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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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