Lahual, Spiti, and Kinnaur Bike Ride

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Copyright 1999 Vintage Sound. All rights reserved.


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In August of 1999, I was one of a group of eleven riders that rode 400 miles through the mountains of Himachel Pradesh, India. The combination of high altitude and rough road surface made this the most demanding bike ride that I have ever been on. Here is the story of that journey, and some of the photographs. The last thumbnail page is pictures from my adventures in Garhwal, U.P., after the ride was over. Enjoy!

Leaving home.

I stay up until 4:30 am packing and re-packing the bike (Pro-Flex 857 with some up-grades) wondering if the Airline is going to slam me for being overweight. Make it through with no overweight charges! Leave Dulles at 6:15 pm. arrive Amsterdam/Schipol at 6:40am (12:40 am my time). Catch the connecting flight at 10:40 am for an eight and one half hr. flight to New Delhi. I try to cat-nap, but no real sleep. Arrive in Delhi half an hour late, at 10:40 pm. I meet the tour leader, Monique, change some money (wads of rupies two inches thick all stapled together by the bank and impossible to separate without shredding them), walk out of the terminal and get slammed by the heat and air pollution. Chaos reigns! Taxi hustlers attempt to close in, but are thwarted by our waiting Sumo (an Indian copy of Land Rover with one- wheel drive) that I share with the tour leader. Load the bike in the loose roof rack and insist that it gets tied down. Off we go! The driver gets lost leaving Delhi, but after stopping for directions five times, we are on the right road. 1:00 am the driver is hungry and we stop at a dhaba (restaurant / truck stop). My first Indian food of the trip! I love Indian food, especially from Dhabas! Always hot, fresh, and spicy! I reach for my rupies… Uh oh, still stapled together in a thick wad. I don't want to flash the wad, so the driver pays. We eat while Monique tries to sleep in the Sumo. The Grand Trunk road is clogged with trucks and buses that create swirling clouds of dust and diesel Exhaust. I put on my mask. Chaos reigns. Horns honking incessantly. I hang on to the handle above the door, and the back of the front seat. The traffic plays chicken with each other…24/7. We pull into a closed gas station in Ambala at 5:00am, because the driver wants to sleep until 5:30. I get the front seat (the engine is still running for the AC) to stretch out on (I'm 6'2"), Monique gets the back seat, and the driver lies down on the luggage. No rest for the weary. Miles to go before we sleep.

At 5:30 am we leave for Chandigarh just as the sky starts to get light. Wearily I watch the sun come up Over Chandigarh. There are three gigantic smoke stacks on the outside of town that belch black smoke, no doubt adding to the overall thick haze. I look out the window at the decaying buildings (they were much newer in 1974, the last time I was there), thinking about how much things have changed for the worse, when the driver says, "Chandigarh, India's most beautiful city!" In a couple of small towns we get flagged down by police in traffic circles. After we pull over, an officer confronts the driver, who then hands over 100 rupies. Bakshish business. Off we go. I ask the driver about it. He says that "Police" stands for: P for polite; O for orderly; L for literacy; I for informed; C for courage; E for education. I say, "But bakshish means tip." He says, "That was not bakshish!" We start to climb into the foothills of the Himalayas, when we reach a line of stopped trucks. "Landslide ahead," says a policeman. "Maybe two days to clear it!" We are 60 km. from Mandi. Then the policeman says, "You can take that road over there." "It's a short-cut to Mandi!" On the road again! We wind through the foothills on a very narrow, broken road, occasionally jolted by the sudden appearance of a bus careening around a corner on our side of the road. We reach a dam with antiaircraft guns placed on it that are covered with camouflage netting. They are there because of the fighting with Pakistan, further north in Kashmir. Every dam or bridge is a potential military target! Then more broken road, but now there is a lot more traffic. I desperately hang on to the handle above the door and the back of the front seat. We are imitating a bucking bull ride. The driver stops every now and then to tighten the loose bolt that is keeping the luggage rack attached to the roof. I wonder how my bike is doing, still in it's Crateworks shipping box… I expect that there will only be paint chips and metal filings left from the brutal jarring. We climb up to 8000' through green terraced fields, into fresh mountain air! Then over a pass and down into the valley to Mandi. The shortcut took five hours, and was 300km. At 3:30pm we stop for an hour and finally have breakfast! Now we are back on the main road! Manali here we come! Just as we reach Kulu, we come upon another line of stopped trucks and busses. There has been a truck accident, both drivers killed. We wait for two hours. I am getting slightly delirious. Monique sleeps on the back seat. The valley is beautiful, and the sunset is starting to color the clouds. Suddenly the traffic starts to move and we race to the Sumo. On the road again! I don't remember much of the ride from Kulu to Manali as I was drifting in and out of consciousness. I was still hanging on to the handle and the back of the front seat, when we pulled into Manali and reached the hotel at 10:00pm. I had been in transit for forty three hours.

A rooster and jet lag wake me at 6:30am. I can't sleep anymore, so I decide to unpack and inspect the bike. It's fine! Just as I packed it! For nine days I de-jet lag and acclimatize to Manali's 6000' altitude. The crew is from Nepal and is staying at the hotel. Dawa is the leader and Mr. Ugs (Urgen Lama) is the Tibetan bike mechanic.

The tour leader and crew are leaving this morning to drive the bike route through Lahual and Spiti to look for camp sites and check out the route in the Sumo. The night before I had asked to join them in the Sumo for a ride up to the first pass, 13,050' Rohtang Jot, so I could ride back down on my bike. It had been raining every day since my arrival, and was drizzling when I woke up at 3:00am. Dawa had said that if it was raining in the morning, "Don't go. You no enjoy". I Go downstairs at 4:30am and Dawa and exclaims, "Where's your bike?" I dress for the ride and put the bike on the roof of the sumo. We leave at 5:00am in darkness with low clouds hanging in the valley. We stop for breakfast in Marhi (11,050') and then continue up to Rohtang Jot. It took about two and one half hours to drive from Manali to the top of Rohtang Jot. I get the bike off the roof and say goodbye to the crew. The sun has broken through at the pass, and clouds shoot past me through the gap. Well. Here I am. Time to tog up and ride: Waterproof tights lined with Polartech over regular tights and bike shorts; neoprene shoe covers; full finger gloves with liners; a balaclava; and a Polartech- lined, breathable waterproof jacket. My water is in a Camelback Transalp backpack, and my camera bag is strapped to my chest. It is cold and wet. I cruise down through puddles and potholes and into the clouds. The moisture from the clouds beads up on my clothes and fogs my glasses. --Got to watch my speed! At times the edge of the road disappears in the clouds. Suddenly I'm back in Marhi just as a bus arrives. I pause for some Chi (tea) and become the center of attention. People stare at the strangely dressed sahib. I might as well have landed from another planet. An Israeli tourist walks over, takes my picture, and asks if I'm a professional rider. Back on the road, I drop down to 10,000' through the clouds. The pass was barren but here everything is an intense green, with waterfalls coming out of the clouds. Drop down to 8,000' and start to pass through some small villages. The road is paved now, but has large potholes. I see some cows lying in the road ahead. As I pass at 26 MPH, One rises suddenly and tries to impale me with one of its horns, missing me by half an inch! Holy Cow! I reach the valley floor and roll into Manali. It took three and a half hours to ride the 37 miles down from the pass. I Head for the hotel and a hot shower. I'm going to miss hot showers all too soon.

The rest of the group arrives at 6:00PM after a long eighteen-hour bus ride from Delhi. We are now 11 riders.