Sunday, July 14, 2013

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

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