The Hell of Wellness

It was 7am on no particular day. Time had melted along with everything else. Outside, a gentle old man with a dot of red on his forehead sold loops of yellow and pink flowers to housewives with porridgy, unwrapped midriffs. Aloof, pedigree dogs pranced around palm trees as their owners slumped into half-hearted lunges. Cows looked on derisively. Inside our cool-floored studio, two red bubbles grew silently from my nostrils and popped, misting my yoga mat with blood. I looked up to my teacher for mercy but he merely floated past, gaze averted. Mysore is no place for quitters.


No, apparently Mysore is a place to get some top-grade wellness; to slough off the spiritual and bodily malaise of modern life amongst the endless cowpats, coconut-cutters and straight-up nutters of the spirit world. Every day, westerners flood into this southern Indian city wedged between touristy Kerala and touristy Goa, seeking someone, anyone, to make them whole again. Whatever you think your problem is, you’ll find someone in Mysore who thinks they can fix it. Or give you a new problem that makes you forget about the first one.

garlands crop small

The scented facade of Wellness

The ‘healing’ began immediately, with the most diabolically difficult of all the yoga styles – Ashtanga. If you were put into an Ashtanga class with a blindfold on, you’d think you had been put into a medieval torture chamber, but instead of constant demands for information, the torturer would demand that you breathe more deeply and calmly. If you managed to get the blindfold off, everyone would be smiling like a maniac. Five classes of this were more than enough to make the quadriceps above both knees numb. Not totally numb, but numb enough so I could hammer them with my fists while laughing until bystanders clutched protectively at their kids.

The ‘healing’ continued at a roaring pace after I took my leave from Ashtanga boot camp and signed up for a 4-week intensive at a mysterious school, home to a hidden master wise beyond his years, who could survive on one breath a day. Rumour had it he could fly if he needed to. It was only because he hadn’t needed to yet that he hadn’t. I totally got that and respected his restraint. When I spoke to one of his many disciples, she told me ‘He will give you something.’ If only she’d been more specific, I could have jumped off a building myself and saved myself 600 quid.

‘Any injuries?’ my new Guru purred over his shoulder as he lit candles on the brass God statues in his studio. ‘Just a very sore neck and numb quads. I’m a bit worried about the numbness to be honest.’ He continued lighting his candles for a while, as if I hadn’t said anything. Then without an ounce of pity, and more than a hint of amusement, he whispered over his shoulder: ‘This is the way of the body’, and returned to his candles. Such brazen vagueness. I ate it all up. Now I had a numb little mind to go with my numb little legs.


tuk-tuk guy tweaked and aligned

Even tuk-tuk drivers have Gandalf-levels of wisdom in their eyes


Even for someone so accustomed to shame, day one was a spectacularly shameful ordeal; not unlike a freshly born giraffe trying to walk after being spun on a roundabout. Day two was the same, as were all of the days after it. My ego petulantly stuck out it’s lower lip as my body failed time and time again to achieve the postures and breathing patterns made to look so easy by the little yoga-yoda. After two weeks of no progress, I approached him for advice. Smiling, as he always seemed to be even when his mouth wasn’t, he pointed to an image of several cobras exploding from the sea, with a black-skinned goddess dancing on their heads. ‘No ego,’ he smirked, and returned to his candle-lighting. What kind of mind-fuckery was this?! I took a photo of the black-skinned goddess and hobbled out of the studio. The mental and physical dismantling was well underway.

I’ve always been surprised at how sick and broken people in yoga classes seem to be, given that yoga is supposed to make you healthy and whole. In Mysore, almost everyone was ‘working through something’ that they may or may not have picked up by doing yoga. See, when you get injured in yoga, it’s not acknowledged as such – you write it off as a niggle, or a kink, or an energy blockage. After all, ‘This is the way of the body.’


one-hand man

Looks like he’d gotten an energy blockage on his right hand


This slippery double-talk starts with the teachers. When I tweaked (totally buggered) my lower back trying to touch the ground the wrong way (backwards), my teacher casually wrote it off as ‘resistance, coming from fear,’ and floated off to someone less fearful. I think it’s natural and healthy to be fearful of breaking your back. As did an idolising Japanese girl who’s spirit thankfully broke before her back did, sobbing face-down into her mat as we all pretended that was fine. She ended up leaving Mysore with a disc problem. Another young Israeli man arrived from military service with a knee problem and left with a disc problem to go with it. Another faithful male disciple came expecting miracles and left unable to walk. The last time I saw him he was crawling in grotesque loops around a café floor, numb on over-the-counter valium.

Outside the yoga studio, the bewitching continued. Though not everyone was under the spell. At a lunch one day, an otherwise pristine little girl pointed tearfully at the brown stains on her eyes, picked up from an established Ayurvedic doctor a year earlier. The room visibly frosted at the suggestion that it might be his fault. Late one night, another earnest young woman admitted to letting a healer put his hand inside her vagina to correct some urinary tract issues. It wasn’t for long, she said. Most memorably, a group of ‘Spirit Reiki’ students spoke, without a flicker of incredulity, of how they recruited the energy of disembodied spirits to help with their healings. They couldn’t quite explain how this cross-dimensional cajoling worked.

Back inside the studio, I watched in horror as someone merrily inserted a rubber tube up their nose until it popped out the back of their throat, pulled it forwards out their mouth and start yanking it back and forth, effectively ‘flossing’ their sinuses. As they gagged, I got my first adult nosebleed. Please, someone, anyone, let the healing stop. Wellness is terrifying.

My saviour came in the form of the most reviled animal in the kingdom – a mosquito, carrying the dengue virus. I felt the nip in class, just after I had received my first and only word of encouragement in three weeks. Fever gripped me like I was nine again. I moaned like I was giving birth in slow-motion. I slept-talked to empty rooms even when awake. Ferocious boils gestated then exploded inside my nostrils and ear canals. The Ayurvedic pills I took for the fever gave my hands a stinging, red rash. The Doberman next door would simply not shut the fuck up, no matter how many disembodied spirits I roped in. For five days, I disintegrated. On the sixth day, when I could walk again, I went to the Arabian Sea and tried to piece Humpty back together again. Thankfully, it didn’t work. The black-skinned goddess got her way after all.

‘Paper-thin’ was how a friend described the shadow-self that returned from Mysore. ‘And a shit beard!’, was the chorus from other so-called friends. The beard was shit, granted. At best, I looked like a confused scarecrow. At worst, the Scottish ambassador for ISIS. But behind that beard, in my brain, I was experiencing an unsettling level of serenity. Not the kind of serenity that those gormless, shawl-draped, frantically smiling people pretend to have but rather an overwhelming sense of nothingness – an absence of bad stuff rather than the miraculous appearance of good stuff. It’s not like I’d become a good person or anything, just less of an awful one.

I can’t pretend to understand it. All I know is that after busting my balls on a yoga mat twice a day for about 8 weeks, I began to feel like less of a cock. No longer did I tell the automatic check-out machines at Tesco to fuck off when they asked me to put my bag in the bagging area even though I already had. No more did I wince with jealousy every time a facebook friend posted an achievement, or crumple in on myself when an ex-love interest became married or pregnant or just plain happy. I started holding doors open for people unironically, and even stopped laughing outwardly at very small dogs and their owners.

The veil separating me from the world had become rice-paper-thin. If someone got angry near me, I would start shaking and have to lie face-down in an another room. It felt like I could read people’s sadnesses and despairs just by walking past them in the street. Visits to my recently widowed Granny became more of a head-fuck than watching Blair Witch Project alone at a pop-up cinema in a forest. My empathy engines were close to blowing. But just as I could sense all the sadness around me, I was starting to sense this strange new thing called happiness. Or at least I think it was happiness. It didn’t look like the happiness they have in the movies – you know, with the reconciled couple and the dog and the lessons learned and all that nonsence. No, it just felt like relief. Like I’d been holding my breath for 34 years and now I could let it go.



epic banana man

Happiness is walking through heaps of bananas forever



Darjeeling to Gangtok: The land of God

So there I was, sat in Darjeeling, utterly overwhelmed by the immensity of the Himalayan vista in front of me, when an older Indian couple ruined everything by sitting down and being friendly. Oblivious to my spiritual rapture, they prodded me with words until I was forced to acknowledge them, and we fell into a rather one-way conversation.

The man was wearing a knitted tea cosy in the shape of an army beret and the woman smiled a lot, until we got onto the subject of Kashmir. ‘They have no morals, they are animals!’ she fumed into her tea. Ignoring his wife, knitted beret man offered up his analysis. ‘Pakistan’, he smiled, ‘used to be India. It was aaaaaall India back then. We, the Hindus of India gave the Muslims a place to live – Pakistan.’

I desperately tried to take the man with the knitted army beret tea-cosy seriously, so I narrowed my eyes and nodded vigorously like I used to do in meetings when I was drifting. Nod nod, yes yes, I listen you.

He continued: ‘But they are not gracious enough to accept this history, this heritage. Take Indonesia. They are a Muslim nation but they keep their Hindu names, their history. When Pakistan say they want Kashmir, they are simply ignoring their history.’

I nodded more vigorously, wondering if ‘Army-Casual’ could take off in the West and if he would consent to be the brand ambassador.

The morning sweep, before preparing all that FRESH food, Darjeeling

The morning sweep, before preparing all that FRESH food, Darjeeling

A brownie with chocolate sauce plopped down onto the table and they forced me to eat some, despite being full of bun. ‘You know India is the only truly tolerant country,’ he said, leaning back in his wicker seat and crossing his legs. So tolerant, in fact, that they still keep the place and street names foisted on them by their many invaders – Mongol Hordes, the Dutch, the British. We all agreed that this was a bit too tolerant.

Continuing my Indian education, the man leaned further back into his wicker.

‘Only in India do we cook 3 times a day, FRESH.’ He went on. ‘Tooootally FRESH, you see, 3 times a day.’ He conceded that it was a heavy burden for the women, who were expected to prepare all of this FRESH food, but he continued: ‘If we took that away from them, what else would they do with their time?’ I’m pretty sure he wasn’t joking, but I laughed anyway because it was easier, then excused myself. I didn’t come on holiday to explain the world ground up to an old guy.

Never trust a monkey. They may look cute but where there is one there are many, and they have strong, searching fingers and a bad attitude

Never trust a monkey. They may look cute but where there is one there are many, and they have strong, searching fingers and ideas way above their station

The next day, my alarm clock woke me at 0530 and I rolled out of bed with a spring in my lurch. Monks chanted in the direction of the massive God mountain (Kanchenjunga), waving fans inscribed with Tibetan / Chinese / Nepalese writing, then tapped people on the head with them as a blessing. A horde of hissing, growling monkeys bullied a stray dog, while 50 metres away the dogs got their own back by trapping a terrified monkey up a telephone pole.

I had only one duty for the day and that was to find the best pound to rupee rates for my 480 quid. I was amazed to discover that 2 of 3 places simply wouldn’t accept my filthy Scottish pounds, and the remaining one offered an offensively low rate (85, compared to the 96 offered for the ‘Great British Pound’). To soothe my wounded Scottish ego, I popped into a terrific teashop, where I was allowed to sample two Oolongs in brandy glasses, two white teas in Champagne flutes and two black Darjeeling teas in little port glasses. After they poured it for you, they held the brewing pot underneath your nose for about 30 seconds too long so your entire face dripped with fragrant tea steam.

As I left with my 3 little string-tied parcels of tea, I was given a short lecture on picking seasons. Tea isn’t just tea. It’s a totally different beast according to the time of year it’s picked. The spring (or first flush) tea is light and floral, the summer (or second flush) is more ‘muscatel’ (God knows…) and the autumn flush is richer, deeper and fruitier. I was ashamed to admit that in the UK, we generally don’t know where our teas comes from, just the brand, as if ‘Typhoo’  or Tetley’ were places. It wouldn’t surprise me if some people thought that ‘Yorkshire tea’ is grown in Yorkshire.

Anyway, it all tasted bloody great to me, and gave me this smouldering high that lasted for about 3 hours – long enough to propel me up to the charmingly dilapidated colonial gem that is the Windamere hotel.

Christmas in 61' at the Windamere. Note the faces of local kids pressed up against the window, peering in at all the roasted meats they wouldn't be eating

Christmas in 61′ at the Windamere. Note the faces of local kids pressed up against the window, peering in at all the roasted meats they wouldn’t be eating

On arrival, a boy wearing an incongruous costume of western formal wear underneath a traditional Himalayan shawl thingy ushered me into an empty living room full of deep sofas and a dying fire. On the walls were black and white photos of rich people quoffing gin in the sixties, and paintings of Himalayan scenes, including a shepherd with 3 unsettlingly over-sized goats, and a girl kneeling on a rock ledge over a cloud-filled valley. Soon the fire was roaring and I was flicking through the ‘Times of India’. Apprently, Kolkata meat market is getting a much-needed renovation because it stinks so bad that even the cleaners don’t go there, the Indian army is buying weapons from Israel, and over 100 Air India pilots were discovered not to have valid pilot’s licenses.

A framed sign advised me not to ‘Lie supine on the hearth’, which I would have committed to if I knew what it meant.

Sometimes the tarmac just disappears, leaving only hunched women tottering through dustclouds.

Sometimes the tarmac just disappears, leaving only hunched women tottering through dustclouds

Day 3 on the bike was my worst day on a bike.

It started nicely in Darjeeling, with an impromptu dawn yoga session looking out to that massive God mountain. The air didn’t seem to sparkle, it literally was sparkling. As I was finishing, some locals came up and asked if I could teach them. Apparently their uncle, who had been sitting nearby doing all sorts of weird and wonderful yogic breathing exercises, had given the nod of approval. I said I would return to Darjeeling specifically to teach them, despite being fully aware of how ridiculous it was for a Scotsman to teach yoga to Indians in India. It’s like asking an Indian person to come and teach the British how to do sarcasm.

Breakfast was an epic feast of porridge with bananas and honey followed by a ‘full’ English breakfast – I was going to need the fuel for another 1000 or so metres of climbing. However, my well-laid plans backfired and I was soon enjoying some low quality toilet time, courtesy of Indian bacteria. I couldn’t for the life of me work out how I had got it as I’d been very diligent with my hand-washing and water purifying, avoided all milk and cheese (they don’t do pasteurising here apparently) and avoided all street food. I guess it’s just something you have to go through. Or rather, something that has to go through you.

Durga celebrations - another excuse to let off fireworks day and night

Durga celebrations – another excuse to let off fireworks day and night

So back to the ride. It was horrendous – two agonising hours of pulling the brake levers full force as I weaved through a craterfield of potholes on slopes so steep they should quite frankly be illegal. I found myself cursing the author of the book for encouraging human beings to do this and in my mind wrote an extremely abusive email that I would send to her if I survived.

Then of course, there was the looming threat of shitting myself.

As the front wheel slammed down into another pothole, I willed my sphincter to clench as tightly as my fingers were on the brake levers. It was a tense time. Real tense. And then it ended. The free fall abated and I flowed down into a deep, wide, sticky valley where a dog half-heartedly tried to eat me and my bike. A rogue monkey also had a go, darting out from the side of the road, and I produced an incredible burst of speed to escape. They freak me out, those monkeys, and they always lie in wait where I’m most vulnerable – up-slopes or pot-holed sections. The night was spent in a dive on the town’s main/only junction, nursing litre after litre of salty blackcurrant electrolytes as yet another soundstage kept me wide awake until the early morning, when the fireworks took over.

Everyone loves the horn, even Sikkim border guards

Everyone loves the horn, even Sikkim border guards

The upside of being kept awake is that you aren’t asleep, which means as soon as the sun is up you can be gone. So by 0545 I had clicked my panniers onto the rack and pedalled grimly out of town. towards the capital of Sikkim, Gangtok. Time for another Immodium too, just to be sure – it was set to be another crucifixion of a day, with 1300ish vertical metres to contend with. The dawn freshness soothed my broken mind and tummy and the Immodium took care of the science. Soon, I was at the foot of the climb and feeling good enough to eat so I picked up some delicious, steaming hot vegetable momos from a wee roadside hotel. The owner’s son had never seen a white person before. I feel like I under delivered with my chat, which consisted mostly of mumbled, dumpling-filled nothings with question marks on the end. So to the climb.



It was hellish. Of course it was hellish.  But smooth hell is much better than lumpy hell, and smooth and up is much better than lumpy and down. Sikkim roads are comparatively brilliant, which is down to the exceptionally diligent and proud road-building team ‘BRO’. Every year, the roads are swept away by monsoon storms and every year, they rebuild them. I grew to love the various upbeat roadside messages encouraging love, life and safety. Things like ‘Life has no spare – take it easy.’ However, I’m not sure the jeep drivers can read the English. The last 15km were utterly brutal, and made almost intolerable by the back-to-back traffic and accompanying fumes. I focussed on breathing out and not in.

Gangtok baby

Gangtok baby

After several months or years of this, Gangtok revealed herself to me in all her turquoise and pink and baby blue grandeur. The first thing I saw was a sign telling me that: ‘Leprosy is 100% curable.’ 45 more minutes of slogging my way to the top of town and it was over –  I had arrived at Hotel Pandim and immediately agreed to a wincingly high rate for an admittedly quite plush room with loads of cable TV channels and enough room to swing a yaklet (a child yak).

I spent the next hour flicking between the skin-crawlingly awful but undeniably moreish British X-factor, and a TV lecture by a stern white woman wrapped up in the white sheets of a popular Hindu sect.

Cowell:                You have what it takes. I’m really impressed. CROWD GOES WILD.

Sect woman        I was God in the copper age, but I had no memory of my Godliness.

Cowell:                You’re likeable. I like you. The crowd likes you. But you can’t sing. CROWD BOOS.

Sect woman:        And we will be tested. Have you noticed? Every day we are challenged to be more Godly

Clicking off this vortex of no return, I noticed that I had already gained quite an imposing, severe gaze. Looking closer, I discovered that it was a masacara made of splatted flies.

Neon green chicken in my Thai curry

Neon green chicken in my Thai curry

My evening comprised of a Thai green curry with neon-green chicken, and monk spotting. There’s tonnes of orange-and-yellow-swaddled Buddhist monks here, of every shape and size. The most impressive one I saw was a down syndrome one and the impressive part is that he’s evidence of clear follow-through on a come-one-come-all policy up here in Buddha HQ. The least impressive ones were using mobile phones. Three of them sitting on a bench, gazes downward, tap, tap tapping like normal people. It’s just not right. You either get spiritual centredness, tranquility and moral authority OR you get our modern enslavement to the transient froth of modern social networking. Not both. I bet they had facebook accounts too, the frauds.

Cobbling away with his feet

A cobbler cobbling, unsurprisingly

Gangtok, like Darjeeling, suffers from a split-personality. From a distance, she is serene and picture-perfect but up close, when you’re stuck in the steeply winding, fume-choked streets, you often wish you weren’t here. However it’s nothing that some good headphones, sunglasses and a face-mask won’t fix. Yes, it makes me seem aloof and unapproachable but needs must – I can be nice later.

After the near death experience that was ride to get here, I’ve decided I need to lose a lot of weight. Not from my body, which is gaunt and bony, but from the bags. So far I have replaced the heavy but intoxicating ‘The God of small things’ with a tiny paperback ‘Oxford Introduction to Empire’, and ditched my expensive and (I hope) extraneous waterproof jacket, sleeping bag and sleeping mat.

The book feels rather fitting, as I can’t imagine a country more bizarelly contorted by colonialism than India. To be surrounded by poverty-stricken, tobacco-skinned men speaking perfect Queen’s English every time I stop the bike is a surreal and jarring experience. It’s all roses now but the violence it took to get those poor buggers speaking like toffs is bothersome. I would get slightly more upset about it but a waiter just put down a generously filled cherry muffin and green tea with goji berries and chrysanthemums. Next stop, West Sikkim. Or maybe I’ll just stay here and keep looking at God.

God / Kanchenjuga

God / Kanchenjuga

Kolkata to Darjeeling: from dust to clouds

I arrived in Kolkata to be greeted by the sub-continent’s worst taxi driver, who couldn’t find the hotel I specifically picked because it was right next to the airport. Up and down the ‘VIP’ road we went, asking other taxi drivers, Tuk-Tuk boys and bystanders where this place was. They all seemed to know exactly where, confidently pointing in different directions as Diwali exploded around us. Eventually we arrived at a cesspit down a dirt track with a man wielding a semi-automatic stood close by. To be fair, the review (the only review) on did say ‘disappointing’, so I guess I deserved it. The staff seemed surprised to see me, despite having booked online more than 24 hours prior, and they spent many minutes rotating a paper jotter on a desk to see if this would clarify the situation. Relaxing into Indian hospitality, I tried to ignore the taxi driver, who was repeatedly droning ‘RUPPEE, RUPPEE’ at me. Eventually I was taken to my putrid room, where I spent five hours fumbling around trying to build my bike like one of those experiments where monkeys have to work out what shaped holes to put the blocks in. Eventually, bike built but by no means road-safe, I fell into a fretful sleep, flinching every time a Diwali firework exploded, which was about every 30 seconds or so.

Some woman on the approach into Kolkata

Some woman on the approach into Kolkata

I was woken 4 hours later by a massive explosion, which turned out to be the last Diwali firework, and left without saying good-bye. I had no map and no real idea of where I was going. I’d bought a compass knowing full well that I didn’t how to use one, so instead relied on the locals’ ambiguous yet spirited directions and was soon wobbling my way along a deserted highway somewhere on the outskirts of Kolkata in 98 degree heat. Somehow I arrived at the correct train station, despite the efforts of many small children and goats and cars and buses who darted directly into my path as if that was fine. Buying a ticket was a typically Indian experience of being sent from one desk to another, to another to fill out the same information onto a series of forms that resulted, not in a ticket, but in a further 4 hour wait to see if I definitely didn’t have a ticket.

Even a s non-believer, I was happy to have so many prayers in the wind

Even a s non-believer, I was happy to have so many prayers in the wind

Sitting down to write my diary, I was immediately surrounded by boys and men who read each word as it was written, some nodding along approvingly as if to say ‘yes, my thoughts exactly.’ Soon they dispersed, leaving one young man with a brilliant white smile and wandering hands.

‘You have very nice handwriting,’ he said, his hand creeping a little too close to my leg. ‘Are you married?’  he continued, his pinkie brushing my knee. ‘No,’ I replied, wondering if this was just how Indian guys did things. Then he started playing with the hair on my knee. ‘Hair,’ he said.  ‘Hair,’ I said, brushing his hand away without trying to be rude. ‘Yes, hair. Your hair is very nice,’ he said, his hand returning to my knee.

After a few brush-offs, I figured this was probably more a gay thing than an Indian thing but decided to just roll with it – I didn’t want to get into a fight on my first day. Then he said he was going to the wash-room but didn’t go, looking at me with very gay (not Indian) eyes. ‘I’LL SEE YOU LATER. THANKS VERY MUCH!’ I said, staying where I was until he got the message. Before he left, there was a split-second when he moved his head a little too close to mine and I thought he might go in for a kiss, but thankfully for everyone, he desisted and sashayed off to the bathroom.

Organic tea-fields shimmering under the sun

Organic tea-fields shimmering under the sun

Miraculously, both me and my bike eventually got on that train and were soon on our way to Siliguri on the Darjeeling Mail sleeper. After an hour or so of drooling, open-mouthed sleep, I awoke, rearranged my panniers and put my helmet on. There was no way I was missing my stop. So, jostling past sleeping families, hitting them in the head with my swinging panniers, I planted myself at the door and waited for the stop. ‘Where you go?’ came a voice from within a bundle of sheets that I hadn’t realised contained a human. ‘Siliguri’, I said. ‘Aaaaah, yes. 1 and a half hours more. Train late.’ Of course it was late. So naive to think it wouldn’t be late. So back I went, hitting the heads of the same sleeping people with my panniers to my seat, which had now been stolen by a smiling grandmother holding a small child. Instead of back-handing her (I would never do that), I consoled myself with a steaming hot milky Chai in a thimble-sized cup and watched India wake up through the window.

A particularly sinister congregation of prayer flags

A particularly sinister congregation of prayer flags on the way up to Mirik

The train pulls in and I’m out the door like a rocket, my cycling shoes slip-sliding all over the platform as I scream ‘Bike, my bike!’ to anyone remotely official-looking. Mostly they had no idea what I was saying but one guy had the good grace to point me to the other end of the train, so off I shot to that end, screaming ‘BIKE BIKE!’ and waving my pink receipt around. When I got to that end, a man with a beret shook his head and pointed me to the end I’d just come from. This went on for precisely long enough to lose all of my pride, until at last I caught sight of my sturdy steed being carefully plucked from the bowels of a cargo carriage. Sliding to a stop, sodden and shaking, I limply held out the pink bike receipt and said ‘Bike. Is my bike.’ Success. I had bike. I was bike. Bike was me. Bike is us. Bike.


Soon I’m gliding through a tropical, dusty landscape with cows kneeling by the roadside and palm trees shivering in the hot breeze. Siliguri is a dustbowl but I find a nice hotel and get the most expensive room (five quid) before popping out for my first taste of Indian food (/parasitic infection). The mutton Rogan Josh was flavoursome but oily and tough, the Kashmir Naan was from Kashmir (the waiter told me that when I asked what the Kashmir Naan was) and the rice was fancy. On the way back, I stopped on a bridge to watch what I can only describe as an orgy of filth in the river below. Kids mingled with pigs snuffling through heaps of garbage, as a crowd of locals watched a JCB digger heaping a make-shift bank of mud in the middle of the river. Young boys stood on the the freshly heaped bank, their arms aloft, talking shite to anyone who would listen. Night-time brought an eardrum-splitting mix of train and truck horns mixed with a post-Diwali Diwali celebration from the disco literally next door.

Steamy, jungly valleys make terrific rest-stops before brutal climbs/ after brutal descents

Steamy, jungly valleys make terrific rest-stops before brutal climbs/ after brutal descents

The book promised that today would require a ‘marathon effort’. ‘You will drink ten litres of water,’ the author said. This, coming from a woman who spent 5 years cycling through all of the Himalayas, in every condition and elevation. Shit. And, to add to my anxiety, the blog of the book had had to reiterate just how steep the roads were, as some disgruntled westerners had evidently not done enough spin classes before coming to West Bengal/Sikkim. All of which added up to me being wide awake at 0430 wearing my cycling clothes, shoes and helmet, waiting for the sun to come up. At 0545, the day switched on like a light and I was soon charging out of town, the wind in my knee hair. In the wrong direction. Luckily, I realised my mistake before I got to the airport and was soon pointing in the correct direction – towards those big fucking hills over there.

large cloud over tiny village

Soon, Siliguri was a distant smear on my memory, as I flew low through towering, cooling forests and on through a military base riddled with monkeys and cheery -looking soldiers who would say ‘Goooood Maaaaawrning!’ as I sped past. At a tiny village called ‘Dudia’, the road ramped up to a laughable gradient (I did actually laugh), and decided to become severely pot-holed too. In my training in Scotland, I’d avoided using the ‘granny ring’ (easiest gear) but wasted no time in clicking down there. There’s no room for pride in the Himalayas. I was really feeling the 30kg of stuff I’d brought with me and discovered with newfound clarity how unnecessary most of it was. This, plus the four litres of water (‘You will drink ten litres of water….’) I was carrying slowed me down to a creaking, weaving wreckage of a man, emasculated further by the stream of rickety jeeps tearing past me, honking madly in triumph or sympathy – it’s hard to decipher the tone of voice of a horn. Easier to decipher were the expressions of pure incredulity on the faces pressed to the insides of the back windows. ‘Why?’ they seemed to ask. I had no answers at the time.

So much style up here it hurts

So much style up here it hurts

After three hours, I collapsed against a snack shack and fell into conversation with a local boy with impeccable English. Looking at my map, he told me I had 12 or 13 hours to go. ‘What?!’ I spat – I had expected to be there in 3. He did a funny Indian head nod-shake that makes you wonder whether they’re agreeing or disagreeing with you, and revised it to 8 or 9 hours. Unwilling to accept the idea that I would have to do this for another 8 or 9 hours, I simply shook my head and said no, it’s no possible – I left at 6. ‘Wow. Ok. 6? Really? Then you will be there in 2 hours.’ It seems my adrenalin had propelled me up the mountain at an unusual velocity. Allowing myself a momentary swelling of pride, I creaked off up the vertical slope and in the blink of a yak’s eye, was where I was supposed to be, but about 5 hours too early. Mirik was my oyster.

I wish this was a traditional West Bengal mask but really it's just a weird batman

I wish this was a traditional West Bengal mask but really it’s just a weird batman

Mirik, 1500 metres higher than Siliguri, was a strange place around an uninspiring lake but did offer steaming hot showers, a magnificent Thali, including a transcendent black dahl, and of course, the requisite sound stage right outside my hotel showcasing the best (worst) of the local singing talent all throughout the night. Other highlights included a rampaging horse stampeding past a flustered family, it’s cock swinging all over the place, and a strange fruit like an avocado with short, green octopus tentacles growing from it’s skin that grew on the outskirts of town.

After another broken sleep, I was wide awake before dawn, clutching my stomach. It felt like someone had put a balloon into my gut and was playfully blowing it up and letting it down. My mega-thali must have been poisoned. Or perhaps it was the eight extra momos (steamed tibetan dumplings), the extra portion of naan, the two pots of Darjeeling tea, and the additional cup of milky, sugary, cardomom-y ‘Masala’ tea. In retrospect, it was probably sheer greed that gave me the cramps and resultingly bad toilet time but at the time, I was convinced it was the Indian food. As I rode off, I swore never to touch it again.

Looks like someone's got a case of the mondays

Looks like someone’s got a case of the mondays

So out I went, gut wriggling and writhing and underslept, straight into a vertical wall of tarmac. Down into the bottom gear I went, down where I belong. The morning was serene – deep blue skies, cheery smiles and the faintest whisper of a breeze. Almost everyone I passed greeted me with a breezy ‘Goooooowd Maaaaaaaawrning!’, which brought an involuntary smile (they’re all involuntary) to my face every time I heard it. If I stopped in a village, I was immediately swamped by smiling, curious men wanting to know where I was from (nowhere knows where Scotland is but they gloss over it). One time I stopped in the middle of a dark, empty forest to change my t-shirt and from nowhere, ten guys on motorbikes had surrounded me, demanding more photos.

Soon I had reached the halfway point – a clustering of chai and momos stalls perched on a rocky outlook that looks directly into Nepal. Their mountains looked bigger. I bought some overly sweet Masala chai and vegetable (cabbage) momos and was then tricked into buying Malaysian almond toffees by a kid who assured me they were Nepalese. The little shit overcharged me by about double too but I’m over it. When I checked my phone, I had a text from my mobile provider informing me that I could top up as usual when in Nepal. It’s true to say that the lines between countries are very blurred around here.

Boy at rest, somewhere on the way to Darjeeling

Boy at rest, somewhere on the way to Darjeeling

Pushing on like the toffee incident never happened, I was soon in Darjeeling, at Hotel ‘Tranquility’ (it was opposite a building site patrolled). They very graciously let me keep my bike in my room and didn’t even make faces about my smell, though they were tellingly forthright with the instructions for the shower. After a bruisingly hot shower,  I shuffled off around the steep, narrow streets to the apparently good but actually rubbish bakery for the worst apple pie I have ever had (it was salty). But there was the view. Ooooooh, the view. My first true panorama of the Himalayas, strung out along the horizon, crowned by a flowing, churning, cascading cloudscape. Storms here must be utterly terrifying. I remember thinking that there was something much greater than us going ont here. No wonder it’s so easy to buy into all the God talk – I’d pray to anything for deliverance from these monsters.

darjeeling epic dawn

Dawn in Darjeeling. Apparently, the people of Sikkim think that massive mountain over there (Kanchenjunga, 3rd largest in the world) is a God, which I guess makes more sense than an invisible one in the sky.

From Scottish lowlands to Indian very, very, very, very Highlands (Part 1)

This is the kind of photo I hope to bring back if I live

This is the kind of photo I hope to bring back if I remain alive


How quickly our worlds change. A few weeks ago I had no idea that I would be flying to Calcutta for a solo, 2 and a half month bicycle tour in the Indian Himalayas. A few weeks ago my world was all about calligraphy, dumplings and being with my glorious but now-ex girlfriend in the steamy Chinese city of Hangzhou.

Regrettably, though a relationship can be cancelled with minimal fiscal implications, the same is not true of flights. But, thank Allah (or whoever keeps Emirates’ planes in the air), I was able to change my flight from Shanghai to anywhere I desired east of Dubai.  Naturally, as a yoga twat and a wannabe ‘gritty’ cyclist, I chose India – home to the only yoga worth learning and the biggest ruddy mountains around.

Let me be clear with you from the start – this is a huge mistake. I know it, my family knows it, my friends know it. I have zero survival skills. I have never put up a tent, built an effective fire, operated a stove, found water from a river or gotten food from anywhere but a packet. I don’t know how to fix my bike if it breaks. I don’t know how to fix myself if I break.

Yes, I’ve made a huge mistake.