Friday, April 27, 2012

5 July 2011 – Rohtang Top

[Part of my write up for the Leh Bike Trip]

In spite of the 270 kms ride and after sleeping at 1 AM, I was still up at 6:30. For some reason I don't feel tired or sleep enough during trips and am perpetually buzzed up.

The route till Kullu runs along the Beas and there are many rafting centres along the way. At one point the level of road and river are the same separate and the river would engulf the road if not for a dividing wall. Snow-capped mountains were visible in the distance and we were in the middle of a lush pine forest – too much beauty for me to process, I was acting delirious, shouting beautifulawesome, etc into my video camera.

Kullu is a nice little town – many boarding schools around. On entering Manali, there's an unofficial-looking bamboo phatak where you have to pay a tourism development levy if your vehicle is not from Himachal. Bikes are charged Rs 100.

Manali town is quite well developed. I went to a cyber first up to wrap up some office work (urgent promotion proposal) and with that left all worldly worries behind me. We checked the Hadimba temple and saw IL FORNO, the Italian restaurant recommended by Highway On My Plate, on the way.

(For Rocky and Mayur)

Me and Kunal went to a roadside stall for Parathas and Omelette pav all for Rs 35/. It was around 11 PM when we found that the only multiplex in Manali (Piccadily) was showing Delhi Belly. What luck! I managed to convince the security guy to keep a watch on the bags on the bike. The movie was just about OK with a few good scenes. An interval was forced in and the movie started late (strangely, they didn't play the national anthem) so we were out by 2 PM. I was surprised that the non-metro gals in there did not mind the crass humour. We left, wondering if we were too late for Rohtang but our tummies overruled and we began looking for a place to eat. Got a good place right opposite the Tourist Centre at the circle leaving Manali town. The place had a lovely view of Manali market.

(The bad roads and the badder bike)

People usually start for Rohtang early in the morning (around 5 PM) and everyone we met including the helpful gentleman at the Tourist Center gave us the same advice. We, in all our wisdom, started at 4 in the evening -- with no preparation but immense self confidence the mighty Rohtang could be conquered.

While the others left, I had to run a few errands. I picked up the things needed to repair punctures and a pair of gum boots (excellent decision) and had to retie the luggage once more. Got the bike checked at a mechanic and then tanked up. I ended up leaving Manali town at 5 PM. Not sure what was in our minds but we believed we could still make it to Keylong by midnight!  

(lovely vistas at the start of the Manali-Leh highway)

The Manali-Leh highway is easily the most beautiful and most adventurous road in India. And it starts with breathtakingly beautiful roads and scenery. However, the beautiful roads quickly went from good to bad to slush to non-existent. The pillion riders had to dismount and walk a lot of the stretches, which gave me enough time to take pictures. We were still making our way up to Rohtang wondering when we would encounter the sea of traffic it is so famous for. As it grew darker, it also began to drizzle and the audacity of our plan dawned on us. The road was getting slushier and the rain heavier.  

(The road starts getting bad after you come up the pass you see in the middle of this picture)

By 8 PM, it was completely dark and it started to pour heavily. The rain had turned any sign of roads to slush deep enough to engulf entire bikes – I kid you not! Miraculously, the next corner had a tea stall and we stopped. The rain had just started to enter our rain protection and another minute in the rain would have soaked us.

What followed was one of the most memorable nights of my life. The owners of the stall were from Manali and as the night fell, his relatives who had set up similar tea stalls poured in one by one. A traffic jam was forming outside because truck drivers would simply stop their vehicles when stuck in the slush. Some joined us at the tea stall while others went to sleep in their vehicles.

We weren't sure what we were going to do and the stall owners advised us that the best thing would be to turn back – the road would be bad but drivable, they said. It had turned very cold by then and the rain showed no signs of abating as we stalled for some time ordering Maggi, Tea, Rajma-Chawal, and anything else that they had in stock. By now the tea stall was swarming with a motley crowd of truck drivers, other tea stall owners, and a solitary calf that would constantly try to move closer to the radiating stove throughout the night.

Someone told us that a fight had broken out between two truck drivers after one of them brushed against the other. The guy who got bashed up was Ladakhi and the aggressor was from the plains. After listening to the gory details, everyone agreed that the aggressor was a goner. He would have to cross Keylong where he was sure to be bashed up by the entire town. A little while later, the bashed-up Ladakhi driver entered our tent and filled us with the details missing from the earlier narration. I couldn't make out from his expression if he agreed with the general consensus to have the other driver beaten up at his hometown.

One of the other truck drivers turned out to be a very interesting fellow. He was a regular on this stretch and claimed to be the nephew of the owner of Kamal Sandhu transport. He took out a packet of Charas and masterfully rolled up some joints. Soon after the tent was filled with smoke and chit-chat. He gave us a crash course in local customs and mythology. We found out which festivals are celebrated in Bhadra-mahina, which Maharishis did Tapasyas in the mountains around Manali, and learnt all about the unheard of beautiful places like Shirshor, which he said was a short trek from Rohtang. 

On learning that we were from Mumbai, his first comment was that Kamathipura is awesome. We looked at each other and decided that the best response was to just nod at anything he said. More gyaan followed: 
Rohtang ka mausam aur Mumbai ka fashion, kabhi bhi badal sakta hai.
Tumhari bikes Rohtang nahi chadengi, truck pe ladh do, Keylong chod deta hu!
He signed off saying that we should watch out for his truck (#8207) if we needed any help along the way. If you happen to spot this truck, follow him till he stops somewhere, accidentally bump into him, and enjoy the conversations that follow.

We continued talking to the tea shop guys. Ramnath, Belu, Kushal, and Hans Raj Hans – lovely company. Once they realized that it would be impossible for us to move anywhere, they readily agreed to let us stay in their tarpaulin tents. We ate whatever was left for dinner and I managed to get some network and made a few quick calls. The rain continued to pour on through the night while we continued the chit-chat sessions with our guardian angels. Rohtang top was another 5 kms from where we were stuck but this final stretch of the road, they claimed, was also the worst.

(Hans Raj on the right and Kushal on the left)

There wasn't enough space in that little tea shop for us all and we were led to the other stalls after short hikes along the mountain slopes. Me and Sanjay went with Kushal and Hans Raj to their tent. Hans is a brilliant fellow, same as my age, but he's already married and has a couple of kids. The proud owner of Hans Raj cafe – the solitary sign board inside his tent reads: 
We were up in his tent talking about everything under the sun. He owns a small apple orchard in Manali and sets up this tea stall four months of the year ...because he claims to love the view! (remniscent of Mahesh who cited the same reason for working at Triund) Incredibly passionate about leading a relaxed life, his constant refrain of Tension leneka nahi, bhooka soneka nahi (Tension take not, hungry sleep not) played its part to soothe our nerves as we slept close to 4000 m on that dark, cold, rainy night. We lay on the blankets on the floor of his tent while the conversation veered from one topic to another. Finally at 2 AM, we blew out the last candle and tucked in under the many layers of quilt.

At the end of the day my odometer read 53385 kms. Less than 100 kms in the day – probably lesser than any other day of this trip but that was never the point of this trip. The experiences we had more than made up for any such logistic concerns and our brilliant decision of starting for Rohtang at 5 PM had turned out to be the best decision of the trip.

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