Incense and Impasse
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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?’
“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.
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.
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?”
“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.
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.
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?”
“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.
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.
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.