Cycling the Himalayas

Michael Hayward

A younger version of myself once cycled into the Himalayas in northwest India, starting from Jammu, the winter capital of that state, pedalling through the Jawahar Tunnel with a convoy of trucks on my heels, emerging into the Kashmir valley, and eventually arriving at the summer capital, Srinigar. After a few days recovering in a houseboat on Dal Lake, I pedalled onward, over three high mountain passes, eventually reaching Leh, capital of the territory of Ladakh. At that time the onward road connecting Leh to Manali was off-limits to foreigners due to border tensions between India and China. Nonetheless, I briefly imagined sneaking past the army checkpoints at night, a reckless plan that I eventually abandoned. That pragmatic decision perfectly illustrates a key difference between me and Kate Harris, author of the marvelous Lands of Lost Borders: Out of Bounds on the Silk Road (Knopf). Harris’s absorbing account of her 26 bicycle journey along sections of the ancient Silk Road opens as she and Mel, her fellow cycle-adventurer, a friend since elementary school in Ontario, decide to take the risk that I had not, successfully making their way in the dead of night past an army checkpoint near Kudi in China’s Xinjiang province. In her book Harris perfectly captures the elation and freedom of the long-distance cyclist, whose “sole responsibility on Earth […] is to breathe, pedal, breathe—and look around.” A two-page map at the beginning of Lands of Lost Borders illustrates the full extent of Harris’s amazing ride in and around the high mountains of central Asia: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, the Tibetan plateau and Nepal, finishing—as my ride had—in northwest India, at Leh. By 26 the political situation in northern India had changed somewhat, with border tensions between India and Pakistan dominating headlines, and restricting travel along roads leading onward from Leh. Land of Lost Borders ends with Kate and Mel standing in the Nubra Valley, at a barrier across the road, looking longingly toward the Siachen Glacier. There will always be forbidden roads like these, calling to the imagination.

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