We were all feeling pretty chuffed with the previous day’s journey from Rishikesh. The road had been kind. We’d made new friends and arrived at a respectable hotel to share a delicious meal together. A very satisfying combination.
Our night’s sleep however, was less successful. For most of the night bus load after bus load of hungry, tired travellers arrived, ate and went to bed noisily. At one point it sounded a lot like someone was using an industrial grade floor cleaner to scrub the tiles in the room above us. Michal and Mirtilla were of a similar disposition, adding that they now smelt very much like curry and chapati, having secured a room close to the busy kitchen.
The smugness of the previous day had already begun to wear off. Unperturbed, we loaded the bikes and made for a quick start, opting to skip breakfast in favour of a later stop a few kilometres outside of Shimla. Elevenses always taste better anyway. At breakfast we were treated to a spectacular view across Himachal Pradesh. The terrain averaging around 1,500m and filled with rolling hills for many miles, the morning sun burning through the dewy mist of the early hours.
Conversation during our meal of aloo paratha, chutney and chai veered very deeply in to the current mess of the political situation in both Britain and Italy – Brexit, the far-right and unemployment. It was an unlikely topic for such a beautiful place. The words didn’t sound quite right against the backdrop of the Indian Himalayan foothills.
As we hugged for the sixth time that day, saying fond farewells as if we’d not see each other in a few hours time for chai and chit-chat, I pointed out that we would definitely cross paths someways along the road and certainly jinxed meeting up again that day. Michal had memories of a very good road to Dharamshala, insisting that it was possible to reach the town before dark. Again, jinx had an eye on our plans and stepped in to throw the game.
To say that the road was bad would be understatement of a tall order. An hour after our optimistic goodbyes we were sucking diesel and cursing the poor condition of the road. NH202 it seemed was a thoroughfare for the lions share of the heavy goods traffic of Himachal Pradesh. Landslides had destroyed great swathes of the asphalt surface leaving behind just dust, rocks and potholes. The sheer volume of traffic kicked up a great deal of choking, thick white dust, reducing visibility and air to unpleasantly smoggy levels.
Indian road haulage trucks are huge – stacked higher than high, decked out with cargos of unknown weight on tyres of questionable tread – a real heady mix of danger, frustration and risk. It’s hard to describe the filth that these beasts chug out in biblical quantities. Within a few minutes of being sandwiched between these monsters we ere covered in thick black soot and desperately wrapping our scarves tightly around our faces to mitigate the suffocating stink of fumes.
In three hours we travelled just 65km. The intricate hand painted bodywork of the vehicles making little compensation for the unpleasantness of that stretch of road. One piece of wisdom did come out of it, however, the rear tailgate of one of the trucks had a message for fellow travellers ‘Life is limited one time offer – use it!’.
At lunch we were greeted with a hundred smiles and requests for ‘one selfie’. Since Diwali, Gujuratis have been on state holiday and have been travelling north in large numbers to visit places such as Manali, Dhramshala and Rishikesh. Grubby with black dirt and exhaust smoke, eyes like a motorcycling Jack Sparrow, we posed patiently for ‘one click’ and shook hands with dozens of moustached men and eager young children.
We looked like a bad drag act after a late night SoHo shindig, all smudged panda eyes, wild hair and blackened fingers, but that didn’t matter, the whites of our eyes shone like crystals in a Swarovski show room against the bleak appearance of our ragged attire. ‘One snap’ with a Britisher was still something exotic for our Gujarati friends, bedraggled or otherwise.
Happily, the afternoon’s route was more comfortable; a wide, well paved, less steep, straight course was a welcome relief after a gruelling stint in the deep, winding, broken up valleys.
Reflecting on our progress over a delicious plate of very spicy bean curry, subgee and plain boiled rice I was grateful for our meagre achievement. Considering the gradient, surface and traffic we’d still come a long way in comparison to a bicycle. In fact, we’d already done as much in a long morning than I would have hoped to climb on a push iron. The motorcycle was giving us the possibility of two to three times the daily range of a pedal bike.
That said, the greater totals travelled came at a cost. The speed, frenetic chaos of constantly overtaking slow trucks, buffalo carts and insanely anxious drivers – literally a new driver will simply buy a car, turn on the hazards lights and drive at just a few miles an hour in the middle of the road – push mental resilience to maximum limits. By the end of this day I felt burnt out like a fire damaged truck that had rolled off a cliff and burst into flames in the valley below.
All the intensity of the days two wheeled activity; concentration to navigate the dicey roads, outmanoeuvring dodgy drivers and the inevitable overtaking of trucks had sunk into my nervous system a very fragile energy. I was dead beat by the time we arrived at Jawalamukhi at 5pm. Pulling up at the first hotel we saw, things started to fall into place for us; Hotel Maya (Maya the name of my sisters godchild), room 17 (my birthday, on the NH303 (the same road that passes Stone henge and title of a Kula Shaker track), and 600 rupee (an amount we were happy to pay) all made this decision feel totally correct, like the universe approved entirely of our choices and wanted to confirm us through these little signs and portents.
After I’d put my finger into a live electric socket in the bathroom attempting to switch on the boiler for hot water, we made our way with haste to the hotel restaurant for an Indian feast; butter paneer masala, aloo gobi masala, a dozen chapati, onion bhaji, finger chips, followed by fruit kulfi with the last chapati – like an ice cream sandwich – a surprisingly tasty combination.
Back at the room we put on the televisions for a little local entertainment. We found a fantastic channel showing short clips of old Bollywood movies, usually one of the main dance off showdowns; alternate waving hands, shaking feet and wobbling heads, like Mr Bean on acid in a National Trust property.
Our plan for the next day was to leave early for McLeod Ganj, the hill station home of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. With just under 60km t ride we felt that this would be a breeze after the hard won experience of the previous day. How wrong we were. We eft on empty stomachs, believing that we’d be in McLeod for breakfast, so with this idea we took off along one of the prettiest scenic routs so far; glorious expansive vistas stretching many miles distant, alpine flora and fauna giving a delightfully familiar fragrance to the air and small homesteads lining the village roads; a cow, a few chickens, a bullock or water buffalo, a brace of mules, spiked straw drying on the roofs, a classic bucolic Indian setting.
Three hours later we were still pootling around Dharamshala slightly lost, semi fatigued and increasingly irritated – skipping breakfast had spectacularly backfired – the hunger-confusion-rage that set in at this point was debilitating. Three times I followed a road sign that took me in a complete circle. Three times I returned to the point of action ‘Is this the way, Luce? I’m sure we’ve been here before’. Three times I realised too late that indeed we had. Eventually, we arrived in McLeod Ganj, the summit of the main square a spaghetti of awkward lanes, tight one way streets and out of control traffic police.
Frazzled, I pulled up the bike on to it’s centre stand and instructed Lucy to find any room that met our requirements; cheap, clean and close to town; I sat on some steps observing the morning rush at the makeshift roundabout. Horns blared loudly to indicate driver intent, a cow meandered casually across the whole intersection and a taxi crashed slowly, but certainly into the bike, knocking it from the stand, momentarily to two wheels, balanced and rolling gently toward a glass fronted cake shop, then wobbling heavily onto a pedestrian.
The impact knocked the stout Tibetan lady to the ground but luckily did not crush her – the weight of the bike and bags was getting on for 300kgs – quickly a crowd gathered to lift the lady and the bike back to standing and the clumsy taxi driver came over to apologise first to the bike, then to the lady. The traffic cop then decided that there was no parking in the area and ordered me to move the bike. I dawdled til Lucy returned and made a swift exit to the safety of the hotel.