The rickety village of Gangotri is the end of the road and the start of our journey. We are 3500m high, buried in a Himalayan valley. A few short rows of tumbledown houses line the upper Ganges, a smattering of colour etched across golden towers of rock. Massive blocks of mountain are suspended precariously above us, ready to fall from contorted walls that stretch to the sky. Towards the heavens, rugged peaks crown the valley like meringue, and from their heart flows Ma Ganga. The crystal water of the worlds most sacred river is the reason we are here. Today we throw a feather in the river. Tomorrow we will begin chasing it downstream. In the next three weeks we will cycle 1500km from these dizzy heights to the winding streets of Varanasi and its two-thousand temples. The pristine scene before us is a stark contrast to what awaits us downstream. Here the water is pure enough to drink but by the end of our journey the river will be awash with rubbish and the remains of burned bodies. Varanasi is the fourth most polluted city in the world.
Tushi-shy is our new best friend, our Nepali Sherpa adopted for the day. A slight man, he magically makes the village wheelchair friendly, deftly navigating us up steps and along riverside paths, hauling two heavy bike boxes on his head with the strength of the mightiest Hindu God. He guides us to Ganga Aarti, evening worship of the banks of the river, and then to the temple for sunset. We share daal and chapatis and in broken English, exchange snippets of our radically different lives. We would like to stay a while, trek to the glacier and absorb more mountain energy, but our bikes are beckoning for action. Our journey must begin.
Downstream we go. The river goes down, down, down, but we go up and down. The valley sides plummet into the Ganges gorge so that ridges of mountain force us upwards. Our loads wobble and our legs and arms shake at the effort of each hill. On day three the mountains hit us like a wall, 60 km of climb. Our average speed slows to 6km an hour and we set in for a long hard day. Christine makes noises like she is giving birth, but she digs in, bend by bend, bite-size chunks her mantra. After 35km of climb, clinging to the mountainside and aghast at how high we are, she upgrades her and Kevin from ordinary human beings to extraordinary. A few bends later they are honorary superhumans, ”for one day only” she emphasises, barely able to believe where we are and how high we have climbed.
“It’s two years ago since we started the couch to 50km British Cycling training programme” she reflects ”and I thought the hill from the Dores Tesco was too much then. It’s not even a hill!”
“And now look where you are. Never mind 50 km, this is couch to Himalayas in 2 years!” I remind her.
We chase darkness to the top of the hill, and just 2 km from the hilltop village of Chamba, Christine cracks. “I can’t go on!” she wails in a brief moment of despair, but some Harry Krishna pilgrims from Russia and Kazakhstan abandon their motorbikes to help push her bike around a particularly gruesome steep bend. We are nearly there – just a few more km to the top of Christines Everest and a bed in the village of Chamba.
Storms, landslides and mud took us back to the lowlands, to our Glow on the Ganges location in Rishikesh. It feels hot, steamy and busy. We intended to visit an Ashram for a few moments of meditative peace but instead we choose a few hours of reprieve in our hostel bedroom. The assault on the senses is non-stop. The horns and throb of India can wait for tomorrow.
We lie on beds that in India would likely sleep a whole family in each. The sheets have a grey tinge, probably washed in Ganges water. Brown dirty fans whir above us, vaguely stirring the hot sticky air. Damp stains the yellow walls and a metal grid over the window separates us from the bustle and chaos outside. Beyond the hostel wall, people are sleeping in shacks and tents amongst rubbish and moo (=mud + poo). We have monetary abundance compared to most around here, but the blessings, ceremonies, sacred rituals, smiles and hearts of the people we meet tell of spiritual richness. Who is better off I wonder?