The Kukina Khal
More helpfully, one man told us the way to the Sitil road. It made a certain sense to expect to find Pankaj somewhere along the way, and so it turned out. We were treated to a second breakfast of puri bhaji, the panniers skived a lift in the jeep, but we didnt. The road became rough but the rougher the roads the better they are. This was narrow and quiet and followed a contained valley in a level sort of way until about halfway along when it remembered it had a pass to climb and applied itself with passion to the uphill challenge. It also did stones and rocks as well as steep. Through the ensuing red mist came a village and as the mist cleared, beyond the village was an extravagant display of snowy mountain. The gradient eased and we road past small riverside fields and woods to Sitil, where there was lunch, and Pankaj, who said there were two routes we could take. The more direct was the mule track through the forests; the longer route went by way of the jeep road of which some was rideable. We reckoned either way would involve the same amount of pushing and went for the shortcut, which Pankaj had said was the more scenic.
This was our first mule track. They are wide and well made, but mules have 4 small feet and can tread daintily from stone to stone and the tracks are made of a lot of large stones. They are not optimised for rigid bicycles. We tried not to think of Mikes recommendation of suspension and made of it what we could. Colin rode an impressive amount; I grumbled about the unfairness that he could do this and I couldnt.
There was certainly enough variety. We had narrow, smoother paths but with alarming vertical drops to the left; we had steep and narrow bends up and down as the path avoided recent landslide areas. We had views of Trisul. We dropped to a small river and walked the plank over it. We pushed up a humungous steep path and resisted help from the crew until they prised the bikes from our grasp. A short section was rideable until the next huge steep climb.
We were climbing a path up a ridge, mostly in forests. We came out of the forest to the start of terraced slopes and the odd cottage, and friendly, curious locals. Its a route thats popular enough as a trek but not many people try to take bikes here. The route continued, slowly climbing, and this was a great ride. Mostly a broadish dirt path, lovely views over to the neighboring ridge and tall trees, caught in the late afternoon light.
If you try to find any information about the location of Kanol, no two sources agree. Sometimes the altitude is given as 2200m, sometimes as 2700m. Surprisingly this is not inconsistent: Kanol is really quite a sprawly place. As Pankaj was to find, it is a good place for a PWD chowkidar to hide a key.
The PWD resthouse was at the top end of the village which meant the next day there wasnt all that much more to climb, which was just as well given it was an almost unrelieved push. The summit was a grassy meadow with a backdrop of Chaukamba and spiky Neelkanth. Ahead was a new valley stretching towards high forested ridges. We rode around in circles just to get some riding value before tackling the descent, a stone-built path much too rocky for us.
Not many cyclists are ever going to bother with this route but its classic rough-stuff style on a Himalayan scale. You have to put up with the pushing but the cycling rewards are the little jeep roads leading up to the pass. The road from Wan to Loharjang traverses the side of the valley on more or less the same contour. Its relaxed enough riding to let you absorb yourself into the views and the whole feel of the landscape. Theres a lovely stretch heading into a side valley, the slopes grass and shrubs, and at the heart of the valley a stream cascades down through close dark forests; ferns and mosses on the rock walls. Theres a narrow section cut into the cliff, a deep drop to the side; there are short heartbreaker rises, rocks to throw you off, tasty challenges.
The grumble is that its always a long and very cold downhill in the morning. Form Lohargjang its a fairly painless tarred road, until the short cut to Gwaldam. The turnoff is after Debali where you cross the river and the road immediately climbs aggressively through tall pine forests. Its described as kuchha which is Hindi for the opposite of pukka, and literally means generous with mud. We rode up at an electrifying 4km/h. Sometime approaching lunchtime it tops out at the same height as Gwaldam but a considerably annoying distance away. Gwaldams again at a saddle from which you can see Loharjang and Trisul, though to see the latter properly involves parkour over the roof of a restaurant.
Gwaldam is ok. Theres nowhere terribly inspiring to eat but we did find a drink shop, a dodgy looking hole-in-the-wall down an alley. They had beer, and this was the only booze we found in three weeks. We did wonder how Mike McLeans tours manage but Pankaj assured us that he has this covered.
The morning delivered bright mountains again and a coolish forest descent. More small villages on the way, each with an astounding backdrop of snowy ridges. We wondered how the locals coped with this magnificence every morning but thought they must get used to it. It didnt take too long to Baijnath. Theres a complex of 13th century temples here, handsome tapering towers of sunblushed stone with a sort of custard-cream biscuit top.
We rode on up to Kausani, a long but gentle climb at the end of which is to be found a splendid selection of luxurious hotels. We turned up the Chevrons Eco-Lodge (equipped with wide-screen televisions which our neighbouring eco-tourists appreciated greatly) set in grassy lawns and marigolds, a building with deep verandah balconies, in a Raj-era style, which must in turn derive from the vernacular mountain village houses. For the anticipated glorious mountain view we would have to wait until dawn cloud tends to build up in the afternoon, teaching you to be patient. The hotel had a number of books on meditation and Hindu philosophy, and reading one of them proved something of a turning point for me towards accepting the way things were in the world, particularly the way that if Colin was better at mountain biking than I was, that was just the way things were, and throwing a strop with every tree root he could negotiate and I couldnt, is not the way to inner peace.
We woke and turfed ourselves out of the large and comfortable bed in the chilly dawn: the horizon was now a clear outline of an entirety of mountains, still only in silhouette, concealing themselves in shadow. The sun touched and glowed the highest ridgeline of Trisul; we watched the rosy light-line spread and fill the snowbanks, chasing the shadowlines into the folds of the crags. The colours shifted from soft copper to brilliant stark white and blue; the many ridges between us and the peaks came into focus out of undefined mist.