Saturday, May 22, 2010


I've been on the road two and a half hours, uphill all the way. And I've been scared much of the time. Now I've made it. I am at the top, the Sela Pass.
The pass is the narrows between two mountain peaks.
My legs threaten to crumble when I dismount. A cafe on the left advertises tea and food. A woman serves at a small shop counter inside. A corridor leads to a circular space with seats and tables and with windows all the way round. I sit there a while. Nothing happens, no tea. I don't have sufficient energy to go find someone. I sit a while longer, then go back out to the bike. My legs are steadier. I lean against the cafe wall to steady my arms and photograph the sign board as proof that I made it. Then I mount, press the start button and ride on down the mountain towards Tawang.


I rode through deciduous forest early this morning in joyful sunshine, then tall conifers. The sun continues to shine. The trees are stunted high altitude pine. The white peaks that were way up there have become close neighbors. I stop on each corner to photograph them. Why? Mostly because photographing mountain peaks is what travelers do. I remain astride the bike while photographing. Dismounting would require trust in my legs. I stopped at an army-run cafe a while back. The cafe was a hundred yards uphill from an army camp. A sentry at the gates of the camp waved me to park on round the next corner. No cup of tea is worth walking back down to the cafe and then back up from the cafe to the bike – not at this altitude. Truth is that I am beat. The pain in my right side may be a stitch caused by holding my breath when under stress – and I am stressed. The Sela Pass is stressful.


The Sela Pass is not fun. Some stretches of the road are being widened. A few short stretches have been widened. The new stretches, freshly tarred, already have deep craters. Not surprising given that the tar is less than an inch thick. Someone is making money. Lots of money.
Most corners are loose rock and dirt with rain-gouged ravines on the inside of the bend. Truckers keep to the outside which is OK if that is the driver's side of the road. Tough if it is my side. Do I go over the edge or dump myself into the ravine? At least the ravine is safe.
Parapet? Yes, in some short stretches and the mountain is near vertical. Look down and I feel sick. Worst is the wind. Come round a corner and it blasts you in the face, cold as a cold beer but minus the welcome factor. The wind comes off those snow peaks that were distant this morning and way up there. Now I am way up there with no sign of the expected gap.


I expected to follow the river. The river becomes a trickle. A near vertical mountain bars the route. Water streaks mountains left and right, thousand foot falls plunging through pine forest - or two thousand foot falls. It should be beautiful. It is beautiful. However that mountain face ahead scares me. There is no gap. A faint white line zigzags up through the pines. The many gaps in the zigs and zags must mark an absence of safety parapet. Did I write before that I don't like heights? Or, truthfully, that heights scare the shit out of me? The two Hs, Heights and Hospitals...
Even in movies, I close my eyes and shrink down in the seat.


Dawn and I open the curtains to the Dirang valley, forested mountains on each side, in the far distance white peaks tinted by sunrise with a faint pink wash. Somewhere up there lies the Sela Pass. I am out of the hotel and on the road by 7 a.m. Lower Dirang has charm with balconied houses along the main street decorated with pots of primulas. Stone walls coral neat, freshly-tilled fields the far side of the river. India's roads in and through and out of towns are always rough. The Sela road continues rough for a few kilometers, loose stone surface and narrowed by piles of boulder each side. Road workers squat on the boulders. Most are women, ages ranging from fresh faced teenager to crinkle faced grannies. Female Liberation to do a man's work? Or India's standard use of women as beasts of burden?
Yes, it angers me pretty much every day of this journey.
The one plus is that the women here respond to my Hi and Good morning.
Wave and smile down on the plains and they cover their faces against the evil eye. Or against the evil Fat Old Blimp.

Friday, May 21, 2010


Heading down hill now into a fierce bitter wind that tares small rents in the cloud. The cloud thins and lightens. Sunshine blotches the tar. The last cloud clears. A winding drop leads to a river then the next climb first following the river then up through thin broad leaf to pines and rock to the Bolipara Pass at 10000 feet with higher peaks spiking the blue, cascades on naked cliff flashing sunlight. Bolipara is one of those charmless concrete hill towns India excelles at. The many Army camps come of a different culture, clean, properly planned, respect for trees, lots of white paint, no garbage. See what staying ten days with a retired Colonel does to a Liberal!
Cross the pass and plummet down through sparse pines to Dirang and the Hotel Pemaling where I negotiate a 50% discount with the owner for a room with a superb view down the river valley. A patchwork of small fields covers the right bank and lower slopes of mountains already dark in late afternoon, peaks hidden in cloud. A kindly maid brings a Tata Sky box for the TV and the dinner menu – orders must be in by 7 p.m. Hot shower and I watch BBC World News. The receptionist brings dinner on a tray, chicken soup and vegetable momos.
“You look too tired,” he says.
Too tired to go down stairs to the dinning room for dinner and I intend climbing Sela Pass in the morning.
“Will it be fine?”


I crawl for a further half hour through mostly minimal visibility. The road is narrow tar with potholes only seen at the last second. Bits of the road have fallen down the mountain. Other places boulders have fallen on the road. One light in the murk could be a bike but is more probably a truck with a faulty head lamp. Trucks keep to the center. Fear weakens bladder control. Gloves off, dig under waterproof pants, trousers, slinky black Alpinestar Long Johns, underpants. Hurry. Hurry. Where is the damn thing? Ahhhhh...


The kitchen stove is truck drivers' privilege. The cafe is smaller than a double bed. I sit at a wooden table. A small window in the entrance door lets in a smidgen of light. My age and nationality are common knowledge. Two young cops dressed in combat camouflage approach. “Grandfather,” one calls me and leans across the table. Face close to mine, he mimes drinking. He is already drunk and armed with an automatic rifle.
“Drink,” he says.
“Tea,” I say.
His companion, also drunk, leans even closer. “Kiss me.”
Never resist a drunk cop carrying a large gun.
I kiss both cops on the cheeks.
A large-breasted woman elbows the cops aside and sets my tea on the table. One of the cops fetches a pack of sweet biscuits from the tiny shop counter. The biscuits are a present.
Tea with two cops at the kissing stage of inebriation differs from my memories of tea with my grandmother – Georgian silver and bone china on a white lace tablecloth.
This is not a good day.