Friday, July 05, 2013

Day 2 : What Am I Doin' Here - Moody Blues (Manali to Keylong)

I have a love hate relationship with early morning alarms – on one hand I only make use of them when I have a really big day in front of me but on the other hand, well I’m what you call a late morning person. With the alarm set for 4:15 AM, I certainly wasn’t going to be in the greatest of morning moods but the anticipation of over a 100 kms of riding managed to get me out of bed and under a hot shower. The bikes were perfectly lined up and polished and seemingly ready for the grind that we would put them through over the next 10 days. Now that that I look back at all that transpired between me and the bike, I should have been worried about the drudgery that I would have to endure at the hands of the vehicle instead. The early morning sun provided just the right amount of light for us to click a round of photographs and soon we were riding back to Manali through the very same route that got us to the hotel.

Given that we had come in under the cover of darkness, we did not have a chance to see the lovely road that we had used the previous night and we had to stop for a few minutes at the office before we left. This was when I got my first real sighting of a snow clad mountain hidden between the foliage and other hills in between. “Nice”, I said to myself, “we probably are going to hit icy roads in a day or two.” Naivety, what a terrible friend you are to have. 

Soon we had crossed Manali and we started noticing the really large mountains that we had to cross during the course of the day’s ride. “A walk in the park”, said nobody from our group really. The greenery, the clear mountain air and the frankly imposing mountains made me realize that despite what all our TV manufacturers claim, there is only one entity that deals in true spectacular high definition – the Man up there. We rode past a lot of stores that were renting out winter wear to tourists and the good roads coupled with the pine trees (I’m a sucker for pine trees, is it the Christmas effect?) ensured that I rode with a smile on my face. The views became more and more jaw dropping as we inched our way closer to the ice capped mountains with steep falls into infamy and oblivion on one side and increasing traffic on the other. We encountered our first mini rockslide crossing (my notes initially had this as our first rockslide crossing but based on what we experienced later this was really a mini one) which had me wrestling the bike around for a bit. Well I haven’t jiggled that much in a seat since I saw the in the Poltergeist in 5th grade.

The terrain started changing slowly and there seemed to be less of my pine trees (boo) and more grass. Just as I noticed this, I saw a sign board that said “Trees Grow, Carbon Dioxide No”. The road slowly started getting worse and soon there were small streams that were crossing the road. Ostensibly to get to the other side but hey no one bothered to ask them! We were approaching Rohtang pass and the grassy inclines by now had given way completely to snow, snow and more snow. The tourist traffic (both vehicular and human) had increased exponentially and the bitterly cold wind wasn’t doing my fingers any favours either. A combination of the altitude, riders still getting accustomed to the new bikes and the cold meant that some of us had our bikes switch off on those steep slippery as hell slopes.

With generous twists of the wrist and careful weaving through what seemed like parked cabs, I slowly made my way up the treacherous road until my bike decided to conk off just as I was in between two MUVs filled with weary eyed tourists. Now the problem with a Bullet is that you can’t start it while the bike is slotted in gear - it has to be in neutral (honestly harder to find that a pretty, nice girl in Bangalore) which means that the bike will slowly roll backwards if you are on a slope while you kick start away to glory. Just when I was close to somehow managing to slot the bike into neutral, a hand popped out from the cab next to me for a handshake and a smiling elderly gentleman said “Beta (son), good going, all the best!”. 

Now to say that I was in a bit of a sticky situation would be a massive understatement. My left hand had the clutch pulled in while I was trying to shift into neutral with my left foot. This meant my right foot was on the ground for balance and hence I needed to use my right hand to hold the front brake to ensure that I wasn’t rolling back (since my right foot couldn’t physically be on the rear brake). Left with no limbs to complete the friendly handshake I sent up a prayer and shook the man’s hand while hoping that I didn’t roll all the way down the mountain.

On those snowy slopes, each time we stopped on account of the traffic jam I immediately placed my gloved hands by the engine to get some warmth back into my, by now, numb fingers. Just as the heat would start to make my hands feel better, a small gap would open up and it would be time to go back to snaking our way through the madness. It was funny in many ways, as we actually saw people safely ensconced in the large cabs laugh at our group (and me warming my hands at every possible opportunity) while other tourists were having a ball throwing snow balls at each other and rolling around blissfully. It wasn’t all the fun and good times though, I spotted a man who was having a panic attack as he was shouting at his family over the phone for having left him behind at that spot while they were enjoying elsewhere. And here we were half way across the country from our families and heading out into the unknown. 

"What can be done, you won't believe
Listen and you may see
Everyone's dream is deep within
Find it and you'll be free
What am I doin' here?”

What Am I Doing Here : Moody Blues

After what seemed like forever, we managed to ride past the craziness of the tourist crowd and we stopped for photos. I took off my gloves, whipped out my camera and proceeded to click photos of the rest of the group that smartly stay covered up. Within minutes I realize that the thumb in my left finger was miserably numb and I had a torrid time getting my gloves back on as started riding again. For the next 10 minutes I actually had no sensation whatsoever in my left thumb and I was really worried that I was affected by  a bad case of frostbite. I did for a minute think about how I would return to work and type away to glory minus one finger but thankfully I managed to shut the thought out quickly. At least the pictures turned out nicely I said to myself, as though it was any consolation. 

A little while later we stopped for photos at a rather scenic spot while most of the group rode ahead and this was where I got my first glimpse of what I would christen the Himalayan tricolore that consisted of virgin white snow, brown rocky mountains and greenery that seemed to be in a never ending battle with the snow to cover the mountains. There was a large Bullet group with international riders that rode past us and as some of us played catch up with our group we had to merge into the foreign contingent at times which played havoc with their planning as they were always stumped about how their numbers increased suddenly.

While the disappearance of the cold was welcome, the fact that whoever was building roads seemed to have forgotten about everything after Rohtang pass didn’t sit too well with me. We ended up riding through potholed roads, no roads, streams, gooey clay, muck and gravel at different times and sometimes together as well in different permutations. Progress was further hampered by our first official cattle crossing!

Just when we thought we had seen it all, we had to stop for an excavator that was clearing the road of fallen debris. In his single minded quest to make travel easy for motorists, the operator of the excavator had taken up all of the space on the road and ended up blocking so many vehicles for what seemed like forever. The arrival of an ambulance meant that he stopped and moved his heavy machine, albeit briefly, and in the time that we took to gear up he calmly moved back to the middle of the road and started clearing the way again. Needless to say we were less than amused. 

Finally it was time for breakfast at Koksar and we were guilty of walloping down our fair share of hot parathas and even hotter tea.We had another 3 to 4 hours of riding ahead of us before we reached Keylong but we stopped for a round of pictures soon after we completed breakfast. The roads were fairly smooth in most places and just as the riding was getting interesting my bike was hit by a case of a stuck accelerator cable that had the engine revving its nuts off. The massive amount of vibes would have shaken off a light weight rider for sure and I had to stop the bike and wait for the backup van to catch up and adjust the faulty cable as the others rode past. 

We were soon riding past what appeared to be large quarries with work happening on one side and huge mountain faces on the other. Translation – the road once again went from bad to worse. We had a long bumpy ride across multiple stream crossings and the lack of sleep started making itself evident with some of the riders slowing down a bit and cutting across a few corners. We also had to cross multiple small bridges (a regular feature over the next 10 days) that often consisted of metallic planks laid out haphazardly over steel girders which often had large gaps between them that would drive fear into the most foolhardy people. I probably should have paid more attention to my geography lessons as I felt that I was driving through canyons at some point but wasn’t too sure that they were canyons in the first place. Well its too late to go back to school anyways so I’ll just call them canyons. Or gorges.

We rode into Keylong by late afternoon and were treated to some hot tea and biscuits and we sat down and chit chatted on the balcony of the top floor of our hotel for a while. We went down for a late lunch as we realized that for the second day in a row our meal times were way off from what we were used to back in our normal lives. This was also when I became, for the first time in my life, the victim of the social experiment that will forever be known as the Keylong Tea Test. We ended up having an extra cup of tea at our table and the gentleman sitting in front of me, soon to be known as the Man who tried to beat sunburn offered the extra cup of tea to the young lady, soon to be known as the Lady who could single handedly break down a Bullet, sitting next to me. Since she wasn’t a sweet tea person (trying reading that out loud) and since the tea had sugar in it, she declined. I was about to say that I would have the cup of tea instead when I realized that the Man who tried to beat sunburn had immediately started drinking it without even offering the cup to me! While chivalry might be well and truly alive, our bro code needed to be updated.

Most of us hit the showers and given the early morning start, some of the guys decided to catch up on really well deserved sleep. A couple of us decided to explore Keylong by doing the traditional walk and spot touristy routine and we were treated to a nice sleepy lil town that did nothing really outstandingly well and in all fairness it didn’t need to. Nobody ever hit the hills saying they were off to Keylong. We made our way back at the first sight of rain and those of us who were awake sat around and joked about what we had gone through on our first actual day of hardcore riding. It was also when I got my first sniff of home brewed alcohol, a drink with such a strong smell that even I, the Man who cannot smell (true story) found it to be a heady lungful. The ingredients are fermented for months and then burnt and the condensation is collected drop by drop, much like the chemistry experiments we did back in our school days minus the added benefits. The drink was provided courtesy of one of our guides, Stone, a wonderful person one cannot easily forget. We all called him Stone because that’s what he said his name was though he did reveal his true identity to one person and one person only (another story for you guessed it right another day).

Despite our late snacking on samosas, dinner with the entire team was a welcome meal after which I spent a good amount of time talking to the owner of the company, Anu, a gem of a guy whose combination of single minded dedication to customer satisfaction and him being a great human being, has brought him to where he is today. Meanwhile our other guides Vishal and Boney were with the rest of the group, and as the stories from the days riding tumbled out, we had a good round of laughs and some sheepish smiles as well. We even had our foreign riders join us in a scientific experiment that quite frankly baffled all of us. We had the sturdiest of victims stand on one leg and fall over to the meekest of touches on the shoulder by Vishal but when they were made to hold on to a secret object (a room key in this case) all the effort in the world by Vishal couldn’t get them to topple over from one leg. Quite the neat party trick.

Eventually we all called it a day and before sleep overtook me, I paused and reflected on the roller coaster ride we had been on today and how it so sharply contrasted with the relatively disappointing (from a riding perspective) day one. The thought that the best was yet to come put a smile on my exhausted face before I drifted off into a very deep and dreamless sleep.

Click here for Day 3 - Keylong to Sarchu


Nefertiti said...

dude this requires copious amounts of reading... beyond my capability!

Neil said...

Nobody said it was easy!