“Woooooooow!” “Yeh dekh (look at this)!” “Woh dekh (look at that)”
The voices of the family sitting in front of me betrayed their unbridled excitement but my eyes refused to open even by the faintest of slivers. Surely the silence from the rest of the bus meant that we normal travellers were fast asleep but I wondered what on earth this family was looking at given this ungodly hour (not that I knew what time it was). With what seemed to be the effort required to move 1000 mountains, I managed to open one of my eyes and realized that it was actually quite bright outside and the family in question was marveling at the scenic views but my watch told me that it was already 5:30 in the morning. For a few fleeting seconds my mind was caught in appreciation of the brilliance of the passing scenery but my body was not the least bit impressed and I promptly returned to my sleepy ways.
Sometime later the bus stopped for the de riguer morning tea break and I stepped out for a while to get some circulation back into my limbs. There was a slight drizzle that didn’t bode too well for our trip but hey a little water never hurt anybody did it? Oh naivety, you are a terrible friend to have. As we were boarding our bus I heard someone complain to the conductor about how lousy the tea was and how they should have stopped at one of the multiple dhabas on the way instead. As he stormed inside what that person didn’t hear was the conductor’s reply where he muttered that the tea was worse everywhere else and everyone always seemed to know what was best despite not knowing anything at all. Armchair pundits galore.
I stayed awake for another hour or so and I began to reflect on what I had got myself into. Our bus driver seemingly enjoyed maintaining a hairs breadth distance between the protruding jagged edges of rocks on one side and the relatively minor fall into the river that snaked past us on the other. As we rumbled on, I caught my first sighting of poor lil mountain trapped clouds that had nowhere to go. For the first time I wondered what happens to those clouds. Seeing as it wasn’t the most puzzling of life’s questions, I fell asleep again.
The bumpy roads meant that we were getting closer to our destination and the family in front of me was getting more enthusiastic as the miles wound down. The gushing river to our right seemed to be gaining in strength as we neared Manali and the mother even mentioned that she had never seen so much water in her life. I was about to suggest to them that they visit a beach the next time they wanted to go on vacation but then realized that I probably shouldn’t. What? I was only trying to help.
"So I just did me some talkin' to the sun
And I said I didnt like the way he got things done
Sleepin' on the job
Those raindrops are fallin' on my head, they keep fallin"
Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head - B J Thomas
With the steady drizzle that refused to let up, Manali was damp and dirty and we gave the group a call to let them know that we had landed. We were told to wait there and a half an hour later, the owner Anu drove up in a lovely black Mahindra Thar. We were just glad to get away from our landmark which was the billboard you see below. Seriously!
We met fellow traveller the Man who was on a mission (again another story for another day) and were dropped off at their office where we were to wait for the rest of the group to arrive. There we met this international traveller (that’s my kind word for hippie) who had once bought a second hand Indian Army jeep and driven it all the way to Sweden through our friendly neighbourhood country Pakistan. Of course he more than enjoyed the bewildered looks on the faces of Pakistani armed forces and civilians as they watched an Indian army jeep drive past them with a white skinned man at the wheel.
The rest of the group slowly trickled in over the next few hours as we twiddled our thumbs and sipped endless cups of tea. Over time we realized that mist was slowly covering the mountains that we could see from the balcony of the office and this combined with the incessant drizzle would be a heady combination to confront if they continued over the remainder of the trip. The final piece of the puzzle, the couple from Bangalore that would later be known as My favourite couple of all time (again another story for another day) would be late to arrive as they had chosen a private bus operator that was really awful when it came to delivering people on time.
Some of us decided to head down to the garage to click a few snaps of the bikes and we certainly returned content. A garage filled with gleaming Royal Enfield Bullets is a sight for sore biker eyes and we thoroughly enjoyed playing around with our cameras. The bikes, the tools, the mechanics were all our subjects as we clicked away to glory until we could resist the rumblings of our stomachs no longer.
For the second day in a row I was hungry as a wolf and after putting some gentle pressure on the organizers we were finally off for lunch at a small restaurant nearby. Of course being the first meal of a group trip, we had to figure out and store away for future reference who the veggies were. Not that it would make much of a difference when most of your meals over the coming few days were to consist of instant noodles and parathas. I was glad to find that I wasn't the only one who whipped out my camera when the food arrived - steaming and ready to be photographed. Sometimes I miss the good ol days where you would think twice about taking a snap because if you ran through your film roll too quickly you risked inviting the ire of everyone else who wanted to be photographed. Mutton soup, momos and a main course meal meant that we were stuffed to the gills (not that we were fish or anything) and we let out quiet burps of contentment.
There was a massive traffic jam heading into the small town of Manali and we figured it was better to walk in with the drizzle and do our shopping rather than struggle with bikes that we were new to. And so off we trudged, slowly walking past cars that were going nowhere, containing people that were in a hurry. Our guides were along with us and most of the group had a shopping list longer than my arm so we knew we were in for a long evening. With the multi mile long block and inclement weather, the tourist crowd stayed indoors which was good for us.
We ended up going into narrow lanes and exploring shops that we would’ve walked past nonchalantly had we been unaware of their actual contents. Jackets, gloves, raincoats, balaclavas and helmets made their way onto our shopping carts as we weaved our way through the mean streets of Manali. Now I for one actually enjoy the art of shopping, even when Im not buying anything, but after a point I got so tired that I stepped out and absentmindedly started talking to a mannequin thinking she was part of the group. Not that Mr Mannequin approved. Gulp!
With all the shopping done, we began our long walk back to the office. Bear in mind that we still hadn’t seen the insides of a hotel room till now and it was evening already and despite all the rain gear we were all soaked in bits and pieces. Its that funny state where your red shoes get drenched and give your white socks a baby pink tinge that no soap can wash away but at the same time the rest of you stays perfectly dry. The bikes still weren’t ready and while we waited I got my return tickets pushed by a day. That way I didn’t have to rush back to the unwelcome grind and I would get a day to rest my weary and battered bones. While the mechanics finished their final round of checks before handing over the bikes to us we ended up having an Android versus Apple battle and straight away I knew our group would get along like a thatched house on fire.
The bikes was finally set for action and right off the bat I was really uncomfortable. The braking seemed to involve copious amounts of quick prayers to the Man up above and mild retardation from the actual brakes themselves and I got them tightened immediately but the improvement was limited. I was used to a much more sporty riding posture on my bike and the sitting on a sofa seating just didn’t resonate with me. We finally got rolling by 8:30 or so with the drizzle shows no signs of abating. We stopped for dinner on the way to our hotel where we were served hot rotis and some curries which were good enough that we couldn’t complain about them but weren’t that good that we would remember them the next day.
There was a cricket tournament going on somewhere in the world and a part of the group wanted to stay abreast of the latest results and were glued to the small TV in the reception of the restaurant. They used to say that you can take an Indian out of India but you can never take cricket out of an Indian. They used to say that in the days before you had a two month long Indian Premier League circus immediately followed by the Champions League tournament that was immediately followed by a tour that didn’t matter to another country that didn’t matter.
We were finally on our way to the hotel and I prefered to sweep as always (the last position in a group ride) and soon we wound our way out of the crowded little town of Manali. Eventually it was just the pitch black sky, the headlights of 8 bikes in front of me and the faint lights of houses in the distance, little fireflies that moved on the periphery of your vision as you concentrated on getting acclimatized with a bulbous bike on wet roads. I lost track of how long we were riding and couldn’t spot any landmark that could give me my bearings if we were to come back here again. We finally reached out hotel which was a two storey building that had nice clean rooms. Hot tea was welcome and it was time to charge all our devices and ourselves for the big day that lay ahead of us. For the first time I was exposed to tawa warmed chuddies (probably an unfortunate choice of words there) and here I thought that I had seen every short cut that could have been taken after spending over 6 years in hostels.
Honestly, for day one of what should have been the biking adventure of a lifetime, the day was marked by a total lack of the Wow factor.
Click here for Day 2 - Manali to Keylong
Click here for Day 2 - Manali to Keylong