Kilar > Bagatou
Breakfast was dark and hurried, with a noticeable tension in the group as this was to be a big day in the saddle. Killar sits on the North side of the river, and we were going to fly down to a jeep bridge, cross the river for the first time since Tandi, then start the day-and-a-half slog up to Sach Pass at 4450m. 20 minutes of high speed, high thrills downhill started the day, tempered only by the knowledge that every vertical metre we enjoyed on the way down to the river would have to be earned again on the other side.
Besides the modern, well-maintained single lane suspension bridge we used to cross the river stood evidence of the pace of change in modern India - another, larger, half completed river crossing. Sach Pass is a traditional communication route between the Pangi Valley and the Chamba Valley, but for people in the area around Killar, a visit to the regional capital at Chamba was still a major undertaking so the Indian Government had been steadily improving the route.
By 2007, this meant it was "jeepable", but not yet "busable", and throughout the day we'd pass the temporary settlements of families spending the summer in road building crews. I never did quite get a handle on gender roles in the Indian workplace, but from where I was pedalling, it seemed that women and children did all the the work, and the men did all the talking...
Our group had been warned that blasting would be taking place that day, and the early start was planned to get our vehicles through before the road closed. As it turned out, I heard blasting both ahead of and behind me, others told of seeing the det cord on the side of the road, something I was glad to miss. As on the other big climbs, I was rapidly thrown off the back and fell into a routine of happily biking the lower gradients and walking the steep and rocky bits.
It made little difference to my overall speed - in the UK it would be a rarity for me to engage my easiest sprocket, but here in the Indian Himalaya I formed a long and happy relationship with my granny gear.
Our climb started in warm sunshine and green forests, but even somewhere as remote as this you are still in India, which means people. I turned one hairpin and looked up to the forest above, suddenly aware of being coolly observed by a man wearing nothing but a pair of Y fronts and smoking a cigarette - slightly random! The forests thinned and eventually opened out onto a brutally beautiful Himalayan rock vista, bleaker and colder and increasingly monchromatic as the day went on. Our track formed the right hand side of a valley, with monkeys on their own, smaller track heading the same way on the other side of the - a two lane, two species divided highway which seemed to work fine for all concerned.
This was a long, hard, emotional and exhausting day for someone like me (old and slow!), and reaching Bagatou, our home for the night at approx 3800m was an incredible feeling. Illness had pushed Canadian Mark into the jeep with Kerry, so just 6 of us made it up the hill, and another two were to get off the bikes the following day, as exhaustion and hacking, altitude related coughs took their toll. Losing one jeep halfway up the hill to a burned out clutch was another complication we didn't need, but with no tent spaces available anyway, camping was never a serious option.
The summer settlement at Bagatou is a little, shall we say underdeveloped. It serves as a hybrid truck stop, police checkpoint and shepherds' camp – if you lived here, you would want to live somewhere else, anywhere else.
But, as an overnight stop on an epic hill climb, it oozed atmosphere. For those on a budget - dinner, bed and breakfast goes for about around 2USD. The hotel we stayed in consisted of a lobby, guest sleeping quarters, restaurant, kitchen, staff sleeping quarters and well-stocked convenience store - all in the same room. The only amenity it lacked was a chimney...
The dhaba owner and her son tended to our every need - supersweet chai and snickers bars soon perked us up. After a happy couple of hours spent relaxing and reading in the sleeping bag, the expected plate of dhal bat arrived, which was superb, but the best was yet to come - with a flourish, our chef returned with chips!! (fries to some of you). Absolute heaven!! In terms of where we were, what we might have expected, and what we needed, this was one of the best meals I have ever had.
We shared a pack of cheap coconut biscuits for dessert, then settled down for the night - cyclists, trip leaders, support crew, dhaba owners and a few random Indians, all in one room - a memorable night in a memorable place.