Sunday, 8 September 2013

It was Monday. I was supposed to start my ride towards Leh, but I just didn’t want to do it, yet. Not so soon. I had already spent two nights in Manali but I hadn’t seen any of those tourist places in Manali. Besides, I had a very good reason not to ride that day. Through some trusted sources, I came to know that on Tuesdays, Rohtang Pass is open only for those who wish to ride all the way to Leh, and hence, the pass is devoid of any traffic. On rest of the days, the touristy crowd that come to Manali, drive to the Rohtang Top just so that they can get a new DP for their Facebook, which results in long traffic snares. Also, it’s a common phenomenon that all those who come to Manali for a weekend trip, start their Monday by visiting Rohtang Top before heading back. Hence, it’s best to avoid Rohtang on Mondays and if the schedule permits, stay in Manali for one more day and head out on Tuesday, you’ll get absolutely clear road.
Flowers outisde my hotel room
Apart from that, another reason behind me leaving a day later was the fact that the French group staying at the same hotel was also going to start their ride on Tuesday. They had a support van, a guide as well as a mechanic. I was given strict instructions from back home to join another group before I start the gruelling climb from Manali. Despite my apprehension about riding with a group, I asked the trip organizer Buddy (Mr. Raju’s brother) if I could ride alongside; he was totally fine with it as long as I was ready to wake up early and ride out by 4-4.30 AM.
Don't you wish you woke up to this every Monday?
It was a bright, sunny day - perfect for sightseeing. I thought, “Let’s leave the worrying part about next day's early wakeup call for later and enjoy my last day in Manali, for now.” Hence, I headed out to explore the city. On the first day, while searching for a place to stay I had come across this particular place called Johnson’s Café. A board near the restaurant's main gate read: “Best Restaurant for European Cuisine - Lonely Planet.” Just then I knew, I had to have at least one meal at this place. I decided to have an early lunch at Johnson’s Café before heading to Solang Valley. 

As I entered the open façade of the restaurant, I saw a mid-60s foreigner having coffee while her dog was patiently sitting at her feet. Being a dog-lover, I instantly started playing with the gorgeous Alsatian. At first, I thought she must be a guest at the Johnson’s Lodge, but it turned she’d been living in India since 22 years, at some village (whose name I forgot) near Kullu. Meaning, she’s more local than I am. After exchanging pleasantries and playing with her friendly Alsatian I took a table. Much to my surprise, rather, shock, they don’t serve lunch before 1-1.30. The clock was inching toward 12.30 PM and the waiter told me that the chef won't arrive before 1.15 PM. Beer and light snacks were all that they could serve. Best European Restaurant in town and no food before 1.30 PM? Oh, well.
Hot momos and the view!
I headed empty stomach towards Rohtang. The bike was constantly nagging and hence I decided to get it checked with Rahul the mechanic. Upon reaching his shop I realized he was AWOL. There’s a momo shop right next to his garage. I decided to fill my growling stomach while waiting for him. Sitting inside a wooden hut, overlooking white rapids, a snow clad peak in the background and gorging on some hot moms; is there a better way to spend your Monday? Even after half an hour, Rahul didn’t turn up; hence, I decided to take a chance with the bike and headed to Solang Valley.
When an unstoppable force meets an immovable object...
Though bike was constantly giving jerks while ascending the ghats, I somehow managed to reach there. Crowd, paragliding, crowd, zorbing, crowd, ATV hill climb, crowd, fast food stalls – that’s Solang Valley for you. Oh, and did I tell you it was completely crowded? Unless you have a cranky kid who really, like REALLY wants to do paragliding and/or tumble down the hill in a big ball, kindly avoid Solang Valley. This place is 20-25km. from Manali, and narrow roads on the ghats take about 30-60 minutes to reach. Same amount of time on the return trip and some more time to stand there and watch the amused tourists take turns to learn the spelling of ZORBING. In short, total waste of 3-4 hours. Don’t make the mistake I did. Instead, go to Vashisht and check out the hot springs and enjoy the peace & tranquillity. One of the regrets of my trip is not being able to go to Vashisht. 
Solang "Overcrowded" Valley
On a wing and a prayer!
Flying high!
Bike kept misfiring due to lack of oxygen all the way. I knew, there was no way I was going to make it to the top of Rohtang in that condition. On my way back, I got it checked with Rahul. He cleaned the plug and told me everything was fine. Turned out, while returning, I opened the choke before starting the bike and forgot to close it. Rahul told me it was a human error and the machine was absolutely fine. I suggested that we should switch the stock air filter with the bigger one that I had got from Mumbai, but he was overconfident that that wasn’t needed. I wasn’t convinced about it and deep inside I knew that there was some major issue with the bike, most probably due to lack of oxygen at high altitude, but I decided to rely on his judgment. Big mistake! (More on that tomorrow - on Day 8)
Cattles grazing the open field near Solang
Lamb Of ???
Since I skipped Vashisht and the fact that Solang sucked, I thought of checking out other nearby tourist places inside the town. Sign boards of Hadimba Temple are littered all across the Manali. I’m not a very religious person but I thought of checking out the hype hoping that it would at least be a grand temple with great architecture where I’d be able to get good clicks. Big mistake! The harrowing experience starts even before you enter inside the main gate. Typing Indian mentality is showcased in its purest form over here. Amusing tourist paying money to dress up in Himachali attire and getting clicked with a yak. Why on the earth would you want to wear somebody else's clothes and get clicked? I thought fancy dress was only for primary students.

Picture this: A three year old kid is screaming his lungs out as he’s scared of the big yak but the mom is forcefully making him sit on that prehistoric creature because all she’s interested in is clicking her son’s “memorable” pic. Why would you torture your kid like that? I can bet my limb on this one, 20 years down the line, the only memory the kid will have of his Manali vacation is being forced to sit on a scary yak.
Deodhar Trees inside the Hadimba Temple compound.
As you enter inside the gate, it's like a scene straight right out of a Vikram Bhatt's horror movie. Try picturing, Raaz 1. You’re walking amidst 60-100 ft. tall Deodhar(?) trees, mist everywhere and the trees are so tall the sunlight never hits the surface. It can easily spook you if you're not surrounded my those half a million tourists. A walk 100 mtrs further and you come this never ending queue of so-called "devotees" leading into the temple. I’m not exactly sure how the temple looks from inside since I never bothered standing in the queue for an hour and find out what the insides of the tin shed that's there in the name of the temple looked like. No, thanks!
Hadimba Temple and the devotee thingies standing in the queue to get in.
Worse was yet to come. It had started drizzling. The road to Hadimba temple is a fairly steep climb. Any experienced biker will tell you that heavy rain is much better than a light drizzle. Simply because, while the heavy rain will wash away the road surface, the drizzle will simply make the sand on the road’s surface wet and slippery. I was riding downhill on this steep slope, a tight turn combined with the slippery surface and BAM! First fall of Bombay to Leh trip! First of the many, in fact. Apparently, I couldn’t get on the front brakes fast enough and only ended up going hard on the rear brakes; the fall was inevitable. No injury, except for minor bruising; but the bike took the toll. The number plate broke in two and the leg guard was also bent. I somehow kicked the leg guard in place but was left with a broken number plate for the rest of the journey. I tried tapping the broken pieces but somewhere between Keylong and Sarchu, the smaller piece fell off.

You wouldn't believe this. Even I didn't knew about it till few minutes back. When I was going through the pictures of my trip to find appropriate pics ones for this blog post; I stumbled upon the below image. I checked the time stamp and guess what? This was clicked about 40 mins before I had my first fall. Also, if you know Indian mythology, you'd be aware that Hadimba was one of the bad people in Mahabharat - a 12 feet giant who finally died at the hands of Bhima. I'm the last person to believe in superstition. I'm simply putting the facts in front of you, now you can believe whatever you want. Do you think 666 is the Number of the Beast? Or that my fall was any way related to Hadimba and that fact I didn't go inside the temple? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below. 
666 - Number of the Beast!
Himalayan Country House is situated in Old Manali, near the Manu Temple. It's away from the crowded market and hence, it's peaceful and serene. Old Manali is still not completely taken over by the commercialization and has managed to keep their identity intact. You can see still see the typical old Himachali houses with village kids playing in the backyard, cows tied  to the pillar and haystack piled up on a side. If you're a photography lover, you can easily spend 2-3 hours around here. During the evening time, you see dozens of foreigners with gigantic DSLRs going on a photowalk around this area. Sadly, I only had half an hour to capture that old-world charm in my lenses, before it became dark.
This cute village kid was playing with his friends. He seemed more than happy to pose when I took out my camera and asked, "Photo?"
By the time I was done with the photowalk, it was 7.30ish and I was starving since the only thing I had during the entire day were those momos. I went to a German Bakery in Old Manali. It’s in a tiny lane after Drifter’s Inn. It wouldn’t be wrong if you’d name that lane as mini-Israel. Imagine this, the bakery and the cyber café next to it had name of food items and instructions in Hebrew. In fact, even the Nepali looking bakery fellow was conversing with them in Hebrew.
Old Manali: Like a time capsule.

From an another era.
I bought my pastry and sat on the steps of a closed shop opposite the bakery. Three Isrealis were sitting next to me at that time. Couple of minutes later, two more joined them. Few minutes later, a girl arrived and everyone hugged and greeted her (they probably met her after a long time). Then one more guy came and welcomed her with a hug. Two more guys joined them. First guy introduced her to these two, and they too greeted her. Within no time, the group swelled to 12-15 people with everybody knowing everybody else. In the fifteen minutes that I spent over there, I saw just 2-3 Indians and more than 25-30 Isrealis walking through that lane. In my opinion, the ratio of Isrealis:Indians staying in the hotels down that lane is 10:1.

I bought a couple of choco chip cookies from the bakery, so that I can grab a quick bite before starting my riding next morning. From another shop, I bought chocolates to keep me energized during the ride. This shop also had rolling paper, cigarette filters and loose tobacco. In fact, the shops leading up to this lane had all sort of pipes and bongs. No prizes for guessing why!
When you have such an ambience, there's bound to be great music.
\m/
I had one too many pastries and the stomach was full but I really wanted to go to Johnson’s. Since I was going to start my ride next morning, I decided to fill my petrol cans in the night only, so that I don't waste any time in the morning and can hit the highway. Hence, I carried the saddle bags to the pump so that I can fill up the petrol cans and also top up the tank. As planned, I went to Johnson’s for a sumptuous European fare. As expected, the place lived up to its name - cool ambience, delicious food, good service and great music.

Last meal in Manali - beer and delicious continental
As always, my day can never be over without anti-climax. After 2 days of bright sunshine, it started pouring down just as I was about to leave from Johnson’s to my hotel which was 3-4 km. away. The saddle bag was on the bike and everything from tool box to the petrol cans were getting wet but there was little I could do. About 20 minutes later, the rain eased a bit and I rushed back to the hotel. Mind you, just few hours back I had a fall in wet conditions and I couldn’t let that happen the second time given the fact that I was carrying 10 litres of extra fuel in the saddle bags. Well, I'm not that bad a rider either. By the time I reached hotel, the rain had again gained momentum. Thankfully, one of the helpful staff members of the hotel rushed out with an umbrella while I untied my saddle bag and carried it 2 storeys back to the room. 
Ready to fly!
On Day 8, I started my ride towards Leh. First hurdle - the 'infamous' Rohtang Pass. But hold on, it's not as easy as it sounds. I face issues with my bike in middle of nowhere. To know whether I was able fix it or not, wait for the next post!

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