Friday, November 04, 2005

Beyond the 'Divide' : Nako- Maling - Tabo

20th August Real Early :

We got up without feeling too fuzzy - rushed to the hotel for the sanitary facilities they had to offer - and a morning cuppa. Later went back, packed up and got another cup of tea - gratis - from our friendly neighbours next door. Paid the man and thanked him profusely - and went back to the hotel for breakfast which was - again - aloo paranthas and tea, and an omelette thrown in for some change!

The bus towards Tabo from Nako left a little late - and a lot of people including Nachiket left on it, leaving Nako in fumes for a while - and emptier.

Over breakfast, spoke with a Canadian girl backpacking solo most people were on the road for weeks and months - not days! Also met a guy who was into 'socially responsible investing' - basically where people also look at the social responsibilty that a company they're investing in fulfills! Henk left while we were still having breakfast - we had oohed and ahed over his non-mountain bike, improvised speedo, tons of luggage and the fact he was cycling in chappals before he left - and we promised to catch up soon.

After emptying the spare fuel - about 3 litres - into the tank (we hit Full from almost the halfway mark - its surely not linear) and bidding adieu to the small group of people we'd got so friendly with in the space of an evening and morning - we left towards Maling at about 8:40am. All along Maling had brought a certain amount of doubt to our minds - and we were prepared to return in the worst case.

We took the road back to the fork (towards the 'alternate route...'), crossed Yangthang and were almost at Maling by 9:15. A little before the 'spen' the road turned to loose soil and mud and there was an active slide along the mountainside! Shubha got off and raced across (with my heart thumping and adrenaline rushing) - and I started crossing - there was a dip followed by a steep incline to make matters worse. The slipping soil and rocks along the road did not make it easier - but we made it across unharmed - got to the Maling slide - and what a sight that was!!

And finally - Maling the dreaded :

Imagine a twisty mountain road - imagine a landslide along a stream rushing down the mountain to meet a river at the base - across from the top of the hillside right down to a river way down at the base of the hill - and imagine more than a kilometre of this the road washed down over time because of successive slides - turning the entire mountainside into one huge 'slide - area'. This is Maling. Apparently the activity here is due to continuously shifting layers underneath the mountains because of a huge reservoir part of which feeds the Nako lake.

Till a while ago - the BRO bulldozers used to continuously keep clearing a path out of the slide and within a few hours - a slide happened again! A few buses and the like have tumbled down the road when caught in one of these (the passengers have managed to get off). Fortunately mid August is a better time and Maling's less active - though there's no predicting it! So the locals have put up a makeshift cable ropeway across the slide and ferry goods across on a carriage supported on a couple of pulleys. Its almost miraculuous it works without each payload crashing to the bottom - considering the distance that it needs to cover. Pedestrians (including bus and taxi passengers who trade places with those from another bus on the other side) walk down the unstable slope to the bottom of the groge through which the stream passes - and walk back up through the slide - over boulders which slipped down in the past - to the the other side.

When we got to Maling - Henk had just loaded his bike onto the ropeway, and a bunch of army guys had a lot of stuff to ferry across. I rolled the bike down the slope - and stayed there near the loading area till they got enough guys to lift the bike. We sent our bags (except one with some documents and water which I carried across along with our helmets) across on the ropeway and then loaded the bike onto the cable with steel cables going around the chassis and hooked onto the pulleys! Eight strong men (okay - seven strong men and puny me) hoisted the bike and hooked it up - and what a sight that was. The operator slammed the cable a few times with a thick stick - a message to the other side to start the operation - and off it went - flying across Maling. I took a few snaps - more to distract myself from thoughts of what would become of our great adventure were it to slip off the (what now seemed to be) narrow pulley grooves than for any photographic feats - and prayed a lot! After about the halfway mark it became a dot in the distance and disappeared from sight moments later.

We started the trek downhill with Henk who'd waited for us. The narrow 'track' going down to the bottom was rubble, and loose soil - and steep. Shubha was having a tough time negotiating the descent - and would not just balance on her feet but wanted to crawl close to the infirm ground hugging whatever support was available. I was trying to egg her onto her feet and trust them more - and Henk lent support by way of offering a hand to hold when she refused to move ahead. So I was certainly in the dock for a while. A couple of locals and army guys sped past us and we could just look at them with awe and envy. The army postman sped down with a suitcase full off mail which he swapped everyday with mail brought down by another guy who came down the other side! Adventure for some - a commute for others!!!

We got to the bottom eventually, and crossed the stream relatively easily. The climb up started easier (you have better grip when you're climbing) - and we clicked some snaps - almost in relief. However - the 'marked' dirt track soon was lost amongst the rocks and boulders from past slides - and the other end of the ropeway was nowhere in sight. In fact - we could make out the cable above us only when a car carrying luggage crossed overhead! We were not particularly fit - and for the most part - followed Henk up the slide! Soon we were high enough to see other people below us take a different route - but did not have the guts or steam to go back down over all those unstable boulders. At one point we decided we could not go up further - and then Henk - who'd gone further ahead and spotted the 'trail' again - came back to tell us which path to follow. We were now in what seemed to be the worst part of the slide - and honestly - fear was certainly one of the feelings I remember. If a stone as much as moved or creaked a bit - one could imagine the whole mountainside tumbling down into the river below. Shubha was tiring a bit - but I wanted her to keep moving ('out of here as soon as we can'). We cautiously went down the rocks a bit - found our way through a huge heap of smaller boulders (which were even less stable and those above us seemed - at least then - certain to come hurtling down towards us). To top it - one of the straps of the bag I was wearing broke and I had to maneuver that on one strap, a helmet on my head and another hitched on to the bag for the rest of the climb. But we did make it beyond the slide - and only a mud trail which went along a contour of the hill but rose sharply towards the end (with a very steep fall if you had the imagination for it). Towards the end I felt exhausted and it was only with huge effort that I hoisted myself over the last couple of inclines where I needed to hold on to a rather blunt piece of rock jutting from the ground and hope that my feet did not slip as I pushed against the ground to heave upwards.

Crossing Maling takes the average guy about 45 minutes. Our entourage took upwards of two hours! But hey - we did it! My description probably fails miserably to capture the enormity of it - youhave to do it to know what we went through. This was the big one we'd been wondering about and mentally preparing for right from the word go - and we'd done it! It was behind us!

Somehow - when you're past these 'could've easily died' situations - you feel a little giddy and make a lot of jokes. We ran into Nachiket and the rest of the bus gang from Nako who were had crossed earlier and been waiting for a bus there to continue towards Tabo with no luck so far. Most of the army guys had got across in a while - and there were a bunch of cyclists who'd come from Leh waiting to cross. We of course encouraged them and assured that if we could do it - they'd sail through. They told us the roads ahead were fine for a while up to Kaza.

Henk found his bike and was glad to see the Pulsar in decent shape. We decided to all have lunch before we carried on - the fear and effort having whipped up an appetite. Lunch was thukpa, noodles, Coke and tea - and it was Nachiket's turn to start on natural spring water instead of bottled stuff - Henk being the one to initiate him into it! By the time we had finished lunch - the bus was in and people rushed to get in.

The Maling crossing cost 30/- for all the luggage - and 500/- for the bike!

Another slide ahead 1:15p.m. :

We left a little after the bus - only to cross it and then Henk who had left earlier (he was doing awesome speeds when we crossed him - he'd said he get to 60kmph and the likes once in a while!). A few minutes later we had all been flagged down for another active slide! We could see rocks roll down the mountainside ahead and felt a little deflated. In about 10 minutes we got a go-ahead and moved on - only to get into a little bit of a traffic jam right in the middle of where the slide was!! People - mostly in closed vehicles - politely made way for the bike since we were more exposed to the risk - and BRO folks were busy clearing the road of the freshly fallen stones and boulders of all shapes and sizes!

Once past this, we found awesome road and made good progress, again crossing Henk who had slid ahead during the second slide. There was the briefest and lightest of drizzles but got over as soon as it started. The weather was absolutely marvelous and it all felt just so perfect. We crossed Chango and a little beyond that I saw this guy walking with his cycle from the other side - absolutely alone!

Hats off to the spirit of adventure !!

We got a little closer and saw a really old gentleman on a Hero Ranger with bags tied to the bike - and a old fashioned cycle pump strapped on! He had a factory worker's helmet on and looked a bit tired so I asked him if he needed water or other help. He introduced himself - a 63 year old Bengali gentleman retired from the railways - he'd started from Jammu with two other friends who had given up at Leh. He, however, intended to carry on to Shimla and eventually Arunachal Pradesh!! To say that I was impressed would be a major understatement. Meeting him somehow made us feel a little more charged up - and a little more hopeful about everything in life.

Spiti - the barren unknown :

The road was in decent shape - a few stones fallen at every turn kept us aware of the terrain we were in. Soon we reached Sumdo - the entrance to the Spiti region (and the Lahaul & Spiti district of Himachal Pradesh). Sumdo is mostly a BRO outpost. We had to go through the registration process again, and the chap there examined my license.

Spiti is barren. Almost zero rain and harsh weather ensures almost no growth of any kind. The mountainside was visibly unstable but yet calm. We were off NH22 - on SH30 now - the road had deteriorated but was under constant repair. Some of the hills had crumbled into sand and so had the road - so the knobbies were tested again! The starkness of the landscape made for dramatic and beautiful visuals.

As we got closer to Tabo - the road flattened out and a valley opened up ahead of us and there were signs of vegetation. Given the road I opened throttle a bit and loved the feel of of just us on a looong stretch of open road in the middle of nowhere (well - almost).

Tabo :

We must have got to Tabo a little after 4:00p.m. and decided to stay over for the evening. We first got to the Tabo monastic hostel - and decided to stay there itself. They had clean rooms in a beautiful building with wooden stairs and rooms on two floors around a central courtyard. The common bathrooms had hot water. People from half the globe were at the hostel - in fact we got our cheaper room only because some guy who was just vacating a room informed us in time (we had reserved a more expensive room with an attached bath moments before this guy said we could take his room).

The monastery has rather strict rules - no booze - no joints - and no sex - being prominent! We actually heard a couple who left because of the last!

Tabo has one of the oldest monasteries of the region - built of mud - in 996 A.D. There's also a horticultural department farm where they're trying to grow a variety of stuff including Spitian apples - which are supposed to be even better than Kinnauri ones! Tabo has about 800 residents in all - and the tourists are a prominent part of the landscape - though not too many of them are around.

There's a new monastery too next to the old one (like most other monasteries in the region - its white and built of more modern materials). There are really old caves up the hills across the road from the town - and a building with old paintings maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India. These old caves have some really old paintings and ar a nice amble up the hill - you also get a wonderful view of Tabo and the entire valley from there.

Tabo even has a helipad built when the Dalai Lama visited during the Kalachakra ceremony a few years ago.

The old monsatery (Gonpa) is entirely built out of mud - and has stone coulur paintings inside depicting the life and various avatars of the Buddha. Its very pretty inside - but you cannot take pictures inside the monastery campus. There are various temples inside for various phases of initiation into monkhood, if I think I remember right. I was also a little surpised to discover that even Buddhism now has numerous Gods - a lot of them adopted deities from Hinduism.

Right in front of the main temple inside the old monastery, we came across this Austrian playing the 'Siraj' (I had not even heard of it) - apprently he learnt it from a Guru in Delhi during one of his longer trips to India - and he played it really well. There was also a guy from Mysore who'd moved to Manali and lived there.

Soon the guys on the bus from Maling were in Tabo too. We ran into Nachiket again! That is such a lovely experience on such roads - you make friends as you travel -and keep bumping into them as you go along. He said Henk would probably be in later in the evening or early next morning.

We walked around town some more - up to the caves - back into town. Checked with the SBI branch just in case they would encash Tcs after hours. The guy there was really friendly - the manager's wife and very young kid chatted with us for a while - but could not do it that day. We then had tea at the 'town square' and walked to the Hort. Farms - where the caretaker proudly showed us around and described how the place was being greened.

After a couple of STD calls - we had had no luck with calling home after Shimla - we ate Spitian food - Shonali (thick fried ribbons of wheat flour) and a different less blander kind of thukpa at the restaurant run by the monastery itself. Again - from a quick read of the menu - we were a little surprised to discover how much meat the Buddhists consumed. Obviously - the lack of availability of alternative food must have had increased dependency on livestock - and the local food habits would have existed way before Buddhism caught their imagination.

We got back to the hostel - enjoyed a hot bath - and rested our Maling-weary bones!

Kinnaur Beseeches : Bhawanagar - Nako

19th August 8:00am :

Got up at 6:00am but packing up took a while. The caretaker had promised us tea and I'd already paid for it the night before – but I guess it was too early for him so we left at 8:00 anyway.

The weather was clear – though there were some clouds if looked up – but felt more confident about the same roads that had put questions in our minds yesterday. The traffic – right from the point we'd left Jeori – had thinned down considerably (especially since the road had been closed for a while, I guess). We had also heard that the roadblock at Jeori had opened for light traffic the same day we took the detour through Sarahan – oh – yesterday! Road conditions were similar to what we'd been seeing since we entered Kinnaur – though felt less threatening in better weather.

And then we got to our first Sutlej crossing at Wangtu. Wangtu had been a smallish village till the huge Sutlej flood of August 2000 wiped it off the face of the earth – sparing only the suspension bridge before us. Even this said 'for light vehicles only' – and there was a shorter span bridge for heavier vehicles down below at the end of a dirt track which took off a little before the older bridge. Shubha was convinced we were not a 'light' enough vehicle – especially with the sutlej gurgling menacingly below – and with a long stretch of rickety wooden planks to cross. Not that there were too many lighter vehicles around – a couple of buses took the lower bridge which made Shubha quite sure we wanted to cross that one too. But I decided they probably wanted to avoid trucks and the like over this one – and we'd probably make it – and so off we went – our first crossing over the Sutlej – creating a massive racket as we rode over the planks – with the Sutlej gushing below and prayer flags all along the bridge for colourfully auspicious company – and once we's crossed it – the doubts felt a little stupid and the camera was out.

The road was in fantastic shape from thereon to Tapri – a small village where we had Alu Paranthas and tea for breakfast – AGAI N. The Sutlej roared along with its ravaged banks looking both beautiful and ruthless. We tried buying bottled water or Zeolin – there was a medical shop right above the dhaba (Shubha took the narrow steps next to the dhaba and completely missed the entrance to it – a liitle elevated beside the steps!) - but no luck. So we were on to natural spring water – and did quite well !

The keep-the-bills-low discussion came up again (not entirely pleasant) and we were happy the breakfast with tea set us back only by Rs40/-!

Grim scars of destruction :

There was no major climbing involved – and yet the terrain was pretty bare and rough. All along the gorges bore the scars from the multiple floods in the Sutlej. We crossed the river multiple times on shorter span brdges (these, despite the wooden planks, felt safer than the suspension bridge at Wangtu). Near one such crossing (where there were clear signs of an earlier road which had continued straight instead of crossing over to the other side before the entire mountainside must've been washed away) a little after Baspa – we saw a huge torrent of gushing water falling from the mountainside into the Sutlej. When we got closer – it turned out to be a hydroelectric project where they were letting out water through a concrete duct running over the road! The thought of that huge force passing overhead was a bit unnerving.

All along the route were loosely scattered army and BRO camps. A lot of the labourers there are migrants from faraway states and in fact – we saw a 'Birsa Munda Colony' of guys from Jharkhand – warmed the heart (we're from Jamshedpur).

We soon reached Powari – major Army campsite (no stopping, no photography, etc.) and got a petrol pump there (There probably was enough in the tank but one likes to fill up when one can – given the context). Unfortunately – because of the roadblock at Jeori – there had been no supplies for a month – and we'd probably beaten the first of the fuel supply tankers!

Recong Peo was on a fork a few kilometres off NH22 – but it was early in the day and we did not want to stop here (This is what I hate about working – you go all the way to the Deep Himalayas – and want to stick to schedules!!!). A little after Powari there was this really pretty restaurant up a slope from the road where we found restrooms, bottled water and even tanked up on spring water. This place was in the middle of nowhere – a green patch and run exclusively by women.

The landscape was starting to turn barren a little into Kinnaur – now it just turned desolate. Apparently a lot of limestone keeps cracking with moisture, difference in temperatures and the result was one long stretch of cracked, crumbling mountains with steep sides and dangerously poised overhangs. Jagged edges with huge cracks right over your head as you pass under on roads fprced to be amidst this landscape do not a comfortable feeling make. On more than one occasion – helpful BRO folks flagged us down (they have wonderful semaphoring systems) either when there was work in progress at higher altitudes (and caused a man made slide of rocks) or when loose rocks slipped down in places where they had been discovered to around that time. The grim beauty of the sights around us evoked respect, fear and the thrill of having done it! We also kept hoping we'd make it – and the company of a TATA 407 and Maruti 800 who roughly drove along with us made us feel a bit more confident. We did not stop for too many photographs – there was no saying (at least in our minds) what might come sliding down the sheer ledge right over our heads. When we did stop for a necessary break – it was with a carefully selected gradual slope (of broken, crumbled rocks and boulders of all sizes) on both sides – so as to give ourselves enough warning in case..... The air was dry and the sun strong. The Sutlej, however, was still our companion and told us where to go.


Then the first major scare of the trip happened. We found the road turn into a pile of rocks and stones – and some folks trying to clear them off . They beckoned to us to pass – but the bike – in low gear – stalled as I tried negotiating one of the heaps of loose stones and rubble. We were right under a ledge (fortunately not at its edge) when we heard crackling noises and a shout and saw the guys scamper in all directions. And suddenly loose rock fell over the ledge inches from us – nothing too huge but a lot of stones at one go. It reduced as soon as it started – and even before I had time to think or either of us had time to react – I'd moved the Pulsar into 1st gear and scooted from under the ledge to safety!!! We didn't even look back till we reached Janghi – the nect checkpoint for registration and Inner Line Permits etc.

We took a break at Janghi – had tea and some snacks. Shubha also bought apples (for lunch!) and realized her sunglasses had gone missing!

The terrain was still menacing and beautiful all along till Puh – our next stop – though the road surface improved dramatically. Tall mountains had cracked up with successive melting snow – and the pieces – of all sizes – just stayed where they were. In places they'd slid down but all around you could have seen what you would not think of as 'solid mountains'. BRO folks were busy all along wherever the road had caved in – and these stretches were just filled in with mud and rocks.


We wnted to encash some Tcs, saw an SBI sign indicating a turn off the highway and took a four km detour up some hairpins to Puh. Once there – found out that the bank was closed for Janamashtmi – and it was Tuesday! I was hungry and the guy who gave us this info ran a small shop and cooked some food – so I had it. There had been no supplies for a month (people did seem to be nonchalant about it, must say!) so lunch was basic. A lot of people came in asking if the newspaper was in – seems most people are educated around there. Turned out that our host had spent a lot of time in Kurnool and could speak Telugu (I cannot say how fluently though he gave me a sample or two of his comand over the language) – and he treated us to Kinnauri apples (smaller, sweeter) and some badams freshly plucked from trees around there! He almost felt too shy to accept money – and the lunch served with so much warmth and ghee cost me just 12/-!

We also chatted up an old Nepali gentleman sitting there – and he seemed to know a lot about the world. He assured us the road would improve after Puh – and we would come upon Khab where the quieter Spiti met the violent Sutlej. We asked about the chance of rain – and they smiled and said if that happened – they'd all be washed down to the river below – and so it wouldn't!

The road did improve – although the landscape continued to be as dramatic as earlier. Khab was way more dramatic and scenic than we had imagined or than our limited photographic skills allowed us to capture. There were signs of an older bridge a little further up – you guessed it – washed away by a flood. The newer bridge took a 90 degree turn away from the Sutlej to the less turbulent Spiti and we bid adieu to the mighty companion we'd had over the last couple of days.

After the crossing the road started dramatically enough under a overhang covering all of it – like a tunnel with the wall on the river side missing. The mountains were a bright orange-brown in the sun, and the sky a clear blue with high white clouds in the distance. After a short ride on great roads we saw a sign declaring the start of the 'Kazigs' – or the Ka Zigs. The wide flat road climbed straight ahead for a kilometre or two – zigged and climbed for another km or two – zagged get the idea. At the end of these long zigs (often we could see the road right above us hidden in the hillside) we were way above the Spiti – a small stream from up there – and there was still mountains to go above us! The air had cooled considerably by now – and the hills had a more 'solid' look as compared to the Peo-Puh stretch – though there was the odd stone or two fallen off the side onto the road. The road was well marked from here with signs directing us and cautioning us. We also saw our first snow-capped peaks – amazingly after 4 days in the Himalayas! At a fork which said “Maling-Nako-alternate route' & 'Kaurik' (a village right up at the Tibetan border and since relocated near Kaza – the army has a camp there) – we took the Nako route which was a road under construction. Spoke to a Sardarji at a BRO worksite and we suggested we stay over at Nako – so we did!

Nako – Spiritual and Beautiful:

Nako is a small village – built around the deeply religious Nako Lake. There are some Chortens on a slope above the village. There are just two hotels in the village and they were all occupied! We tried finding the caretaker of the govt. guest house (250/- a night – a bit over-budget by now) – but could not. We decided to hang around the Reo Purguil Hotel's restaurant – the guys at the hotel agreed to let us set up our tent around there. There were a bunch of Army guys there on an expedition to Reo Purgill peak (about a 35 member team) – who were acclimatizing at Nako. They told us about Kaurik's status and other stories about the army in the region – a huge avalanche along the highway in Kashmir had once engulfed over 200 trucks!

A local contractor soon offered a room in the village for 50/0 for the night! Rather basic – no bathroom and just a bed on the mud floor – but the experience was something! Dumped our stuff and walked around the lake and village taking snaps. Went back to the restaurant and met people from across the world! A Dutch cyclist – Henk – who cycles through India and on occasion to India (from Europe) or vice-versa! A German family who'd put the grandmother on the ropeway meant strictly for goods for the Maling crossing! A Bunch of Israelis – and Nachiket from Bombay – ex-Wipro guy who'd quit to go backpacking all over India for months together! Of course, everyone asked about how we intended to cross Maling and smiled when we mentioned the 'Spen' (That's what the locals call the ropeway across the slide area).

Dinner was Alu-matar sabzi, dal and rotis, and tea followed. Found our way back to the room in the village in pitch darkness with the help of matchsticks and some light from some windows – and got into our sleeping bags – both on the single cot in the room! Amazingly – even remote villages in Himachal have electricity. We slept only after the guys next door (including the contractor who'd offered us the room) had switched off the radio at about 10:30 p.m. - and then again not too comfortably. At 3900 metres above sea level – I wondered if this was our first encounter with AMS ? Perhaps it was the light we left on – or the room or sleeping bag....

Detour via Sarahan: Serious Learning Early-on

18th August 9:00am:

Today was the first time we repacked 'on the road' - and admittedly it took some time. Then there was the small matter of breakfast (Aloo Paranthas and tea at the hotel's restaurant itself ) - all of which essentially meant it was not before 9:00am that we checked out.

We went to the end of the town and filled up the tank – just needed about 3 and a half litres. Calculated roughly that the great road so far had got us about 37kmpl! A little before the pump was the fork which led to Sarahan, and the guys at the pump said the highway was still not open. There had been a bridge which got washed off earlier near Jeori – but more recently the road had sunk in. So with adrenaline pumping (imagine – you start on a bike trip on the most challenging terrain - and on day 2 need to explore and alternative route because the primary one's been closed for a month!) and the sense of adventure alive – we started the steep ascent towards Sarahan.

This was the road even less travelled. Narrow, winding and green sheer drops on the sides - it got us to a point where Rampur was just a speck and Sutlej the same silent gush way down there in 10 short kilometres.

Then we came upon our first nallah/khud. Simply put - a road dares to interrupt a mountain stream and it spills over it. A cloudburst, melting snow or a drizzle turn the stream into a torrent and guess who loses ? In any case the road is just a crossing of the stream with indeterminate surface and depth below. Fortunately - these crossings are usualy not more than 10-25 feet in width. Oh – and the water's usually freezing cold. The trick is to take your shoes and socks off when you think you may land then into the water while crossing.

Now this particular nallah had been washed off and filled up – pile of stones and mud to hold them with some stones in metal meshes to provide support. I had very little confidence in them and actually waited for a truck to make the crossing before I believed they were doable!

Soon we were veterans of numerous khuds, and riding along the sides of hills with not too much climbing. Crossed a zillion apple orchards and through numerous villages. At one place we saw people plucking and packing apples to be sent somewhere – and got a couple for free when we inquired politely about them! Nice fresh juicy ones.

There was also a drizzle in between. This forced the rainfly over the saddle bags – and raincoats for us. However – by the time we did all this – the drizzle stopped :) Keeping the visors of the helmets up was impossible because of swarms of insects (from the apple orchards I guess) which hit our faces with regularity. The route was mindblowing – green, misty and for some moments a dense fog. It felt like one long dream sequence....

Then the slush happened. The road worsened – and more -and we were driving half a kilometre at a time through just slush. I thanked my stars for the knobbies and my brief practice sessions in Hulimavu back home. Poor Shubha had to walk all these stretches with the bike sliding around that bad.

Traffic Jam in the middle of nowhere:

All morning we had commented time and again on the really little traffic we encountered even by Himlayan road standards. Of course, we saw all of it at once.

There was this really long narrow stretch of absolutely kneaded slush (dunno how else to describe it:) ) - maybe over a couple of kilometres – and trucks from both sides. Result – a huge traffic jam – vehicles from both sides had waited overnight! I obediently stood behind the row of parked trucks even as Shubha decided to walk ahead as much as possible – but within 10 minutes it started moving and clearing up – with the usual volunteers helping clear the mess up. In about half an hour – I was out – ahead of all the trucks etc (they wave you on with a smile despite their hungry stomachs and terrible situation) – with mud under the shoes and on the tyres and under the mudguards and ..... you get the idea.

Picked up Shubha way down the road and hit another minor roadblock where a truckie was loading up apples. A little maneuvering later we were outta there – descending – and the sun was out again. The apple orchards gave way to wilder terrain. The steep sides we passed through became a little more jagged and we stopped soon behind a few parked cars – a minor slide ahead had blocked the road and a BRO bulldozer had almost cleared it already! Chatted up a cab driver who was very impressed with the fact we were from Bangalore and on our way to Leh – and wondered if the road was open all the way to Kaza. A couple of minutes later there was just enough way for a bike – through some slush and boulders though – but I decided we'd waited enough. Of course, Shubha had already walked out of sight with the camera so I had nothing to do anyhow. Managed to just about cross the slide, crossed a bridge and found her.

Sarahan was found -at 1:15p.m. - with no further event – except that the last kilometre up towards the Bhimakali temple had a slightly challenging khud – and people told us later the same spot had got ravaged by cloudburst thrice this year!

Had Chinese lunch – fresh noodles and momos + Limca – with curious kids for onlookers. Went to the temple after that – imposing wooden and stone structure built for Goddess Bhimadevi (Kali in her Rudra Roop to destroy the Rakshashas of the mountains). You need to wear a cap that they provide at the entrance to enter the temple – and cannot take pictures inside. The inner sanctum itself is very quiet and made completely out of wood resting on a stone structure which dramatically elevates the main shrine. The entire temple complex is on multiple levels.

Locals said the road down to Jeori was open though there was a bad nullah to be crossed. We decided – based a lot on our random confidence strengthened by the good fortume we'd been having so far – to take the chance anyhow. The road was pretty good right through – except at that khud – and we took a good 20 minutes to decide whether to cross it and actually do so – with a lot of help and encouragement from the BRO folks there (one of the engineers/supervisors actually held Shubha's hand as she negitiated the boulders through the rapidly flowing nullah).

Got to Jeori quickly after that – there was a brief drizzle but not threatening. We were back on the highway and beyond the roadblock (it cost us an extra 50+ kilometres and over half a day – though the route to Sarahan and the Bhimakali Temple were more than just rewards) – and had negotiated our first day of stream crossings and bad roads reasonably well (or fortunately). So Recong Peo seemed like a good target.

But the clouds would not go away.


NH22 – along the Sutlej – and better roads than what we saw on the detour – helped us make quicker progress. And we got to a checkpost – the entrance to mythical Kinnaur. In these parts one needs to register names and bike number at every district boundary. Foreign nationals need the inner line permits too – beyond here. So we did the registrations – answered the usual question about Maling – had a cup of tea at an amazingly picturesque tea-hut (what else does one call it?) whose proprietor said Maling was a bit iffy – but blessed us and wished us luck anyways.

Immediately after this was a temple built by the BRO for all faiths! The road got narrower and less smoother progressively – and the dramatic overhangs looming over us added to the feeling of excitement and evoked awe at the same time. A lot of semi-tunnel formations where a hole had been gouged out of the mountainside and a road laid were eerie to pass through – what with water seeping through them and flowing down their sides. The landscape was already less lush – and the grey and green combination of the rock and foliage looked out-of-this-world. We were a bit reminded of the route which the bus took up to Rohtang from Manali. In one place we passed through an arch of rock through which the road passed – like a very narrow natural tunnel.

It started drizzling and got slushy in a couple of places – and the mountainside was a bit like a waterfall! At one place water continuously fell over the side onto the road for about 200 metres! There were signs warning road users to look out for falling rock all along – and the feeling that the amazing beauty, solitude and magnificence caused mixed with the fear of a first timer in the terrain was something I cannot describe now – but want to experience again!


A little before a place called Bhawanagar it started raining rather heavily – and we stopped alongside what seemed to be a tunnel for some hydel power project construction. The engineer there was surprised the bike had a self-starter. He said Recong Peo was at least an hour and a half away – and though it was just after 4 in the afternoon – the coulds were dark and we did not have the stomach to carry on. At Bhawanagr we asked for the HPSEB (State Electricity Board) Field Hostel – found it – ran to their office to get a permit to stay overnight (no bribes etc involved!) – and got a nice comfortable room to spend the night for 300/-.

The drizzle stopped and it got less dark and threatening (we wondered if we should have carried on to Peo) – and we took a short walk on a road which led towards the Sutlej. The place was not at a great altitude – and we worked up a sweat and apetitie on the walk back up the road – during which we also figured out we had been overspending and needed to go easy on the wallet or we'd get stranded (no ATM, remember?).

The dinner the caretaker/cook whipped up at the hostel was wonderfully home-like – rotis, rice, dal, cabbage sabzi and beans – and on a regular dining table in a rather old world dining hall – sarkari guest house style!

After a nice warm bath and getting into fresh dry clothes – we tucked into warm blankets for blissful sleep.

Start of the The Real Journey: Shimla to Rampur-Bushahr

17th August 6:00am (Odo reading 5954kms):

Got up real early today. Went down to first replace the petrol hose from the fuel-cock to the engine properly (this had got cut while emptying the petrol when I'd got the bike packed in Bangalore) and check the tyre pressure.

Rode around after this to find a place to grab a cuppa chai in the morning - Shubha felt more confident in the daytime around the bends and curves of Shimla. Had a good cup of tea - and the guy also cheered us up with info that while reports of the road beyond Rampur being blocked were true - he was sure an alternate route not only existed, but had just opened up. We called up Trivandrum to check how Akshat (our son - all of one and a half years old) was doing. Shubha's folks informed us that he had shown no signs of missing us yet apart from a couple of 'where's Shubha?' kind of questions - which was both good and sad at the same time :)

We went back to the hotel - packed up and checked out. The luggage fitted onto the bike and Shubha somehow managed to find the footpegs with her feet. We were carrying a spare bag (to be junked at Shimla) for some loose stuff and magazines etc. - Shubha decided to keep this anyhow - and this proved useful after a while when Shubha experimented with it as a seat over the pillion seat and this proved useful for butt-support!

We left around 10:00am. One of the water bottles that I'd tied to the side of the carrier in a netted bag (stuff you get potatoes in at a FoodWorld) fell off just before a tunnel a little after Shimla. The weather was beautiful and the roads wide and flat immediately after Shimla.

10:30am, A bit before Kufri:

About 12 kms and half an hour later - we stopped near a temple before Kufri for breakfast and a status check. The saddle bags had sagged a bit and supported them with a bungee cord and a piece of cardboard that the dhaba wala gave us. Called up Venkat and gave him an update - he sounded very happy and excited. Had aloo+pyaaz paranthas with a lop of butter and a cup of tea each - 20/- for all that - and moved on. The weather reports had promised rain and were fortunately incorrect! We got awesome weather right through the day.

The road upto Theog - about 28 kms beyond Kufri - was in decent shape. But what got us was the dust! DUST! Tons of it - churned up with each truck which crossed us or which we overtook. It was all over the bike, clothes, everything! Our plans of one bath in 3 days would need reconsidering. It reduced after Theog - but each truck still managed to make me necessarily down my visor to avoid dust.

By now I was already very comfortable with the bike and the roads. Even narrow broken stretches did not feel daunting -and Shubha's comfort level was higher too. It had not been too cold since we left Shimla - and only around Matiana - another 17 kms of ascent - did we feel a little chilly. Lush green slopes were all around us -and apple plantations were showing up all around. The roads mostly been blasted/cut out of sheer drops and the jagged edges of what remains tell the story. The road is constantly under repair and upkeep - the Border Roads Organization deserving applause and heartfelt thanks for a (literally) Himalayan effort in inclement weather and the toughest terrain you'll ever see.

We got to Narkanda too early for lunch - especially after a late and heavy breakfast - so skipped the decent sounding HPTDC restaurant there and moved on. Narkanda is one of the tourist spots you go to when you visit Shimla - and we hardly even stopped there! Immediately after Narkanda we started descending - through a thick pine-forest and beautiful curves. The road was littered with gravel and some chipped bark and the Pulsar got into a minor slide on one of the first curves - and my lesson for the day was learnt. From Shimla to Narkanda was mostly flat after some initial climbing - about 2000 to around 2774 metres above sea level - we were essentially doing a rapid descent towards Rampur at just over 1000!

The saddle bags needed a few more adjustments before Shubha found a bit more space on the pegs. Damn - should've practised!

Roughly 2:00p.m., Sutlej Ahead:

Soon we were riding under a lovely sunny sky - and decent roads under us. There are a couple of forks a little after Narkanda - and all roads seem equally important - so ask and reconfirm with locals as you chance upon them. A few villages, closed dhabas and two hungry stomachs later we were near a army post - all done up with a sign announcing the 'First View of the Mighty Sutlej'. (Not sure if it said mighty but I felt like it when I wrote it now :) From one end of the horizon to the other - with huge mountains for a backdrop and reminding you of all your geography lessons which emphasised how gorges were different from valleys - the Sutlej raged. It does not flow - it jumps, and leaps and threatens to devour all that comes in its way - only as a furious mountain river can. Even from the huge distance we were at - we could 'imagine' its roar just from the ferocity of the visual that it presented us. So - mighty.

Just the next bend from here found us choosing between multiple dhabas (based mostly on the availability of food) - and we had our fill under a hot afternoon sun - capsicum subzi, kadhi, rotis for 50/-

Hurtling down roads towards the Sutlej saw us make good progress - and at one of the villages we picked up a couple of water bottles once we realised we had only a swig between us! Crossed Sainj - the place where we might have had to return to turn towards the Jalori pass in case the road beyond Sarahan was still closed - as we'd heard earlier. The road from here was all along the Sutlej - from high above it - to kissing the edge of the water in places - and in good shape. I was managing speeds between 40kmph and 60kmph easily - and we stopped for a couple of snaps en-route. The average speed so far - including breaks - hovered around the 20 mark!! The single most significant memory of this part of the journey was the rage of the Sutlej experienced close-up - sound and all.

A little before Rampur the road had sunk in and part of it had even caved in. This was a first 'bad road' sighting and left a funny feeling - part fear and part excitement - in the stomach - though neither mentioned it at the time...

Final run on smooooth tarmac to Rampur - and we were at the HPTDC hotel - Bushahr Regency - right at the beginning of Rampur around 4:30p.m. Given the absolute lack of knowledge of the conditions ahead (routes/whether open/alternatives etc), we decided to stay there for the night and spend the evening sightseeing and asking around.

Rampur Bushahr:

Rampur is firmly on the tourist map - and there's a really (purportedly) pretty route from Dehradun to here. Its basically a 1 km town around the road - starting at a temple a little before the HPTDC place and ending at a Petrol Pump a little while later - with shops, a bus stand, taxi stand and the Padam Palace in between. The Palace is quite recent but kind of cute - worth a dekko. Given the altitude - Rampur wasn't particularly cold and was even a little humid during the day. Cafe Sutlej serves decent food with great service, though you'll find cheaper places if you walk into 'town'. In fact all of Himachal serves you mostly with smiles.

The manager of the HPTDC hotel had a visitor from the Himachal PWD - and informed us that the National Highway beyond Sarahan - that had 'sunk in' and been blocked for almost a month now might be open for light vehicles on the 18th, but the alternative route through Sarahan might already be usable. The taxi operators and other locals around town said the other route was surely doable - especially on a bike - though there had been multiple slides blocking the road till a few days ago.

We discussed our situation a little more at the hotel - they also had a really detailed Himachal Map with roads and passes marked on it.

As it turned out - the manager was pretty sure Jalori was blocked too.

So we did our sightseeing, had a big bowl of rice, mushroom-peas sabzi and rotis and went to sleep knowing little about the day ahead....

Off we go: Bangalore to Shimla

14th August 3:30 pm:

I rushed home and picked up Shubha en-route. She bought a torch that we might need on the trip. The mere thought of not having to go back to work for the next three weeks plus was thrilling enough ;) Added to it was the expectation of a great journey and a whole range of new experiences for all the senses and the mind – a mild adrenaline rush engulfed us both

The City Taxi guy was there at 4:30 even as we wrapped up some last minute packing. We left at 4:45 and this guy gave us our first taste of adventure right away! A few terrified motorists and narrow misses later we reached the Bangalore Railway Stattion and realised the Rajdhani left from platform 8 – so asked hime to drop us on the other side. The ride cost us145/-. The Rajdhani was at the platform and Shubha still had an RAC berth – I was in AS2 and she in AS4 – and the train was packed because of the 3 long weekend – the first after months.

Rajdhanis are always a good experience – despite the crowded compartments in this case. Warm soup and decent food, and great company made the journey a pleasant one. A lot of people were a trifle surprised to hear about what we were trying to achieve – and one guy who claimed to have done lots of travelling in the mountains cautioned us about the landslides etc. This only added to the anxiety and sense of adventure after the numerous reports of landslides and cloudbursts in the preceding weeks. A little before Itarsi the train croosed a dense green forest and for miles it looked breathtaking in a mild shower as I enjoyed the breeze hitting my face as I stood on the footboard. (Be very cautious when you stand near doors – they lurch around a bit and can throw you off balance). Shubha's berth got confirmed the next day in AS2 and the food stayed decent, if boring.

16th August:

Delhi arrived about 5:45 am – half an hour later than the scheduled time and with no hope of getting the Himalayan Queen which left Nizamuddin at 5:05 and New Delhi at 6:00am. We got off, found a decent auto-wallah (amazing for Delhi) who took us to the New Delhi Rlwy Station for 50/-. Now this is a rather huge one – and we got to the wrong side of it – had to cross 12 platforms to platform #1 where the Shatabdi to Kalka left. Tell the auto guy you want to go the the Kashmiri Gate side of the station, not the Ajmeri gate side, where most other Shatabdis leave from (for Dehradun etc). The ticket counter was relatively free – and by 7:00 we'd boarded. The tickets were a little more expensive than I'd imagined – 920/- for both of us. Delhi was not unpleasant early in the morning, and and even the auto ride was mostly through green areas and with almost no traffic, Shubha quite enjoyed the sights and feel of the ride. Me, I was just thankful Delhi passed peacefully – I'm a little nervous when I'm there.

The Kalka Shatabdi (AC Chair Car) provided good breakfast – and got us to Kalka around noon. A little before Chandigarh was thrilled to get a call from Venkat who wanted to know how far we'd got. Promised to call him once we got the bike and started. A little before Kalka I called up Sharad Talwar – whom I'd sent the bike to in Shimla – and informed him that we'd get there in a couple of hours by bus. However, once there – there was a 'toy-train' just about to leave for Shimla – and we decided to board it – the Himalayan Queen - anyway.

There was hardly any time to buy tickets – so the train's TTE and another chap who lseemed to be a Railways employee prodded us to board anyway – which we did. At the next station the guard charged us a small fee for the service and as value adds – we actually got to travel in the guard's compartment for a while – the railway track dissapearing behind us as we chugged along uphill made for some really pretty sights and pictures. In our compartment was a Sikh family – Deepak and Renu with their year and a half old daughter – from Kurukshetra – on a short visit to Shimla for their 3rd wedding anniversary. These guys were really enthusiastic and friendly, and Deepak had a great sense of humour. We got really pally with them with lots of conversation, tea and snaps shared. They ran a Cyber-cafe and a beauty parlour in Kurukshetra and Deepak used to be a Ranji player for Hyderabd (?) earlier. Even the guard was an ex-national hockey player. The other guy who'd asked us to board turned out to be a slightly tipsy TTE from the Ambala railway station who was quite familiar wih the route and the train's staff.

The Himalayan Queen meandered along the hillsides and after a bunch of stops – all cute and amazingly beautiful places – and numerous tunnels – the longest being over 3000 feet in length – we got into Shimla around 6:00pm. Deepak got me to promise we'd join them for dinner – a treat for their anniv – and we split. A taxi got us to the place where Sharad's gas agency was – and we picked up the bike after politely refusing the offer he repeatedly made to stay at his place. I'd already asked too much of him and did not want to pile on unnecessarily.

The Pulsar was in good shape except for a couple of scratches on the front mudguard and a slightly bruised indicator. Got to a petrol pump and got the tank topped up. Fitted the rear-view mirrors on and it was 8:00 already! As I started riding around the curvy slopes looking for hotel along the road ( it was the same road that would lead us to Rampur and we did not feel like going back to the concrete jungle that Shimla has become) Shubha got a little tensed – she wasn't too comfortable in the dark with riding around on strange roads in the hills to start with! So we settled for the first hotel we saw – HimLand – even tho they asked us for 1400/- !! It did look like a decent place and there really was a lot of rush from Delhi and nearby places for the long weekend – but we could've found a cheaper place with some more effort.

Anyhow – we checked in, cleaned up after 3 days of train travel, left our luggage at the hotel and went towards the Ridge for meeting up with Deepak and Renu – a trifle late tho. The ride up to the Mall area was up a steep incline and Shubha had major pangs of anxiety yet again. The bike felt a little out of control up slopes in high revs and I knew I'd have to learn more about mountain riding as we went along. We parked a little before the Mall cause of a no-traffic zone ahead -and walked it. Had dinner at a Tandoori place and coffee at – well – Barista – later. That's one thing that struck me as a very sad aspect of development. You don't want to go to Shimla and have Barista coffee – you want the place to have its own specialities, its own styles and nuances. The march of the retail chains is really not a very happy sign.

The Pulsar was covered in dew when we got back to it – and we rode back to the hotel all the way downhill – with the exhaust sputtering a bit.

Decided to leave around 8 in the morning and slept off...

Alrite, so I'm lazy

My planned site never got done. And the world has moved to blogging majorly since. So am planning to do that slowly as a blog. Hopefully, it'll get done sooner than later.

The ride's story has been published in Chris Scott's AMH this year. I have a copy of the book - and its a good one if you want to plan riding across the world.