It was supposed to be a leisurely ride through the valley. ‘I just want to rent a bike for a few days and ride around’, I told Godwin.
Godwin had plans of his own, running in his head from way before. Godwin and Snehal are the amazing couple running ‘Ride Inn’ at Shanag Valley, 6 km north of Manali. A gorgeous place with probably the best food I’ve eaten while at Manali. Also the best view, and the cutest dog Luka.
‘Let’s do Pangi Valley and Sach Pass, you’ll love it’, Godwin said. I heard ‘valley’ and ‘pass’ and got excited. What i didn’t know was that since he, a regular rider, hadn’t been on the road for over a year, he was already pushing the limits in his head.
I’m not a biker really. I don’t like groups. I don’t like following others’ plans. I don’t even like bikers much. They talk about pistons and cranks and rods and shafts and *yawwwwn*. But since this was Godwin and Snehal leading the way, I had no problems at all. Digvij and Bhuwan, two of their friends, were coming in from Rajasthan, and we’d join them on their way through to Pangi Valley. And those two turned out to be super fun.
Leisurely ride, I thought. So I booked myself a nice 500cc classic. A tad expensive, as is the norm renting bikes in Manali (Rs.1200 – 1500 a day).
The rule was Godwin & Snehal rode up front, me second, then Digvij, and finally Bhuwan – the most experienced one to keep a watch on us.
This should be fun, I thought.
It was, for the first two hours…
Day 1 brought that easy ride to a shattering demise. It took us 9 hours to get across 190km, from Manali to Tindi. In my head, before we started, I was all ‘hmmm, that’s about the distance from Bombay to Poona, should take us about 5 hours…’
Not when there’s NO ROAD. No kidding. The road disappeared after the first 40 km or so. Then there was only mud and rocks. Boulders and water crossings from glaciers melting above, foxes, and roads that you shouldn’t look over if you have a fear of heights. Up until Rohtang pass (50 km from Manali), everything was nice and reminiscent of a romantic scene in a Ryan Gosling movie.
After that it was all downhill, literally. Your ass hurts, of course, from the constant bump and grind on hard rocks. But readjusting your balls every 10 mins inside the boxers you wear, while using just the other hand to balance a 200 kilo bike on rocks and boulders, is a bit tough. Life lesson: never wear boxers to a long and treacherous bike ride.
Around 5 pm after i bounced over some 200 rocks and boulders, I turned to Godwin and asked him ‘how much longer is the road like this??’
‘Why do you ask so many questions, just ride man!’
That was it. I was trapped. If one question got that response, no more questions.
At night, after Bhuwan had hustled our stay at the forest department’s guest house, we rested our respective arses. They had old monk for company, and as always – the spirits bring out the funnies in people. And Digvij went on to tell us how, from behind me, he had a field day watching me ride.
According to him, I was either faster than a bullet, or slower than a snail. No in-between. Sometimes I was so slow, he thought I was stopping, and he’d imagine I was taking a break to pee, so he would too… and as soon as he stopped and got off, I was speeding like that bullet again. I didn’t even know this was happening. I don’t know what was going on in my mind. Just survival, I guess.
Next morning we were up, post some chai and parathas, on our way again. If day 1 was hard, day 2 was US army torture in Iraq. It took us 11 hours to cross 137 kilometers.
Let that settle in. Add to that the cold. Early October, season’s almost down cos of snow. Yeah, its freezing cold. By the time you end the day, your wrists, fingers, ankles, legs, face, everything’s numb. Even with gloves and innerwear and jacket on.
And in case I forgot to mention earlier, this terrain that we started off, can be seen on youtube under some of the videos that say ‘world’s most dangerous roads’
One landslide delayed our progress by about 30 minutes. Chairi was our lunch stop. There’s not many options for food in these places apart from dal-rice-chapatis, parathas and maggi.
Just before sunset, Digvij’s thunderbird breaking down was our big worry. The bike just wouldn’t climb the steep slopes anymore. And these heavy ass bikes have a mind of their own once they’re on a sharp angle. The number of times I just let the bike lay on the ground instead of bothering to pick it up was quite a bit. Digvij was in two minds to head back. But our peak was only 20 km ahead now. So we worked on constructive thinking. And Godwin, the champ that he is, just pulled out the bike’s air filter, and voila, it was all good again!
I learnt a few things about riding through glacier melt this same day. Snehal taught me a few things about staying steady and keeping your legs down. Cos I was treating it like a theme park ride. Legs up in the air and WHEEEEEE splashing water. But one rock under the water, slipping, could be the end of the ride. For the bike. And the rider. So the next time I almost fell in the icy water, I simply jumped off and let Godwin rescue the bike.
After reaching our highest peak, which was Sach Pass at 4440m, at sunset, we had to get to the next guesthouse before dark. My bright idea was to turn the bike into neutral and let it glide down the mountain.
IT WAS THE MOST EXHILARATING SHIT I’VE EVER DONE ON A BIKE.
It was pitch black by then in the mountains, moonless night. And the narrow beam of the headlight was all I could see ahead. Everything else around, black. The speed I had managed to pull with gravity alone was ridiculous. And I’m grateful to the foxes and dogs that did not run across my path. It’s not too good for the bike though, this neutral gliding thing. But there’s some things you can do on a rented bike…
It was almost 9 pm when we reached satroondi checkpost – which is a heavily guarded point because of its proximity to the Pakistan border, and history of militants coming in from the same. Shortly after that, we were at Bhairagadh – and cozily settled into ‘Mannat Guest House’. There’s nothing more rewarding than a pillow for the bum after a whole day of riding on rocks. These guesthouses we lived in were all in the range of 200-400 rupees a night. And the forest department houses are pretty cute too.
Day 3 was the calm after the storm. Also the easiest day for my bum to handle. Flat roads again, and despite another 11 hours, we managed 255 kilometers. We halted in Chamba for lunch at Zaika Dhaba, and bike corrections for Digvij. The ride from Bhairagad to Chamba was a beautiful one through the forest. Our boys from Rajasthan split here at Chamba, so it was eventually Godwin, Snehal and me heading back to Manali. There was still 2 more days to complete though.
Chamba to Dharamshala and eventually Bagsu was our final stint for day 3. Bagsu is right below Dharamkot, where unbeknownst to me, I was going to lose my heart a week later.
Godwin & Snehal decided to stay at Bagsu a day or two. And since I had to return to manali to give back the bike, and catch a bus to Dharamsala and eventually get to Dharamkot to attend my retreat, I spent the final day solo. 10 am kick off from Bagsu, through Dhauladhar tea estates, where I stopped for some awesome green tea and juice, and then moved on to Mandi where I had a massive lunch of dal, chappatis, and you-guessed-it, parathas.
I was getting to Manali just around sundown. That’s when the Aut tunnel threat happened. Within the helmet was my sunglasses, which I should have taken off before the tunnel. But I didn’t think of the consequences. As soon as I got into that tunnel, everything was pitch black. And this is a tunnel that runs about 4km. Imagine riding 4km BLIND. I’m half-blind after sundown anyway. Old issue. Add to that, sunglasses that I cant remove mid-ride, because I have fat gloves on. I cant stop cos I cant see the side of the road, and there’s no way one can really stop in a tunnel. There’s a sinking feeling in your stomach. There’s panic, there’s also prayers. And you hope the one guy you’ve been ignoring all your life will somehow get you through this. HA! Eventually, the glare of oncoming traffic, which I usually cant tolerate, saved me.
It’s just I have a history with tunnels.
This here is Aut tunnel (via youtube) – but doing the same thing like The Terminator is a different story.
As soon as I got out of the tunnel, I stopped at a quiet little tea stall, and reflected on life.
For a first ride, this was the hardest, and the most gorgeous ever. Would i attempt it again? Hell yeah! If it wasn’t for Godwin, this wouldn’t have happened, so i’m glad he got me into this ‘easy ride’. You learn a lot of things about yourself on the road.
Survivalism is just one of them.
This post was originally published on 'the chronicles'.