The why and the how.

This isn't a comfortable cruise on the Mediterranean. Neither is it a herded package tour to Europe. Nor is it a fast bus ride to the Taj. For miles at length, there is no guarantee of food, roads or people. Rocks and mud could slide down the slopes any time. Roads can also turn into rivers any time. If your vehicle breaks down in the middle of nowhere, you could be stranded for hours. There is uncertainty at every step. And it gets accentuated when one is on a motorcycle. And yet we wanted to do it. Why?

It all began in the winter of 2009 when me and three other Pegus- Ankur, Beni and Sukamal- just happened to mention our "plans" (mostly wishful thinking) to go to Leh the next year and how we should just all go together rather than bump into each other at the top. It wasn't about going there because everyone else was doing it or because we had any machoistic notion of achievement on getting to the top of the "highest motorable road" at Khardung-La. It  could have been the seduction of the beauty seen through pictures taken by other people who have been there. It could have been that inexplicable itch to go out for some adventure and take a break from our mundane everyday city lives. It could also have been the need to be shaken out of our warped ideas of reality. Also, Leh is almost like a pilgrimage for most bikers- maybe we also wanted to check out what the hype was about. We are curious. We are young. We are definitely restless. We had to go.

I guess no one really had an answer to why we wanted to do it- but we did. And why not? Over the next few months, there were many emails that went back and forth about this and invitations sent to friends to join us. I was in Delhi, Ankur and Suku in Mumbai and Beni in Singapore- and we were grouping forces. The discussions culminated into a Facebook group, Skype conference calls, detailed maps, pdfs and even more emails. The planning was immaculate. All the gear was bought. the D-day was near. Our scheduled departure date was August 8th, 2010. There had been reports of landslides on the route on August 5th. And then disaster struck in the region on August 6th- 2 days before departure.

There were a few of us who were nearly adamant to go to Leh nevertheless. But this trip was not going to be about "being there, done that" or adding points on "Places you've been" and filling 100s of photos in our Facebook albums. Despite our disappointment and shock, most of us felt that it would be highly insensitive to go to Leh in such conditions where people have lost lives and property and there would be gloom all around. What kind of celebration would it be? What kind of achievement would it really be? Reports in any case suggested that this disaster was possibly the result of increasing human interference in that region. Mother Nature had spoken- and we needed to take the hint.

So, just 30 hours before departure, I & Beni started looking at maps of Himachal and alternative routes that we could take. Admittedly, spirits were low but we had already decided that we would still ride somewhere to the mountains. I had seen pictures and read few articles on the Lahaul and Spiti valleys but probably our decision was finally based on how much more probable it would be for us to get AMS (Acute Moutain Sickness) in the region. Saturday was spent convincing every one that this is going to be worth it- even though they were being hopelessly optimistic about the roads opening up to Leh.

There were many more who were in the original plan but unfortunately for them, they could not join us on this trip that is going to be etched in our memories forever. In the end, we were 7 of us who were ready to head out to the hills on Sunday, August 8th 2010. Our bikes were as eclectic a group as us- I took my trusty first-gen Pulsar 150, Beni san brought his brother's Avenger 200, Suku san borrowed his friend's Pulsar 200, Bijoor san stayed faithful to his '94 spec Bullet 350. Alok got his Karizma and Dev and Kaustabh rented RE Thunderbirds. By the end of Saturday, all the bikes were prepped to roll out early next morning.

All we really knew is that we were going to the mountains. Call it the spirit of adventure or hard-foolery, but we were definitely excited even if Leh hadn't worked out. What we were going to hear the first day of our trip defined the next 13 days after it.

The planned route:
The Lahaul-Spiti circuit in Himachal Pradesh

Day 1: August 8, 2010, Sunday

Day 1: Delhi to Dharampur

The scheduled departure was supposed to be 6 am and after a realistic estimation, changed to 7 am. The night before was spend packing up our saddlebags with everything we could ever need for the next two weeks. Dev, Kaustubh and Alok initially were supposed to join us at Chandigarh because their bikes were getting fixed the evening before. However, their bikes were ready and they would join us in the morning on the way to Chandigarh.

Beni & me- ready to kick off the tour of a lifetime.

Considering that, except for me, everyone was an outsider, finding the rendezvous point across Moolchand hospital became a hard task. Bijoor san had been in that area the previous day so he was Suku san's GPS but Suku ran out of fuel and had to push his bike till a good Samaritan helped him out. I and Beni san went looking for them but then it was already too late- Suku was lost again somewhere. Kaustubh caught up with us at the right moment but Dev and Alok were very very lost. As Dev finally made it, we collected Alok from near ISBT. It was already around 8:30 am! Soon after we proceeded to go on the highway, we had to make a fuel stop for Alok. And then we were finally on our way.

 By now the cool morning had given way to a very harsh sun and I was sweating under my waterproof riding gear. We got some good pace and some breaks for water or even to adjust luggage on some of the bikes and once for breakfast. After we had crossed Ambala, we saw a bypass (NH22 according to my map) that went straight to Shimla. We stopped at a Dhaba for a little break and seeing the daylight and the distance that we had covered, were very excited and gung-ho about making it straight to Shimla from there after meeting Mr Gurpreet Singh to collect the bottles of Slime that we had ordered yesterday. Just 5 minutes after we started from this dhaba (a few kms away from Chandigarh), it started to pour heavily. Everyone brought out their rain gear at the toll plaza as were shushed out of there. The rain stopped shortly after but began after we rode a little distance more. A little distance away, the Pegu boys took shelter under a shed that did very little work in the intermittent rain. We decided to proceed in the rain and as we entered Chandigarh, the rain came down heavier than it had all day! 

At the dhaba, just before rains hit us and washed away our bold plans

The gang had separated into two- Alok, Dev and Kaustubh had reached Chandigarh before the rest of us while the four of us went looking for the Slime. In the heart of Chandigarh, we found Mr Gurpreet Singh at his house with all the Slime we wanted- except Suku who had forgotten to mention that his Pulsar had tubeless tires. 

 Mr Singh is a retired Colonel and is apparently well traveled and now indulges in modification of automobiles and motorcycles. He participates in many national level races while he continues to ride bikes despite a steel plate (?) in his shin, inserted after an motorcycle accident last year. he had very useful tips a to where we should stay and what all places we should visit and what places we should avoid. He was adamant that we stop after Nako because of the unpredictable weather this year in the region which had caused many landslides and floodings. While suggesting places where we could stay, he understood our situation and made a very apt remark. He said it in a very casual way but it stuck with us throughout the trip and it was something that probably guided us well. He said "the point is to travel, not to blow money".

After our interesting  conversation, he also attempted small fixes on Suku's bike (Suku had been push-starting his bike all day!), he suggested that we gorge on chicken at Singh's Chicken. and so we did. The helpings were huge and the dishes were replete with generous portions of spices and floating oil. In hindsight, it was a good thing- as this was going to be our last meat extravaganza for a long long time.
After having our fill at Singh's Chicken, waiting for the others

Taking Mr Singh's suggestion about staying outside expensive Chandigarh, we  did something we had promised not to do- ride in the night. There were delays as the other guys were shopping for rain gear and other stuff but we regrouped by about 6:30/7 pm! We proceeded to go toward Dharampur, little expecting to find a traffic jam in the hills. 

There had been some sort of a landslide and the jam had accrued when it was being cleared. Having motorcycles enabled us to squeeze through the many gaps between the vehicles and somehow get to the open roads ahead- not before Alok dropped his bike once at standstill taking Kaustubh's call.

Once we left the jam behind, the clear roads had one problem- there were hilly and it was dark. Add to that speeding vehicles and we knew we were in deep peril. We continued to look for hotels all along the way and somewhere around Dharampur, we found a place called Hotel Namaskar. I was finally happy with this choice mainly because it had a lot of parking within its own compound. After washing up, I created a new fashion statement of combat boots with shorts! I did miss slippers as I had not foreseen eating after showering! The food was bad and the room had a smell but well, we had learned the new mantra for this trip a few hours ago- so not much to complain about really. Some did have some hopes of the Manali-Leh highway opening up but I guess we had all resigned to the fact that the Leh trip will have to wait for another year. All we could talk about was the ride ahead of us for tomorrow.

Total distance covered= 303+ kms approx.
Total cost= Rs. 1430
[Breakfast= 50 + Lunch=  180 + Stay & Dinner= 400 + slime= 800]

Day 2: August 9, 2010, Monday

Day 2: Dharampur to Narkanda
 The day began early-ish but not as early as we would have liked though. After taking some group photos in front of Hotel Namaskar, we head out and the sweeping smooth twisty roads were too good to resist. The fresh morning mountain air even more so. We all pulled at our throttles and made the most of it.

Hotel Namaskar
The famous Lady Diana pose
We stopped for breakfast at a bend- poori-bhaji- yummm!! Still fighting hard to get used to no internet, most of used Dev's iphone to check email! And after filling our bellies, we head out again to feast on the lovely roads. I stayed way ahead of the pack thinking that I would get a picture of them passing me by but that never happened! ;) We did stop a few times to take pictures of the beautiful landscape all around us.

Breakfast of poori-bhaji! :)
The scenery along our way

The photo-op

Toy train!
As we were on the border of Shimla, we see a Bajaj service centre and the Bajaj boys decide to get their bikes prepped up further. Beni gets a new speedometer, gets slime filled and chain adjusted. Suku gets his digital gauge, chain and brakes fixed. I got new footpegs and slime in the rear tyre. The RE gang went to the nearby RE service station to get their bikes checked as well. Alok, Dev and Kaustubh managed to get into Shimla town while we took more time to get all the bikes done.

Suku showing off his talent of taking naps anywhere!
We took the bypass around Shimla but still managed to hit some heavy town traffic. We all stopped at Hotel Bye-Pass to grab a late lunch. Bijoor san got his bright yellow tarp and the blue ones for me and Suku. At the same hotel Beni ran into the person who has some record for taking an Rx100 to Khardung La- who also said that it would take only an hour and half to get to Narkanda- our next destination. We wrapped the tarp on our luggage and decided to take the by-pass to get to Narkanda. After nearly and hour or more we realized that we had taken a by-pass back to Shimla! Taking the same roads that we had taken earlier in the day, we finally caught the right road and went our way. 
The fog started to grow- viewed from Hotel Bye Pass
View enroute the wrong by-pass

Beni has had enough of pee stops from Suku!
Bijoor san was flying ahead of me while Beni was right behind me catching up. We hit mid 80s even trying to catch as much as day light as we could. It was already about 7 when we had caught the right road and hence the rush. Darkness crept up soon and I found myself ahead of the pack again somehow and on rocky mountain roads. The mist started to engulf the road and I couldn't see anyone either in front of me or behind so I waited till I could see Beni san's and Bijoor san's headlights. Thereafter, we three stuck together as visibility was probably only 10-20 metres at max. The roads were broken in most places and slushy in places too. At one point a slight drizzle almost gave a scare of rain! Fighting our aching shoulders and red eyes, we were more than 100% focused on the road ahead of us. And finally, somehow-almost seemed like a miracle- we reached Narkanda. 

At The Hatu at 8:45 pm- the guy got his hand to photobomb this pic!
What seemed like 4 hours was actually an hour and half according to the time in my pictures!!! Too tired to look for other options, we just went to the HP tourism Hotel Hatu which had rooms at Rs.1800 on which we got some 20% discount. It went against our new mantra but we promised that it would be the last time.

The Pegus shared a room again and we spread out everything to dry out- including some clothes that I decided to wash to remove the stench- bad idea! We all celebrated with some rich food and some even had drinks. Our plan for the next day was see the nearby Hatu peak and then head on to Sarahan.

Total distance covered= 127 kms approx.
Total cost= Rs. 1125
[Breakfast= 50 + Lunch=  80 + Bajaj= 55 + Stay & Dinner= 940]

Day 3: August 10, 2010, Tuesday

Narkanda to Sarahan
The day started pretty early at around 7:30 when we decided to head to Hatu peak (3136m). The climb up was quite trecherous, narrow and steep. Thankfully, we did not meet any incoming traffic because there wasn't room for even two motorcycles to be side by side on these roads. The occasional cos would give a brief scare. Bijoor san's bike started to pant and could not make it to the top- the issue was possibly of a incorrect mix of air and fuel. It was disappointing after we finally reached the top because there was such heavy fog, we could barely see the temple that was 10 metres away from us! 

Hatu Temple hidden in the fog
Ninja mastaah!
As we rode back down, KJo got to finally take pictures of what he though was a wild white horse. And Dev went ballistic clicking pictures of the kids and the family of Gujjars (cow herders). Despite their humble state, they offered all of us hot tea- made with freshly milked buffalo milk!

Photography central
Beni takes pics of exotic buffaloes- perhaps for his S'porean friends?
No one gets left out
Kjo gets his White horse
Kids have their own car
After we got back to the hotel, we had our choice of breakfasts and packed our stuff on our bikes. A brief photo session later, we head out towards Sarahan- after a brief pit stop for  fuel. The roads were pretty good and we finally met up with the Sutlej and stayed with it all day long as we slowly started descending down the mountains. There were many twisties but we also encountered sudden bad patches in the roads. 


At one point, after taking a breather from staying in front with me, Beni and Kjo, Suku managed to lose his glove to the wind which took it to down the ledge. Suku had to trek all the way down to go and fetch it. In the process, he had exerted breath and limb to their maximum microscopic capacity!This was followed soon by a stop just around the corner where there was a little now-defunct lookout point where there was a mini photo session before we moved on.

A good trek later...

The enfields and Suku, worried about some noise in his bike, went to get some check up done just before Rampur while I and Beni went on to Rampur to take out money from the ATM. The rest joined us soon and after a bit of confusion, we located a decent looking place called "The Chef" or something like that. The food wasnt that great and the prices astronomical-the view was good though and it did seem like a new and clean place to be at. After lunch, we were ready for the last stretch.

At a particular spot near a waterfall where we had stopped for photos, we could sniff rain. And ocne we got on our bikes, it started to come down on us, slowly and steadily increasing its pace. I, Beni and Bijoor san managed to cut away from the rest as we had finished with our photo session earlier and were more or less water-proofed. The rain was slowly getting blinding and we had a steep climb before we approached a bridge that took us towards Sarahan. That's where we lost Bijoor san, whose bike refused to climb up by itself. He did call Beni and we went back to assist him- however, by the time we got there, the others had arrived and managed to push Bijoor san's bike up. Thereafter, all of us stuck close and found the Circuit house where the rooms were cheap at 550.

Just before the rain came calling
The boots saw water seep into them from the pants which were facing leak problems through the fly zipper+velcro facility! Drying up everything and looking for a heater, the Pegus got a heater at the very last moment before we went to sleep- and the heater could burn anything put on top of it! Beni and Suku went to fetch dinner for everyone- but not before they had some drinks and came back to have some more- I was petrified for my bike, which they had borrowed. Meanwhile, I had cleaned up, showered, checked and sent email and even paid a part of my credit card bill with Bijoor san's life-saver Reliance internet- yes, we were on the road but still on the interwebs! Dinner was delish with butter chicken and pulao and rotis and paneer.

Rain seemed like it was going to thwart our progress tomorrow as it did not let up till we went to bed. It was going to be one touch morning.

Total distance covered= 86 kms approx.
Total cost= Rs. 1210
[Fuel= 600 + Lunch=  200 +  Stay & Dinner= 230+180]

Day 4: August 11, 2010, Wednesday

Sarahan to Chhitkul

I woke up early to wash my bike and to see how the weather would respond to us. A slight drizzle was on but I decided to proceed washing nonetheless. Soon Bijoor san, Suku and Beni joined in on their respective bikes. The drizzle slowly died down and a strange mist started to slowly engulf the place but we could see the sun trying to break through the fog too. Except for me and Beni, the others went for breakfast to the HP Tourism place- we went a bit later in search of some Tibetan food- we found thukpa and chowmein in a small establishment- unfortunately it was all vegetarian but the break from the normal foods of the plains was very welcome. The faces had started to change in Sarahan and we could see more Mongoloid features- we felt at home so to say! ;) We made a brief stop at the temple but came out earlier than the others and started packing up our bags on the bike and very soon we were all ready to do another day of riding.



The original plan was to go to Sangla and possibly rest at Rakcham. Mr Singh had been calling all these days to check on us and it was on his valuable suggestion that we decided this. If we had time, we would probably go to Chitkul.

I, Beni and Suku (The Pegu boys) again managed to somehow break away from the rest- right till the end of the day! The roads were actually very good till we hit a place called Bhawa when we started approaching the dam project on the Sutlej undertaken by Jaypee. The roads disappeared- almost literally! There was a mixture of white cement in mud and stone for most of the way through Wangtu and even Karcham till a few kms before Sangla. 

It was nearly 2pm when we were one km from Wangtu and we decided between ourselves that we will have lunch whenever we see the next town/restaurant. We were banking on Wangtu but we never saw it. Then we thought we would stop at Karcham but that also passed but we saw nothing to eat!Taking the right towards Sangla, we ran into some deep muddy slush but thankfully, since we had motorcycles,  we did not have issues getting out of it.

Beni celebrates early while Suku shows his aching hands!

The bumpy roads mixed with the occasional stretches of slush and loose sand were taking a toll on the bikes and us. For company, there was a group in two 4x4s who did not seem like they were going any more faster than we were! We finally hit some hard tarmac and I didnt lose a moment to hug it! We had crossed about 20 kms in 1 hour and 7 minutes! Not to mention the earlier hour crossing about 20-25 kms!

On solid ground again!

The road wasnt always smooth but it was definitely better than what we had experienced the last one hour. We were slowly climbing the mountain and the air was getting thinner but cleaner as well. When we reached Sangla, we checked out the Guest House which seemed decent enough to stay. However, while we waited for the others over lunch (at 4:30 mind you!), we made some new plans. Suku quickly got his bike checked up before lunch and we sat down to resketch our plans.

The lunch was the beginning of the aloo-matar ordeal we would have to face from this day on. But the big breakthrough was the decision to carry on forward even if the others had not caught up since our plan was to stop at Rakcham in any case, and we took this belief in good faith that the others would land up there as well. The hotel guys suggested that we go to Chhitkul and stay at a Alpine View Guest House while the Guest House people said to stay in the guest house there. And so, armed with at least two places to stay in Chitkul, we went.

We reached Rakcham very soon after- about half an hour! The place we looked into seemed abandoned while we still felt that we had a lot of day light left. So, again in good faith, we left for Chhitkul and decided that we would stay there. I believed that if the guys did not see us at Rakcham, they would automatically proceed further. And within another hour of some decent roads mixed with some tricky bumpy mountain roads, we suddenly came upon our first big water crossing! 

Beni was in the front and he just decided to take the plunge and carry on. Suku was after him and he decided to follow but somehow, he managed to keep steering to the right. I stopped till Suku was a little distance away and I also plunged into the water. The water was gushing from the left hand side from a slightly higher elevation (almost knee high) that made it just a bit tricky as it was strong enough to push our bikes- I guess that was what was happening to Suku. By habit, I put my foot down at the slightest hint of draft and the bike followed Beni's line and I was on dry ground at the same time as Suku, a bike distance on my right!

Psyched by our first water crossing, we stopped a little distance away once we were on the cliff based roads again. Suku dried out his shoes and we took some pictures and gushed about our first major water crossing- it did seem like we did pretty well. And to be honest, we did! We went on forward to get into Chhitkul and again, we had a little water crossing in our way. After the previous one, we broke no sweat on this one and I did not even have to put my foot down! 

Beautiful views greeted us on our way to Chhitkul

Suku squeezing his wet socks dry

 We checked out the PWD guest house first- they had only two rooms, no hot water, no food and no heat but it was astronomically cheap. Plus, it had a great view. However, we decided to check out Alpine View Guest house- for that we had to cross the stream again and this time around, Suku decided to stop in the water just as he was about to cross it and I sort of got stuck behind him! In the end, it was all okay- this place had rooms, was cheap(250/room) and had hot water too. And we would get food too. As we were getting worried about the bigger water crossing and the others, we heard Bijoor san's bullet and when we saw him, we knew that all was well. We all yelled and congratulated each other on the crossing and cursed the road before that. 
The two snow peaks that were hidden from view for the rest of our stay

The sun was ready to set on us

We walked to the village in the dark through the stream to get water while the boys got themselves a Royal Stag as they felt they earned a drink that day. The woman who handed us this small bottle charged Beni 250 bucks but she was honest about the actual price and said that it was fair for her to earn a 50 buck profit on it- she also mentioned how the price is significantly higher for foreigners! Over drinks, chips and dinner, everyone shared their experiences of the day and we made the decision to stay one more night at this promising little village. We were already at a height of 3450 meters above sea level and there were some mountains around us that we were hungering to climb. 

Total distance covered= 99 kms approx.
Total cost= Rs. 220
[Breakfast= 40 + Water= 60 + Lunch=  120 ]