Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Kullu Trip, Part Two: Delhi to Kullu and Manali

Before I left for each section of my trip I studied various maps so that I would not have to stop to look at them on route. Getting from Mike’s in Delhi to highway number1, heading North was relatively easy, with only one minor wrong turn. But the highway itself was a mess. You would travel a few kilometres on modern 4 lane highways only to come to and abrupt end leading to one-lane dirt roads jam packed with all the traffic trying to squeeze together at once and dust everywhere. Motorcycles usually took to the very left side and often went off not just on the shoulder, if there was one, but off to fields and parking lots and through any opening a bike could fit. There I was, dirt biking with my heavily packed camel. Then after a few kilometres of this, things changed back to a good road. This went on many times for the whole trip to Chandigarh.

I wanted to stop in Chandigarh for the night as it would get dark long before I could get to Kullu. The maze through/around Chandigarh, and it was a maze, caused me to stop frequently to ask for directions which left me on the other side of town. This is where I eventually wanted to go, but I was then past all the possible hotels or guest houses I could possibly stay at. So I went on hoping to find some place to stay, even if it was a cozy field. As luck would have it, a roadside hotel appeared in the middle of nowhere (literally) and I stopped to find that it was clean and cheap, only 400 rupees ( about $8 CDN) for the night, and they had a veg and non-veg restaurant. It was also the holiday Divali, a night of celebration using as many fireworks as you could afford, and the staff at the hotel were into it. I spent many hours with them watching them light flares and rockets and noise makers of all types. I also made sure to move my bike well out of the way from where they were ‘playing’ with fire.

The next morning was bright and crisp and I got up early to set off after a quick breakfast. This for me was really the beginning of the trip I had imagined. For it was from here that I left the flats of the plains and valleys and headed up into the foothills of the Himalayas. I started to get excited about the changing road conditions to being narrow, twisty, rising steeply with spectacular scenery.

I stopped often to take pictures because you really couldn’t watch the road and look at the scenery at the same time, unless that is you wanted to become a part of the scenery. The temperatures were changing too. In the sunlight it was hot, but at the instant I drove into a shadow it was cold. I stopped to put on a vest. The rest of the journey to Kullu then was just one big smile. Except for a very very long tunnel (the Aut Tunnel) through the center of a mountain, I think it must have been over 3-4 kilometres long, dark and dangerous, the trip was wonderful.

When I arrived in Kullu I did not notice as I passed the hotel where I was to stay (The Vishali) and went through and past the center of town. So I stopped to call Heidi to ask for directions and didn’t look to see where I put my foot down and I stepped into one of the side sewer trenches and lost my balance, falling with the bike onto the road. My camera jumped off my neck (I carried it on me to take pics) and I managed not to get caught under the bike. In a matter of nano-seconds there was a huge crowd around me. I got up, dusted myself off and went over to the bike. I couldn’t lift it. Even without all my luggage on it, it was too heavy for me, so I signalled to two young guys who are watching me to come over and help lift, which they did. I gave the bike a quick check over, it was ok, I was ok, my camera was ok and so I quickly got out of being center attention.

I did find the hotel and settled in for three days. I later met up Heidi and Steve, who came over and we went off to an Italian restaurant nearby. Not something I had expected and it was very good. Kullu is very touristy, with lots of westerners and lots of Royal Enfield’s and repair shops. I felt safe.

On my second day there Steve and I did a short climb up the mountain that Kullu rests on and later I got him to agree to get on the back of the bike for a drive up to Manali. So the next day we borrowed a helmet from the owner of the Italian restaurant and off we went. There are two roads to Manali. One on each side of the river. We took the smaller east side road, which has more flavour and less traffic. Manali is only about 50 or less kilometres from Kullu but we took our time and got there in time for some momo’s for lunch (a momo is a dumpling, steamed or fried). If I thought Kullu was touristy, then I have to come up with a new word for more-touristy for Manali which has a large selection of 4 star hotels. Tourists go there for helicopter skiing, hang gliding, mountain trekking and the hot springs. It’s a small town but packed with people and stores and lots of restaurants. We had decided not to spend time in Manali but instead drove a little more to get to the hot springs at Vishisht, just 3 kilometres north. My pictures of the springs for some reason didn’t come out as well as I hoped but you can get a pretty good flavour of what they are like at this YouTube site: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VScPnD7uX18
We planned a short day because the sunrise and sunset in the mountains is two hours shorter at both ends of the day and as I don’t like to drive at night we took our hot dip in the springs and then took a leisurely trip back to Kullu. I did the trip again the very next day to get more pictures, which I couldn’t do while Steve was on the back of the bike. On that trip I stopped at a German coffee house and chatted with, believe it or not, two Germans, while sipping on some brewed coffee and relishing a real chocolate croissant. On my last day in Kullu I went to Heidi and Steve’s farewell party, which was arranged by the people from her ashram, so I got to meet a lot of those very nice folks.

Then off I went the next morning to find the road to the pass leading out of the Kullu Valley and crossing the mountains to Mandi. I was told the road, that started in the small town of Bajaura, would be difficult to find as it looks like a laneway, but I found it with help and headed up the pass. About 4 kilometres up my throttle cable broke and I was left with a loose cable in my hand. But I glided back down to the town at the bottom of the road and was able to ride to a Bullet Bike shop by pulling on the cable for acceleration. Of course this meant that if I had to stop suddenly I didn’t have my hand on the break handle. An hour after the cable broke and less than 100 rupees later, I was back on the road going up the pass again. This pass had smaller roads, steeper cliffs, more breathtaking scenery and lots of turnoffs so I stopped often to ask directions. This turned out not to be a language problem issue as most people in the region had basic English. Go to Google Maps and get directions for Kullu, HP to Mandi, HP and you will see the route taken.

The drive to Dharmshala, along a long wide valley with the beautiful mountains always on my right and getting highlighted by the setting sun as I drove north west. I found another inexpensive hotel just before Dharmshala for the night. It too had a food service but only for veg meals, which was still welcome. Coming next: McCleod ganj, the Dalai Lama and me.

"Vegetarian - that's an old native word meaning 'lousy hunter.'"

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Kullu Trip, Part One: The Road to Delhi.

7:45 am. I had waited outside my house in the dark, doors and gate locked for 15 minutes for a supposed group of staff who said they’d be there to see me off on my trip. They didn’t come, I left at 6am, as per my schedule.  I was eager to get onto the road.  Ten minutes later I was outside of Barmer City on an empty road (a rare thing in India) heading East, driving at a respectable speed of 60kph through the desert air.  And it was cold. I didn’t want to stop, the journey had started there was no stopping. Less than an hour later I was too cold to drive and so I pulled over to put on a sweater, jacket and gloves. 

“Why didn’t I do that before” I chastised myself, feeling much more comfortable. Of course an hour later, after sunrise, I had to take the extra clothes off as the temperatures quickly rose to sweat levels.

First stop was Balotra, some 100 kilometres away where the Patwari’s home was.  Lalchand Patwari, father of Vishal lent me his Bullet 350cc motorcycle for my adventure.  So stopping off at their home was a mandatory and a grateful first stop.  During my hour stay there I was honoured with a short send off ceremony by Vishal’s mother Laxmi.  She hand fed me some special sweet foods, put a teekah on my forehead and tied a coloured string around my right wrist.  It’s still there.

Then off I went to my next stop at Jodhpur where I had to have some additional work done on the bike. So far so good, I was feeling very comfortable with the journey as I had previously traveled these roads before.  I would still be comfortable afterwards but I would also have the constant feeling of wanting to confirm and reconfirm I was on the right road.  Signage is not that great in India. This obsessive mental state paid off for me a few times along the way as I often merrily motored off down the wrong way.

In Jodhpur I found the Royal Enfield shop as I had before and had them make a few adjustments and put a new speedometer in.  While waiting for the repair I dropped my helmet and it landed directly on the visor which got a big scratch on it exactly at eye level where I would be looking through it.  Was this a bad omen for the first morning? I got used to it.

I found the right road out of Jodhpur and headed to Jaipur to spend the night with Joe at his NGO Pravah.  I had been there before (by train) so I sort of knew where it was, but I arrived at Jaipur at night and I got lost, despite stopping constantly asking for directions.  Finally I pulled up to an auto-rickshaw and asked him to lead me to Bapu Nagar where Joe was. He agreed to do this for 30 rupees and I was happy to finally get off the bike and get together with Joe for some supper. (which was a whole chicken teka and beer, one for each of us.)

The next morning I headed out early for Delhi. Leaving Jaipur wasn’t as bad as getting into it and I was soon on the killer highway dodging trucks that were often heading straight at me. Needless to say this wasn’t one of my favourite parts of the trip.  I did stop along the way at roadside stands to eat and rest and made it into Delhi in a quick 5 hours.  I found Mike’s place relatively easily as I had studied Google maps closely and memorized the route.  It was a dirty trip, Delhi air is very polluted and my orange shirt was noticeably blackened by soot all over it. It was good to get to Mike’s, my Delhi home.

Show me a sane man and I will cure him for you. - Carl Gustav Jung