The Kosi originates in the middle Himalayas of Kumaon, Uttaranchal, India. Kosi literally means "river" and is one of the few major Himalayan rivers that does not have a glacial source. As a result, the waters are comparatively warmer than the glacial rivers. It originates in the high ridges around Kausani, draining a fair share of Kumaon's abundant monsoons, leaving the hills at Ram Nagar. The Kosi carves for itself a beautiful valley, still unspoilt, probably because for long stretches it does not run parallel to a motorable road.
Luckily there was a small village ahead where I munched on biscuits and tea while Gauri jogged back towards the road head to get the pedal welded back on the crank. The tea stall was the local hangout place and village elders sat around discussing the latest election results. We discussed local politics, development efforts and the devastating effect of fishing with dynamite and electricity. On the whole it seemed like things were going in the right direction for the village. That didn't seem true for our expedition though, as they said that the road we were currently on would peter out after a few kilometres and the bikes would not be able to get through to Betaal Ghat, where we were hoping to reach at night.
The road climbed steadily and we enjoyed beautiful views of the Kosi valley as it opened out and was probably a kilometre wide at this point. The setting sun put a mellow shadow on the valley and we both plugged on in silence, the only sound coming from the squeaking of the Billy hanging off Gauri's rucksack. It was a funny sight, Gauri riding his bike and the Billy hanging off the right side off his rucksack attached to the bike carrier, swinging wildly. It suddenly struck me that this was it! This was what I came for. To be lost, to be anonymous, to be swinging wildly, to be free. I was free. It was one of those rare moments of extreme clarity, like you've just figured it all out! That's the beauty of travelling. Inspiration strikes you at the most unexpected places - panting like a dog cycling up a steep hill in the middle of undiscovered Kumaon. You just cannot predict or pre-arrange it.
In the morning I discovered we had pitched camp in the middle of the track used by tractors engaged in harvesting rocks from the river. We made breakfast of bread and butter with some delicious tea. It was such a perfect spot with sunlight just beginning to filter in over the mountains. The Kosi flowed invitingly and we couldn't resist a dip. We ended up diving and frolicking in the river before soaking in the sun on the rocks. We climbed back up to the lodge where we had left our bikes the night before and continued the Gauri-Harry Kosi Mountain Biking expedition. We didn't have much time to settle down because within an hour we were confronted with some awesome landslides. A whole mountain seemed to have caved in on the road. With a combination of pushing, dragging and carrying the bike over landslips, we reached a tea shop next to a dry river bed of boulders. There were boulders of all shapes and sizes strewn across the whole 100 m width of the river bed. It seemed like the river had carried away the insides of the Himalayas in one terrific wild surge of passion. The old man at the tea shop said the river did this every monsoon. We sipped the sweet tea in the miniature glasses that all Indian tea shops seem to have an endless supply of.
A few kms of exciting downhill riding followed. It was particularly exciting for Gauri because his brakes had pretty much given up the ghost. The road widened and we saw a jeep for the first time since Betaal Ghat. A small village followed where we ate a spicy Daal-chawal or rice and lentils, cooked up by an ex-army man who had lost an arm at battle in Kashmir. A grant from the Army had helped him to setup his Dhaba and he was quite happy with his lot without an ounce of regret for having lost his arm for the nation. I was left gasping at the man's courage as well as the spice in his daal! The spice in my stomach helped propel me up the steep incline out of the village. I was really enjoying this bit, screaming down the track, singing wildly in my exuberance. I left Gauri biting dust. After some exciting mountain biking on rough dirt tracks through tiny picturesque villages, we finally hit the tarmac at the Ram Nagar-Ranikhet road. We had our standard stop at a tea stall before we set off towards Mohan, where we hoped to camp or get into the Forest Rest house.
After two days of rough riding on dirt tracks or no tracks at all, we went nuts with joy on the smooth tarmac. We screamed down the highway, overtaking disbelieving scooters and dumbfounded buses! Better sense prevailed when I spied a huge pipal tree by the side of the road. Its branches hung down to the ground and it seemed as ancient as the Himalayas themselves. We stood in its majestic presence seeking its blessings, immediately humbled. People stopped us on our way down, thinking we were part of a movie crew shooting a Bollywood movie in the Corbett National Park. I wanted to tell them, "We're not pretty Movie Stars doing a scene Mate, we're the REAL THING!!". We're not going to get into an air conditioned car and drive away after cycling up and down a 100 m side lane. We are the "Gauri-Harry Kosi Mountain Biking expedition" and we make our own way! Hahahaha! I felt truly heroic!
The dew was thick and fresh on the trees next morning as we enjoyed our morning ablutions in the forest behind the rest house. I set a blistering pace down the road to Ram Nagar, showing off my 18 gears to Gauri! I overtook an overloaded three wheeled scooter rickshaw, much to the driver's consternation and his passengers' amusement. A little boy raced me on a bike taller than himself, as little chickens dived for cover away from the road. I stopped just outside Ram Nagar and waited for Gauri to catch up. We stocked up with food and inspiration (!!) at RamNagar and also performed some running repairs on the bikes at the local cycle repair stall. It's amazing how the village cycle repair guy anywhere in India can fix up your bike to make it go anywhere!
We cycled along merrily, stopping occasionally for pictures. Soon the gradient turned upwards and we puffed and sweated up the hill. The tarmac was almost new but there was absolutely no traffic. We had this patch of paradise all to ourselves. It was a beautiful ride, if a little hot. As I was straining up a particularly steep and endless slope muttering abuse at Gauri for dashing off up ahead, I spied him standing at a locked gate looking cautiously inside. This was a small entrance to the Corbett National Park. We did not have permits to go into the Park so I was wondering what Gauri was upto. As I pulled up beside him, he winked at me and walked on inside towards a small derelict cottage in the middle of the forest. As I poured water on my head to cool down my boiling brain, he came back with a huge grin on his face. "I've fixed em up, let's take the shortcut!"
Apparently he had bluffed the local chowkidaar into believing we had the permits to go to Sita Bani and before the poor fellow could recover from the Gauri effect, we had pedalled far out of sight, into a jungle so thick, it swallowed up even the sounds of the tyres crunching the gravel. It was a mystical ride through thick Sal forest. Magic rays of sunlight escaped in through the high forest canopy. I half expected a majestic tiger to emerge out of the thick undergrowth and saunter across the road. A couple of hours of cycling got us to the Forest Rest House of Sita Bani. It was the most magical location in the thick jungle with no roads. The only signs of human habitation were the Rest House and a small mandir below it. The rest house itself was on top of a small hill and had fantastic views down to the Kosi. The old Chowkidaar was a jovial fellow with glasses so thick, his eyeballs seemed to touch the glass. We boiled the billy with some tea and the old fellow warmed up to us. He was happy to have some company and with a little prodding, opened the locked doors of the Rest House for us.
When we were ready to leave, we went down to the small mandir. There was a single sadhu there. He was an enigmatic ascetic with the relaxed manner of one who has seen and experienced much. Once a year there is a large mela here, when villagers from all over the Kumaon Terai come for darshan. The rest of the year, it is ideal for a quiet and contemplative existence. The place had a strange energy and I felt the overwhelming urge to meditate there. I still regret that I did not. I was sure I would return one day to explore my connection with this magical place. As we pushed ahead on our way, Sita Bani cornered a quiet place for itself in my heart. The place was like no other. It is one of the most special places for me in the Himalayas.
It was a sad end to a remarkable expedition but then, things are never perfect. Gauri hailed a jeep and stuffed his injured bike and our stuff into it as I decided to freewheel down to Bhim Tal. As the setting sun filled the sky with its dying orange glow, I reflected on the days gone by. A satisfaction filled my being and I stood on the pedals, rocked my head back and let out a loud cry of the exultation. YEEEEEEEEEE HAAAAAAAAAAAA!
I was ready for Diwali!