Pakistan / India
February / March 2001

'The road ahead is very good' said the hotel manager. We started descending and immediately saw the road disappear under the rocky runoff from the last monsoonal downpour. For the next 40 kilometres we struggled over the bottom of a riverbed. Nervous that the bikes would collapse we took it slowly - but darkness, mosquitos and the threat of malaria were only a couple of hours away and the next town stood 30 kilometres distant. I wanted to get a lift in a truck but Lowanna talked me out of it. Just then a young boy threw a 11/2-litre bottle of water at me. Hitting me full on the back, I nearly fell off the bike. Welcome to Pakistan.

From the beginning it was different to anywhere else on the journey from England. As we arrived in the heart of Quetta we fought for space with smoke-belching auto rickshaws and multicoloured lorries. A glass of sugar cane juice soothed a pollution-induced sore throat while street-stall samosas extinguished the hunger. As we meandered through the streets, we spotted Marmite for the first time in eight months, a rare delight for our chapattis over the coming weeks!

But as soon as we acclimatised to life in the city it was time to hit the road once more. Ahead lay several hundred kilometres through the heart of Baluchistan - a tribal state only partially under the control of the Government.

We left the bustling streets of Quetta at first light and soon found our horizon expanding and the number of people decreasing. Warned that the region was afflicted by drought, it did not take long to spot the first signs. Huge orchards stood forlorn and dying on both sides of the road and rivers of rocks marked the historical passage of water across the wilderness. As we pedalled through the apparently lifeless landscape, we would spot fast moving walls of dust in the distance. These would quickly transform into convoys of four-wheel drive vehicles. Sporting tribal flags and machine gun wielding warriors, the trucks would sweep past and leave us choking in the dirt. From the same world but another speed, extended families ambled past us; their worldly belongings perched on top of donkeys and camels.

As we cycled through the desert we found our breathable cycle wear becoming just a little too wicking. It had been great to get rid of excess moisture in the heat of Greece and Turkey, but with the temperature in the 40s and humidity approaching zero our skin needed every drop it could retain. Nose bleeds and cracked lips defied our attempts at damage limitation, and spicy food subsequently became a little too spicy.

Moving east, we found the amount of traffic slowly increasing. As lunchtime approached we would look for a dry riverbed and then quickly duck under the bridge to cook and eat. The bridges also seemed to appeal to other road users as handy toilet spots and it was a battle to find a space away from the marks of other visitors - but worth it. We could avoid the ritual stares from lorry drivers - and, more importantly, escape from the burning sun. At one such location we found what we thought was a stagnant pond. After a meal of bread and soup, we threw the crumbs into the water. It suddenly burst into life as fish and frogs fought for the remaining morsels. Even in the desert there is much life if you look closely enough.

During the afternoon we stopped to photograph a herd of camels. I thought the shepherd was asking for money as he repeated the mantra 'panny dio, panny dio'. Suddenly Lowanna recognized the words as: 'I want water.' We gave him our emergency plastic bottle to take with him, but he tipped his head back and drained the entire container on the spot.

That day we made it to the transit town of Loralai. This was a different world. Irrigation canals allowed cotton, chilli and coriander to grow on either side of the road. Children washed herds of goats in the abundant water, their dark wet skin shining in the hot sunlight. We rejoiced in the shade of huge trees; this was the first green land we had pedalled through since western Turkey.

As the day wore on and it became apparent that there was no hotel for us that night we stopped at a solitary café to refill our water bag. With 10 litres of water splashing about on Lowanna's back rack, we climbed into the hills. Scree slopes ran in all directions, but as we reached the summit we spotted a possibility. We cycled off the road towards a rocky outcrop. If a truck spotted us they would stop to talk - and there was only half an hour before dark. We made it to the rocks and realised that as long as we didn't stand up no one would be able to see us. It was a race against time to cook food and set up camp before mossies came out - but we made it! Two happy people feel asleep listening to Celtic music from the Womad festival on our World Service radio.

The Sulaiman range divides Baluchistan from the rest of Pakistan - politically, socially and climatically. As we descended into Punjab we could feel the temperature rising and humidity increasing. We crossed the huge Indus river with children grunting and growling at us from the roadside. Suddenly there were people - and traffic - everywhere.

We soon found our previously quiet road turning into a dual carriageway. However, it wasn't quite as we expected. In Pakistan a dual carriageway simply means that you can chose which side of the central reservation you prefer to drive on! We joined in and cycled against the traffic whenever the surface on our side of the road became too bumpy.

We arrived in Chichawatni hoping to find a hotel. We quickly realised that it was not the place to stay when we spotted a pack of dogs devouring a dead donkey in the centre of town. With no hotel in sight, we stopped at a teahouse a few kilometres out of town and filled our waterbag. When the coast was clear we biked into a forest at the side of the road. With mosquitos beginning to whine in our ears there was no time to cook dinner; we simply locked the bikes together and jumped into the tent. Lying in our sleeping bags, we listened to England play Germany at football. It is always reassuring to know that someone, somewhere is having a harder time than you are!

We reached the outskirts of Lahore by lunchtime the following day and battled our way through the sprawling suburbs and fume-belching traffic jams. After cycling through some of the dustiest, dirtiest roads we had encountered so far, we wanted a hot shower. But the hotels were overpriced and not one of them had hot water. We quickly realised that Lahore was not the place to spend a week overhauling the bikes and cleaning our belongings so decided to cycle the 57kms to India the following morning.

As we left Lahore two men on a motorbike raced past and slapped Lowanna on the bum. We were both furious but there was nothing we could do. It was the culmination of the sexual harassment - both verbal and physical - that Lowanna had faced throughout the country, and confirmed that for us that we were doing the right thing by leaving.

'India, the world's biggest democracy, welcomes you' read the sign at the border. Lowanna cried tears of joy at the sight of a woman on a bicycle - not unusual here - but the first we had seen since Italy! She also found that the men didn't stare at her anymore; they just glanced at the bikes curiously, before speeding off.

We spent the day climbing into the Himalayas past tea plantations, clear streams and smiling faces. Sheer walls of green rock rose into the clouds - and perched on top at a height of nearly 2000mtrs sat our hotel! We made it to at Mcleod Ganj - home to the 14th Dalai Lama and a huge exiled Tibetan community - just after sunset.

Agile monkeys swung down drainpipes and onto the roofs of the shantytown below the hotel. The streets were full of young Tibetans wearing jeans, t-shirts and designer clothes. Western tourists wandered around wrapped in authentic Tibetan shawls, and dripping with local jewellery. With the grass greener on the other side, locals searched out computers and pizza while the visitors yearned for indigenous food and ancient knowledge.

As fellow tourists listed English weather horror stories we sat down to a plate of momos and began planning our route to Calcutta. Once again, we were happy to be travelling by bicycle; adding as little as possible to climate change - and a long way from the British winter!

We had decided to relax with a meditation course in the hills but suddenly found our well-laid plans under attack. When checking e-mail we found that Lowanna's family had tracked down a container boat to take us from Mumbai (Bombay) to Singapore. It left in five weeks and was the only one available.

We loaded the bikes and set off on a race to the coast.