This trip was long overdue. The last time i left the city on the bike was in February and that was to go to Bharatpur and Deeg (post long overdue). After that came the mad months of March and April, and along with the changing of jobs, changing of house and lifestyle in general, i needed some open road to clear the mind. The new roommate, Sumantra Ray is a rider and we planned to take this trip together. I get only one saturday off a month so combined the weekend with two paid leaves and we were good to go.
The plan for the first day was to leave Delhi as early as possible, preferably around 3:30 AM and reach the hills before the May sun flattens us down. The stuff was packed overnight and we managed to head out of home at 3:45 AM. We took the Ring Road to ISBT, Kashmere Gate, and from there went on to follow the National Highway 1 after the interchange at Mukarba Chowk. The first break was at Murthal, 60 kms from Delhi and it was still dark out. By the time we finished our respective tumblers of tea and the hot parantha with a generous serving of white country butter, the sky was getting lighter. We had to drive to Shahbad, 17 kms before Ambala, and then turn right towards Yamunanagar/Jagadhri and follow the road straight to Chakrata via Paonta Sahib, Herbertpur, Dakpatthar and Kalsi.
After the turn from Shahbad, the road was narrow, but good. A few clicks later, however, the roads deteriorated. This stretch up to Jagadhri has been a pothole-filled affair for quite some time now and in a bid to improve the road, all the Public Works Department has done is empty truckloads of gravel, sand and mud on where the road was supposed to be. We did lose some time here. The roads improved after we passed Jagadhri town and very soon, we entered the beautiful Kalesar National Park.
Covering an area of around 50 sq kms, Kalesar sprawls on both sides of the Yamunanagar-Paonta Sahib Road. Although it is primarily famous as a habitat for endemic as well as migratory birds, there are rumors floating around that the forest might also be home to a couple of Bengal tigers.
After crossing Kalesar, we descended on the wide valley of the Yamuna with the town of Paonta Sahib on one side. This tiny town, which derives its name from a historic gurudwara is fast developing as an industrial hub. The Yamuna has been bound here by the Hathnipol Barrage which provides irrigational water to the farmers of Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. So the landscape around Paonta Sahib is cris-crossed by a network of canals. We followed one such canal to Herbertpur and then on to Dakpatthar before reaching Kalsi, from where the climb to Chakrata starts.
Kalsi (pronounced: Kaal-see) might be a small hamlet and a stop-over for people travelling on to Chakrata, but it’s historical significance knows no bounds. It was here that one of the rock edicts of the Mauryan emperor Asoka (274-232 BC) was found in the last years of the nineteenth century. Its importance can be judged by the fact that before the discovery of the Indus Valley Civilisation in the 1920’s, the Mauryan Period was considered the starting point of Indian history. It is not clear whether the edict is in situ, or has been moved from its original location. Today it lies at the end of a lane branching off from the main road at Kalsi, on the banks of the Yamuna. The erstwhile government of the British United Provinces built a domed structure, architecturally akin to the pre-Mughal tombs over the rock in 1912.
The hills that we have been driving towards for almost six-seven hours now starts immediately after Kalsi. Ideally, one should come here immediately after the monsoons, when it is at its greenest. But summers too have their own colours, mostly a shade of sun scorched green, interspersed with a hundred shades of brown, the grey of the dust and the black of the tarmac.
I usually get a lot of heat for this, but i never drive in the hills with my helmet on. I am a careful driver and on top of that i drive a bike that is not exactly built for break-neck speed. In the city, i always wear the helmet, even when i am out grocery shopping. In the hills, however, its different. I want to bask in the mellow sun and feel the cool wind on my face. I also want to hear the sounds of the mountains, all of which are sadly obstructed by the helmet. Hence it must go. Oh! and if you were to take a tumble from any of these roads, or any rocks were to tumble on you from the mountains above, i dont think any helmet in the world will save ya!
As we climbed higher, the colours started returning to this hills. The air was more pleasant and the traffic was thin. Every now and then an overloaded Mahindra trekker zoomed past or a biker or two could be seen descending. Other than that it was just us and the empty roads. Sumantra, for whom it was the first ride was taking it a bit easy and understandably so. For me it was like a return to heaven. I was leaning on the curves and thumping down the straighter stretches like there was no tomorrow. The funniest thing of the day happened when i had gone a bit too far ahead and was waiting for Sumantra to catch up. I could see him riding up the opposite hill a couple of clicks behind me. He spots me and waves and in the process almost takes a fall! Lesson learnt, he positively ignores me for the rest of the ride!
Around 20 kms from Kalsi and halfway up the road to Chakrata, we took a break at the village of Sahiya, which is located at an altitude of 900 – 1000 m. It was still warm here, but upon enquiry, we found out that Chakrata, which is more than double the height of Sahiya was pleasantly cool, even during the day. So we scrambled off pronto!
The roads after Sahiya were even more beautiful and the traffic, almost non existent. On one side was the mountain, clad either by the tall pines or the fragrant ochre grass. On the other side was the valley, with beautifully terraced fields, planted almost exclusively with rice. I stopped almost after every two kilometres and killed the engine so that i could listen to the silence of the mountains. There was no sound except the occassional singing bird. This is why we leave town and this is why i will continue to head to the hills every month. I dont care if i dont save and i dont give a damn if i dont get paid leaves, i shall live for a few days every month like i wanted to forever – on the road and in the hills!
Very soon we were within five kms from Chakrata. The town is known primarily due to its cantonment which was raised in 1866 by the then British Indian Army. The cantonment is now home to the Special Frontier Force, a special forces unit composed fully of ethnic Tibetans. This force was raised after the debacle at the hands of the Chinese in 1962. Due to the very secretive nature of this regiment, access to Chakrata is restricted only to Indians. We were stopped on the road by two soldiers who checked our vehicles and papers. While they were doing their job, we got talking and friendly as they are, we soon got chit-chatting about the place and the mountains in general. They gave us lots of inputs about which routes to take and the nature of the roads in general.
While we were busy talking to the jawans, i realised that the light had turned magical. So i excused myself from our new friends and proceeded to click a few decent ones.
We had called up a hotel beforehand from Delhi itself, but when we asked our friends in the army about it, they said that it was on the Chakrata-Mussoorie Road, completely opposite to the direction we were headed. They instead advised us to stay in the town itself and we did so.
We checked into a hotel (one of the two) in the middle of the Chakratta bazaar. The bazaar itself was like 20 shops along one narrow road. The room we had for Rs 450 had a view but unfortunately, no water. Much haggling ensued and we were finally delivered a couple of bucketfulls … still the taps ran dry. Tired from the travel (we had driven more than 400 kms with hardly any sleep the previous night), Sumantra slept off while i put on a light jacket, picked up the camera and went off for a walk. When i came back, i found that the door was unlocked and Sumantra in the same position that i left him over two hours back. He did wake up shortly, only to claim that he had been rendered unconscious by fatigues. I would hear many such incredulous statements in the next few days!
The market was located on top of a ridge that ran from north to south and there was a marked difference in the sights on both sides. Towards the east, a dark cloud was descending on the surrounding mountains, while on the west, a scarlet sun was going down for the day behind layers of mountains. Absolute drama, no matter which direction you look!
After the roomie had ‘regained’ his senses, we went out and feasted on some hot rotis and delicious mutton curry. It was cold outside and we were well fed, so could sleep be far behind? As i dived into a thick layer of blankets, i did spare a thought to my poor friends sweltering in the 45 degree heat of Delhi and it did give me some satisfaction.
The ride continues again the next day with promises of wilder roads and more less-known destination. Until i see you guys again in a couple of days, i leave you with this parting shot: