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 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....