29. October 2017 – 12:51
The First International Mountain Bike Race in the Northeast of India
Arunachal Pradesh literally means “land of mountains in the dawn”. In fact, the day begins very early in the far eastern Indian Himalayan state. Already around five o’clock in the morning, the surrounding green-forested slopes are bathed in a gentle light – provided the lush green mountains are not shrouded in cloudy fog veils. After all, Arunachal Pradesh is one of India’s rainiest states.
However, the sun sets here at very early. After 5 pm it is already dark and at the latest at this time you should have reached the respective stage goal in the seven-day mountain bike race. It was not uncommon for stage lengths of more than 120 km to be completed and a few thousand metres of altitude to be made. More on that later.
With an area of 84000 km², Arunachal is the third smallest state in India and the least populated with 17 inhabitants per km². Despite the small size of the state, which is still not developed for tourism, the way through the mountain region are long. Since the roads are sometimes very poorly developed, even with a vehicle for only a few 100 kilometers, it often takes several days. The arrival and departure to the race alone is therefore quite time-consuming.
Arunachal is the northernmost state of the so-called 7 Sisters of the Northeast States. If you are a little more familiar with the Indian map, you know that at the northeastern end of India, behind Bangladesh, there is a small piece of land. This is where the north-eastern states are located. People here live in tribes. There are more than 26 different ones and they all have different traditions, customs, clothing and languages. Probably this cultural aspect of the country is the most interesting.
Well-known states in the north east for tourism are Sikkim and Assam. Others, such as Mizoram and Tripura, are quite unsafe because of military-political groups and criminal gangs. For the rest, foreign tourists need a so-called “protected area permit”, without which entry is not allowed, as the state border to China/Tibet is very close.
The northeastern states are still very exotic even for Indian standards. Since Arunachal Pradesh is hardly accessible for tourism, trips to this region are very expensive and planning intensive. Getting the entry permit alone has to be organised first. I was all the happier that by participating in this mountain bike race MTB Arunachal I not only had the chance to travel to my first north-eastern state, but also to be able to do it in a very special form and well organized.
From a sporting point of view, this seven-day MTB Arunachal race was by far the least successful race I have ever participated in. Not only did I not make it onto the podium, due to long daily stages with short time windows and some flat tyres, I couldn’t even complete two of the 6 stages!
Like any bicycle race in India, this one is very special: great routes, interesting participants, cultural supporting programs, magnificent stations, fascinating landscapes, good food and the typical Indian organization.
Yes, the MTB Arunachal was such an event and at the same time so much more.
Rarely have I got such a deep insight into people’s lives on a bike tour. We were sometimes accommodated in camps and hotels, but also privately, so very close to the people.
Day 1 Journey from Delhi to Dibrugahr and on to Mechuka
To get to Arunachal you first have to go to Assam. The nearest airport to Mechuka, the starting point of the race in the northern Arunachal, near the Tibetan border, is Dibrugahr. A flight from Delhi to Dibrugahr is uncomplicated, inexpensive and about 3 hours long.
While other participants had already made the long journey to Mechuka days earlier, I only started from Delhi the day before the start of the race, so I was one of the last of the 70 participants to reach the Dibrugahr. The journey from Dibrugahr by car takes two full days to Mechuka. Fortunately, some late race participants and me were provided with a helicopter ride, that would transport us to Mechuka within just an hour – assuming the weather conditions were good. In Arunachal it rains a lot. Very much. And of course also on the day of our arrival. Although the helicopter was able to take off, it couldn’t make it all the way and dropped as half way.
So we – the team from Nepal, some top riders from India, a participant from Czech and I – were transported in taxis. On this 300-kilometre overnight journey, which lasted more than 16 hours, we got a first glimpse of the infinity of this country and the incredibly poorly developed roads here. Although we were on the highways, these gravel tracks often resembled smaller forest paths. One or two landslides caused by the rain contributed to the poor condition. We were on the road all night, without sleep and the next day we were suppose to race!
Despite all this, we reached Mechuka just in time for the start of the race the next morning.
But some of the bikes had not yet arrived (bikes travelled seperate) and so the race organization decided to make the first stage a “joyride” and without scoring.
Day 2 Joyride to Tado Gitu 80 km
Mechuka was located at above 2000 meters and the grassy landscape in the middle of the mountains did indeed have something magical.
I was incredible tired from the night ride, but somehow also strangely scratched and didn’t want to miss the first stage of the race.
In less than an hour I managed to change, find my bike, which I had sent days earlier, and to have breakfast. I was ready for the first stage, which would send us exactly the same direction back, that we had just come from by taxi.
But on the bike the landscape looked completely different and so I enjoyed the easy 70 km long stage, which led downhill most of the time.
I waved to children, bypassed pigs, ducks, dogs, goats (rarely I had experienced such a variety of pets on the street). While the cows here seemed to be quite small and peaceful and the so-called “Mithuns” (bisons) with their horns scared me a bit.
Due to the rain of the previous night, the journey down to Tado Gitu became a real mud battle. The mud was just everywhere. Eventually the rain started again and at least the coarsest dirt was removed from the body and bicycle. It was good that the rain was relatively warm. My brakes squeaked, I was happy to be able to sit on a bike again and sang on the long downhills and between the short climbs. I enjoyed cycling through the villages, which were so different from the ones I knew from other regions of India. Everything here was built of bamboo, even the roofs were covered with the branches. In addition, the houses stood slightly elevated, as on a scaffolding over the ground. Probably because of the rain.
We all trudged in relatively early in the finish and while the male participants would stay at the local school, we girls had the pleasure of living in a house that I just described. The house is actually just one room. In the middle is a cooking place and tliving and sleeping happens around it. The washing facilities are outside.
Here we were really in the middle of nowhere and while the bike mechanic replaced my worn brake covers, I went on an exploratory tour with the others and visited the nearby Yapic waterfall. No wonder the waterfalls here are so spectacular! With that amount of rain!
The evening we ended sitting around a small campfire with a local dish cooked in bamboo leaves.
Of course, I slept particularly well that night.
Day 3 Tado Gitu to Aalo 110 km
With over 110 km we had a particularly long stage ahead of us today, but again it mostly went downhill or was flattish. The longest ascent was just 4 kilometres long. Anyone who knows me, knows that this is not necessarily a good thing for me. My strength are the steeper climbs. I like to go downhill, but not during a race. So I left everyone in front of me and rolled behind at a safe pace.. Already with the start of the stage the rain started again and became increasingly violent. At some point it was as if whole buckets were pouring over us. The water was everywhere! It came from above, below and the sides in the form of large waterfalls.
I rode through a pond-like puddle after another and sometimes it became really dangerous, because some of them were quite deep.
For hours I rode alone through the green jungle of Arunachal in this rain. Just when I seriously doubted, whether I would endure this wet for the next 60 km, it suddenly cleared up. Suddenly I could see more than 10 meters far. Yeah. Even the forest suddenly came to an end and the first villages were visible.
While the first part of the route was very lonely and to be mastered on a very bad road, the road became wider, had a new surface and even became flat! Finally I was able to put some effort on the pedals with full vigour.
It always went along the Sipu river, every now and then I crossed smaller and larger villages, through which I always enjoyed riding very much, because the people here greeted very politely and kindly.
Now the traffic increased somewhat, but was still limited. Even the truck drivers were very considerate. They drove slowly and made even room for us. I have not yet known such driving behaviour in other regions of India.
The last 50 km to the gates of the slightly larger town of Aalo were done quickly and I rolled to our resort directly at the Sipu river. After a hot shower and lunch we visited a bamboo suspension bridge at a nearby village. Local women carried bananas and banana leaves on their backs in their braided baskets, and the children returned from school in their school uniforms.
Of course, it soon became dark and at such a stage race the afternoons pass quickly with the washing of clothes and bicycles, award ceremonies and meals.
Day 4 Aalo to Tai 78 km
Today the chances of performing well, were actually quite good for me: 78 km long and a lot of uphill! I felt good and was very satisfied with my performance on the steep and long climbs. Nevertheless, I couldn’t catch up with the three girls in front of me!
Today was pretty hot. We started at almost 500 meters from sea level from Aalo and it was clear blue sky! On the way I had to drink a lot and so I stopped at one or the other waterfall to refill my bottle and also gratefully accepted the offer of a little boy who filled up my bottle. Due to the rain, there is at least no water problem in this part of the country and it is also safe to drink.
On the last descent I actually got a tyre puncture. So my chance to get closer to the girls was really gone. Instead, I pumped the half-empty tire up again and made it straight to the finish line.
Our current location in Tai promised us not only a great view of the surrounding green hills, but also curious visits of the locals.
Day 5 Tai to Muri Mugli 120 km
Today was a long, long stage, crowned by several climbs. These were long, but relatively flat. Nevertheless, I was quite slow on the road, which was certainly due to my somewhat old bike.
The roads here are actually highways, and on the way I even read on a sign: “This is a Highway, Not a Runway”. How good to be reminded, with all the potholes and sand paths! In any case, the organizers did not have to worry about finding particularly refined trails and tracks, the normal highway does well for a proper mountain bike race. When it wasn’t through jungle or villages, army camps kept popping up, whose soldiers cheered loudly. The stage as a whole was very long and I was happy to reach the finish just in time at about 4:15, before dark and before the time limit.
This time a camp with tents was set up for us and I enjoyed the camp atmosphere, which reminded me very much of the Hero MTB Himalaya race. The participants (competitors) got along with each other very well and the friendly atmosphere was very relaxed. Of course, due to my delayed arrival in the camp, I had much less time in the camp than on the days before.
Day 6 Muri Mugli to Zero 130 km
Today was the day I dropped out of a race for the first time.
Already when I was getting to the start line, I realized that today I would have a good chance not to finish the race before the cut-off time at 5 pm, because 130 km and 80 km of it uphill with over 3000 meters of altitude were very long and the start time around 10 am was just too late for me.
I spent the day on my bike to chase the time limit. It didn’t help much either, when after 80 km I had a 40 km long climb with 1500 meters of altitude ahead of me. After all, it was already 2 pm. I would never reach in time.
A local motorcyclist jokingly told me the same with the simple sentence: “Ohhh, you are toooo late”. Well, I knew that myself. But this last uphill never ended. The twilight came, there was a beautiful sunset and then it was dark. Very Dark. Nothing but the stars above me gave some light. I had just passed the last feed post, were the saidt it was only 13 km more to go and the descent was very near. But I rode and rode. Eventually I noticed my rear wheel starting to wiggle. Oh no. I was completely alone here and now I had another tyre puncture. Unfortunately, I had lost my air pump in the camp the day before! No flashlight, no pump. Only me and the dark road. I started pushing. I wasn’t afraid. But I felt lonely and the street felt endless. How long can 13 km be? By now it was already well after 5 pm. Didn’t any of the organizers wanted to collect me?
At last a car came towards me. I waved and the driver stopped. I asked the young people about the way and surprisingly they answered me in fluent English. They were students from Itanagar, the capital of Assam, who wanted to visit their village. It is still 8 km to Zero and most of it downhill. If it were still bright and I didn’t have a plate, those last kilometers would be a easy. But with my flat tire and completely in the dark, the situation was very different. The nice students didn’t want to leave me alone and insisted on turning back and bringing me and my bike to Zero. I was so grateful and moved by this friendly offer, which I didn’t have to accept, because finally came the truck came, which collected the last cyclists.
Saved. I was so glad to have finally been picked up.
In the end, the truck took quite a long time to get to the camp, where dinner was supposed to be. The road was just too bad and the last kilometers were long.
Zero is at an altitude of 1800 m and the temperatures were accordingly low. I was exhausted, tired and cold.
At dinner, the other race participants equipped me with warm clothes and the warming campfire and the good food also contributed to the renewed energy boost.
Even the first-place finishers needed more than 6 hours for today’s stage! How good that we would all have a rest day tomorrow. My bike and I – we definitely needed it!
Day 7 Rest day in Zero
For the two nights in Zero, we were accommodated in a luxurious bungalow – with attached bathroom and hot shower!
We used the opportunity to wash our dirty and never completely dried clothes. Otherwise we did not do much, except enjoying the wonderful landscape of the Plateau Zero. Even Kiwis grow here!!
The relaxed rest day was crowned by a festive evening program with cultural singing and dancing, as well as delicious local food! After all, today was also the famous Indian festival Diwali!
Day 8 Ziro to Itanagar, 81 km and onward travel to Guwahati
After the rest day I was happy to sit on my bike again, especially since today it would almost exclusively go downhill – except for a small 10 kilometer climb between.
I felt good and stepped pedaled strong. Although the descent was clearly too long for my personal taste, the small climbs in between were nice.
The road was getting better and better towards Itanagar, the capital of Arunachal, and the last 30 kilometers were crossed by a two-lane well-developed road. All I had to do now was rolling down – but far from it!!!! Tire Punctuer number 3 happened. So there I was standing,, again without repair kit and pump.
When a local jeep finally rolled towards me, I stopped it spontaneously and the nice people, put my bike on the roof and me between two older gentlemen.
So I was driven to the finish line on the last stage. Not the best finish of a race, but I didn’t feel really bad about it either. The situation was as it was. For the next race I would just have to prepare myself and my bike better.
I simply joined the good mood of the successful race participants – even the one-legged para-cyclist had made it to the finish today! We ate kiwis and cakes and greeted the incoming mountain bikers.
Then we went to Itanagar for the ceremonial closing ceremony.
The winners were honored, festive speeches were given at the successful end of the first edition of the MTB Arunachal and delicious snacks were served.
The week-long exotic race in Arunachal Pradesh came to an end and most of the riders took the bus to Guwahati, Assam, on the same night to begin the long departure.
It wasn’t my most successful race, but definitely one of the most adventurous and eventful I wouldn’t have wanted to miss at any price. I was able to make so many nice acquaintances, got an insight into a completely new culture for me and had great riding days through the magnificent lush green mountains of Arunachal.
I am already looking forward to my race participation next year – the track is to be expanded and changed.. So it won’t be boring and I will definitely be better prepared and try to be a strong competitor to the participating women.