Let me start off by saying I have Vertigo. And I decided to climb up the Himalayas… on a motorcycle. You know what they say about the fine line between genius and stupid? Yeah I think I crossed it. This was my first time going so high up in the hills and like most of us I was stupid/pompous enough to think reading about stuff online will prepare me for what was coming my way. And oh boy was I wrong!
The journey in itself had a very ominous start with me about to miss my bus to Manali which I managed to catch at the last minute. Having settled in to my seat and having made polite chit chat with the person in the next seat I pulled out my neck pillow and braced for the 13 hour ride. Turns out the pillow has a couple of tiny holes and it’s useless. Having totally committed to the journey I couldn’t let this bring me down. It could be worse, I thought. So I reinvigorated my interest in my co-traveller and it was quite fun actually. Eventually the whole bus fell asleep dreaming of the cold hill station weather that will greet them when they wake up next morning in Manali.
But it got worse. Sometime during the night the bus hit the divider slightly and there was a loud noise. Since the bus continued to move forward we all fell back asleep. What greeted us in the morning was an abandoned dhaba in the middle of nowhere. Something had gone wrong with the bus and experts were at work. Ominous did I say? An hour later we set off. It was only when we crossed Kulluwhen the first view of the snow capped mountains came about. There was an instant flurry of excitement among everybody. As we continued to climb we got higher and closer. The clouds were hanging out among the hills and there were patches of sun and shade on the mountains. It looked like it was choreographed perfectly. It looked like the good part of my trip had started after the initial struggle.
I finally reached Manali after about 16 hours of an ass numbing ride on the bus and headed off to the hotel. About an hour later two more friends who were coming there on their bike joined me. Now the riding party was complete. Manali like every other hill station has two facets to it. On one side there’s the mall road with crowds jostling for space, newlyweds on their honeymoon, women getting clicked with their Heidi-Klumesque *not* pouts, men in tight, ankle baring pants and gelled hair, selfie sticks, lots of noise, eating, shopping and littering ensues there. Not my thing, you know. Then there’s the other side – old Manali – where you find “The Cafes”. Just the whole pace of the world slows down when you enter this ambience with music you’ve probably not heard before. People are generally having a conversation and not a shouting match. No hooliganism or bad noise (unless our northern boys show up of course). Now that’s my scene and I indulged myself before the long and hard journey next morning.
We set off the next morning a little later than we had thought, because of the celebrations last night. We suited up and left Manali for higher pursuits. Let me warn you that I might sound very excited about this as this was my first ever experience like this, so bear with the sugar rush-y me. As we started to climb the hill to Rohtang pass the three Enfields in tandem working the curvy roads on the hill with their splendid noise filled me with even more adrenaline. It was getting colder and the roads were getting worse but I was filled with the bring-it-on spirit. That’s when tragedy struck. One of the bikes gave up. It just wouldn’t move. Eventually after some trying we had to turn back to Manali to get it fixed. Disappointing, but we had not lost much ground. It was only a day.
The next day it turned out that the bike is going to take longer to fix so with a heavy heart we had to leave one person behind asking him to catch up with us once the bike is up and ready. Didn’t look like a good sign but we had limited days and couldn’t afford to lose them. Two of us pressed on again. As we reached closer to Rohtang pass, it started to snow. This was the second time in my life watching snowfall. What do you think about snowfall? Beautiful, right? WRONG! Sure it’s beautiful when you are in your cabin in the woods in front of a fire and look out the window with a hot cup of cocoa in your hand. But when you’re riding up a mountain it sticks to your helmet visor forcing you to raise it. Now it starts to hit your eyes so you get smarter and put your sunglasses on. But the visor is still up so it starts to hit your cheeks while you have limited visibility on bad roads and your fingers are freezing so clutch and brake operation becomes a mammoth ask. The snow literally starts to cut off blood supply to your face and fingers. Now you have a decision to make. Do I go fast and risk it but get out of this weather soon or do I keep it safe and go slow but be stuck in this weather for long? We made the former choice, reached Rohtang pass, parked and quickly ordered a hot Maggi (It wasn’t illegal till then, I think).
Sitting there I thought to myself, wow, this is not easy and I hope it gets better as we now need to climb down to the other side of the mountain. So we set off again for a 21 km ride down the mountain. For about a kilometre, the roads were paved and there was a thick wall of ice on both sides. It was beautiful. Then I saw the road literally disappear. It was turn after turn after turn of whatever the weather had left of the road, pebbles, stones, loose earth mixed with ice that was melting forming a slush on the road, which by the way is very easy to slip on. There were long stretches of just mud and trucks and jeeps coming at us from the other direction. Being an amateur at this terrain, it’s needless to say I was terrified and concentrated like a monk. It took us 1.5 hours to cover this 21 km stretch. At the end of which my fellow biker stopped at a dhaba. I braked and looked up at him as if in a trance that I had gone into due to the concentration I had put in to bring the bike safely down the hill. I heard, “Let’s take a break.” I almost cried of joy.
We were in the valley now and had to move for Keylong to end today’s ride. The valley was beautiful and thankfully had roads. I’ve been to the mountains before but when I started riding in the valley at the base of the Himalayas, I truly saw mountains. As they stood above me and stared down at me, I was ready to give them my lunch money. Intimidating is an understatement. This was clearly a place where not many ventured. The peace, quiet, freshness of the air said it all. As we rode through the valley I started to fall more in love with the beasts we were riding. The Classic 350 and a T-Bird 500. They were worthy adversaries for this terrain. And just the sound of our rides as we went through these quiet roads and small villages was just intoxicating. After about 6-7 hours of riding we finally reached Keylong, our first stop. As we reached our hotel room, the view from there was unbelievable in its beauty. I don’t think pictures or words can do it justice.
Next morning was the moment of truth. We had to crossover to Jammu to further our ride. We had heard that the pass was closed but since we had come so far we had to try our luck. We pushed off to the Baralacha pass. The views were as majestic and the terrain as punishing as ever. On our way we crossed an abandoned army base which was created during the Kargil war. It had a makeshift abandoned Mandir, hospital, cook house, dining hall and living quarters. In the middle of nowhere, and not a soul there. It looked like a ghost town and as I thought about the stories this place must have had, my friend says, wouldn’t this be an awesome place for a rave? Hah! Genius.
As we reached Zing Zing Bar, and went a little further we could see just loose snow and rocks on the road so we stopped and looked further for a way ahead. Sadly for us, this was the end of the road to Leh and it was time to turn back. Tch tch…
We decided to spend the night in a camp under the mountain in Jispa. With nowhere to go the next morning we decided to explore the area and went about offroading to a monastery and to a couple of other towns as well. After another day was done, and the night spent at Keylong, it was time to head back. This filled me, the amateur rider, with dread as I had to go back and climb the mountain it took me about 1.5 hours to come down from. To add to my misery my breaks were starting to get weak. I gathered the broken pieces of my resolve and decided to give it a go. There was a silence between us as if we were both worried about that stretch of road. I think I’ve developed an irrational fear of slipping and falling. There must be a word for it. But, I digress.
About mid day we reached the base of the dreaded mountain we had to climb on the bike. As we started our ascent, it started to become clear to us how dangerous this was, on one side was the mountain but on the other side was a drop of thousands of feet (remember my vertigo?). At one turn, the front tire slipped under a boulder and I couldn’t find a foothold. The bike tipped and a few feet away I could see that drop. I slowly let the bike down on the ground while getting my foothold. A bus I had just overtaken stopped right behind me and I signalled some people to come and help me pick up the bike. That thing weighs about 1.5 tons alone apart from the luggage that’s tied to it. My fellow rider had gone a little further ahead so he didn’t notice me fall but as I moved forward after a little help I found him running back to that turn to look for me. I cannot tell you the relief on his face when he saw me on the bike.
We reached Rohtang again and it was bright and sunny. Never had I valued the sun as much as I did right at this instant. We stopped to take in the view from 13,000 feet and rest our bones. As the sun started to disappear we got back on the bike and started our ride again. And guess what it was snowing again with light hail. Add to that the fact that my rear brake had given up on me. So I was robbed of the ability to ride fast and escape this wretched snow. People at the wall, I feel your pain now and why you keep saying “Winter is Coming”. As we came down, the snowing stopped but the raining began. It seemed like the worst day to ride. Eventually we reached Manali soaking wet where a 5 km long jam greeted us. Oh joy!
So, how was my trip, a lot of people asked me? To tell you the truth it was back breaking, ass numbing, soul torturing, patience testing, frightening, intimidating. But that’s exactly what I needed. I’ve not felt so alive and happy in a long, long time. In the ever immortal words of the Terminator, “I’ll be back.”