Arriving in Delhi is never a tranquil experience, but successfully retrieving an undamaged mountain bike from baggage claim after 12 endless economy hours of imagining it crushed under cargo does wonders for centering one's Chakra. Thank you, British Airways. Hotel Relax in Pahar Ganj was to be our holding camp for 24 hours as we arrived in dribs and drabs, most with bags and bikes, but also those who'd lost the conveyor belt lottery and were facing a Himalayan biking trip with hand luggage. As an India virgin I'd spent the past few months being warned by Delhi old hands that the city can be a little, shall we say, intense, but I loved it - the heat, the life, the energy.
My trip was being organised by Out There Biking, a sadly now-dormant guerrilla travel outfit created by two travel-mad cyclists, Cass and Cara, who had stylishly leveraged their passion for adventure cycling into a low-impact, high-thrills travel experience for a lucky few - they typically did 3-4 trips each autumn, to different corners of the Indian Himalaya, with just 8 riders per trip.
This was a maiden voyage for OTB. Starting in Manali, the route was to take us over the near-4000m Rohtang Pass into the Valley of the Chandrabhaga River, following the classic Manali-Leh cycling route for the first couple of days, before branching off North West towards Kashmir, then turning South just short of the border and up to the big challenge of the trip - the 4450m Sach Pass. Once safely down the other side we'd find our way to the regional capital, Chamba, then over a smaller pass to Dharamsala and our endpoint at McLeod Ganj, the former British Raj hill station now more famous as the home in exile of the Dalai Lama.
From Delhi, in theory we would be getting ourselves and our bikes to Manali, as Cass and Cara were still there with the previous group, but in practice we were simply receiving a masterclass in Cara's genius planning skills. With no direct train service, the HPTDC (Himachal Pradesh Tourist Development Corporation) bus service is the most reliable, cheap and straightforward way of getting to Manali from Delhi, leaving from behind the Chanderlok building on Janpath just south of Connaught Circus. 15 hours overnight on a bus is never going to be pleasant, but Cara's cunning plan involved buying each of us two seats which turned the experience from potential hell to dreamy road movie as we dozed our way North, the mayhem of Delhi's sprawl steadily replaced by the monotony of the open road.
The much-touted aircon on our coach lasted 4 or 5 hours before giving up, so we stood by and watched as the driver and his assistant happily troubleshot the problem in pitch darkness - our first introduction to Indian resourcefulness and determination. The light from our headtorches gave them a fighting chance at a fix, but it soon failed again - an electrical problem of some sort with the knock-on effect of limiting our headlights to a weak glow, not that this slowed the driver down one bit.
Dawn found us in the foothills of the Himalaya - a strange combination of mountain views and humid temperatures which felt very alien - and by breakfast we were well into the Kullu Valley and within sight of Manali. With a fortnight of hard biking and camping ahead of us, Manali was the perfect traveller-friendly starting point to unwind after the long haul plane and bus epic.
I didn't expected to find superb bruschetta, but there it was in Old Manali's Pizza Olive; I didn't expect to be tempted by the BEST warm chocolate chip cookies, but there they were at Dylan's coffee shop; I did expect to be blown away by great fried momos, and the Tibetan Kitchen didn't disappoint. Not exactly an authentic Indian experience, but it was a restful few days to prepare for the journey ahead.
Manali base camp was the Sunshine Guesthouse, a characterful Raj-era hill station property in Old Manali, a kilometre or so up the hill from, you've guessed it, New Manali. Auto rickshaws were twice the price going up as on the way down as the driver simply switched off the engine and let gravity take over. After a couple of days exploring the hils and nearby Vashisht, a short day ride allowed us to check the bikes were OK, but sadly ended with a crash for fellow rider Kerry, and the end of her biking trip before it really began - a reminder of the potential for mishap (literally) around every corner, or in Kerry's case in the middle of a corner as a patch of dust pulled her front wheel from underneath her. One final group meal included my last beer for a fortnight and were all ready for the off.