Wednesday, 11 November 2009

1200km, 7 towns, 3 throttle cables, 1 bike (part 1)

I made it to Dharamsala! And I'm still alive, with all my limbs firmly attached! Yay! Though it was not without its scary moments...

So I leave Rishikesh at 9am or so, stocked up with fuel for both bike and myself, and hit the road. I take the route I've driven up a few times, so it's a nice start, and helps me get used to having all my luggage on the bike. It's a great road, awesome scenery, good condition, barely any other cars. So I'm trundling along, take a corner perhaps a tad quickly (which is unusual for me, most of the time up until then I'd been creeping along at 20km/hr twitching nervously thinking 'ohmygodohmygod I'm going to die') when I behold an old lady wandering in the middle of the road. Upon seeing me she panics and starts jumping back and forth, meaning I have to brake somewhat sharply and, due to some handily placed gravel in the road, I slide and come off my bike. Awesome! 3 hours into my journey and I've already narrowly missed a pedestrian and fallen off the bike whilst moving. Back to trundling along at 20 then I guess. (Luckily I'm fine, just a scrape on my arm).

I get lost a few times on the first day, with the signs being few and far between (and most of them in hindi) and the people giving me wrong directions. One detour took me passed an old man who spoke no english but grasped that I wanted to get to a town called Dharasu. He hopped on the back, chattering away non-stop in hindi. It was a while before I realised he didn't actually know the way at all, and just wanted me to take him to Chamba (some way back the direction I'd come) - repeating the words 'ChaaaambA! petrol PUMP... CHAMbaaa... peTROL pump' for about 20 minutes, with various different intonations and stresses. I somehow manage to find the right road, although it's more of a dirt track. The views all around are absolutely fantastic - for an hour or two I'm riding along the side of one of India's biggest hydroelectric dams; sun setting, mountainous background. They're fairly controversial actually since many villages were flooded to allow their contruction (you can see the tops of trees and telegraph poles emerging from the water), but DAM they make good scenery (see what I did there)

Sometime after this my first throttle cable breaks. At this point I'm a total novice when it come to bike repairs, and in fact hadn't even bought basic tools for the trip, vaguely planning to buy them somewhere along the line, or assuming nothing would go wrong. I had some spares though and flag down a passing biker who fixes it for me pretty quickly. I make sure to note what he's doing so I can do it myself if it happens again.

Some hours later, as it's getting dark, I stop and ask for the town I'm heading for and am told it's back in the direction I came. It gets reeeaal cold up in the mountains at night, and Indian roads are not ones you want to be driving on in the dark (pot holes/unmarked speed bumps/landslides) so decide to call it a night and ask for the nearest guest house. 5km in the other direction they say. 15kms later and I find a tiny shop, the owner of which tells me it's 40km further until Chamba (the town I'd passed through 4 hours earlier) and the nearest guest house. Ugh. Someone overhears though and offers a truckers' sleeping stop, 'very simple' they say, but that's a-okay with me.

Until I get inside, and there's the world's second biggest spider scuttling around on the wall. I don't mind being in a crowded cafe with an awesomely huge spider, but sleeping in the same room as one? hm... it's all creepy and swings around on only a few legs like it's enjoying itself. If you shine a torch at it the light reflects of its many, alien eyes. EWWWW. I end up putting up my mosquito net (I know, I'm a wuss) and manage to doze for a while, and set off first thing the next morning.

Taking the advice of the person I met the day before, I head back the way I came, trying to figure out which wrong turning I'd taken. The only vague possibility I could see was a little track heading down the side of the mountain, towards the bottom where there's a huge bridge - maybe that's where I'm supposed to go? It quickly deteriorates and huge rocks are everywhere, and I'm bumping about all over the place. I started thinking I'm probably on the wrong path about 10 minutes in, and then find a person who says 'NOT ROAD!' with surprising forcefulness, so I head back. Which is far more difficult of course because it's uphill - and, riding an enfield (a slightly grumpy one at that), you have to go fairly quickly even in first to stop it stalling. Cue even more bumping on a rocky, wet, slipperly path less than a single lane wide, with a 50ft+ drop to the left and landslide debris to the right. weeee!

I decide the guy who gave me directions was just wrong, and head the way I was going to originally - hell, it's a real road at least. Turns out I'm right and I make my way towards Barakot. The road starts heading through forests and is really beautiful, great to ride through - until my throttle stops working again. ARG. This time it's not the cable but the handle that's broken - where the cable attaches. I flag down another biker and we end up melting the handle together, cable included, and it holds until barakot, where I find a mechanic (who does nothing for the throttle handle incidentally, that's a problem solved, nothing to worry about) and a guest house. Barakot is a pretty small rural village - they obviously get a few tourists in season, but this is very much the end of the season, and I'm stared at even more than usual. Being a foot taller than most Indians and covered in oil generally doesn't help me keep a low profile.

I'm told the way I want to go (across a fairly barren stretch of 'road' through some mountains/forests) has been blocked, so I have to head back south again. It's not exactly the same way I've come, but feels like a bit of a backtrack. The scenery is astounding though:

More riding though tiny villages, giving cute school children lifts, getting stared at by everyone. I get to Poanta Sahib before dark (not without losing another throttle cable - I don't know why, I'm not revving it like a madman or anything. I managed to fix it myself, under the close scrutiny of at least a dozen locals who stop to watch the crazy white man covering himself in oil, which I'm very proud of) It's much bigger than Barakot - definitely a city - but again, this is not the season, and there's not a westerner in sight. I find a mediocre guest house, wash away a few layers of grime with cold water, find a take away curry and a beer (my first in nearly a month, Rishikesh is a completely dry town!) and have a good sleep. Next morning I take the road towards Shimla, one of my main 'destinations' for the journey. The road is wide, straight and generally in ok condition and I actually manage to go at 50-60km/hr for prolonged distances (very rare up to this point) and get there pretty quickly. I check in at the YYYY-M-C-A! and have a tepid shower (an improvement). My room is big and clean, and there are no humongous spiders lurking in every corner. Result!

Shimla is an odd place. An old British hill fort, it was turned into a town after some Brit settlers came here in summer to avoid the clinging dusty heat further south. As a result, it's has a strange feel to it - like an Indian city but with some Britishness hurled at it. There's a few mains streets filled with expensive, western brand shops (nike, addidas, domino's pizza), all extremely clean - littering, spitting and even smoking are illegal and are punishable by fines. Everyone's dressed in smart clothes, looking rich, beautiful and sophisticated. But... kind of boring. There's not a lot to do. Then 50ft down the hill and you're in an Indian market, winding streets with stalls of all varieties, back to the vibrant colours and smells of a more traditional Indian city. I'm not quite sure what to make of it all.

There's also a very disconcerting air raid siren that goes off every day. I'm woken the first morning by a full blown alarm; it's a terrifying sound, and in my sleepy daze I'm slightly worried the world is coming to an end. Next time it goes off I'm outside and no one pays it the slightest bit of attention. They don't even seem to register it; I'm the only one freaked out in the slightest. It's like being in 'The Prisoner' or something.

So anyways I stay here a while, but get a bit bored, and still have had very little human interaction. There are a few English speakers here, but most are 60+ rich Brit retirees, obviously living here because it's the least Indian city in the north of India, and they can still live like the colonial masters they feel like; ordering around locals to carry their bags and bring them food in superiour, lordly tones. Time to leave.