Along the Himalayas
Dawn - By Praveen
There are days .. and then there are Days.
There are thoughts .. and then there are Thoughts.
Then there are these weird days when the thoughts just cease to be thoughts anymore.. they are no longer the wishful ‘end-of-the-rainbow-ish’ distant dreams. They are close.. close enough to be touched. Close enough to be Riding into..
And, during those 20 days in the October of 2005, some of those hope-tinged thoughts turned into what became the days of the North East Ride !
During the countdown to the ride, the mind was a medley of thoughts. “Damn! I still haven't purchased that road map for West Bengal”. “God dammit, the clutch plates on the Bullet have to be changed”. “Shit! The work on the pulsar's seat is still due!” “Did I withdraw enough money from the ATM?” “Toilet paper?” “Uh Oh...Engine oil”. “The North East – Insurgents, Naxals, Bandhs, food problems....What else did I know of my destination? Oh yeah, hurtfully gorgeous, deliciously remote, achingly charming and filled with some of the most beautiful women in the country”.
So that’s the way the ride really started...Cursing at the thoughtless, patch-up preparations. Some of these problems, I knew, while kick-starting the 500CC Royal Enfield Bullet at 0600 Hrs on the morning of October 6, could be handled en route with ease. Others, I had no way of telling. And an abortive attempt was made by the peskier of these thoughtlets (the little itsy bitsy ones, who you tend to ignore till they come out of nowhere and bite you hard on the ass!) Supposed to start at 4, we – Pady and Me -- started at 6 on the 6th, on the Pulsar 180 and the Bullet respectively.
Destination for Day 1 – Lucknow – about 550 kms from Delhi, was going to be the longest we’d be covering in a single day all through the ride. Wasn’t quite sure if it made sense to be putting ourselves through this at the onset of the ride. Especially, since Pady, though having done a fair share of riding earlier, was yet to cover this long a distance in one go. Here lies one of the clearer directives on the ride – Appreciate the itinerary and the day-wise destinations and as far as possible STICK TO IT! Having spent days pouring over maps and distances (with generous amount of help from Bora, Jani, Avtaar and other folks on 60kph who were willing to chip in with every bit of info they could share), it would seem a shame to put the efforts to waste by overshooting schedules. Plus, there is an inherent satisfaction in reaching a designated destination at the end of the day and ticking it off the Log book.
Another important consideration for me was the limited number of days we had, and the places I yearned to get to within that. Knowing well that neither was going to relent (the lack of days and the number of places), I had my un-envious task cut out for me. With every break, disciplined riding vs. the need-for-the-body-to-rest joust would ensue and inevitably the body wins : ) So we finally touched down at Lucknow at about 2100 Hrs, after enduring the horrors of Uttar Pradesh’s roads, especially the Meerut, Muzaffarnagar, Bareilly and other assorted stretches, each of which is aimed at breaking every sense of dignity you may have built up over the years. And we hadn’t even reached Bihar yet ! And thank God for that !
The second clear directive of the ride deserves a mention around this time – Come what may , Thou shall not enter Bihar. To this end, I was willing to go to any extent to avoid riding through the undisputed Champion of Sadness, having been mentally scarred early on in life after a rather pitiful family excursion into the land of Bodh Gaya. But that’s a story for another time. So now, many a grown-up years later, I was determined as hell to not go through the ordeal ever again. And to that end I was willing to hop countries and then fly on my way back just to avoid any confrontation.
Given that background, it’s little surprise then that the route planned out had a liberal detour cutting from Lucknow towards the Kingdom of Nepal. Destination – The famed Mahendra Highway. But first there was the Indian Highways to deal with though.
Exiting Lucknow at the crack of dawn, we headed towards Gorakhpur from where the Nepal border was to be approached. About half an hour’s riding later, a board indicating a detour to head towards Lumbini (Nepal) came up. A quick check on the mighty useful Map of Nepal, which I procured from the Nepalese Embassy in N. Delhi, confirmed that this may actually end up being a shorter route to hit Nepal and the Mahendra Highway there on. But maps lie too. So a double check with the overenthusiastic crowd which had gathered by then was in order. Which was just as well, since we got the exact route with towns en route and tentative distances, till Butwal – our designated halt for the night on the Mahendra Highway. Whether we reach there, would be another thing. Turns out, it did save us a good 100-odd kms taking this route.
The route to Barni Border was pretty much a relief. The state highway meanders through indifferent towns and gorgeous countryside. The quality of roads was nothing to write home about though. And as if building up the crescendo of protesting bike parts to an encore, the closer we got to the border, the quality of roads went pretty much from bad to worse. Testing our luck against potholes, a cattle fair and failing sunlight, we reached Barni.
Paying up the 90 NC (Nepalese Currency) per day and furnishing the requisite documentation – copy of Indian passport, Driving License, Bike’s Registration Papers, photographs etc. got us past the border in a little under 45 minutes.
The Nepalese script is same.
The Nepalese calendar is different.
The Nepalese money is cheaper.
The Nepalese roads are an Absolute Delight ! … To die for , if I may. : )
All of the above is what we’d end up remembering of our very brief meet with our neighboring country.
But first the country itself. Our first visit to this country and definitely not the last, has left a lasting impression. They say the way to a Rider’s heart is through the Roads. (Well, OK, nobody actually says it coz it’s just plain corny! ;) But you get the drift … right ?) The moment we stepped off the border, the whole world changed. Gone were the shabby, godforsaken roads on the Indian side. Instead, it seemed like the roads were tailor-made for us. No chinks in the armour at all. No attempts at wiping a road off the map altogether by ignoring it long enough for time, dust and the jungle to take over, only to benefit a contractor a few years down the line, who would now get a plum project to revitalize the nation by building-fresh-roads-where-none-existed! Every Indian is familiar with such folk tales. But the Nepalese seem to have taken it upon themselves to make their point on the tarmac.
It was already dark by the time we got a little ahead of the border. We had made up our minds to get to a town midway to Butwal from the border, called Narsingh Nagar. But the good progress that we made in getting there in pitch dark conditions kinda encouraged me to head out for Butwal as per the original plan. So we did indeed do the 65 – 70 odd kms to Butwal and found ourselves a comfortable hotel for stay overnight with running hot water, a TV, Food served in the room – all for a steal price of 500 NC.
Having comfortably settled in, I next chatted up the Manager and asked him about the Maoist trouble in the country and also about our route. “The Maoists don’t have anything against you, so why should you be worried ?” he replied. Now a perfectly acceptable answer in a perfect world. But this is not a perfect world and my doubts remained. He set me at peace though, explaining how the Maoists are almost exclusively against the ‘Establishment’ or the Monarchy. Moreover, a ceasefire had been on between the two for the last couple of months and both sides seemed to be respecting it. So far so good.
We also charted out our route plan for the next couple of days. Chitwan was out. Kathmandu was out. All other lures of the Mountain kingdom had to be brutally chopped off the suggestion list, as I kept the transit status of this lap of our ride foremost. The destination was North East India. So the route was chalked keeping us in the Terai region, strictly following the Mahendra Highway or the Siddhartha Rajpath as it’s known locally. The night halt was to be Janakpur, about 25 kms off the Highway from Dhalvekar. The day after that, a visit to Pashupati Nagar, which would take us off the traditional exit point at Kakkarbitta near Siliguri and instead exit us closer to Darjiling up north. Since this would give us the only option available to be riding through the hills of Nepal, we gladly took up the option.
A not-so-early-morning start finally got us riding on the Mahendra Highway. The beauty of the road gets to you almost instantly. The Himalayas kept us constant company on the left as the highway skirts its foothills.
Throughout the journey the impeccable condition of the highway is a welcome medium to travel through, while the lush and fertile Terai region showed us the agricultural fortunes of this region. The drivers of all other vehicles including the Truck Drivers were well behaved and sticklers for courtesies. Flashing the dipper, giving right of way, not being road hogs – all of what you’d want so much of back in India, was all here!
The only thing breaking the symphony were the innumerable Military check posts all through. The one constant reminder of the violent times the country’s been facing. The checks were all matter-of-factly conducted though. The soldiers kept their wits and the graveness of their jobs in good balance. Having the proper permits had us in and out of check posts in a breeze.
Towards dusk we decided to not to take the detour till Janakpur and instead stick to the Highway at Dhalvekar – a two-lodge town. Let’s just say, the housing there wasn’t exactly five star. The formality of the night’s stay was to help us with an early start and not having to trudge all the way back to the highway – so an agreeable compromise.
All of the next day’s ride till we neared Kakkarbitta was uneventful other than the kilometer after kilometer of splendid tarmac and accompanying countryside.
A few kilometers short of Kakkarbitta, the left turn to finally hit the hills head on, was taken. I did have my reservations about the quality of roads now on, since the famed Highway was to be exited. We were now talking local roads and state highways … surely the sheen would wear off! The route which would take us through tea estates and the winding uphill climb was going to put all my doubts to rest though! Faultless! Taking enough breaks to gape at the views and trying to justify my carrying the Cannon S1 IS, we reached the border, bringing us back to reality. An unwarranted argument ensued over the papers to enter my own country with some super-dumb questioning by the Indian Border Security official thrown in for extra pleasure. Anyway, got on with it and got back into India.
In sharp contrast to our own country, we leave behind a country which welcomed us and showed us roads and sights which, except for a few stretches, are virtually non-existent in India. Nepal is a country which, at 14,7181 sq kms, is a fraction of the size of India, but I doff my helmet to the quality of their roads. India may have helped build 80% of the Mahendra Highway but the maintenance ever since the handover is completely to their credit and in no small measure at that!
West Bengal, India
Here on, till Darjeeling, the ride was uneventful, except for the gorgeous sunset and the stark contrast the roads offered. Oh ‘n the cold! Clad in thin shirts and jeans for the day ride, we were shivering uncontrollably as night fell. And we were still a 10-odd kms short of Darjeeling. Unpacking the luggage to dig out the warm clothing was out of question considering the time required. A hot tea for Pady and some stretches for me later, we made our way through the hills to the town of Darjeeling – a city quite simply put – which held a lot of potential but ruined beyond measure by the tourism. Is the damage irreparable? I don’t know. What I do know is that sinking feeling every Rider gets when hill side upon hill side of concrete present themselves in a garish display, breaking the visual serenity. Being nighttime, the display takes on an additional dimension. A hooker would’ve been the perfect analogy, but I guess I’m just too old-fashioned and propah ;-) .
Shimla, Mussorie, Srinagar -- any of the ‘big’ hill towns – the rape is evident by the unashamed attitude of the towns, which attempt no cover up of the sin committed. All in the name of development, those who know, they say …
Not wanting to spend any more time assaulting our senses and for the sake of convenience, we stopped by at the first ‘hotel’ that came by. Luckily, it turned out to a rather well kept resort called, quite appropriately “Merry Resorts” . A suite, no less, was available. The Manager cut us a good enough deal for us to worry about staying anywhere else. A hot tub, warm blankets, king sized beds – almost had us embarrassed, considering only previous night’s stay at Dhalvekar. But ours is not to question why! Fate dealt us a good hand and I’d be dammed if I turned my back to it!
If it’s luxury the good lord wants us to pursue, then luxury it is that we’d wallow in!
So much so that the next morning had me lumbering out of bed at a good 9 past daybreak, missing in the process, a perfectly clear view of the mighty Kanchenjunga. By the time I woke up, the clouds had covered the base of the mighty mountain, but still a good enough view of the mountain for a few photo ops.
Heading out down the winding roads from Darjeeling, we decided against Gangtok owning mostly to the need to rush head on before time ran out. Bad choice, but we’ll just add it to the list of regrets to be made up for in the next ride.
Siliguri marked the milestone for the journey into the plains. En route the plans for hitting Bhutan were firmed up. Touch and go it would be.
Quality roads broken in patches, as if to remind us to not forget our roots. Riding through Forest reserves, we reached Hashimara, the diversion town to go to Puntsholing. At Hashimara, we decided to rest Pady’s bike at the godown of an extremely helpful Packaging agent for Gati (the courier service). Unloading some of the luggage, but clearly not enough, we headed out – one bike with the luggage of two riders and the two riders themselves.
Later in the day luck would spring a surprise on us, but for now I’ll hand over the writeup to another character!
Read on - When friends meet in a strange country...