Every year, I know summer is around the corner when I start looking through my collection of dog-eared road maps looking for that elusive, yet-unridden road that promises motorcycling nirvana. I know it’s summer because my craving is stirring much like a lethargic grizzly in its den, suddenly realizing that it hasn’t eaten in five months. Ladakh always beckons, like a flame to a moth, but it’s too early for the
ice-bound mountain passes to have been hacked clear by the Border Roads Organisation, and anyway, I am saving that ride for later in the year when my purpose-built Royal Enfield 500 with its tricked-out suspension and Enduro styling will be ready in a couple of months’ time. (Watch this space).
Hill country: (clockwise from top) Icy Jalori; crossing the Tirthan by trolley; cottage at Goshaini.
A few days ago, it dawned on me: I need a quick fix to reacquaint myself with the rhythm of the road on two wheels. As always, I am drawn to Himachal Pradesh, less than a day’s ride from Delhi where you can leave behind the monotonous super-slab “hurry up and get there” highways for the state’s fabulous network of back roads with its many magnificent curves for a motorcycle, narrow gravel roads and frequent overlook spots perfect for a ride that sloughs off your anxieties. As I am firming up the route, I get an email from my friend Paul Grace, a fellow Bullet rider in the UK, saying he’s racked up enough free miles on Virgin to fly to India, so let’s go ride! Now, Paul is a handy chap to have around as he races a home-built Royal Enfield in England in the pre-1965 class motocross and has written a book on it. The ever-helpful chaps at Royal Enfield agree to loan us two 500cc lean burn Machismos for our week-long ride at our start-off point in Delhi.
The first day’s ride of about 270km from Delhi to Dehradun is flat and tedious, done at a leisurely pace to get Paul used to the cut and thrust of riding on Indian roads, but still, at the end of the day he is a little ashen-faced from his first encounter with traffic on Indian highways. Dehradun is the perfect jump-off point to head into the hills, with Mussoorie just 35km away, and we get an early start the next morning. Traffic is thin and the tarmac is smooth, allowing me to get my groove on in the flowing corners — slow in, fast out — picking out a rhythm that picks up pace rapidly as I get comfortable with the road and the bike as we climb higher up.
Past Mussoorie from the Library end, the single-track road ducks down to the Yamuna passing the shanties of the once-beautiful Kempty Falls, so named as local lore has it, for the sahibs who came there for “Camp Tea”. The narrow valley that the road follows broadens dramatically before Purola with terraced fields leading up like giant steps to the coniferous tree line. Racing up the mountain through the chiaroscuro play of the pine forest I can see numerous fires, perhaps started by the forest department to clear the thick bedding of pine needles that will turn incendiary in the hot, dry summer to follow. We round a corner and see that the fire has jumped across the road and the resin-rich trees on both sides are crackling with knee-high flames, a worthy photo-op. But, right now the air is cool as an aircon blowing through the mesh of my riding jacket as we descend to Mori — a village on the Tons river that is the road-end for the trek to Har ki Doon and the summer base for the white-water rafting outfits from Rishikesh.
A pine grove right on the riverbank, about 100m from the road, is too inviting to resist and we pull over. It’s tempting to spend the night here, but we have become a magnet to a horde of flying insects that have a rather nasty bite. The rear tyre looks a little low and as I bend to investigate, I can hear the sibilant hiss of air slowly escaping the tyre. My tyre removal skills are as rusty as the tyre irons in my tool kit. It takes an hour to wrestle the obstinate tyre back on to the wheel. We push on to Rohru, inside the border of Himachal, rolling into the porch of Hotel Chanshal in the gloaming, a few thousand more stars than I am familiar with already hanging from the sky. With around 200km of twisties under our belt, a languorous hot shower is the icing on a perfect riding day.
We have no destinations to reach, no fixed agenda other than to follow the most interesting road on the map. I call up my friend Ranjiv Bharti who runs an excellent homestay in his rambling ivy covered cottage in Goshaini in the unspoiled Tirthan valley that is the gateway to the Great Himalayan National Park. We are lucky, he has space for a couple of nights, and he’s just a day’s ride away. We have a choice of taking the more popular and busier state highway or to cut across the narrow dirt roads with boundless blue skies above and a whole lot of valley below. Of course, we choose the latter.
The drill goes like this all day, on different paths: Enter narrow dirt road. Twist and turn to the top. Dismount, gulp fresh Himalayan air and ride to bottom. Repeat at next ascent. There is no better way to experience the picture postcard landscape of Himachal with the apple orchards that flank the roads in full bloom. Sungri is the first of our ascents from Rohru where we stop for a cup of tea to ward off the chilly, brisk wind on the exposed mountain top. Jalori Pass has just been opened to traffic last week, say the locals, and that is good news as it will save us a tedious detour. The directions are succinct: “Take the lower fork just after the bridge at the bottom of the mountain till you hit Badrash on the Old Hindustan-Tibet road (NH22). It’s a dirt road but bikes will do fine.” The road is as advertised, dirt and rock in equal proportions, and is huge fun to ride despite the enervating sheer drop on one side. Thirty kilometres later, just before the road swoops down to Badrash, it swiftly changes character, changing to a freshly paved ribbon of tarmac that evokes a few “hee-haws” as we speed down on our Enfields.
We briefly ride on NH22 till Sainj where we cross the Sutlej, in its ebullient charge, to the plains. Sadly, the river will die once yet another hydel project upstream is completed in a few years time. As we move up the narrowing road to Jalori past Ani, there are still small pockets of snow lying in dappled nooks and crannies. Jalori Pass (10,280ft) is cold and we take refuge in Daulat Singh’s dhaba for a cup of ginger-laced tea. There’s a temple of Mahakali called Jalori Mata, but it is too early in the year for itinerant pilgrims. Also, there are a couple of day hikes from here to the Raghupur fort and the Sereolesar lake, which Daulat Singh says are quite beautiful.
The north-facing slopes below Jalori are still packed with plenty of snow and ice and it makes for a rather dramatic descent to the pretty little village of Shoja surrounded by thick forests and rolling meadows bedecked with flowers. Past Banjar we have to turn into the Tirthan valley and head upstream to Goshaini. Raju’s cottage lies on the opposite side of the bank and we have to park the bikes and haul ourselves over the raging Tirthan river on a trolley hung on a slender wire. Bound by the river on one side and a 1,000-tree orchard clinging to the mountainside on the other, this is a beautiful location. For the next two days we will do precisely nothing except eat loads of trout and fruit and watch the grass grow. In the evening, we’ll light a fire and sit around it swapping stories nursing an Old Monk till the fire is banked to embers. Perhaps we’ll plan the return route to Delhi, or perhaps just get on our bikes and ride.
(P aul Grace has video bits of the ride at www.youtube.com/watch?v=NgwNCOu7thE. Raju Bharti can be contacted at 09418149808. Himachal Tourism hotels are the best places to stay for the budget traveller. Best road maps are the ones published by Nest and Wings.)
Lounge columnist Harsh Man Rai is managing editor, Rolling Stone, India
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