Incense and Impasse

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Cjell Monē wanted nothing more than to follow a faint, squiggly line from Sela Pass, a 14,000’ remote corner of India, to the Bhutan border. He was thwarted by the military, chased down by taxis, and barricaded by an entire village during his attempt. Read the whole story…

Words and photos by Cjell Monē

Shit and incense, two strong smells commonly found on the subcontinent of India. It’s a place of extremes. Extreme beauty, extreme poverty, and extreme adventure.

On my last trip to India, I found myself in a world of insanity on a bicycle. The chaos, the pollution, the lack of sanitation… it broke me. I ended up riding for around three weeks and then took off for Thailand. Boohoo says American on vacation. But the struggle is real. It’s difficult to qualify exactly what the lack of privacy, space, and quiet does to a guy… but it broke me. I found myself frustrated with people who were simply inquisitive… mind you, it might be a crowd of inquisitive men numbering 50 or more, staring and taking photos, but really doing nothing wrong.

So why go back? I’ve ridden bicycle in a numbers of countries and have found none as challenging as India, but give me a pin and a map and I can’t help but stick it in that big, dirty, smelly subcontinent.

Cjell Mone, Bikepacking Arunachal Pradesh, India

It’s the stories. The stories you can’t help but tell and retell. You’ll wear your friends out with tales of train travel, and gurus, and temples and crazy hospitality. It’s the photos. The aesthetic of India is like none other. It’s almost stuck in time. Ox drawn carts, ladies running looms, camels pulling plows. It’s the people, unending kindness, smiles and hospitality. Something about India is so original, so foreign, so damn strange. After a while you forget about the diarrhea and endless stares and India calls you to go back for more.

Enough time had passed, so when a couple of buddies posed this trip to me I jumped. Unfortunately life happened to my friends and I found myself on another solo bike tour in India. But where to go. India is a big country and unless you’re measuring your trip in years it would be wise to focus your efforts.

I had first heard of Arunachal Pradesh from a fellow traveler from Spain. It’s a section of the Himalaya that doesn’t get much play. Sitting west of Bhutan, south of China, the remote nature of this very beautiful place was a recipe for original experiences. Don’t get me wrong, another cirque of the Annapurna circuit would be rad and beautiful, but I wanted to find an original route. In the words of Chris Reichel, “I wanted to put my tires where none had been before.”

Cjell Mone, Bikepacking Arunachal Pradesh, India

  • Cjell Mone, Bikepacking Arunachal Pradesh, India
  • Cjell Mone, Bikepacking Arunachal Pradesh, India

The biggest challenge of riding bike in many areas of Nepal, India, or any number of developing countries, is finding a route. I have made a couple trips before, and without a plan, getting outside of roads on maps is hard to do.

To add to the challenge — that is, if you don’t have a premeditated plan for what and where your trip will be — is to find your way based on local knowledge. I have done a number of bike tours where my navigation involves taking a look at a map, memorizing the name of the next town of interest and asking people with some sign language which way to that particular town. For an off road route, this simply won’t cut it. Your average local on the side of the road isn’t interested in taking the lonely, rocky, difficult route. That’s just nonsense.

After riding the Tour Divide for a number of years and then graduating to the AZT — and collecting even more inspiration from Nic Carman and Lael Wilcox with their work on the Baja Divide Route, a miracle of sandy double track that has been expertly strung together bypassing an untold number of closed gates and road blocks — I have been inspired to get off the roads.

Finding your way off road is the trick. It does, however, transform your bike trip. Doing it here, in the US, is relatively straightforward. Google Earth, Strava heat maps, GPS apps such as Komoot, Gaia or similar, draw a line, get on the ground and see what that line is all about.

Following that line in India has another catch; local people insisting you are lost and directing you to safety. It was the theme of this bike tour, almost comically so. Anytime a person was confident enough in their English skills, they would stop and attempt to redirect me to the main route. The hard part was deciding if their advice was warranted or not. Landslides, collapsed bridges, military exercises, there are reasons that routes become truly impassable. The hard part is finding out what a local may think is an impasse and what will actually stop forward progress.

Sela pass was a crossroads. A high alpine pass sitting at 13700’, dotted with lakes and snow covered peaks. Splitting off the main route here, was a small white line headed towards Bhutan. It looked exceptionally squiggly and indirect — a recipe for an original experience. As I sat and enjoyed my chai tea and reheated samosas I started asking the soldiers that were hanging around the café.

“What’s over that way? Where’s that road go? Does it go down or up?”

Emphatic in their response, “To the left? Impossible. You can’t go that way.”

“Why not? Is it illegal?”

With a slight pause, “Yes.”

I get close to the one doing the talking, right up in his grill, “do you know for sure it’s illegal for foreigners to go on the smaller route towards Bhutan?”

Same pause and same avoidance of eye contact, “yes it’s illegal.” The other soldiers echoed his words in chorus, “that way is for military…its cold and snowy that way…you won’t be able to pass that way…the way ahead is down to the right.”

Cjell Mone, Bikepacking Arunachal Pradesh, India

My takeaways from the exchange; 1. they didn’t know for sure if it was illegal for a civilian and or foreigner, 2. it would be real mountain biking, 3. spending the night above 14000’ would really really suck.

Not excited about my situation as the twilight waned and the worry set in that this group of soldiers would make a big stink if I did indeed take the snowy route towards the west, I decided the skinny line wouldn’t be mine on this day. I would have to take the main route down the pass.

I put all my clothes on, hat, multiple sets of gloves, a couple bandanas over my face, strapped on my lights and started down the main route to the right. As I passed under the gate and snapped some pics with the soldiers there I noticed that small route on the far side of Sela Lake. It was climbing up, up from 13700’. I would venture a guess on the temperature at the time, 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Going up meant higher and colder…something, despite my protests to the soldiers, I really wasn’t ready for.

A little relieved and a little pouty, I began the massive descent down the far side of Sela Pass along the main route.

Cjell Mone, Bikepacking Arunachal Pradesh, India

I spent the next week touring to the north and crossing countless passes, finding single track, ignoring local advice, freezing my ass off on some high elevation loops. I found myself at the other end of the little white line that diverted off of Sela Pass. I gotta see what’s up there.

The day started with a shower and a lazy breakfast. It was around 10 am before I left town headed back up to Sela Pass. On around the second switchback there was a junction. I knew what that junction was, but wasn’t prepared for what it held.

The road to the right was where the side route that I had been so emphatically advised against by the soldiers at the top. Now, many thousand feet below, I was confronted by that small way once again. This time, I had no excuse, other than my late start.

I told myself, even if I climb up and get turned back by temperature, or landslide or military personal, I had to see what was up there. I pointed my bike to the right and started pedaling.

A taxi driver at the junction couldn’t believe what he was seeing. He chased me down the side road through the village. He had enough English to succinctly tell me that I was going the wrong way. “This is not the way, you cannot go.”

I looked at him I gave him all the expressions of comprehension and affirmation. He seemed satisfied that I had received his message and took his hands off my handlebars.

I continued pedaling in the same direction. Bless this guy’s heart. He really really felt he needed to save me from myself. He started shouting after me and had other villagers block my path. The drama of it all was pretty effective. I thought twice as I dodged the villagers heeding this guy’s call to block my path. I stopped at the last lady. She was communicating with the taxi driver about how she needed to save the stupid gringo. She seemed to feel the same conviction as this guy to not let me pass. But then, a glimmer of hope. She pointed ahead and said ‘monastery?’

Cjell Mone, Bikepacking Arunachal Pradesh, India

“YEP! I’m going to the monastery.”

Woah, that was intense. What in heaven’s name could be so amazingly scary about the route ahead that these people felt so strongly? Now I had to find out.

There were two more people that stopped me as I left the valley. I passed the monastery and began the obscure climb that would bring me to the Bhutan border and back to Sela Pass at 13700’.

The first encounter happened pretty quickly, I remember because he was driving a taxi. The road deteriorated quickly, so meeting a car meant it would have occurred in the first few miles. His English and message was rather effective. If his goal was to create a great amount of doubt in what I was doing, he was successful.

“You don’t have enough food or water, this way will take 4 or 5 days to get to Sela Pass.”

What could possibly be up there that would require 4-5 days to traverse? The only thing I could think after that exchange was the guy was rather overweight and driving a car, so presumably he had never made the journey himself. Purely speculation, but it’s all I had to go on.

The road climbed and turned from a road to double track. After the last house with a number of yaks stoically posing for photos, the road condition worsened and any evidence of vehicle travel was long gone.

The path took a couple switchbacks and I encountered an ice waterfall that had melted and refrozen and off camber ice sheet across the babyheads. I kept a good pace as I scrambled across the ice sheet dragging the loaded klunk along with me. This was getting real.

  • Cjell Mone, Bikepacking Arunachal Pradesh, India
  • Cjell Mone, Bikepacking Arunachal Pradesh, India

As I push/rode my bike up the climb. I had the thought that even if I didn’t make it through to the pass, I would at least have an interesting out-and-back. The further up in elevation I got the more I became aware that camping this high was not really an option considering I didn’t really have the gear or clothing.

The double track had now fully degraded to rough babyheads. The yak grazing lands had turned to forest. It was an amazing area with little signs of anyone having been there for some time. I was now fully pushing my bike over very rough terrain. Even a capable 4×4 wouldn’t have been able to traverse the washouts and boulders.

I had been moving slowly for a few hours when I started getting some signs of life. There was a tarp set up over a makeshift bed of pine boughs. At the same time I started hearing chainsaws. At the end of the following switchback in the dense forest was a makeshift camp; a couple canvas tents, some clothes on the line and a few gas cans.

Cjell Mone, Bikepacking Arunachal Pradesh, India

Just after the camp there were three guys with chainsaws chopping tree trunks into planks. They didn’t notice me until I was right on top of them on account of the noise from their machines. One had a bit more English than the others. Needless to say they were as surprised to see me as me them.

“Where you go?”

“Sela Pass.”

“Very difficult.” He checks the time on his cell phone. “Maybe 4 or 5 hours.”

It was now 2 in the afternoon. The sun will set in 3 hours.

“Same like this?”

“Same for 5 more kilometer, then ok.”

I have a look at the map. I’ve made a huge chunk of progress. If he estimates 4-5, and I hustle my ass, I could do it. I could make it to Sela and back to the paved road to descend back to the jungle to camp. My hope was totally restored. Up until this point I had only people chasing me down telling me there was no way. This was the first time I felt like I could. Boom, what a huge shift. Before I was thinking I would be forced to turn back, now I was in overdrive with a clear goal.

We exchange a little more, he basically tells me not to do it. It’s hard for him to picture anyone riding a bike up here. It’s also not easy to comprehend how I would have a tent, sleeping bag and warm clothes in my small luggage.

My entire kit felt lighter as I walked gingerly over the remains of a road that used to be. He was right, about 3 miles later the extremely chunky unrideable stuff subsided and I was able to pedal again. I passed treeline and soon after I started to spot some army outposts.

  • Cjell Mone, Bikepacking Arunachal Pradesh, India
  • Cjell Mone, Bikepacking Arunachal Pradesh, India

My map showed the junction to Bhutan not too far off. There were a few military canvas tent villages. I was a little concerned as to how I would be received in this area… there was nothing but soldiers in their camouflaged barracks.

I moved along and was spotted by a few Indian soldiers as I rolled by. The climbing turned to more of an up and down across the barren tundra. A few sentries in foxholes stared at me but no one said much so I just continued to ride along.

After the junction with the smaller road that headed towards the Bhutan borders the number of trucks increased. If I were to guess, I would say they train soldiers in this area, patrolling the border with their peaceful neighbor Bhutan, to deploy experienced troops to watch the border with China. The number of trucks and troops seemed awfully ridiculous considering India’s public financial support of Bhutan’s defense in the form of 100’s of millions of USD, billions of rupees.

Anyway, no one said shit as I rode along the high alpine environment. I now had all the clothing on I was carrying. It was cold and a bit snowy up here.

Cjell Mone, Bikepacking Arunachal Pradesh, India

The road that now supported 4×4 truck travel meandered along cliff edges offering stunning views of the areas lakes, which were numerous. About halfway along a medium sized climb I passes one of the small jeeps with ‘CO’ written on a plaque place inside the windshield.

A nicely dressed officer addressed me from the window.

“Where are you coming from?”

“Jung.”

“Why are you riding your bike?”

“To have original experiences in beautiful places. Why are you in a Jeep?”

He laughed. His English was good as he was an educated officer.

“Would you like a lift?”

“I’m good, I’m kinda committed to riding at this point.”

We chatted a bit about the road from where I came. He said no one had been that way in years. Told me I was brave. I said “either brave or stupid.” I would have liked to chat and hang longer as the guy seemed to have a sense of humor, but it was cold and forward progress was now necessary. He gave me his name and told me to use it if I had any trouble on the road ahead. Another hour by 4×4 truck to sela he told me.

At this point I was keeping pace with the trucks so I figured the hour to be fairly accurate, plus a few minutes to capture the unbelievable scenery on the camera. That would put me at Sela pass right around dusk.

I wasted no time finishing the last few switchbacks and with winding road cut into the mountain. From where I was I could see the switchbacks of the main road far below. I knew I was getting close.

When Sela Lake came into view I was pretty happy. The temperature at my 14000’ vantage was getting quite nippy. Taking fingers out of my gloves to manipulate the camera was becoming more and more difficult and more and more necessary. These alpine lakes were exquisite with their backdrop of snow-capped Himalayan peaks and a purple fire sunset.

Cjell Mone, Bikepacking Arunachal Pradesh, India

Making it back to the Sela Pass gate and into the small café was icing on the cake. The soldiers certainly remembered me from my obstinate visit a few days prior. A few had seen me come from the small way to the west and ran into the café to tell their buddies. These were the same soldiers that were emphatic about the route being illegal and impossible.

After having spent the last couple weeks alone, it was a special treat to run into these guy again, now as a hero. I knew the reality of what I had just accomplished wasn’t heroism, far from it, but these guys didn’t… and they would probably never see the far end of that small route down to Jung. I shared in their excitement for me. Ate a few samosas, strapped the lights to the bike and began to coast down the endless squiggles on the south side of Sela pass. A highlight of my bike touring career. I have always said, “there is no winning in bike touring,” but on that day, I came as close as you can get.

For the rest of the tour, it was a replay of the same. Good intentioned locals doing their best to get me off of dirt and back to the safety of pavement and main routes. What a treat it was to respectfully ignore them and see some original, incredibly scenic and bucolic parts of their country. I will return, so many unique experiences and unridden trails still remain.

cjell mone

About Cjell Monē

Cjell is a lifetime bike rider, bike tourist, bike advocate, bike enthusiast, and bike builder. Before starting MONē bikes, which is located in a 1990 Wonderbread Truck, Cjell started his bike building career with Black Sheep Bikes in Ft. Collins, Colorado. Check out his website and follow him on Instagram @monebikes.

31 Comments
  • Tom Anderson

    Fantastic story telling!

  • Craig Boydell

    Good stuff!

  • Wilson Sackett

    Hey everyone! I’m all for adventure touring and getting off road, but this article seems pretty insensitive to cultural preferences by local people. Did the author consider that maybe the locals were directing him away from certain roads, monasteries, or passes because of their cultural or religious importance? Or that the terrain he was travelling towards was viewed as sacred or fragile? I too have ignored local advice when hungry for adventure, but I think there’s a balance between that and appreciating a local’s wish regardless of our need to “go where none have gone before”. Perhaps the author was keen to all of this already, and knew more than I do about the area and its human or nonhuman fragility. Just think it’s important to check ourselves every once in a while.

  • Black Rainbow Project

    A great piece Cjell…really good read and looks like an amazing adventure. But now the geek in me wants to see more of your bike. :) I’m guessing it was a coaster brake setup? What kind of ratio did you run for the area? A kit list would be interesting too.

  • Black Rainbow Project

    As soon as I wrote that I realised I hadn’t checked your Instagram in a while…and no surprise, there’s loads of pics of the bike! :)
    So damn sweet!

  • Cjell will probably chime in once he’s back in internet land. However, IMO, I think it he was clear that all of these exchanges were about the ‘danger/saftey’ factor… not cultural sites. And given his experience traveling in the Nepal/India region — and also considering the level of communication that happens via feeling, eye contact, and gestures in situations like these — I am certain that if there was a cultural rationale for not passing, this would have been communicated… and that he would have abided.

    I am all too familiar with the sentiment and hospitality whereby locals insist that you take the fastest and ‘safest’ passage so that you don’t get lost. I’ve had similar experiences while traveling in east Africa, Morocco, Cuba, etc and usually figure out how to communicate that “I prefer the bad and scenic way”. They may never quite understand why, but there is always a mutual appreciation.

  • Wilson Sackett

    I’m with you on the bad-and-scenic preference too, it pays off! And I know the facial expression of someone who has sorely misjudged the capabilities of a bicycle when you tell them where you’re headed. Given the author’s experience in these areas, I can see how he’d be better suited to reading the local scene than I.

  • Cass Gilbert

    Having ridden extensively throughout the Indian Himalaya, I’d also wager that it was more to do with the perceived notion that a more established (especially if it’s paved) road is ‘safer’, ‘faster’ and ‘better’. I can understand the rationale… when your day to life is already a challenge, the idea of going out of your way to make it harder is difficult to grasp!

  • Drunken Interlocutor

    It’s either ‘chai’ or ‘tea’. Together is repetitiously redundant.
    And I must agree with Wilson Sackett, there is a tone of insensitivity in the text. Regardless of how much one travels, it is still very much possible to retain one’s ethnocentric views. In the context of the article above, such views are readily apparent from the beginning.
    Did the author not expect to raise the curiosity of the locals despite having been there before?
    And getting ‘right up into his grill’ of the soldier who offered advice?

    It’s almost as if Rudyard Kipling or his neo-colonial progeny wrote this.

    Good photos, nonetheless.

  • Pistil Pete

    A tall tale well told. It always feels good to to see respect in the eyes of the accomplished,to have one’s bravery and effort recognized. Thanks for sharing

  • Cjell Monē

    I try and keep a healthy respect to anyone wishing to keep me out of religious or sensitive areas. With my understanding of the situations, which are only that, my understandings, I was being directed onto the main routes because they offered easiest passage not because the alternative was not culturally or religiously acceptable for foreigners.

  • Cjell Monē

    I used the term ‘right up in his grill’ communicate the fact that I closely monitored his response, not so much for its content, but its confidence. My word choice was probably poor here. Also, good catch of the redundancy of chai tea..

  • Nice read, Cjell!

  • Little Deezy

    Nice, High Five!

  • Jason Liers

    Is that a singlespeed with coaster brakes or are my eyes deceiving me? Pretty badass rig no matter.

  • Your eyes serve you well…

  • FWIW, they kind also have chai coffee there. When we traveled in India, you heard the chai walla and then had a choice of tea or coffee… or it was one or the other.

  • John Grainger

    This story has all the trappings of the worst colonial literature. I thought Cjell would be a nice respectful guy but, really, harping on about all the poo he’s seen just brought across how immature and insensitive, not to mean inaccurate, he is.

    Next time have some respect for where you are going, and the tough lives these people are living, rather than trying to portray yourself as some western hero. You cycled up one rocky track, bravo. Now make the effort to learn some Hindi and talk to these people who are looking out for you about their own lives. If you’d made a mistake up there they’d have been the ones fishing you out.

    Please stick to the bikes, not the sensationalised disrespectful actions stories.

  • Cass Gilbert

    As someone who loves India and has spent a good deal of time there – for both work and pleasure – cow shit/poo and incense are an undeniable impression of any time spent in the likes of Old Delhi. They’re part of the dichotomy of this insanely complex country, one that has both a caste system and launches rockets into space. One that, during my time there, has both infuriated me and completely captivated me.

    I wonder if the idea of shit/poo is actually more disrespectful within the framework of our western mentality than anything else. In India, it’s just part of life. I actually found Cjell’s story honest and from the heart. I’m sure he’d be as honest if he was writing about the US, or anywhere else.

  • Rob Grey

    excellent storytelling of a great experience. the stuff legends are made of, at least for those soldiers at sela pass. makes the legs itchy for an adventure.

  • Bryan

    Cjell gonna Cjell wherever he is.

  • Ryan Marley

    Wow! What a ride. Jealous.

  • rusty

    Great read, Cjell. Thanks for sharing!

  • rkdoney

    Amen.

  • Abraham Schmidt

    Great read. Thanks for the stories Cjell.

  • Tom

    True for central and south america too. The concept that someone might ‘ride’ a loaded bicycle uphill is beyond the ‘little old men with donkeys at junctions’. Asking whether something is possible by motorbike gets a more useful response (mostly)

  • Aulis Veikko

    What handlebars are those? Looking for a pair of swept risers that are not “I want to be On-One Marys”.

  • Peter MacDonald

    Hello Cjell. Mate, I’m well impressed with what you’ve achieved, your observations and the ride you have completed…bravo man. And on your own bicycle, made with your own skills…and single speed…!!!! It shows the bike packing minimal option so beautifully.
    Ah India. What a place.
    It’s as you describe, to a tea…!!! It’s got everything. Every sphere within the ‘human animal’ spectrum, from absolute bottom to absolute top. Anybody who has never been, seen and really spent time there will not have the experience to pooh pooh (pun intended..) your efforts.
    It offers one an option to either love it or hate it. The intensity of it as a massive slice of life can be way over the top and will push the western ideals to the limit and beyond. I actually think, it puts our comfy clean existence into perspective in a wholly beautiful way.
    As for the locals giving you advice, well, isn’t that what meeting people is about? They only want to help. And us whitey’s are such an unknown, that they think you’d be nuts to be up there anyway? In their world, it’s as if you’d arrived from outa space.
    If you’d really pissed them off, there’d be no way way you’d have gotten where you did. In my experience, if you’re cool there’s never a problem.
    There’s a growing desire within India to explore. Whether via motorcycles or bicycles. You may have actually opened up an area that native Indian’s will seek out? That in itself is worthy of your efforts.

    Good luck to everyone…..go forth and ride…!!!
    Peter Mac
    London. UK.

  • Johnny Rhubarb

    I agree with you, John, this struck me right from the beginning of the article. It’s sad to read orientalist and exoticising pieces like this. “India is pure magic, India is so spiritual, but oh my, the poo everywhere!” blabla, I’m sick with this. Come on and educate yourselves, do research on an area before writing such things. You’re reproducing an 18th century narrative here.
    I dig your ride nevertheless, klunk on!
    But John, the people in Arunachal Pradesh most certainly don’t regularly talk Hindi, although the fascist government in Delhi would wish for that…

  • Darren McElroy

    That was really friggin good Cjell! Thanks for sharing such a well-told tale. You’ve got my wheels turning…

  • Bill Poindexter

    That’s was a fun read!