The Unexpected Nomad: A Manipal professor’s Himalayan journey7 min read
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What strikes one most about him at first glance would be his youthful spirit. An assistant professor at the faculty of Instrumentation and Control, Manipal Institute of Technology (MIT), Ganesh Nayak decided to embark on a journey almost three years ago, amid a mid-life crisis that led to a complete alteration in his lifestyle.
His attempt to focus on health and fitness ultimately turned into an expedition, as he wheeled his bicycle into Srinagar, and further went on to cover Ladhak, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Nepal, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Goa and Karnataka. Nayak completed a grueling 8,000 km bicycle ride, during which he was chased by monkeys, saw snow leopards and met similar spontaneous travellers.
Now, the charismatic 33 year old has embarked upon yet another solo journey, and is currently on course to complete a gruelling mountain circuit in the Himalayas. Despite the strenuous routine, he took out the time to give The Manipal Journal an update about his life and journey so far.
What made you cycle the Himalayas the first time?
It all began much before Srinagar, with my determination to get fit. I just tried to make the journey bigger in scope, and the Himalayas just happened. I had previously travelled through the Himalayas by car and felt it was pretty challenging even then, and I wanted to see if I could cover it by bicycle. I chose Srinagar because it just opens up from there; it spreads on towards the North-East, and it’s not difficult to get permits to go into Nepal and Bhutan from there. I could go as far as I wanted with it, and I still have lots to cover in those regions.
How did you train for such a journey? I started out with around 50 km a day. I would get up at 4 am and ride till 6:45 am, followed by running and an hour long yoga session. After a whole day’s work, I’d return in the evening and focus on weight training or running. That was my schedule for around 3 months. I also completed six or seven preparatory trips to the Western Ghats and underwent training to understand the bicycle, for which I completed two internships. I sought to not just survive on the road, but thrive. If you are not well-prepared while on road, you stop having fun, and the minute you stop having fun, the game ends. For expeditions such as the one I took up, you have to train like an athlete and it is rigorous. It’s not just about exercise, it’s also about eating right and getting sufficient rest. Even now, I am up at 4 am, a habit which I still continue.
What was your experience travelling through India? I carried a tent with me but I realized soon enough that it was cumbersome because I was all by myself and after a long day’s ride, putting up a tent was definitely not something I’d look forward to. Most of the times, I would find shelter at a local’s place.
I used to find gurudwaras, mosques, temples – any place which was willing to take me in and let me take out my mat and sleep. People were very welcoming and accommodating. I stayed in the houses of a dozen different people during the eight months I was travelling, and it was pretty interesting. In Uttarakhand, there was a boy who ran with me around a kilometre and a half, after which he insisted that I stay with him, so I went along with him and it was very nice. If you show up on a bicycle people tend to treat you pretty well.
How did the first journey to the Himalayas change you as a person?
One of the most important things that I learnt was that our perception of the world has largely been influenced by media portrayal. The world is a much better place, than what the media depicts. After leaving Kargil, I attempted to venture into the Aryan valley, where there is a strong army presence.However, I was told to return after climbing 40 km and descending 20 km into the valley. A local in the region intervened and convinced them to permit me, considering that I had travelled a long distance and also had a letter from the university that I was cycling through India. The cultural diversity in India is astounding.
The mountain passes near Kargil separate not only physical places but also cultures. You have people speaking completely different languages, maintaining different traditions and following different religions divided by just a mountain. People think that I went on an eight month vacation, but it wasn’t a vacation at all. You have to be on the top of your game throughout the day. You have to deal with anything that comes on your way. One false move might mean the end of the entire expedition.
Something you learnt from your travels which stay with you even now?
I think my Hindi has improved considerably. I’m a localite from Manipal and before my trip I could barely converse in Hindi. So, Hindi was something that I had to pick up and learn during the course of my travel. Eventually I got so accustomed to Hindi, that I began speaking in Hindi to people I used to speak with in Kannada, which left them very amused.
What other culture shocks did you witness?
The greatest culture shock I experienced was in rural Nepal, and this was the point in my journey where I thought to myself, “What am I doing here?” The poverty I witnessed was really disturbing. You start reconsidering the small things which you took for granted.
I had to go have breakfast in bars because that was the only place where food was available, with people sitting around you drinking at 6 am. Venturing on to the plains was disconcerting as you can see the 5 km stretch right in front of you, and
I had mostly ridden through the mountains. Something I noticed while travelling through rural India was the large-scale migration to cities which is sad because the villages are truly beautiful places. I always avoided the cities while cycling due to excessive traffic.
What did you do after the life-changing journey?
I do not cycle as regularly as I did before. I am working on a book about my journey, which should be out sometime next semester. I ride for an hour, and then I am occupied with college- related work, like preparing for lessons and teaching, after which I work on my book.
Teaching is something which I wish to continue because I really like it, and I do feel that students also like me as they can relate easily with me. After my experiences, I want to take ‘human-powered travel’ forward. Look at Manipal – you have so much traffic and no place to park. I walk to college every day from home, which takes about 20 minutes. Walking or cycling are the only plausible solutions that we have now, to the rising traffic levels.
What made you go back to the Himalayas?
I came back to the Himalayas to ride Spiti valley and the Manali Leh Highway. Both of which I couldn’t ride through last time around due to bad weather. I am currently at Leh and riding towards Srinagar. This completes an epic all mountain circuit in the Indian Himalayas.
I am still to complete the last leg, Leh-Srinagar but if I do, I think I would one of the few Indians to complete the entire circuit in a single season of riding. Still have to do my research on this. Last time around I had quit my job and had a lot of time and hence there was no tight agenda, I could take my time with it. This time, I came with the specific intention of riding Spiti Valley, Manali- Leh and Leh-Srinagar.