8 AM. Laura and I stroll out of the Le Meridien hotel carrying helmets and small backpacks, ready for our Great India Adventure. The 500 CC, single cylinder, kick start only, Royal Enfield Bullet is waiting for us, fully fueled and ready go to.
Mr Soni’s ‘boys’ are kind enough to escort us to the edge of the city and get us onto highway 1, which points North towards Kashmir, Tibet and China, all of which we have in mind for future adventures, none of which we have planned for our current outing. We’re keeping it simple. Vague, but simple.
I had been warned about the old rental scam where the rentee asks where you’re going, you tell them, they send someone to steal the vehicle, and then charge you for replacement, so I totally lied to Mr Soni and told him we were going to ride to Dehradun and the putter our way up to Manali, when really we intended to go West into Rajasthan, to see ancient hilltop forts, and ride camels, and ride through the Indian deserts. But my lie got me thinking…. It was really hot in Delhi, and the Himalaya mountains were pretty close, and Dharamsala was up there. And the Dalai Lama lived there, he’s a pretty cool dude. There’s gotta be some interesting things to do and see… So we actually wound up living the lie. Well, sorta. We didn’t see Dehradun, but we did make it to Manali and Dharamsala.
Our first day on the road started with an hour of brutal Delhi traffic, just to get to the edge of town where highway 1 began. Our escort, the two guys who brought the bike to the hotel, figured out that I wasn’t a terrible rider, I was able to squeeze a big bike, with side racks, into marginally bigger spaces between Auto Rickshaws, and I was reckless enough to keep riding after about ten minutes of trial by fire. So they gave us a thrilling high adrenaline ride, which they probably refer to as ‘morning commute’.
I was constantly reminding myself that millions of people do this every day all over this country, and that if it was as dangerous as it seemed that there wouldn’t be millions of people still doing it. Right? I mean if driving in India was as dangerous as we like to believe it is then they probably wouldn’t be the second most populous nation on Earth, right behind China. It would be like gas powered population control.
All I’m saying is that if this many people could handle it for the entire lives then I could probably manage for a couple of weeks. Statistically it was way safer than Running with the Bulls, which I promise not to do again.
So we make it to the edge of town, the escort is perfectly happy to be rid of us, and the open road is laid out before us. But it turns out that the open road is only open road for about 10 kilometers before road construction begins routing us along the dirt frontage road. Then back to the open road for another 10 kilometers, then road construction. Open road. Construction. Open road. Construction. Repeat for 250 kilometers.
By 1 pm we had made it to Chandigarh, which was our first experience with one of the most wonderful things India has to offer.
I’m totally serious. After five hours of riding through Delhi traffic and India’s version of an interstate we were ready for a McLatte and food that might not give us blow outs for a week. While the McLatte wasn’t available, the vegetarian menu at an Indian McDonalds is amazing. From veggie burgers to paneer wraps. Really good stuff. Laura approved.
Fueled up on drip coffee and paneer wraps we were ready to hit the road again; our goal was the Hill Station town of Shimla. There was no special reason for Shimla, but I had read that it was a former summer location for the British administration because of its cooler temperatures and that the architecture was unusually British for a small mountain town in Northern India. And based on the fact that our realistic mileage per day was actually about 300 – 400 kilometers because of our top speed of 50 MPH and the random detours, poor roads, lack of signage, and generally twisty nature of the roads… well Shimla was about as far as I thought we would make it on day one.
From Chandigarh to Shimla the roads were amazing, tight and twisty two lane roads going up and down mountains and valleys with jungles and rivers and cows and monkeys and buses and trucks and other motorcycles, all trying to pass the buses and trucks, which were being passed by other buses and trucks at the same time. It was very beautiful and thrilling and spectacular and terrifying. And there were monkeys every 10 – 15 minutes, hanging out by the side of the road and waiting for something interesting to happen.
As we neared Shimla the whole ‘microclimate’ thing began to happen. Apparently the last monsoon of the season had been trapped by the mountains around Shimla and it was raining torrentially in town. Luckily we saw the rain as we entered the far side of the mountain valley, and saw the amazing towns built up the side of incredible steep hills, being drenched in water. So we stopped and put on the windbreaker I had been dragging all over the world and the $3 rain poncho that we bought in Manaus for the Amazon.
I guess if a wind breaker were any good at shedding water they would call it something else, like maybe ‘rain coat’. Mine, however, was really and truly a windbreaker. So Laura, with the windbreaker, looked like a wet kitten in a helmet. And the poncho… well the snaps tore out and it fell apart as soon as I put it on, now I understand why it only cost $3.
Due to the extremely ‘hilly’ nature of a Northern Indian Hilltop Station there were several tunnels, we chose the largest and busiest tunnel to hide in until the rain let up. It turns out this tunnel was somehow part of their local bus station, so we were able to buy hot chai and stare in amazement at the walls of water pouring down outside, and the foot or so of suspended water that floated above the pavement because of the sheer impact of the volumes of water pouring out of the sky and slamming into the asphalt.
While this was happening I was searching the internet, on my phone, for hotels. Airbnb.com, Hipmunk, Hotels.com, Tripadvisor.com… it seems that this Shimla place considered itself pretty fancy and most hotels were over $100 a night.
We found a hotel for $80, which had covered parking for the bike and was located at the beginning of the Mall Road, but without much else to recommend it.
By the time we were settled into the room and out of our wet clothes Laura was ready to sleep for a week and I was hungry. And I wanted boots. My soaking sneakers were not going to cut it. So I grabbed the windbreaker and my flip flops and headed out to the Mall Road. It was kind of interesting. It was a Mall, and a walking Road. Sort of like you’d expect. My first purchase was an umbrella, because it was still raining a little. Then I found a shoe store that was still open, they had boots. Pretty cheap, but I didn’t love them, so I went back to hunt for dinner, and returned to the hotel room with 2 vegetarian Dominos pizzas. I only wanted one, but they were having a 2-fer special. What could I do? Anyway, I was pretty much a hero when I rolled back into the hotel room with those pizzas. Laura approved.
The next morning the weather had cleared and we got a glimpse of Shimla from the hotel. Amazing. Tall and steep mountains with towns built up the sides of them. Rambling stick figure houses, twisty snake-like streets, walkways and stairs, they even have ‘lifts’, which are basically multi stage elevators for those with ten extra rupees burning a hole in their pockets. We took one up just for the thrill. Not as cool as the escalators in Hong Kong, but effective if you want to get to Uptown from Downtown without becoming a panting sweaty mess.
We also discovered the Lower Market, which is basically the real shopping area. The Mall Road is for tourists and suckers, the real deals happen about 100 feet down on nameless twisting alleys with small booths and shops all specializing in one thing or another. We were able to find chain and padlocks to lock the toolbox to the bike more effectively than the bungee cords we had been using. I found a pair of light weight pants to give my one pair of jeans a break, and learned that my size, 38, is the biggest that any shop carries in Northern India. Yes, 38. Now I’m trying the whole portion control thing, I’ll let you know how that works someday. We also found a matching pair of black steel toe lace up boots with Vibram soles, for about $25 each. Perfect for riding the Bullet. I brought mine back to Mexico. Laura didn’t seem to bond with hers the way I did, and they are still in India somewhere…
We also discovered Chana Masala. Picture a wok the size of a garbage can lid, with a horseshoe shaped mountain of garbanzo beans and a lagoon of sauce and spices in the middle. The garbanzo beans, or chick peas are called Chana, and they are refilled along the outer edge as the inner edge is drawn into the Masala, or ‘mix’ of Indian curries and spices. Served in a bowl with Naan bread. Amazing. Ridiculously good. 20 rupees at a stand on the side of the Lower Market.
This was also where I got my first dose of Karmic Reality. There was a beggar woman with an infant child, who probably was a loaner, because the women couldn’t have been older than 13 or 14 and the child looked about 6 or 7, and they were both filthy, black with dust and grime from the streets. Laura and I were both sympathetic and wanted to give her something but I was worried that word would get out amongst her pals that white people were at the Chana Masala stand giving money away and we would get swamped. Then the Chana Masala Wallah filled a plastic sandwich bag with Chana Masala and bread and handed it to her so she and the child would have something to eat. When we paid our bill I gave him 20 extra rupees, kind of like a tip, and made the mistake for saying thanks for giving food to the beggar.
He got mad, shoved the money back at me and told me to give it to her myself. That the food was his to give, not mine.
Wow. I was stealing his Karma. I was trying to take credit for his good works. If he accepted the 20 rupees it would negate the positive Karma from his giving the food. That was a heavy lesson. I gave the 20 rupees to the beggar, did not get swamped with other beggars, and had a lot to think about for the next few days.
We found Dominos pizza, and good riding boots. British colonial buildings and monkeys. Chana masala and chai tea.
One thing we couldn’t find in Shimla, though, was a reasonable hotel.
We did like Shimla, and wanted to spend more time exploring it, but the hotel thing was kind of distressing. $80 a night would be a good deal in most US cities, but in Northern India? OK, maybe if it was really swank, but… beat up old furniture, no internet, suspicious stains on the rugs… and why is there a bucket in the shower?
We chose to move on, there was a place called the Hot Springs Hotel on the way to Manali, about 50 Kilometers along a small back road. Seemed interesting, and the road looked like an adventure of its own from the map view. This was our next destination.