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.


  1. Hi Charli & Oli

    Just stumbled across this - am really glad to hear of your wonderful experience at Spirits Unplugged! and would like to thank you for giving us a chance to host you. Our caretaker Pyarelalji remembers the two of you very fondly :-)

    Hope you are doing well.


    Ankur Verma
    Spirits Unplugged!

  2. Hi Ankur,

    Thank you for your message and getting in touch. Please extend our thanks and regards to Pyarelalji. He really did look after us very well and played a big part in our wonderful experience.

    We are both settled (for now) in the UK and just going to work and back. Nevertheless, all is well and we are happy.

    Take care and all the best!

    P.S.We do try our best to recommend Spirits Unplugged if we hear of anyone heading that way :-)

    Many thanks,