Monday, 28 October 2013

Rugged Roads and Spirits Unplugged

According to Google Maps, the drive to our next hotel was 50km less than the Shimla to Manali trek. However, mindful of how long that journey had taken we resolved to set off early. This sort of went to plan, and by 08:30 we were packed and on our way. Somehow, we managed to miss the main road out of town and ended up on the old Kullu highway. This road pretty much follows the highway, but on the other side of an enormous gorge, separated by the river with no way to cross for miles. However, it turned out to be a happy accident, as we enjoyed the different scenery and passed through many beautiful villages.

We eventually did join the main highway, but were not on it for long before turning off onto the Banjar road (Route 305). Whilst marked as a relatively major route on the map, the first few kilometres consisted of mud, sand and gravel. Eventually cracked asphalt did appear, and we wound our way past pretty terraced farms and through lush pine forests. Progress was slow, but at this stage we were still confident of making it before nightfall.

Although Oli had been aware, I was blissfully ignorant of the fact that our route involved the Jalori Pass, a hard ascent of over 3000m. Almost as soon as we started to climb, the asphalt ceased to exist, and was replaced by a rough and rocky track. Like a true work-horse, the Enfield slowly powered up the hill, albeit mostly in first gear. The road surface was the worst we had yet encountered, and exacerbated by the steep incline. You wouldn't think it, but it turns out this little bike really can climb anything – even insanely steep rocky surfaces two up and fully loaded.

After what seemed like an age, we finally bounced our way to the top. Although it can essentially climb cliffs, the Enfield is admittedly not the greatest in terms of pillion comfort. I felt utterly broken by the time we reached the peak, my bones having been thoroughly rattled all the way up. If I had any fillings, they would have fallen out. However as the saying goes, what goes up must come down, and after a brief pause we began the challenging descent.

A ray of hope emerged as we started to descend, as it appeared that the road had improved noticeably. Sadly though this hope was short lived, and the conditions almost immediately deteriorated to even direr levels than the ascent. In many places the road took on the appearance of a dry river bed, the surface evidently having been royally done over by years worth of rains or spring melt. Sometimes tiny islands of asphalt became visible, hinting at better times long ago.


Eventually the road re-appeared. The tarmac may have been cracked and potholed, but at least it was present. Stiff and sore from the Enfield's suspension, I honestly could have kissed the road surface. Progress was still slow, but we happily continued to wind our way through the mountains, admiring the incredible views. The road remained narrow, almost single track, adding an exciting element of suspense as we knew that the route was frequented by buses and goods lorries. We approached each blind bend with caution, making liberal use of  the horn. It was a good strategy, and we experienced minimal heart-attack moments as a result. It got us thinking of slogans that could be used as dual road safety and tourism adverts, such as “India: You never know what's around the next corner!” or “India: Full of Surprises!”


Full of surprises it was indeed, as we arrived in a small town to find the road entirely blocked by the joyful chaos of a wedding party. A large, colourfully dressed crowd were spread across both lanes, beating drums and playing instruments. Eventually becoming aware of the building traffic, they cleared slightly to let us through. Although we did not enjoy battling through the traffic chaos caused, it was a quintessentially Indian sight that we were delighted to have witnessed.

After eight hours of rugged, twisty and narrow roads, we eventually joined National Highway 22. In reality this is just a regular carriageway, one lane for each direction, but we were astounded. Smooth asphalt? Check. Road wide enough for two vehicles? Check. It was heaven for us. Super excited, we tore along the road as fast as Sgt. Bash would allow (which is not actually very fast at all). It was a very good feeling.

Our excitement was short lived however, as after a few kilometres it was time to turn off again. Fortunately, although the road was narrow, the surface was amazing. Apparently the road is maintained by the military, so is in brilliant condition. The drops to the right hand side were dizzying, but the payoff was that the views were some of the best we have seen so far. The sun low in the sky, the mountains and valleys were lit in a beautiful and soft apricot light. Thinking we must be close to our destination by now, we allowed ourselves the luxury of some photos.

Our resting place for the night was to be Spirits Unplugged, a mountain retreat far from everything. It is so remote that it is not possible to find on the GPS or our friend Google Maps, so we were actually without a clue as to how far we needed to go. The last light slipped out of the sky, and we were left negotiating the tricky road in the dark. Stopping a few times to text our hosts and check we hadn't missed a turn off, we eventually made it to the final village, 60km from the main road. Here we met the final hurdle, a local had decided the best place to park his bus was right in the middle of a bridge. There was no way we were going to fit through, and it was frustrating to be stuck for the sake of a few inches. People quickly appeared, and started making phone calls trying to locate the owner. After what seemed like an age, he eventually arrived and shifted it slightly. The final hurdle cleared, we were back on our way, riding the final few kilometres up a steep gravel track.


It was a relief to arrive at the guest-house, and we were immediately greeted by the kindly caretaker and a very excited dog. I settled down on the sofa whilst Oli observed the cooking process, ever keen to learn new kitchen tricks. The preparations involved several trips out into the organic garden for herbs, spices and even some wild pomegranate. As they went gathering, the caretaker told Oli to take care outside, as there were leopards and tigers in the area, a fact we had not even considered stopped on the side of the road in the dark. Eventually, the boys appeared triumphant. The food was incredible (but super spicy). The mint, pomegranate and chilli had put to excellent use, and were now in the form of a fresh and delicious chutney. Oli and I will definitely be adding this to our repertoire.

Exhausted from our bone shaking day on the roads, we retired early. 300km had taken us over ten hours to negotiate, which certainly points to a depressingly low average speed. However, from the comfort of our warm soft bed, we could reflect on the day as a brilliant experience. We had done some tough riding, enjoyed it immensely, and come out unscathed. Needless to say, that night's sleep was a good one.

We awoke fairly late the next morning. Oli eventually tired of my refusals to leave the comfort of the bed, and went outside to enjoy the morning sunshine. He returned after a short while to turf me out properly. Apparently it was beautiful out there, and I was missing out. Plus, he was hungry and wanted breakfast. He was not wrong, and I almost regretted my lie in when I stepped outside. The views over the valley were beautiful, and the bright morning light brought the pretty garden to life. We swiftly resolved to do pretty much nothing but sit on the terrace all day.


After an enormous (and undeserved) lunch, we thought we could stir ourselves to go for a little stroll. We could hear the rush of water close by, so headed off into the woods to get a better look. The source of the noise was a fast flowing stream, cascading through dense foliage in a series of waterfalls. It was a wonderfully peaceful place, and we slowly walked along. Oli contented himself with taking photos, whilst I kept an eye out for potential tiger, leopard or monkey threats. After an embarrassingly short distance, the garden terrace was calling us. We waddled back to garden and once again put our feet up whilst admiring the view.


Our relaxing day was almost over, and although it felt like pretty much all we had achieved was stuffing our faces, it was time for more. As a pre-dinner snack, the caretaker cooked corn on an open flame as the sun went down. The landscape in this part of the world is made even more beautiful by the soft evening light, and it was a wonderfully atmospheric moment.


All too soon it was time to sleep then get up again the next day. The journey back to Chandigarh was short on paper, but our experience of India so far told us that it would take a long time. Distances that are almost nothing in Turkey or Iran suddenly become all day undertakings on the Indian roads. With this in mind, we got on the road at a reasonable time, and began the slow trundle out of the mountains.

Not far from the guest house, the potential danger of the roads was frighteningly highlighted to us by the sight of a collapsed bridge. It looked like it had occurred some time ago, but was pretty sobering nonetheless. The remainder of our route took us back through Shimla, and this time the road was a totally different experience. Clogged with weekend traffic, getting past the city took an age even though we were using the bypass. The volume of cars on the road, combined with creaking trucks and buses made for a slow and occasionally terrifying journey. Coming after our last few days of riding along the back roads, the pollution was shocking. Trucks spewed out clouds of billowing black smoke, which we had no choice but to gamely plough through. By the time we arrived in Chandigarh we both had soot smudged faces and a horrible taste in the back of our throats.


Arriving at Rajiv's we hopped off the bike for the last time. We had both become surprisingly attached to it, as it had turned out to be a reliable and capable little mountain goat. The reputation that Enfields have as unreliable seems thoroughly undeserved, and is perhaps due to shoddy maintenance by some uncaring rental companies. We had experienced no issues with ours whatsoever. We sat for a while in the garden enjoying tea and cake whilst filling Rajiv in on what we had been up to. Oli has now become very enthusiastic about the idea of owning an Enfield in the future...

After our garden rest, Rajiv kindly drove us to our hotel. It was a lovely, clean and comfortable place, but for Oli the real appeal lay in the fact that it sits above a restaurant – the brilliant Hot Millions. Although we were not particularly hungry, we made our way downstairs and chowed down delicious curries, followed by a totally unnecessary (but fabulous) hot chocolate fudge sundae. It was an enjoyable and indulgent end to our Himalayan adventure.

Although it was only a short walk from our hotel to the bus station, we decided to take a tuk-tuk in the morning as our luggage was difficult to manage. We agreed a reasonable price before setting off, and quickly completed the drive in under five minutes. When the moment came to pay, the price had suddenly doubled. Oli told him there was no chance, and reminded him firmly of the agreed amount. The driver half heartedly argued, before realising it was a lost cause and satisfying himself with making a leery comment about me to Oli as I got out of the vehicle. This was by no means typical of our experience in India, but it was irritating nonetheless. Still, the driver should have known better than to try and fleece a Yorkshireman.

Although there was the minor issue of my traitorous body deciding it needed to pee almost as soon as we set off, we made it back to Delhi without issue (and proudly with clean underwear). The traffic as we hit the edge of the city was insane, and we again felt glad that we had made the decision to go with Royal India Bikes and rent from Chandigarh. Delhi traffic on a motorbike was certainly an experience we were happy to miss out on.

The taxi that took us to our hotel was so ancient it might reasonably be called a classic had it been better maintained. However, it took us from A to B for a fair price, so we were not complaining. We had decided to give the district we stayed in previously a miss, and instead opted for a hotel close to the airport. Whilst the area is still not fancy, it is considerably nicer than Pahar Ganj. The staff at our hotel directed us to a surprisingly excellent restaurant at the end of the street, and Oli and I are now happy indeed. As long as there are no unpleasant surprises tonight, we will have smugly made it through India without a dose of Delhi Belly. The food in this country has actually been one of the highlights of our visit, and it is truly a haven for vegetarians.

Before coming to India, it was perhaps the only country I was slightly nervous of travelling through. However, on the whole our experience has been very positive. We have met many kind and helpful people, and cannot recommend a visit to the Himalayan part of the country enough. Sadly, due to visas our time in this region was cut shorter than we would have liked, but we are determined to return one day. Tomorrow morning we fly out to Nepal, where another stage of our adventure begins.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Up in the Clouds - Manali

Although the journey was just under 300km, from our conversation with our host in Shimla we knew it was going to be a race against time. Ask any overlander, and they are likely to agree on one of the fundamental rules being never to ride at night. We were not exactly keen to test the soundness of this advice on twisty and potholed Himalayan roads.

The road conditions varied between pristine asphalt and rough, rocky surfaces. In places the road narrowed to the width of a single track country lane, which was not ideal considering the fact that most of the vehicles we encountered were goods lorries. Said lorries were the cause of a good few heart stopping moments on the twistier parts of the journey. Anything larger than a pick-up truck usually carries a message on the rear imploring fellow road users to 'blow horn'. The upshot is that if you neglect to do this whilst overtaking or approaching, they will not see you and crush you like a tiny bug. Suffice to say, we have made liberal use of Sgt. Bash's horn, which surprisingly sounds as though it could belong to a lorry, ensuring we get more respect on the road than our puny stature deserves.

Even though we took few to no breaks, we were still a way off as the light began to fade. Our tight schedule had meant that although we saw plenty of incredible scenery, photo stops were extremely limited. One downside of the Enfield is that the suspension and the pillion seat are not quite up to the spec of our usual bike, and with at least an hours ride left until our destination my backside felt well and truly broken. We limped along the final twenty miles in the dark, which of course had to incorporate the direst road conditions.

We arrived at our hotel well and truly exhausted, our faces blackened by a full day of Indian road emissions. We had forgotten to forewarn them that we wanted to eat there, but happily they had prepared food for us. Our hotel is located a good few kilometers out of Manali town, so we were grateful to be able to stuff ourselves with delicious curry without the need to leave the building. Not feeling up for anything other than hiding in bed, we retired to our room and watched a film (Kick-Ass 2) on the laptop. It is truly amazing what can feel like a treat whilst on the road.


We awoke extremely well rested, and decided to spend the day hiking to the nearby Jogini falls. Our route first took us through a charming and rustic Himalayan village (Goshal), the main feature of which was a beautifully carved wooden temple. We wove through the narrow streets, reaching the rocky river bed. At this time of year it was mostly dry, but looking at the width of it along with the huge boulders making up its surface, it was easy to imagine the raging torrent it must become with the spring melt.


On the other side of the river, it was just a short stroll through another village to the mountain path. The climb was steep, but every section revealed new views across the valley to the peaks beyond. This part of the world really is one of the most beautiful places we have ever seen, the landscape both beautiful and dramatic. We made very slow progress, as we couldn't keep ourselves from stopping to admire it.


Lizards skittered across the rocks everywhere we went, some tiny, others pretty large. I used to find these creatures strangely amusing and adorable. However, the previous day we had seen a most disturbing sight that could not be unseen – an enormous lizard frantically pursuing a heavily bleeding and similarly large toad down the middle of the street. I'm now thinking that they might actually be evil bastards.

After our climb, we journeyed along a ridge until we reached the falls area. We hadn't realised this is considered a holy site and that Jogini was the local goddess, so were surprised to see the sign advising it was a meditation zone. Not only was shouting prohibited, but also the wearing of leather shoes. We felt pretty bad about our boots, but there was nobody around to be offended, nor was there any way to avoid the area. This is the kind of thing it would be good to be warned about before you have hiked for miles up a steep mountain, so we were sure Jogini would forgive us.


The falls themselves were absolutely beautiful, a torrent of water cascading from the mountain and crashing onto the rocks below. It was easy to see why people would consider this place to be holy, and we were struck by the peace and beauty of the area. We rested quietly for a while on a rock, before deeming it time to move on and continue with our walk.


The path remained well defined for a short while, before becoming less obvious as we entered a dense pine forest. The problem here was that everything looked like a path, and to the uninitiated the route was not easy to locate. Trying not to imagine ourselves becoming part of a 'British Tourists Die in Mountain Accident' headline, we managed to keep cool heads. We eventually succeeded in locating the path after scrambling down a steep, dry watercourse, and were very pleased to be back on safe ground.

From here, the track took us along an easy route, passing pretty mountain houses surrounded by (currently bare) apple trees. Eventually it brought us to a small village, Vashisht, and we wound our way through maze like narrow streets, taking several wrong turns. This area of India is evidently popular with hippies of all nations, as adverts for yoga and meditation classes were everywhere. One cafe owner even tried to entice us in with the offer of some weed, which we politely declined. Luckily we managed not to get too lost in the back streets, and found the main road again without too much hassle. The road itself follows the route of the river, and we clambered down to get a closer look.


Having had our fill of the river, we got back on the main road only to spot a hippy motorbiker with a small 200cc KTM looking dazed and confused. He was struggling to right his bike, and looked in a bit of a state. Our assumption was that he had crashed, and helped him to lift it back up. We were surprised to hear him utter the words 'Don't drink and drive' in the most Indian of accents, before firing up the bike and weaving alarmingly down the road. Hopefully he made it home without injuring himself or anyone else...

The walk back to our hotel was a long one, and took us through Manali town and then past a cafe we had noticed the previous evening. We stopped by for a rest, and were delighted to see that they also served beer. Due to having spent a long time in Islamic countries, this was our first drink since Yerevan. It tasted bloody good, and was made even nicer by the beautiful setting of the cafe garden. We strolled back to our hotel as the light faded, and enjoyed much needed showers and another fabulous dinner before getting an early night. 


Initially we had only planned to spend two nights in Manali, but were enjoying the surrounding area so much that we decided to spend an extra day there. Oli was itching to tackle a Himalayan mountain, and Manali is located very close to the Rhotang pass. Although my backside had only just recovered from the Shimla journey, I agreed that we should give it a go, as we had heard that it was beautiful.

The road itself is both hazardous and enjoyable, and climbs in hairpin bends through pretty woodland, eventually giving way to balder and harsher high ground. For the most part, it is roughly as wide as a truck. This would not be a problem, were it not for the fact that meeting lorries is unavoidable on this route. The road varies between smooth asphalt and difficult off-road sections, with no middle ground between the two conditions. An extra note of terror is added by the lack of any crash barriers, coupled with sheer drops of hundreds of feet. Ever the masochist, Oli was loving it. I on the other hand, was caught between admiring the breathtaking views, and trying not to allow my imagination to visualise what would happen if a lorry appeared around a blind bend.


It was all worth it upon reaching the summit. The top of the pass sits at over 4200m, and is surrounded by snowy mountain peaks. It was freezing up there, and we were very glad we had dressed warmly. We strolled around for a while, snapping photos and admiring the views. The altitude meant that the air was noticeably thinner, and we felt any physical activity far more than on lower ground. As we were about to hop on the bike to begin our descent, some tourists on holiday from Bangalore stopped for a chat, and asked if they could have their photo taken with us. Although it is a little odd being seen as a tourist attraction, they were nice guys, so we happily obliged.


Whilst it was tempting to continue along the road, we set off for home back the way we had come. I eventually managed to switch off my twin fears of lorries and heights, and enjoyed the descent hugely. We made slow progress, as at almost every turn the picture perfect vistas seemed to demand to be photographed. The autumn colours coupled with the greenery and blue skies looked incredible, and will remain imprinted on our minds for a long time to come.

Despite a few hairy moments on the road, Sgt. Bash, Oli and I made it back to our hotel in one piece. We changed out of our gear, and decided to make the most of the last light of the day by going for a walk. We strolled a short way along the road, drinking in the sight of the low sun on the high peaks. This is truly an incredible part of the world, and we are gutted that we do not have enough time left on the visas for further exploration.