A strange darkness had started to creep in. I had always counted myself rich with an exciting job, a best friend of a wife, three of the cutest cats a person could have ever wished for – yet, there was this big gaping hole in the soul. It was as if I had been kissed by a dementor, a kiss that had sucked all the joy out of my life.
A chance conversation with the wife helped me reach the root of the problem. Partly it had to do with the phenomenon called ‘adulthood’. Over the last three years, I had landed myself an exciting, albeit stressful job, gotten married, and like Jude of the song, had taken upon my (not so) slender shoulders, all the weight of the world. Unlike my pre-adult life, there were no mountains; no rides on my trusty ‘Dope’, and barely time to be alone with the voices in my head. And it was this absence of this connection with myself, that had made me liken my then existence to a dementor’s kiss.
Coming to this realisation was a massive change in itself. It was as if a weight had lifted off my chest… I could breathe easy… the fog of despair had lifted. Now that I knew what to do, I needed to move on to the next step: where to go? Easier said than done. Every road called out to me. Every Himalayan valley seemed to sing a siren song trying to lure me into their deepest recesses. A week’s plan soon became 10 days, and finally grew to two whole weeks. It was settled then: I would do a trek inside the Nanda Devi National Park. To do that I would need to first get to Auli, near Joshimath. This is where my motorcycle, Dope comes in.
I have been on this route a few times, and from the very beginning, it was clear that Joshimath / Auli could not be reached in one day. So I decided to set off from Delhi around noon on the D-Day. The plan was to reach Rishikesh by the evening, rest up and start for Auli the next day at first light.
The road till Meerut was chaotic as usual, but once the by-pass starts, it is a clean six lane cruising all the way till Roorkee. I took to the saddle after four years with a lot of apprehension. Would I be able to ride for long? Will my back give up? Would I have to turn back with my tail between my legs? Turns out nothing of that sort was going to happen. It was like fish in the water. The miles just started tumbling and the first and only break of the day came after 216 kms of riding. Once a biker, always a biker.
I had booked myself into Hotel Green Hills in Rishikesh. A secure parking was absolutely essential for me and this establishment had it. I also got an airconditioned room for the night at Rs 700. Another advantage of the hotel was its location right on the highway. All I needed to do in the morning was tie down my luggage and leave.
Within ten minutes of leaving the hotel, I found myself finally in the hills. The monsoons had just about ended and the mountains were carpeted in a million shades of green. On my right was the young Ganga – green and eager and utterly oblivious to the abuse that lies ahead. With every turn of the road, I could feel the mortal energy return to the husk of a being I had let myself turn into. The roads were blissfully empty and the metronome-like engine note of the large single-cylinder benignly threatened to transport me to a meditative state.
My plan for the day was to ride non-stop (photo breaks don’t count) at least till Karnaprayag. The annual yatra season had ended and I wasnt expecting a lot of traffic. The road itself was in remarkable shape. Except for a few landslide-affected stretches (inevitable in the Himalayas), the road was a poetry in smooth tarmac. Never had I seen a mountain road, (and a highway no less) in as good a shape.
This is no ordinary road. For thousands of years, long before humankind had mortar and asphalt, people have travelled on this road; on foot, on animal-drawn carts and even on the backs of other people, in search of the divine. Not only does this road lead to Badrinath, one of Hinduism’s most sacred temples, along it also lie the five holy confluences, or prayags – the Panch Prayag.
Dev Prayag: Alakananda and Bhagirathi Rivers meet here, the first of the prayags, giving rise to the Ganges. In terms of riligious significance, it is second only to Allahabad, where the Yamuna and Saraswati meet the Ganga to form the holiest prayag and hence the site of the Kumbh mela.
Rudraprayag: The meeting place of the Alaknanda and the Mandakini rivers. At Rudraprayag, one comes across a fork in the road and the two prongs each follow the rivers. I continue to follow Alaknanda towards the next prayag. I turned left on the fork here to follow the road running next to the Mandakini on a previous journey to Deoriya Taal and a trek to Chopta and Tungnath Temple.
Karnaprayag: 34 kms upstream of Rudraprayag, the Mandakini is joined by the Pindar river. Legend has it that Karna, one of the pivotal characters in the Mahabharata, prayed to his father Surya at the prayag here and in the process received the kavach (shield) that made him near-invincible in battle. Here, you cross the bridge over the actual prayag and continue along the left bank of the Alaknanda towards Joshimath and Auli. Another road branches off from the bridge towards Tharali and Gwaldham into Kumaon, a road I took on my way back and immediately went on to have one of the most fun few hours of mountain riding i’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing. More on that later.
Nandaprayag: 23 kms upstream, the Nandakini River meets the Alaknanda River at Nandaprayag. Unlike the other prayags, the confluence isn’t visible from the road here. What you can see is a maze of concrete structures and have your senses invaded by noxious diesel fumes emenating from the bus terminus.
The road thus far has the river for company and follows a gentle enough gradient; but as soon as you cross Nandaprayag, things get more interesting. The roads are not as wide as you have experienced before and switchbacks appear with increased frequency betraying a rather steep gain in altitude.
Vishnuprayag: The last of the prayags was the only one I did not visit. This is where the Dhauli Ganga river (this river will make its appearence in a future post) meets the Alaknanda, a few kms upstream of Joshimath town.
During the course of the Nanda Devi Sanctuary trek, we would be hitting altitudes in excess of 4,500 m (14,700+ feet), so it is recommended to complete an one-night accimatisation trek. We had chosen the Gorson Meadows above Auli for this very purpose. To reach Auli, we had to take a small road turning right from the highway, a few kms before Joshimath town. This tiny little road snakes through thick forests and a couple of Indo Tibetan Border Police encampments for 14 kms and ends at the Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam (GMVN) guesthouse in Auli, at an altitude of 2,500 m.
If the sky is cear, Auli offers the visitor a clear view of the iconic Nanda Devi peak (7,816 m / 25,643 ft). But this was not to be. The sky had gotten overcast as I took the turn for Auli and by the time I was unloading my luggage, it had started drizzling. The clouds, however, did little to obscure the unique jagged-edged mountains around Joshimath and Auli. In the dying light of the day, the dramatic mountains looked like the exposed teeth of a long dead leviathan, bared menacingly skywards upon death.
As a couple of plates of maggi, followed by some excellent chilli chicken whipped up by the good cook at GMVN slowly soothed the body into a state of temporary hibernation, the mind drifted across the jagged shadow mountains towards Mordor the deep Himalayas. What adventures lay ahead? Will the goddess Nanda Devi open her bounties to this humble traveller? If only I had a window into her divine mind…
For years now I have been delaying my plans to embark upon a road trip to the Mecca of Indian bikers – Ladakh. But then the most unexpected of things happened. Royal Enfield offered to take me on a ride from Delhi to Ladakh to test ride the Himalayan. I would be a fool to turn down the offer of a lifetime.
This would be my first road trip in three years. There were doubts. many, many doubts. Do I still have it in me to travel these long distances? What if I get mountain sickness? What if the bad roads and the strain of the saddle trigger my dormant sciatica? Strangely enough, all these doubts dissipated the moment I swung my legs over the rugged Himalayan on a sweltering July morning at India Gate.
What followed was a week of riding, riding, and then riding some more. Fine, I did fall off a couple of times, but in my defence, it was only while I was trying to show off. So anyway, while I battle my laziness and contemplate how to document the journey in this blog, here’s a teaser of the journey; Through some photographs from the phone. Hopefully someday soon I will manage to get off my ass and write a travelogue and post photos from the ‘proper’ camera.
CHAPTER I: THE HIMALAYAN
I worship my Royal Enfield, a 2008 Machismo 5oo. But the Himalayan was a different beast altogether. For starters, it is purpose-built to take on the rough roads and then carry on when even these ‘roads’ ended. This is not a review of the motorcycle, but let me tell you this, the chassis and suspension are on point. What I loved most was the positioning of the foot pegs; it allows you to stand up and ride. Specially designed indentations along the fuel tanks help you lock in your knees and just glide over the rough patches.
I have always admired motorcycles for their simplicity and ruggedness. After 6 days and close to 2,000 kms on this motorcycle, I can report that not one panel on the bike exists for aesthetic purposes. Everything is rugged and everything is functional. This is what, in my mind, makes the Himalayan beautiful. There is a lot of bite in the brakes, at times, a bit too much, but this is something you will get used to.
All these improvements on the Himalayan meant that it was really hard for me to get off the saddle. As a result, the 320-odd kilometres between Chandigarh and Manali was covered with just one butt break (not counting the photo stops). The previous day we rode into Chandigarh from Delhi, a distance of some 260 kms. This was good because it gave me time to get used to the bike before hitting the hills.
Following the Beas: Snapshots from the road to Manali
Following the Beas: Snapshots from the road to Manali
When you are used to riding the older generation Royal Enfields (and in this, I am including the models with the ‘new’ UC engines), you become so accustomed to vibrations at high revs that when you come across a motorcycle with no vibes whatsoever, it seems rather unreal. This is exactly what happened to me between Delhi and Chandigarh; on top gear at 110-120 kmph, I felt no vibrations whatsoever, at neither the handlebars nor the footpegs.
This also brings us very neatly to what is the biggest downside of the Himalayan – the rather unimpressive power delivery on the higher rev ranges. This is felt the most on long stretches of empty roads where you might want to give it some beans. Irrespective of how well you shift or how wide the throttle, the higher reaches remain annoyingly flat. This motorcycle needs and deserves 10 more horses. The day Royal Enfield makes this happen is the day I put down my deposit on one.
The Trout and I share a complicated relationship
It can die for me and i can travel great distances for it.
CHAPTER II: THE RIDE, OH THE RIDE
The flat Delhi-Chandigarh and the twisty Chandigarh-Manali stretches ensured that by the time we left Manali towards Rohtang and beyond, I had gotten the hang of the Himalayan. The Himalayan Odyssey is a group ride and this year there were close to 80 riders. In addition to this, there were us, a handful of riders from the media. I am not that much of a group rider; in fact, i ride alone and ride to get away from people. So, the mornings were usually slightly stressful for me.
Early morning in Manali/ All set for the road ahead
Of soaring mountains and plunging valleys
View of the road to Rohtang
Road we left behind
A photo stop at the beauty spot at Marhi
At the top of Rohtang, looking down
Going as close to the edge as I dare
Going as close to the edge as I dare
But where there is anxiety, there is also a solution. I planned ahead and parked the bike closest to the exit spot so that in the mornings I am one of the first riders to leave. Upon leaving, I picked up some speed (it was relatively easy as I am a paced rider by nature) which allowed me and a couple of experienced riders get a considerable headstart over the rest of the group. Once you cross Rohtang and descend into the otherworldly Lahaul-Spiti valley, you need to be in your own skin to enjoy the ride and this strategy allowed me to do so.
CHAPTER III: ON THE BANKS OF THE BHAGA
Our destination on the third day of the ride was the tiny mountain village of Jispa. At barely 110 kms, this was the shortest riding day of the trip. Coupled with my riding strategy, this meant that I was able to reach Jispa well before the rest of the gang arrived. Jispa is but a small hamlet located at the widest part of the Bhaga valley. The river here is wide, shallow and full of pebbled banks and a much-needed refuge to worshippers of solitude. Spend some time here, amid the relative greenery before you venture into the land of the high passes, the sparse, stark cold desert.
CHAPTER IV: MOONLANDIA
The word ‘Ladakh’ translates to ‘the land of high passes’. The first of these, Baralacha La, lay but a few kms from Jispa. The previous night was spent in the throes of a myriad of impossible dreams – an obvious effect of the high altitude. So as I swung my legs over the Himalayan’s saddle, I was acutely aware of the fact that on this particular day, we would end up camping at Sarchu, about a kilometre higher than Jispa. I had been previously under the impression that altitude-sickness would not affect me – what with all the trips across Spiti and a couple of high-altitude treks under my belt – but boy, was I about to be proven wrong.
Altitude is a great leveller and pride comes before Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). Avoiding the precautionary dosage of Diamox was a bad idea. Baralacha La came and went, but what remained was a constant throbbing in the head and a strange tingling on the lips. Every breath was laboured and progress was hard. There was barely any strength left to stand on the footpegs and let the lovely Himalayan (which, at this point was faring better than the rider) loose over the gravel and the occasional water crossing. Your appetite goes for a toss, but you need to keep a full stomach to fuel the body and keep the situation from getting worse. Luckily, the lovely tented restaurants along the way dish out many a delicacy from their makeshift kitchens.
Mutton momos at 3500 m
Rajma Chawal at 4300 m
Sarchu is cold, windy but impossibly picturesque. It is also a nightmare for those staying overnight. There are no permanent structures, only tents offering varying degrees of ‘luxury’. Gasping for breath, we reached our encampment, neatly lined up in the middle of the windswept plains against the background of the stark, craggy hills.
At the end of the last post I, battered and bruised, left Chopta and headed towards Gopeshwar. As Chopta had no electricity, I was not able to charge my camera and as a result it died even before I had reached Tungnath Temple. As luck would have it, the road from Chopta to Gopeshwar, a large part of which cut through a National Park, was spectacular. The plan was to get to Gopeshwar, which is barely 70 kms away and rest for the rest of the day before riding towards Kartik Swamy Temple.
I started off from Chopta by 10 am and was in Gopeshwar by 1 in spite of the long nature watching breaks. After two days on foot over a tough terrain, the saddle was a welcome relief. So Gopeshwar was reached and the search for a hotel was commenced upon. Soon, I settled into a cosy room at the Jai Guru Guest House (Rs 250, with running hot water, TV and power backup) and enjoyed a rejuvenating shower. After the shower, I turned my attention to food. Ever since I left home four days back, I had been surviving on delicious, but vegetarian fare. So a non-vegetarian restaurant was found and what ensued can be best described as a cull on the local chicken population.
Basic needs taken care of, my attention was turned on Gopeshwar’s prime attraction, the Gopinath Temple. Uttarakhand’s rulers have had a long history of temple building and that tradition reached its peak in the 12-13th century with the construction of the Gopinath Temple, the largest and the most ornate in the state. It is still a living temple and a carnival of sorts is held around the temple on navaratras. There is evidence to suggest that there were other temples in the vicinity but none of them have survived. The temple premises also serve as a repository for loose sculptures excavated from various parts of town. What has survived unscathed however is a massive trident, nearly 5m in height. It bears an inscription by Anekmalla, a Nepali ruler who controlled the town in the 13th century.
What appeals one most about the temple is how it still remains the center of life in this small town. If you are there, take time out and spend an hour or so in the temple premises in the morning. You will see people dropping in for a quick darshan on their way to work. Schoolchildren say a silent prayer, quite possibly to be spared from the cane of the headmaster. Housewives catch up on the gossip of the day on the way to the markets while the elderly huddle in tight groups and talk about what the elderly talk about. The more things change in big cities, the more things remain the same in small towns. Somehow this is strangely comforting.
A temple can only take up that much of your time. So before it was dark I got back to the hotel room, put the cam on charge and spent the rest of the evening watching IPL matches. The next morning I planned to ride to Rudraprayag and possibly beyond. Idea was to avoid the highway that passed through Chamoli and Karnaprayag. Some research had yielded a little used road that connected Gopeshwar to Rudraprayag through Pokhri. Another appeal of the road was that it passed through Kanakchauri, a tiny hamlet that is the trailhead for the trek to Kartik Swamy Temple.
Since this was to be a relaxed ride I did not bother getting up at the crack of dawn like I normally do, but started late at around 7am. For the first 8 kms, I rode on the highway towards Chamoli and then took a left into the single lane road across the river. The surface was mostly nice with some stretches of gravel and it was almost traffic free. In the 70 odd kms to Pokhri, I could not have passed more than 4-5 vehicles. Such was the emptiness of the road that I began to wonder why they built it in the first place. Maybe it is for bikers like us, who would give up anything for a go on roads like this.
But like Francis Bacon once said ‘there is no beauty which hath not some strangeness about its proportions’, the road had its hidden strangeness. First of all there were the sheer drops. The drops were made scarier by the width or the road itself, or the lack thereof. Then there were the fallen pine nettles. As there is very little traffic on this road, the nettles cover up almost all the road and reduce grip on the tires.
There were stretches where the back-end gave away on a regular basis and one needs to be very vigilant as even the slightest lapse of concentration would send you plummeting to a very certain death. This might all seem dramatic but trust me, I have ridden across Spiti but this road is something else. The real peril is not apparent once you look at it. Its only when you ride that you know that it can kill. But every biker worth his salt will tell you that this is where he/ she would rather ride!
Some 20 kms into the ride, I encountered the first village and fortunately it had a tea stall. So I stopped here and had the most amazing tea and chana. It was slightly nippy and the warm tea and the hot chana just hit the spot.
The riding continued and the landscape kept getting prettier and prettier. Turn off the engine and a sudden pall of silence will descend on you. Silence, you will realize, is not the absence of sound, silence is the absence of noise. Look down the edge and you will see a stream, flanked by terraced rice fields. You never see the villages the farmers stay in. This was an amazing road.
The most worrying bit on this road was a stretch, some 400 m long, which had recently suffered a landslide. The side of the mountain was disemboweled and loose rocks the size of tangerines kept falling at regular intervals. I took a deep breath and started to cross the stretch, one eye looking at the road ahead and the other scanning the mountainside for falling rocks. Fortunately, there were no incidents and yours truly escaped unscathed.
By 10:30, i had crossed Pokhri and the road has smoothened out. It was curvy and had on an almost perfect black top. The traffic had also increased a bit but that did not stop me from leaning on the corners. Very soon i was at a curve on the road, flanked by a number of shops – Kanakchauri for you. A nondescript concrete archway marked the beginning of the 2.5 km long trek to Karthik Swamy Temple. On a clear day the temple, on top of a hill provides a 270 degree panorama of the Himalayas. The day was not clear and i was pretty sure that the peaks were not visible, but i started the walk nonetheless.
Most of the oath passes through a thick rhododendron forest. The inclines were steep in places, but mostly it is a gentle up hill walk. Most of the height is gained in the last one third of the trek where in stretches it is almost vertical. Very little information is available on the temple online. I heard about the beauty of the place from a friend. A veteran of many treks and high altitude Himalayan expeditions, he swore by its beauty, thus prompting my investigation.
Two thirds of the way up the hill, one comes across the quarters of the priests, There are also a few attached rooms where one can stay for the night. It is a good idea to do because then you can climb up to the mountain and watch the sunrise, which is bound to be a spectacular sight. I met the rather young priest and he said that he had just come down, so once i reach the top, i should be all by myself. Time for an one-to-one with the big guy i guess!
The last bit of the trek is comprised of steps cut into the rock and at places its almost vertical. The beauty of the temple is that throughout the trek you know where it is, but it does not show itself. But when you climb over the steep steps and come to a plateau, it suddenly reveals itself. And what a revelation that is!
By now you are suddenly aware of the height that you have gained. You are higher than any of the surrounding hills and on either side of you are sheer drops. If you peek over the edge (if you dare to, that is!) you will see a thick carpet of trees. And again, there is silence! That soundtrack of nature!
Like i predicted, the peaks were blocked by clouds. Standing there, i could imagine how it would look had the clouds suddenly disappeared, revealing the snowy giants. But i am glad i came here and i have every intention of coming back.
The Kartik Swamy Temple has a unique ritual. A big fair is held in Kanakchauri on the occasion of Kartik Purnima (usually on the last week of November). It is believed that if you carry a bell to the temple and make a wish, it will come true. As a reasult the temple complex is full of bells. Thousands of them, in various shapes and sizes. This reminded me of the Chauragarh Temple near Pachmarhi, in Madhya Pradesh. Both temples are located on top of mountains and can be accessed by long treks. The only difference is, in Chauragarh Temple, the devotees offer trishuls (tridents) instead of bells.
I also spotted some offerings of sindoor (vermilion) and combs. I could not understand the logic behind this. In Hindu mythology, Kartik, or Kartikya is known for his handsomeness. His vanity is also reflected in is choice of vahana (divine vehicle) – a peacock! I think since both sindoor and combs are used as cosmetics, they would make sense as offerings to Kartik. I might be wrong, but in case you know the explanation, please do tell me.
Like the priest had predicted, i was all by myself at the top. Intent on making the most of this rare solitude, i spent over an hour there, just sitting and gazing into the abyss, battling inner monsters. I knew that after i climb down, i would begin descending and very soon i would be in the hot, shimmering plains. Predictably, the abyss gazed also into me and whispered words of kindness and promises of a return into my eager ears.
Right now, four months later, i am sitting in a south Delhi barsati, jabbing at the keyboard and counting down to the day when i will go back to the mountains.
The waters of Deoriya Taal must have miraculous properties, for when I was woken early in the morning by a shivering Prashant, I realized I had no hangover at all! Wonderful realization aside, one could now see the mountains in bright daylight and what a sight it was! From left to right, the entire horizon was marked by white, jagged peaks, culminating with the Nanda Devi, peeking surreptitiously over the ridge-line!
The lake is famous for the reflection of the peaks . This only happens early in the mornings when the air is still. Once the wind picks up, post 10 am, it creates ripples on the surface of the lake and the reflections disappear. The setting on this particular morning was perfect. The air was still, the light was bright and the reflections were near perfect. Just a tiny problem: the camera seems to have a mind of its own. No matter what setting I used, the photos were all washed out. I just could not figure out the damn thing. It’s surprising, considering how brilliantly it performed in the low light conditions the previous night. On the brighter side of things, I did manage to salvage like 10 clicks from the hundreds I shot. Sigh!
The magical waters of the lake failed to have its effect on Negi, whose snoring had woken Prashant up who then decided that I have slept enough. While Negi was sound (well…) asleep, his friend from the village arrived, to guide us on our trek from Deoriya Taal to Chopta. It is a 14 km long trek through the rhododendron forests and the occasional bugyal (meadow, in the local lingo) and a tough one too, for unfit souls like us. I did not even have proper trekking shoes!
The track started at the other end of the lake and for the first part, passed through thick oak and rhododendron forests. After around a mile or so, the track starts climbing towards the top of the ridge that overlooks Saari village. The total ascent here is of about 250 m over a horizontal distance of less that 300-400 m. So it’s STEEP! The top of the ridge offered a spectacular view of the village and the surrounding valleys. On the distance, we could see the motley collection of tents and a few permanent buildings that is Chopta. It was still far, very far off!
On the other side was Chaukhambha, now appearing even more massive. Slowly, but steadily, a growing cloud was covering up the mountains. There was also some concern over the reappearance of the storm I faced on the first day while I was riding up to Sari (see earlier post). As a result, every now and then we found ourselves glancing towards the heavens searching for the tell-take signs. We were walking at an average altitude of 3000m, and a good soaking would definitely result in a most pleasing bout of pneumonia. Oh good!
We then traversed the top of the ridge and proceeded to descend into the valley on the other side through some thick woods. Every now and then, we would chance upon a clearing or a meadow where we would rest, drink some water, and munch on some biscuits. It was a tough trek and most of the time we were climbing over ridges and descending into valleys. Straight and level stretches were few. Although I struggled a bit in the uphill parts, a made up for it by taking less breaks.
After we descended into the valley on the other side of the ridge, the Chaukhambha disappeared from view and another snow clad peak showed itself. Taking into consideration the relative height of the nearby Chandrashila and the amount of snow left on it, it couldn’t be more than 5500 m tall. But since it was very close (right across the gorge to our left), it loomed over us like a giant. It was made of jet black stone and the way some dark clouds gathered around its summit, gave it an aura of mystery. Negi (yes, our guide was also called Negi. No relation though.) told us that the villagers call it Kalapahad, owing to the dark rocks.
Every now and then, the forests would clear and we would emerge on a bugyal. While most of them were snow-less, the higher reaches of some still had some patches of dirty, dying snow. With every meadow, the mountain called Kalapahad was getting closer and closer until we came upon one where it felt that you could just reach out and touch the mountain’s snowy slopes. By this time we had covered almost 60 percent of the trek and since we had also made good time, we decided to reward ourselves with a long break. So we sprawled out on the gently sloping meadow with the mountain occupying most of our visual field.
We could have sat there and looked at the mountain for ages, but alas, we had to move on. The track began climbing again and very soon, huffing and puffing, we were on top of yet another ridge. Chopta was now only one more mountain away. Incidentally, our supply of water was exhausted due to zealous consumption. With around 5 kms still to go, our only chance of a refill was at a stream at the bottom of the ridge. It was a rather steep descent and the trail was, at times, blocked by fallen trees. To add to my fitness issues, my shoes were now cutting into my feet and the discomfiture increased with every step.
So needless to say that when we did reach the stream, the first thing I did was to take off the shoes and dip my gnawed out stumps in the water. What I did not realize was that the glacier the stream was being fed by was merely 300 m upstream. Bone chilling is an understatement. I could not feel my legs for a full minute after a mere one second soak. Good thing I guess. Water does not come purer than this. We refilled our bottles and decided to lounge here for some time. I found a slab of rock in the middle of the stream, undressed to my shorts and promptly fell asleep in the sun. A power nap never hurt anyone, especially since we were one just one climb away from reaching Chopta.
Soon it was time to get going again and embark on what would be the last leg of our trek to Chopta. From the stream, we clambered up the side of the next hill and soon came upon the longest flat stretch of the trek. Here we met a group of villagers comprising mostly of women and one lone man. They were carrying on their backs huge loads of a local fern which they would then dry, bind together and use as brooms. These are hardworking villagers, the very salt of the earth. While I was groaning under the weight of my 12 kg backpack, these tiny women were each carrying a load almost equal to their own body weight and even then outpacing me!
At long last the track merged into the metalled road leading to Chopta, which was still around one kilometer away. After the rough stones and uneven ground, the feel of the hard, flat surface beneath the feet was very comforting. Negi (not the guide) had arranged a hotel for us in Chopta, which was right beside the path that leads to Tungnath and Chandrashila. By this time the battery of the camera was on the last bar and I was hoping to charge it up for our morning trek to Tungnath and Chandrashila.
Little did I know that Chopta had no electricity! They had some solar panels but those are only for the lights. This did bum me out a little but I forgot about my woes completely when the room service boy showed up with a huge bucket of hot water (no running water as well, unless the room service boy is in a hurry). The hot shower took away all the strain of the trek and once I had changed into some comfortable floaters, I was almost as good as new.
So energized was I after the shower that I joined a few local kids in their cricket match. Prashant, meanwhile couldn’t care less about a bath and went straight to bed. Chopta, at 2900m was considerably higher than Deoriya Tal and the cold, as a result was also more severe. By the time the game was over and I had had my tenth cup of tea, the temperature had plummeted. With no electricity and the fascinating things that come with it, like moving pictures and songs from boxes, we called it an early night.
We woke up at the crack of dawn for the trek to Tungnath and Chandrashila. Boy was it cold! After the customary five mugs of steaming tea, we set off for this 4km trek. The locals have been telling us that we would not be able to reach Tungnath, never mind Chandrashila which is 500 m higher. The winter had been severe and the temple was still covered by snow, almost knee deep. If we even had proper trekking shoes, we could have done it. But not in the present rag tag state we were in. But we headed out anyway.
The path was steep, but unlike the trek from Deoriya Tal top Chopta, and owing to the large pilgrim footfall in the yatra season, the whole path was paved and cemented. When we set out I just had enough juice in the camera for 10 shots, so I had to shoot judiciously. Amazingly enough I got more than 20 shots out of it and it finally gave away when after much slipping and falling on ice; we managed to reach the temple. Chandrashila would have to wait for the next time.
The way down was easier, thanks to gravity. From here however, Prashant and I would part ways. I would ride on to Gopeshwar and from there back home via some relatively unknown roads and over two days, while Prashant would go back to Ukhimath and head back home from there. We parted with promises to keep in touch. Two months later, as i sit and write this account, i am glad to report that we are in touch and much to my consternation, while i am in the furnace called Delhi, Prashant, the professional poker player (no kidding!!) is cooling his heels in Khajjar. Bastard!
It has become a sort of a ritual. I lay in bed, tossing and turning but no sign of sleep. Oh good! Tomorrow I ride on the hill roads while having to fight sleep from taking over. Couldn’t be more excited! To be honest, I wasn’t trying too hard to fall asleep either. Passed time watching a mundane IPL game and the very entertaining Craig Ferguson, while waiting for the clock to strike the witching hour.
Just when I was checking my luggage for one last time before saddling up, came the rain. This ride would be different, I knew. I had broken my wonderful Nikon D80 on a earlier ride to Sariska National Park and on this ride, I would have to make do with a friends Canon 450D. It is a very different camera from my Nikon. For one, the controls and the metering are completely different and it takes a long time to get used to. Also Dope has been worked upon. I have removed the stock air filter and replaced it with a K & N air intake. The carburetor has also been up-jetted. As a result both the acceleration off the block as well as the top speed has increased substantially. This will be fun.
Anyway, it happened to be a passing rain and it stopped within fifteen minutes and I was good to go! The idea was to take the Meerut by-pass and turn into Khatauli and proceed from there towards Pauri via Bijnor and Najibabad. From Pauri, the route joins the National Highway 58. I would follow 58 till Rudraprayag from where I would cross the Mandakini and take the left bank road to Ukhimath. My plan was to reach Saari, (trailhead to Deoriya Taal) till nightfall. The plan was ambitious but like Gandhi once said: ‘aim for the sky and you reach the treetop. Aim for the treetop and you never take off’. Flawed plans and questionable quotes aside, I was ready for the ride.
By the time I left, it was almost 3:30. The idea was to get past Meerut before sunrise, which was done easily even after a 20 minute wait in a cattle-shed waiting for a passing shower to …well, pass by. A few kms after the Meerut by-pass I took the right turn into a sleepy Khatauli just as the sun was coming up on the wheat fields. From Khatauli, I followed the Jansath Road and turned left towards Bijnor. On this stretch, as I stopped for a snap, I realized that my bike was leaking engine oil. When I had removed the stock air filter, I did not remove the box it was enclosed in. One of the pipes leads from the main crank into a breather under the seat. From there, another (drainage) pipe leads to the empty box and it was this that was spewing oil all over the silencer and the rear wheel.
By my estimate I had lost around 300 ml of oil by the time i spotted the leak. So I disconnected the pipe, stuffed it lightly with some cloth and started riding again at a much reduced speed. A constant monitoring for the next 50 kms or so revealed that there was no further leakage. I always carry a liter of oil on me when I am touring, so the loss of oil was not a concern. But the leakage coated the hot silencer with grime and ruined Dope’s painstakingly achieved shine. Too bad for photographs!
The hills appeared soon after Exxon Valdez was fixed. There was a bottleneck at Najibabad, but then if you had a totally hassle free ride in the plains; it would be really weird, no? The roads were in good state as monsoon was still months away. I love this road. I have taken this twice in the past and on both occasions I was heading to Lansdowne. This time I would pass by this lovely town and head on further towards Pauri. It was late spring and the colours of the season were reflected in the foliage. Once you cross the Lansdowne turn, the road becomes exceptionally empty. It is a good idea to stop your vehicle on a lonely stretch and stand there listening to the silence. The only sounds punctuation this deep silence are the occasional chirping of birds and the constant, mild crash of a dead leaf falling on a bed of other dead leaves.
I had a quick lunch at a road-side restaurant and I used to time to consult the map. For those riding out there, it’s a good idea to avoid the TTK maps. Not only are they ambiguous and contain the very basic information, but also also hugely misleading. A section of the road between Pauri and Lansdowne, which has been closed for years, has been marked as a state highway. Your best bet for Uttaranchal is Nest and Wings. If N & W is unavailable, use Eicher maps (also happens to be my past employers).
Map errors notwithstanding, the roads between Lansdowne and Pauri were beautiful, broken in patches and wild. After Lansdowne, it was downhill all the way till Satpuliafter which the road starts rising again. Ironic as it may sound, I am somewhat scared of heights. It’s all good when the roads are wide, but when the roads are narrow (like on this stretch) and you can see (or not) the end of the gorge, my heart starts racing. It’s a pity that photographs can never tell you how scary the roads have been, because on the rougher stretches you are shitting bricks and hoping that you do not veer even two inches to the right. Taking a photograph is the last thing on your mind. After a couple of hours of white-knuckle riding, I found myself on the outskirts of Pauri. A quick glance at the watch confirmed that despite the time lost to the oil leak, I was well on schedule.
The road started to descend immediately after Pauri and in around 30 kms, it connected with the National Highway 58 at Srinagar. After riding on the single lane, a drop-and-you-are-dead road for the last 3-4 hours, the 58 was a welcome break. It was near perfect tarmac and it was WIDE! I could finally test the mods on Dope and boy, was I happy! The bike was pulling like a runaway freight-train and thanks to the roads I could take them corners at almost triple digit speeds and engage in some foot-peg scraping foreplay. But like all good things, all this fun soon came to an end as I reached Rudraprayag.
In a previous post on Binsar, I talked about how much of my fascination to Uttarakhand was borne out of the works of the legendary Jim Corbett. No place is more memorable to Corbett fans than Rudraprayag, the once hunting ground of the eponymous man-eating leopard. Between 1918 and 1925, the beast killed at least 125 people in the area, most of them pilgrims on their way to Kedarnath or Badrinath. A plaque still stands at the spot where Corbett shot the leopard.
The Rudraprayag of today is a far cry from what it would have been back in the days of Corbett. It is a pile of concrete, replete with hotels which are full of transiting pilgrims during the yatra season. I stopped at the main square for a quick chai and resumed my journey across the Mandakini on the road towards Ukhimath. It was around 4:30 pm and chances of reaching Saari looked pretty good.
Truth be told, I was rather tired at this point and the lack of sleep did not help either. Then things went from bad to worse. Just as I was about to enter Agastyamyni (19 kms from Rudraprayag), the blue back-drop of the spring sky was replaced by a threatening, dark grey cloud. The wind was picking up and the dust in the air made it almost impossible to ride beyond 10 kmph. But I labored on. Soon big fat drops began to fall from the sky – an ominous sign of things to come. Amazingly, the GMVN bungalow of Chandrapuri magically appeared at the very place where it started pouring. I put dope in the parking and secured a room for a princely sum of Rs 360. It was a spotlessly clean double room with a TV, geyser and enough space to play football!
There was no electricity and I decided to sit by the window and write my journal while waiting for the generator to be switched on at 6. The rain had, by now, transformed itself into a howling storm. Upon enquiry, the hotel staff told me that it had been surprisingly hot the last few days and when that happens, Mother Nature sends a storm like this to cool things down. On the brighter side, I could now expect a sparkling morning. Yay!
It was too much waiting for the lights to come on so that I could take a hot water bath. But I was super sleepy too. So I showered with ice-cold water to wash off the day’s dust and grime and dived under a pile of warm blankets. Sleep needed no further invitation. I have only the minutest recollection of being woken up (the dining room was upstairs) when the dinner was served. I was woken up early in the morning by Anindita who had a little adventure of her own on a double-decker bus on the way to Shirdi from Mumbai. After making fun of her for a while, I got dressed and stepped out into a dazzling morning. The clouds had disappeared and in its place stood a huge, snowy massif on one side of which was the mighty Chaukhambha and on the other, Mount Sumeru. So this is what I came to see! Recharged, I wolfed down some breakfast, cleared my dues, strapped on the luggage and hit the road to Ukhimath.
Around 20 kms from Chandrapuri, the road bifurcates at Kund. The one on the left leads to Gaurikund (trailhead for Kedarnath) via Guptkashi while the one on the right, which I took, leads to Ukhimath. Till Kind, the road followed the course of the Mandakini and then it starts climbing towards Ukhimath. Thanks to yesterday’s shower, the air was clean and the landscape looked brand new. The serpentine road passed through little villages surrounded by terraced paddy fields. It was early but life in these villages was already buzzing. The kids were on the way to their school; the adults were either working their fields or manning their businesses, all the time being watched over by the mighty Himalayas.
Okhimath, as it is also spelled, is a lovely little town, known for the ancient Omkareshwar Temple. During the winter months it is home to two of the five kedars – Kedarnath and Madmaheshwar. Luckily the two deities were still at the temple when I visited and I was lucky to have a darshan.
This brings me to the rather ambiguous issue of Religion. I am not a religious man in my day-to-day life, but when I am travelling it is a different story. I have often put it down to the dangers of the road. It is tough riding in India and you tend to fall back on the crutch that is religion. Often, while riding you come across a tiny roadside temple, like the millions of others that dot the Indian roads. If you would have passed by it in Delhi, you would hardly glance. But on the road it’s different. Almost instinctively your right hand first touches your forehead and then your chest and you lips quiver in a prayer or two.
Then there is nature! Lift a temple off the crowded streets and put it on a hill against the backdrop of the high Himalayas and it immediately commands respect. The Panch Kedars (Kedarnath, Tungnath Badrinath, Rudranath and Madmaheshwar), in this case, have been around for ages. People have walked up to them from the sweltering plains below for thousands of years. The architecture of the temples themselves reflects that very antiquity. So the combined effect of the mythology, the architecture and the picturesque setting results in a very religious yours truly.
Saari village, where I intended to reach yesterday is merely 12 kms from Ukhimath. I was actually glad that I did not make it to Saari last evening. Considering the overcast conditions and the hurry I would have been in, I would have missed out on the sights that I so enjoyed this morning. I was in no hurry at all. While I was researching for this trip on Indiamike.com, I came across Prashant, who like me, was planning to travel in the area. So we decided to meet up in Saari and then trek up to Deoriya Tal together. When I called him from Ukhimath, he was still 3-4 hours away. I could and did take my own sweet time.
The roads were amazing as usual and as after Ukhimath, villages are few and far between, the traffic too was sparse. So I stopped every 500 m or so, killed the engine and listened to the mountain sounds. By now Chandrashila (4000 m, which I plan to climb in course of this journey) with the sprinkling of snow near the top was visible.
After around 10 kms, a road branches off left and leads to Sari (2-3 kms). Most of the people in Sari are involved in tourism. One of them, Mr Raghuveer Negi (Ph: 09690090515) was to be my host. I had contacted him from Delhi and he was to rent us camping equipment and guide us to Chopta, should we plan to trek there from Deoriya Tal. I reached Negi’s shop in the village and on finding out that Prashant was still 1.5 hours away, went off on a walk in the village.
The oldest part of the village can be reached by one of the many tiny paths that branch off the main road. There is a square of sorts, paved with stones, around which stand a handful of typically Garhwali houses. They are visibly more than a century old and the door jambs have ornate sculptures and a Ganesh on the lintel. Beyond the old village is a path through the rice paddies which takes you to the school, located on the end of a sheer cliff! At this time, I got a call from Prashant who was stranded on the Ukhimath Road as public transport from there was limited. So I drove down, picked him up and came back to Negi’s tea shop for a spot of lunch.
Prashant and I hit off immediately and very soon Negi too joined in on the banter. While we were having lunch the sky darkened and it started drizzling. Clouds meant that when we do get to the lake, we would not be able to enjoy the views the lake is so famous for. On the brighter side however, it was a full moon night and when the clouds do clear it would be as bright as a slightly dull day. So lots to look forward to!
In an hour or so the rains started to hold and we started on the 3 km uphill trek to Deoriya Tal. The path is very well-marked and more often than not, paved. On a clear day even the most unfit hiker (read: me) can cover the distance in around one hour. We however had to stop on several occasions due to rains and by the time we reached the top, we had taken more than an hour and a half. Even when you reach the top, you don’t see the lake right away. But once you are clear of the thicket, the lake unfolds and proceeds to take your breath away. Like I said, it was cloudy and the peaks were hidden but still the setting makes you stop dead on your tracks.
The sun was just about to go down when we reached the banks of the lake. So without further ado, we decided to walk around the lake before it gets dark completely. At this moment let me tell you, the lake is much, much larger than it looks. A paved pathway runs along the banks of the lake and in the falling evening light, it had the air of mystery about it, especially the bit that goes through the woods.
By this time Prashant and I had bonded even more and we indulged ourselves in some random tomfoolery. But the tomfoolery was cut short by hunger pangs and we made our way back to Negi’s dhaba. Apart from Negi, two other villagers also run their dhabas at the lake and are open throughout the year. If you contact them beforehand they will set up camp for you and arrange for food as well. If you are on a budget, you can even crash in the dhabas, but I would suggest you get your own sleeping bag.
Not only had Negi found the most beautiful spot for us to camp, he had also arranged for some alcohol, all the way from Ukhimath. Now that the sun was down, the temperature started plummeting and the alcohol was much welcome. So a fire was lit, drinks were made and for hours afterwards, stories were exchanged.
As we were lifting our spirits, so to speak, the sky cleared and the glorious full moon appeared. With every passing minute it was getting brighter and soon we saw what we had read about so many times on the blogs of travellers who had visited here – the spectacular 300 degree view of the Chaukhambha Massif with Nilkantha, Bandarpunch, Kedar range, Yellow Tooth and Kalanag.
By 9pm, the moonlight was bright enough to cast sharp shadows and one could even see Nanda Devi in the distance. We moved back to the dhaba for some dinner and here Prashant decided that he was too full (drunk, really) to go back to the tent and promptly slid in a sleeping bag and fell asleep.
Like I said before, the camera I was carrying is unfamiliar and unlike Nikons, the interface of Canons is always more complicated – a stumbling block for a tech Neanderthal like yours truly. So after wrestling with the settings for about half an hour, I managed to set the aperture and shutter speed to the numbers I was looking for and went in search for a tripod, or something that could act like one. A plastic chair was at hand and for the moment, it would have to do.
By midnight, I was pretty much the only person on the campsite that was up and about. After all, how can you possibly fall asleep when there is so much beauty around you? The heady mix of unadulterated nature and adulterated alcohol did a number in my head and I sat watching the moon-shadows change place for hours. After all, you never know when you will be back here again. Sometimes, quite surprisingly, sleep becomes your worst enemy.
P.S: I continue this questionable adventure of mine in the next post. Watch out for more snowy peaks, bad hair and breached whales! Will be back within a week. Promise!
This post was long overdue. I was travelling a lot in the early part of the year. A family engagement took me to Kolkata, from where i branched off into rural Bengal. That was January. In February came one long trip across a hitherto unexplored swathe of Madhya Pradesh. Later, in March i found myself in Uttarakhand. In the middle of all these long travels, one weekend, me and my friend Imroz Adeeb visited the Keoladeo Ghana National Park at Bharatpur over the weekend.
Being a history nerd, i could not resist the nearby Deeg, so we modified our route a bit. We followed the National Highway 2 to Mathura from where we turned right towards Govardhan and eventually to Deeg. After driving on the flawless but boring tarmac of the NH, the tiny, bumpy roads seemed like heaven-sent.
But if you are driving on this road, don’t get too excited by the spreading mustard fields and the quaint hamlets around you. There are many unmarked speed breakers on this stretch and if you are not paying attention, they might break your vehicles and you even. Although we went to Deeg first, I am going to move ahead and talk about Bharatpur. Deeg I will post later.
The area around Mathura is generally referred to as Braj bhoomi, or the ‘land of Krishna’. Mythologically speaking, this is where Krishna grew up and did all those things we remember him for (steal butter, steal clothes of bathing beauties, herd cows and lift a chariot wheel, among others). So, every now and then, the tiny road weaves through a tiny town, dominated by an oversized and multi-coloured temple.
We had left home quite early in the morning and as a result, reached Deeg before 10 am. We idled around the palace complex for a couple of hours before heading towards Bharatpur. Just as the dusty little town came into sight – DISASTER! The clutch cable broke off while I was doing about 100 kph. I somehow managed to bring down the speed to around 40 kph. I knew that if the bike stopped, we would have to push it for around 5 kms, so I downshifted somehow and continued towards the town. Asked a couple of passing motorcyclists about the location of a good bullet mechanic and as it turns out, one of them were on our way! I also had a spare cable with me, which was fortunate because finding a spare would be like searching for a needle in a dusty, crowded town!
We had initially planned to foray into the park for a little while in the afternoon and spend more time again the next morning. However, the clutch wire episode ensured that by the time we got into the hotel, it was already dark. For those who have not been to Bharatpur, the Park lies south of the National Highway 11 that connects Agra with Jaipur. As we had been to Deeg, we approached the town from the north, negotiated the endless crowded lanes and reached the southern part of the town where all the hotels are located within 500 m of the park’s entrance.
There are three ways of exploring the park – on a rickshaw, on a bicycle and on foot. We tried to hire a bike, but none of them were free. So we turned to the rickshaw, which in retrospect was a good idea. The rickshaw pullers are authorised guides and are pretty fluent in English. Our guide – Hardev Singh – even surprised us by quoting Salim Ali and throwing at us almost unpronounceable scientific names of birds.
Keoladeo Ghana National Park is largely man-made. It was developed in 1899 by Prince Harbhanji of Morvi in Gujarat as a duck hunting reserve. He constructed bunds and dykes all around the saucer-shaped depression in the outskirts of Bharatpur and increased its water holding capacity. It remained a notified forest for years before being granted the status of a National Park in 1981. In 1985 it was designated by the UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. It sprawls over an area of 29 sq kms.
The park is a mosaic of grasslands, woodlands, woodland swamps and wetland. This diverse habitat is home to 375 species of avifauna. In addition to this, it also has 372 species of plants, 34 species of mammals and 14 species of snakes. Right as you enter the gate, on both sides of the road are open grasslands and patches of bush. Around a kilometer from the gate, on both sides of the road, the swamps begin. The water is covered with red and green algae which is the main food for many of the birds as well as the park’s large deer population. Apart from being the foundation of the food chain, the multicoloured algae is spectacular to look at. Certain closed swamps, where the algae is cultured and eventually distributed across the park, look almost dreamlike.
The road ends near a temple and right in front of you in the large, main swamp of Bharatpur. Little mud islands, covered with birds, both endemic and migratory dot the swamp.
If you are a budding bird-lover like me, the best time to visit the park is from November to February when you can see a large number of migratory birds. The park, however is open throughout the year and continues to attract serious ornithologists who come here to study the endemic species.
Painted storks (Mycteria leucocephala) are the most visible birds in the sanctuary. This is not only because of their large numbers and large size, but also due to the fact that they make a tremendous racket. As the name suggests, the adult birds are quite colorful. The youngsters, on the other hand are a dull shade of grey and start putting on colour when they are about four months old.
Another bird we saw a lot of was the Indian Roller (Coracias benghalensis). I grew up in rural Bengal where this bird, locally called neelkanth (blue-throat, a reference to its obvious colouration), is a common sight. Its only after i saw it here, after so many years that i realised how beautiful it actually is. One i sighted on a low branch slightly off the main track. I successfully managed to tread the distance without disturbing the bird and captured a few shots.
Being a marsh, there is an obvious abundance of kingfishers – particularly the Halcyon smyrnensis or the white breasted kingfisher. These birds appeared to be surprisingly bold and remained still even when i was barely an arm’s length away. These brilliantly coloured birds are quick and one of the world’s most efficient hunters.
Of the many species of egrets, we saw three – Great egret, intermediate egret and the little egret. The difference in these three are, as the names suggest, mainly in terms of size. But frankly i might have seen more but failed to identify as many of the egret sub-species vary very little in appearance and can be said apart only by the most expert ornithologist.
Related to the egrets and herons is the ibis. Of the many varieties found worldwide, Bharatpur is home to two – Glossy ibis (Plegadis falcinellus) and the black-headed ibis (Threskiornis melanocephalus). Of the two we just saw the latter, and that too in large number. However although they were obviously many, all of them were concentrated on the farthest corner of the main marsh. Ibises have a beak that is curved forwards which helps it sift through the mud for small crustaceans.
Also in the central marsh we saw two other beautiful water-birds. The first was the wooly-necked stork (Ciconia episcopus). They are found across the globe fro m the grasslands of Africa to India and as far east as Indonesia. In spite of the vast geographic field and their ‘least Concern’ status in the IUCN list, we saw just one bird.
The other was the bar-headed geese (Anser indicus) which migrate here every winters from the distant Siberia. There were a huge flock of these at the marshes but for some reason they never really took flight. As a result the desire to capture the image of a huge flock of birds in flight has to date remained a fantasy. Interestingly, they are thought to be the highest flying birds in the world. Tagged individuals have been noted to have flown over Mt Makalu (8,841 m), the fifth highest mountain in the world.
Apart from the main, circular swamp, the little marshes on the die of the main road also hold a huge population of birds, mainly painted storks, spoonbills (Platalea leucorodia), grey herons (Ardea cinerea), cormorants (little and great), darters (Anhinga melanogaster ), etc. The waters are rich in algae and crustaceans and can support a large number of birds and the occasional nilgai and sambar.
Apart from the obvious water-birds, two other sightings record special mention. The first is the spotted owlet (Athene brama), and like the Indian Roller, i had seen a lot of these growing up in the village. It was nice to see them again.
Then there was the nightjar, which definitely was one of the highlights of the trip. Credit here goes totally to our guide who spotted it out of nowhere. These nocturnal birds rest during the daytime and often on the ground. It was so well camouflaged against the foliage that it actually took us some time to see the actual bird even though it was only a few feet from us. The particular species is not clear. Maybe the pros out there can help. Looks like it is a large-tailed nightjar (Caprimulgus macrurus)
I know the park is famous for its feathered residents, it also has a significant number of mammals as well and we did get to see some. One of the first animals we saw upon entering the park was a jackal (Canis aureus). We kept getting glimpses of this slippery customer throughout the park.
Nilgais (Boselaphus tragocamelus) are a common sight in Delhi and its outskirts and so it was not a big surprise to see it Bharatpur. But still, hand on heart, i’d rather see a pack of nilgais in the wild than a tiger in a cage.
We saw surprisingly little of the cheetals (Axis axis). Early in our trip, we noticed a Crested Serpent Eagle in the distance and decided to go towards it, and on the way, we were surprised by a herd of them (they also surprised the bird, who immediately took to the skies).
In the middle of a forest, just before the main swamp is a shiva temple which gave Keoladeo Ghana National Park its name. Here, in a fenced off enclosure is a tiny canteen where one can buy chips, snacks and water. here we came across some super friendly squirrels who would eat the chips right off our hands.
My most interesting encounter, however, was with a pack of wild boar. I was walking off the trail in knee-high grass when i was alerted by the sounds of grunting. I immediately turned to face a pack of wild boars which comprised on a few juveniles and the mother. All the wild boars we had seen so far were small and this was no exception, so i decided to take it lightly. When i moved ever so little, just to raise my camera to take a photograph, the mother charged. Fortunately for me, it was just a half charge, meant to scare me off and trust me, it had the desired effect. No matter what the size of the wild animal, never, even un-intentionally threaten the kids!
Another sight, and this time pretty, was a pack of Sambar (Rusa unicolor) grazing ion the marshes, feeding on the algae. We were just a few paces away and the animals were thankfully unmindful of us. The colours of the water and the grace of the animals made for a fantastic sight.
It had been a good trip, and with the exception of the pythons (which, being February, must have been hibernating) and the sarys crane, we had seen almost all the birds and beasts we had come to see, and then some. What i enjoyed the most was that one could simply walk on the paths and spot wildlife. Sometimes its good not to have a tiger around! I am writing this almost a year after i went there, and already in my mind, i am planning a return. Can anyone lend me a telephoto (Nikon mount) for a weekend?
I left home with a tankful of petrol, Rs 3000 in my pocket and nothing in my bank account. Does not speak volumes of my financial acumen, but hey, i get by. This was the i’m-in-between-jobs-ride and i had nothing better to do in Delhi. So i thought that a ride would be the best way to spend the last of my cash. So i rode. It was one of the occasions when i did what i do best – travel alone.
I have made countless trips, visited many places known, unknown and little known, but even after all the travelling i have never been able to sleep the night before. The excitement of the impending trip is enough to keep me up all night and this time was no different. I hit the bed looking for some shut eye and it was a long time later that obdurate sleep did come. When i woke up, the watch told me that it was 4:22 AM. Shit! As per my original plan, i am already an hour late.
The problem was Moradabad. The previous day, there were some communal clashes and a curfew had been imposed on the city and some surrounding villages. I have never travelled in this route before and i did not know how close the highway went to the affected areas. So the idea was to cross it before sunrise. And now i have through pass through violent rioters in full daylight. Awesome!
Anyway, coming back to my leaving home with a tankful of gas and a handful of money… I had been in touch with a certain Sundar Singh, whose number (09410590980) i found on a very helpful site on travel in India. The post said that he arranges for homestays in the villages in Binsar and also acts as a guide in longer treks. A quick check on the Kumaon Mandal Vikas Nigam (KMVN) revealed that Sundar was giving me a room in his village for half the price of the cheapest room in the KMVN Rest House and the price included all meals. I was sold! Also, the village was supposed to be in the middle of the Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary!
The first roadblock on the way was the bridge over the Ganga at Garhmukteshwar. The ancient two lane bridge was fed on both sides by four lane highways and it created one hell of a bottleneck. In spite of the fact that i reached Garhmukteshwar by 6 AM, it took me over 45 minutes to negotiate the nightmare. There are two ways to get to Binsar, and while going, i took the Moradabad – Bazpur – Kaladhungi – Nainatal – Almora route.
Barring the bottleneck at Garhmukteshwar, the road from Delhi to Modarabad is pretty good. Just before entering Moradabad, it is recommended that you get on to the Moradabad By Pass road. You will pass a couple of toll plazas and at the end of the bypass, you take a left (feels more like a U-turn) and ride on heavily potholed roads till Kaladhungi. After that, it was a different business. The Corbett National Park was making its presence felt and through it ran a black ribbon of a road.
Right after Bazpur, i could see the mountains and with every passing kilomete, they grew closer and closer till suddenly i was halfway up one. In front of me lay the expanse of the plains and the green carpet of Corbett, which i had just skirted. It was bang in the middle of monsoons so the greenery was unbelievable.
The roads were practically empty and the tarmac was perfect. I was a bit apprehensive about riding hard as my rear rubbers were almost without any tread. But the thing with roads like these is that once you start the cornering, you forget everything else… the lean rules your world. Thankfully all went well. Very soon i was within 40 kms of Nainital and i decided to take a break after riding non-stop for around 240 kms.
As i said earlier, the route i took was less frequented by the touristy lot, who preferred to come to Nainital via Bheemtal and Bhowali. The ride was fantastic and since this was my first time in Kumaon, the greenery was refreshing. The mountains were spectacular and the gain in altitude was perceptible. Khurpatal appeared suddenly to my right reminding me that i was in the Lake District.
Very soon, the otherwise empty roads showed signs of automotive presence. Nainital was close and it welcomed me with a massive traffic jam. Once the jam cleared, i took the Mall Road by the side of the Naini Lake and i must admit, for a touristy place, it was very nice. Like Darjeeling, where i practically grew up, Nainital had a charm of its own. I wouldn’t mind coming here for a relaxed weekend if the company was right.
When you drive through the Mall Road, the Lake is to your right. From the intersection where the lake ends, you have to take a left for Almora and eventually, Binsar. Road conditions, barring landslides is generally good and even if you are driving lazily, you should reach Binsar within three hours.
Around 30 kms from Nainital, at Garampani the road splits into two. The one heading heft across the bridge on the Kosi, leads to Ranikhet while the one going straight leads to Almora and eventually, Binsar. You can also reach Binsar via Ranikhet and Jageshwar. This route, although much longer is more often than not, in a slightly better shape (this i heard, no first-hand experience though)
My first knowledge of Almora was imparted through the Jim Corbett stories. As a kid i was fascinated by the man and how he trudged through the mountains and waited all nights on the branches of trees for the elusive man-eating tigers. There was a sense of foreboding. With the years of images superimposed on my mind, i almost did not expect Almora to have any resemblance to a modern town. I was thinking more in terms of pack-mules, muzzle-loaders, khakis, sola topees and mem sahibs. Sigh!
Once you reach Almora, Binsar isn’t far away – a mere 30 kms. Since Almora is the last big town on this road, the traffic too gets even thinner and you start enjoying the drive even more. Roughly halfway between Almora and Binsar is Deenapani which has a KMVN Guest House and many smaller private cottages. If you do not find accommodation in Binsar, Deenapani is your best bet.
Interestingly, not many people know that Binsar is not a place / village / town per se. It is the name of the wildlife sanctuary that was once contiguous to the Corbett forest belt. The sanctuary in turn owes its name to the 9th-10th century Shiva temple that can still be seen today. The manifestation of Shiva worshipped in the temple was called Bineshwar, a name which the Brits later corrupted to Binsar. Today the temple is called Binsar Mahadev.
The entry to Binsar Wildlife Sanctuary is on the Almora-Jageshwar road (State Highway 37). You need to register your vehicle at the gate and pay the dues. You can only enter or leave between 6am and 5 pm and once you enter, preserve your ticket and the receipt as it is valid for three days and during this time you can enter and exit multiple times.
From here, a narrow road branches off and snakes its way up the mountains all the way to the Travellers’ Rest House (11 km). The Binsar Mahadev Temple sits at the end of a small meadow 7 kms from the entry gate, by the side of the road. Sundar Singh had been guiding me on the phone all the way and i was supposed to meet up with him at the TRH and then proceed to his village, 4-5 kms in the forest. Since this road is access controlled, the staff of the TRH as well as the forest officials have a hard time getting any transport. So when one of the forest guards asked if he could hitch a ride with me, i obliged. If someone approaches you for a lift, please do.
At the TRH, i was welcomed by Sundar Singh, who turned out to be a strapping young fellow and not a middle aged man like i thought he would be. He is an expert trekker and guides amateur trekkers to Roopkund, Milam, Sundardhunga, etc. It was also revealed that i would actually be staying at his house in his village. Before the trek to his village, i wanted to relax for a bit and so i went to the terrace of the rest house, famed for its view of the snow capped Himalayan peaks. Unfortunately, as it was the middle of the monsoons, the clouds had covered almost all of the peaks. So much for the view!
What i did see, however was a cluster of a few houses, deep in the valley below surrounded by a sea of green. Sundar Singh pointed to one of the houses as his! I was looking at my destination and i was thrilled.
I used this break to down one entire pot of sweet milk tea. I needed all the energy for the trek even though all of it was downhill. Immediately after leaving the TRH the trail plunged into some of the deepest forest. It was drizzling and everything was wet and glistening. At certain places the forest was so thick that it was almost dark.
The downhill trek did not take much time and within 40 minutes, the village was in sight. It was called Gaunap and was more like a cluster of 10-12 houses on a slope arranged neatly around terraced fields. In all, the village was home to not more than 50 people. This is as remote and quaint as could be. I was already loving it. Sundar Singh turned out to be as much of a talker as i am and very soon i learned that the nearest town is Dhaulchina, 10 kms away. The kids go to school there, walking for 20 kms everyday. On their way back sometimes they carry groceries and other supplies often weighing as much as 10-15 kilos.
Like most other villages in the forest, Gaunap has no electricity.. forget about running water. The government has given each house a solar panel to recharge some batteries so that they can at least run a few bulbs. In Sundar Singh’s house, he has done up four rooms which he lets out to travellers like me. The food is cooked by his mother and other than the rice, everything else comes from the family’s fields. If you were to follow on my footsteps and find yourself in the dining room of Sundar Sing’s house, do not forget to ask for the desi ghee. Just add half a teaspoon to your dish and enjoy the heavenly taste!
You stay there as a part of the family. So if you can help these people with their work. I for one, was so excited on seeing a rajma tree for the first time that i immediately proceeded to harvest two of them. I was later told politely that the second plant was not ready to be harvested as yet.
It had been a long day. Began with a long ride, then was followed by a long walk and all i needed now was a long sleep. People do not lock their doors here, and i am glad that neither did i. I woke up in the middle of the night to go to the loo and realised that i could not see anything. A minute later i figured out that the clouds that were coming from the valley below had entered the room through the open door. So i slept , for the rest of the night in a room full of cloud!
Morning came in the form of Sunder Singh’s brother Mahesh bringing me a whole pot of some amazing herbal tea. I went to the balcony outside my room and finished the gallon of tea over the next hour and half while looking at the clouds moving around in the valley in front of me. Even the herbal tea was made from plants in the family’s garden.
After i was well tea-d and well fed, Mahesh and i went out to survey the nearby mountains. Both days we spent hours walking across mountains and resting on rocks by the many streams. In the afternoons, i would have another gallon of tea, spend some time in the family’s fields undoing much of their hard work and then come back to my room and write reviews of the international edition of the India travel guide by candle-light.
The walks were purely aimless. Mahesh knew the hills like the back of his hand so i could go anywhere i liked. We spotted some exotic bird species, some mountain goats and once from a great distance, a leopard. The forest around the village was composed mainly of tall pines and the ground was covered with pine needles. The rains had washed them clean and the red needles lay in fine contrast to the bright green of the freshly sprouted grass. Sometimes it would rain, then in a matter of minutes the sun would come out. Often, the clouds would come rushing in and i would lose sight of Mahesh. So i would wait where i stood and shout at the top of my lungs like a little girl until Mahesh found me.
On a more serious note, if you are ever trekking in these hills, especially in the hills, be careful of something the locals call bicchoo ghas (stinging grass). Although it is technically not a member of the grass family, the first part of its name is true. Even the slightest touch to exposed skin feels as if a red hot needle has been pushed in. I learned the hard way, so you just stay the hell out!
On our walks, we would never carry water because we knew that we would encounter a gadhera (a mountain stream in Kumaoni language) every 200 m where we could quench our thirst. It was also fun to wade into the almost waist deep pools and try to catch the little fished that swam around in then in lightning fast speeds. Many of these gadheras mergee further down to give rise to larger streams, locally known as gadh (rhymes with ‘bar’).
The night before i was supposed to leave for Delhi, the heavens opened up. It rained the entire night but held for a moment in the morning. Mahesh needed to get back to Almora where he studies in the high school and i was more than happy to give him a ride. So, the moment we left the village the rains came back and in spite of the rain gear, i got drenched in a matter of minutes. On top of that was the trek back to the TRH which was now uphill the whole way. Eventually after much huffing and puffing i managed to reach the TRH and by the time i left from there it was already 8 AM. That evening, i reached home at 8:30 and it had been raining the whole way. This time, from Almora i went straight to Bhowali and from there i passed through Bheemtal, Haldwani, Kathgodam and Rudrapur and joined the Delhi highway at Modadabad.
The greenish blue Kosi river that you had seen earlier in the post was unrecognisable. The muddy waters roared and frothed and fumed while from the mountains above me fell a steady stream of rocks and loose earth. I had to get out of there before there was a major landslide as I was to begin my big new job the very next day. So i drove 400 kms in pouring rain. In the process, i lost my glasses, ruined my mobile phone and spoiled the magnetic strip of my debit card. Still, no regrets because i knew that while i was hating it that very moment, in the future (which is now) it will be another experience to share with you.
I have not yet decided what the next post is going to be. This new job takes up too much of my time, but i would love to get back to my dearest Madhya Pradesh.
Sorry for the cliffhanger (literally!) at the end of the last post, folks! We arrived back in Delhi in one piece, but the same could not be said about Dope, my bike. As I already said in the last post, the seat cover was ripped open by monkeys from hell and this time it was the turn of the crash guard. Call it carelessness on my part or the ruggedness of the terrain, or the rust that had colonised the once chromed-out guard, the thing was past its prime. I had thought of replacing it when the bike would be serviced next after the ride, but clearly i overestimated its life. So one fine evening as I was riding from Rohru towards Narkanda, I heard a metallic ‘clang’ and looked back to see one half of my crash-guard rolling downhill. Leave something behind, as they say!
The previous night I had ensured a miserable morning by consuming way too much semi-country liquor in the form of ‘Officer’s Choice Premium Whiskey’. I woke up in the middle of the night with a dry mouth and a drum-line in my head. Damn! Its going to be worse in the morning, and it was. I am sure I don’t need to explain a hangover to you good people, but this situation was a bit unique. I had to ride on some of the worst hill roads with this. As we left the city and the potholes started appearing, I reduced my pace. Even then every jerk, every stone on which the tires passed was magnified 10 times in my head. Nightmare!
After 20 kms of driving, even the cool morning air was no match against the throbbing headache. So we decided to stop at a village on the way for some food. The shops were just opening, and we helped ourselves to some tea and bun-omelettes. While we were waiting for our food to arrive, we noticed villagers sitting by the side of the road, waiting for their vehicles (bus / shared jeeps) to arrive and take them to their respective destinations. I had seen this all along our current journey and on the previous ride on the hills. These people wait patiently for hours at times and, always with a smile on their faces.
When the wait is over and the inevitably overcrowded vehicle arrives, people immediately make seats for the new passengers and their luggage. Kids sit on the laps of total strangers and if someone opens a box of food, it is usually passed on among all the occupants of the car. We city-folk are impatient and always craving the ‘space’ that we all love. Sometimes I feel, that I must dump the bike and make at least one trip to the hills travelling like the locals do. Maybe then I will discover the secrets behind their happiness.
Anyway, moving on to my unhappiness, my massive hangover refused to abate even after a full breakfast, do I decided to ignore it (try to at least) and move ahead. I was riding a bit ahead of Sumantra and after about 18 kms from our breakfast stop, I stopped at the fort on the road at the village of Sungar where the road forks in two. The one on the right leads to Rampur, 62 kms away and the other to our destination, Narkanda, 40 kms away.
While I waited on the crossroads for Sumantra to arrive, I got a phone call instead. He had broken his clutch wire and was stranded by the road. I took a U-turn and headed back and found that he was barely 4 kms behind me. We were carrying spares, but not a set of pliers that you need to fix the cable. So off I went to the nearby village and the helpful folk lent me one. Sumantra’s bike is new and has the new UCE engine. Unlike my bike, you dont need to open the gearbox to attach one end of the cable. You just need to connect it to a lever of sorts that sticks out of the integrated gearbox-cum-crank case. It sounds simple, but in reality, we were stumped.. After going at it for like half an hour, tired and embarrassed, we decided to roll back towards Rohru.
Fortunately for Sumantra, around 95% of the road towards Rohru was downhill so he could just roll down. While he proceeded towards Rohru, I went back to th village to return the set of borrowed pliers. We reached town in under an hour, all thanks to Mr Gravity and began searching for a mechanic. We did find motorcycle mechanics, but none would touch a Bullet. So I asked Sumantra to wait by the road while I went ahead, found a mechanic and brought him back to where he was waiting. Bike fixed, we then stopped for a quick bite and left Rohru for Narkanda for the second time in the same morning.
The 40 kms from Sungar to Narkanda was by far the worst roads we had come across during the entire trip, and that’s saying something. It actually took us more than 2.5 hours to cover the stretch and we barely stopped for photographs.
All along the way, re rarely encountered any traffic and except for tiny 10-house hamlets, there has no habitation. The first town on this route was Baghi, from where Narkanda was another 15 kms. Except for the stretch in the town, the roads continued to be bad, but there was a drastic change in scenery. The Pine forests were back, and oh how I love them!
Very soon our trials came to an end as we joined the National Highway 22 for the last few kms towards Narkanda. I had a booking at a hotel here but i was interested in getting accommodation at the Circuit House here. This is the thing about government properties.. they are usually in the best places and more often than not are housed in colonial properties. So just before entering the town, we took the road leading off left towards the Circuit House. We found the manager and as usual he went off on the you-need-permission-to-stay-here rant. The thing is, you actually need permission to stay here from the District Collectorate, but if rooms are empty, you can usually coax the manager to spare you one. And that’s exactly what happened.
The old building had been modernised rather tastefully, although I wouldn’t mind if they would have preserved the original projecting balconies. The smartest thing here is that most of the appliances like the water heaters, corridor and lawn lights, etc run on solar power.
One of the main attractions of Narkanda is the temple to goddess Hatu, on top of a peak with the same name. A small road, branching off the NH 22 takes you to the peak. In the span of a mere six kms, this road takes you from a height of 2300 m to 3400 m.
Sumantra was feeling tired after the ordeals of the day and decided to stay back and relax in the room while I went off exploring Hatu peak. Right after the point when the road branches off from the highway, the steep climb begins. Thankfully, the entire road to the top, although very narrow, was metalled. I had left my luggage at the circuit house and being significantly lighter, had no problems negotiating the steep climbs and the hair-pin curves.
After around 20 mins of enjoyable climbing up this steep road, I finally reached the top. It was in the dying lights of the day, and most of the tourists for the day had descended, leaving behind piles of rubbish. It’s very sad when you see that even educated people today totally devoid of respect for the nature. It completely beats me how one can litter in a place as beautiful as this.
Angst aside, the temple did disappoint me. It was a new structure and though the woodwork panels might seem appealing to some, for people who have seen older temples in Himachal and Uttaranchal, this is quite mediocre. I would, however be glad to spend a night at the tiny, one-room PWD rest house here at the peak.
I was a bit apprehensive of the setting sun and after like half an hour on the peak, I slowly started to make my way down. Now it must be said here that I am severely scared of heights. In fact, I travel to the hills so that someday I will be able to get rid of it. So while climbing was not an issue, but going downhill was. I could literally feel the heart thumping in my chest, louder than the exhaust note on the silencer. This was not the fear that later translates into a rush. This was pure, unmitigated terror. I remember finally, after what seemed like years, when I reached the NH 22, I realised that my mouth was totally dry. I wasn’t so scared even when I was descending down the Rohtang Pass on a road covered by a layer of 8-inch thick sludge.
My constant fear was the rear wheel locking or me going off the edge after miscalculating the turn on a hair-pin. So I stopped regularly when there was the rare flat yard or two, and honked frantically around the corners.
I finally reached the room when it had just started to get dark. A refreshing hot bath later, i was happily tucked in the blankets.
The next day would be, and was tough. We had to cover around 500 kms to reach Delhi. On top of that the we would not have the comfort of the cool mountains. The next morning, we started from Narkanda by 7:30 AM and hit the plains at Kalka at 12:30 pm. From there on it was a drive through the scorching NH1 all the way to Delhi. It was almost 45 degrees in the open and the air hit you like a blast from the furnace. We had to stop every 30-40 kms to hydrate. You could actually feel the sun sucking out all the moisture from your body. We finally managed to reach home at 8:30 pm, dirty, dusty and severely dehydrated.
And now for the best part. While descending from Narkanda to Delhi, i got a fuel economy of 42 kmpl on the Machismo 500. That too when we were going at a constant 80 kmph in the heat. Eat dirt, Jap-crap!
In the next post, we travel from Himachal up north to Madhya Pradesh at the very heart of India and explore two small towns with two very distinct vibes, both on the banks of the Holy Narmada!
Come with me as I receive enlightenment and a nice oil massage by the river!
I called this the summer ‘Back-breaker’ ride for a reason. When I was planning the ride (‘planning’ is an ambitious word in this regard, as I just choose a route and ride) I thought we would be able to cover the 200 odd kms from Chakrata to Narkanda in course of a day. The reason behind such an assumption was that I thought that the roads would be as good as the one we took to reach Chakrata in the first place.
How wrong was i!
Anyway, to cut a long story short, if you are ever in Chakrata, watch out for the monkeys who seem to outnumber the people and are arguably more daring than the special forces trained and stationed here. There was a small rip on the leather covering my seat, and while the bike was parked outside, the damned creatures had ripped the leather off, torn away chunks of the foam underneath and as a reasult of their actions the dew had gotten inside the foam and I had to ride the rest of the day seated on wet foam. Not good news for the butt!
Also, the moment you leave Chakrata, the road surface leaves you too. Sure, there was a road here… say in the last century, but all that remains are the gravel and rocks and the fine soil on which the roads were laid, and the potholes! Oh yes, the potholes. With all this happening in the background, we had to call it at day at Rohru, 142 kms from Chakrata.
We managed to roll out of Chakrata by 8 am. By this time we were certain that we would have to stop at Rohru and then proceed to Chail the next day, via Narkanda. On the way to Rohru, we would take a slight detour to ride to Deoban, a hill which is accessible by a charming, and very tough track.
The road to Deoban (literally ‘forest of the gods’) branches off from the Chakrata-Tiuni Road around 8 kms after Chakrata. A board at the beginning of the track stipulates its length at 3.9 kms, but do not be fooled, O discerning traveller, for to reach Deoban, man and machine needs to toil for 11 kms. One way.
In the course of 11 kms, we would climb from around 1800 m to 2815 m at Deoban top. The track was either loose gravel, fairly large rocks, loose earth and at times, even grass! There were numerous hair-pin bends and it was a relief to see that almost all of them were cemented (see pic above). In spite of these small mercies, it was mostly a 1st and 2nd gear climb. Although to be very honest, I did get into the 3rd for some time in the middle. Having trusted the board at the beginning of the road, we stopped at a point which we thought would be roughly mid-way to the top and took the only pic of the both of us with the bikes. Thank you, self timer!
After this shot was taken, i went ahead and stopped at every possible place to take photos of the bike. The results are as under.
Whenever possible, I stopped and clicked photographs of the road and the surroundings in general. Although the road we branched out from saw fairly thin traffic, this was something else. There was not a soul in sight.
So folks, after almost an hour of bouncing over rocks and fish-tailing over gravel, I managed to reached the end of the road. There stood a quaint little bungalow, occupied by the army. It is at the top of a peak and from the bungalow starts a meadow which stretches for a little distance along the slopes of the hill before ending at a forest of pines. I waited a bit for Sumantra to show up, and then ventured into the meadow to explore it a bit.
Sumantra showed up in a while and we sat there and shot a bit and shared a smoke. In due time, a villager showed up with his herd of buffaloes and we got talking with him and were promptly invited to his village which was ‘over those hills’. We respectfully declined and proceeded downwards to rejoin the main road and resume the next course of our journey. One the way we ran into a herd of feral horses and got the only view of snow-capped peaks (which Sumantra missed).
Thanks to gravity, getting down from Deoban took only a fraction of the time we took to climb up. As we rejoined the Chakrata-Tiuni Road, the initial few kms were good tarmac, but the nightmare began soon after. Average speeds dropped to around 30 kmph and we were starting to feel the monumental task we had in hand of completing the ride in the stipulated four days. During this stretch, we mostly climbed until we hit a fork in the road. We asked the people around and we took the road on the right and immediately the descent began. From here on, we would mostly descend all the way to Tiuni, 60 kms away and at an altitude of around 800 m. From there on, we would climb to Rohru, around 1600 m, and 40 kms from Tiuni.
I was travelling around 2-3 kms ahead of Sumantra, and around 3 kms before the village of Koti, I came across a beautiful sight. The road we were travelling on was through a dense pine forest. At this point, however, the forest was broken by a beautiful meadow, bugyal, in the local language. At one corner of the meadow was a tiny Shiva temple and the occasional chiming of the temple bells resonated through the immense pine trees that surrounded the meadow on all sides. I immediately parked the bike and stood at the side of the road for Sumantra to arrive. We had driven close to two hours over these non-existent roads, and we needed a break. What better place than this?
While we rested under the shade of the tallest pine, I thought ‘why dont I drive my bike on this meadow?’. It was a brilliant idea.. at least I thought so. The soft grass under the wheels would be welcome after the miles of rocks and loose gravel. So off I went:
After spending close to an hour at the beautiful meadow, we reluctantly headed off to the village of Koti, 3 kms away, hoping to find some lunch. We managed to find a restaurant here and were served with fresh, delicious food. And what else, the tiny one-room eatery had a view too!
Well fed and well rested, we resumed our journey to Tiuni. The roads were getting wilder by the minute.
After what seemed like a long, long time, we reached the tiny town of Tiuni, on the Pabbar River. The river was the boundary between the states of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh. It was close to four in the afternoon and our destination was still around 40 kms away. While it does not sound like a long distance, but considering the roads we had encountered, it could take us anywhere between two to three hours. And it did!
At Tiuni, we crossed the bridge to the other side of the river. The road would follow the river for the rest of the journey until Rohru. Just as we crossed the town, the light started getting better, which meant that I stopped more often to shoot, which in turn meant more delays, but somehow I was not complaining.
Around 20 kms after Tiuni, as we passed by the town of Hatkoti, it felt like a repeat of what I had seen the previous day at Chakrata. While one side of the sky was ablaze with the setting sun, the other was laden with elephant-grey storm clouds. The effect of both these extremes on the lens was quite interesting.
Anyway, very soon we came to a point where the Pabbar river bas practically flowing along the road. So we drove the bikes down the rather steep embankment by the side of the road and parked it by the side of the water. The water wasn’t deep, maximum ankle high, and was flowing over a wide bed of pebbles. Across the road were the mountains, set against the backdrop of a nearly black sky. A small suspension bridge at the distance only added a rustic touch to the picture perfect setting. A couple of cabbies were washing their vehicles on the river bed and I decided to join them on the river. So off came the shoes and the trousers and I headed out to wade in the waters in my boxers. The first step felt like a hundred of needle-pricks as the water was ice-cold. In time, though, it became bearable and enjoyable even.
After the river frolic, we tanked up at a nearby petrol pump and resumed on our way to Rohru. After a few kilometres, however, we were stopped by a landslide. Fortunately, however, a bulldozer was already at work and in no time it carved a road in the rubble wide enough for one vehicle to pass at a time. Just after crossing the landslide zone we saw that the entire road is being widened and the hillside has been excavated.
As a result, the entire stretch of the road looked like a huge destruction zone. the road surface was barely visible and everything was covered with at least two inches of very, very fine soil. The clouds were getting darker and the wind was picking up. The fine dirt on the ground meant, it soon turned into a full-blown dust storm.
Just as we reached the outskirts of Rohru, we could feel fat drops of rain in the dust storm. The roads were deserted and there was all kind of foliage flying through the air. Just like your old spaghetti western movie when our heroes enter a dusty, empty, frontier town! And to add to the drama, there was a rainbow over Rohru!
Fantasies aside, the weather was getting worse by the minute. The isolated drops from ten minutes back now showed every signs of a heavy downpour and we sought shelter in the nearest hotel.
After unpacking we realised that we did not have soaps, and unlike hotels elsewhere in the world, the one we are staying at did not give you any. So we waited while the rains held up a little and proceeded to the market to get some. Somehow we were distracted by the sight of a local bar and walked straight in. The best part about the bar was that you could either get your drinks by the peg, or, if you so wish, even by the bottle. I ordered a quarter of the very officious ‘Officer’s Choice’ and drowned it in no time and got another to go.
Now friends, the lesson to be learnt here is that, while you are having a good time drinking the local brew now, your estimation of ‘how much alcohol till hangover’ is based on the smoother brands you drink in the city. While you can happily down 180 ml of Teacher’s or JD and wake up the next morning fresh as a flower, the same amount of say…ummm… Officer’s Choice will turn your next morning into a veritable nightmare. Ask me!
So this brings us to the close of the second and the longest day of this ride. The plan for tomorrow is to wake up early, make a dash for Narkanda, visit the Hatu Peak and then drive off to Chail where we spend the night. But will we be able to do all that, or will we tumble down the mountain into a bottomless gorge and be killed to death?
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:
Well, I am back with this post earlier than anticipated, but trust me there is nothing like a bunch of people telling you that they liked your blog and they were waiting for more. One more thing, the thing i mentioned in the previous post – the personal tragedy – well, i shall not talk about it after all. The more you talk about it, the more it pinches you and also i dont want to bother you guys with the sob story. So, only good vibes from here!
So where was I? Yes. Thanks to Rohtang we reached Batal just before sundown. It was weird though, how the darkness descended so abruptly. One moment there was light and the other moment – darkness. After stripping off the luggage from the bikes, there was the customary cleaning of spark plugs and the tightening of chains. Wolf actually went a bit further; he disassembled his carbaurator in order to increase the air and fuel intakes. While it was a bright idea, a bit of cold sweat did appear when after attachinig the re-tuned carbaurator, the bike refused start. But you know the thing with those old cast iron bullets…there is nothing a good, hearty kick or twenty wont fix.
It was also decided that we would have to modify our initial plan a bit as going back to Manali would take as much time, if not more. So the idea of camping overnight by the lake went for a toss and we decided to make it a day trip.
We Left the dhaba as soon as the sun had started to warm the rocky hills. We could have taken our bikes down the road to around 2 kms from Chandrataal, but we decided to park. For most part, we had not yet fully recovered from the previous day’s ride, but there was this little voice inside all of us saying that we would like it more if we went a a bit closer to nature. Hence we hike!