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.