Bhagirati, and wonderful Shivling. The high meadow at Tapovan has the best views of all, but to get there involves crossing the glacier. Simply to get to Gaumukh involves stopping for the night at Bhojbasa and this is a formidable challenge equal to any glacier crossing. There is something here describing itself as the GMVN tourist rest house. I say ‘something’; to call it a building is too generous and perhaps ‘ruin’ is closer to the truth.

So let me spare you this part and simply describe the glorious scenery. From Gangotri you walk gradually up the valley and beyond the last of the forests. There is a real feast of shrubbery, and in this season it is all changing colour. The birches have golden leaves and silver trunks; the berberis is deep red, and the sheep are blue.

All the way up there are mountains of all sorts of beautiful shapes to the sides. The three-summited Bhaghirati crowns the valley; the rock is pale gold under the snow. As you approach, the grey rubble of the glacier keeps the mountains separate from you, marking them as being on a separate plane, still a faraway dreamland. The king of them all is Shivling, only visible up from Bhojbasa, a slender craggy spire of pale rock.

The people we met were as varied a bunch as you would find anywhere. A family of three Bengalis, finding it cold. A Frenchman in purple hobbit hat and bare feet. Swami of the month has to be the man, stick-thin, sun-blackened, dressed in red and white and carrying a trident, who, with a big grin, asked us what the weather was like up at Tapovan. He had heard it was -15° to -20°, and obviously relished the prospect of it. And wished us a nice day.

On our return to Uttarkashi we found an unexpectedly nice hotel – the Monal Tourist Home, up a steep lane a couple of km up from the town. The chap that runs it can take guests on treks, and he has copies of the Journal of the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering. He said that he had once cycled to Gangotri, and that he had seen many western cyclists on the road, but had never yet had a chance to talk to any. Such a find were we, that he called up a reporter from the local newspaper to interview us. We appeared on the front page two days later and from then on were famous throughout the land.

It is a shame that he was misinformed about the hotel situation near Tehri. We had seen on the Nest and Wings map, a road over the Chaurangi Khal, which looked an irresistible alternative to the main road, but obviously much harder. The real problem with this route would be in finding somewhere to stay near Tehri. It would have been feasible to ride to the old town, but since old Tehri was at any moment now due to be flooded with water upstream of the Tehri dam, the prospect of trying to stay there did not seem inviting. But the chap at the hotel said we would have no problem finding a hotel thereabouts.

Chaurangi dhaba

We had a late start – it was difficult to prise ourselves out of such a nice place – and it took all morning to climb the Chaurangi Khal, a road just as lovely as the Rarighati pass. At the top, there is a welcoming dhaba with a woodfired clay oven and Vishnu calendar and aloo paranthas. We congratulated ourselves at having chosen this route over the main road. We had assumed we would have a gradual descent towards Tehri, but it was spiked with a generous serving of up; nevertheless the ride was still worth it as it was a grand valley with a good variety of scenery – apricot trees in pink blossom, steep terraces built up with drystone walls, the odd cliff and waterfall and so on.

As we approached the main road our hearts sank, as the terrain was no less rugged down here than it had been closer to the high mountains, and the road indulged in joyful lunges up and down 300m climbs. We were not exactly in the mood for such enthusiasm from roads.

It was dark by the time we reached the dismal junction that is Dobata, and very soon obvious that old Tehri was no longer in existence. As to where the replacement new Tehri was, the Nest and Wings map was unsure of the exact location, but it was at least sure that it was 1000m higher than here. There was not an awful lot we could do, but continue on the main road, and hope something would turn up. In the darkness we could see hundreds of lights from warm and comfortable homes. We had a tent, but since everything but the road was at an angle of 45° there was not much we could do with it. (The tent was not entirely useless: it made a decent mudguard, and a sort of platform on which to dry laundry). We stopped at the next village to buy biscuits, and hoped to look pitiful enough for rescue. As ever, we do ‘pitiful’ very successfully. The shopkeeper negotiated with the driver of a pickup, who would take us up to Chamba, for a reasonable fee; he also sorted us out with a hotel.

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