Summer Backbreaker ride – Day III

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!

Good morning! 😀

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!

A typical Himachal village, with the temple in the centre!

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.

Waiting for the ride

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.

Towards Narkanda

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.

Check out the surface… and this was the ‘good’ stretch

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!

Yes, my roommate is a Blackberry addict!
The final few miles to Narkanda

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.

Narkanda Circuit House

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.

Lounge area just outside our room
The room itself. Notice the curious room heater on the left. Dint get to use it though!

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.

Hatu Peak, as viewed from the lawn of the Circuit House

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.

The road to Hatu branches off from NH 22
On the way to Hatu
On the way to Hatu
On the way to Hatu
On the way to Hatu

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.

A night here, what say?
Bullet in the blue sky! I Love this goddamn machine. Love it to death!
From the bird’s-eye

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.

On the way down
Village down below!

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!

Memories of the distant hills!

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!

So long, friends…

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!