The Ultimate High
Cycling from Leh to Kanyakumari, Gagan Khosla, a Delhi-based chartered accountant, fulfils a lifelong desire to mark his 60th birthday.
Approaching my 60th year, I was suddenly beset with the feeling that my life's major milestones had whizzed past. With more than half of my life behind me, I was still looking for adventure. I remembered the book The Ultimate High: My Everest Odyssey by Goran Kropp where he rode on a cycle from Stockholm to Nepal, and then scaled the peak without a Sherpa or canned oxygen. I wanted to summit the Everest too, but convincing my family was simply impossible. Instead, I decided to pick something that would measure up in intensity and thrill: I was going to cycle from Leh to Kanyakumari.
This 4,000-km ride was to take me 29 days. I would travel across 13 states, through bone-chilling cold, sweltering heat and blinding rain. In my journey, I was alone with my thoughts and my constant companion, pain. Excruciating, agonizing pain. That is how I was to bid adieu to another decade of my life.
People ask me why I chose this 'hell'? A party would have been painless and a whole lot cheaper. But I wanted it as a gift to myself. During the trip, my batchmates from The Scindia School, Gwalior, became my cheerleaders. They rooted for me, following me in a 'tempo traveller'.
The Ride Begins
The only place in India where even soldiers give you a thumbs up is the Leh-Manali highway. Cycling up the unforgiving, yet breathtaking, landscape is strangely rewarding -- there's pain one moment, oxygen-depravation the next. On the morning of 21 September 2016, my sister-in-law, my friend (who accompanied me until Chandigarh) and I started out amidst cold winds, under a clear, star-studded sky. It was exceptionally challenging -- together we negotiated five snowed-in passes, reaching Manali on day six.
My lungs worked overtime, sucking oxygen from the thin air. Riding at 17,480 ft, I realized my training on the high-rpm stationary bike was paying off. When motivation plummeted, I remembered my first riding trip here. While I struggled on my motorbike, a young Australian girl, cycling solo from Manali to Leh, powered through the slopes -- not once but twice! This willed my legs to move.
From Kullu we cycled to Bilaspur, and the following day we left for Chandigarh. The toughest climb of this trip (30 km uphill) was between Bilaspur and Swarghat, 87 km short of Chandigarh. The toxic fumes thrown by trucks on the highway didn't help.
After resting at Chandigarh, I covered 240 km at one go and reached Delhi at the end of day nine. I took a break the next day to rest and recuperate.
I had hired a 'tempo traveller', and as per our contract, two of them were to arrive at Leh to carry my supplies, in exchange for 80 per cent of the down payment. I only got them en-route to Agra. Why? The operator was banking on me dropping out at Manali or Chandigarh, maybe with a bit of luck at Delhi, and then pocketing the entire amount. When I reached the capital, he realized this 'old man' was no quitter.
The Killer Heat
On day 11, I started at 6:30 a.m. with 40 other cyclists who accompanied me until the Mahamaya Flyover, Noida. Roasting under 41C, I gritted my teeth and cycled 220 torturous kilometres to Agra, taking breaks to pour cold water on my head to cool down. I finally reached the city at 8 o'clock to a grand reception from the school's Old Boys Association at a local hotel. After the party, I crashed into bed at midnight.
The next day was a short ride of 130 km to Gwalior. My brother Yogen, who had cycled with me from Delhi to Agra, was to accompany me to my school, but he decided to sleep in. I was envious, but I had a promise to keep. After about 1,000 km, I had developed sores on my bottom and had to switch positions constantly. At speeds of about 30-35 kmph you need to be focused. So I started talking to myself, telling the pain to go away.
In Gwalior, the whole school had assembled to receive me -- it was a genuinely humbling experience. Spending the entire day in my hotel bed the next day, I enjoyed the small mercies of life. The only reason I could recover on a daily basis was because my training was taken care of extremely well. My wife's [nutritionist Ishi Khosla] expertise in nutrition was a blessing. The plan was simple: to eat clean, energy-rich food that was easy to digest. I ate dal, curd, veggies and rice or roti -- after cycling. I took energy gels, electrolytes and amino acids every half an hour during the ride and sipped on coconut water.
I continued, cycling from Gwalior to Hyderabad, crossing Babina and Nagpur, and then reaching Bengaluru. Though mentally drained, I learnt to observe my thoughts and how they influenced my emotions while riding. It was amazing how I had vivid recollections of conversations with my parents and the lessons they had taught me. I introspected on my life -- who I had become and who I wanted to be. I saw the people in my life with clarity -- their love, goodwill and the sacrifices they made for me.
The final leg of the journey from Bengaluru to Kanyakumari took four days. I understood pain was subjective and that it was possible to push its threshold. Those 4,000 km were a constant battle between the 'I' or the soul, and the body and mind. You need the three to work in tandem to achieve a dream. 'I' had desired this. The resolve was born in my mind, which kept my body going, despite the pain. My body obeyed because my mind was free of any negativity.
I ended my journey with a dip in the holy waters at the southernmost tip of India. Kanyakumari is a treat for the eyes and soul -- you are awash with joy just looking at the shades of blue at the confluence of the Bay of Bengal, Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean.
This journey wasn't about the destination or the triumph of will. It was about a spiritual experience and self-discovery. Amazing how even at 60 you are learning who you are and what you are capable of. I'd be lying if I said I remember every beautiful sunset, or gorgeous scenery. What I got was far bigger.
-- As Told to Gagan Dhillon