Summer Backbreaker Ride – Day II

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.

Riding out of Chakrata
Didn’t you always dream of having a house like this?
Village on the way to Deoban

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.

The road would only get worse, and the gradient steeper!
Hair pinning! Pic by Sumantra Ray

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!

Them posers!

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.

The name’s Dope!

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.

Deoban roads
The rare flat stretch
True story!

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.

Deoban Top
A little further down the meadow
Where the meadow meets the pines!
In the pines

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).

You shoot me..
And I shoot you!
Scampering down

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.

The roads were crazy, but the views sure were divine
Good stuff, by Sumantra Ray

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?

Tall..tall grew the pines!
Sumantra arrives
low angle shots are always nice. I wish I got good light, though
Smile pleej!
Smile Pleej.. round 2!
The tall pines
And our bulls… Pic by Sumantra Ray

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:

Here I come…
Here I go!
Setting off from Paradise
An avenue in the sky!

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!

The nice little restaurant

Well fed and well rested, we resumed our journey to Tiuni. The roads were getting wilder by the minute.

Wild and beautiful
Readers, please recommend something funny for the caption for this image!

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!

On the banks of the Pabbar in Tiuni

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.

Along flows the Pabbar
Valley in the golden light
Village in the valley
Brilliant afternoon light
A small house outside Hatkoti

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.

The spot where we rested
A slightly different frame
Bikes parked, clothes and shoes off, it was time to walk the river
Even the horses were here for a stroll

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.

So I just did me some talking to the sun
But there’s one thing I know; the blues they send to meet me won’t defeat me
On the outskirts of Rohru

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!

Into the wild, wild north!
It won’t be long till happiness steps up to greet me!

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.

View from my hotel room
View from my hotel room

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!

When in Rome, friends…

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?

More on that later!

Summer Backbreaker Ride – Day I

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.

I would be riding my 2009 Royal Enfield Machismo 500 LB, while Sumanta will be on his  2011 Royal Enfield Bullet Standard UCE.

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.

First pit-stop on the way
The roommate and fellow rider on this trip

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.

Riding through Kalesar
and here comes yours truly! Pic by Sumantra Ray
Colours of Kalesar
They say, the hotter the summers the brighter the colours. Pic by Sumantra Ray

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.

Somewhere between Herbertpur and Dakpatthar

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 rock edict shelter at Kalsi
The rock bearing the edict. The inscription is not visible, thanks to the bad light
Look ma, its a frog in a puddle!

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.

Finally, the roads we love to drive on!
Oh! them twisties!
Returning from school was never more fun!

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!

I could be doing this all day long!
Photo break on the way
My chrome baby!

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!

Lonely road to Chakrata
Fun roads
It was scary at times too!
Somewhere atop a ridge..

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 camera too takes a break!

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!

Green valleys
The road we left behind
and the roads yet to be discovered
Make hay while the sun shines!
Change of colour with every turn of the road
A busy day on the hill roads!

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.

Valley view
The invading shadows
Caught in the act
Valley View – ii
Not knowing what lies beyond the turn will set you free!
Prayer in the air

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.

Barracks atop a hill
First sight of Chakrata
Beautiful colonial buildings

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!

The stormclouds gather
In perfect contrast
of blossoms and the impending storms…
Does this qualify as a silver(ish) lining?
Drama over Chakrata
More drama!

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:

Till we meet again…