From where I sat I could see above me through the clouds the snowy peaks of the mountains above Yamunotri. In the guest house courtyard clusters of our group talked excitedly. We had just walked and scrambled seven miles from Hanuman Chati, two days by bus north of Delhi, where the road stops and where our bikes awaited us, to arrive here in Janaki Chati, 9000 feet above sea level.
Along the way we had passed trains of pack ponies, a few other pilgrims and many locals. We came across a rishi living in a cave. Some of us sat and spoke with him for a while and were joined by a merry group of local men who said they lived in Janaki Chati throughout the winter, eating strict rations of beans while cut off by ice and snow.
That evening some of us were invited to speak to the group. Tenzing, a young Buddhist monk, spoke fervently of the environmental threat to the Himalayas and its consequences for all of us. Dr David Haberman from Indiana University spoke of how the Yamuna springs from the heart of Vishnu and gives joy and love for Krishna, while the Ganges purifies sins and is associated with penance. The valleys contrast: one soft and wooded, the other bare and rocky. Yamuna is associated with life, Ganga with death. Both are necessary parts of reality.
Afterwards I went out into the darkness to see the stars which carpeted the sky, twinkling and pulsating. Against them the snows glowed soft and luminous on the peaks we would approach the following day. I felt I was on a journey to the source, an inward journey to my inner source of energy and inspiration, as well as an outward journey to the source of the Yamuna, to Vrindavan, to the world.
The next day we ascended 3,000 feet up a four-mile path which at times was a mere gash in vertical cliffs. This path had been followed by pilgrims for thousand of years, during which time little had changed. As I climbed I felt I was penetrating an unearthly realm, with dark crags soaring up on both sides and the roar of the waters in hidden depths.
After three hours I rounded a corner and came upon Yamunotri. A group of huts nestled around two temples built into the rockface. Behind them the Yamuna cascaded down from the snows above through a thin pall of steam rising from the hot springs. We soaked up to our necks in hot pools hewn from the rock, and skipped from there to bathe in the icy torrent of the Yamuna. Later we sat in a circle beside the rushing waters to ask Yamuna for blessings for our expedition. We chanted mantras and poured milk into the river under a blistering sun. Soon the sun disappeared behind clouds and a misty chill descended. On the way back down I walked alone, wanting to absorb the power and peace of this place.
After a good night's sleep we took the path down to Hanuman Chati. There we tinkered with our new Indian bikes before setting off downhill for a short and enjoyable ride to Sayana Chati, where we stayed in the tourist guest house. In the morning our cycle ride proper began, with a 25-mile run down to Barkot. I stopped half-way for a rest beside the road, sitting in the shade of a mountain ash, cooled by breezes. It was mid-afternoon and the sky was deep blue. From the valley below I could hear the sound of rushing waters. All around were the high-pitched calls of the birds and the singing of the crickets, while occasionally the wind carried the distant moan of a bus or lorry straining up the hills. A young mother with two toddlers climbed onto the road nearby carrying a waterpot on her head. During the half-hour I sat there one cyclist passed, otherwise not a soul. Butterflies - yellow, white, orange, black and red - fluttered everywhere. It seemed strange to be in such a remote place, so far from home with so few possessions, and yet to feel so secure and at peace.
After a night at Barkot we started an exciting off-road stretch, dropping 400 feet to cross the Yamuna by an old wooden footbridge. We photographed ourselves beside the sixty foot wide swift-flowing river, with a last view of snow-capped peaks behind. I decided to cycle hard so as to stay near the front. As I strove ahead I passed through awesome landscape. The broad sweep of the road was visible for miles ahead and behind, cutting along the edge of vast rocky mountains plunging down to a flat valley bed far below, with the ever-present Yamuna, turquoise blue, curving round cultivated fields. One or two cyclists were strung out behind me, distant specks, otherwise there was no one in sight and very little traffic. The only sounds were the river, the wind, the birdcalls, and the friction of my tyres.
The following day's route was strewn with debris brought down by landslides and pitted with huge potholes. We passed the site of an unfinished dam, halted for three years by lack of funds. After forty tough miles we descended from the hills and halted by the Yamuna for an invigorating swim.
That evening at our hotel we celebrated Navaratri with arati and dancing. Outside my window stretched the Yamuna barrage, dividing her waters into the East and the West Yamuna Canals. This dam was the first major public works project of independent India, opened by Nehru in 1949, and is still closely guarded by the army.
On our fourth day of cycling we followed the East Yamuna canal. The air became hot and still. As the mountains faded into the haze behind we entered the dust and heat, threading our way along narrow tracks through villages and a complex series of barrages, earthworks and dikes. Stopping for lunch we sought the shade of a spreading Imli tree beside a huge sluice dam where the river plunged into a whirling pool. We recorded the temperature at 37°C. Local boys swam amidst the eddies and rapids pouring from the barrage gate, and some of us ventured in to join them. It was like being in a giant Jacuzzi, and was one of the best swims of my life.
For four more days we cycled, meandering through the fields from village to village. As we snaked through sand, mud, ruts and stones the sun rose ever higher and with it the temperature. After many adventures we reached Vrindavan where we were greeted with garlands and cold drinks, and a welcome rest.
On our last day, while most of our party went to see the Taj, I wandered around the old pilgrimage town until late in the evening, when I met a group of musicians seated on an earth mound beside the Yamuna. I sat with them and listened as their gurumata sang a haunting love-song dedicated to Lord Krishna, while Yamuna's waters lapped past in the darkness. It was a fitting end to an unforgettable experience.