[Part of my write up for the Leh Bike Trip]
The many layers of blankets and quilts helped but it was still an incredibly chilly night. Thankfully, at least the tarpaulin tents didn't let the cold winds reach us. I was up at 6, after sleeping less than I should have. In the rain and darkness of the previous night, we hadn't realized where our tent was but in the light morning fog, I could see that we were right at the edge of the mountain and the view below was fabulous. The fog was getting heavier in the valley but we could see the treacherous road we had climbed up the previous night. Hans had prepared some tea for us – in which we dunked some ParleG and he quickly set up his shop for his morning customers.
The trucks that had slept in the middle of the road were being woken up, but there was still a traffic jam ahead. We went up the mountain to do our morning business, among wandering goat herds and in the company of the truckies. After a quick photo session with our saviours, we were off at 8:30. Hans refused to be paid a penny for all the trouble he had taken for us. If this is being read by someone and if you are planning a trip to/across Rohtang, please let me know if you are willing to ferry a tent up to him for me.
(The man and his machine)
The 2-3 kms to the top of Rohtang were easily the worst my bike has ever been through. At many places the only path that wouldn't take my bike through 2 feet deep slush ran through the edge of the mountain. One wrong move on the handlebar – one rock too big for my front wheel and it would have been a spectacular dive into a landing spot deep in the valley. On the other side, the stuck vehicles peeping out from the unforgiving Rohtang slush were reminders of what could happen if we didn't maintain the right clutch/acceleration ratio and stalled our bikes.
(Wall of snow just before hitting Rohtang top)
My horrifying clutch-work in first gear got me through the slush but almost killed my bike. The gears were damaged beyond repair and made an incessant chattering noise accompanied through the rest of my trip. The entire set was replaced when I was back in Mumbai, along with the drive chain.
Rohtang top separates the Lahaul/Spiti valley from the Kullu valley and is tailored for the Indian tourist who has never seen snow. Immediately after you leave Manali, you will see rows of snow gear hung up outside little huts – these are all available for rent to take up to Rohtang. There was a smallish snow-field at the top and rows of tourists in heavy snow gear getting clicked for souvenir photos to take back home. It was quite foggy when we arrived but we could spot clear skies towards Lahaul valley where the fog was beginning to clear up... revealing a brilliant view of the Himalayas. This will always remain one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen.
(The gateway to Ladakh)
I climbed up a small hill on the left of the road and it was carpeted with fields of multicolored flowers. After a long photography session, we finally started to descend Rohtang.
(Flowers and Rohtang Top)
The roads continue to be bad till you descend the mountain and cross the river over to the other side of the river. The Border Roads Organization maintains this road – the part in Himachal Pradesh (Manali to Sarchu) is called Project Deepak and the part in Jammy and Kashmir (Sarchu to Leh) is called Project Himank. A little after Gramphu we came across a waterfall crowded with goats – stopped for a break and enjoyed the scenery. After the exciting but harrowing Rohtang experience, we were now back on good roads that too with lovely sights along the side.
We passed another waterfall at Sissu. A short while later was Tandi, the last place for petrol, is also the lowest place along the journey at 2500m. I brought a jerrycan and took some petrol as backup. We had met a Goan lady at Rohtang top and she walked over to talk to us at the petrol pump again. Pleasantries exchanged, we continued on our way.
Things were bad for the bike – the exhaust was spewing white smoke and I had no power in 3rd and 4th gears. We finally reached Keylong at 3 PM. Saw a mechanic at the turn into town and told him of my problems. He was clueless, I thought, and in the end he handed over a spark plug – as if that was going to solve my problems :D
For company we had a British guy whose Enfield had more problems than the mechanic could fix and I watched how his clutch assembly and other parts of the engine were being replaced. Meanwhile another bunch of bikes stopped at the garage. I saw their bikes were numbered MH-12, which meant that they were from Pune and struck a conversation. They had paid 3-3.5K to transport their bikes through GATI and had faced the same minor niggles that we did. Before leaving they wished us All the best as if we were all attempting an examination. As it turns out, almost every bike group we met parted with these words! The mechanic got busy with these other bikes and asked me to come back in the evening.
After looking at a couple of options we settled down at New Gyespa Hotel and Restaurant paying 750/- for two clean rooms. I was quite pleased with my negotiation skills strengthened with tips picked up from Ankur. The view from our balcony was wonderful and we noticed that the house next to us with, which we shared the courtyard, was hosting a wedding.
For lunch I had Thukpa. The highlight of the lunch was their Mint Chutney which had white speckles of curd in it – an out-of-the-world combination.
(Thukpa, momos and the leftover Mint Chutney on the plate next to mine)
The waited happened to undercharge us and we pointed it out to him. This made him our new best friend and we received impeccable service for the rest of our stay. He told me that he planned to go to Goa once the season was over – many of his friends followed this schedule and he was really looking forward to his first trip down south.
After lunch, I wandered into town for some shopping. Met a sweet lady at a store – brought some stuff needed for the trip and also picked up a great cap – all at bargain prices. Later I spotted this young guy selling goat hooves. They are burnt over a barbeque and then had with soup, kind of like break sticks.
(I guess the wedding in town helped this guy have this bumper harvest)
Back at the mechanic, I watched him fix a puncture and started pestering him for tips on how to do it. He was a Nepali working with CNC for 9 years and left that to start his own thing in Keylong. He taught me how to remove the air filter (which I did later on). After this we moved back to our rooms and realized that Lahauli weddings can get pretty noisy. The live music was blaring constantly and chants of Lahaul Sarkar Zindabad started to fill the air.
After a dinner of Thengchuk, I went to see what all the commotion was about. I found out that the main wedding was over a couple of days back and today the entire village was being treated to dinner. There was food, all kinds of alcohol, dancing, and live music. The group playing the music was at it from 4PM and continued to play through the night – got to admire their stamina! The dance was typical of those from the mountains – minimal leg workand extremely graceful hand movements. Have a look.
Interestingly, dowry is OK in these parts and they had voluntarily given away a dowry of 4 lakhs and sponsored feasts for the entire village. Great man to talk to and he asked me to stay on and enjoy the wedding. That took away the guilt of having barged in.
I got clicking and settled down among a group. Everyone around me was drunk, presumably they had been at it since afternoon and there were bodies strewn around similar to what one would expect at the scene of a massacre.
Alcohol is the greatest social lubricant in the world – had some great conversation with the people around. There was a guy who wanted to practice his English-speaking skills and used me as his victim for the day. There was another man (called Sonam – which is a common name for men in these parts) who liked showing off his social status. He pointed out the collector of the area, who was dancing in the crowd and having a great time. There were others officers from the Lahaul administration and he was bragging about how he knew them since childhood and how I should come to him if I wanted any work done quickly. He also showed off his 6 ATM cards and told me how it was easy to buy things on credit!
The best conversation, however, was with Mr Dawa, who drives a taxi and is a regular on the Manali-Leh circuit. He was sloshed but you wouldn't be able to make that out from the way he spoke. He listed down the entire route and what I should expect at each stage. His tips would later prove to be invaluable! He said the Keylong-Leh journey could be done in 10 hours on a good day but with a full load in his taxi the duration went up to 12 hours.
He spoke of how drinking should be within limits and spoke at length about the decay and deterioration among the Lahaulis after easy money started to pour in. He was very knowledgeable and told me how the Spiti culture was different from that in Lahaul, which was again very different from the culture in Leh. Ironically, he was the one to offer me a drink. I looked at the foreign label and asked if there was an option to try out the local liquor. That brought a big smile on his face and a bottle with no label was brought out. It turned out to be a strong local drink which was probably Arak. It quickly made its way up my bloodstream and I thought it would be better to escape before my defences were broken and I joined in the dancing melee. Something I had been politely resisting through the night.
It was after 2 AM and the party still seemed as young as ever, only the number of bodies strewn around had increased. I could still hear the flute playing when I finally went off to sleep in our room punctuated with sounds of Lahaul Sarkar Zindabad...