Monday, July 15, 2013

Epilogue : Purple Pills - D12

You really cannot do a trip like this and return to your day to day life without finding that it has changed in so many different ways. The mountains have a way of putting you in your place. You find that for all the big money that you earn at the end of the month and the fancy joints that you frequent across town and the hundreds of people that are below you on the corporate ladder, a stray rock fall or some loose gravel on a dangerous turn will ensure that it is curtains for you. You start appreciating life for what it really is.

I was talking to a friend of mine who had covered the entire region with his buddies after hiring a cab a couple of years ago and he too went through the exact process after returning to his ‘normal’ life. The thing is though, life doesn’t let you get back to the old normal. The mountains give you a rush and it’s like your eyes and your mind have finally been opened. The Himalayas then represent the red pill from the Matrix. It’s the painful truth of reality about the world we live in but often see through the wrong pair of glasses.

“I been to mushroom mountain
Once or twice but who's countin'
But nothing compares
To these blue and yellow purple pills”

Purple Pills – D12

After leaving Manali I encountered several signs which made me stop, smile and reflect on the whole trip and what it really meant.  

Sign # 1 – I was in a car on the way to the Delhi airport when I heard the rumble of an approaching Bullet. Instinctively my mind knew that it couldn’t be the Man who didn’t know which football club to support as he used to potter around on his bike and the revs that I heard certainly didn’t match his style. It wasn’t My favourite couple of all time, as they used to give the Bullet the stick and this bike sounded more subdued. It cetainly wasn’t Vishal as he drove all out all the time. And then it struck me, I was in Delhi and our group wasn’t riding any longer..…

Sign # 2 – I was wheeling my suitcases out of the Bangalore airport when I heard the couple behind me say something rather interesting. Instinctively my eyes darted to the left and right of my hands that were on the trolley, searching for the rear view mirrors to get a glimpse of this couple. And then it struck me, I was in Bangalore and I wasn’t holding onto the handlebars of my Bullet …..

Sign # 3 – The main road near my place was finally getting tarred but in its current semi prepared state, it was a dangerous mix of loose gravel and fine sand. Something that I would have avoided like the plague earlier. And then it struck me, after what we had been through, this was the equivalent of a leisurely stroll through the biking park and I looked at it with a devious gleam in my eye.

Sign # 4 – I was glad that the trip had renewed my passion for biking and started my bike (the simple pleasure of using an electric start after two weeks of kick starting the Bullet is indescribable) which I have owned for the last four years but strangely it felt all wrong for the next couple of days. I was so tuned to the upright seating position of the Bullet that this sporty posture had my body in all sorts of discomfort. The pin point braking had me really worried because my body wasn’t used to this sudden retardation and I had to relearn how to balance myself to counteract this. The acceleration now matched the twists of the throttle and there was no delay while the bike said to itself “Ok then, time for me to get to work and pick up the pace. On second thoughts, maybe in a minute or so” And finally there was no deafening rumble to shake the windows off my neighbours houses. And then it stuck me, I would certainly miss the Bullet.


Author’s note – This marks the end of what certainly has been the most challenging writing exercise that I have ever embarked upon. I ended up clocking a shade under 30k words on this travelogue and it certainly was great fun writing about the wonderful trip and the great people I met. Bouquets and brickbats are most welcome so if you have any thoughts to share about the travelogue or the writing please leave a comment or two. And yes, I know the posts were long. If you thought it took you time to read it, imagine how much time it took me to write the whole thing!

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Day 12 : With A Little Help From My Friends - Beatles (Manali to Delhi)

The last day of our holiday was finally upon us and while I did miss the riding, it was nice to finally get back to the ambling along the streets for the regular touristy stuff routine that I like to indulge in while on a trip. It took a while us to get ready, after all we didn’t have departure deadlines hanging over our heads today, and we eventually stepped out to find a place for breakfast.  After disqualifying the first couple of hotels that we spotted, we settled for a small run of the mill joint that didn’t have anything exotic but had enough items on its menu to keep us satiated. Or so we thought.

We had nothing to complain about the first round of food but the subsequent dishes that we ordered severely tested our taste buds and when we finally did get the bill we made the mistake of mentioning to the waiter that the chutney didn’t seem to be all that fresh. Now this got him talking and he mentioned that the idli was a few days old and the chutney was from yesterday and he even rattled off the rather short list of dishes that were actually fresh. We and our big mouths!

With a slight drizzle for company we walked down to the monastery that was not too far off and tucked away from the hustle and bustle of all the touristy traffic on the main road. It reminded me of the beautiful monasteries in Bylakuppe which is a Tibetan settlement that is around 100 kilometers away from Bangalore, a must visit if you are in this part of the country.

We also spotted this really furry white wabbit (Elmer Fudd reference there people) at the monastery that everyone totally fell in love with immediately. It’s strange how we Indians are fascinated by these albino rabbits but the moment you show them a rabbit that has bits of browns and blacks on it, the affection just seems to fade away. A reflection of the way we think in more ways than one.

We took a short tour of the shops that lined the exit of the monastery, again something that was straight out of the Bylakuppe experience, before we slowly made our way back to the hotel to finish our packing and check out of two of our rooms while we dropped all the bags in the third. Lunch was at the same place where we had our food fight yesterday and consisted of tasty pizzas and wrongly pronounced soft drinks, something that was becoming a regular feature now that we had all started doing it.

Soon enough though it was time to leave and we jammed our bags into an auto while I tried to ensure that none of the bags fell out though I probably should’ve paid more attention to my own balance and ability to stay within the auto given the scant space that was left for me. It was time to say farewell to the Man who was on a mission who was heading to Chandigarh from Manali while the Lady who could single handedly break down a Bullet, My favourite couple and I boarded our bus to Delhi. 

Our ever present companion, Mistress Drama though was never far away even today as we got a call from Vishal who wanted all the pictures (that was obvious given that he was in half of them) and said that he would get me off the bus near his place and would then drive me to the fruit market in which time I would transfer the pictures onto his memory card before getting back on the bus that would make multiple stops in between. True to his word, there he was, standing in the middle of the road while directing the bus to pull over behind his car in proper filmy style. As I stepped out he told the driver that he would get me back on the bus later and if the bus left Manali without me, it wouldn’t be plying on this route any longer. Gulp!

I squeezed myself into the back seat of the European sedan when I found that the hard disk in question wasn’t working and so calls were made while we were driving along and I could actually see people scurrying around to get a replacement hard disk / memory card. Finally we were handed one that worked and we even had some local gentlemen of questionable repute join us in the car just in case the bus driver decided to make a scene. Double gulp!!

As we waited at the market, one of the gentlemen went off to get a local beverage called Fruit Beer which is basically fizzy apple juice. After completing a couple of rounds, I left the thermocol cup on my laptop as I’m a stickler when it comes to not littering. My host though insisted that I throw it out on the road but I refused as I said I’ll take it with me and dump it in a proper place. What I was told next had to be one of the most interesting ways of thinking that I’ve heard in a very long time, “Bhai (brother)”, he said, “our local elected representative is a friend of mine and is doing a great job of keeping our place neat and clean. Now if you don’t throw your cup onto the road, how will he do his job well and how will people in turn appreciate his hard work?” With that he flung the cup out the window before I could even react!

The bus was made to pull over once again and while the final set of pictures was transferred onto the hard disk, the gentlemen of questionable repute slowly loaded the bus with boxes of the freshest plums that you could find for the four of us before I was given the green signal to board the bus. The others actually said that I looked like the typical nerd that gets kidnapped in all those Bruce Willis movies and honestly I can see why they said that. Quite the experience!

Despite the additional day in Manali, all of us were more than exhausted and slept through most of the bus journey except for when we stopped for dinner. We woke up on the outskirts of Delhi the next morning and got off at the last stop where it was time to say our last goodbyes. The Lady who could single handedly break down a Bullet caught herself a cab and I was to get picked up by my aunt while My favourite couple of all time waited for their cab that would take them around the city before they departed. Despite what we had gone through, there were no dramatic and tearful goodbyes nor were there false promises that we would meet each other every weekend for the rest of our lives, something that most people tend to do at the end of trips that were a fraction as adventurous as ours.

We knew that we had been a part of something special and we knew that we would stay in touch. And that’s all that mattered. It was an anti-climatic ending to what had been the most amazing 12 days of my life. Like I wrote at the end of the post on day 11, the Himalayas were the star attraction when I came flew into Delhi. Now I realized the mountains were just the supporting cast in the story that was actually about us overcoming massive odds while constantly skirting with danger and depending on Madam Fortune while getting by with just a little help from strangers who we would now truly call our friends.

“I get by with a little help from my friends,
I get high with a little help from my friends,
Going to try with a little help from my friends”

With A Little Help From My Friends – Beatles  

Day 11 : Goodbye My Lover - James Blunt (Jispa to Manali)

“What we have seen is that carelessness on the last day of riding usually leads to many accidents so please be careful tomorrow to ensure that we all reach Manali safely without any issue” is what one of the organizers said during the sit down session the previous night and it was something which rang through my mind in the morning. Over the last ten days we had been through hell in the closest that one can come to biking heaven and the last thing that anyone wanted was for minor incidents to happen on these 100 odd kilometres before we reached Manali and officially ended our biking trip.

The morning though began on an unusual note as I sat outside on the balcony (we got rooms in the building while other travellers from Manali had taken the tents) and watched on as a guy charged into the meal room and started shouting at the staff for not providing hot water in his tent despite multiple requests from his end. He was more than a little hot under the collar and let loose a verbal volley to the staff, which quite frankly weren’t really tuned to customer service. I can only imagine what the guy would go through if he stopped at Sarchu or Tso Moriri where the only thing resembling hot water came in the shape of a comfort bottle for the night.

The riding began after breakfast and with the tarmac being pretty good for the initial bit, we did get a chance at some well-paced riding before it started breaking down into crumbly roads that would’ve made a brownie proud. Since the Lady who could single handedly break down a Bullet had to change the memory card on her camera we had to stop for a couple of minutes which meant that we were back in our familiar position trailing the group by a fair margin (which if you recall is my preferred riding spot when I do group rides back in Bangalore). Some members of the group weren’t happy about this though as they felt the group had to ride slowly for us to catch up, ironically it was these very same members who everyday used to stop every 10 minutes to take pictures on the first half of our trip and consequentially slow down the group even when we had strict instructions to maintain a good pace! 

As the bad roads made their familiar and hopefully last appearance, my pillion suggested we try to up the pace a bit and try to move up the pack and we did for a while before terribly slushy sections slowed the group down again. Now despite having over 9400 photos, we didn’t have a single one of probably the slushiest section that we encountered which definitely was the most heart stopping bit of the trip. Initially we were stuck in a block as a bus had wedged itself deep in the thick sludge while trying to navigate a turn but it managed to extricate itself after 15 minutes. It was our turn to navigate past the stationary SUVs to the front of the line where we saw viscous slowly moving sludge that was almost ankle deep pouring down the mountain face and across the road.

We had a real fright here as the Lady who always seemed to skip dinner was trying to stomp her way across it (honestly that’s the only way to get across if you were on foot) while the Man who should have played Bane in the Dark Knight Rises was physically and mentally willing his bike across at full throttle when we saw that the sludge suddenly increased in its flow down the mountain and threatened to wash them away. We desperately honked, hoping that they would see the impending danger and fortunately they managed to make it across alive. That was some scary crap straight out of the movies right there, that’s for sure.

Inch by painful inch the rest of us wrestled our bikes across this veritable death trap and after we took the hair pin bend ahead and rode for a minute or so we saw that it was an excavator that was clearing all the rocks and mud that had fallen across the road by pushing it down the mountain and this coupled with the streams was responsible for creating the dangerous sludge factory below. Only in India!

Being a Tuesday (honestly I had lost track of days and dates within a couple of days of the start of the trip) Rohtang pass was closed to tourists which meant that we would have a straight forward ride to Manali but once again, fate was to have other plans. As we approached Rohtang pass, thick mist began to envelop us in a closely wrapped shroud and visibility was really low. Now the problem with mist is that you really cant see too far ahead but you can see sufficient distances to be able to maintain a fair clip but you had to be really careful because if a lorry came up from the other side, you would probably see it too late to do anything about it if you were riding on the wrong line.

While we were riding in single file in this mist and using the tail lights of the bike in front of us as a reference point, I suddenly felt the clutch cable snap which was probably the worst thing that can happen to you when you are riding down a mountain with sharp hairpin bends. Pulling over I checked to see if my fears had come true and indeed they had but by this time the rest of the group had ridden ahead and we saw them on the road directly below us as I honked to no avail.

Well technically the entire group hadn’t ridden ahead as we heard the thump of an approaching Bullet and in true filmy style My favourite couple of all time rode through the thick mist after having realized that our bike which was behind them seemed to have dropped off from the group. It was exactly at this moment that I turned to my seemingly super human pillion (silencer, heat guard, flat tyre and now the clutch cable, that’s not human ladies and gentlemen) and said, “You know, they are my favourite couple of all time”. In many ways this was what true biking was all about, the fact that you are always aware of what is happening within the group and you never leave a fellow rider and friend behind, whatever the circumstances.

While the women folk helpfully offered chocolates (and hand wipes later on to get rid of the grease which never really went away) and watched on, the two of us tried every possible solution that we could think of to come up with a temporary fix for the cable but it wasn’t to be. After escaping scratches, bruises (well I did get some after being punched on my arms several times though that doesn’t count), falls and broken bones, I finally shed blood while trying to work the cable. Ok so maybe it was more of a small trickle rather than a broken fire hydrant bleed but the mountains made me bleed nonetheless! With over 15 minutes having passed, we were surprised to find that the organizers hadn’t returned for us assuming that they had realized that four people were missing. It would’ve been worse if they hadn’t realized that four people were missing!

Finally we decided to shift the bike into neutral and use a combination of locomotive force and a strong foot from behind with me walking and occasionally thrusting the bike while I sat on it. We managed to cover a few hundred metres or so down one bend and made full use of gravity to ride down the slope while the women trooped away and seemingly left us behind. Finally though I threw in the towel as I felt all the strenuous effort wasn’t worth it as we surely couldn’t make our way down the mountain like this and besides the whole point of the back up van was to help us in such situations though we knew that it was at least half an hour, if not more, behind us on account of the bad terrain.

After debating about what we had to do, we decided that it made sense for My favourite couple of all time to ride ahead and catch up with the group and let them know that we were stuck up there in Rohtang pass. There was to be yet another twist to the whole tale as they turned around within 100 metres of starting as they had found that now they had a flat tyre! True story.

They rode back and all four of us had a good laugh about the whole thing while there was still no sign of the organizers. Fortunately we realized that we were on the outskirts of civilization and our cellphones had range so we called up the organizers who said that the group was waiting for us at the bottom of the mountain. We munched on some pistachio nuts and more snacks at what we now officially christened Breakdown Point, while we waited for the van to come save us. Seriously how could you not love a couple that returns for you, carries pistachio nuts and snacks in their backpacks and always has a great sense of humour and big smiles on their faces?

The new mechanic managed to get the clutch cable replaced in no time but after replacing the tube in the other bike we found that the foot pump wasn’t working and so we had no way to inflate the tyre at all. We had to depend on some good Samaritan bikers who were just starting their trip and they had actually packed their pump at the bottom of a bag that they had strapped down so tightly that it took us close to 10 minutes to get it out. To say that I was grateful would be an understatement. Again, helping out a fellow biker in trouble, someone that you have never seen before and probably someone that you never will again, was what it was all about. 

We called up the organizers when the van arrived and they said that they would be going ahead with the group because a few of the guys had buses to catch that evening and they had a bit of paperwork to do before they could depart. We were told where the group would be stopping for lunch and we rode slowly enjoying the emergence of greenery as we snaked our way down the mountain towards Manali.

My favourite pine trees were back and by now we knew that we were in the home stretch, something which left me with mixed feelings. I knew that my family and friends were waiting to hear from me and wanted me back in one piece but was it selfish of me to want the trip to go on for another few days? We stopped for lunch just as the rest of the group was getting ready to leave and we quite enjoyed the view from the balcony of the nice restaurant which served by far the best food of the entire trip. 

With content stomachs and even more content spirits, we rode back to Manali to hand the bikes over to their rightful owners. With their paperwork done, we bid a very fond farewell to the Man with arms longer than the law, the Man who tried to beat sunburn and the Man who didn’t know which football club to support who left for Delhi by the buses that evening. After a bit of pushing and prodding we managed to get the organizers to help us book some rooms in Manali and arrange for transport to the hotel.

After freshening up we decided to hit Mall Road (definitely the most happening street in Manali, a cause helped by the fact that it’s the only happening street in Manali) but treated ourselves first to some nice pastries at a nearby shop that even served Apple Paes. Im sure Leander isn’t too happy about that!

With all good chocolate cakes come uncivilized food fights that have manners thrown out the window and chunks literally stolen off each others spoons. Not that I would resort to such barbarian like techniques, I ate like a gentleman of course! We spent the rest of the evening hunting for memory cards and helping the women shop for even more stuff to take back.

Now for all my readers who are not accustomed to Indian ways of shopping, you have to truly understand what we men go through to appreciate the hard life that we lead. First there is the shopping where we can offer no useful advice whatsoever and are relegated to playing the role of financier while we stand outside the shops and wait patiently. Then there is the type of shopping where we can offer advice, which will be blatantly disregarded of course, while we still continue to play the role of financier.

Then there is the third kind of shopping where our women shop for us and hence we take centre stage when it comes to decision making, financed of course by our own wallets. Well if you did believe that, shame on you, our women hardly buy anything for us and we certainly never come close to real decision making. On top of all this we have to carry the over-stuffed bags and keep an eye out for the seedier lot that frequents these markets, often having to innocuously elbow and shove them out of the way before they get too close while nobody else realizes what we have done. It’s tough, I tell you!

This probably was the most enjoyable dinner that we had throughout the trip and consisted of great company, very tasty food, a copious dose of laughter and misspelt soft drinks that confused everyone around. With no concrete plans for the next day, we called it a night as I pulled out my laptop for the second time this evening and continued to download the nearly 100 mb worth of office emails that had accumulated during the trip, a sign of what was to come once I returned to the corporate world.

Could things have been done better by those in charge today? Most definitely yes but in its own way the careless attitude exhibited today held up a mirror to the true dynamics of the group that had ridden together for 10 days and taught us what the brotherhood of biking was all about. 

“You touched my heart you touched my soul.
You changed my life and all my goals.
And love is blind and that I knew when,
My heart was blinded by you.
I've kissed your lips and held your hand.
Shared your dreams and shared your bed.
I know you well, I know your smell.
I've been addicted to you.”

Goodbye My Lover – James Blunt

It was strange really, I had come to the mountains wanting to experience the unforgiving roads and the harsh climate and majestic beauty that I felt would combine to make for an unforgettable experience with a bunch of people I did not know and yet years from now while I will treasure the memories of my first bike ride through the Himalayas (you better believe that I’m going back next year, this mountain riding stuff is unbelievably addictive) and the perspective changing cleansing that I experienced on this trip, it was the people that I rode with that will remain unforgettable. 

Click here for Day 12 - Manali to Delhi

Day 10 : Take It Easy - Eagles (Sarchu to Jispa)

Now our trip to the Himalayas would never be truly complete if we didn’t take a picture of all of us bowing down in front of our machines, a pose that has become synonymous with Indian biking in recent times but one that marked the respect that we had for our partners in crime over the last week and a half. It was ironic in so many ways because the Bullet stood for everything that I never understood, a supposedly nostalgic approach to biking that covered the fact that the bikes were too big and suffered from insufficient braking and used technology that was contemporary when my dad was my age. And yet there I was, knowing that despite the fact that my modern small capacity Japanese motorbike with its razor sharp cornering abilities and stop on a dime braking would remain the bike for me, I would leave the mountains with a new found respect for the grand old lady. 

Distance wise we didn’t really have to cover that much but the imposing Baralachala pass needed to be crossed and we would also encounter the beautiful Suraj Vishal taal (roughly translating to the Lake of the Sun God) on the way. Now that we had mastered long distance riding, the initial riding effort for the day seemed to be fairly non strenuous and just as we were starting to enjoy the riding we pulled up for a break at the same blue tarpaulined place that had offered so much relief to us when we had started our trip.

Bear in mind this was the same place where my eyeballs took a massive beating with the revelation of the strangely coloured socks earlier so I was careful to keep my line of sight strictly above everybody’s knees this time. To add to the problems, I had to occasionally resort to lip reading because my ears were ringing from the continuous drone of the loud exhaust and hence I used to miss half the things people would say but trust me, lip reading isn’t easy when your poor eyes keep seeing strange colours at odd times.

“Take It easy, take it easy
Don't let the sound of your own wheels
drive you crazy
Lighten up while you still can
don't even try to understand
Just find a place to make your stand
and take it easy”

Take It Easy – The Eagles

What a difference the span of a week made. The last time we were here, most of us were suffering from exhaustion and altitude sickness and many just curled up and slept for a while. Today though we were itching to ride, not wanting to spend too much time sipping hot tea and twiddling out thumbs. With minimal traffic, the pass as such didn’t have any surprises for us this time around and we enjoyed riding through it and stopping at the lake for a quick round of pictures. 

Once again what a difference the span of a week made. The first time we were here we just couldn’t take enough photographs. Now it seemed as though nobody wanted to click any pictures as we had already seen this and so much more and were seemingly tired of clicking endless pictures of mountains and streams and lakes and snow and traffic and bikes and gorges (or were they canyons? I will never know, will I?).

We came across Anu and a big group of foreign riders that he was now leading at the lovely pool we had encountered on day 3. Despite having ridden with and interacted with the man for just a handful of days, all of us were genuinely happy to see him once again and we just had to take a bunch of photos with him before we parted ways again. Our trusty mechanic would now be going along with this new group and we bid farewell to him as well. We had a marvelous time riding at the back with him and the driver from Tso Moriri and all the stops to fix the bike had meant that we shared a connection that was difficult to describe.

On the other hand, given the seemingly super human capabilities of my pillion (who obviously feigned ignorance on the whole matter) I was hoping that nothing else would fall off though to be fair they did have another mechanic for the return leg. On second thoughts there wasn’t much left to fall off the bike, I was now left with only the seats, the engine and the tyres while the Lady who could single handedly break down a Bullet walked around with a halo above her head. We also noticed that some of the foreign riders had taken the opportunity to take a dip in the pool which was thought provoking given that we hadn’t had showers for the last two and a half days since there was no hot water at any of the tents but here they were jumping in at the sight of clean (and might I add bitterly cold) water. This is what it looks like when one group of riders is going one way and another group is going the other on a mountain road.

The riding wasn’t without it’s fair share of drama though as we had to cross numerous streams that were quite deceptively devious in sections and it took a bit of faith to ride through with no idea of the actual depth and presence or absence of stones, pebbles and jagged rocks under the innocuous dirty water. Back in Bangalore I used to shudder at the very sight of a small puddle of water on the roads and took so many precautions to go around the tiny water body that passersby would have been forgiven if they thought that there was a small crocodile lurking somewhere in it. Here’s us riding through the first of many streams, notice my pillion’s bright yellow helmet and orange waterproof cover for her bag, another thing which probably caused some of my temporary blindness!

Well the streams just kept getting deeper and more difficult to cross, this one in particular even managed to get our seasoned guide Boney to fall off his bike in front of us. If you have been patient enough to read all my posts so far (well hats off to you, even I fell asleep reading my travelogue last night but that had more to do with exhaustion that lack of quality content, I swear!) you should check this video of the second half of our group barreling their way across the stream. I also just noticed that all the riders in our group got the women pillions across without a hitch while the lady on the left of the video who belonged to another group preferred to walk than leave it in the hands of the biker in question.

We stopped for lunch soon and I led the group as we trooped into the small restaurant to find astonished stares from all the ladies and girls inside, each and every single one having stopped their eating to drop their jaws and look at us as though we had just landed from another planet. Well I hadn’t removed any of my gear so they could’ve been forgiven for their reactions and I even said out aloud, “Greetings, we come in peace” but not one single person even broke into a smile. Not wanting to give them perpetual nightmares we walked out and had our lunch at the tables outside where we got strange stares from the women folk as they left the restaurant. True story. The tarmac that we were treated to after lunch was fantastic but we reached out hotel within ten minutes or so and after lazying around on the swings for a while we were glad to hit the showers as we tried to the get the cumulative mountain dirt of the last few days off ourselves. 

After freshening up we waited for tea to be served and were treated to another round of snacks by My favourite couple of all time that had ferried it all the way from Bangalore and across the mountains. How could you not love a couple that travels with their favourite food items? With just one more day of riding, it was time to collect all the photos and did the total number of photos exceed my wildest expectations or what? With over 9400 pictures, I dreaded coming back to Bangalore and going through all of them before I would start writing about the trip. I was sure my fingers would fall off just from clicking the Next button to view each of the photos. 

We decided to try some games, this time mercifully of the non-physical kind and first up was a game of verbal volleyball that involved name calling instead of knocking an actual ball around. Despite knowing everyone so well, we ended up struggling with names when it came down to passing control within the team and sending it across with the limited time and soon we learnt the art of looking at one person but calling the other’s name and other little nifty tricks to confuse the opposition. A simple enough game that was surprisingly truckloads of fun.

Next was a game of police and killer that had the group sit around in a circle facing each other and while they all bent over and closed their eyes, the game organizer would walk around and tap the designated police guy once and the killer twice while the rest of the group would be untouched. With this done, the group would sit normally and it was left to the killer to knock off the group by winking at them one by one (which they would then announce) while the police would have to try to guess who the killer was. It’s a great game for large groups and since nobody knows who the cop or the killer was, you could thrash talk your way through the game to throw everyone off your scent and / or just for kicks. Once again massively entertaining and we even had instances where people wrongly claimed to have been killed only so that they could leave the game and go grab a jacket from their room because it was too cold outside!

After dinner we all gathered around in one of the rooms to share our experiences and to borrow a corporate term, key takeaways, from the last ten days and it was a cauldron of thought provoking moments, hilarious incidents, personal challenges and raw emotion that had us in everything from contemplative moods to rolling on our sides while trying to stop the laughter from hurting. Honestly, though I didn’t know it earlier, this sit down session was the final piece of the puzzle that we needed to make our pilgrimage to the Himalayas complete before we returned to the real world. 

Click here for Day 11 - Jispa to Manali

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Day 9 : Broken - Lifehouse (Tso Moriri to Sarchu)

In many ways it was difficult to believe that today marked the beginning of the end of our truly epic quest into the mountains, a journey that each of us undertook into the unknown – both geographically and spiritually. Of course we did have a few more days before we actually reached Manali but for the first time we would be returning to and through areas that we had crossed on the first half of our trip. It also served as a reminder that despite being away from the rest of the world for what seemed like an eternity, we didn’t have a choice but to return to the boardroom battles and crazy weekends that scripted most of our ingloriously mundane lives.

Over breakfast we were told the story of how this really crazy guy wanted to check how fast a crocodile could move and decided to jump into the enclosure of the biggest croc in the reptile park, assuming that since it was the biggest one it would also be the slowest one. Now the reptile in question was named Fatso and when you have seen how big crocodiles can really get, you can only imagine how big this fella must’ve been to be christened so. Anyways our nutjob approached Fatso (reminds me of Prop Joe from The Wire) who turned around, gave chase and even managed to get his jaws onto him while our guy shouted out “Release me moonshine!”.

The crazy guy then walked into a nearby bar and asked for assistance explaining that he had been bitten by a croc in the park, which is how the Man who should have played Bane in the Dark Knight Rises got involved in the story (seeing as he is an Australian police officer and all). Sure enough nobody believed the guy at first and he took them to the park and showed them his special torch that he had dropped in the enclosure while fleeing.

He was then admitted to a local hospital for treatment but soon he walked out of the hospital undetected by the staff to a nearby shop to buy himself a pack of ciggies. All this while he was in a hospital gown! After multiple such incidents he was taken to the local judge who had had enough of all the nonsense and even went to the extent of laying down an ultimatum by saying “This town aint big enough for the two of us son and I’m not planning on leaving”. And I thought we Indians were crazy!

There was a change in the riding as well with the Lady who could single handedly break down a Bullet joining me as a pillion and I know while all the other names have been self-explanatory, this is the one that has had you wondering on how she got her moniker. All will be explained, ladies and gentlemen.  The first section was the same horrendous route that we had taken to ride into Tso Moriri the previous evening and despite knowing what we were in for, we still had a tough time riding through it and the accompanying pain as well. Whatever butt blisters we had hoped were gone ended up making their presence felt in the worst possible way.

Having a pillion meant riding slower through these sections and once again the concentration levels had to shoot up by more than a few levels. If you’ve got someone else’s well being in your hands, you cannot afford to be careless even for a split second especially when there are multiple short cuts that guys in front of you take which you realize are not worth it before taking the long and safe route around.

Soon we were on the less back breaking smoother paths that would have the rear fishtailing merrily when I braked, even with a bantamweight pillion (who punched like a light heavyweight but that’s another story) in place. With all the dust that was being thrown up by the riders in front, I pulled to the back of the pack and we had a nice time riding with our jeep (the van had to head back from Leh) that contained the mechanic and driver who preferred to drive just behind us though offroad while we stuck to the beaten path. The four of us had huge grins as the jeep would take shortcuts that I refused to and then they would wait patiently for us to catch up before tailing us again. The group stopped for a quick break to get the bikes checked and tried out the dried out salt that was present on the side of the route. I still wont call it a road. Just look at it!

Soon after our break, we heard a rattling noise from the silencer and I confidently explained to my pillion that it was a stone that had worked itself into the end of the silencer. She was sure I was wrong and wanted us to pull over and check before proceeding. It’s a good thing I listened as it turned out that she was right (well there always is a first time for everything) and we found that the the screw that held the silencer and the frame of the bike together had fallen off leaving the former swinging up and down and banging into the footpegs. Our mechanic suggested that we take it off to avoid any further mechanical damage while conveniently forgetting to mention the massive loss of hearing that we would end up suffering over the next few days. 

Now all boy racers love a car / bike which has the sound to match the go and for the first few miles I quite enjoyed the heady drone that unfortunately drowned out whatever little scintillating conversation we had. Eventually it started getting to me despite the excellent noise insulation that my helmet provided. The group pulled over at the solitary restaurant at Tsokar (boy were we relived to give our ear drums a break or what?) and had a round of very expensive tea before leaving for lunch. When they say location is everything to succeed, they really were talking about this restaurant, weren’t they?

The More plains was some way away but we weren’t prepared for the unannounced offroad session that was to precede it. Before we knew it the group had ridden off the road and was cutting a straight path to the mountains instead of following the long and winding road. We ended up crossing several horses on this impromptu bit of riding and the smooth offroading gave way to completely sandy terrain that was a lot trickier to navigate through. Deceptively hidden bumps and low visibility (being at the back of the pack once again) posed quite the challenge and it was a mixed bag overall with your skills being challenged to the limits while the sand didn’t do your lungs any favours. Memorable though it certainly was.

The silky smooth More plains were a sight for sore eyes (don’t forget the even more sore bottoms) and it was time for a rider switch as we swapped positions and I perched myself on the pillion seat for the first time in a very long time. After making sure she was comfortable with the gearbox pattern I just sat back and enjoyed watching us rumble through the majestic plains. Confession time – most Indian guys would just be happy if they were able to sit as a pillion behind a lady who didn’t have them frightened out of their wits each time she gave the throttle of a bike a twist. Most Indian guys would be happy just to bike in the Himalayas. Most Indian guys would hence be insanely jealous of me if I told them that I got to sit pillion behind a lady who rode through the Himalayas better than most people I know. Biking nirvana of a different kind! 

Our fantastic ride though was interrupted when our support jeep honked a couple of times to let us know that we had a flat. First the silencer that had to be taken off, something that has never happened to me in over a decade of riding. Then the flat. I should’ve been smart enough to sense a pattern. What happened as we stopped though was a simple but effective reminder of what true biking was all about. The Lady who could single handedly break down a Bullet got off the bike and actually jumped up and down a couple of times, barely able to contain her excitement after having ridden extremely well over the last 15 kms or so. You  don’t really have to ride a gazillion miles a day nor do you need to have the fastest bike in town to be a biker. Sometimes you just have to be excited by a bike ride to be a true biker at heart. 

Unfortunately the More plains didn’t last forever and it was back to riding duties for me as we caught up with the group who had stopped for lunch while we were getting the flat fixed. The roads after lunch were in pretty bad shape (this was the section that made me feel as though my neck was about to break off) and hence we again were left with the tailing responsibilities on account of our slow speed. The 21 hairpin bends did claim one victim as the others pulled over to the side and one of the bikers said that he couldn’t hop off the bike to help because the side stand of his bike had fallen off and hence all he could do was stand there perched on his bike and offer moral support! True story. 

Once again there was a strange rattling from the engine (which we could hear over the ear drum splitting rumble so you knew it was loud) and we had to stop for the backup van to pull over (the jeep driver had bid farewell to us at lunch as he had to head back and our suitcases were transferred back to the van, confusing I know). The mechanic had a big smile on his face by now as he tightened all the nuts and bolts to get rid of the noise. We didn’t get very far before the sound returned but by then the van had taken a scary shortcut down the mountain slope and was way ahead of us and so we had to take the long route around to reach him. Another check and this time as he removed the heat guard from whatever remained of the silencer he whispered to me “All these days the bike was doing fine, I know why it's all falling apart” as he cast a sideways glance at my pillion. And people say subtlety is a dying art!

With the constant delays we were really trailing behind the group and as we neared Sarchu our progress was further hampered by this lorry which had parked itself across the road to load a bunch of cows into it. Now this is called travelling by cattle class! 

Fortunately Vishal had sped ahead (I don’t think I ever saw him ride slowly throughout the trip which is testament to his riding prowess and rock solid rear end) and spoken to the owner of the tents at Sarchu who had been informed earlier that we were supposed to come the following day and had made arrangements for other guests accordingly. We were exhausted and it was another night of being citizens of piglet-ville as there was  no running water and hence no chance of taking a shower for the second day in a row. Deodorants to the rescue once again!

After freshening up Vishal and I took a long stroll across to the mountains (remember the tiny ants picture from Day 3?) and spotted a shepherd who was having difficulty with a lame sheep. After struggling to get the sheep to walk back to the flock, the shepherd was left with no option but to wheelbarrow the animal back while Vishal walked beside him recording the whole thing on his phone. With sub titles and appropriate back ground music, we could have a Youtube sensation on our hands!

There was a small bonfire that we all huddled around in a tiny room near the kitchen but since there was no outlet, the smoke stayed in the room and after having suffered the worst of what the Himalayas had thrown at me, the last thing I wanted to do was suffocate on smoke and head to a better place. Dinner was the usual fun affair and soon it was time to call it a night. This time too I managed to get myself a hot water bottle but today my ears hurt more than anything else and no hot water bottle could help me with that. At the end of the day though I realized that I was growing quite fond of the bike and despite it being  far cry from what I had come to expect of a bike (especially in terms of reliability, Ive never had so many parts fall off any of my bikes) and the arduous back breaking terrain, I would hold onto very fond memories for a very long time. 

“I'm falling apart, I'm barely breathing
With a broken heart that's still beating
In the pain, there is healing
In your name I find meaning
So I'm holdin' on, I'm holdin' on, I'm holdin' on
I'm barely holdin' on to you”

Friday, July 12, 2013

Day 8 : In The Summertime - Mungo Jerry (Leh to Tso Moriri)

Well the lovely break that we had enjoyed over the last few days obviously couldn’t last forever and with a heavy heart we got ready to bid a very fond farewell to Leh as we were all prepared to leave by the stipulated time of 07:30. However it was not to be as the bill took forever to settle and then we all had to fill petrol at one of the few pumps that were present in Leh, a seemingly never ending activity that  in some ways knocked off some of the excitement of finally getting back on our bikes. 

Once we got riding though it was all good as we crossed several schools which gave me a chance to high five many kids who eagerly stretched out their hands as they heard the rumble of our approaching group of Bullets. It wasn’t just kids that we rode past, we crossed Army squads doing mock exercises with their vehicles on unforgiving rocky terrain (and no this time I don’t mean the roads) as well as multiple groups of people that were engaged in rock clearing. How they managed at that altitude one can only wonder.

The roads were fabulous and were blessed with some great S bends which made riding truly a mile wide grin inducing affair. To add to the overall effect of brilliance we were soon riding through what I guess were endless gorges (or were they canyons? I will never know) and I often fell back a little bit just to open up a bit of tarmac and then gunned the bike through the corners in what was now becoming an effortless dance through the bends with the Bullet. Truly this was what biking bliss was all about. Our next stop was at a bridge that was lined with prayer flags on one side and it instantly brought back memories of the hanging bridge in Manipal where I have spent many a memorable evening with some truly wonderful people who studied with me. Those were the days!

Less than a minute after we started off though the Man with arms longer than the law pulled over as his rear tyre was completely flat and some of us waited with him while the puncture was getting fixed by our great support crew. We caught up with the rest of the group and as we kept riding we crossed multiple Army camps including the Kairi military memorial that was frankly out there in the middle of nowhere but in many ways the most honest tribute to our brave men and women in uniform who are on the battle lines far away from civilization. The engine of an airplane that crashed in Operation Meghdoot, killing two paratroopers in the process, was as poignant a tribute as you will ever see in your life.

Lunch for once was not going to be at a dhaba but instead on the banks of the river that we had kept riding along for most of the morning. Now I don’t know when the last time I was at an actual picnic was and except for the slightly overtly active sun, there was nothing we could complain about as we had great company, cold but welcome parathas and even home-made chips that were brought by My favourite couple of all time. I’m sure by now you’re wondering how they got that moniker, well this was one reason why. We even had to resort to the old fashioned route of washing our dishes in the chilly but clear river water while ensuring that we didn’t topple over flat on our faces with a massive splash! It was in many ways, the perfect summer time picnic that has now become a lost tradition in our big city lives. 

"In the summer time when the weather is high
You can stretch right up and touch the sky
When the weather's right"

In The Summertime - Mungo Jerry

 The moment I started the bike after lunch I knew something was wrong as it just wouldn’t keep up with the rest of the group despite copious wringing of the throttle. It almost felt as though the bike was gasping for air and I was left with no option but to pull over and wait for the support van to catch up and check the bike. At first the mechanic adjusted the air fuel mixture which I was pretty sure wasn’t the root cause and within 200 metres of restarting I pulled over again as the bike was still seemingly moving in slow motion. Out came a new spark plug and ten minutes later the bike was back to normal though it took a bit of running in with the changed plug to get it rumbling like usual. The delay meant that the group had stopped up ahead as they waited for me and some of them had even fallen asleep while they were at it!

The people who made the roads had also seemingly fallen asleep on the job and forgotten about completing them before returning back to civilization. How else does one explain routes (I cant say roads because there is no semblance of tarmac anywhere) like this which were basically loose gravel paths that people consistently used. It was back to slippin and slidin away, though by now we were starting to get really used to the whole thing. Riding on Bangalore’s roads would now be a blindfolded walk in the park!

Loose gravel paths soon gave way to back breaking paths (I still refuse to call them roads), the kinds where you actually felt that every stone and pebble that your bike encountered was methodically getting up and punching you directly in your lower back. And by punching I don’t mean prodding or poking. Think roundhouse right into your back type of punch. It almost felt like I was Rocky Balboa, eating punches in bunches, minus the glorious recovery to victory at the end. To say that we were elated to see Tso Moriri (roughly translated – salty lake) would be an understatement of epic proportions. Some riders even went to the extent of saying that it felt like they had left their bottoms behind when we had left after lunch as nothing about the way they felt told them that anything was left of their rear posteriors. The picture below probably shows how excited we actually felt deep inside our weary broken down bodies. 

After getting the paperwork cleared we headed to the tents and for a while we were concerned that we weren’t going to get them for the night. Frankly the lack of accommodation was much less of a worry as compared to the thoughts of the torture that we would have to put our backs through once again on the return journey. Fortunately the organizers managed to work it out with the camp owners and we were grateful to get comfortable beds to lie on for a while and ease some sensation into our backs and bottoms. Just don’t ask us how we did it.

We quickly freshened up and enjoyed the long stroll down to the lake which I would say was honestly more beautiful than Pangong. Not wanting to reduce the country’s food production, our group from the cab carefully weaved it'sway through the fields that contained sprouting crop before joining the others who had left earlier and were already by the lake. It was photography time once again and we had a ton of fun trying out different leaping in the air pictures (that’s obviously where the above picture came from) as the slowly setting sun provided the perfect backdrop for our photography.

Once everyone got tired of leaping as high as they could, the plan changed to tug of war without a rope. Now I’m sure nobody has told you this but indulging in a best of 3 series of tug of war challenges bereft of a rope is a ridiculously fun but exhausting experience, especially when you are at a really really high altitude. To say that we had a blast would be putting things mildly. Not content with that, the Man who should have played Bane in the Dark Knight Rises suggested that we all try our hand at a rugby scrum next, which now that I think about it was a no brainer for him because he was physically the most fit among all of us and he looked like he could’ve bulldozed his way through half the jokers in the Indian parliament single-handedly if he wanted to. 

I was chosen to be the centre of our team (which smartly voted and closed the votes before I could protest!and I had to lock shoulders against the Man who should have played Bane in the Dark Knight Rises while the rest of the teams joined in alongside the two of us. Given who I was up against, for more than a moment I had the sinking feeling that I would end up with a sprained shoulder and / or broken bones, but despite all the heaving and shoving and prodigious grunting from all involved including the ladies (well minus the one that was just looking on in the following picture), I made it out unscathed and relieved to be on the winning side! 

It was getting dark and while most of the group made their way back before visibility dropped to zero, our late to arrive mini group stayed back to take a few more photos of the moonlight sky reflecting against the lake in all its glory. The bright full moon also meant that we could now take the ‘look I have the moon in the palm of my hands’, ‘look I’m hanging from the moon’ and ‘look I'm swallowing the moon’ photos that all cheesy corny photo lovers relish. It even gave us guys the chance to mix and match our favourite characters from the Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat as we mock fought while the ladies clicked away.

Getting back to the camp under the moon light sky was a lot harder than we expected and even the flash from a phone wasn’t of much help as we prodded and stumbled more than just a couple of times on our way. We were fortunate enough to have a fearless leader who bravely led us down different paths (often wrongly but hey you don’t want to mess with someone so fearless) and eventually after the rest of us sent up a bunch of prayers to the Man up there, our leader managed to safely troop us back through the gate of our camp which interestingly enough had the horns of a yak / bull on top of it. 

Over dinner I was glad to find a fellow UFC fan in the Man who should have played Bane in the Dark Knight Rises, after all how many Indian MMA fans do you think I get to meet? While the rest of the group called it a night, a few of us watched videos from the HD GoPro (helmet camera for the uninitiated) that our Australian couple were using including a brush with a speeding lorry and the pillion who wanted a lift from Vishal and got off half way through the ride.

Throughout the trip, it used to take me five to ten minutes to fall into my deep dreamless sleep but tonight I fell asleep in less than two but was woken up within a few minutes by the kind and really helpful chap from the camp (an Electrical engineer that too!) who brought a hot water bottle for our tent. Seeing as the Man who didn’t know which football club to support was snoring away to glory, I gratefully accepted the bottle and gave my wrecked back some respite for the rest of the night. It was fitting that while we were at an altitude of over 15,000 feet, sleep that night was heavenly. 

Click here for Day 9 - Tso Moriri to Sarchu