I am not sure when we woke up. But we were all pretty clear that we had to wake up early and go down to Manali (15kms) to collect our bikes. We had sent our bikes by courier through Gati KWE from our respective home cities. And they had been delivered to a person by name – Vivek Katoch – the proprietor of Ashtvinayak Tours and Travels. The same man who had arranged for our pickup from Chandigarh airport. The bikes were in perfect condition due to the good packing by Gati people.
But only three of us – Sam, Kp and me – had our own bikes. The other two – Ani and Ashwin – had to rent bikes. So, we asked Katoch ji to show us the bikes he had. He got a Royal Enfield Classic 350 and Bajaj Avenger 220 for test rides for them to make a decision. The guys chose the Avenger for its comfort factor. And they were proven right on the performance as well by the end of it all.
We had our lunch at a small eatery above Katoch’s office and proceeded back to our hotel. On the way, we got our tanks full of petrol. We even carried petrol in 3 jerry cans each having 5L. We got the air pressure in our tyres checked. And off we went. On the way, we just stopped for a brief while at a bridge. Where even a sardarji army man had stopped. We took some photos with him.
The Sardarji was coming straight from Leh in less than a day. I don’t remember what he said about the weather and the road conditions. I guess I was just stunned to hear that someone covered that distance in less than a day. And if you watch closely, you will find that he was dressed in nothing more than his military uniform. Not even gloves to cover his hands!
We went back to our hotel. And we were all slightly nervous but completely excited about the ride we were to embark on from the next day. But our nervousness was given a certain tinge of confidence when we met with this group of people.
Over tea and snacks, we met with a trekking group who did one trek each year in the Himalayas. This year they were going to do the trek to Baralacha La via Suraj Tal and Deepak Taal. They had hired a tempo traveller to take them till a particular point (i forget which point) from where they would begin the trek. All of them were doctors from Delhi and one (leader of the group) was a businessman. Just looking at them and speaking to them gave us the confidence that we can also survive whatever we had planned for ourselves. And they had also planned to leave at around the same time next day as we had planned.
Before we had our dinner, we did a sensible thing. We rehearsed packing our bikes with our luggage. Each one was carrying a minimum of 12Kgs of luggage split over two pieces – one large backpack and one tank bag. Mine was a total of 15kgs put together. And we had to tie the backpack to our bike using bungee cords. And the tank bag came with its own straps using which it could fastened over the petrol tank. It would all look finally like this in the pic below:
Day 1: Manali to Jispa
By around 6.30AM or so, all of us were ready. The idea was to have our breakfast at Rohtang La (4000m) – 42 kms away from our hotel. And then one thing lead to the other, settling the hotel bill, some of the parts of the knee guards started to give way (please don’t buy the alpine star full plastic knee guards. Though they are priced cheaply [+ or - Rs. 1,000/-], unfortunately the quality is not even worth a Rupee!) and some of the bags needed extra focus and as it all happened, we finally left at around 9AM or 9.30AM. Kp was the one who always got up first but was the last to get off the block. And Ashwin was probably the quickest of us all in terms of time taken from getting up to starting his bike.
We started off slowly. The drive from Solang Valley to Rohtang La is probably among the most picturesque we had done so far. The green cover of Manali providing an excellent backdrop as we gathered height. The roads were fully laid in tarmac with a few roughs and potholes here and there, but largely in good condition.
In fact, en route to Rohtang La, the government collects congestion charges! Rs. 50/- per bike. I was particularly amused by those charges. Why don’t they refund it when I return then?! Apparently, we are causing congestion at Rohtang by going there. So, when I am returning I am decongesting no? no? Okay. Whatever. Rs. 50/- only. So, let it be. For the beauty on offer there, I was willing to pay them a little more for being the black spot in the beautiful terrain though.
And we reached Rohtang La at around 11.30AM or 12Noon types. Was misty or cloudy or whatever you call it. We couldn’t see the monstrous peak right behind Rohtang. But the vehicular traffic was insane, I must say. In the midst of all this was unarguably the world’s most picturesque urinal captured in the pic below.
We parked our bikes at a chai shop. Ordered and ate maggi with piping hot tea. Paid tribute to the urinal. And proceeded. We had no idea what was awaiting us. As we got down towards Khoksar – the descent from Rohtang to Khoksar was a 26km stretch. We had assumed we would take an hour to do that when we were planning our itinerary. And how much time did we take? 3hrs to 3.5hrs! Why, you ask? Yes. Let me explain.
There had been an accident and a landslide at a particular place right below Rohtang. A bulldozer was trying to clear the road for us. A tempo was sleeping on the road facing us in perpendicular direction to what it should really be. It resembled a dead cow. So, we went there and waited for them to clear up. As we parked our bikes and walked up to the point of the accident, we saw the tempo traveller with the Baralacha trekkers right there. On speaking with them, we realised that they had been waiting there for over 1.5 hrs to 2hrs!
Just then a group of foreigners came. All of them on JK-registered Royal Enfield Classic 350s and Bullet 350s. Must have been around twenty of them. Inclusive of solo women riders. They also waited along with us. But then they did a very intelligent thing. They walked up to the point where the bulldozer was working and requested him to allow them through. And the guy agreed. As soon as we saw them get on their bikes, we also got on our bikes and decided to simply follow them through there. As a result we waited there for only around 15-20mins. Didn’t waste too much time. Thanks to the foreigners. But they were driving like there was no tomorrow. I think their minimum speed was 40kmph. Whereas our group’s maximum speed was 40kmph!
Now actually begins the story of the descent. I have never been to the moon, nor am I confident of going there in my lifetime. But this was the closest I came to experiencing how it would be ride a bike on the moon. The roads on the way down from Rohtang towards Khoksar are widely regarded as the training space for moon-set astronauts to walk on! There is virtually no road there. It’s only sand, rocks and some streams of water flowing across because of the snow melting down from the peaks. Added to that, it seemed to have rained the previous days. So, the sand had turned into slush. The rocks were not helping the bike grip. And the streams of water did not provide any stable ground for our feet to rest on.
This was the big test for us as bike riders. So, we were riding as slowly and carefully as we could. But the conditions were hostile. The weather was so cold that fingers were going numb. Lips were drying up and breaking. And it would drizzle every now and then, just like that, to provide us with a taste of how nature could play with us if it wanted to. Just one heavy downpour or intense snowfall would have frozen all of us instantly in our footsteps because the roads weren’t easy to drive through.
As we were descending, we slowed down. For some reason, I kept pushing ahead and was a little ahead of my group. The rest of them were all bunched up and coming together. After crossing one particular long naala (stream of water), I turned around to see that one biker was down on the road. I wasn’t sure if it was one of ours or someone else. After a while, I saw Ani and Ashwin also stop and signal to me saying someone was down. I could see Kp also from a distance right behind the fallen biker. And I knew it was Sam. My heart skipped a beat. I was hoping it was nothing serious. And switched off my engine, got off and turned around and began to walk towards the accident spot. Just then another group of bikers who was passing by told me, “kuch nahi hua. dheere se gira bas woh pulsar waala. kuch nahi hua” (Nothing happened. The Pulsar biker fell slowly. Nothing has happened). I thanked them for their assurance. By which time Ani and Ashwin were also showing thumbs up and asked me to stay back where I was. Sam got up, lifted his bike and started again. I heaved a sigh of relief.
As Sam came closer, he said, “Enu illvo. Front brake hakide. Wheel tirugibidtu. Bidde. Aste” (Nothing to worry about. I applied the front brake. The front wheel turned and I fell. That’s all).
“Ninge enu aytu?” (What happened to you?)
“Enilla. Light aagi scratch aste knee hathira. Rain trouser haredu hoytu” (Nothing much. Some light scratches near my knee. The rain trouser is torn)
“Bike ge?” (How’s the bike?)
“Enu aagilla. Bike is fine. Swalpa gear lever tirugibittide. Rear brake hidita illa. And front tyre grip ee sigta illa” (Nothing serious. The gear lever has turned a bit. The rear brake is not applying properly. And front tyre doesn’t seem to be gripping properly).
“Sari. Nodkondu odisu” (Okay. Be careful going forward)
That was the first accident of our ride. And thankfully, the last too. And by God’s grace, nothing serious had happened. It was like a small slip. The road conditions only enhanced our focus. The oncoming lorry drivers or truck drivers had no mercy on us. In fact, some of them would even come right onto us and utter profanities in case we didn’t move away.
From there till Khoksar, all of us drove with increased concentration. And we reached Keylong at around 5PM. Jispa was another 20kms-25kms away which was our target for the day. But all of us were damn exhausted. So, we decided to stay at Keylong itself. We were looking for hotels to stay in Keylong. So, we went straight into Keylong town and were trying to find something. But there weren’t many. We enquired in one hotel called “Hotel Chandra Bagha” (HPTDC operated), but he quoted Rs. 3,750/- for a room for 5 of us (incl dinner and breakfast). It was a bit on the higher side of our budget, so we went looking for something that was more affordable.
We finally settled into a random hotel called “Hotel Yakrid”. How did we decide on the hotel? Well, he said, he had food available to feed us immediately. Decision made. Matter closed! Don’t say it’s ridiculous way of deciding where to stay and all. All of us were damn hungry. No lunch. Only some maggi at Rohtang at 12Noon. And nothing else on the way. Whoever offered food, it would be that hotel! Easy.
We ate like pigs that day. We were just sitting at the table for over an hour and eating continuously. “Jo bhi hai, leke aao” (Bring whatever you have) was the instruction to the chef. And from there, we moved into our rooms. Sam just leapt into his bed and slept even before some of us could bring our luggage in. We had occupied three of his rooms. 2 (Sam, me), 2 (Ani, Ashwin), 1 (Kp) in each room.
Ashwin and I did some photoshoot during the night of the best models in the world. With 15-20 sec exposures. Will upload those photos shortly here.
And folks, ALL the pics that I am uploading in this series of articles on the roadtrip are either taken by Ashwin or directed by Ashwin or processed by Ashwin. I am just using his creativity to enhance the beauty of the article. All credit must duly be given to Ashwin.