Pakistan postcard

[From 2006.]

Have race clichés evaporated from my consciousness? I’m not anymore wondering what I’m doing here, or wondering when it’s going to end, or whether I’ve had enough fuel. And pain has left my body in favor of the black hole singularity of concentration on the rasping heaving roar in my chest, and the wobbling tunnel vision that only poorly frames this narrow vertical track. I’m on the other side of the world, but more to my present foolishness, I’m three hours into a ride that will go three and a half more.

On the matter of 3’s, it’s the third day of a mountain bike stage race in Pakistan. Funny to write that so matter-of-factly, as if it’s the kind of thing that makes sense, which it doesn’t. Every hour of the Tour of the Himalayas brought something extraordinary, a vista, a conversation, a slice of daily life, or a revelation about history, politics, religion. And the images stay with me: diesel smoke, drawn carts, broken asphalt, chapattis, truck art, ubiquitous mobile phones, tea with shopkeepers and police, riding kids on my handlebars, long dusty van rides, goatherds and mosques and magisterial peaks, stares and suspect water and a thousand other things.

Right then, though, those images were gone, too. Ahead — how far, I had no idea — I’d top out at Babusar pass, 13,691 feet, friends with dizzying hypoxia and slow wit. The great Nanga Parbat was off to my right. Then a calamitous descent on loose shale, blasting through a huge open meadow at the edge of a freezing, angry river that I’d ford twice, leading to an endless rolling dirt track through villages and pastures to the finish. Filthy, dazed, coughing and elated, I’d be absolutely beaten and wiped out. I’d not think about the next stage for some hours yet.