Or, if you are a local Buddhist, Everywhere
We had gotten drenched in Shimla, and weren’t able to find a hotel at a decent price, so we decided to continue on our way towards Manali, or Dharamsala, or wherever we were headed. Super navigator Fred had seen a map with a ‘fun looking road’ that sort of went in the direction we wanted to go. We left Shimla and made it to the Hot Springs Hotel.
Good rates, pretty clean, nice little town, and a hot spring swimming pool next to the lobby. Not fancy, but it was kind of perfect for the occasion. We escaped the rains in Shimla and rode through more twisty mountain roads and arrived at the Hot Springs in the afternoon. We liked it. We were riding a kick start single cylinder motorcycle that went putt putt putt up and down the hills at a nice and steady pace. It seemed like the way people might have traveled 60 years ago, and a halfway stop at a small town centered around some hot springs seemed pretty legitimate.
The next day looked like it would be an amazing ride, I took a screenshot of the Google Maps for the road we would ride to Manali because it was so twisty. It was more loopy and convoluted than anything I’d ever seen on a map.
Turns out it was also the most terrifying road I have ever been on. Picture a one lane road with bottomless cliffs on the left side, steep rock walls on the right side, and no guardrails. Buses were frequent and the Indians drive British style, on the left. So I needed to pass the buses on the outside, with 2-3 feet of dirt shoulder before the edge of a bottomless drop. There were a few times when the road was just too narrow and I dove the bike into the wall on the right, forcing the bus to get past me on the outside. Dick move, sure, but I’d do it again. I was terrified, I can only imagine what was going through Laura’s head. She says her eyes were closed most of the time.
It was about 200 Kilometers from Tattapani to Manali and it took 7 hours. But we did find a good Chana Masala Wallah halfway along the route.
Manali. It’s a small and manageable combination of a shopping mall and a base camp with plenty of nightclubs. It’s at the base of the Rohtang pass, and it’s at 6700 feet altitude, so it’s a popular getaway from Delhi and Mumbai.
We followed the Beas river up from the town of Mandy and arrived in Manali later in the afternoon. I had done a little research on the hotels available, but the one that seemed best neglected to mention that it was 5 miles away from town. We drove through Manali for about 20 minutes eyeballing the various options. We even stopped at the Manali Tourist Information Center hoping to find someone with some recommendations, but it was just a knick knack store selling all kinds of Manali Officialism.
We wound up at the Picadilly, a decent sized hotel along the main road through town, which looked to have been built sometime in the 70s. Apparently someone decided that it was time for a renovation, which seems hasty by Northern Indian standards, but we were treated to the sounds of construction and the globally familiar layer of dust that is present anytime someone is hanging sheetrock. It’s a good thing that we were completely exhausted by our ride earlier in the day because we were able to sleep through most of the sounds from the nightclub that the hotel hosted in its pool area, just outside our window.
You’d think that these were small inconveniences for the price of about $40 per night, but when considered on a relative scale this is about four times more than the local guesthouses asked. I’m sure they would have had different, but equally awkward, problems and issues, but at $10 a night I can be accommodating.
The next morning, sitting in the lobby so we could connect to the internet and get to know the construction workers while drinking truly terrible coffee, we decided to switch to Chai tea. And discuss our future.
We were pretty beat up, but Manali kind of sucked.
Manali was a busy little town, with a lot of shops and restaurants, but it didn’t really have any special character to it. And we were on a motorcycle with backpacks, so we couldn’t really buy anything anyway.
We wanted to go to Dharamsala, but the Enfield was leaking so much oil that it was staining our boots, pants, and bags. So we took the Enfield to a local Bullet Wallah, Anu Auto Works, and had him check out the leaks. He said no problem, he could fix it. He needed to repair the threads for a bolt that provided oil to the valves and it would be done in the afternoon. He drilled and tapped the threads, replaced a bolt on a muffler hanger, and adjusted the footpegs for about $10. The Enfield was proclaimed sound by the local Bullet Wallah, so we had the green light to go.
We decided to stay another night in Manali and then go to Dharamsala the back way, so I did some more internet research and found a place with fantastic Tripadvisor reviews.
The Johnson hotel in Manali was where we spent the second night. It was a beautifully built rustic log cabin feeling place with great gardens and nice big rooms. I figured what the hell, let’s go big, so we splurged and booked it at $50 a night.
It reminded me of the phrase ‘the lunatics have taken over the asylum’. It was almost as if someone spent a ton of money building a beautiful hotel and then handed it to a cousin with no hotel experience. There were the obvious things like the internet not working, and the 45 minute wait to check out because their credit card merchant account had been cancelled, and the awkward nightclub party that found us the second night in Manali, just outside our window…. But it was the little things that I found unsettling. The desk clerk that would lean waaay over the desk and say “Welcome, how aaaare you?” And stay staring and leaning until you responded. With details. The other guy who just stared, perhaps he thought I looked suspicious. Anyway, you get the picture. Nice place. Awkward stay, $50 a night.
Luckily we were in town in time to see the Durga festival, a week long ceremony celebrating Durga, the female deity created by Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu to defeat the evil Mahishasura, who could not be defeated by a man, only by a woman. We first noticed the festival when Laura poked her head out the door of the café to see what the hubbub was. The leaders of the parade grabbed her and put her in the front of the column on the march to the Temple while the rest of the crowd were banging drums and singing and hollering. I was a little concerned that they might offer her up for sacrifice, but she was having such a great time singing and dancing at the front of the parade, I didn’t want to spoil it for her.
I wasn’t able to understand the significance of the festival through the parades, and dance, and awesome pot-on-head balancing, so I checked with Wikipedia.
The next morning, our 8 AM departure delayed to 9 AM thanks to the credit card machine, we had the bike packed and we hit the road to Dharamsala, the back way.
If you ever look at a map you will see that there is a basic loop of roads that show Manali at about 4 PM and Dharamsala at about 8 PM. If it were a clock. But it’s not, it’s just pictures that mean to represent roads and towns and maybe some other stuff as well.
The Clockwise journey was well documented and it should have taken us about 8 hours to ride. The Counter-clockwise journey was less so, and we weren’t really sure. We would need to cross the Rohtang Pass, drive through Keylong and hopefully spend the night in Udaipur, then continue on and take a left somewhere, which would get us to Dalhousie, another Hill Station, and then finally, Dharamsala.
The Rohtang Pass is amazing, great new roads switch-backing up to 13,000 feet, wide enough that I wasn’t terrified, and steep enough that we had many paragliders zipping overhead as they coasted down the mountainside. The top of the pass looked a little like the surface of the moon, so far above the timber line there were no trees, lots of rocks, and about 2000 donkeys, all saddled up for trekking. I wasn’t sure exactly what was going on, but there were an equal number of Land Cruisers and trucks that hauled people up here to jump on a donkey and go riding off on a trail. It was interesting but it didn’t look like a ton of fun, so we kept on riding.
And all those good things I said about riding up the pass… I take them all back. As soon as we got to the backside of the pass, the road completely degraded to a tore up, post-apocalyptic mining track that had more potholes than pavement and more mud than dirt. Luckily I didn’t really need to worry about sharing the road with trucks and buses because so few of them were stupid enough to actually try and drive down it. Apparently all fiscal responsibility stopped at the top of the pass and anyone unfortunate enough to journey into the Lahaul Valley could just suck it.
The word Rohtang translates into ‘Pile of corpses’ because of the habit the pass has of freezing over and killing everyone trying to cross it, in fact the entire Lahaul Valley is accessible only by helicopter from late-October to mid-May because of things like 40 feet of snow. The locals refer to it as an open jail and mention that fruits and vegetables are all completely gone by February, and canned food is a currency.
We had made the top of the pass by about 1 PM, and bounced down to the town of Keylong around 2-ish. Keylong is another Hill Station, built along a river valley, pretty stark and austere, but it’s an old town with an important monastery and it’s a hub for many of the teeny remote villages further up in the mountains. It seemed ok, but we still had a lot of daylight left, so we struck on towards Udaipur.
The Lahaul Valley must have decided that anyone who reached the base of the pass and got through Keylong was dedicated enough and deserved some actual asphalt, but only for about 30 Kilometers, and punctuated approximately every 5 minutes with a stretch of bare dirt road that required slowing to the pace of a fast walk if you wanted to keep your kidneys intact while you snuck up on the next stretch of pavement.
And then, just to remind you who’s boss, they left the last 20 kilometers of road to Udaipur to the original bare rock and dirt that prevented civilization from approaching this valley for thousands of years.
Udaipur was great. We were only there for one night, but it is one of my favorite places in India. We rode down the one street in town, from the beginning to the end, about a kilometer, then turned around and stopped somewhere in the middle.
It was still daylight, but barely, we had only seen one place that looked like it might be a hotel or guesthouse. Most of the shops looked like places a gold miner would buy supplies; most of the houses had cows living in the ground floor rooms. One of the locals walked up and began practicing his English skill with us, he introduced us to the owners of a guesthouse that had no sign, but was run by a Muslim couple from the restaurant across the street. It was 500 Rupees to share a room on the 3rd floor, and there was no safe place to park the Enfield, but the owner was willing to lets us put it in his house nearby.
We decided to walk down the road to check out the other possible place we saw on the way in. It was 400 Rupees, with our own room on the 3rd floor and we could park the motorcycle on the patio near the front door. Sold. Our room had windows with an amazing view of Himalayan peaks, and we shared a bathroom with a couple of invisible people, and only had running water for a couple of hours a day. But hey, what do you expect for 6 bucks?
The man that greeted us was named Maroj and was buddies with these people too. He worked in Forestry, which means he is a type of Ranger. He and his buddy Vikram told us about the open jail, the lack of veggies, and poachers that would sneak into the valley to hunt Ibex. We had tea with them, and as their guests we weren’t allowed to pay for it. Maroj also introduced me to the lady that sold Mobile SIM cards, but we were there on a Sunday and apparently cell phones and don’t work on weekends around there. I’m not sure I understand the logic, but it’s kind of cool regardless.
While Laura was up in the room I snuck out and waited on the street for one of the local 4X4 trucks that haul the locals around from town to town. I found one and asked him if it was possible to continue on and make it to Dalhousie/Dharamsala on a motorcycle.
After confirming that the motorcycle was a Bullet he assured me that it could be done, but only on a Bullet, because the road got even worse. It had been paved about 20 years before and then, in 1998, a group of terrorists shot down 35 Hindu road workers, so the road hasn’t seen any repair since.
It would be a full day’s ride to a town called Killar where we would spend the night and then take the left turn to cross over the Saach Pass, with a height of 14,500 feet. The pass closes for the year in mid-October, and as we were there in the first week of October, we would probably need to hustle if we wanted to make it over.
From Killar it would be another full day ride to a town called Chamba, and then we would make Dharamsala the next day.
I tried to explain to Laura that 3 days of being thrashed by the third world’s worst road, so we could cross a remote pass with a limited chance of being caught in a blizzard, totally unprepared, on a motorcycle, was waaay cooler than 2 days backtracking through towns that we weren’t terribly impressed with in the first place.
She tried to explain to me that she would rather risk getting gang raped on a 40 year old bus while it crept up and over the Rohtang pass in first gear, and that there was nothing I could say that would convince her to get back on that goddamn motorcycle unless it was pointed back the way we came.
She won, but I made sure she thought it was my idea to go back anyway. I’m still not convinced that she fell for it, but at least she pretends.