Mountain biking in Spiti valley

Dwelling in the hurried city life of Mumbai, I struggled there and the bustling streets didn’t charm me enough. I didn’t want Mumbai or any city for that matter to be the place I’d lived my whole adult life. Eventually the monotony started strangling me. And for the better part of two years, that was good enough for me. But sometime in my last years there I began to hear a faint hissing—the sound of air leaking out of the dream. 4 years later after moving to Mumbai I bought a one way ticket to South America and hitchhiked solo across the continent for a year and a half. Leaving the life I knew was not a terrifying thought, but then again, I was to do it again when I left for a cycling trip in East Africa. It was an easy decision. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in Mumbai where my career, my social life, my love life had all taken place within 5 square kilometers. After experiencing living with 25million people I wanted something completely on the other end. Used by the English to get pashmina wool from Lahsa to India in the late 18th and early 19th century, Spiti valley is unknown even the most inspired traveller. I was in search of a place where I was not my job and in Spiti even if there was a job, I didn’t know what it was. Here I don’t have to go to a park to see nature which I feel is a pathetic excuse for experiencing actual nature. Working in a city and having to drive everywhere, not being able to walk to places, the big car culture, it scared the living day light out of me.

Mountain biking – Lowering is a rock climbing technique to descend. If the belayer at the bottom gives you the wrong instructions, you’re basically screwed with nowhere to go. In mountain biking you are your own belayer and you are most often than not responsible for your own fall. The rider marks his own route with his eyes, guides his bike with his knees and shoulders, and if that doesn’t work, locks the brakes and hopes for the best. Unlike rock climbing the mountain biker isn’t safely lowered with a secure rope. But if you do reach the bottom with the bike and yourself in one piece, no one can take away the bragging rights you have earned — specially if you have just mountain biked down from the world’s highest village!!! For the monks living at the Komic monastery the road from Komic to Kaza is the only connection between the world’s highest village to the outside world. After braving temperatures of -30 degrees during winters, the monks- known to practise tantra and armed only with a shovel start cleaning the road before government bulldozers and snow cutters inch their way up to their isolated village. The melting ice mixed with loose mud makes the road down to the Spiti valley from Komic an adrenaline junkie’s delight. The descent from Komic is demanding and even the most experienced of downhill mountain biker would need to remain extremely vigilant. A big part of me kept on reminding that risks were just not worth it. There was no chance of rescue and say even if I did survive the fall, I would have had no source of communication with the outside world. But I knew I was at no ordinary place and the rules required me to look at situations anew, with new eyes. I wanted to be the first person in the year to bike down the treacherous trails from Komic into the Spiti valley and despite the odds, the reward was worth fighting for. The myth-like status of the road, the ever-present danger, the dizzying elevation and the beautiful landscape meant that it really is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

I was though aware that I couldn’t allow testosterone dictate and exceed riding ability. Downhill mountain biking is an extreme sport like bungee jumping and skydiving. The difference here is that there is no expert guide controlling your propulsion and you are completely on your own. We all have our own mountains to climb but this one was my mountain to go down from. Literally. With my legs wedged tight on the pedals, and the surging water threatening to tip the cycle over, I remember thinking that I had bitten more than I could chew. On a trail no wider than a meter and with speeds touching more than 50kmph, the moments of stress aren’t few and far in between. But then sometimes better sense prevails: keep your knees and shoulder loose, your eyes focused on the track and maintain a rhythm. The first section of the road down from Komic before cleaned by the JCB is the trickiest. No more than a trail, its here that the first fifteen minutes feel like eternity as cold water pierces like needles through to my feet. The gushing waters start to push the cycle closer to the edge and I need to use all my body strength to keep the mountain bike on track so that both of us don’t get swept away. The inch-by-inch tug of war begins as I again question my decision to take on this road. Our personal spectrums go together with our characters and how to choose to build and use them is our call. This was one such moment.

The freezing wind has now penetrated right through to my bones as my pulse races and the adrenaline drowns the shivers that rack my body. To muster the courage to keep going down the trail I had to employ the Jedi mind trick: look where you want to go. Easy to do, but easier to get wrong, and don’t need to look at the scary cliff on your side. Speed is critical to safety in downhill mountain biking but that doesn’t mean you can afford to take it easy. Small rocks and dips can throw you off the bike but if you are reasonably quick your momentum can carry you through some ditches. The rider though at all times needs to judge the difficulties that can be involved in continuing a descent. As the trail becomes wider and merges with the road, I go around the first hairpin, only to look back to see a lava-like flow of earth and stone coming rumbling down the mountain. It’s slow but it’s taking everything in its path into the river below. Fifty meters behind me, Mother Nature has taken back what’s rightfully hers. I reach speed of over 75kmph on the high speed sections of this now smooth road riding past fields of curious mountain goats. Rudyard Kipling called Spiti “a world within a world” and it’s not hard to understand why. The last section of the road down from Komic into Kaza overlooks the Spiti valley. The giant rock mountains around could not have been carved by any mortal hand and only by the force of wind and water over millennia. In Spiti you’ll learn that there is more than one path into the future – a path based on the co- evolution between humans and earth. At first the outsider will see the hard life, but give yourself time and you’ll see the rare kind purity the people live with.

For the adventure traveller Spiti is a virtual ‘Natural Theme Park’, there are seemingly endless array of activities to be enjoyed in the mountains. It is a place to connect with nature and here you see that if you let indigenous people live as they have for thousands of year, then we have more to learn from them than us. This Trans-Himalayan backcountry is one of the most stunning and rugged regions on the globe with a well preserved Buddhist heritage. With its unique high altitude ecosystem and an isolation that transcends the barriers of time leaves, Spiti leaves the traveller spell bound. The villages in the valley typify the myriad aspects of Spitian culture with some ancient monasteries dating back more than 1000 years. Such is the energy of the place that you’ll feel strangely content. Maybe it is the architectural perfection of the mountains that lord their beauty over this high altitude wilderness. It’s a place which represents measureless freedom, no human no living thing, has survived under the eternal sky. The sky outlives everything, but Spiti is a place that has survived. It might sound absurd at first that an ancient culture in the Himalayas has anything to teach to the industrialized society. But in our search for the future we keep on spiralling back to an ancient connection between ourselves and the earth, an interconnectedness that ancient cultures have not abandoned. Sticking to its culture, traditions and way of live which to an outsider might seem harsh at first but as you spend time in Spiti, the simplicity and truth will make you think otherwise. Cycling I often feel is the best way to see a place. Thing go past you slower, you notice more things as a result and you have all the time in the world to listen to the running commentary of your mind.

Cycling past the villages you notice Spiti is steeped in spirituality. It is everywhere. In the prayer flags furiously fluttering in the breeze and in the wrinkles of old monks chanting as they go about their day. And if that doesn’t make you feel lucky enough Spiti’s landscape would. The river braids through the valley’s vast plains and narrow gorges, glinting like a stained-glass masterpiece in the crimson sunset. As village approaches, the browns give way to tumbling pea fields and apple trees. And not for the first time since I have made it my home, Spiti reverberates through me. My muscles relax after the long day of riding, my breath slows down, and inside me something unclenches. The meaning for adventure as Oxford dictionary says is “unusual, exciting or dangerous experience or undertaking”. I was feeling all these emotions as my bike gathered momentum coming down on a narrow trail from Dhankar. gaining speed over these barren slopes it’s difficult to imagine anything surviving here, and yet birds hop from rock to rock and lizards squirt between hidey-holes. The stunning scenery and floating clouds across azure sky are simply out of the world experience as one rides in Spiti. On the cycle one has time to notice the iron-rich mountains, their slopes textured like freshly brushed sand, with patches of red, orange and brown scree looking like ink blots across the mountains. At times I have to remind myself it’s not an art display. Instead it’s some of the most inhospitable mountain country in the world. As I continue to climb, the air becomes noticeably thinner. Let alone the cycling bit but even when I try to drink or eat, I then can’t breathe or eat and it feels the only oxygen here is inside my tyres. From my trekking experience I knew that at a time like this a Spiti staple called tsampa, a savoury laddoo of sorts made with roasted barley flour and water would work stronger than Red Bull. The light was fading by the time I get to Tabo. Adding another layer of clothing to my knackered body I cycle past apricot trees, the local school and a café with a monk eating an apple pie. Everything about Tabo makes me smile. The monastery in Tabo was made in 996AD and was closing by the time I get there but a lama gestured for me to come in anyway. The main temple was shrouded in darkness and a silence so deeply penetrating I walk on my tiptoes.

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